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Lisa Sabin-Wilson Interview

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Meet Lisa Sabin-Wilson, (@lisasabinwilson) co-owner of WebDevStudios, a design and development company specializing in customized WordPress themes and plugins, and the author of WordPress For Dummies. As the “For Dummies” brand franchise author on all things WordPress she’s also written several other WordPress-related books, so you might say she knows her stuff. She’s worked with WordPress since 2003, and is also a regular public speaker on topics such as WordPress, blogging, design, and social media. If you’re starting to feel like an underachiever at this point, you’re in good company.

How did you first get involved with WordPress, and what was it that drew you in?

I started doing front-end design work as a hobby in 2000 — back then, I was working primarily in static HTML (Dreamweaver, FrontPage, et al) and that progressed into working with some of the blogging systems of the time — mostly Movable Type and Greymatter. The b2 blogging platform was in my periphery, but not something I’d ever used before, until a friend of mine brought it to my attention in 2003 under a new name, WordPress. I got the “Try it…you’ll like it!” sales pitch from my friend, so I did. Movable Type was my primary platform at the time, and I was pretty frustrated with the system and having to rebuild all archives anytime I made a change to the templates or CSS…which, today, is not something we can imagine, much less tolerate. I tried WordPress in 2003 and fell in love with the simplicity of it.

How important (or unimportant) has being involved in the WordPress community been for you to date, and how, if at all, has that changed over time?

Though I’ve been a WordPress user since 2003, I didn’t really get involved in the community until around 2006, or so. I was never really used to a platform having a “community” — Movable Type didn’t really have one, certainly not one that extended offline; and none of the other platforms I was using at the time did either. So the whole community thing was a relatively new concept to me, but a very valuable addition to my personal and professional life. Even now, after 10 years, I am sure that I am not AS involved in the community as I would like to be. For me, the biggest challenge is finding the time for volunteering in the areas of the community that interest me.

My primary community involvement revolves around WordCamp and Meetup events because I do enjoy sharing my experiences and knowledge with other users, and on the flipside: learning from those far more skilled than I. I enjoy the give and take those events have to offer. Last year (2012), I think I spoke at a total of 12 WordCamps and four Meetups. My involvement in these events have affected my professional life, as well as my personal life in extremely powerful ways. Professionally, I have made some of my strongest contacts for business and collaboration through these events and, personally, I have made some of the strongest friendships with people — some of whom I consider as close as family.

All in all, I think involvement in the community, on any level, is going to benefit you professionally because there is always something more to learn. Discovering how other developers are using WordPress and finding out what their workflow is has been invaluable to me, as I learn and grow as a developer. I have learned more from the likes of Brad Williams, Cory Miller, Dre Armeda, Mark Jaquith, Michael Torbert, Ryan Duff, Andrea Rennick (and so many more I’m not mentioning) on developing with WordPress and entrepreneurship just by simply listening — either to their official talks, or just general WordPress banter over lunch or drinks. There are folks at these events who really, really know their stuff and the advantage to having access to brains like that is huge. That is one of the many things I do love about the WordPress community is that users, at any level, do have access to the brains of people that really know what they are doing with WordPress. Developers, core commiters, themers, etc., — they are accessible in a way that I’ve not seen in other communities — and that is a very valuable thing.

What challenges did you face when you first set about working professionally with WordPress, and what would you have done differently in retrospect?

I learned WordPress by breaking every WordPress site I could get my hands on — mostly my own. I don’t have any formal (or informal) training in programming, design, development, etc. I just knew I found it fascinating and fun, so I just decided if I just took a leap — feet first! — I would eventually figure it out. I would say the years between 2003-2005 in WordPress, for me, were years of breaking and fixing…and then breaking and fixing. Back then, WordPress core was this big mystical beast that I didn’t understand. It worked, and for that I was grateful — but I didn’t understand it at all. I just went about my way, developing sites on a wing and prayer! I had the front-end design skills down — I could do graphics, I had a solid understanding of HTML markup and I could code up a mean stylesheet, but my first few years in WordPress themes and templates, I was flying by the seat of my pants, and my work definitely reflected that. I should publish the code from some of my early, early work for everyone to have a hearty chuckle at, because it is entertaining to me to go through some of those files.

In retrospect, I would have reversed my process and started out trying my best to understand core. I would have spent more time in the Codex and whatever documentation was available at the time and I would have participated more in the support forums and mailing lists, interacting with other developers to really learn the platform from the ground up. I also would have definitely invested in some practical courses or books on the basics of PHP, MySQL administration and then extended to JavaScript and jQuery. Figuring it out “on the fly” is actually fun (if not sometimes very frustrating), I enjoyed the challenge of it, if I’m honest. However, if I had it to do over again, I would have abandoned my “cowgirl” coding practices and prepared myself with a bit more education and study. Maybe then I could have understood why things were breaking and could probably have saved myself hours of headaches trying to make them work again. Education and knowledge brings confidence to your craft, and I didn’t always have the confidence that I do today.

How has writing books about WordPress informed your design and development practice and vice versa?

Speaking of doing things on the fly! If you would have asked me 10 years ago if I ever imagined myself the author of a suite of books on a software program, my answer would have been a very confident: NO. And yet, today I have four books out. Three of them in multiple editions, at this point. So, I guess life throws curve balls in your direction and sometimes you have to go with it.

When I was first asked, in 2006, if I would be interested in writing a book about WordPress, for new users, I was pretty excited. I knew WordPress pretty well, by then — from a users perspective, at least. The first edition of my first book, WordPress For Dummies, hit the shelves in 2007 and it did well, however the readers of the book wanted more out of it than information and instruction on how to use WordPress to publish content. The reviews started coming in from people wanting to know how to create themes, how to develop plugins and how to use WordPress as a CMS. For the second edition of that book, my editor also wanted me to add more meat to the book, to give readers what they were asking for. This really forced me to step up that education process I spoke of in the previous question. By 2006, I knew themes pretty well and was already doing client projects that involved using WordPress as more than just a blog (eCommerce shops, magazine/media outlets, etc.) — so I needed to put all of that information in the book in a way that was easily consumable by the reader. The second edition came out with chapters on developing your own theme — including a step-by-step walkthrough on creating a theme from scratch using basic template tags and theme practices. That remains the most popular part of the book today, almost seven years later.

That book is currently in its fifth edition, undergoing the sixth as I type. Keeping up with rapid WordPress development in print is not the easiest thing to do and it’s really forced me to keep up to date with ongoing development, changes, new features, deprecated features, etc. I strongly believe this has made me a better developer because now I’m looking at things a lot more closely and critically than I was five or six years ago. Professionally, I’ve improved my ability to advise my clients on best practices and keep them abreast of changes, upgrades, features, etc. I, also, had to really look at my code with a very critical eye and make sure that what I was doing was current and in line with today’s best practices. It was eye opening, humbling, and very valuable to go through that process — but necessary because I needed to make sure that what I was publishing was the most current and best way to get the desired outcome. As a result, my code on my own projects started to improve a great deal — so it benefits me as an author, but also as a developer to be involved in this book project.

Is it the job of a designer/developer to inform or educate their clients as they work together, or is that beyond the call of duty?

I strongly believe that education is a critical piece of client services. It will always depend on the specific project you’re working on, but I don’t think a designer/developer, involved in client services, can get away from educating their clients in one aspect or another when it comes to WordPress. Support is key and it doesn’t matter if you are doing custom work for hire, or if you are in product development; everyone, rightly, expects support. With support, comes education.

I think any developer or designer who says that client education is not their job is in for some pretty tough client relationships.

As a female entrepreneur, have you found any additional challenges along the way in what has been typically perceived as a male-dominated field? Is the WordPress community any different to the tech community at large in that respect?

This issue is brought to my attention on a regular basis, more within the past year, as the topic of inclusivity and diversity is brought more to the forefront, particularly in the area of events and conferences. However, that is about the extent of my experience with being a woman in the WordPress community and the tech community at large — I hear about it. I read about it. I recognize that women in technology have experienced challenges along the way, however I cannot say that I have, personally, nor have I ever really witnessed blatant sexism or harassment in my own corner of the tech world.

I find WordPress, the platform as well as the community, to be filled with progressive types…people who are forward thinkers and people who are not always satisfied with the status quo. I believe that progressive attitude and approach toward development tends to bleed over into other aspects of their personalities and lives, as well — so, without question, it extends to the acceptance that women are as capable and talented as their male counterparts. Other female members of this community may want to weigh in on their experiences — I can only speak to my own and say that if I have ever witnessed a moment’s pause over my gender in this community, I didn’t notice it or it wasn’t brought to my attention. In the WordPress community, at least, it seems like a non-issue, to me. However, that does not mean that we should be happy with maintaining that as status quo. I think the WordPress community is doing much to the effort of keeping it that way and presenting a model to the tech world, at large, on how life should be for women in tech.

I am very grateful to be part of a community that has never made me feel “less than.” I’ve only ever experienced open minds, willingness to teach and to learn and acceptance from both males, and females, alike in my 10 years.

Ok, ok — there was this one time at a very recent WordCamp when I was attending a speakers’ dinner…I introduced myself to a developer (male) and explained what it is I do and got this response: “You develop in and write books about WordPress, AND you’re a WOMAN?? Wow — that’s awesome.” Yeah, I happen to think that’s pretty awesome, too! So, maybe I have experienced a handful of…let’s call them “teaching moments.” But nothing on the scale of some of the things I’ve read about out there — and nothing that couldn’t be resolved by taking some time for a little one-on-one education so the next time that guy runs into a woman developer, he won’t act like he’s seeing a three-headed purple giraffe. If I were a betting woman — I’d bet that guy now has a full grasp of the concept that woman-as-developer != alien life form.

Regarding experiences I’ve read about in other communities, my feeling is this: If you don’t want women to feel different, or awkward, in your community — then don’t treat them differently. I start by making the assumption that open communities are open to anyone willing and wanting to join and I, personally, don’t wait for permission to do so. Don’t treat me with kid gloves. Don’t treat me like an anomaly that needs to be coddled and specially cared for. Don’t offer me special discount pricing for your event just because I’m a woman. Don’t paint my tech books pink or wrap code in butterflies and bows in an effort to help me understand it better. Don’t put me on your speakers’ list to fill a quota — do it because you think I have something to offer the community, because of my skills, talents and experience — not because I wear a bra instead of a jockstrap. Being a woman is not a qualification for a job or a speaking slot, anymore than being a man is. If you tell me you’re filling a quota by having me involved — you’ll find my resignation in your inbox faster than you can say “Girls Rule and Guys Drool.” This isn’t rocket science — it’s about common sense, respect, and decency. Any community, tech or otherwise, that struggles with those three basic human traits have far larger problems than girl germs and cooties.

The WordPress community excels at fostering an open environment and speaks for itself with the amount of very very talented, capable and kickass women involved in the project and community. Ongoing efforts that continue to promote and showcase that is a testament to the open environment that is fostered here and opens the door wide open for women, in fact — anyone from any walk of life, to feel welcomed, accepted, and invited, at any level.

How conscious have you been of positioning yourself and your work, and has that changed over time? Does good work market itself, or is marketing something that needs as much attention as designing and development?

It was in 2004-2005 when I started doing client work in earnest, and in the Fall of 2005 when I quit my full-time job as a Registered Nurse to do client work full time, working from home. Back then, there were but a handful of design shops that were doing WordPress work and word of mouth travelled fast. In those days, I got most of my work based off referrals and having my published work in a portfolio that was accessible to anyone thinking of hiring me were the only marketing I needed to do to keep me busy on a full time basis. That was then…

These days — you can’t spit on the internet without hitting a shop that specializes in WordPress development. The competition is much heavier than it used to be and shops really need to stand out from the other to keep up. That being said, I’ve never been much of a “marketer,” either and today, I still rely on word of mouth and referrals for the primary source of my client work. I think a good body of work does speak for itself — but find it also gives other people something to speak about. Networking works so much better than outright advertisements and old fashioned cold calls. Although, I do have to say that one of the largest projects I was involved with over the past 12 months has come to me as a result of an old fashioned cold call — which is something that was an isolated incident; cold calling is not something I’m fond of doing, nor is it a regular practice of mine.

I have a bit of an advantage over most, however. The books I write are a great marketing vehicle and I get a fair amount of referral work from that. Not every shop or freelancer is going to have the benefit of a book under their belt, so they do have to find their own niche to make a splash in the industry and start people talking and referring projects in their direction. I do find that another benefit of being involved in this community is the networking abilities that are out there. Every shop and freelancer who offers products or custom client work is a source of referral and collaboration. Being involved in the WordPress community is a great marketing tool that people may not have considered, but if I were still a freelancer today; my contacts in the community would probably keep me busy on a full-time basis, so much so that I wouldn’t have time for traditional marketing.

What advice would you give to someone looking to make a career change and get involved more heavily in professional design and development with WordPress?

Three things: education, community, and collaboration.

The education advice goes back to my earlier answer in terms of preparing yourself with the knowledge you need for success. Things are much different for you now in 2013 than they were for me in the early 2000s because WordPress has not only grown as a platform, but the education and resources around WordPress have grown as more and more people use it. Get to know the best practices and integrate them into your workflow so that they become habit and become the rule, rather than the exception. For each theme and each plugin that hits the interwebs, the more best coding practices we have in place, the better WordPress, and the community and users are for it. Use the Theme Check plugin to discover what your theme may be lacking and learn about deprecated functions and how to update them, turn on WP_DEBUG to discover any errors, notices or warnings in your code, read up on the recently published official Theme Guide from WordPress.com, check out the Codex for plugin practices, localize your themes and plugins — I could go on. But learning the best way to go about your work and keeping up with standards will put you on the path of success with your projects.

Getting involved in the WordPress community is also very beneficial for all the reasons I’ve already outlined in this interview: networking, learning, teaching, exposure, etc. Don’t discount how very beneficial it can be to be involved with some of the brightest minds who shape the development and future of the platform you are working with. Getting involved in Trac and helping squash a few bugs can go a long way in your education process, as well as help the platform evolve and grow for everyone’s greater good. Stepping up to speak at a WordCamp or local Meetup will help you meet people who are trying to achieve the same goals you are — these events are great for that.

Finally, collaboration has been a big part of my work for the past several years in this community. Don’t look at your competitors as competitors — rather, look at them as potential opportunities for collaboration, resource and knowledge sharing. I have discovered time and time again that my competitors are not my enemy, as they may be in other industries. On the contrary, some of my most respected peers and closest friends are competitors in this business in one way or another — but we all bring a little something different to the table. I have learned from so many of them, and hopefully vice versa.

What are you most proud of having worked on in your WordPress career to date?

Hands down, the books that I’ve published on WordPress are something that I am particularly proud of, mainly because of the huge amount of effort involved in writing a static book on such a dynamic platform.

Having designed or overseen the design of over 1000 websites now, how has your design process evolved over time and what do you consider to be essential — or inessential — to every job?

A bit about design vs. development — I do both and over the years my process has changed on how I approach both.

When I refer to the “design” of a project, I am referring to the front-end work that goes into it — primarily the graphic design, HTML markup, and CSS. Through the years, design is a never-ending college course for me. I am self-taught, so am accustomed to self-learning, and in design, things are always evolving and changing. I started out as a static HTML designer who did table-based designs and mocked up graphic concepts in PaintShop Pro. These days, I use Photoshop tools for design mockups, I abandoned tables for CSS in 1999. Every day since I started designing is a learning process for me, as I think it’s important for anyone working in this field to keep up with the evolving technology. One of my favorite resource sites for this is Chris Coyier’s CSS-Tricks. More recently, probably within the past two-three years, I’m finding myself doing less and less design and more and more development as clients are approaching me with their design work already completed. I’m still doing some of the front-end CSS and markup work, but in terms of graphic design work, I’m doing so much less of that these days. I think that is either because clients are becoming more and more educated and skilled in areas they didn’t used to be — or my client pool is made up of larger entities who employ in-house designers and agencies that do their branding for them. Probably a little of both.

From a development perspective, I think I described a little of my pain early on in my career in an earlier answer. Over the years, I’ve added new techniques and tools to my workflow that have greatly improved my efficiency and skill. Version Control is not always something that I always employed, for no other reason than the fact that I just didn’t get it and I was always so busy, I didn’t take the time to learn it. Once I got it, I could kick myself for the years that I didn’t use it and now cannot imagine living with out it (big shout out to Brad Williams for knocking me over the head with it until it sunk in). Now, I’m comfortable in both Git and SVN — but I used to read tweets from people like Mark Jaquith and he’d tweet something about “cowboy coders” who code on production sites without using version control…yeah, that was me. These days, I sing the praises of version control and would say to any developer who is not using to make it part of your regular work flow immediately — it is never to late to learn it and employ it and you’ll be happier for it.

You recently decided to merge your company eWebscapes with WebDevStudios. What motivated the change, and what new business affordances are you most excited about now that the wheels are in motion?

Funny thing about WebDevStudios is that, up until very recently, they were always a competitor of mine in the custom WordPress space. Looking back on the earlier question where I discuss competitors being a potential for opportunity and collaboration — this is a good example of that. Brad, Brian, and I met in 2009 at a WordCamp I organized in Chicago, and have been friends since then. Over the years, I always envied the fact that WebDev operated as a team, whereas I primarily operated as an individual who occasionally outsourced to freelancers when the project load got too heavy. I operated eWebscapes like that for almost 12 years and I think it was in 2010 that it began to dawn on me that I could probably accomplish a lot more as part of a team, rather than on my own. Through my experiences collaborating with other shops, like iThemes, for example — I really began to appreciate a team environment of collaboration and cooperation and in 2010, I started to quietly look for a team to either merge with, or join because I could see the benefit. I like the collaboration. I like the ability to bounce ideas off other developers — use them as a resource, and also be a resource for them. I was missing that in my work. Brad, Brian, and I started talking about merging, in earnest in 2012. By then, I was drowning in work at eWebscapes — not only with client projects, but also managing other projects that I had my freelancers working on, as well. The projects I was managing and developing were not small projects — so it was quite a challenge to do it all on my own. Merging my client base with WebDev’s client base is a win for everyone involved and merging talents and resources is, as well. It was probably the best move I could have made and am more than thrilled to have done it…I’m hoping Brad and Brian feel the same way!

We officially merged in January 2013 and have been spending the first couple of months of this year transitioning, which hasn’t been painful at all. In terms of the future — I’m excited at WebDev. Brad and Brian are both brilliant developers, along with every single member of the team. I’m really proud of what they’ve accomplished so far and proud that they are blazing the trail in the area of using WordPress as an application framework, a topic that Brad is speaking on at WordCamp Miami in April 2013. They have developed some pretty amazing apps using WordPress, and BuddyPress, at the core — unfortunately I am not yet able to disclose those projects, and the apps are not currently public, but I can say that I’m excited at what is currently brewing at WebDevStudios, proud to be a part of it and excited to be involved in the development process, as well.

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I'm an independent writer, designer & content producer. Currently pummelling a book into submission.

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