Welcome to the latest Pagely 8 Questions interview! For this week’s edition, we’re lucky enough to have Tom McFarlin answering our questions.
Before we start, be sure to follow Tom on Twitter, and also check out his latest WordPress thoughts, tips, and tutorials on his personal blog. Tom’s biggest claim to fame in the community, however, is his highly regarded custom WordPress development service, Pressware.
In today’s interview, we’ll be talking all things WordPress with Tom — including his involvements in the WordPress community, his best experiences of working with WordPress, and the direction he thinks the platform is heading.
As always, we’re hugely grateful that Tom was able to answer our questions. Here’s what he had to say.
For readers less familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself and your WordPress background?
I’m a self-employed WordPress developer who runs a small shop called Pressware. I focus primarily on custom solutions for clients — though I’ve dabbled in building products and selling them, I’ve always come back to contract work as I enjoy the challenge of solving problems unique to different industries.
You’ve been in the WordPress community for several years now, but could you tell us how you first became involved with WordPress?
My first experience with WordPress was back in college. The school was looking for a couple of students to blog about their day-to-day life as a student at the school and so I opted to do so — I enjoyed writing, had maintained a blog back on BlogSpot (back when it was BlogSpot), and thought it sounded like something fun to do.
I forget the exact version of WordPress that I used at the time, but it was back during the Kubrick days. My first experience with working with modifying the theme came in the form of basically messing around with the core theme files — I didn’t know anything about child themes at the time, so I just used what PHP I knew to make the theme do what I wanted.
Once I graduated, I finished the blog and went to work for a major internet company, primarily working as a software engineer in .NET. During my free time, I still maintained a blog on WordPress, but it was generally treated as a public notebook of things that I was learning in my career.
After I opted to go self-employed, I divided my time between Rails and WordPress and eventually went full on WordPress and that’s where I’ve been ever since.
During your time in the community, what different areas have you been involved with?
I’ve worked on everything from free themes, commercial themes, custom themes, free plugins, commercial plugins, custom plugins, and even building web applications on top of WordPress. I’ve attended meet ups, WordCamps, participated in podcasts, and have spoken on a variety of topics, and generally have tried to stay as involved in the community as possible given the demands of day-to-day life, as well.
What has been the best thing about working with WordPress for you?
For me, it’s really been the people with whom I’ve worked and the problems I’ve had the opportunity to solve. It’s really fun to learn different industries, their needs, and what they need as a solution, and be able to work with them to provide them with what they need in order to get the project done correctly.
How has the WordPress community changed since you started?
This is tough to say. I mean, I think people have consistently been opinionated about what they do and don’t like when it comes to WordPress and all things tertiary to it. That will probably always be the case, and as much fun — or not — as that can be, I think that it does help drive some of the decision making that goes into the core application.
As far as the development community is concerned, more shops have popped up — some large, some small — and the general economy around the application has grown tremendously.
What started off as a blogging platform has moved into something far more mature — we’re doing more with WordPress now than I think we would have ever thought possible just, say, eight years ago.
What advice would you give to anyone getting started with WordPress? Which direction would you yourself go if you were starting over again?
This is tough to say because I think it takes time to really find what your interests are. Is it design? Is it themes? Is it plugins? Is it code reviews? Is it building things? I mean, you really have to experience a plethora of what the application and the economy has to offer before settling on the aspects that cater to you and your customers most.
And that’s probably the general advice I’d give to anyone — participate in a number of the available projects (after all, they’re all open source), blog about your experiences and try to get others to chime in with their experiences, advice, and so on, and then continue to repeat that until you find exactly what it is that sits as close to the intersection of what you love to do and what provides a living or side income (whatever your goal).
What do you think the biggest mistakes WordPress website owners are making?
That’s a tough call because I think that it requires me to make a generalization and I’m really not a fan of doing that.
With that said, I’m a big proponent of keeping the presentation separate from the functionality, but that’s developer-speak. It’s jargon to everyone else. Therefore, the people who are buying these one-stop-do-all-the-things themes don’t really get the theme lock-in that they’re experiencing. Who knows how other plugins will play along with the theme they’re using and who knows how easy it will be to customize the theme to their liking once purchased.
Often times, I think there is a disconnect between what the marketing of a theme offers and then what the customer experiences when they install and begin working with the theme. That’s our fault — that is, the developers and the designers. We’re showing what can be done with the theme but aren’t showing how it can be done with the theme. That’s a problem that we need to address sooner rather than later. Perhaps easier to access manuals, videos, and other educational material.
Otherwise, someone purchases a theme and then they still have to go hire someone to help them get the theme to do what they want based on what they’ve seen. What a poor experience that creates.
Anyway, I know I’ve not really answered your question because I don’t think it’s really the problem of the website owners, per se, it’s the solutions we’re marketing to the website owners and then they’re left with problems that they don’t know how to fix.
And though that’s kind of a backwards answer, that’s the one I’m going to stick with because it’s something that I believe is so prevalent, and such a problem.
What do you think the future of WordPress holds? What would you like to see?
In short, the future of WordPress is really going to be paved with what’s possible with the REST API. I think seeing what we’re going to be able to do with “headless WordPress” or just being able to connect to WordPress and talk to it without having to actually work with the dashboard or the back-end (whatever term you prefer) is going to be really, really cool.
In terms of what I’d like to see: I’d love to see more web applications built on top of WordPress – not just sites or themes or plugins. I’d like to see more full-fledged web apps built on top of the platform.
And though that’s what I’d like to see, I think we’re still quite a while away from actually seeing that happen. It’s coming, though :).
Once again, an enormous thankyou to Tom for finding the time to answer our questions.
I think that Tom’s point about the gap between theme marketing and actual user experience is a good one, and something that’s not often discussed. Aftercare is often just as important as the product itself, and thorough documentation is a great way for you to differentiate yourself, by helping your users get the most out of your products. With all the effort that goes into developing WordPress themes and plugins, it wouldn’t take much to produce video tutorials demonstrating all the main features — and that would mean more happy customers, more positive reviews, and more sales.
Let’s wrap things up by sharing Tom’s links again. If you have a custom development project, I’m sure Tom’s highly regarded Pressware will be able to help. You should also check out his personal blog where he shares WordPress thoughts, tips, and tutorials on a daily basis. He’s also very active on Twitter, @tommcfarlin.
I hope you enjoyed the interview, and I’ll see you again next week!