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“Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Things” Advises Experienced Web Developer Andy Miller

Updated on May 10, 2017

8 Min Read

Andy Miller is the founder of RocketTheme. He is one of the startup contributors of Joomla! Andy worked on the UI/UX development of Joomla Administration and front-end templates. He has vast experience of web development. Currently, he is lead developer of Grav CMS.

In his interview with Cloudways, Andy talks about the early days of his career, why he shifted his track from Java Development to Web Development. Further, he talks about why Joomla! lags behind in terms of market share, and also why he developed Grav CMS. Andy shares his thoughts on PHP 7 and also gives advice to students who are starting their career as Web Developers.

Interview with Andy Miller

Cloudways: Andy, when did you start your career as a PHP developer? What motivated you to become a developer and did you have a mentor that helped you in this journey?

Andy: I have a degree in Computer Engineering, and have been developing web applications for nearly 25 years. Even before the web as we know it, I was fascinated by computer networks such as Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), IRC, etc.  With the advent of the Internet and its rise in popularity while I was at university, I became obsessed by web development and specifically the ability to empower people to be ‘producers’ of the web, not just ‘consumers’.  This I think, has driven me to focus my efforts around open source content creation platforms.

I messed around with my own custom solutions in the beginning, then found existing platforms such as Postnuke and Mambo. I became involved in Mambo, and was one of the original founders of Joomla. That’s how it all began 🙂

Cloudways: Andy, you have been in the Java development business  for 7 years. Why the sudden shift into the field  of web development? Any reason in particular? Would you care to share it?

Andy: Actually I’ve always been in the web development business in some form or another.  When I started, there was only CGI technologies such as Perl for server-side web development.  When Java was introduced, I jumped into that with both feet.  Over the years I worked with a variety of technologies such as ASP, JSP, J2EE, PHP and others.

I guess I’m just not really the kind of guy that is built to work for other people. Corporate America does not really nurture a creative spirit, so after many years working for startups and larger corporations, I decided to strike out on my own. After I left Hewlett Packard where I was focused on enterprise J2EE development, I started RocketTheme. With RocketTheme, I was able to concentrate on PHP-based open source CMS solutions, mainly due to easy accessibility by pretty much anyone.

Cloudways: Andy, you have been a developer of Joomla. What was your key role there? When did the idea of building a CMS like Joomla dawn on you?

Andy: I found Mambo originally while looking for a more cohesive CMS platform.  I instantly fell in love with the clean UI and simple development model.  I was primarily focused on templating at that time as I love the balance between design and development.  When Mambo ‘sporked’ and became Joomla, my role was principally the creation of the new Joomla websites, as well as the core theme, and admin UI of Joomla itself.  I was also involved in setup and development of a lot of the infrastructure behind the project. I was only one of many though, and I was not really involved in the development of the main core functionality of Joomla, although I did have many heated discussions about usability and UI that have helped shape Joomla through the years.

Cloudways: Joomla enjoyed a lot of success in the early days of its inception. What are the reasons that it now lags behind other CMS like WordPress and Drupal?

Andy: That’s a tricky question, and I think that all the existing crop of hugely popular PHP CMS platforms are facing similar issues.  Only WordPress has managed to hold off this trend so far, but I feel that it’s only a matter of time before it also sees a similar decline in popularity.

If I were to guess, I would say that the primary reason that these platforms grow, plateau, then decline, is because they initially solve an existing problem, then over the years, grow more complex as the initial problems change, and they try to adapt.  Also, there is a delicate balance between new features and backwards compatibility that must be maintained.  Ultimately these issues become so complicated that the net-benefits no longer outweigh the costs, and newer and better solutions are built to solve the newer current problems.

Most of these platforms were built when PHP4 was the norm, and the language as well as design patterns as well as package infrastructure such as composer simply did not exist.  Nowadays with the popularity of NPM and Composer, platforms can be built in a more modular fashion.  This is the way all the modern platforms are being built.

Cloudways: Being the lead developer of Grav CMS, what was the idea behind developing it? With CMS competitors in town such as Joomla, WordPress, Drupal and others, how do you present your comparative analysis of Grav versus different competitors? What really makes your CMS different from others?

Andy: I never intended Grav to compete directly with these behemoth projects, it just became apparent to me that these projects were not really addressing the needs of the average modern web developer.  The web has moved towards smaller, faster web sites.  These platforms are generally built for building larger, more complex sites, and so there seemed to be room for a platform that was built for these priorities in mind.

Grav was originally designed to be as fast as possible, as such I went with a flat-file model which means there is no database.  This has a couple of additional benefits, one being there is less complexity in the overall system, and the other is that it opens up a wealth of deployment possibilities as all you need to push around are files.  The other major benefit is that Grav itself is very simple, it only has the concept of content stored in simple folders.  Everything else is done via plugins and the theme that renders it all.  This means that Grav can be as simple or as complex as you need.  It also means there is no ‘default’ Grav site, you can use Grav to build pretty much anything: A one-page site, a blog, a portfolio, a directory, a shop, a documentation site, etc.  There are really no limits as you are not forced to do anything “in the Grav way” as you might with other platforms that have a more structured and rigid model.

Grav leverages many great existing libraries and technologies.  This allows Grav to focus on dealing with pages and leaving templating, markdown parsing, caching, image manipulation and many other tasks to the best-in-breed libraries available via composer.  Other platforms are moving towards this model also, most notably, Drupal 8.  Also Grav has had a CLI interface from day one, including a sophisticated package manager.  This has ensured that it’s super easy to keep Grav up to date and current.

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Cloudways: Andy, how does it feel to be the CEO of RocketTheme? May I have an insight on your thoughts when you first launched it in 2005? How can you be so sure it will gain greater success?

Andy: It’s a lot of work to be the CEO of one company, and originating author of another project.  But it’s really great fun.  I get to work with the best-of-the-best when it comes to developers and designers and I get to do what I love each and every day!  I started RocketTheme with the hope that I could bring quality themes to everyone so they could build their own professional quality web sites, and I’m pleased to say that we’ve been doing this successfully for over 10 years. In web-terms that’s a lifetime!

As well as Grav CMS, we also develop the open source Gantry framework.  Currently that’s available for Joomla and WordPress but will be coming to Grav soon also.  We hope that this will bring all the great benefits of a full theme framework to the Grav platform which uses a lot of the same technologies. It’s really going to be the perfect marriage of speed, flexibility and ease of use.

Cloudways: Which is the best selling theme on RocketTheme? Which framework theme’s demand is high?

Andy: To be honest we really don’t track which themes are most popular.  It’s impossible to satisfy everyone without completely genericizing a theme, and then there will be those that feel it is not unique enough!  We try to create a good mix of theme types so that we can satisfy most people, most of the time. We strive to ensure we have a good balance of designs that people can make use of. Gantry5 has provided us with a lot of flexibility that we could only dream of with previous versions, we still have plans to improve it and add more functionality, so stay tuned!

Cloudways: What are your thoughts about PHP 7? Did it generate enough attention to drive developers back from HHVM and Node.JS?  

Andy: I’ve been using PHP7 since the early betas and it has been a huge improvement over the PHP5.X releases.  I really don’t see how HHVM offers anything that PHP7 does not, in fact due to its incompatibilities and development paradigms, it is much more problematic to use HHVM than PHP7.  In regards to HHVM, it’s a no brainer to simply use PHP7.  It’s generally faster and uses much less memory and also doesn’t have the slow ‘bootstrapping’ overhead. If you are a PHP developer, you should be moving towards PHP7 as fast as possible.

In regards to other languages however, I doubt PHP7 will convert existing Node, Ruby or Python developers.  PHP7 has more improvements other than just speed and resource utilization, but it’s still a bit of a hodgepodge language, and many developers just prefer the consistency of these other languages, although that has to be considered against the popularity and number of deployments of these technologies.

Cloudways: How do you spend your time when you are not developing at all? What are your favorite places to visit?

Andy: I love to travel, luckily my son is homeschooled and my wife loves traveling also, so this is our main pastime when we’re not all working.  We usually visit Europe at least once a year and we all love it there. This year we plan on going to Africa and hopefully South America too. Other than that I love cars, and am ‘slowly’ rebuilding a 1973 Triumph TR6. My other passion is Lego which you can get a small taste of in the photo of my office below.

Cloudways: Just to humor our readers, can you please send us an image of what your desk or workspace looks like? 🙂

Andy: I’ve recently redone my office, so I have a great new motorized ‘site/stand’ desk:

Andy Miller Workstation

Cloudways: Having more than 15 years of experience as Web Developer, what advice would you like to give to beginners who have recently started their careers as Developers?

Andy: You really have to be passionate about web development to be successful.  It’s really more than just a 9-5 job.  You have to be constantly reading news, staying on top of trends in design and development.  Don’t be afraid to try new things, it’s better to be well rounded in a variety of things than just really good at any one thing.

Cloudways: Who are some of the people that you would recommend following in the PHP community, or the people who have influenced you during your journey in the PHP world?

Andy: I follow a lot of PHP community leaders on Twitter.  People like Taylor Otwell (@taylorotwell), the author of Laravel, Phil Sturgeon (@philsturgeon) PHP, Dries Buytaert (@dries) of Drupal fame, Anthony Ferrara (@ircmaxell), Fabien Potencier (@fabpot) of Symfony, Sensio, Twig fame, and Jordi Boggiano (@seldaek) the author of Composer.

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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.


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