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“The Biggest Improvement in Our Ecosystem Is the Composer” Proclaims Laravel Developer Freek Van der Herten

February 1, 2021

8 Min Read

Freek is a Laravel enthusiast and a PHP developer. Also, he has been writing on his blog. He is a developer at Spatie. He lives in Belgium and is a Zend Certified Engineer. He was a speaker at the “Uncon” of  PHP Benelux conference 2016.

Interview with Freek Van der Herten

 

Cloudways: First of all, tell us what was the source of inspiration behind entering into this field? How did you start your career? What was your academic background?

Freek: From a very young age I knew I wanted to do something with computers. My dad was a computer enthusiast. As far as I know, we always had a computer and a game console in our home. For my fellow geeks: we had a Coleco Vision in our living room. So I was bitten by the computer bug from an early age.

To none of my friends or family it came as a surprised that I wanted to study IT. After getting my Bachelor’s degree I started working as a COBOL programmer at ING (a well known banking company). We had a fantastic team and did some amazing things.

A friend of mine had started his one man company to create websites. Business was going good so he needed an extra programmer. Web development was something I always wanted to do. Together with Jef, our accounting guy, I became a partner at Spatie in 2008 and have worked there ever since.

Cloudways: How do you see the Ecosystem of Laravel framework? What do you think makes it different from other PHP frameworks?

Freek: The Laravel ecosystem currently is very healthy. The core of the ecosystem is the framework itself. In the last couple of months some awesome features were introduced: easy to use authorization, authentication drivers, improvements to working with collections, support for MySQL json columns in the query builder to mention a few.

A vital part of the ecosystem is the community. Without all the people using the framework, blogging about it, helping each other and creating packages, Laravel would not have the same value. Take for example Eric Barnes’ Laravel News. Every week he sends out a very nice newsletter with cool stuff happening in the ecosystem.

Laravel Daily is also a newsletter that I can highly recommend. On the blogging side Matt Stauffer regulary puts out content that explores Laravel features in depth. You should also keep an eye on Mohamed Said who started writing regularly on his blog about Laravel as well.

The community has also produced a ton of quality packages, take a look at the awesome-laravel to see a gigantic list. At my company try to give some of the love back by creating high quality packages ourselves at Spatie .

Besides creating the framework Taylor Otwell made a few SaaS applications taylored to use with Laravel applications. Homestead allows makes setting up a local development environment a breeze. Forge lets you easily provision servers. Envoyer makes deploying to servers a cinch. And with the recently launched Spark, you can easily set up your own SaaS applications. I’m fairly certain that Spark was created by Taylor to launch his own new products, so I’m curious what services he’s going to launch next.

What makes the Laravel framework different is that it values developer happiness above following the rules. Laravel goes for a pragmatic approach.  Take Laravel Facades for example, there are generally frowned upon for outside the Laravel community, but boy do they make it easy to quickly using the various parts of the framework. The same applies to the various helper functions introduction in Laravel 5 and above. I like the fact that Laravel is opinionated in this way.

Something that’s unique to the Laravel ecosystem is that there is a dedicated video learning site: Laracasts. It started in the early days of Laravel 4. Jeffrey Way, the creator of Laracasts, is blessed with the ability to clearly explain programming principles in general and the various parts of the framework specifically. When new features get added to the framework or when Taylor launches a new member of the ecosystem, you can expect a video about that rather soon. I haven’t seen such a dedicated and up to date video learning resource for another framework. I’m pretty sure it would have taken Laravel a much longer time to become popular if Laracasts would not have been around.

Cloudways: In an interview you said that you don’t use any CMS at Spatie. In fact, you have built your own custom CMS. Tell us about the primary concerns over popular readymade CMS like WordPress? What are the qualities of your non-open source CMS which you use at Spatie?

Freek: First off the bat, there’s nothing wrong with WordPress from a user perspective. It has a very good admin section for blogging and the ability to add plugins  obviously adds a lot of value. On the other hand, the codebase is not that well written. My feeling is that WordPress can be used for blogs and simple websites. Beyond that there are other better solutions.

At Spatie we create a lot of different types of applications: blogs, portfolio sites, api’s, webshops and custom development. On all of those we use our home brew application called Blender to get started.  Though it has CMS-like capabilities I’d like to call it an application template. Technically it’s a Laravel application which has been set up in a way we like to use it.  We can very easily adapt Blender to the specific needs of our clients and still be able to write clean maintainable code. It’s very flexible. We maintain Blender so it always used the latest features of Laravel.

Cloudways: Which community support platforms do you use for Laravel? Which channels do you think are the best in support?

Freek: There are a lot of channels to ask for support. There’s Larachat where a lot of nice people can help you. Then there are the two main forums laravel.io and the forum section at Laracasts.com. There are a lot of developers on Twitter, so what I do most of the time is just tweet a question. More often than not a fellow developer can help me out.

Cloudways: How do you see the growth of PHP community in the last few years? How do you see the journey of PHP in the last 20 years?

Freek: I started using PHP around 2005, so in the PHP 4 days. I did not know the ecosystem very well in those days, so I can only tell how I saw things evolve from my perspective.  My feeling is that object orientation wasn’t really a thing in PHP. The language did not support it well. Around me I saw a lot of people creating long procedural scripts.  Refactoring, testing, using best practices weren’t important. If it a script worked, your job was done.

A couple of years later PHP 5.3 came out which was a pretty big release.  Instead of using loose scripts, frameworks like Zend Framework and CodeIgnitor became popular. There was a bigger emphasis on writing readable code.  In those days PHP had to endure a lot of criticism. Criticasters said it was slow, uses too much memory, has an old syntax, you can easily to things the wrong way. I personally believe the main reason for this criticisim is that there were many bad scripts flying around. The base PHP syntax is so easy that nearly everybody could create a script. But to make a good one that follows best practices takes a bit of experience and knowledge.

The biggest improvement in our ecosystem in the past decade is of course: Composer. It has revolutionized the way we use PHP. In the pre-composer days pulling in a library was a pain. That’s why you generally did not do but came up with your own solution for a problem. It made development slow. Thanks to composer those days are gone.

Nowadays the PHP ecosystems is bursting with life.  PHP 7 just came out with amazing performance improvements. I’m already using it on projects and it made my applications 3 to 4 times faster. There’s also a much stronger emphasis on writing maintainable, testable code. It truely is a good time to be in the PHP ecosystem and I’m very curious were it will be headed.

Cloudways: PHP conferences are important to gather PHP developers from all around the world and connect them. Have you also been part of PHP Benelux conference this year? Please share some of your memories and experiences?

Freek: I’m a big fan of conferences. They provide a good source of learning through the mostly excellent talks that are given. More importantly, you have the chance to talk to your fellow developers between the talks. You can learn a lot from them. I try to visit a couple of conferences a year.

This year I spoke at the uncon track of the PHP Benelux about backing up with Laravel. So I wasn’t on the official track and the audience was quite small. But it was a good experience that I’d like to repeat. I ironed out the talk and gave it a couple of days ago at the PHP Gent User group. I’m currently scheduled to talk at three other Belgian usergroups in the coming months. I’ve sent a talk proposal to various European conferences, hopefully one of them will pick my talk.

Cloudways: In your entire career, surely you would have met with different personalities in PHP community. Please share some of the names which have inspired you the most?

Freek: As a big user of Laravel, I’m obviously influenced by Taylor Otwell. You can learn a lot by just reading the Laravel source code. My appreciation for clear, readable code has grown immensely but watching countless of hours worth of videos made by Jeffrey Way on Laracasts. When I shortly met Jeffrey at this year’s Laracon it found it kinda funny that he existed as a real person and did not was just a little voice inside my computer.

Adam Wathan should also be mentioned. He runs one of my favorite podcast: Full Stack Radio. In every episode he talks with one guest in depth about coding, testing, designing, etc… I generally don’t like having stickers on my laptop, a “WWDHHD”-sticker made by Adam is the sole exception.

Cloudways: How do you see the competition in Belgium? Would you like to share some of your experiences over there? How do you see the community activities?

Freek: There are a lot of companies active in web development in Belgium, both big and small. So there certainly is a lot of competition. I see this as a good thing: you’re pressured to stay on top of your game and keep learning.

Spatie is a small company with only 5 people. We have gathered a lot of expertise these past years and built some beautiful and bigger projects. Other companies and potential clients are starting to get to know us by our open source efforts. There’s no other Belgian company that put out the amount of quality Laravel packages then Spatie has done in the past years.

We’re based in Antwerp and there are a lot of community activities. The biggest one is the yearly PHP Benelux conference which is only a 20 minute drive away. There’s also a PHPAntwerp user group which was started by Dries Vints and Frederick Van Brabant last year. The audience has been growing with every meetup. While we’re on the subject of PHP usergroups, there are a lot of them in our vicinity: Gent, Brussels, Limburg, and West Flanders and Breda each have their own. So you’ve got a lot of changes to go to a PHP meetup. I try to go as much as I can.

Cloudways: Apart from your professional life, what are your hobbies and interests? How do you manage workload with personal life?

Freek: I’ve got two little sons, raising them is my main project.

Apart from doing it doing work hours, programming is also a hobby. So I toy around with new stuff and read blogs and books about programming in my free time. I also write articles about the things I’ve learned on my blog

Together with a friend, I write articles on geek culture for a men’s magazine called P-Magazine. Sometimes we get to travel around the world to interview people, which is fun. This year we’re visiting Tokyo.

I’m also a music addict. I like all kinds of music, and repetitive pieces in particular. Stuff put out by for example Neu, Can and Steve Reich is fantastic. I also play in a krautrock band called jarenduren and have a monthly music programme on the local radio .

Recently there’s a sparked interest in graphic novels and comics. I’m currently working my way through the classics. Reading “From Hell”, “Blacksad”, and work by Guy Delize and Scott McCloud has been very rewarding.

So yeah, it’s been a while since I experienced boredom.

Cloudways: Being a part of a development agency, you would have often faced hosting issues and concerns. Which hosting platform do you prefer? Cloudways is a managed cloud hosting platform which provides installation of Laravel hosting on a single click. What are your reviews about its services?

Freek: Currently were are using Forge to provision our servers at DigitalOcean. Most of our projects are running there. Though I haven’t used Cloudways hosting yet it looks great. Providing a one click installation to get a developer up and running fast is always a good thing.

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Ahmed Khan

Ahmed was a PHP community expert at Cloudways - A Managed PHP Hosting Cloud Platform. He is a software engineer with extensive knowledge in PHP and SEO. He loves watching Game of Thrones is his free time. Follow Ahmed on Twitter to stay updated with his works. You can email him at [email protected]

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