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Miriam Schwab Interview

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Meet plugin developer, WordCamp Jerusalem organizer, and mom Miriam Schwab (@miriamschwab). Miriam is the CEO of WordPress shop illuminea and one of the authors behind wpgarage — a site dedicated to WordPress plugins, themes, tips, and hacks. Learn how becoming an entrepreneur helped Miriam to put family first and be creative and productive in business. Hear her speak at WordCamp Europe.

Tell us the story of how you got into working with WordPress.

After I gave birth to my fourth kid, I realized a few things: that it was really difficult to be an employee with four kids, since every second day I had to come to work late and/or not at all, because a kid was sick, had a school event (there are a lot of those in Israel), etc. I needed flexibility and to be able to work the hours that worked for me as a mom: not necessarily less hours, but the hours when I could work.

Also, I was frustrated with being an employee, and realized that for many reasons it wasn’t for me. I needed to have space to be creative, implement ideas, learn new things.

So with my husband’s encouragement, I quit and started my own company. I started tiny, and in the beginning I was focused more on creating content than actually building sites. But my lifelong love of all things digital, which began when I was seven and my dad brought home our first computer, led me toward the internet and websites.

I started teaching myself to build websites. At that time, static sites were still the norm, except for big companies who implemented cumbersome enterprise CMSs. I started with static sites, but found it annoying that every time the client needed to change a word, they had to come to me. So I started testing out the various CMSs that were available at that time. The more I read and learned, the more open source seemed like the way to go. I tested out the big three: Joomla, Drupal, and WordPress, and fell in love with WordPress. I loved how easy the admin was for clients to use; I loved how it had pages and posts; I loved the template tag system; I loved the supportive community; I loved how many themes and plugins there were. I was hooked, and seven years later I still lap up everything that is written and shared and discovered about WordPress.

You organize WordCamp Jerusalem. How did you get involved in the local WordPress community? What sort of influence has your community involvement had on your business?

In 2007, a young man named Tal Galili posted that he thought we should have WordCamp in Israel too. People responded amazingly, and WordCamp 2007 and 2008 happened in Tel Aviv. I volunteered and helped out with the English language publicity, and spoke at both conferences. The WordPress community in Israel existed before that, but it was very small and I think these conferences helped boost things.

Organizing a conference is hard, especially when it’s a bunch of people who are super busy on the side with studies, jobs, etc. So WordCamp 2009 didn’t happen. When 2010 rolled around, we decided in my office to offer to organize the conference ourselves. I think in many ways it’s “easier” for a business to organize a conference since the team is already in place, and the business can contribute the time needed for organization. We had volunteers from outside of illuminea too, and they’re great, but our own team drove the bigger picture and kept pushing things forward.

I have personally gained a lot from organizing WordCamp, and our agency, illuminea has as well. I’ve learned a ton about how to organize a conference (I actually spoke about this topic at a conference for open source in Israel), and have met amazing people. Our business has benefited by being positioned as WordPress leaders in Israel.

Another way I give back to the community is via our blog, wpgarage.com. Rebecca Markowitz, illuminea’s Web & WordPress Gal, and I have been writing there for over five years now, and it’s like a diary of our WordPress journey. Whenever we discover something cool, we write it up so others can learn.

What tips and advice can you share with those thinking of organizing a WordCamp in their community?

Define the minimum viable product for your WordCamp, and then it’s not so scary. For example, here’s what I know we must have:

  • A place — this is the hardest part of organizing WordCamp, and once that’s done, the rest almost falls into place.
  • A date — easy.
  • Speakers — put out a call for speakers. You’ll probably get a lot, then choose with a team representing different user types and levels. This will yield a balanced schedule that appeals to a broad audience.
  • Schedule — once you’ve got the speakers, create a spreadsheet and plug everyone in. I use Google Docs so I can share it with the speakers and get their approval.
  • Design and printing — I love pretty conference branding, so we invest in that. But printing can be really inexpensive. This year we did a one page, two-sided schedule, A8 size, folded in three. It was so pretty and useful! We go with the cheapest name tag option. Yeah, it’s not amazing, but it does the job. Done!

The finances are the scariest part. We want to make sure we have a good venue and we provide snacks and lunch. I think that keeping people from being hungry is really important for creating a good vibe (but that might just be the Jewish mother in me speaking. :) ) Those are the major costs. So we try to charge entrance fees that cover about 80% of the cost per person, and then get sponsorships for the rest. Thankfully, Code Poet has come through with sponsorships which is so helpful. This year we introduced micro-sponsorships, to allow people to “thank” the WP community by contributing a bit more than the ticket price. They got their names and links to their sites on the site. A handful went with that, and it helped! As for the rest of the funding — people hear about the conference and somehow it has worked out that we always covered costs. Thank God!

You’ve contributed to two plugins: the Simple Google Docs viewer and Official Mad Mimi Sign Up Forms. What itch did creating your plugins scratch? What advice can you offer to developers thinking of creating their own plugin?

Plugin development is pretty new for me. Until about six months ago, we dealt exclusively with theme development. Developing plugins is very exciting, since it’s creating bits of software, as opposed to themes which, to me, are more about taking the information in an existing system (WordPress) and presenting it in an optimum fashion.

My co-developer on the plugins, Maor Chasen, is the main reason we got into plugins. The first plugin, the Simple Google Docs Viewer, was developed because of a client need. Maor saw the need, created the functionality, then we released it as a plugin.

The second plugin was developed at the request of Mad Mimi, who became our client.

I’d love to develop more plugins. We often develop functionality for a client project that could be released as a plugin, but we don’t get around to it enough, and we should. That’s my advice to wannabe plugin developers — if you work a lot with WordPress, you’ll for sure come across a need that hasn’t been filled yet. If you have one client who needs something, chances are someone else needs it too. Start there. And start small — there’s nothing wrong with a tiny plugin that does something useful. In fact, it’s awesome.

Any plugin ideas rattling around in your head that you’d like to share?

Plugin ideas:
I’d like to add a few features that I think are important to native WP image management:

  • Ability to create a gallery of galleries — think of Facebook’s Albums page, or a user’s main page in Flickr or Picasa. You’ve got a list of Albums, and then you can click through to an individual album to see that album’s pictures. I’d love to have an easy way to do that in WP — an area where all existing galleries are displayed, and users can choose a number of those galleries to be displayed in a post or page, can reorder them, and choose the image art to represent each gallery.
  • Ability to link an image in a gallery to a custom URL — right now if you create a gallery, you can only choose to link the images to the media, attachment page, or none. It would be useful to be able to link elsewhere.
  • Lightbox functionality — when someone clicks on a thumbnail in a gallery, they generally want to see that image in a larger size. Clicking through to the attachment or media page is disorienting. So this plugin would have simple lightbox functionality built in, with previous and next buttons, and caption text.

There are some other things I’d improve in media management, but those are the most important in my opinion.

Your agency, illuminea, concentrates on theming — what hard-won advice / tips can you offer to themers that can help them create great themes?

My advice on theming:

  • Take the planning/site specification stage really really seriously. Try to plan out every single foreseeable detail you can possibly envision for the project, in sitemaps, wireframes, and documentation. When this stage is done properly, the rest of the project will go way smoother than if it’s skipped or not done well. It’s like the blueprint for a house — without it, the house won’t turn out very well, if at all.
  • Make sure your designer really understands the web, otherwise they may design things that are difficult and expensive to implement that don’t add much value. Many designers in Israel have print backgrounds since the design schools still focus on that (why?!), so it can be hard to find a web-savvy designer.
  • Invest in creating some kind of “foundation” theme you use for your projects. This is something we didn’t do well and it meant that we often found ourselves reinventing the wheel on each project! Ridiculous, especially since there’s no reason for that.
  • Don’t take the quality assurance (QA) stage lightly. When creating a theme from scratch, there are so many moving parts and things that can go wrong. We have a structured QA checklist that we reuse for every site, and we update it every few months to add and remove items as needed.

What are the challenges to growing WordPress adoption in Israel?

The White House website being in Drupal. Since the White House launched their site in Drupal, many powers-that-be are sure that Drupal is the only serious option out there. One of Israel’s major universities went through a whole process with us, and even signed our proposal, only to decide that their new policy is to only build their sites in Drupal. One of the reasons given: the White House. Sigh.

Another challenge is that every second person is a “WordPress developer” which means that lots of not-so-great WP sites are being built, giving the impression that it’s not a serious platform for serious projects. This also means it can be hard to get the budgets that are needed to create high-level sites, because potential clients are getting proposals for “WordPress sites” from others that are much cheaper. Of course, the deliverables are on a whole other level, but it’s hard to explain the difference to clients.

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