Finely Tuned Consultant – Shawn Hesketh

Shawn-Hesketh-WP101.comI’m interviewing Shawn Hesketh, a graphic designer with more than 24 years of experience developing comprehensive identity systems and marketing strategies for small businesses and startups in and around the Greater Houston area.

In 2008, he created and launched, one of the most popular WordPress video tutorial sites, which has helped thousands of folks learn how to build and manage their own WordPress-powered websites.

When he’s not developing new content for WP101 or creating custom screencasts for his clients, you can usually find him on the back porch, enjoying a cigar and a glass of Scotch with friends, or playing with his three kids in the backyard.

In His Own Words:

As a designer, I recognize that my clients place a high value on creativity. But I get the most enjoyment from building meaningful, long-term relationships with like-minded folks, and helping them accomplish their goals, because at the end of the day—beyond the success of any individual project—people are what matter most.

When was the first time that you really got excited about WordPress and at what point did you decide to make it your career?

I think I designed my first website in 1994, using WYSIWYG apps like Adobe Pagemill. As my skills slowly grew and the complexity of my clients’ sites increased, I migrated to more powerful apps like Adobe GoLive and Dreamweaver. But by the mid-2000s, clients began to request the ability to edit their own content, using just their web browsers, and after attempting to learn several CMS systems, I was relieved to discover WordPress in late 2007.

Compared to Joomla, Drupal, or Expression Engine, I found the WordPress UI to be super-intuitive, and thankfully, so did my clients. At that point, I began recommending WordPress for nearly all my web design projects, and with very few exceptions, I continue to use it today.

Where do you go first to get your WP news, insights, and updates?

My Twitter app stays open nearly all day, every day, so I think I learn about most WordPress news and updates via that channel. There are so many great WordPress developers who are eager to share their discoveries and hacks that it makes for a rich source for learning. But I also subscribe to about a dozen RSS feeds from WPCandy, WPTavern, WP Engineer, the official WordPress development blog, and more.

What WP consultants deserve more love than they get? Who should we be paying attention to?

I’m continually inspired by Orman Clark, one of the most innovative WordPress designers around, in my opinion. And I’m regularly impressed by Bill Erickson, who has got to be one of the most knowledgeable Genesis developers out there. But I’ve learned from (and been regularly humbled by) dozens of developers, and I’m constantly amazed by the incredible depth of talent within the WordPress development community.

What performance tips would you give to other pros (as related to speed, scalability, security, plugins, backup, etc.)?

My core expertise is in design, so I’ll leave the technical advice to other developers. But I’m a big fan of the “KISS” principle, and I think we can always benefit from simplifying our work. I realize it’s the subject of some controversy these days, but I think it’s important to only install plugins that you absolutely need. Put another way, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Last, if you haven’t already partnered with a WordPress-specific hosting partner, do it today! For years, I maintained multiple dedicated servers on which I hosted my clients’ WordPress sites, but I think that it’s quickly becoming a necessity to find a hosting partner who can not only provide a WordPress-optimized environment, but also security monitoring, backup, and great support when you need it. Did I mention that I couldn’t be happier with WP Engine?

Confess to us your biggest moment of WP fail?

That would have to be the time I emailed WordPress Lead Developer, Mark Jaquith, to report what I thought was a serious exploit within the WordPress core. Turns out, it was just the obfuscated “easter egg” within revisions-js.php. Thankfully, a quick Google search helped me to realize my own error before Mark responded, which I’m sure would have been a polite—but well-deserved—smack down.

If you were going to spend this weekend creating a plugin that doesn’t exist, what would it be?

While my limited coding skills aren’t up to the challenge, I’d love to see someone create a video player that also obfuscates paths to video files on a hosted service (e.g. Amazon S3). I’m surprised that video plugins like SublimeVideo haven’t already added this functionality, but it’s critical for sites like that deliver protected, member-only content. Having had my own videos pirated and redistributed, I’m certain there’s a need for this functionality.

Do you use Themes & Child Themes, Roll your own, or both?

It really depends on my client’s budget. I prefer to craft a custom theme from scratch, which enables me to build a lightweight theme that only includes the features that are needed to meet the client’s objectives. But very often, the budget simply doesn’t permit the time to create a full-blown custom theme, so I’ll recommend an existing theme that gets us close, and then customize it with a child theme.

Keep in mind that—unlike many of my colleagues who are hired for the specific task of developing a WordPress theme—the majority of my clients are small businesses who have hired me to design a complete identity system, including a custom logo, business card, print materials, website, social media presence, and marketing strategy. As such, the most cost-efficient strategy is often to make use of existing WordPress themes, modifying them to meet the clients’ specific needs.

What’s your favorite theme or theme framework? Why?

I’ve used Canvas by WooThemes for a lot of sites, and while it’s not a true framework, my clients enjoy the comprehensive theme options, which gives them the ability to tweak fonts and make minor changes down the road, without having to hire a designer every time. Over the years, the WooFramework has become quite extensible, with plenty of hooks that make their themes surprisingly flexible. I’ve also used StartBox and several other frameworks, but I’ve decided it’s time for me to dive into Genesis, since nearly all my developer friends use it exclusively.

For my non-WordPress projects, I’ve begun using the Foundation framework by ZURB, and also Bootstrap, from Twitter. I think those frameworks are packed with functionality that make it very easy to rapidly prototype sites, and I hope we’ll see more WordPress themes built on top of these frameworks.

Favorite plugin?

Why, my own WP101 Plugin, of course! Mark Jaquith actually coded the plugin for us, which puts a complete set of WordPress video tutorials directly within a client’s WordPress dashboard, and also includes the ability to hide/show specific videos, or even add your own. I install it on every client site, and they love it! My other must-install plugin is Akismet. Without it, comment spam quickly gets out of control.

Least favorite plugin?

Any plugin that displays obnoxious banner notifications across the top of every single page in the WordPress administration area. (I’m looking at you, JetPack.)

What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done with Custom Post Types?

While not particularly ground-breaking, I recently created a site for a beach rental agency that uses a custom post type to power the individual property listings, and makes use of Bill Erickson’s Gallery Metabox plugin to power a drop-dead simple interface through which the client can create and manage photo galleries for each listing. Since the site also integrates with a 3rd party booking service it was a challenging project, but the client was thrilled with the final result, which is all that matters!

What do you think is the biggest challenge that WP consultants will face in 2012?

Does anyone have a cloning machine? Seriously, every WordPress developer I know is completely swamped with work, many of them booked months in advance. As WordPress continues to grow in popularity, there’s an increasing demand for highly-qualified developers and designers. At the moment, it seems the greatest challenge is for developers to properly manage their time and connect with other like-minded professionals to whom they can refer projects that aren’t a fit.

Conversely, I think another challenge is effectively differentiating yourself from the rapidly-expanding pool of developers and designers who are flocking to the WordPress platform. I wonder if it isn’t time for some sort of certification program that might help clients make better-informed decisions when it comes to hiring a WordPress pro?

If you could change one thing today about WP, what would it be?

Speaking strictly from the perspective of someone who’s responsible for keeping an entire WordPress video tutorial series up to date, I’d love to see fewer changes to the WordPress UI. LOL! Seriously, I love seeing WordPress evolve, as long as changes are genuinely user-driven, and not simply done for the sake of change.

Where do you see WordPress going in the next 2-3 years?

I’ve been using WordPress since version 2.3, and over the years it’s really matured into a full-fledged web content system. Over the next few years, I imagine one of the greatest challenges for the WordPress team will be balancing the demand for new features with the need to maintain the ease of use for which WordPress has become known.

As the web becomes increasingly device agnostic, I’m sure WordPress will continue to evolve, enabling content to be delivered across platforms and devices—a trend that affects not only WordPress itself, but theme and plugin developers as well.

Tell us a story where you saved the WP day for yourself or on a client project. What made the difference for you?

Whenever I develop a site for a client, I always keep a complete backup of the site files and database as the site appeared just before launch. More than once, a client has called me in a panic, having accidentally wiped out their site. I always enjoy their sense of relief when they hear I’ve got them covered. As for my own sites, VaultPress has saved my bacon on several occasions, and is well worth every penny, in my opinion!

Is there something about the WordPress community at large that gets on your nerves?

As with any community, there are always going to be differences of opinion. Unfortunately, those are often aired in public forums and blog posts that are inherently 1-sided, and quickly degrade into flame wars and childish behavior, reflecting poorly on the community at large. I think we could all benefit from more “win/win” thinking, or at least seeking first to understand, before being understood. In short, less pettiness, more synergy.

What’s the biggest misconception you encounter about WordPress, and how do you clear it up for your clients?

Several times a week, I see this question from visitors to “I know I can build a blog with WordPress [sic], but can I also use it to create a business site?” I’ve answered the question enough times that I now have a boilerplate email template, explaining how WordPress can be used to create a site that includes only pages, only a blog, or both.

If you were interviewing another WordPress developer for a job, what is the first question you would ask and why?

“Do you have the availability to tackle this project?” Seriously, that seems to be the first challenge these days!

Beyond that, I would ask them if they know a better way to solve the problem. I like it when my own clients give me the creative freedom to leverage my knowledge and experience and suggest the best solution possible. So when I hire someone to handle a project for me, I always extend the same freedom to them. It ensures a win/win. 🙂

What did I miss? Here’s your chance to fill in the blanks and add something you want people to know about you!

I’ve been a one-man shop since I started my business in 1988. So for me, one of the hardest lessons was to focus on my strengths, and then partner with others who can make up for the areas I’m weakest.

Without a doubt, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to shut down my own dedicated web servers and migrate all my client sites to WP Engine. For the first time in my career, I know what it’s like to have a team in my corner, ready to handle the unexpected drama when something goes wrong with a website. I’ve never had a hosting provider that I could honestly consider a partner… until now. Thanks for freeing up my time to do what I do best, WP Engine. You guys rock!

PS – If we run into each other at a WordCamp, cigars and Scotch are on me!

Thanks Shawn!

Since I worked my way through college in cigar humidors, I’m planning on taking him up on the scotch.  But for now, lets all click over to, to check out Sean’s work and hire him!

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