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Bill Erickson Interview

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Meet Bill Erickson (@BillErickson), a WordPress consultant, entrepreneur, sazerac enthusiast, amateur photographer, recent college graduate, skier, and wine lover living in Austin, Texas. He’s also the founder of the first Texas coworking space, The Creative Space. Bill’s been developing with WordPress and contributing to the community since 2006.

How did you first get involved with web development, and when did WordPress appear on the scene for you?

In the summer of 2003 I was in high school and needed a job. I had been playing around with Photoshop for a few years and so I called all the print shops nearby. I finally found one that offered me an unpaid internship.

Businesses would come in and need everything, so we made them business cards, brochures, and all the other print materials, but they didn’t do websites. Noticing that all these businesses needed that one last piece, I decided I’d figure it out. I got three or four web design clients out of the print shop and that got me started. I’d design their website in Photoshop and hire a developer to build it. After a few years I realized I’m a much better developer than I am a designer, so I made the switch and haven’t looked back.

In 2006 I was in college at Texas A&M University, and got a job working for the webmaster of the business school. Our day-to-day job was text changes. Departments would copy entire pages of their site into Word, make a few small changes (Spring to Fall, 2004 to 2005…) and then email it to us to make the change.

I knew there had to be a better way, so we started building the smaller sites in WordPress to empower the departments to make the text changes themselves. I’ve been building WordPress sites ever since.

You have a huge range of work. Of the projects you’ve worked on recently, which are you proudest of and why?

One of my favorite projects was rebuilding Yoast’s website. Joost de Valk is a developer I’ve known of and admired for a long time. It’s challenging and fun to have a top WordPress developer as your client.

I’ve done work for some large web properties and universities which look great in a portfolio, but the projects I enjoy the most are the small ones. I’m able to deliver so much value in a minimal amount of time due to my experience with similar projects.

Dog Food Advisor is a site I first worked on over three years ago. From a technical perspective it’s simple — it’s got clean design and no complex functionality. In a few hours I was able to give him something he had spent months trying to produce with other developers. Over the years we’ve made many incremental improvements as he built content and a huge community (1 million visits/month, 5.5 million page views monthly, and hundreds of comments on each post). We’ve had a great long-term working relationship.

You use Genesis heavily in your work. When did you first start using it, and what itches did and does it scratch for you and your clients?

I started using Genesis in 2010. As a developer it allows me to rapidly build high quality themes. It has a lot of common features built-in, and a system of hooks and filters for quick extensions. This reduces development time without compromising code quality, and clients appreciate how it keeps the project cost down.

A lot of my clients have never heard of Genesis (and some have never heard of WordPress) — they just want a site that’s secure, fast, easy for them to update, and doesn’t cost too much. Genesis lets me deliver on that.

There’s a lot of great theme frameworks and base themes out there. StudioPress has done a great job building a community of developers and users around Genesis. Many top Genesis developers (including me) have access to the private GitHub repo where Genesis is developed. This allows us to submit tickets, write patches, and discuss the future of Genesis. With more than half of the developers not employed by StudioPress, Genesis is an active, open source project developed by its community of users.

Among the services you provide, you offer clients the option to make their existing sites responsive. How important do you think RWD is, and how do you typically explain that to a would-be client?

I’ve been amazed at how quickly clients have started requiring a responsive website. I released the first responsive Genesis child theme for sale in September 2011. At that time not a single client had requested a responsive site. Now it is a discussion I have with every client, most of the time brought up by the clients themselves, and about 80% of the sites I build are responsive. The clients are using their phones to browse the web and can see what a difference it makes.

My typical client expects to keep their site for two or three years before considering a redesign. RWD is a way of future-proofing your site — it works and looks great across devices of any size. And when it only increases the project cost by 10-20%, it’s a no-brainer.

While there are a lot of “designer developers” in the business, you make a clear distinction and position yourself as a developer (and more specifically, a Genesis developer). Is that something you’ve always done, and have you found that specialization and focus a positive in your career with WordPress?

I actually started as a print designer, then moved to web design (hiring a developer), and then did design and development. I quickly realized what I was best at, and preferred the projects that already had a design completed. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I began requiring a designer for every project.

The clients that I work with appreciate putting together a team of experts to build their site, rather than a single jack-of-all-trades. They’re able to choose a designer that has a style they appreciate and experience designing the sites they like. And they’re able to hire a developer who has the proven technical skills to implement their specific need.

Specialization allows you to more easily become an expert in an area and be known for it. But be sure to specialize in something that has a large enough community around it to support you. The majority of my leads still come from StudioPress.com. I build great sites on Genesis, they add them to their showcase, which drives sales of Genesis and more leads back to me.

There’s a bunch of niches that are large enough to support a developer community but small enough for a new developer to be recognized quickly: for example, themes (StudioPress, WooThemes), plugins (GravityForms, WooCommerce, Easy Digital Downloads), and verticals (real estate, membership, communities).

You’ve written 20 plugins and shared them with the community. How did you first get started writing plugins, and what typically motivates you to create a new one?

All of my plugins are developed for client needs. I actually have a section of my contract that reserves the right for me to publicly share functionality I develop in plugins, code snippets, tutorials, and core contributions. Clients benefit from this because if I release a plugin publicly, I maintain it and add features over time. The feature they paid to have developed gets better over time.

I try to release as much as I can to the community. It leads to improvement of the code itself but also shows clients I know what I’m doing. It’s difficult for a client to judge the quality of a developer’s code. A good proxy is to see how other developers react and use the code you share.

Among the plugins you’ve written, which is your favorite, and how did the idea come about?

One of my clients had written hundreds of articles, and was looking for a way to easily display lists of posts based on different criteria, and for the lists to stay up to date. He basically wanted a way to write custom queries, but without having to code.

I built Display Posts Shortcode, which is a shortcode that accepts query arguments (see the wiki for more details). It has been downloaded over 50,000 times, and has been included in WordPress.com so any WordPress.com blog can use it.

I prefer to release simple plugins like this on the repo as support requirements are typically minimal. If I think support might be demanding, I’ll release the plugin on GitHub instead. For instance, my Gallery Rotator plugin adds a “Display as Rotator” checkbox to WordPress’ Gallery functionality. If checked, the gallery shortcode creates a responsive image rotator rather than the standard gallery. It’s simple to set up and use, but a lot of people will want to customize how their gallery looks and works. If you can use GitHub, you can probably figure out how to customize the FlexSlider settings using the built-in filters.

You have a deal in place with WordPress 101 as a means of getting clients up to speed with WordPress. How important is educating your clients, and how has this partnership approach worked out for you as a solution?

The WP101 Plugin is a huge benefit to my business. When I start a project, I send the videos over to the client so they can become familiar with how WordPress works. When I send them the site for review, they’re not overwhelmed by an unfamiliar interface (many of my clients have never used WordPress before and aren’t very tech savvy). Before WP101, I’d often spend hours explaining how to manage menus or upload images to their site.

The videos are always accessible in their backend, so if it’s been a few months since accessing the site they can be reminded of how things work. And the videos are updated with every new version of WordPress, so the videos incorporate any interface changes or new features.

You’re very direct about your pricing, even putting an exact range of typical fees up on your website. What made you decide to do that, and would you recommend it as a strategy?

I manage a lot of projects at once and need a steady flow of inquiries. But communication is one of the least scalable aspects of my business — over time I can build sites faster, but a one hour phone call always takes an hour.

I want to decrease the number of people who would never become my client from contacting me. I display my minimum project price and current availability on my site to eliminate those with budgets or timelines that just wouldn’t work. I can then focus my emails and phone calls on determining their specific needs and making sure I can help them. Clients find it refreshing to have an idea of my cost before contacting me.

How important has the WordPress community been to you and your work, and would you recommend someone sitting on the fence (with deadlines to contend with) to get involved with it in some way?

I can’t thank the community enough for all they’ve given me. Because of the WordPress community I’ve learned to code, made great friends, and created a job where I do what I enjoy every day. I give back as much as I can because of all those before me who contributed to the community and allowed me to get started.

There’s so many areas where you can get involved. While a lot of focus is on core contributions, you can often have a big impact focusing on something smaller. Is there a plugin you use a lot? Hop in the WordPress.org support forums for that plugin and answer some questions. As a plugin developer, I can guarantee you that’s one of the best ways to give back to us.

Find a project you’re interested in and start contributing code. bbPress is a great example. Reading through bbPress’ codebase and having your patches reviewed by John James Jacoby will make you a better developer.

Find small ways to be involved with the community so that it doesn’t get in the way of your work. Maintaining a code snippets section of your site doesn’t take any additional time but can help lots of developers solving the same problems as you.

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