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Pixel Jar Interview

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Meet Brandon Dove (R) and Jeffrey Zinn, (L) the pair behind Pixel Jar, a design and development shop that purveys websites built solely on WordPress. In business since 2004, Brandon and Jeff are a couple of plugin daddies who love to surf in their spare time. They’re both passionate about solid coding practices and active in the WordPress community, at WordCamps and at meetups. Read on to get to know Brandon and Jeff: what they stand for and what inspires them. Cover image of Brandon and Jeff is by Linda Sherman. Used with permission.

Tell me a bit about each of your backgrounds. How did you end up working on the web? How was Pixel Jar born?

Brandon: I have a background in film and computer animation. I pursued that further at the college level. (I dare you to rent the Golden Blaze!, a film I animated.) At the time I graduated, Flash and Generator were all the rage on the interwebs for dynamic content, so I worked on those sorts of jobs. Many of those jobs required me to build a lot of ActionScript. In those cases, I worked with the UI/UX team and the designers to create usable Flash applications. The need for dynamic sites got me interested in server side scripting languages like PHP.

Jeff: At school I earned a degree in applied mathematics. While the computer and modelling classes taught me computer and logic skills, the internet as we know it today was still in its infancy with Juno, AOL, Geocities, and the like. It wasn’t much of a viable career path at the time. Still, to help pay the bills I got my first web job working on the website for my university’s bookstore, at the end of my junior year. (I had zero web skills at the time and spent the summer learning HTML and JavaScript to be ready for my new job the following autumn when school started back up.) After graduation I spent a few years substitute teaching, then teaching junior high and high school. But the dot-com boom was blossoming and I switched careers. Working on the web was already a fun hobby. I wanted to try and turn it into a full-time paying gig.

We met at a boutique web firm in 2001. I started working there in 2000. Brandon was brought on to do some Flash work for the firm in 2001. While working there, we found that our work ethic was similar and we shared a nerdy passion for pursuing better solutions. During the four years we worked there together we also developed a great friendship and a deep trust in each other (we were often mistaken for brothers, which is not far off). At one point we had the idea that we should go into business for ourselves and chart our own destiny. So, we gathered up whatever freelance work we could, filed some official paperwork, and Pixel Jar was born.

Pixel Jar has been in business since 2004. How did you get into working with WordPress?

One of the Holy Grails of being a web firm is finding a Content Management System (CMS) that’s usable and that clients can easily learn. We’d tried every PHP CMS solution we could find: Joomla, Drupal, MovableType, etc., and even went so far as to build our own (nicknamed The Blogotron). When we first stumbled on WordPress, not only did we find that our clients were receptive to the dashboard, we really dug how easy it was for them to use. Once we saw how driven and vibrant the WordPress community was, we were sold. Within months, we began recommending that our clients adopt the WordPress platform. Since then, we’ve been focusing all of our development efforts on WordPress-based work. That is still our business model today.

Pixel Jar prides itself on coding. Can you share a bit about the best practices you’ve developed?

Good code comes from revision and review. A great novel isn’t written in the first draft. The same is true for good code. When re-examining our work we’re always looking for better and more elegant solutions. We’re afraid to scrap an idea and start fresh. More times than we’d like to recall, we’ve stumbled on a better solution halfway through a project. But the code and usability is really important to us. So we take a deep breath, strip it down, and start again.

We also use a lot of peer review. We often work with John Hawkins
, Matt McInvale
, Blair Williams
, Dave Jesch, and 
Jon Brown. The more eyes you have on a piece of code, the better it’s going to be. Through all of the WordCamps we’ve been to over the years, we’ve met some amazingly smart people. If we feel like we need an extra set of eyes on something in particular, we’ll send it over for suggestions and improvements. We do the same for them.

Tell us how you divide the work between the two of you.

We use the buddy system! Generally we’re working on separate projects. Since we’re mildly distributed, we run video chat constantly so we can pick each other’s brain about issues that come up. When a project is completed, whoever is free will take the lead on the next project in the queue. Each Monday morning we get together to review what’s completed and what needs to be done and re-adjust focus as needed. With regard to clients, usually whoever made first contact will continue to act as the liaison throughout the project. We try to make sure the workload is balanced and equitable between us.

Tell us a bit about how your strategic partnerships work: do you have a network of folks that you bring on based on the project?

For a long time we did 100% of the work for each of our projects. But as time went on and demand went up we had a hard time keeping up with the workload and we didn’t always have the skillset to deliver everything we wanted. But, we also have a hard time letting go as we’re wholly responsible for the quality of the work we deliver. The bulk of our work comes from referrals so we’re careful and guarded about our reputation. Luckily, over the years, we’ve formed some relationships with trusted compadres who share our work ethic and passion for quality.

We’ve occasionally brought on folks—on an as-needed basis, but lately we’ve been trying to work with other developers just for the fun of collaborating. Since delving into the WordPress world, through WordCamps and meetups, we’ve met a ton of other great designers and developers. The number of people we share work with has grown considerably. When schedules allow, we like to collaborate with others on projects. We’d love to work on something with the BinaryM guys or develop a design by Cody Landefeld. We did get to work on a project with our buddies from CubicTwo and found it very rewarding.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time, away from PHP functions?

Jeff: I spend a lot of my non-PHP time either surfing or camping. My wife and I are avid travellers, always looking for the next great adventure. On rainy days, nothing beats a euro board game with friends. But most importantly, I’m always searching for that next great cup of coffee. Oh, lovely coffee.

Brandon: I love spending time with my family, and my two kids (ages four and seven) are very active. With dance, gymnastics, tae kwon do, swimming, soccer, school, and language programs, sometimes it feels like we run a taxi service. My wife and I try to cram in as much culture as we can so that the kids will grow up to have good global awareness. To that extent, we visit national parks, zoos, museums, and performing arts events as often as we can. We also love hanging out with our pal, Mickey Mouse, at the Disneyland/DCA resort here in Anaheim whenever we can.

Together we have four shared hobbies that also serve as breaks from work: burritos, surfing (Jeff is the superior surfer), ping pong (Brandon always wins), and bowling (still determining dominance).

Jeff spoke at WordCamp Las Vegas in 2011. You both co-organize the Orange County WordCamp. In what other ways do you give back to the WordPress community?

We’ve each spoken at a few WordCamps over the years. Our local meetup, the Orange County WordPress Meetup, meets twice a month—there’s one session for beginners and one for developers. We’ll attend and present there on a regular basis. When possible we also try to contribute to the Pasadena and Maui meetups as well, which are run by friends we met at the Orange County WordPress Meetup. The official WordPress repository hosts several freely available plugins that we’ve released publicly. They include Favicon Generator, RSS Icon Widget,
 Conversation Starter, SpamShiv Lite, and Geocache Stat Bar Widget. Recently, Brandon contributed code to core for the first time with version 3.3 and has a couple of patches slated for inclusion in 3.5, of which we are particularly proud. He’ll also be attending the Community Summit in October.

Of the plugins you’ve created, which are you most proud of and why?

It may be one of our least downloaded plugins, but it would have to be Conversation Starter. In 2009, we entered a plugin competition held at WordCamp NYC. We built the plugin with contributions from John Hawkins, Drew Strojny, and Andrew Christian. The idea is simple enough—add a specific question at the end of a post to start the conversation, rather than just having the “Comments” header. WordPress has always been about communication and we thought this would help spur responses to a post. Judges Matt Mullenweg, Mark Jaquith, and Brian Gardner all agreed that our plugin made the best use of the WordPress interface, built-in technologies, and was an interesting idea.

Winning that award wasn’t all gravy though. While I was standing on stage, in front of a crowd of what seemed like hundreds of people, Mark put on a demonstration of how NOT to build a plugin with our plugin as the example. The great thing about that moment is that it burned into our memory the responsibility that we accept as plugin developers.

Beyond that, what we find amazing about our publicly released plugins—this one is no exception—is the creation process. Most of our ideas are spawned during our WordCamp travels. When traveling to a WordCamp we are generally disconnected from client related work and we start in on the “wouldn’t it be awesome if…” conversations. We get a chance to hash out the functionality and interface without much distraction. It reminds us of why we adopted WordPress in the very beginning…because it can do just about anything.

Tell us about your favorite project: what did you enjoy the most? What did you learn from it?

Our favorite project so far has been working with Krochet Kids International back in the fall of 2010. We were particularly proud of the site we have developed for them. Their site includes custom post types and custom taxonomies, ecommerce, and social integrations.

Krochet Kids has an interesting business model. We were inspired by what they’d accomplished as a company and liked the plans they had for the future. This was one of those projects that, not only were we proud of what we delivered, but we were also proud to be a part of what they were developing and helping them to increase their brand recognition. The satisfaction we felt after this project made us re-examine how we were choosing projects to develop. Krochet Kids has really grown over the years and we feel lucky to continue to be a part of that.

There were two big milestones for Pixel Jar that spawned from this project. First, it was our first full project we started and completed in conjunction with Robert Nienhuis of Nien Studios which has continued as a great partnership for us. Second, it was the best example we’d seen of a client putting in the necessary effort to harness the power of the platform we developed for them. We continue to be excited by what they’re doing with the site since the initial hand-off.

Tell us about Krochet Kids.

Krochet Kids International’s (KKI) motto is “buy a hat, change a life.” The central idea of the company is to empower people to rise above poverty. It spawned from a group of friends with two common hobbies: crocheting and traveling. During their trips they witnessed communities stuck in a cycle of surviving on outside aid. They wondered if there was a way they could help people break out of this cycle and KKI was born.

With their first project, they went to Uganda and taught a group of ladies how to crochet beanies. They then sold these beanies through their website. But the unique twist was that each KKI product sold was signed by the lady who created it. The website allows each buyer to connect with the creator and close the loop between consumer and producer. The consumer gets to connect and participate and see the change they are directly affecting with this model that KKI set up.

Since starting with Uganda in the mid 2000s, KKI started another program in Peru, and they’ve partnered with Volcom and Vans on projects. Their products are available through major chains like Nordstrom and they were featured in a commercial for Bing. The success of their program is that people they’ve employed around the world have gone on to start their own business and take control of their lives.

If you could learn to do one thing, (anything—not just in the realm of WordPress or code) what would you choose to learn?

Brandon: I remember being at a WordCamp with Beau Lebens last year and talking about an urban survival class that he’d taken recently. Forget the urban survival class, I just want to be Beau, he’s awesome. =) Seriously though, I’ve always wanted to learn Capoeira. What intrigues me about it is the fluid, yet often acrobatic nature of the movements. It’s not unlike what we do in web development. The whole thing is a delicate dance.

Jeff: I would like to become a whiz at regular expressions so I don’t always have to go to Blair Williams for help. Barring that, I think it would be awesome if I could have the kind of memory to recite famous quotes and literary passages appropriate to a conversation. I’d also like to be a polyglot.

Tell us about how you balance work and surfing.

Surfing is a great counterpoint to coding (for us, anyway). When the pressure rises, a few hours out in the ocean is a great relief valve. There have even been a number of occasions when a solution has hit us while out surfing. Not to get too kooky, but surfing takes all one’s focus (not the bobbing around/waiting part, of course, but the actual wave riding part). It forces us to let go of everything rolling around in our heads and focus solely on riding the wave. If you don’t focus, you wipe and get a head full of salt water, which can also clear your head, but not in the way you want. It’s win-win! If nothing else, it makes sure that we get out of our chairs and get some exercise which is important to the whole mind-body-soul balance.

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