Interview with WordPress educator Zac Gordon

Meet Zac Gordon

Following WordCamp Europe 2018, GoDaddy sat down with WordPress educator Zac Gordon to talk about all things JavaScript, how members of the WordPress community can do more to educate each other and, of course, the coming of the WordPress editor Gutenberg.

Why should WordPress developers care about learning JavaScript?  

ZG: I think the big picture answer is: Most interactions are now in interactive elements, whether in the admin area or on the front of the site, run on JavaScript. So at a high level that’s really important. The relevancy particularly now is that we’re seeing the process of Gutenberg, which people forget is not just the editor redesigned, but also the customizer and the admin area. And in not too long we’re going to see most things running with JavaScript that you would hook into with PHP or do a little bit differently in the past. In order to do things it’s almost going to become required in certain ways.

What do you think it’s the future of WordPress and JavaScript?  

ZG: Oh dear, I don’t know. I think the immediate future is going to be focused on making things more pleasing to design and build with, the content creation process. I think that over time what we will see with WordPress sites and on the front-end leveraging JavaScript is more intelligence. So the ability to pull into all this data you might have about customers and design interactions and experiences and websites even around that.

What will the introduction of Gutenberg means for developers working with WordPress?

ZG: The fun thing I found in doing the Gutenberg course and having people go through that have very little JavaScript experience, they know some jQuery and they have no React experience, is that I thought it would be a lot harder to get up and running with Gutenberg development. I thought you have to know all your JavaScript deeply, of course, and know how to build with React. But really you could come in and they’ve built it in such a way that you don’t even know that it’s React. You could learn how to build a basic block for example and not realize like “oh I just did some react coding”. The introduction to it for a lot of folks is going to be maybe creating their own custom block and that sort of thing from a development perspective. But for a lot of users, a lot of WordPress people never could built their own custom shortcode right, because plugins existed, so that will solve it for a lot of folks. But at the same time right now there’s a big avenue of Gutenberg blocks and those types of plugins that can be built and the market is kind of getting shaken up around that a little bit.

You can read more about Gutenberg and design systems in our interview with Tammie Lister from Automattic.

You already mentioned React and the topic of your workshop at WordCamp Europe was Gutenberg block development with React. Could you please explain how React works inside of WordPress and what are the benefits of using it?

ZG: React is actually a quite simple library. And, I mean, to oversimplify it, along with this library JSX it allows you to basically write HTML markup right in your JavaScript. So it’s really helpful for creating user interfaces, because in the past with JavaScript that was quite a laborious process and you would either write a bunch of JavaScript or use another framework. To build user interfaces and stuff with React, at one level you’ll just be like “oh, I’m writing HTML markup”.  But it also handles interactions, and what happens when I click this, or go in here, or take this data. And that that stuff is written in a React way, but it’s all just basic JavaScript. So Event handlers and things like that and API calls are all going to be basic, and that’s kind of I think the core of it. And again WordPress does this in a way that you don’t really even need to know that you’re using React, because they call it WP Element instead or something else. It now has like a WordPress name.

My next question is about educating people. You are a professional educator for already many years. What advice would you give to a WordPress developer who wants to start teaching others about the platform?

ZG: Well, keep it up! I mean we have a really great ecosystem. You know, I do full-time education, so it’s courses and things like that and I’m not doing so much development for client projects. So what I’m able to produce is very different. So I’d say don’t necessarily try to model what I’m doing necessarily, in terms of like a huge course, or “I want to do this and have it be this big”. Like even just writing about what you’re sharing about [is good]. One of the biggest things is, if you search for a problem and didn’t find a good result or answer, well now educate someone else on how to do that right. Especially for developers those rich blog articles, and again now is a really good time, so blog titles that have to deal with the WordPress editor and React or Redux or Gutenberg these are helpful things that people are searching and looking around for. Really just filling gaps with your knowledge set. If you work for a company and you want to get into a culture of sharing different things, there are good WordPress agencies out there that do really good examples, and maybe something like a white paper or a tutorial where you show something off from a case study like these are helpful. I just encourage people often when they’re like “oh, I want to do a course or something”, there’s a lot of work that goes into it the planning the preparation the doing it and then the marketing and getting it out there right so not everything has to take the same format. Although in these days and ages if you could screencast and throw stuff up on YouTube that’s a whole other market and cool thing there too and if you want help further please reach out, I like the topic so happy to help and discuss more.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned during your time as an educator?

ZG: Oh dear, that’s a good one. I honestly think it’s more an experience I’ve had of joy and when people who really want to learn something come together and then there’s an ability to facilitate that and it goes along with someone having hopes and dreams for their life and doing what they dream. To be a part of that is really inspiring for me. So just as much as I might make money from a course, the excitement in the heart is as a whole combined component to it. I don’t know what I’ve learned from that, but I’ve learned that like my experience and to be part of it is a cool thing.

What ways can becoming a WordPress educator help a WordPress developer improve their own skills?

ZG: Anybody who’s taken the time to try to explain something to somebody else knows that there’s a different level of knowledge that’s required to solve a problem, because you have a context of your whole problem and you just need this part solved. Whereas often times when you get into explaining you need to explain the whole context of what you’re teaching because you don’t know what the problem is going to be, so you need to like spread it as wide as possible and cover that. That’s thankfully helpful.

What’s the best way for people working with WordPress to make sure that their skills stay up-to-date?

ZG: Staying current in terms of following news and trends and what people are doing, going to the WordCamps or watching TV. But then I’m imagining that if you’re in this field there’s a huge list you have of stuff you don’t know yet and little by little you take on a project where you have the opportunity to use that. And you implement it right, because you could read so many JavaScript books, but until you try to build something with it substantial, it’s not really there. So having a path where you can implement the stuff as you’re learning it or force yourself to learn it but not too deep I wouldn’t take on the big single-page cart checkout project without ever having touched JavaScript before, but you know I think you know what I mean.

How do you personally keep up with the latest developments and decide which tools and technologies to learn and then to teach?

ZG:  Whoo.. this is a really interesting one, because like I’m teaching JavaScript which in some ways in the WordPress ecosystem is cutting-edge, but in the world of technology JavaScript is like child’s play. We have quantum computing and we have in neural network systems and we have devices that could read your thoughts and change the colour on a light bulb based on thinking vibrational waves like holy cow. There are things I’m fascinated about science and technology that have no place yet in the WordPress ecosystem, but what does excite me is when I talk to some of the people who are pioneering work the stuff that they’re trying to go to integrating WordPress with blockchain or maybe not full AI systems but having deep learning as part of how a site is built and grows around the user experience. These sort of things I didn’t think until the last year would be married, but I’m starting to see ways that even some of these advanced things could be done and that excites me, because if WordPress just keeps keeping up it with what it’s good at with then all these plugins and other avenues of newer technologies will continue to be integrated but for me things like free energy systems and modifications to energy and more efficient travel and things like that. Those are what interests me most and I know that on but I’m here teaching JavaScript because there’s a niche and the need and it’s a big part of our web technology so you know I think hopefully it still is relevant.

How do you learn fast?

ZG:  I think for all of us it depends and we refine it, but some of the things that I have that make it easier for me to do is, I’ve spent a lot of time in academia. I’ve been through a lot of schooling, I’ve taught a lot of schooling, so that system of learning I’m familiar with, but I also have the time, if my full time job is education, a huge part of that is research and having the time to do that, that not everybody has the luxury to do. But I like to think I could download stuff pretty quickly so consuming as much in different formats. I’ll watch like two or three courses on a subject or read all the major articles. I’ll look at the tutorials. Sometimes I’ll build a little something to just glue the pieces together and I don’t know just download, download, download. Sometimes I feel like: Yeah, you know our brains are more antennas and all we have to do is tune into a field of something and we just through osmosis start picking random stuff up, but you know different thoughts on how we learn.

Who are your top WordPress experts to follow on social media?

ZG: Okay, so if you just stopped at certain experts and not social media it would have been two different things, because there are some great people I’ve gotten to know at WordPress you wouldn’t know from following. Well, you might know how smart they are, but they don’t share out everything that they’re doing.

I think one of the top ones to watch is probably Weston Ruter. He works at XWP which is a great WordPress VIP agency or one of the enterprise level agencies. He also works on the customizer and the next level of Gutenberg passive editor is going to be in the customizer. He writes a ton on the make WordPress blog and he’ll share out stuff and also doing things with amp and new page designs and mobile first and that sort of stuff. So he’s one I would definitely watch.

Another – not to plug XWP too much – but Tonya Mork is a friend of mine and a fellow educator and she’s actually returning now to the development world and working. You could find her @hellofromTonya on Twitter and She has a huge education site with tons of free resources. So it’s always sharing out information.

Carl Alexander is another one, I don’t know if folks know him or not, but more on the deep deep programming understanding. Things at a deeper level like object-oriented programming or server architecture and more complex stuff. He get in over my head pretty quick.

Josh Pollack is another one a good friend of mine and he writes pretty prolifically and it’s been doing some web series on Gutenberg and stuff like that.

I am missing a ton. Mel Choyce I really like watching, because she shares some different design aspects of how things in WordPress are evolving.

Oh there’s got to be more. I’m so sorry for all the ones I’m missing but those are interests of that come off off the top of my head.


Juliane Mueller
Juliane is a proud member of the GoDaddy family and leads the content marketing efforts for the EMEA region. Before joining GoDaddy, Juliane worked in several marketing roles for Host Europe and on an online game project for the Ministry of Education in Germany. When she’s offline, she relishes any kind of sport, traveling, concerts and explores her adopted country, the UK. Contact her on LinkedIn.