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Andrea Rennick Interview

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Andrea Rennick (@andrea_r) has been blogging since before it was called blogging. As an active member of the WordPress community, she’s helped countless people get to grips with WordPress MU/Multisite, written books and tutorials on all things WP, developed a couple themes and plugins, contributed to the WP 3.0 help text, and acts as a moderator on the official support forums. These days she puts all of that creativity and knowledge to work for Copyblogger, alongside husband Ron. We talk to Andrea about creativity, documentation, teaching and learning, WordPress MU, working alongside your spouse, and, it goes without saying, Commodore 64 games and quilting. Buckle up.

How did you first get involved with WordPress, and what brought you there?

I’d started blogging back in the days of hand-crafted HTML, when the blogging crowd was called online journallers. They were like a pack, hunting for the next big breakthrough in making all this easier so we could spend more time writing and less time coding, when we weren’t coders. It was a great, small-knit community, where it seemed everyone knew everyone else.

And back then, there were really very little places to host your own blog for free, or close to it, and forget about a domain name. They were $75 dollars. A year. Essentially for a minor hobby in an age when most businesses didn’t even have a website.

So I went from the five megs of free space my ISP gave everyone (databases were extra), to something called Pitas, and LiveJournal, and eventually Movable Type, because it looked easy enough, it had pretty themes, and there was even a community. With the licensing change of MT 2.6, a lot my friends and I jumped ship. Someone mentioned WordPress as this new up-and-comer. It seemed easier, with a slightly geekier, home-grown community. That appealed to me, as it seemed Six Apart was going more corporate and shunting the one-off bloggers on to their own devices. Of course, shortly after they launched Typepad, but by then I was eyeball deep in WordPress 1.5. It had this cool new templating system, so you could do more with themes than just edit the CSS. Something new for me to figure out and play with.

When did you first get involved with the community side of the project, and what role has it played in your life and work so far?

Fast forward a year or so, and I was involved with a subset of the online journalling community and had connected with a number of homeschoolers writing about their experiences. We were in the middle of homeschooling our three kids (at least the three we had then) so an online support system was crucial for sharing information. It turned out there was a magazine that had started a blog hosting service and a number of homeschoolers rebelled against the advertisers and didn’t want to be associated with that site and their values.

I had an idea; what if someone started a small site for these homeschoolers, that was like the fledgling WordPress.com. I started researching how WordPress.com was built and found the WordPressMU project.

So here I was involved in one community sharing knowledge, and had just found another community struggling to share information about this new software as well, with less people using it. The fact that a large business venture had essentially provided the bulk of the code to start up potential competition just blew my mind.

I saw a number of people in the forums struggling to find answers, and as I was asking I would supply the answers I found and figured out.

It was a really interesting puzzle to sort out, and I was excited to share what I learned. There was near-instant validation and it was immensely gratifying to help others.

You’ve written and co-written several WordPress-focused books. What did you learn from the process and what are you proudest about having shared through them?

The biggest things I learned from the WordPress All-In-One and the great editors at Wiley, was that you can never break down the information too far, and you can never assume the reader is building on what you wrote previously.

They could pick up a book, or my ebooks, and start in the middle, skimming or not even reading. So it’s best to reiterate where needed and just not assume the user has done any of this before. I sometimes forget, but I get reminded quickly enough.

I do see it relating to the years I spent homeschooling, as I have also taught my own kids beginning HTML/CSS skills and basic computer literacy. So often I try to roll back and get in the mindset of teaching my kids again. I also learned there is no such thing as too many screenshots.

My proudest moments I think come from the private emails I get on occasion that start something like “Hi, you don’t know me, we’ve never spoken online or off, but your posts/ebooks/book has helped me so much…”

There was one email in particular where the woman who emailed me started out this way, then went on to say she was also a homeschooling mom and by following my writing wherever it was, she had gained enough knowledge to start freelancing and earn money to provide for her family. I was so blown away, I don’t think I could even reply for a week without finding words.

So I would say I’m most proud that people have been helped that much, that they’ve created their own careers.

What would be your top three tips for effectively documenting something as complex (and potentially mind-numbing) as software?

Somewhat covered above, but included here as well: Do Not Assume. An example is if a user has to FTP something. Yes, you really do have to walk them through FTP or provide a link to the documentation on that.

The second would be to provide clear, cropped screenshots, with explanations for each step. Multiple screenshots are better, rather than one large one with arrows and circles. It’s too confusing for a first-time user.

Try to include exceptions at the end, not where they might occur. They usually serve to confuse more than they help.

And above all edit and re-edit. Get someone else to read it over, and once you find a format that works, stick to it.

Where does documentation most often go awry?

Assuming previous knowledge without referencing it is a biggie. Including too many anecdotes, grammatical errors or just sloppy writing.

Long walls of text are also daunting for the user. The text should be in short, digestible bites. You’re walking the user through a series of steps to complete a particular task. You’re not writing the next best-selling novel.

You’ve been a force of nature when it comes to helping people get to grips with WordPress MU/Multisite. What drew you into this aspect of WordPress and what does every designer/developer need to know about it?

I hope I’ve been more like the coming of spring and less like a hurricane! Just an awareness of what it does and the limitations. I usually tell people it’s like running your own private version of WordPress.com, and when they really grasp that, then it suddenly makes sense.

You really are levelling up your own skill set by knowing what it is, how to enable it and how to just move around the admin area. Even knowing when to use it and when not to use it can be an education in itself.

I’d say now it’s about 98% the same as working with a single instance of WordPress. Just do what you normally would. Mind you, it’s that last 2% that is the tricky bit.

As someone who’s educated your own children and taught yourself a swath of skills, what would you say are the merits of taking a hands-on approach to learning, and what do you think makes learning easier for someone just getting started?

Be fearless! The biggest stopping point I see is that people are afraid they are going to screw it up. Guess what? You probably will. And that is okay. You can set up a practice site and there are ways to recover errors like white screens and fatal errors. It’s a fantastic puzzle and breaking things is how I figured out some of the more intermediate things.

I tell people all the time, I’m not coder. I can read a bit and get the jist of what the code might be doing, but I can’t really write any from scratch, and that’s also okay, because I know how to troubleshoot and how to fix mistakes.

Don’t think of it as a waste, either. It took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to get WordPressMU up and running. I don’t mean hours here, I mean weeks and multiple false starts.

I easily have a dozen really ugly themes I built from the original Classic WP theme. They will never see the light of day, and I’m not really sure what hard drive they are on. But they were not a waste of time, because I learned a lot about theming, and a ton of CSS.

So enjoy the process, sometimes the finished product is not what you are going for. Think of it as a real learning experience, because it is. There really are no dumb questions, just answers you don’t have.

And if you take a backup, it can always be restored. Set up a second install somewhere and practice on that. Blow it up safely, and have some fun doing it.

The breadth of creative, hands-on things you get up to is mind boggling, from growing your own food, to sewing, to writing books, the list goes on. How far do you rate creativity as an important part of making your way in the world, and do you have any advice for staying creative?

Creativity is hugely important to me. I’ve discovered that I need a creative outlet of some sort, or I’m just not a happy content person. If I don’t have time to stop and just create something, enjoying the creative process, I get a little cranky.

That’s why it’s important to take breaks in the work day, to give your mind a rest. One corner may be working on code problems, but on a creative break, another side of your brain kicks in, giving you a rest. Sometimes while working on a quilt, I’ll suddenly have the answer to a tricky support question even.

Making time for creativeness is also important, even if it is just a mental break to stare off in to the distance. A lot of creativity can be tactile as well, and for some that physical contact and working with your hands make a nice counterpoint to all the digital mental creative work we do. Creating a site that lives on the internet and maybe has a lot of visitors can seem a nebulous at time. But creating something like a quilt? You can see it as well as touch it, feel it, wrap up, and stay warm in it. It’s satisfying in a different way.

I’ve been super into the process of creativity the last few years, after trying multiple disciplines. As a family we tend to dive all in to something and had amassed a crazy amount of arts and crafts supplies, plus a library to match. For the things we tried that we no longer do, I wouldn’t call it a failure at all. Even if my knitting is the crookedest thing you’ve ever seen, I discovered what I did and did not like. Ron, for example, took up stained glass, and at the time I tried it as well. I discovered I have no strength in my hands at all, and the process was too fiddly and exacting for me. He, however, has created beautiful works, and since I at least attempted to learn, I can truly appreciate all the work that went in to even a small piece.

Once you have immersed yourself in a topic, and found what you liked and did not like, you can also see the commonalities with other things you have learned. For instance, I signed up for a handful of online quilting classes. One of them is discussing color theory. Color theory is also used in theme design, and while I’m not a theme designer, having this sort of backing really does help me when I get the odd question thrown at me about suggested color schemes for certain themes, for example.

Noting the similarities and things you can take from one discipline to another is a creative excercise in itself too. I think also if you’re open to being more creative, you start taking a bit more risk and trying new things in your other works. Sometimes things even work out. At least you’re still learning.

I find the entire WordPress project is an exercise in creativity. I think that’s what attracted me, the constant questioning of how could this be improved? What happens if we try this? What about this aesthetic for the admin area? What happens if we do this?

And even if you aren’t a part of the contributing process, there’s still the option for every single site out there to be different from each other, just by the themes and plugins chosen and how the site is arranged.

Even when I’m on a break and listening to my online classes, a part of my brain is noting things like, how is this site laid out? Are things easy to find for a new user? What technology are they using? How is the documentation here set up?

And it’s funny, because the classes I’m taking are laid out very similar to the advice I gave above. So it really is universal.

Tell us about your role with CopyBlogger and what you’re most excited about working on there.

I love my job. I could set that up as an auto-tweet for twice a week, and it easily holds true. I have seen other freelancers wonder aloud about what it would be like taking a “real” job somewhere and for us, it’s been pretty awesome.

I have a lot of autonomy and responsibility for my day-to-day work. It’s super important to me that I can just go do a lot of my job as I see fit, without someone making sure I did it right. I don’t have to fill quotas or show up at particular times. It’s extremely flexible and a great fix. I also find that in a strange way, I’m helping more people.

I think one of my most satisfying moments has been when Brian Gardner has asked me to write up a tutorial for a new theme and other than some small details, basically said to do the bulk of it as I saw fit. To go from someone who saw him emerge at a leader back in the Revolution days to having him trust my judgement is really overwhelming if I stop and think about it. It’s immensely satisfactory, career-wise.

There’s also a sense of teamwork, like we’re all in this together. We do have departments and different product teams, and a support team, but they can occasionally overlap and there’s this sense that what one of us thinks about an issue really matters, and we have to freedom to take the initiative on things under our control.

It’s also remote work like Automattic, so at Copyblogger we really can relate! We have a group Skype chat where we can check in and just maintain contact with each other throughout the day and well into the evening. It goes a long way in cementing relationships.

Also, the witty banter on Twitter between us? So funny. It helps we’re all geeks of one sort or another too.

You do a lot of work with your husband, Ron. What’s the secret of working with your spouse while staying sane? More seriously, how do you make sure the two of you maintain a work-life balance, if such a thing exists?

Ron would say it’s probably headphones.

All kidding aside, I think the biggest difference is that I was used to him being around a lot anyway, because of his former contract work. In talking to many people, they just aren’t used to being around their spouses all week, working or not. Once you get over that hurdle, the rest is not quite as difficult.

Not to say it was easy — we did have to juggle some tasks between us, and figure out how to talk about the work we were doing and be able to offer criticism. There’s a lot of mindfulness in how we speak to each other, and an awareness of who we are, both individually and together.

Sometimes we do tag team some items and he’ll get me to answer some support questions for his free plugins, and there’s a whole conversation we don’t need to have because I’m familiar with it already and I know what to say. Probably a benefit of being married so long and working together.

We did quickly find out our strengths and weaknesses and divided the work accordingly in the beginning. Now that we both work with Copyblogger, a lot of my work doesn’t overlap his, so on really busy days we have to make sure we take those breaks I mentioned above, and also spend some of that time together.

It could be as simple as walking around the block, going to get the mail, or running an errand together and maybe picking up some coffee on the way.

Now we can also take actual days off, instead of being “on” all the time as freelancers. Those days we try and enjoy the family. It’s marvellous.

We’re really lucky.

Finally, which were your top three most worn out tapes for that beautiful beige breadbox of computing the Commodore 64?

Oh, those were the days…patiently waiting for the tape to rewind. And now if a three gig download doesn’t finish in a minute we get cranky.

I admit I had to Google to try and jog my memory a bit, and oh the finds!

Spy vs. Spy — I remembered this one on my own. I spent hours at this, trying not to get blown up and trying to blow the other guy up. And the graphics for them were so similar to the cartoon, I remember thinking it was amazing.

Impossible Mission (omg almost forgot that one!) — a side scroller action packed, avoid-the-shooting-machine-guns game. Tricky! It was so difficult at the time, I can’t remember getting anywhere closer to the end, but I know I got through a few levels.

Little Computer People — I barely remembered it, but I do remember I spent quite a bit of time at it. So funny, because it’s basically a sim game, but very early version. I still play a lot of Sim games, watching people wander around their houses.

It’s funny how my preferences for gaming haven’t changed much, just the hardware and graphics have.

My grandfather introduced me to computers, because he was really into radio and he saw this as an extension of that kind of communication. He’d take me to shareware meetings across town, and that was when I was introduced to the concept of sharing software. Funny, because when I learned WordPress was free and open source, it just made sense to me.

I remember one day I went to my grandparents’ house and Grampy was so excited, he wanted to show me this new computer program. It was for the Commodore, but instead of typing things in to start a program, it was another program to do this for you. And instead of typing you could click images of the programs you had installed. It was going to be huge he said, this type of program could make it easy for everyone to have a computer in their own home.

And just yesterday my granddaughter Izzy was here, using my iPad like a pro. The job she’ll have at my age probably doesn’t exist yet. At some point, I know she’ll learn how to use WordPress.

It’s just in her genes.

Header image based on “My lovely mother” by @fevered, All Rights Reserved.

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