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George Stephanis talks about why Jetpack and WordPress are AWESOME!

Updated on December 23, 2020

8 Min Read

George Stephanis stands out in the WordPress community as the leader of the team that brought out the best WordPress plugin, Jetpack. He started his career as a freelancer and used WordPress to cater the requirements of clients. After attending the first WordCamp at Philadelphia in 2011, he knew what the aim of his career was to be.

Today, we are honored to talk with George Stephanis. Being a team lead of Jetpack, George is now helping the team to scale the plugin by many folds. In this interview, George talks about his initial life with coding and how he evolved with WordPress. According to him, it is we who are metamorphosing ourselves than WordPress. Obviously, George’s favorite plugin is Jetpack. 😉

Interview-of-George-Stephanis

Cloudways: WordPress is your life. WordPress is your passion. When did you fall in love with WordPress. Share with our readers the hurdles you faced during all those early years of your professional career. If there was no WordPress, which other Content Management System you would have used?

George: I had used WordPress for a variety of project early on in my freelancing career, doing everything from silly things like hacking on top of core themes to hacking together basic ones from scratch for clients.

So I had some basic familiarity, but I didn’t really do terribly much digging into it until maybe the middle of 2010, when I was working on building a cloud server back-end for an Android and iPhone app that dealt with small area mapping and GPS (think stadiums and shopping malls). I didn’t have to use WordPress, it just made the most sense as a starting point as I evaluated the data structures that would have to be stored. So I went in and added custom code to store what else was needed (a custom taxonomy meta table), and built import/export code to generate the assets that would interface with the app, and in short order we had a cloud services back-end that the iOS and Android applications would pull from.

I would have to say that is the project that drove me to really appreciate and enjoy WordPress for what it could be, not just as a blog. So I went on from there to build my first large-scale plugin, Ndizi Project Management (which, if I could do over again, I would build completely differently, don’t judge me!), listen in and then participate in weekly IRC dev chats, keep up on the wp-hackers email list, and then went on to attend and volunteer at my first WordCamp.

WordCamp Philly 2011 was the great leap forward, for me. Actually getting to meet community members (like Andrew Nacin, Aaron Jorbin, Helen Hou-Sandí, Dre Armeda, John Hawkins, Ryan Imel, Andrew Norcross, others…) face to face, and not just as names in a chat log, was a huge deal. At the Contributor Day, I got my first patch merged into core, and it sparked my confidence to begin contributing in larger ways, such as helping out with the front-end markup of the `WP_Pointers` class as it was first getting merged into core.

From there, it was just all uphill. I worked on mobile improvements to the WordPress admin with Andrew Ozz for 3.4, got named as a ‘Recent Rockstar’ on the credits page, and kept pushing forward.

The most important thing for anyone interested in getting involved with Core is to understand that WordPress is a big project, and the things you may personally care about probably mean relatively little to the project as a whole. So to drive it forward, you need to be willing to spend time focusing on what actually needs love and attention applied to it, not just what you personally want.

If WordPress didn’t exist, my recommendations for projects would vary entirely based on the abilities of the folks that use it, and what they want to do with it. I don’t think I could give a hard and fast ‘always use _____’ rule, as that’s inherently disingenuous. I would definitely recommend an open-source system, but for different projects, it could vary from something as complex as Magento, to something as basic as Mojo Motor.

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Cloudways: George, you are leading the team at Jetpack. Big responsibilities, bigger tasks. How do you manage all the stuff? Tell us about your team. What it takes to be a good team player? What are the core team dynamics that keep the individuals focused on their projects?

George: Leading a team is a very tricky beast. As it happened, I had found myself thrust into the role with very little leadership experience, so my focus had to take a sudden shift from considering the codebase as my primary project to the team as my primary project.

While the team was responsible for the Jetpack plugin, if I focused overly much on the plugin itself, far less gets done, as I’m not putting my focus into growing and maturing the team. My job had changed from chopping down trees to helping sharpen the whole team’s axes.

There’s a lot involved in contributing to a fast-moving team. Taking your personal ego out of consideration is one part, but also being willing to pick up some new skill that no-one else on the team has really mastered. Being willing to put your own pet projects on the back burner, so that the team can collectively focus on the big picture goals.

Yes, I know this can largely sound like sweeping generalization mumbo jumbo. But a good portion of it is non-transferable. If I know that two people on the team play well off each other, I can task them to work on projects together and get a situation where 1 + 1 = 3. But identifying the right individuals is something that’s hard to distill down to a blurb, and in fact is one of the most useful results from team meetups — seeing how personalities and work habits of assorted people grow and change.

Cloudways: Jetpack offers a whole new package for a WordPress website. Many plugins are associated with it. What are the new developments we will see in near future? Where do you see Jetpack in next few years?

George: Our goal with Jetpack — and indeed any new additions down the road — are all centralized around one single concept:

What can we do to increase engagement and simplify the experience for site owners running their own WordPress site?

When examined from this vantage point, all the assorted and seemingly disparate things that we do make much more sense. Sharing buttons, publicizing posts to social networks, running Elasticsearch powered related posts, simpler comment forms — these are all easy ways to drive visitor engagement. Add in some other baseline functionality like an image CDN to help sites scale, a solid analytics platform, and brute force protection to help users avoid getting hacked, and suddenly a FOSS platform like WordPress becomes much more appealing for site admins to stick with.

It provides a reliable, maintained, supported baseline of functionality, to help grow the market for everyone involved with WordPress. It helps keep site admins happy and proud of their CMS, instead of transitioning to closed-source or proprietary platforms. It improves the quality of sites by enabling access to things that are super hard to do without a centralized server infrastructure.

I would love to do more with Elasticsearch indexes. We at Automattic have invested significant amounts of time and personnel into learning Elasticsearch and how to make it scale really well. I’m super eager to see if we can put it to work powering site search, which has historically been super tricky to pull off well when just dealing with MySQL tables in WordPress Core.

Cloudways: What tips and tricks do you suggest to secure a WordPress website? How much Jetpack is secure for the users?

George: Well, firstly, have strong passwords and use Jetpack’s Brute Force Protection to keep botnets from breaking in. Secondly, keep your software up to date! As obvious as that may seem, it’s the number one way in for attackers on website of folks running outdated versions of software packages.

Jetpack is very secure. We run an active Bug Bounty program through HackerOne, and when an issues is disclosed to us (or we find it in-house), we fix it promptly and responsibly, in conjunction with the WordPress Core Security Team to ensure our users are kept secure.

Cloudways: You have a life beyond WordPress. Tell us about your interests. How do you manage your work-life balance? Is there any secret that your friends don’t know about you?

George: I’m a serial devourer of hobbies. I normally pick up a hobby, engross myself in it for perhaps two or three months, and then get bored and move on to other things. I’m currently binging on Legos and card tricks, but prior hobby binges include everything from computer games (Team Fortress 2, some online text-based role-playing games), to cooking (baking bread, cooking varied fried rices, assorted global cuisines), to working with my hands (carpentry, letterpress printing, sewing together muppets for my three year old daughter).

Cloudways: WordPress is now evolving into an stand-alone application. What’s your word on this statement?

George: I’m not sure how much it is WordPress that is evolving, so much as it is we who are evolving how we view it.

We used to think of it as blogging software, so it was. Then we thought of it as a full CMS, and it was that too. Now, we think of it as an arbitrary data store, that can be interacted with purely via a REST API, and sure — it’s even that.

But there’s never been anything preventing that from being done with old versions of WordPress. Sure, prior to custom taxonomies and custom post types, it may have been trickier. Sure, maybe you need to make your own taxonomy meta table. MacGyver-ing things is nothing new.

But thinking in the abstract? Looking at WordPress not as an admin interface and front-end templates, but as an arbitrary data store that can be leveraged? That has less to do with the software and more to do with the creativity and ingenuity of the community using it. I’m glad we’ve started embracing it as such.

Cloudways: The social media has totally transformed the sphere of online marketing. The traditional marketing practices have dried out. Do you think that digital marketing is worth investing your time and money to market an already established product like WordPress? WordPress is already leading the CMS industry in terms of marketshare. Do you think that WordPress is going into the right direction?

George: I think some marketing effort is probably worthwhile, especially to combat some perception issues, like folks that think WordPress is insecure, or it’s just for blogs, or what have you. At this point, there’s few people that don’t know what WordPress is, it’s more about winning minds and hearts.

Cloudways: There are thousands of plugins and themes available in the WordPress repository. Which five themes and plugins you endorse for your end-users and followers?

George: Phew, that’s a tough one. It really depends, as no two users are the same, so while plugins like WooCommerce could be ideal for many online stores, for another type of user, Easy Digital Downloads could be far superior.

As a very general list, the plugins I’d recommend folks give a look at are:

  • Jetpack (obviously)
  • Paid Memberships Pro
  • WooCommerce
  • GravityForms
  • Yoast SEO

And theme-wise, again as a general ‘hey that’s cool’ —

  • Kubrick (old default core theme — I’m a theme hipster)
  • Storefront
  • Twenty Fifteen
  • P2 (or the O2 / Breathe / whatever it’s being called now evolution)
  • Underscores, for building custom themes on top of.

Cloudways: With the integration of Amazon Web Services, DigitalOcean, and Google Compute Engine, Cloudways PaaS platform offers 1-click WordPress deployment on cloud servers. It also provides the opportunity to deploy WordPress Multisite. We would like you to test our platform for yourself. Share your opinion about the platform. What other things can be done to improve the performance of the cloud hosting platform?

George: The most critical thing that I believe can be done to improve cloud platforms is the UI. It’s also one of the things that most often scares users off, thinking it’s ‘too technical’. A well built administration panel user experience, as well as setup wizards once new ‘one-click installs’ are run.

Far too often, users have to do a number of steps to do a ‘one-click’ install (making the name more painful irony than descriptive), and then go through the site setup after the install runs, and then find their way around the WordPress admin interface to actually make the site look how they want. I’d really love to see that whole long process, with three distinct interfaces (one-click, WordPress install screens, WordPress admin settings screens) distilled to a simpler process.

We’ve been working on a project called Jetpack Onboarding to try and improve the flow for users — possibly not your typical Cloudways users — but we’ve been working to keep it extensible so host-provided mu-plugins or other auto activated plugins can step in and add new steps or modify existing ones. Trying to provide a better setup flow for end users.


You can follow George Stephanis on Twitter.

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Waseem Abbas

Waseem Abbas was WordPress Community Manager at Cloudways. He loves to help people with their WordPress worries. He is a self-proclaimed "food explorer".

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