Code For The People Interview
Code For The People is a U.K.-based web consultancy run by Simon Dickson of Puffbox and Simon Wheatley of Sweet Interaction. They’ve built large-scale and high-profile websites for clients such as Stephen Fry, various central government departments, Oxford University, and most recently The Rolling Stones. Code For The People is committed to open source and they are 100% WordPress.
Take us back to the beginning. How did you each get your start in web development?
Simon Dickson: For me, it was literally being in the right place at the right time. I left university in 1995, and got a short-term contract at the Foreign Office (UK equivalent of State Department) doing marketing and publicity. On my first day I met a couple of guys who were planning something called a website. I mentioned that I’d used the web a bit—but that made me 100% more experienced than they were. I immediately joined the team, and pretty soon, I was running the thing. I didn’t have any formal computer education: my background was in languages. I did seven years of Latin at school, and I honestly believe it was a huge help in picking up programming.
Simon Wheatley: I trained in theatre, film, and television and got into doing the website for the Centre for Performance Research at my university. When I left I quickly discovered that in the first Dot Com boom it was a lot more lucrative making websites than designing lighting for theatre shows! As I was in at the beginning, I’ve been able to learn as the technology grew, which is incredibly lucky.
Simon Dickson: Yeah, me too. I pity the kids who come at it afresh these days. There’s so much to learn before you even get started. For us, it was incremental. Yes, there was something new to learn every week; but it all came one thing at a time.
Prior to Code For The People, you managed your own successful businesses with impressive client rosters. What was that experience like?
Simon Wheatley: Running your own freelance business is scary and fantastic all at once. For one thing you’re solely responsible for your own income, but on the other hand you control the quality of your work and who you choose to work for.
Simon Dickson: It’s funny actually. The decision to “go it alone,” to base my work around open source generally and WordPress specifically, felt very like the decision to get involved in the web in those early days. I could see something big was about to happen. I didn’t know precisely what, but to be honest, I didn’t really care. I was getting bored working on big web projects that always cost too much, took too long, and delivered too little. This was a chance to take hands-on control again, like in the old days, and make good things happen.
How did the idea for Code For The People come about?
Simon Dickson: We met at the first UK WordCamp in 2008. I think we’d both been aware of each others’ existence. And certainly, I went along with the intention of introducing myself to Simon, and seeing if we could work together.
Simon Wheatley: Very similar to Simon, I’d just completed the Royal Navy blog at that time and went to WordPress with every intention of tooting my own horn on that score! I knew Simon was involved with some interesting WordPress development inside UK government and he was on my list of people to have a drink with.
Simon Dickson: We’ve never hidden the fact that we were operating two separate companies, but it was getting harder and harder to explain the relationship to new clients. So it was inevitable that we would join forces at some point. You know how it is, though: you have to find the time to sort out the logistics, and that took ages. Oh, and choosing a name you both like. That took forever.
Code For The People officially became a company on January 25th of this year. This is also the ninth anniversary of the conception of WordPress. Was this planned?
Simon Dickson: Absolutely. Partly because, once we agreed it would be cute to do it on that date, it forced us to sort everything out—otherwise, yet again, we’d have been distracted by work. But yeah, it was a deliberate tribute to WordPress. And specifically to (WordPress co-founder) Mike Little, who’s a good friend of ours.
Simon Wheatley: Is that a significant date of some kind? I hadn’t noticed.
What (if any) challenges did you face when merging your projects and clients?
Simon Wheatley: No challenges at all. People see the benefit of our combined experience and of the additional cover they receive now.
Do you have defined roles within the company?
Simon Dickson: I suppose I’m the Mick Jagger of the operation, and you’re the Keith Richards. Or maybe I’m Ronnie Wood, and you’re Charlie Watts. Yeah, that’s probably more like it.
Simon Wheatley: I like the idea of being Charlie, he’s the best dressed man in rock and roll, isn’t he?
Simon Dickson: I tend to handle the business side of things. I’ve just turned 40, and I’m trying to engineer a graceful exit from front-line coding duties. I’m all too aware of my limitations, especially with so much new stuff coming along at the moment—HTML5, responsive design, LESS—all that stuff. But I don’t want to lose touch with the codebase: I don’t think you can generate really great ideas without a good understanding of what the technology can do, and how easily it can do it. Plus, to be honest, I do still enjoy it. And I haven’t broken the entire internet yet.
Simon Wheatley: Simon does himself down here, he’s a lot more of a technical front end developer than he likes to let on. I handle the deeper, more fundamental manipulation of WordPress, rewrite rules, manipulating the query, supervising server administration, and so forth.
Your clients are spread across several industries (government, arts and entertainment, etc…). Do the individual industries require development or design practices unique to others?
Simon Dickson: What’s surprised me throughout my career is actually how similar most industries and clients tend to be. People and projects generally all work out the same. There’s only one person in charge of “running the website,” and they probably don’t get a lot of love or support from the IT team. They just want to do what they have to do, quickly and easily. So they’re ultimately just like a blogger, who just wants to write a post, and hit “Publish.” I think that’s why we’ve had so much success getting WordPress into places you’d never expect to see it. It always amuses me to see people trying to explain away WordPress’ roots—saying “well, it used to be a blogging tool, but…” Because for me, that’s actually why it’s so good in a corporate environment. At the end of the day, we’re all bloggers.
What are you working on that you’re excited about?
Simon Wheatley: Well, we have to include the Rolling Stones at this point, right? Currently, it’s our most recent project and it’s incredibly exciting to be working with a client like the Stones. A lot of our projects involve more than simply putting together off-the-shelf components and throwing a theme together, and for this project a lot of work has been in creating a plugin we call Band, which handles the discography for a group. Band is a collection of custom post types and connections to various APIs, like iTunes, and uses some other plugins we’ve written from “Sync Post Types and Taxonomies” (which syncs each post object in a custom post type to a term in a custom taxonomy) and “Additional Content” (which simply provides additional content areas for a given post type). It’s a development philosophy of mine to provide actions and filters in my plugins so they can be adapted to different projects without hacking the core plugin code (an extension of the “don’t hack core” mantra you hear everywhere).
Simon Dickson: Probably our biggest job of the past year has been Free Speech Debate, which we built for Oxford University. It’s a site looking at issues of freedom of expression around the world: and it’s made me conscious of just how big an issue it is, even in countries where you assume you can take it for granted. We have content in 13 languages, all delivered via the same WordPress theme, using a custom-built language framework. I don’t honestly think we knew how much we were taking on, but we’ve learned so much from doing it.
I love the way we’ve handled comments on that site. We merge the comment streams across all languages, and we’ve wired it into Google Translate, so you can swap in a machine translation of each comment if you need it. There’s something beautiful about seeing people replying to each other in different languages, and having “conversations” they could never have had in real life.
You’re both active in the WordPress community and have made contributions to core. How has living and working in the UK influenced your involvement?
Simon Wheatley: Really the biggest influence to my involvement is the fact I practice yoga on a Wednesday, so I always miss the dev chat in IRC on Wednesday evenings! Being in the UK is really no barrier to involvement at all, though there’s always a dearth of people in
#wordpress-dev on IRC in the mornings.
What advice do you have for people just starting to work with WordPress?
Simon Wheatley: For developers: listen to your irritation. Is something not working as you expect? Investigate it. Check for related bug reports you can contribute to on Trac, or create a new report if there’s not one there. Try your hand at testing patches. Write a plugin to scratch that itch you’ve got on your project. On my first project I needed something to exclude pages from
wp_list_pages so I wrote a simple plugin to do it (with help from my developer friend) and it all started from there…there’s always ways to get involved in (initially) small ways.
Simon Dickson: I’d say, look into the people and the philosophy behind the product. Follow them on Twitter, read their blogs, wade into Trac if you’re that way inclined, watch a video interview, go to a WordCamp if you can. WordPress is what it is because of the people behind it—not just the core team—but the wider community. And the more you can get to know them, personally or virtually, the more you’ll understand how it all works, and how to get the most from it.
What does the future hold for Code For The People?
Simon Dickson: I’ve no idea, but I stopped worrying about that some time ago. I think if we were based in the US or somewhere, we might be more gung-ho about expanding the business. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we were to add a few people to the team in the next couple of years. But for the moment, I’m more concerned about doing the best job we can, on every project we get. I’d much rather be writing plugins than business plans.
Simon Wheatley: We’d like to be more involved in core WordPress development. We’d like to help out more with the UK WordPress community where possible. Putting time into the WordPress project and community has worked out for us so far, so there’s no reason to change that now.
For more on Code For The People, follow them on Twitter at @cftp