Christine Rondeau Interview
If Christine Rondeau’s heart could speak, it would speak in PHP: she loves to build sites with WordPress. She’s a yogi who gives back to the WordPress community by teaching a college course in WordPress at Langara College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
How did you get involved in using WordPress?
I started blogging in 2002 with MoveableType. I added a blog to my site and then created a few others for clients. I did a few Blogger customizations as well, but started to get more and more requests for WordPress. In those days, the sites consisted of PHP or HTML pages, and the blog component was tacked on. I also built custom CMSs using PHP, but when WordPress introduced Pages, that took care of that.
You teach a college-level course on WordPress—tell us a bit about how you got involved in teaching it.
The WordPress class that I teach is part of a one year full-time program that focuses on visual and communication strategy. Students generally come in with very little web knowledge but have a strong focus on visual design.
In the beginning, students were taught Flash and Dreamweaver. As the web evolved, the focus on Flash and Dreamweaver was omitted in favour of jQuery and WordPress. A colleague of mine was teaching the web design class. She asked me to come in and spend six weeks co-teaching with her. She took the students through mood boards, wireframes, mockups, and then I took the class through an intro to WordPress and got them to build their online portfolio.
This experiment worked great, but six weeks wasn’t enough. Eventually the class was split into two and I now teach a full 12-week class (36 hours in total).
Tell us a bit about your philosophy of WordPress education.
I love that WordPress comes in many flavors and that students have many options when starting to use WordPress. I like to break down these options into the types of clients they might work with and the type of programmer they will become.
For example, you have a client, let’s say it’s your dad, with no budget. In this case, a free theme with a few tweaks or maybe a child theme would be the best solution. You might not yet be confident with your coding skills, but if you love puzzles, then perhaps breaking down a “premium theme” or working with a framework is your best solution. If on the other hand you are a whiz at jQuery, you write your own plugins, and your client has money, then custom theming is the perfect choice for you.
When teaching WordPress it’s important to give students various options. That way, I’m making sure that no one is left behind thinking, well I can’t write a plugin, so WordPress is not for me.
Of the concepts you teach in your WordPress course, what do students grasp most easily? What concepts do they struggle with?
When I was first asked to teach, I had to think about which theme I would use as my starter theme. If each student picked their own theme, the class would have been chaotic and no one would have learned anything. So I put together a starter theme which is very bare bones. Using that theme over and over again, I now know it inside out and can take students through the templates and explain in detail which part does what. After a few lessons students can easily grasp the template hierarchy.
Things get a bit more complex when students want to incorporate advanced design features in their theme, such as one-page websites with jump downs, slideshows, and animation. Enqueuing jQuery and multiple loops are advanced techniques and what looks great in a Photoshop mockup is often way too difficult to implement in your first-ever WordPress site.
What has teaching WordPress taught you about WordPress?
Teaching WordPress has taught me that I know nothing! Coding away alone in my studio, I was building sites but when I started teaching I had to explain to others, why I was doing what I do, and the way I did it.
That led me to question everything, read articles, dig into the Codex, and get feedback. Was I using best practices? Was my starter theme as good as it could be?
I have had several of my themes reviewed by a WordPress theme reviewer just to make sure that I was teaching the right thing. The last thing I wanted was to teach bad practices.
As a result, I’ve learned tons since teaching and still consider myself a beginner with so much to learn.
Did you change your own site building practices and processes after teaching for awhile? If so, how did they evolve?
Yes I’ve changed a lot of my processes since starting to teach. I’ve simplified my theme even more. I’ve adopted Automattic’s recommend way to write code. I used to use plugins which I no longer use. I switched to HTML5 and of course, I now use way more CSS3, most of which I’ve learned from my students. The evolution of my processes was through both students and other WordPress themers. I’m constantly asking for feedback and I’m like a sponge anytime I’m around another theme developer. I’m sure it must get on people’s nerves, but I think that I reciprocate.
What has teaching taught you about yourself?
I’m a wee bit impatient…ok, I’m very impatient. I like things done quickly, efficiently, and accurately. I studied Chemistry in university and worked on ICI Autocolor on automotive paint for three years. For three years I did research on the same thing with no real results, Ugh! I never want to do that again and that’s why I love WordPress. I love building a site in a week. It’s fast, it’s done, and I can move on to the next project.
I realized very quickly, that I can’t teach that way. I need to slow down, break things into small pieces, and let students play with the code themselves. I could give them all the answers, but they need to dig through and figure it out, just like I did.
You’re public about the fact that you like to narrow your work to what you enjoy—what type of work do you enjoy most? What’s most exciting about it to you?
I love building WordPress sites from scratch. I’ve built so many of them now, that I can build them super fast. I also think that once the site is at the building stage, the worse part is over. The brand is in place, the visuals have hopefully been signed off on and the content written. I do like to take part in the planning stage, but I’m not the best person to ask about colour palettes and typography. I’ll leave that to others to decide.
The most exciting part of my work is getting to work with various designers. Some have amazing design skills. They think of every little detail while others provide only a home page and let me play with the rest of the site. Some designers have their quirks and demand pixel perfection, but more often than not, there’s a reason for that perfection.
You’ve published your design principles on your site—tell us a bit about how you developed your principles and why you believe they’re important.
That’s a great question and I’m glad you reminded me to go and re-read that list. Reading it again, I think that the reason they resonate with me so strongly is because I truly believe that being humble is the only way to happiness. Being humble and admitting that you don’t know something or being wrong seems to be frowned upon these days. Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, but I believe that admitting you don’t know something and seeking advice makes you a better person. You learn something, you can share scenarios, and you also gain trust.
You publish a list of partners on your site—how did you come to cultivate this group?
WordPress has a great community. It’s so easy to “meet” people via Twitter and everyone is so helpful. I dislike saying no to people and love to connect others. As an example, instead of saying “no, sorry I don’t do SEO,” I love to recommend two of my favorite gals here in Vancouver who do SEO, yet have their own unique skill set.
Vancouver is also very Drupal-centric and there are request for Drupal sites. I never took the time to learn Drupal, so I’ve made sure to get to know Catherine Winters and others. Most of the people on my list are Vancouver locals which I consider friends and meet with either at conferences, meetups, or just casual drinks. But I’ve also formed great relationships with WordPress folks on the support forum and Twitter. Everyone is so friendly.
What do you love to do in your spare time?
I’m at the yoga studio or on my mat at home at least once a day. It’s a sad day when I can’t make it and there’s probably an outdoor activity that replaced it like a walk around the sea wall or a bike ride. I like to eat out a lot too…
If you could learn to do one thing in the world, what would that be?
I would love to go back to school and learn horticulture and become a landscape architect and just be outside playing in the dirt all the time.