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“I Am a Big Fan of Managed Hosting,” Says Birgit Pauli-Haack – Founder at Pauli Systems

March 4, 2020

13 Min Read
birgit pauli haack interview

It’s a great opportunity to interview one of the most active members of the WordPress Community. She’s none other than Birgit Pauli-Haack, the founder and CEO of Pauli System, LC. She started her career as a web developer for nonprofit organizations in 1998. She’s unstoppable since then! Serving as a deputy of the WordPress Global Community team, volunteering WordCamps and Meetups, and curating the opinions about Gutenberg Editor are some of the highlights of her contribution.

Cloudways: Thank you for joining us today, Birgit! Could you please tell us a bit about yourself to our readers? How you started your professional career? What motivated you to do what you’re doing now?

Birgit: I learned HTML and started building websites in 1996 as a hobby in Germany. I was fascinated by the immediacy of the medium. I also learned about the downside of the Internet where some information is not always trustworthy.

With the Internet also came the ability to host websites outside of German jurisdiction, taking advantage of the United States’ free speech laws. The German neo-Nazis found a way to spread their toxic propaganda on the Internet. In Germany, publishing Nazi propaganda and Holocaust denials is forbidden. You can go to prison. With the world becoming more open, the only way to offset propaganda was to publish factual information – stories and information about what really happened during the Third Reich.

Unfortunately, the German educational and governmental institutions were not yet ready for web publishing. The only way to disseminate factual information online was through private initiatives, and a group of people created their own personal projects. Someone published a Glossary of Terms, another person mapped out all the concentration camps. Our site, Shoahproject.net published prose and poems from survivors as well as information about the concentration camp in Dachau. We also provided information about the Munich student resistance group called the White Rose, and we posted the digital version of a book about how the Nazis profited from seizing huge wealth from the Jewish population before they deported Jews to death camps.

It was mostly a one-person publishing operation, which I ran after I got home from my day job. Over the next three years, it was also a clipping service where I published links to German papers writing about neo-Nazi propaganda and the discussion in the German public about the dark times in our history.

In 1998, my husband and I immigrated to the United States. Because I had only my spousal visa, I wasn’t allowed to earn money. I joined a local nonprofit internet service provider as a volunteer to teach residents how to use the Internet. I learned more about programming and creating dynamic websites. I also assisted many nonprofits in getting their information online. In 2002, our immigration status changed to permanent residency, and I founded Pauli Systems, a web development and database consulting company, and I stayed connected to the nonprofit community.

Cloudways: How is your journey from working as a web developer to a community builder/organizer? What is your learning during this transformation? Is there anything that inspired you? Could you please share?

Birgit: I have been a community organizer since high school, always wanting to think about the greater good. It has been a blessing that I was able to get back to that when I volunteered for a local Free-Net, supporting a mission to serve an electronically connected community. I definitely was inspired by the founders of the Naples Free-Net, Dr. Melody Hainsworth and Terry Miller. They bridged the digital divide between those who have internet access and those that do not. I also learned that being around technology is not an “age thing.” Most fellow volunteers were age 65 and older, retired from all walks of life, and they quickly digested the growing technology. I made lifelong friends there and learned a great deal about servers, databases, Linux OS, email protocols and migrating to new technology.

From my 15-year association with the Free-Net, I accomplished four initiatives:

  1. I co-organize The Tech4Good SWFL meetup, a peer learning group that meets monthly. We discuss how technology can help nonprofits to further their mission and make an impact in their respective communities.
  2. I started Pauli Systems offering a suite of products for professional associations, the nonprofit world, and eLearning.
  3. A few years later, when we needed to replace the very outdated content management systems at the Free-Net, I discovered WordPress. We ran weekly workshops to transition to WordPress and migrated 40 local nonprofits to WordPress. We started monthly walk-in clinics to enable nonprofit communicators to update their websites, ask questions and explore more online opportunities.
  4. Now, I run a program called WP4 Good club, which helps nonprofits, especially smaller ones. I assist them with WordPress hosting, one-on-one monthly consulting calls and online office hours. The club is still small. We have to take it slow. We need to get sustainability right before we leap.

In 2014, the local WordPress meetup organizer announced he would step down and needed someone to take over. That’s how I got involved in the WordPress Community team – by making the local meetup an official chapter of the foundation where I meet inspiring people and other community organizers on the Global Community Team. You asked about people who inspire me: Definitely Andrea Middleton, Josepha Haden, David Bisset, Kevin Cristiano, and many more.

When I read about another WPDrama spread out over the Interwebs by our favorite trolls, I open up HeroPress.com, and I read the stories of WordPressers from around the world. It restores my equilibrium. Topher DeRosia, the publisher of HeroPress is definitely one of my heroes. Not to forget Matt Mullenweg, the man himself, who at age 19, co-founded WordPress with Mike Little from the UK. Knowing how hard it is to stay the course while listening to thousands of people, I am definitely inspired by the journey of the now 34-year-old. Matt brought together a small band of people to what is now thousands of men and women to work on this open-source software. I admire his big heart as well as his capacity to work with thousands of contributors to change the world of publishing and change the way we do business. And with all this success, Matt is a down-to-earth, easygoing guy who listens a lot, and exhibits poise during town hall meetings that makes everyone comfortable to ask questions and have a conversation. And I bet there was a time in his life, early Internet times, when other people asked him, “When are you going to get a real job?”

Cloudways: What was your thought behind founding Pauli Systems, LC? What are your responsibilities there? What would you say is your team’s greatest talent or skill? How you have developed your team over time?

Birgit: We work with nonprofits, educators, authors, online learning companies, and businesses that are rock stars in their fields. Early on, we built our own content management system and publishing platform for small publishers and online magazines. I was the main developer supported by our designer, project manager, customer service personnel and an office manager.

In 2010, we started to work with WordPress to create new websites and never looked back. I am still the developer for our legacy site, which is still online and used every day. We are a full-service agency with designers, developers, content producers, and writers to make our clients shine online. We enable our clients to provide their own customers a great visitor experience and stay connected. Of course, the work we do now after 17 years in business has changed. It’s much more complicated with all the integration, the tracking, social media, ads, etc. But what was true 20 years ago still is important: Content is king and you need to maintain and grow your audience. Make sure you don’t build on rented land; make sure you are in control of your digital assets and audience information.

Our superpower is to listen to our clients’ needs and become their technology partners in strategic and tactical decisions. We build whatever is needed or find the necessary plugins or services for it.

Cloudways: You’ve been working in the web development industry for more than 20 years (it’s huge by the way). What was the most significant challenge you’ve ever faced and how you’ve overcome that challenge?

Birgit: Thank you. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago that I was hand-coding my HTML in HomeSiteX, and sometimes it’s odd that I am here long enough to have the same conversations over and over again. The big challenge is that everything changes faster and faster. As a business owner, any decision you make is one you also make for your clients, your staff and your freelancers. Economic frameworks change, too. A big Recession hits and you struggle for years to recover. It’s important to separate the information from the noise.

We are in a transition phase right now. We went 100% remote two years ago, and we are diversifying our business portfolio. We are now more business process consultants than web builders. We also are doing more on the SysOps side than on shared hosting or SaaS. For better or worse, we swing with the overall computer system’s pendulum. We went from mainframe to personal computers, to central computers to cloud systems, and we are going back to local stand-alone systems or hybrid cloud systems. It’s the era of headless and static sites again. (We wrote scripts to build static multilingual sites in 2003/2004.) Now, we are creating integrated systems using public/private APIs and JavaScript front-end development. Who owns the data is one of the big questions. And behind the scenes, we are working on the new business models and processes. The big challenge for the near future is being mentally and technologically wise ready for the next wave while still earning a profit with the current business practices.

Cloudways: When Gutenberg Editor was launched, it received (and still receiving) a mixed response from the WordPress Community. Being a developer, how do you see the future of it? Gutenberg Editor vs. Classic Editor: what are your thoughts?

Birgit: I see a very bright future for Gutenberg Editor. During the beta phase in 2017 and 2018, we curated on a weekly basis what developers and designers experimented with the block editor to have a single place for the community to share and learn on Gutenberg Times. We have expanded offering YouTube Live Q & As and the Gutenberg Changelog podcast.

Yes, there are situations where migration to the block editor, as it’s now called, is an elaborate process. Big publishers with hundreds of sites and hundreds of editors who need the training to adopt new publishing processes will take time. Some of the resistance is also caused by the need to learn new things at a time a consultant, a site owner, or content creator just wants to get their work done. The first impression of Gutenberg Editor for some is still an anxiety-inducing experience.

For developers, the future is even brighter than it was two or three years ago. There has been a great amount of creativity going into new plugins for block development. It also made WordPress a bit more relevant to younger developers who embraced the ReactJS framework and front-end development with ES6. JavaScript is now more prominently represented in the WordPress community than before.

Gutenberg also is creating the infrastructure for using WordPress components outside of the editor, and you are able to use it for plugin settings pages as well as from within the block editor. The Drupal community is also using the block editor for their CMS.

The new block directory will make it easy for content creators to find new blocks for their immediate needs. Building plugins for the directory is definitely a great opportunity. For theme developers, there’s a bit of uncertainty about what Gutenberg means, especially the full-page editing. Discussions are happening now with posts from various theme developers as well as the Gutenberg developers. Again, it’s still in a state of flux until everyone sees themselves working in that space and getting past the transition. I estimate it will take another two years until plugin developers can stop maintaining two versions of their codebase. It’s not easy working through all the changes. It’s part of the challenge I mentioned – being mentally and technologically wise ready for the next wave. There are choices to be made. Some might even move to a different CMS. Some pray that Gutenberg will go away.

Cloudways: You’re also hosting a podcast, Gutenberg Changelog, to curate opinions of the WordPress Community. Why specifically about Gutenberg Editor when you have got a whole lot WordPress to cover?

Birgit: The Gutenberg Changelog is specifically for developers, consultants, and trainers who don’t have time to read all the release notes but need to be on top of what is happening with Gutenberg. With the parallel development of new WordPress versions as well as bi-weekly Gutenberg releases, there is a ton of information that needs to be made available. With the Changelog, Mark Uraine and I provide the big narrative arch in which this all fits together in the larger context of WordPress, publishing and creating tools for content creators.

The podcast is very young – we are preparing for just the 11th episode. Like everything else in WordPress, it’s evolving as we speak and we’ll adjust accordingly.

Why Gutenberg Editor when you have a whole lot WordPress to cover? There are others who cover all of WordPress very well. I feel that what’s happening in Gutenberg Editor development will ultimately change how the whole WordPress ecosystem works – how we build plugins, themes and sites…and for whom we will build them. How we sell products online and how fast we integrate with other systems and services is key.

Cloudways: You’ve recently attended WordCamp US 2019. How was your experience there? Which session(s) did you like the most? How do you see the role of WordCamps and WordPress Meetups in community building?

Birgit: I was on the organizing team of WordCamp US 2019 and was part of the support team for sponsors who provided the funding for this awesome event. Thank you to Cloudways for being one of the Silver sponsors this year. I spent most of my time in the sponsor hall, making sure every sponsor had everything they needed and helped them connect with specific companies. It was quite a unique look from behind the scenes of a flagship event like WordCamp US or WordCamp Europe. I also went to local WordCamps this year in Boston, Atlanta and NYC, where I spoke on “WordPress for Nonprofits – Your Work for the Greater Good.”

birgit pauli haack with piccia neri

L to R: Monique Dubbelman, Piccia Neri, and Birgit Pauli-Haack at WC NYC 2019

After three years of volunteering, organizing and speaking at WordCamps, I made a point to experience WordCamp again as an attendee, to go to sessions, take time to chat with friends, and visit those I “see” all year on the Slack channel or on the Interwebs. When I go to sessions, I have two goals: to learn new things and to attend presentations of people I met a long time ago. I want to support them and their work. Examples include Mika Epstein’s “Bummer of a Birthmark, Hal,” or Chris Wiegman “Automating WordPress Development.”

For conferences, I have the motto: “If it’s not over your head, it’s not worth your money.” In other words, it needs to feed my curiosity about new things. This goes along with a focus need: is this something I need to pay attention to and learn more about it after I get home. So I attend sessions about server ops, continuous integration, automatic testing, Gutenberg block development, Voice Search and Alexa skills, to name a few.

The WordPress community, as supported by the WordPress Foundation, starts with this atom of monthly meetings where people learn, share and together experience the generosity of WordPress people – from presenter-type meetings to roundtables, Help desk offerings or social events.

The most important part is the in-person connection. Out of those local meetups grow annual WordCamps. Some WordCamps already have a 10 to 12-year history. There are the large ones like WordCamp Miami with nearly a thousand attendees and Kids Camps, and there are small ones like WordCamp Lancaster or WordCamp Detroit, both of which I enjoyed very much. No matter which one you go to, it always feels to me like a big reunion of friends and a time to make new friends.

Cloudways: As a WordPress Core Contributors, what improvements do you like to see in the next release? What do you think is the biggest strength and weakness of WordPress? Any suggestions for WordPressers?

Birgit: Oh my, where to begin? I am active and I help with issues, testing, and documentation. Our business and my work are standing on the shoulders of giants. When I see what goes into a WordPress release, the level of in-depth discussions and how things are solved, it’s-mind boggling. I might not always agree with the outcome of the decisions, but I always respect the choices. I’m happy that I don’t have to make those decisions that affect millions of websites around the world.

In the last three years, I have attended countless meetings on Slack, read PRs and issues reports on GitHub and TracTickets. The strength is the kindness the people show in this collaborative environment around all of its processes. The amount of patience people have with new contributors or with someone like me, who is sometimes a bit out of the water. It’s a joy to be a part of it. On the other hand, I also learned about the frustrations of those who volunteered their expertise because they feel overlooked, undervalued or just not heard. It’s a constant struggle to manage organizational goals and processes as well as contributors’ personal expectations.

There is a group who is sponsored by their employers to contribute to Core and other teams, and then there are self-employed contributors working on certain parts of projects. They can only do it for so long. Sooner or later some of them will have to bow out of the teams, as it’s not sustainable over a longer period of time when they also have to run a business and make payroll at the end of the month.

A huge weakness is that WordPress projects do not have a mechanism to bring sustainability into some teams and their work. Some teams may not be valued by a corporation to be supportive, i.e., privacy, accessibility, documentation. Those projects are less than optimally run and have a higher burn-out rate than other teams, where at least the maintainers are supported by sponsors and there is some longer-term continuation of work and vision.

Cloudways: You’re one of the most active members in the WordPress Community and also serving as a deputy with the WordPress Global Community. What are your key responsibilities there? What’s important in making new connections?

Birgit: As a deputy on the Global Community Team, I assist Meetup and WordCamp organizers and participate in the vetting of new organizer applications. We run office hours and answer any questions current or future organizers might have. In 2018, I did a livestream discussion group with Meetup organizers, listened to problems and issues they were having, and teamed them up with experienced Meetup organizers. In the last two years, I mostly worked on the Sponsor team for WordCamp US, was part of an arbitration group, and worked on the group to come up with the Global Sponsor program for 2020.

Cloudways: Besides all of that, the WordPress hosting industry is also evolving gradually. Managed WordPress hosting like us (Cloudways) is one such example. Do you see it as a driving force for WordPress?

Birgit: Haha, don’t get me started. I am a big fan of managed hosting companies and their plans, especially for do-it-yourself site owners and even more so for online businesses that need to stay up and running. They need a more rounded partner.

I get the temptation to sign up for the monthly $4/3-year hosting plans with a hosting company of the early web and do the rest yourself. Can’t be that hard, right? By the time you get the plugin for faster loading images, caching, security plugin and firewall you need to keep out the denial of service attacks and other malicious players, plus handling all the updates across your website, you’ll find yourself knee-deep in a quicksand of server and website administration. And that’s when everything works as it should. But the more plugins you have, the faster you run into plugin conflicts that need to be solved to get your site up and running again.

During our WordPress meetups, we hear from small business site owners about all the problems they are trying to solve themselves. Sometimes they spend many hours reading through technical documentation, trying to make sense of an issue that came up. They get sidetracked from their core purpose either as a business or just their hobby. It probably would help their site to pay $10 to $25 a month and have the peace of mind to work on marketing their business, write that cornerstone blog post about a social justice issue, or create their sales funnel. If you depend on your site for you and your family’s livelihood, going with a managed WordPress hosting partner is pretty much essential for the continued success of your business.

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Your Magazine is on its Way to Your Inbox.

Cloudways: Would you like to share an image of your workstation for our readers? That would be all! Thank you once again, Birgit.

Birgit: Thank YOU for these very thoughtful questions and your support of the WordPress Community!

birgit pauli haack workstation

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Mansoor Ahmed Khan

Passionate about technology, entrepreneurship, and marketing, Mansoor Ahmed Khan is in computing since he knows how to type on a keyboard. His daily life is rocked by his family, projects, and his screen. Probably in this order, he likes to be convinced at least.

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