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Cloudways interview with PHP Developer Eric Van Johnson of DiegoDev Group

Updated on June 7, 2021

8 Min Read
Eric Van Johnson Interview

Developer Eric Van Johnson translated his passion for PHP into DiegoDev Group, where he acts as CTO. But that’s not all – he’s been organizing PHP meetups in San Diego for a while now, and he hosts two PHP podcasts which have both built quite the community. We’re thrilled to have Eric with us as he talks about his journey so far, his experience working with PHP and Laravel, and so much more.

Shahzeb: Hi Eric, it’s lovely to have you for this interview! Could you please tell our readers about yourself? Walk us through your journey so far.

Eric: Thanks for reaching out to me. A little about myself, let’s see, I’m a pretty basic dude. I was
born in the District of Columbia, spent my entire childhood in Maryland, decided to move to southern California after getting married, and have lived here ever since. Love drinking scotch and watching all levels of baseball, from A ball up to the majors. I enjoy adventures, from traveling to new restaurants to eat, as my waistline shows. I have a family who means the world to me.

I did some community college back in the day but never stuck to it. My CV is all over the map, from mailroom clerk to warehouse worker. I’ve done a lot of things. However, for around the last 20 years, I’ve been IT-focused. I did a long stint working on servers and networks as an Operations person. Still, I always had a passion for coding, specifically PHP coding, and around 2012 a friend of mine convinced me to give web development a go full-time.

We started a development studio called the DiegoDev Group, where I took on the role of CTO. Initially, it was just the two of us hustling for contracts. Our contacts grew over the years, as did the company, and we were able to hire people from within the PHP community. Today, we are going strong. We work with a great team of people and work on some fascinating projects.

Shahzeb: You’ve been organizing SanDiego PHP meetups for a while now. Can you confirm if the SanDiego PHP event is set to happen on-site this year given how COVID-19 has halted so many events?

Eric: We probably won’t be starting up in-person SDPHP meetups again this year. Where we are, companies are starting to lift things like mask mandates slowly, but I think it’s going to be some time still before they start opening their doors to extracurricular events such as hosting a tech Meetup for a group of people who don’t work at the company. I am hopeful we will return at some point, but we want to make sure it’s in a way where everyone is comfortable.

Shahzeb: What do you think are the main benefits PHP developers take away from these meetups?

Eric: Some User Groups went the route of Virtual Meetups during the pandemic, and that was great. There was still the exchange of information that people could enjoy. Presentations on workflows or new things that were being released in the PHP language but lacked the social aspect that the in-person meetups had. That is my favorite part, the discussion that happens, either during the presentation because someone has a question or the before and after time you socialize with one another. Talking about projects or problems you are working on and just catching up with one another and meeting new people for the first time. That is very challenging to capture in a virtual event.

Shahzeb: Eric, you also run the PHP Ugly and PHPArch Podcast channel. Could you tell us a bit about these podcasts? Who can join this group and how it helps developers and PHP users?

Eric: PHPUgly was established first. I had registered the name and had the idea for a year or so before, but I only wanted to produce it. I had an idea of the people I wanted to be on, but they were not interested.

Back to the SDPHP Meetups, a bunch of us would get together before the meetup, typically at a drinking establishment close to where the meetup was being held so we wouldn’t have to worry about traffic. That is where the “social aspect” of the meetup would start. We called it “pre-game,” and everyone was invited. John and Tom, my other two co-hosts on the podcast, along with myself, would sit around and discuss stuff. We had pretty good banter between us, and one day another regular who attended the pre-game said, “You all should record these conversations. I would love to go back and listen to them over and over.” That was when I thought, fine, these John and Tom were interested I would host the podcast, they were, and so I did. That was back in 2016, and we’ve been meeting with each other to record every week since there. We’ve missed a couple of weeks here and there, but I also think when we started, we might have recorded more than once a week.

It’s been a wonderful learning experience and got me more interested in podcasting than I thought I would be. Last week, almost five years to the day we started, we recorded episode 237. But more surprising is that we built up a community. We have regular listeners both on the live stream, which we record every Thursday night starting around 9 PM PST, or people who pick up the edited version of the audio podcast. A lot of them hang out with us through the week in our active discord channel. They contribute show topics and even have discussions with us while recording the live show, which makes it into the audio podcast. It’s been such an awesome experience meeting new people, some of who, I’ve even had the opportunity to meet in real life. There are people from all over the world. It’s had such a positive impact on me. I could have never imagined I would have gotten so much out of it. You can check out all the relevant links for the show at PHPugly.

The php[podcast] for php[architect] magazine came about 4 years ago. Oscar Merida is the Editor-in-Chief of php[architect] magazine. We were having such a good experience with phpUgly that when I ran into Oscar at php[tek] back in 2017, I recommended that he consider doing a podcast for the magazine. I offered my help with what I had learned over the years, tools to use, workflows, etc. That rolled into my being a host on that podcast as well. We tried a couple of formats early on. Initially, I wanted the podcast to be 15 minutes from start to finish. Over several interactions, we settled on the format we have now. Oscar tried to do an Editor’s Byte once a month, which is his editorial from that month’s magazine. I will interview someone during the month. Then we will get together and discuss that month’s articles. I enjoy the php[archtiect] magazine and think it’s one of the best resources in our community. I’ve been fortunate that Oscar has allowed me to be part of it as a host of the podcast as well as a monthly contributor to the magazine itself.

Shahzeb: You have extensive knowledge of PHP development. What motivated you to become a PHP web developer?

Eric: When I was in community college, I majored in programming, but the landscape was very different back then. There was no web, and there really wasn’t any scripting language to speak of. I think Perl had just been released the prior year, and there were a few others but if you were learning to program you were learning a compiled language. I would have to find time at the computer lab, try compiling my application, walk down the hall and get the printout to see if it worked or if I had an error. Shampoo, rinse and repeat.

I decided one very late night, sitting in that computer lab, at my small community college, after going back and forth to the printer to get stacks of green and white bar papers only to see an error message that I wasn’t cut out to be a programmer. I swore off computers and decided I needed to find some other way to make a living. I still have some of those printouts. I kept them, not sure why.

Fast forward several years, computers remained in my life because I was always that person who knew how to “do things” on the computer. I was better than your average user but nothing special. Personal computing had taken off, and computers were on everyone’s desk. I would tinker with some of the new technology but never got interested in doing anything more than tinker. A friend had introduced me to MySQL because I was trying to track datasets. I didn’t know anything about databases, MySQL, or Opensource, and at the time, I didn’t care about any of it. I just wanted to know how to store information and the best way to get it out. I found an adult extended learning class teaching PHP and MySQL. I thought to myself, “not sure what PHP is, but if they’ll teach me about MySQL, I will just ignore the PHP stuff.”

The first night of class, we wrote a simple PHP script, and didn’t even get to the MySQL part of the class yet. It was just a straightforward PHP script, and I saw an immediate response in the web browser from my script. No compiling, no printout! I changed my code, refreshed the page, and saw my change. This was incredible, this was CODING! I couldn’t tell you if my opinion would have been any different if it was a Java class or some other language, but I can tell you I latched onto PHP that night and never let go.

Sure, I would experiment with other languages, had a long run with Ruby and the Rails framework, but I always came back to PHP. I have been pretty focused on PHP for the past ten years now. There became fewer and fewer reasons to check out other languages until there was no longer a reason.

Shahzeb: Tell us about your experience working with PHP/Laravel over the years.

Eric: I’ve always been a big fan of frameworks. I know they are not popular with everyone, but I liked the fact that you typically had some of the decisions made for you. There were usually established naming conventions and patterns to follow. I tinker too much, left to my own accord, I would never standardize on anything from one project to another, and so I let frameworks handle that for me.

A good friend of mine introduced me to Laravel prior to Laravel 4 being released. At the time I was using CakePHP and was perfectly happy with it. I thought to myself, “Not really interested in switching frameworks” but he kept talking it up. He would tell me, “don’t even look at Laravel right now, wait until version 4 comes out.” When Laravel hit, it was the first framework to take advantage of some of the new things in PHP, such as Composer. The eloquent workflow really got my attention. I started using Laravel soon after the release of version 4 and have been iterating with it ever since.

Shahzeb: What do you enjoy doing when you’re away from your laptop?

Eric: I am one of those people who honestly enjoy coding, professionally and as a hobby. I still tinker a lot. But when I step away from all the digital things that surround me, I really enjoy just being with my family. It is honestly one of the experiences I never expected to enjoy so much. Whether it’s just the wife and I trying out a new restaurant, all of us swimming in the pool, or just watching TV, I love those moments.

Shahzeb: What are your thoughts on hosting solutions such as Cloudways? Do you think these solutions add value to PHP-based applications?

Eric: System operations just really aren’t a lot of fun. The less you need to do to manage your hosting environment, the better. Cloudways offers a solution that still allows you to be in control over things like the version of PHP you are using but does not have to worry about the day-to-day task of taking care of a server.

Shahzeb: Whom should we interview next and why?

Eric: I think Oscar Merida of php[archtiect] would be a good interview. He spends so much time shining the spotlight on so many people with the php[archtiect] publication. I honestly don’t think he gets enough credit for it. Every month he produces a high-quality magazine for the PHP community chalked full of top-notch information, and he doesn’t get the thanks he deserves.

Shahzeb: Could you share some snapshots of your office space or your current workstation in the COVID-19 pandemic situation for our readers?


Shahzeb: Thank you once again, Eric!

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Shahzeb Ahmed

Shahzeb is a Digital Marketer with a Software Engineering background, works as a Community Manager — PHP Community at Cloudways. He is growth ambitious and aims to learn & share information about PHP & Laravel Development through practice and experimentation. He loves to travel and explore new ideas whenever he finds time. Get in touch with him at [email protected]


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