Today I’m checking in with Matthew Eppelsheimer, a Portland-Based WordPress developer that I caught up with at the PDX WordCamp a few weeks back. I love Matt’s story because it’s the story of an entrepreneur who got started with WordPress about a year ago at the 2011 WordCamp, and now he’s in the process of hiring new designers (Maybe you!). It’s proof-positive of the strength of the WordPress platform, as well as the value it’s providing to the world.
Matt also works with and supports efforts to make local food accessible to everyone across the country, a personal goal of his. It’s a very “Portlandia” goal to have, and I also love it. I want to sign up for his WordPress-based CSA and get my veggies delivered to my door once a week.
In Matt’s own words
I lead Rocket Lift, a team that delivers high-end websites, e-commerce stores, and applications built with WordPress. I love the Portland Timbers, the outdoors, traveling, and cooking from scratch. I spend a lot of time thinking about how technology changes the way we think, and also about space elevators.
And on to Matt’s questions:
When was the first time that you really got excited about WordPress and at what point did you decide to make it your career?
WordCamp Portland 2011 lit my fire for WordPress. I realized that weekend how mature the platform it had become, but more importantly, I discovered the depth of community rallied around it. This fun group of brilliant, brainy, generous people with apparently little in common seemed to be thriving on helping each other out, and wanted to include me for some reason. I think we may be particularly lucky in Portland, but it’s clear from Twitter and WordPress.tv that just every WordCamp gets people all fired up and excited about what we might accomplish together in both the short and long term.
Where do you go first to get your WP news, insights, and updates?
I read WPMail.me‘s weekly email newsletter and recommend following one or two make.wordpress.org/ blogs. I’m not active with any of the Make groups, but it’s valuable to keep on top of core developments in the areas I care about. Staying informed makes me a better resource for our clients, for one thing.
What WP consultants deserve more love than they get? Who should we be paying attention to?
I’ve got to give some love to Kenn Wilson of Corvid Works. The dude knows things! He’s been freelancing with WordPress for years and has assembled a sizable toolkit for working around some WordPress “gotchas”. I learned quite a bit from him when we collaborated on a project last year, and periodically he comes to my rescue when I tweet about some difficulty I’m having. He’s a multi-talented developer with experience outside of WordPress (Rails!), and a solid guy.
What performance tips would you give to other pros (as related to speed, scalability, security, plugins, backup, etc.)?
For speed, scalability, and security: Using CloudFlare covers half of your bases. It’s a free Content Delivery Network (CDN) that provides noticeable speed improvements and several clever security measures. But, you must master CloudFlare settings, young padawan, because they can have surprising unintended effects if you’re not careful. For example, anyone browsing from India is assumed to be malicious by default and must successfully complete a CAPTCHA to view a CloudFlare site. We may or may not have known about this when we first started using it. (Whoops.)
For security: We put several measures in place, but some of our client sites still get hacked for human reasons: really bad passwords. It’s important to educate site users that if their password is anything short and guessable, it is only a matter of time before a bot brute-forces its way in. You might install the Force Strong Passwords plugin, but users will hate that if they don’t understand why you want to complicate their lives. It has to start with education.
Confess to us your biggest moment of WP fail?
I once started building a “really simple” website. Run away whenever those words are uttered. They portend a rending of clothes, a gnashing of teeth, and other bad things. This particular site turned into the largest I had worked on to date. I didn’t understand how much content there would be, and so I failed to organize it well. As development progressed, the scope only became visible to me in small pieces, and I made a series of very small decisions for expediency, bolting new sections haphazardly onto the old in a very messy custom theme. When I began to realize the problem, I thought it was too late to re-factor. A little later, it really was too late. It didn’t help that I lacked the confidence to tell my client we had a major problem and I let them push me forward (they were in quite a hurry).
This site is my frankenstein monster — it lives a tragic, unstable, sort-of-life. I’ve learned my lesson(s) and would like nothing more than to take it all back and make better life choices.
Instead of working with the template hierarchy, taxonomies, and standard query patterns for the Loop — well supported standards that make WordPress flexible and wonderful — my nightmarish creation uses hardcoded theme files to load templates based on the content’s permalink slug and/or post ID. Don’t ever do this, for any reason, ever. We dread content updates, which are frequent and difficult for us to support. We fear manual updates to permalinks or structural revisions (say, replacing one page with another) breaking large portions of the site. I’d like to re-write it from the ground up, but the budget and our availability won’t permit that for a long time.
- Check that you the client are on the same page about the content plan early, and re-check often.
- When the content delivered doesn’t match what you originally understood, don’t be afraid to apply the brakes and re-evaluate.
- When you’re in a hole, more hustle and tenacity aren’t always admirable. They can be foolish.
If you were going to spend this weekend creating a plugin that doesn’t exist, what would it be?
Coming up with plugin ideas I can’t find time for is a hobby of mine! But, here’s one we’re actually working on at Rocket Lift: During a large site’s development, it is difficult (if not impossible) for content authors to infer the developer’s intention for “what goes here” from the page title. We have processes to make up for that and hammer out content details, but since it all ends up inside of WordPress, if we can build our process into the WordPress admin UI itself to remove a layer of abstraction from those conversations, it will really help everyone on the team get on the same page about content strategy earlier in the project, and surface inconsistencies and confusing architecture decisions so we can deal with them earlier.
Our plugin will add an interface on post editor screens for editorial notes between the team assembling content. Edit Flow has some similar features, but it’s really intended for working blogs that are already set up. This will solve problems with initial site development and pre-launch. Down the road, I’d like to add the ability for theme developers to also hook into the plugin from templates to provide information on post editor screens on how and where a post will be displayed.
Do you use Themes & Child Themes, Roll your own, or both?
We use child themes whenever modifying an existing theme. (If you don’t, stop what you’re doing and spend half of your day learning how. You’ll go from super villain to beloved public hero).
What’s your favorite theme or theme framework? Why?
I don’t really have a favorite theme. I pay attention to the default themes as demonstrations of new techniques and best practices, which include staying well away from functionality, which is the domain of plugins.
Theme frameworks are fine for what they do, but they solve different problems than the ones we deal with as high-end custom themers. I ain’t judging. Theme frameworks serve an important purpose, but I find they hinder shipping clean, highly performant and maintanable code that plays nice in an enterprise environment.
There is one exception: For custom work from scratch, I’ve become fond of _s, aka “Underscores”, a starter theme that my developer crush Michael Fields works on at Automattic. Although this is entirely subjective, I find it to be the “purest” theme skeleton available because it’s all about embracing “the WordPress way” without deviation.
One of my favorite plugins is called simply Archive, by Frank BxFCltge. It gives you a way to remove content (pages, posts, posts of a custom post type) without permanently deleting the data. It is so simple and so great: It does absolutely nothing more than it has to and embraces standard WordPress interface conventions, which make it easy to use.
Least favorite plugin?
No one in particular comes to mind.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done with Custom Post Types?
I’m interested in WordPress as the foundation for custom web applications, and Custom Post Types are an indespensible tool. For example, at rocketlift.com we have an internal team workspace where we track our “Parking Lot” of projects we’ve identified to should at some point. Parking Lot Items are a custom post type, and we can individually rank them by importance as one way to decide which to tackle next.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that WP consultants will face in 2013?
Many of us are passionate about the potential for WordPress to serve as a complete custom web framework, with both indy developer and enterprise CMS applications. Using WordPress for more things is a great vision. So, I anticipate customer interest and demand in custom WordPress applications to grow in the next year. The problem is that, in fact, WordPress isn’t really up to the challenge — yet. The requirements for enterprise CMS software far exceed what WordPress can provide right now. Our challenge is to chip away at those gaps in the platform and find a way to meet client needs satisfactorily in the meantime.
I’m guessing we have another two or three years of development before WordPress begins to democratize custom web software. I am confident this will happen eventually, because if it doesn’t, WordPress will fade in popularity, and there are too many vested players now to let that happen. (How often do you hear companies enthusiastically using the word “marry” to describe their relationship with a software platform?)
If you could change one thing today about WP, what would it be?
WordPress lacks a notification engine beyond sending email, and there’s no way to override that and control your permissions as a user. For example, what if I really don’t want an email, but prefer a daily digest instead, or perhaps a text message, depending on the type of alert?. This is a problem our company is working to solve, and in 2012 I hope to open source development of a plugin that could be incorporated into core some day.
Where do you see WordPress going in the next 2-3 years?
I discussed WordPress becoming a better CMS above, but I suspect that change will be driven by those of us in the client service community. A lot of what Auttomatic is doing (projects like Jetpack) and the core developers are doing (like the theme customizer) are all about helping non-geek bloggers do more, and that’s great. So I don’t expect WordPress to abandon its roots, but continue improving as a blog platform, becoming still easier to use.
Tell us a story where you saved the WP day for yourself or on a client project. What made the difference for you?
I recently helped a client fix 404: Not Found errors on some pages that were in their main site navigation menu. In this case, an old plugin was in conflict with a new one and interfered with url rewrite rules responsible for pretty permalinks. I was able to isolate the issue to the problematic plugin, help them make do without it, and set things right. I suppose what made the difference for us was my understanding of everything that goes into how the WordPress menu system and permalinks work, so when the system broke there were hints about where to find the cause.
What’s the biggest misconception you encounter about WordPress, and how do you clear it up for your clients?
“Isn’t that a blog thing? I don’t need a blog.” Well, yes, it is a blog thing, but it’s so much more too. And by the way, you probably do need a blog. Blog may not mean what you think it means.
We clear this up by citing WordPress usage statistics, showing off the WordPress Showcase to give a sense of what’s possible, and mentioning the killer feature: You can edit it yourself! Everyone likes that fact.
If you were interviewing another WordPress developer for a job, what is the first question you would ask and why?
I would ask what they want to do with WordPress, or what they would like WordPress to become. We’re pretty dedicated to the platform, and most excited about its potential. I want to work with others who share that excitement and have both vision and know-how to contribute to the community.
What did I miss? Here’s your chance to fill in the blanks and add something you want people to know about you!
We’re hiring developers! Drop us a line at rocketlift.com/contact
Y’all mosey on over to Rocketlift.com to check out what Matt and his team are doing, and how you can hire them to build something awesome for you!