Ahead of his talk at WordCamp Europe, which took place in Belgrade from 14 – 16 June, we asked web designer and WordPress expert Noel Tock about the future of WordPress, the challenges faced by WordPress designers, the best way to get started with WordPress, the advantages of digital experience platforms, and more.
Can you describe yourself a little bit more and tell us how you work is connected to WordPress?
NT: I guess the long story is that I’ve always been creating things on computers all the way back to the HyperCard days on Apples and all that and at some point in 1995 I got introduced HTML and CSS. It was always a hobby, so there wasn’t really a real web design job at the time so I just kept it on the side, had lots of side projects where communities and game stuff, game modifications, game art and just having a lot of fun online. I wasn’t really learning or growing in the financial sector where I was working previously, so I didn’t really feel the connection there so at one point probably around like 2008-2009 I made the big switch and said I was going to do this and I got into web design, started selling themes: Themes were my big connection to WordPress at the beginning, so I sold themes to restaurants and that worked out really well. I guess I got the taste of blood there and I kept going.
What do you think what are the main challenges that freelance WordPress developers and agencies have to face in the next years?
NT: In my talk I mentioned the difference between solutions and tools quite a lot. I think that WordPress is taking a bit of a tool kind of identity in that regard, because it’s one piece of a larger puzzle today. Maybe 10 years ago you just had a WordPress site and had all the plugins in there, but maybe now you have MailChimp, HubSpot, Google Analytics, you have some A/B testing tools and you have tons of other things. If you look in your own 1password account you’ll probably see so many SAS applications. It’s just all there. The challenge is: What is your role? Are you a project manager or are you a marketing consultant? Are you a developer? Because we were all three when we were starting to create WordPress sites back then. Now there’s a lot of specialisation, so you have to choose what you are and there’s a lot of challenges for smaller agencies, who are used to getting business a certain way. Now they are feeling the price pressure or the pressure around what value they offer and they’re not sure what the issue is potentially.
What advice would you give to a new WordPress developer so that they can make sure that their skills stay relevant for the future?
NT: That’s a good question. I think being a good developer is a lot more than being good at programming. I’m not a developer anymore, but I’d say that just there’s so much to be said for being someone who can work in a team, someone who can take feedback, give feedback, who can learn or at least appreciate new tools, because the web is constantly changing. Maybe we were arguing about WordPress and Drupal a couple years ago and now we’re arguing about React versus Vue and who knows what we’ll be arguing about tomorrow. It’s staying on top of things, it’s learning good architecture, it’s learning how your code relates to the business value and what is the benefit of your code but above all I guess it’s pragmatism.
My next question is about the WordPress community and you also said in your talk “WordPress, it’s not just WordPress. WordPress is wordpress.org. It’s the whole platform, it’s the collaboration.” What do you think how can contributing to the WordPress community help a WordPress developer and what’s the best way to get that started?
NT: That’s a good question. I think if you’re trying to contribute to raise your profile there’s probably better things you can do: You can just be more commercial and do lots of outbound sales and those kind of things. If you genuinely enjoy open source, it is a fantastic community in that regard there’s plenty of entry points to get involved. If you’re not so confident with code and you’d like to be able to get your feet wet then maybe you try to become part of the theme review team, if you’re really very experienced maybe try to do dive into core. Maybe you have a specialization or something you really like for example media handling and images. There’s definitely lots of different entry points and the community is very open to accepting new people, new thoughts and new opinions.
Do you think WordPress is the best solution and if so why?
NT: It’s the best solution, if you’re able to deliver. It’s a tool like I said before, so you have to make it the best solution by being a great vendor of it or a great consultant or a great implementer, by knowing what its strengths are and what it plays well with. And how you can use it to your advantage against competing products. It comes down to you and your knowledge, not only as a developer, but also as a product manager or a business person.
There’s a lot of competition around WordPress. How can a WordPress developer or WordPress agency convince their clients that this is really the best solution?
NT: It depends if we’re really talking about small business, It’s becoming a very hard proposition, because there’s a lot of website builders which are cheap to get you in and the tools and the and the features you get are accessible to non-technical users. That’s a very powerful argument in my work is on the other end of the spectrum where WordPress is the cheap solution, because it’s free compared to things like Adobe Experience Manager or a Sitecore which comes with license fees. There’s quite some room to still do small business websites but otherwise people will have to start growing to a more midsize business where the cookie-cutter sort of approach of very limited designs very limited features and all that just don’t cut it anymore. But most small businesses especially all businesses around here don’t need more than that, so that’s the tough proposition and how do you get past that?
One big topic is Gutenberg and there are a lot of different views about the new WordPress version. Many people say it’s revolutionary, other people are more hesitating. What’s your view: How do you think Gutenberg will change WordPress?
NT: it’s definitely revolutionary, there’s no doubt about that. Obviously in my talk my big focus was around content I think that’s WordPress’ place and sort of superpower if you want compared to other things: If you want compare against companies that are dominant in Analytics, that are dominant in email marketing, that are dominant in other kind of solutions that businesses need. But the content and the publishing is something that WordPress just dominates and being able to express that and make content available in very different manners is incredibly powerful. But it does require a vision. It does also cost a certain amount of a shift in that regard for people to be able to see the difference between a theoretical idea now and believe in something much larger. I was just talking to someone from the Gutenberg team and as the demos have been coming out, there’s been a lot more buy-in, so it definitely has been a lot more a lot of marketing around it but sure one could wish that there was a bit more optimism and benefit of the doubt. I think because it is a bold idea, but I believe it needs to be done. We’re already working on three projects with Gutenberg large scale. One is almost shipped and that’s ready: 50,000 posts going to whatever – post count Matt was looking for 250,000 or whatever so we’re happy to contribute. We’re all in we believe in it.
You also talk a lot about the digital experience platforms: Could you please explain what digital experience platforms are and what that means for us?
NT: So the optimist will tell you that a digital experience platform or DXP, is this bundled software that does that execute your entire digital strategy and is able to deliver all your content to different devices, different mediums and do so in a personalised manner regardless of its web-centric or IOT or whatever. It’s just the fully integrated approach. That’s the optimist. The pessimist will tell you, the concept lives as a marketing idea which is basically CMS plus very light personalization, because it is incredibly hard to do personalization at scale for a completely new business. You can’t just jump in there and say well here’s everything you need to do or here’s how you can increase conversion by 50%. It just doesn’t work that way. Sure Walmart target like those are big retailers who have been doing that in a consumer experience kind of way or customer experience method, that’s the offline equivalent I guess. Or you look at like payment providers like Klarna and in Scandinavia that are aggregating massive amounts of data on buying habits and behaviour which is very, very powerful but to apply that entire concept to medium-sized businesses in a plug-and-play fashion is very challenging I think.
One more question for you about remote collaboration. Remote collaboration is well-established in the WordPress community. What are agencies or freelancers missing out if they haven’t yet embraced remote collaboration?
NT: Remote collaboration is a challenging thing. Personally I like working in an office, because there are a lot of benefits, especially when it comes to junior staff. It’s very hard to take someone out of university and put him in a remote position, because it creates a lot of anxiety. They don’t know what the baseline is for working and how people interact. When there is no communication, someone who is quite young and junior doesn’t quite understand when there is no one talking to them or if they’re doing something correct. So that is quite challenging. But on the other side there is the idea of hashtag freedom and all that kind of stuff where you can live and so the things you want and obviously we’ve been able to hire the right kind of people anywhere in the world, because that’s what we’ve done. We tend to hire from WordPress anyway: From the community, from work, from WordCamps. Being able to be in any country and meet someone that seems extraordinary and talk to them and bring him into human made has created a lot of the diversity we have.