Mika Epstein Interview
If you’ve visited the WordPress.org forums to ask a question or offer an answer, you’ve probably already met Mika Epstein, but know her as forum uber-volunteer Ipstenu. Mika helps others because she can and she enjoys it — a philosophy we can all learn from and apply in our lives.
How did you come to work on the web?
I started working on the web before it was the web. My family had a small business and my father was in charge of the server (back when servers took up big rooms). He built it out so my grandmother could dial in over a Novatel phone and enter the books from her home. One day I was staying there and wanted french toast, but she was busy dialing in and entering data. I announced I would do that for her if she’d make me breakfast. I didn’t take computers seriously until I was in high school, though, and started using one regularly to write essays. My boarding school had one dial-up computer, shared by all 100 students, so we didn’t get a lot of ‘net time, but I was fascinated by being able to connect to the UC system and get at information. By the time I went to college, I knew I had to take a computer/internet class to figure all this stuff out.
How did you first get involved in the WordPress community?
My mother asked me this question and I sighed a lot, because it’s weird to explain. The best I came up with was it was like how I became a dedicated Mac user. I wanted to do one thing, I’d tried other CMS tools and been frustrated, and then WordPress just “clicked” for me out of the starting gate and I never looked back. I liked using it, and I knew that if I liked it, I’d use it more, which meant it was right for me.
I got involved in the WP community because Andrea Rennick made me laugh. Before that I was just another casual user, but somehow one of her tweets about a theme (Sense and Sensibility) hit my stream and I jokingly made a child theme called “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.” We starting talking, and she mentioned being a forum volunteer. I’d posted a couple times before, seeking help, so I poked my nose in and saw a post I knew the answer to (it was about
.htaccess files). I started using bbPress so I helped out there. My first plugin was actually for bbPress 1.0! Since I was having so much fun using WordPress, I wanted to share and help people, so I started answering forum questions. Suddenly I realized I didn’t want to play those silly browser games anymore, I wanted to help people in the forums. It was a more tangible reward, and it made me feel good to see websites changing for the better.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your experience volunteering in the WordPress forums?
It’s okay to walk away. People see me as someone with infinite patience with the newbies in the forums and the reality is I walk away when I find myself getting angry. I close the browser, sometimes I’ll ask someone else to help, but usually I just take a break. These days I play ping pong or dance it out (you can’t be angry when you’re flailing your arms like a fool). It helps me remember that while all of this is serious, I can’t help everyone, and sometimes I’m just not going to be the right person to help someone. It’s a good perspective to keep, and forcing myself to do that helps me immensely.
What advice do you have for a person who wants to get involved in the WordPress community but isn’t sure what steps to take?
Start where you’re most comfortable. Are you really awesome at
.htaccess? Help with that! Terrible at themes? It’s okay to say “I don’t know.” That’s the other thing: it’s okay to not know everything. A lot of times I’ll quote people when I answer because they know better than I do. I’m learning from them, and so can everyone else. Go to your experts and link to them. They love the traffic and the kudos.
Also don’t be afraid to answer. Even if you’re wrong, you’re trying. Most answers aren’t simply “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” and we don’t have sonic screwdrivers or squareness guns. You have to be willing to experiment to solve problems, so take everything one step at a time. We all like to do everything at once, but you can’t undo the Gordian knot that way. Answer the first part, and work your way through to the end. To mix my platitudes, eat that elephant one bite at a time.
What are you most proud of accomplishing / having participated in as a community member?
Getting a new job tops the list! By being a community member, honing my skills with helping people, and getting known as someone who can and would help as much as she could, landed me my job at DreamHost. I still wake up wondering if this is all a dream and Bobby Ewing is going to step out of the shower.
Being invited to speak at WCSF was a huge thing to me. At the time, I didn’t get paid to work with WordPress so I remember being totally gob-smacked that they thought of me. I never really think of my community work as praise-worthy; it’s just something I do because I can and I enjoy it. In my little socialist heart, I think that’s how the world should work.
Possibly I’m most proud of being able to write my little ebook, and seeing the community send it viral. The money wasn’t the awesome part, it was that I was able to see a hole, fill it, and be noticed for the work. That was kind of cool.
But the best moment of community is, hands down, this forum post. That post made me smile so much I was crying from joy and hilarity. Knowing I made someone’s day just with a little effort like that is like holding the door open for someone with their arms full. I get to do that for hundreds of people a week. That’s just cool.
You’ve created several plugins. What advice can you offer to plugin creators who want to make their plugin the best it can be?
I actually have been kicking around an idea for an ebook: How to Write a Plugin: It’s not all code.
Please, please, please, please write a decent readme. The readme is what we use to show off your repository page, and it’s what people see when they look up your plugin. If that’s totally bogus, no one will use your plugin. After all, if you treat the readme like rubbish, I can’t possibly trust your code or support ability. It’s not that hard to sit down and describe what your plugin does, after all. You should have done this as you were deciding what you wanted to code. Right? You don’t have to be super fancy, just state the facts. What does your plugin do? How do I use it? Are there known issues? That’s really it. Screenshots are totally awesome, and a header image should reflect your personal style. After that, it’s all gravy.
As for the actual code, I’m going to quote Matt: “Release, then iterate.”
A first version of a plugin should be the one that does what you want it to do, maybe not everything, but the basics, and it works. From there, you can add on features, or fix bugs, as they come. But if you wait until perfect to release, you’ll never be done. I’ve messed up my own plugins many times, and I’m still working out bugs on them to this day. But I know I’m not perfect, so I take ’em as they come.
That takes you back to support. I wrote a blog post about that last year — and I talked about it at WordCamp Chicago. Remember to have a life, remember you can say no, and remember to ask for help.