Gary Jones, a UK based WordPress Engineer, has created several elegant WordPress themes and plugins for clients and provides service for many designers and developers. Having worked on different projects. He seems to drive on passion for excellence. Gary is a contributor at Genesis Framework and is a co-host on the UK Genesis podcast. He believes in the motto “knowledge is power” and aims to educate WordPress professionals on how they can improve their code. Let’s get chatting with Gary!
Cloudways: Hi Gary, thank you for joining us today. Can you please tell our readers a bit about yourself and how you started your career?
Gary: My first real experience of coding for the web was while typing away in an HTML chat room in 1999 while at university. The chat room allowed basic formatting using the `font` tag, and `blink` or `marquee` tags, depending on which browser you were viewing it on. I was using Netscape 4.7, or IE5 (I think), as that was all the university had installed back then.
At the same time, I started my own Geocities site, and gradually learned about server-side includes (“I can change the footer across the site without editing 30 files?!”) and CSS (“I can update the colour of text all in one go?!”). I liked the logic aspect, and the efficiencies that certain technologies allowed.
Eventually, I got into PHP and proper hosting. I came back from living in Malaysia in 2008, registered as self-employed, and started doing paid work. So even though my business has been going nearly 8 years, I’ve actually got 17 years experience, all self-taught.
Cloudways: There are many more CMS’s on the market. When did you first discover WordPress? How did you become a WordPress enthusiast?
Gary: I started using WordPress around version 2.3 (Sept 2007). I’d left Geocities by that point, but the personal site was still just individual .php pages. I’d never used other content management systems, but I liked the idea of separating out content from the markup and the ease at which editing content could be done. I was still a hobbyist user of WordPress at that point, but keen to learn more about how to do more with it.
Cloudways: Gary, you’ve developed and contributed in designing lots of WordPress plugins and themes. May we know which of them are your favourite?
Gary: For themes, I’ve contributed a lot to the Genesis Framework. I’m not an employee of StudioPress, so all my contributions have been voluntary. I think I’ve contributed to all versions since 1.3 (August 2010), and a lot of that is down to how Brian Gardner and Nathan Rice supported my involvement. In return, it’s allowed me to really understand how Genesis works to the point that I’m known amongst the designers and developers who use Genesis, and that’s certainly lead to some business being sent my way.
Related to that, in terms of child themes for Genesis, I’d have to say Utility Pro is a favourite. I consulted and contributed on Carrie Dil’s product, and it’s been a real success within the community – it’s technically strong, has some awesome features, particularly related to accessibility, and it’s been marketed well to become a staple go-to starting point for a lot of Genesis web professionals.
For plugins, I’ve helped a lot of people out – I’m just as happy getting involved and helping other people with their plugins as much as my own. GistPress with Brady Vercher, early efforts of GitHub Updater with Andy Fragen, early versions of the WordPress Plugin Boilerplate with Tom McFarlin, and although not a plugin on it’s own, the TGM Plugin Activation package with Thomas Griffin and Juliette Reinders Folmer. I’d like to think that each have had small impacts into the WordPress community that just made someone’s day a little easier. That’s enough acknowledgement for me.
Cloudways: Aside from development, we learned that you also teach WordPress in different institutions. Being a trainer and a mentor, how do you educate beginners on WordPress theme and plugin development?
Gary: My background is as a maths and IT teacher in secondary schools (age 11-18) and in prisons (18+). I enjoy finding out what someone currently understands, and provide suitable learning opportunities that enlightening them. What I enjoyed far less was the administration and paperwork.
I don’t teach WordPress to beginners; I have done code audits for designers and developers though. They either want to learn how to write better code, or want a second pair of eyes on their work to be confident that the product they are giving to a client or trying to sell, is the best it can be. I very much subscribe to the “teach a man to fish” approach. The actual product ends up merely as a vehicle for delivery of the teaching points, as the real end goal is a designer or developer who now understands the benefits of coding in a certain way, or the gotcha’s to watch out for.
I’ve also taught or directly helped at least four people write their very first plugin. That is also very satisfying. Once you understand what a plugin is, it’s easier to see how some functionality could be moved out of the theme and into a plugin. When they release a new plugin, I’m really proud to have helped in a small way to get them on their way.
Cloudways: Gary, while reviewing your profile we learned that you are a key contributor to the World’s most popular WordPress framework, “Genesis”. Can you highlight your recent contributions? Why is it that everyone recommends Genesis framework where WordPress themes are concerned?
Gary: Recent contributions have been far less than previously – a bug fix here, a small improvement there etc. Currently open is a pull request to improve a sitemap function so that it doesn’t output post-related sections when a site has zero posts. I’m also contributing to a new change log, which is being populated with content from my GenesisChangelog site. This site included far more details about every single change that happened within Genesis, to the point that I was able to wrap up each point with more details and sell all that knowledge as two eBooks.
As for the popularity of it, I think there are several reasons.
Firstly, the code works. It’s generally well written, as procedural code, with a few classes in there. I’d love to see it become really object-oriented, but for a product that is generally feature-mature already, it’s tough to see the benefit of that time investment. The code is also fairly well documented, though many of the hooks need some documentation, so everyone looking at the code should get a good idea about what it’s doing and why.
Secondly, it’s the community. Between the original StudioPress forums, and large number of tutorial sites, to the Facebook Group and our Slack group (with over 1200 members), there’s always someone on hand to help answer your Genesis-related question. Like WordPress, I think it’s reached a certain level of critical mass to allow those who wouldn’t otherwise consider it, to see how popular it is, and to therefore give it go.
Related to that, I’ve also been involved with the UK Genesis community. We’ve had several meetups at WordCamps and even proposed a Genesis retreat. We ran a podcast series, where 25 Genesis designers and developers, including WordPress co-founder Mike Little, were interviewed for an hour each on how they run their business and how they see WordPress and its community evolving. See here.
Cloudways: Previously, you’ve also contributed in WordPress core a lot. Have you contributed in WordPress 4.5? And what are your plans for WordPress 4.6?
Gary: According to the WordPress API, yes, I did contribute to 4.5, though I can’t remember what it was. I’ve not directly contributed to 4.6, which I think is only my third “miss” since they started tracking credits in 3.2.
I am a General Translation Editor for the British English locale though, so along with a couple of others, I’ve had a prominent role in making sure the British English strings submitted for WordPress core, and many plugins and themes, are approved and correct.
Cloudways: We’ve read a lot that WordPress core is lesser known for its speed and performance. What are your suggestions to optimize and secure a WordPress website?
Gary: Nothing that many other developers haven’t said before. Secure the filesystem, use strong passwords, be careful about where you install plugins and themes from, use HTTPS, and if necessary, use a security plugin that can handle it far better than you can manually. As for performance, that’ll come down to being on HTTP/2, PHP 7, optimizing images, concatenating and minifying scripts, applying the right level of gzip compression to assets, using a CDN, and having suitable caching at multiple levels on the stack.
Cloudways: With the release of Calypso and shift to Node.js of WordPress.com, do you think such a shift will be welcomed by the larger WordPress.org Community?
Gary: Not necessarily, no. Calypso is a bold move, but it’s not without some well-known issues. Accessibility, and backwards-compatibility to existing WordPress plugins are two big ones. As such, I don’t think anything Calypso-like is going to find much traction within the WordPress.org arena, even if it is considered successful at WordPress.com.
I’d much rather everyone learned accessibility, deeply, as that benefits everyone, not just individual developers.
Cloudways: You run your own WordPress agency “Gamajo Tech”. Can you please tell our readers a bit about it and highlight your responsibilities there?
Gary: It’s not an agency as such, though it certainly is moving in that direction. I currently have four subcontractors who are awesome, and have one main client who is amazing.
Each of the subcontractors are skilled in slightly different areas, so I know that if a task is more front-end, or back-end, or heavy OOP, or WooCommerce, which subcontractor I should assign it to.
I do enjoy the project management side, and still get to dive into the code for the bits I’m best at. It comes down to knowing what I’m not great at, and making a business case from that outsourcing. The client(s) then get the benefit of an agency-like service.
I’d eventually like to get into products, but right now, we offer typical high-end WordPress services, including custom architecture for integrating WordPress with other business applications, eCommerce and migrations, and simple theme builds.
Cloudways: Gary, we’ve seen you actively attending WordCamps. Can you please tell our readers how WordCamps are beneficial for international WordPress community members?
Gary: The history of WordCamps is that they originated to bring together people who were relatively local – not international. Indeed, someone travelling overseas might find that the points in presentations at a WordCamp in one country can’t easily be applied back in their home country.
However, if you are willing to adapt that knowledge to your own circumstances, then going that extra distance, literally, to an international WordCamp is fantastic.
The networking between peers is definitely a highlight. I’ve been to 11 WordCamps now, including one in Chicago, and four in Europe. At those, and at the smaller ones, catching up with friends, and taking in knowledge that transcends cultural differences are the reasons I go.
Whether you’re from the UK, Eastern Europe, Asia, or South America, we’ve all got the same client problems, and the same technical issues, so having the chance to discuss those with a wide range of our peers is beneficial to everybody.
Cloudways: WordPress community is rapidly growing all over UK, specifically in London. Sounds like you’re playing an important role in building up the community there. We’ve also seen that you never miss any WordPress meetups organized in London. How do these meetups play an important role in building up a local WordPress community?
Gary: I’ve missed a few WordPress London meetups unfortunately, but it is something I definitely try to get to for the same reasons as WordCamps; to catch up with friends in the same industry, and to talk shop. I’ve also volunteered to help out when possible.
London is big, and there are at least three WordPress groups that are in various states of being active. Each of them are tailored to different audiences in the WordPress ecosystem, and so they each better meet the needs of those groups. I’ve definitely met some people at the WordPress London group who I’ve been able to do business with, even though I don’t consider it a strictly networking event.
What the WordPress meetups do support though, is to show that there is enough interest in there being a WordCamp. WordCamp London has now run for three years. I was one of the organisers for 2016, and we had something like 550-650 attendees. Even if someone is only vaguely interested in using WordPress for their non-web development business, events like this can help clarify in their mind that it’s the right tool, and also start to make contact with the (predominantly local) people who can help them build their site for their business.
Cloudways: It’s hard to choose a few among your best buddies. But everyone has someone in whom they can put their utter faith in. Who do you consider your best buddies within the WordPress Community?
Gary: Wow. I have twins, and that’s like asking me which child is my favourite!
It’s hard to answer your question. The ones who I’ve met at WordCamps definitely have a bigger impact than those who I’ve not yet met, but above all, I’d have to say my subcontractors (and I’ve only met two out of four so far).
It was really difficult for me at first to trust someone to write code that was going out under my name. I still check all the commits and mockups now, but I’ve learned to trust that these are professionals too. They have no desire to ruin their own reputation by intentionally behaving unprofessionally. As such, I encourage them to speak directly to the client, so that I’m not a bottleneck in the workflow, and to represent me and my business as they would want to be represented. It seems to be the right level of management though, as several of them have said that they really enjoy the arrangement and the work we’re involved with.
Cloudways: Gary, aside from work, you’re an active member of the WordPress Community. Keeping yourself focused on multiple things at the same time can be tough at times. Suggest us some of your lifehacks that keep you focused at work?
Gary: I’m very easily distracted when I’m online. Slack, BBC News, GitHub notifications, WordPress translations, updating my own plugins and packages, Genesis and contributions for others, doing administration in my business, helping to organise WordCamp London, managing the subcontractors, and so on. Sometimes I even get to do some client work!
Only two things seem to help me:
Brain.fm – it provides background noise that entrains the brain (with brain waves – I don’t fully understand the science) to focus. If I put this on, even with other distractions open, I’ll get some decent coding done.
Pomodoro – a 25-minute timer technique that encourages me to work, by rewarding me with a 5-minute preparation for the next task.
Cloudways: As the saying goes, “All work no play, makes Jack a dull boy” – What do you do in your free time? 🙂
Gary: For exercise, I play badminton once a week. I did some CrossFit for a while, but logistics means that not feasible right now. Otherwise, I have a wife, and 4yo twins who start school in September, so they occupy my time when I’m not online. Trips to the park, and Legoland a-plenty!
Cloudways: Considering your contributions, it’s not that easy to cover everything in a short interview. If we’ve missed anything and you want to share with our readers, this is the place where you can tell them 🙂
Gary: The site needs some visual updating (one of those tasks I never get around to), but Gamajo Community currently has all of my various contributions.
Cloudways: Gary, finding the best WordPress hosting in London has always been a difficult task. How will you compare a Managed WordPress Cloud hosting such as Cloudways equipped with advanced caching technologies like NGINX, Varnish, Memcached, Redis etc with traditional hosting?
Gary: As each of these technologies mature, and as WordPress-specific hosting companies invest in their infrastructures, the platform you’ve mentioned will become more and more standard. We’ll see a clear separation between those clients that have been shown the value of such a platform, and those who just need the site online. Traditional hosting won’t die out, but it will lose market share, given sufficient time.
Finally, just to humor our readers, can you please send us an image of how your desk or workspace look like? 🙂