Many of our interviews are focused on digital agency owners, who build websites for clients using specific technologies and tools. Today, however, we wanted to highlight the challenges involved in running a web development agency and the future of PHP.
This week we interviewed Dwight Walker, who is the owner of WWWalker Web Development Pty, Ltd., as well as the director of Dwight Walker Violin and Piano lessons. Dwight has more than two decades’ worth of experience in software engineering, project management, and web development.
Question 1: Hi Dwight, how are you? Thank you for agreeing to do an interview for us. As an owner of WWWalker Web Development Pty, Ltd for the past two decades, what prompted you to start your own agency?
Dwight: I did not want USA to get all the web work so I started my own business. Firstly, I did small amounts of work at night. Then, when sales improved, I branched out and quit my job at the publishing house and relied on my own business entirely.
Question 2: You have considerable knowledge in not only web development, but client servicing, project management, programming, system administration, and technical writing as well. How do you juggle all these roles when delivering projects for clients?
Dwight: The whole process is managed through project management tool I wrote that gathers all the data for every job. I started relying on this ever since one customer caused me to lose a considerable amount of time and money.
Most of the programming work is an integration of other people’s software i.e. WordPress and its plugins. System administration is used for setting up WordPress and MySQL database on Linux hosting. If a site is migrated, I have to backup and restore to new hosting. At many times, the old hosting is poor, and I have to migrate to better hosting before upgrading a site if one already exists.
There are many hosting companies with standard LAMP stacks. I get the content from the customer or design it myself using GIMP graphic editor. If the documents going in need editing, I do the technical writing to clean them up. Debugging or getting modules or plugins to work requires some system administration (e.g. PHP versions or replacing out of date plugins). The content is then loaded and munged.
Sometimes, the customer takes over the design and does it themselves based on WordPress. In this case, I just become the backend support person. Others require me to do the design and hosting. So it varies.
I have to track the project carefully to stop cost blowouts, as it has bogged down my business before.
Question 3: What are the types of businesses that approach you for projects? How do you utilize different technologies and tools to meet clients’ specific needs?
Dwight: They are small businesses or professional societies for websites or individuals for music lessons.
Question 4: Dwight, which is your favorite PHP framework in PHP? What do you think is the future of PHP frameworks?
PHP frameworks are becoming object-oriented, so with JSON for content it will, not matter which system. The data would be moved between systems seamlessly if there was a better system invented in the future. Websites will be data-oriented not software oriented. The skin will be replaced easily using standards.
Lastly, PHP needs better repositories so that coding becomes standardized. PECL is one way, but there are bugs in the code. Open source can be hard to integrate if it is out of date.
Question 5: I understand that you are a music lover, and also give piano and violin lessons. How do you manage your roles both as a music teacher and as a director of an agency? Do you see any conflicts or challenges?
Sometimes, however, the person who wants music lessons also wants a website, in which case both of my roles overlap. This gives my business robustness and resilience. While some of my clients require little IT work, others need music lessons. For example, I mainly get IT projects from Brisbane; Caboolture, on the other hand, are full of people who come to me for music lessons.
Creativity in music helps me get designs or ideas that make web design more competitive. It also helps me get hosting to the cloud or to develop mobile apps using open data for groundwater, for example. So, I get good ideas from being creative.
The technology is quite different. Violins are 400 years old, but IT is only about 30 years old. So, violins are much more stable than IT due to having low equipment risk. IT, in comparison, changes every 2 or 3 years causing high risk as either assets change or training is required to keep up.
Music requires instruments and sheet music which can be hard to source quickly, whereas IT can be sourced very quickly via cloud or download causing much quicker response time. IT does billing for music and provides online training portal and Skype calls for online music lessons; it helps enhance the reach of my music lessons from being only in a physical room with the student. The teacher and student can be in a different city and listen to each other via Webcam. This is what I plan to do.
Sometimes, IT can be a distraction for students to play with apps for tuning instead of learning how to do so by ear. They may play along with the MIDI music track on the internet or fiddling with tuning widget but not actually learning anything as intonation is still lousy 5 weeks later.
So, I have to assess students to see if they are learning anything as IT can cause the students to lose their attention and focus.
There is no magic bullet to be a great violinist or pianist. There is only one Mozart and the rest of us have to improve the hard way through practice and repetition. There are quite a few psychological barriers to teaching music – commitment, honesty, perseverance, enough time.
Question 6: How do you approach creating UI/UX to convert prospects into leads and customers for clients? Are these requirements common or vary significantly from client to client?
Dwight: I have 2 main sites. One is a music teacher site which runs ads for me as a music teacher. The other is my web development business site. They point to each other. I also code keywords in my site that Google finds me for ‘violin teacher Caboolture’ so that it appears at the top page results.
My Facebook business page leads to nowhere. I had to change my page name from WWWalker Web Development Pty Ltd to Dwight Walker Violin and Piano Lessons on Facebook, as people could not conceive that I could so both. For this reason, I had to create a new name for my IT business on Facebook so that people can see the value in both.
While Facebook is important for getting insights into my target audience, there aren’t many people who want to learn how to play an instrument. Instead, I use musicteacher.com.au for keyword search for my music page on my website.
My Google Plus ad is only for drawing IT customers. My main site tries to juggle both, but I think Google slices my site so those searching for music find my music page and ignore the rest. That is why I am wary of not confusing people about two very different areas on my website – music and IT. From my experience, I haven’t had much luck getting leads from Google Adwords. The people who come through it don’t commit to music lessons.
My own sites’ UI/UX is based on experimentation and watching hits. I will probably upgrade my site to WordPress and start again, as my site is ageing now and not as glamorous as it once used to be.
My preferred ecommerce store payment method is just PayPal or direct deposit, as most users are not very tech savvy. I plan to have a separate shop site as it is only frequented by family friends for EPUB books I have published about my father. Nothing else sells.
Question 7: What is your opinion on managed hosting solutions, such as Cloudways, that help developers launch web projects for server managed issues?
Dwight: I try to be a hosting agnostic. If the hosting company is growing and dynamic, I stick with it. Otherwise I use Amazon Web Services and take the long route of setting up a machine for myself and configuring it for several days. If there are managed services where the system is backed up or upgraded regularly, I am sure it would save me time. But I have found that some hosting companies do not upgrade and thus make it difficult to get bugs fixed. The hosting company has to be proactive or else I am content with using cloud hosting.
To get my vote, a good hosting company should be able to provide a control panel, database, email and FTP access, so I don’t have to manage all of that.