Interview with WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg [video]

Meet Matt Mullenweg

Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic, gave a keynote, followed by a Q&A, at WordCamp Europe in Belgrade on 15 June.

The keynote kicked off with a point about open source, referencing the Public Money, Public Code campaign, and Matt asked why software that is created using taxpayers’ money is not released as free software.

Most of the talk then dived into Gutenberg, the new WordPress editor that will utilise blocks, adaptive across all devices, which will be integrated into WordPress 5.0, expected to launch in August. More than 14,000 sites actively use Gutenberg already, and the goal is to have hundreds of thousands using it by the time Gutenberg is official released.

When asked about his favourite Gutenberg feature, Matt highlighted the fully supported copy/paste functions from tools such as Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Evernote, and Markdown, which will transfer to Gutenberg blocks.

We were lucky to sit down with Matt after the keynote to chat more about Gutenberg, the future of WordPress, Girls and Cats (!), how designers and developers collaborate at Automattic, and more. Enjoy!

Where do you want to take WordPress next?

MM: The strategy is pretty much the same as it was 5, 10, or 15 years ago. It’s to listen to our users, to develop the best software with our community, and repeat!

Are there any specific features that your user base wants?

MM: That’s why we’re starting to work on this new thing called Gutenberg. It’s basically a reimagining of how you edit and control content inside of WordPress. The foundation of WordPress that has now served us well for 15 years will not last the next 15 years. When WordPress started, there was barely any JavaScript. Gutenberg not only provides a modern interface, but it also provides a development framework and foundation that I think will become the basis for everything we do in WordPress. In the first version it will enable you to change posts and pages, and after that you’ll be able to really modify and customise the entire website with these Lego-like blocks that you can rearrange. The only limit is your creativity.

How should developers and designers think about Gutenberg?

MM: Gutenberg provides a new foundation and framework that all developers can build on top of. Just a few weeks ago I met with all the page builders and the Gutenberg team to talk about their plans and our plans for compatibility. Gutenberg is going into core now and should be a hundred to 200 times the size of the largest page builder. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel over and over again anymore – they can build out on a common Gutenberg framework and then focus on the differentiation in terms of blocks, customisation, designs, and themes.

What are the most compelling reasons for WordPress professionals to switch from a page builder to Gutenberg?

MM: Most people have never used a page builder, but for the people who are already using one and are pretty happy with it, maybe nothing will change on Day 1. If it’s working fine for them, I would say don’t worry about it.

There are a dozen page builders, which work in a dozen different ways and do the exact same thing. Only a certain number of themes support most page builders, and there is no interoperability. The nice thing about the standardization in core is that there will be some interoperability in Gutenberg, so that themes built for Gutenberg will work across everything. You’ll be able to switch perhaps even page builders and have everything still work.

How do you see the role of WordPress developers and designers evolve in the next three years?

MM: You still want a designer to help guide the process. I think there’s still going to be a space for great themes, and people will be able to express their creativity. They’ll just have to widen the tint a bit. Previously, the themes allowed for a very narrow band of customisation. The theme developers will need to think wider.

How do designers and developers collaborate at WordPress and Automattic to create a better user experience?

MM: That’s a big change that we’ve made in the past year and a half, when I took back over the core development of WordPress and we announced these new focuses, including Gutenberg. One thing we did that had never been done before is we paired each lead developer with the lead designer and made sure that for every step along the way, from conception to prototypes, design really has a seat at the table. That’s allowed us to accelerate developments, and what we’re developing is better suited to our audience because we’re not getting to the end and then testing it out. Tammie Lister and others have been doing user tests and research throughout the whole process, and that’s gone into an iterative loop that makes the software better.

How does the pairing work in practice given that you’re a distributed company?

MM: We chat with each other and share things online and put things on the P2. There’s a weekly meeting in the wordpress.org Slack, where the teams come together and anyone can participate. It’s totally open, you can log in and look at it.

What do you consider your biggest achievements in 15 years of WordPress?

MM: I think what I’m most proud of is the global community. I’m from Texas, I barely speak one language. When a new version of WordPress comes out, it’s in 15 languages on Day 1. Being able to bring together a group of people who are different in so many ways but have this belief in common – a belief in that we can create a better web and that open source technology is the thing that we want to build the foundations of our future on. This has brought far more people together than I ever would have imagined. When I started, these were very niche ideas and open source wasn’t as popular and certainly not for consumers, so WordPress and others have really helped open it up. If my life’s work is making open source available to more people, we’ve come a good way and I think it’ll keep me busy as long as I’m around.

How important are markets like India and Africa, where people access the web in different ways, to WordPress?  

MM: That’s one of the reasons I emphasized mobile apps in the presentation today. We had 1.3 million posts and 3.7 million photos and videos in just this past month being posted through the mobile apps. I can completely imagine folks maybe skipping desktops and going straight to Android and iOS devices. The good news is that WordPress has a strong app presence there, and it’s getting stronger. And the apps are open source, which is highly unusual in both these stores.

What’s the key to running a massive open source project?

MM: Probably the most important thing is to be really open and transparent, so much that it hurts sometimes, but that’s what the community expects and it’s what fosters the open dialogue and inclusive development. That’s what makes open source work.

Are we at a turning point and the web is becoming more open and closed platforms are less dominant?

MM: Not yet. There are hundreds of billions of dollars being pushed to make the web more closed, and there’s a ragtag group of people who really believe in things and are trying to make the web more open. These forces are both very powerful. Ultimately, I think the advantage is going to lie with the people, and that’s the side that I work on.

What role do hosting companies play in the WordPress ecosystem?

MM: Hosting companies are crucial. The number one thing that they can do is help ensure that people are on the latest versions of PHP and MySQL, which will make things faster and more secure, and help ensure that people are on the latest versions of WordPress, which of course helps everyone.

Beyond that something that hosting companies have become a lot better at is to actually train their support staff on WordPress. If you call them – that’s your first port of call – all the people on the other end have a base layer knowledge of WordPress and they can answer elementary questions.

Have you got a favourite project that’s built on WordPress?

MM: I saw one just the other day that was kind of funny. It’s called Girls and Cats. There’s this myth of a cat lady, an old spinster, and it’s quite a negative stereotype. But this website interviews people and their cats and makes it look fantastic. It’s almost like a fashion shoot. People tell their stories, and of course the story of how they found their feline friends.

How do you see WordPress evolve, and what kind of features do you like to see personally?

MM: I’m very, very excited to see the first Gutenberg themes, which are just starting to come out now. And when we have customisation – the second phase of Gutenberg – we will pair it with a new default theme in WordPress that will be completely customisable. I’m so curious to see both what people create with it and how theme developers reimagine their craft in this type of environment.

Image by: Florian Ziegler, released under CC-BY SA.

Oliver Lindberg
Oliver is an independent editor, content consultant, and founder of the Pixel Pioneers events series. He has been involved with the web design and development industry for more than a decade, and helps businesses across the world create content that connects with their customers. He is particularly passionate about user experience, inclusive design, and advocating for social good.