Cloudways has always tried to bring the voices of Magento champions to the limelight. Keeping up with the tradition, today we have Kalen Jordan, a Certified Magento Developer of the highest caliber, who candidly shares his opinions about the current standing of Magento within the CMS industry. He is really optimistic about Magento coming of age and transforming into a standalone torchbearer for ecommerce businesses.
With over 10 years of experience in web development, Kalen Jordan is one of the most celebrated Magento developers in the United States. He is the founder of MageMail. He is credited to have started MageTalk—the first English-language Magento podcast. He loves to contribute and develop open source modules on GitHub.
In this interview, he has shared his views in detail about his earlier days with Magento, the security issues facing the CMS, and those who have inspired and influenced his professional journey to where he stands today. He singles out dedication as the most important factor in becoming a Certified Magento Developer. Currently, he is working at MageMail.
Cloudways: Kalen, you are the founder of MageMail. How did you choose Magento and when did you realize that you had a passion for programming? What challenges did you face during your initial years as a professional in the field?
Kalen: Well, I realized I had a passion for programming when I was probably about 15. I somehow picked up a Learn C In 21 Days book and just dove into it. I remember as a kid going to the library and checking out books like The Magic Machine and everything just blowing my mind.
It wasn’t for quite a few years after that, that I got into Magento though. My first job out of college was doing classic ASP, then I got into PHP, and then I began to freelance for a few years. I didn’t have any specialty at that time, and I’d work on all kinds of random projects – a social network one day, a CMS the next, and a (bad) ecommerce site from scratch after that.
Then I followed the somewhat typical path of going into project management. I think I was burned out on doing client work that wasn’t very interesting or specialized. I was a project manager for 4 long years believe it or not. I even sort of started to lose my dev skills and lose confidence in myself that I could even be a developer again.
At that point, I knew from experience that I had to specialize in a certain skill set – so I thought about it for a while. I also knew that I wanted to stay close to the money – had worked on facebook apps and things with ad revenue models, and saw them fail over and over. So I picked eCommerce.
Then at that point I looked at the platforms that were out there. Because of a painful initial experience with Magento I was actually very tempted to go down the OS Commerce route. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. But, thankfully, wisdom prevailed and it was clear that Magento was the leader in the space by far, so I chose to dive in.
From that point, I just made a very conscious decision to go deep in the platform and the community. Once I discovered that everyone in the Magento space was on Twitter, I got into Twitter even though it made absolutely no sense to me at first. And the rest is history.
Cloudways: How has MageMail fared during the last two years? Share with us the idea that triggered you to come up with such an incredible email app for Magento users. Where do you see the company in the next 5 years?
Kalen: I guess a picture tells a thousand words, so here you go:
As you can see, it was slow going for a looooong time. And actually the left part of that curve should extend back several months before that before I had any paid customers.
I thought that since I was somewhat established in the Magento space it was going to be a piece of cake to get this thing to market, but boy was I wrong. I had to learn the hard way that you have to work your butt off on marketing and sales even if you’ve built a great product.
So what triggered me to come up with the idea initially (I see what you did there by the way) was that I was doing some research into ways to increase customer loyalty and actually stumbled upon this presentation by Silver Pop. They basically outlined the core triggered emails.
I knew from experience that many people weren’t doing these types of emails yet, so it seemed like a great idea. Also, before I started MageMail I started another product/service in the Magento space that some people may remember called MageUpdate. The idea was to try to ease/automate the process of Magento upgrades. But what I found was that it wasn’t solving a problem that was close enough to the money.
While upgrades are a huge pain point, people don’t necessarily want to pay to solve that unless there are some features that are going to make them more money or if there’s a really painful bug that’s costing them money every day.
Next 5 years – wow that’s a long ways out. Not sure that I have any idea what things will look like at that point. For now, I’m just happy that I can support myself and my family, and I’m very grateful to all my early customers that believed in me and helped me get to where I am today.
I read a book called Start Small, Stay Small by Rob Walling that impacted me a lot. I’m not looking to achieve hyper growth with my business. I just want to see steady growth over time and to continue to maintain really great relationships with a relatively small customer base.
I believe that MageMail’s feature set is already quite strong when compared to other competitors, and I’d like to continue to improve it over time, and also do a lot more A/B testing in the future so that I can continue to build insights and funnel them back into incremental revenue for customers.
Cloudways: You are a Magento Certified Developer. What does it take to be one?
Kalen: Well I guess there are people who take the test after they’ve built up a ton of experience, and don’t even need to study for it (like the renowned, four-time certified champion of the Magento world – you know him, you love him, you’ve coveted his hair and home-made pasta – Phil Jackson, ladies and gentlemen). And then there are people who take it when they are just beginning to learn Magento and have to do a lot of studying.
In short, I guess it really just takes dedication one way or another.
Cloudways: On the lighter side of life, most Magento developers find it hard to manage their work-life balance. With a hectic schedule already in place, how do you find time to manage yourself? Is there any secret that your friends don’t know about you? Share it with our readers.
Kalen: I’ll let you know once I find out.
No but this is actually something that I’m thinking about a lot these days. While I’m glad that I bootstrapped MageMail on the side and didn’t incur a lot of risk to build the business, I’m not exactly sure that I’d do it again. Working on a side project on top of a day job and family for years can be pretty draining.
Now that my schedule is free’d up a bit, I’m figuring out the best way to spend my time. But one of the problems with overworking is that you build bad habits that actually take time to undo. So you can’t just flip a switch and work less one day – you have to build up hobbies and relationships that you may have neglected.
Cloudways: IMAGINE is the flagship event for Magento enthusiasts. Have you attended Imagine before?
Kalen: Yes, this coming year will be my fourth time. It’s an absolute blast – the Magento community is a lot of fun to be around. It’s great to connect online through various media, but getting together in person just takes everything to a different level.
Cloudways: Magento-powered web stores are prone to security threats such as brute force attacks, credit card misuse, and identity theft. In your opinion, what should be done to counter such threats?
Kalen: Well I’m not really a security expert, but I can speak a bit from the experience we had dealing with these issues at Clean, the Enterprise merchant where I worked as a senior developer for a couple of years.
I think that it’s going to vary a lot depending on the nature of your business, as a merchant – your size, the types of products you sell, etc. For smaller merchants, they may never even deal with much fraud at all. For larger merchants with a high fraud volume, it will make sense to mitigate their risk by paying for services that vet and rank each and every transaction that flows through their store.
At Clean, we dealt with a pretty limited amount of fraud. And it turned out to be fairly easy to detect, based on a few simple things that we checked for in the shipping information. We considered looking at services that were more full-blown, but the risk/reward trade-off just didn’t make sense for us at the time.
There are of course basic things that you can do like getting setup with good managed Magento hosting that will have layers of protection against many types of brute force attacks.
Cloudways: Magento uses extensions and modules. Name 5 must-have extensions for Magento-based websites.
Kalen: Well, you walked right into this one. Being a vendor myself, I’m a bit biased, but I’ll have to start off with my own extension – MageMail.
- MageMail – a must-have particularly for merchants that aren’t already sending these types of triggered email, because it takes minutes to get started with and adds significant incremental revenue.
- N98 MageRun – fantastic command-line tool for doing all kinds of stuff. Use it a lot for clearing cache and setting config values quickly, as well as other stuff like checking for core file changes.
- Hackathon_PromoCodeMessages – a beautiful extension by Laura Folco and Andreas von Studniz that improves upon the horrible error messages surrounding coupon codes in the core.
- Quafzi_Productvisibility – This is a nifty little extension that helps you to know why a product is or isn’t visible – it looks at all kinds of factors like website association, categories, status, stock, and a whole bunch of others. Takes the mystery out of why the heck are my products not showing up.
- Widgento_Login – This is a little gem that I found which allows you to login as a customer from the backend. I think it was built a very long time ago but it works like a charm and can help customer service a ton.
Cloudways: Think about a moment that Magento is no more. Which other platform would you prefer to use then?
Kalen: That’s an interesting question. I think that I would have similar goals to the ones I described initially when I picked Magento – which is that I’d want to choose the market leader within eCommerce. So it would depend entirely on where all these merchants went when Magento magically disappeared.
For example, if they all moved to Shopify, that would make Shopify pretty attractive. But what if they all moved to Sellvana? (that would be awesome!) One of the things I think about is whether SaaS will gain adoption over time or whether there are fundamental limits to what SaaS can do for ecommerce, such that it really won’t gain much more adoption than it has currently.
I’ve been watching Sylius for a while which is a pretty interesting eCommerce framework based on Symfony. I can see that continuing to pick up steam in the coming years.
Cloudways: Magento 2.0 Beta has been released. Do you expect a complete overhaul in Magento’s infrastructure and functionality? What are your favorite changes in the current beta release? Will it be just a tweaked version of what we have experienced with Magento 1.x?
Kalen: Well the architecture of Magento 2 is significantly different – enough so that it takes some getting used to for someone familiar with Magento 1. I really haven’t dug into it too deeply yet – excited about the Composer integration.
I think the proof will be in the pudding as to whether the architectural changes and improved testability really accelerate development (both in the core and in the community) or not. If they deliver on that promise, that will be pretty exciting.
Cloudways: Every one of us gets inspiration from some influential personalities. Name 10 of the most important people within the Magento industry who have influenced and inspired you through out your life?
- Alan Storm – got to start off with Mr. Storm who literally wrote the book (and blog) on Magento. The very first week that I was diving into Magento I was massively confused and spent about 23 hours literally trying to insert a piece of text onto the product page. I picked up Alan’s book No Frills Magento Layout and it helped a ton.
- Ashley Schroder – Ashley has blogged and written open source extensions for such a long time – I’ve found many an answer on his blog and use SMTP Pro all the time. I’ve also heard great things about his commercial version of it – MageSend.
- Ben Marks – I still remember the early days where every night I was learning Magento watching the Magento U video with Ben in it. He made the content so approachable – not sure if I would have gotten over the hump without him. I also remember when I met him for the first time at the LA Bugathon and was all fanboy-ing all over the place.
- Brendan Falkowski – Brendan is a straight up baller. He gives a mean conference talk and the amount of polish and love that he puts into everything that he touches is really inspiring. Seeing what he’s working on always makes me want to try to take my game up a notch.
- Christian Munch – Christian’s work on N98 MageRun (as well as a few other awesome N8 modules such as checkout filters!) is super inspiring. He was really supportive as the owner of an open source project – much more so than I have been on my open source projects – it’s really inspiring and the progressive that he’s made is incredible.
- Colin Mollenhour – Colin has contributed an absurd amount of code to the Magento core and the ecosystem in general. I still remember meeting him for the first time at Imagine and introducing him to my Sweet Tooth buddies – this is the guy who wrote modman!. We talked for hours that night and I love getting to hang with him every year at Imagine.
- Fabrizio Branca – Another person that has contributed a ridiculous amount of code in the form of open source modules – he’s also blown all of our minds several times over with their auto-scaling hosting infrastructure. And he’s really just one of the nicest and most community-oriented people that you’ll ever meet – looking forward to another hackathon this year at Imagine!
- Jay El-Kaake – I remember very early on I found Sweet Tooth and was really impressed with the company and all the amazing reviews that I saw of it. When Jay recruited me to work with them, I was pumped to say the least. Jay is an amazingly creative and fast developer, and I learned a lot from him. It’s also good to see him again back in the ecosystem with MageCredit.
- Karen Baker – I was actually inspired by WebShopApps years before I got into Magento – I don’t even know how I stumbled upon the site but I was inspired by the idea of someone running their own extension business. Another person that I was very starstruck by when I first met her – Karen is also hysterical and a lot of fun to hang out with.
- Sherrie Rhode – As a community manager and UX person, Sherrie was a big part of the community for many years. When I was just getting started, she really helped me to engage with the community. She brought a ton of energy and passion for community to the ecosystem that I think continues to reverberate today.
You can follow Kalen Jordan on Twitter.
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