Kyle Feeley of EverQuote rejoins us! Where previously we discussed the value of attending tech conferences, today he shares his thoughts and feelings about the past and present of website development with WordPress.

He started his career implementing custom website designs for small and medium-size businesses, picking up HTML, CSS, JavaScript and a little bit of PHP along the way.

Little known facts:

  • TechCrunch was and is built using WordPress
  • Facebook was and is built using PHP, the same programming language behind WordPress
  • Kyle is a consummate baller, shot-caller

Full text transcript below the fold:

Kyle Feeley


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Max: Welcome back, Kyle, this is Max of The Accidental Engineer here. We have the pleasure of Kyle rejoining us. Kyle Feeley, Director of User Experience at EverQuote in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. We talked last time about tech conferences and are they worth going to, what to look for in them. Today, we’re gonna talk about a subject that Kyle spent a big chunk of his career on, so far, which is WordPress. WordPress is the popular website management tool built on top of the programming language PHP, which Facebook was originally built with. So, I’ve given a kind of brief summary of what WordPress is, but do you mind sharing, Kyle, for us what exactly it was that you yourself did with WordPress, for a number of years?

Kyle: Sure, so I did custom theme development for a number of clients that I had. Just like a lot of small business owners, a lot of freelancers, people who wanted a kind of custom branded website experience, but wanted to be able to control the content and update the content themselves. Sometimes I did some content management stuff if it was like a larger client and I could just get some ongoing…ongoing business from them by doing that. But, for the most part, I would kind of come in, swoop in, do some branding with them and then develop a WordPress based website for them, yeah.

Max: So how did you, originally, come to find WordPress and adopt it as a skill in your tool set as a developer?

Kyle: So, I actually don’t remember, for the answer to that question. And then, I think I’ve known about WordPress for as long I’ve known about The Internet. Like I feel like, I mean, obviously, it’s not as old as when I got on for like, you know, way back in the day because I’m super old, so like the first time I had Internet was like AOL, Dial-up and I think WordPress was built on like ‘90, the mid 90s I wanna say. So I was aware of it as a blogging platform and I knew people who had, like, sites. But yeah, I can’t really remember how I got into it exactly. It just seemed like it was always around. And I kind of came into it, I think, mostly from just having a viable way of making a living as a web designer and a web developer. You know, I just did a lot of research, when I was teaching myself CSS, and when I was teaching myself HTML and JavaScript. Like, it’s just so ubiquitous that it’s around and I think I just came across it that way, yeah.

Max: So there’s a bit of a weird story about how WordPress rose to be as huge as it is, which was that there was a predecessor to WordPress called Movable Type. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that?

Kyle: Yes, I’ve…yeah I barely remember, sounds familiar.

Max: There was a fiasco where Movable Type tried to change their open-source license…

Kyle: Oh yeah.

Max: And tried to extract more money from people who were developing websites and blogs on Movable Type, and everybody switched over, on mass, over to WordPress and so…

Kyle: Because it was open source, yeah.

Max: Yeah, and for probably the better part of a decade or two, as you said…

Kyle: Yeah.

Max: WordPress is kinda dominated that…this very large base of customers who want to be able to, you know, manage content and their website, like you say.

Kyle: Yeah, yeah. And when I was starting out, WordPress was it, right, like that was really the platform that you wanted to use. There wasn’t Squarespace, like, if you wanted to have, like, a custom website with your own URL that wasn’t, like, piggy backing on what was it, like, BlogSpot and Blogger at the time or whatever, then…then you needed to have a WordPress site or something like that. And I think some people knew about Joomla and some people knew about Drupal because those were kind of, you know, those are pretty well established at the time when I was picking it up. But WordPress is what people remember and view in the world where of, yeah.

Max: The WordPress economy, for those who don’t know, is enormous and like you were saying earlier, you worked on some theme development. Like, do you mind sharing for people who don’t know just what the WordPress economy is composed of? Like, what do…what are people paying for, what are people getting out of WordPress?

Kyle: Sure, so there are…in terms of the economy, in terms of, like, making money there, I think, with WordPress theme development, there are a few routes. One of them, which is the one that I chose, was developing custom themes for clients, small-medium sized businesses, well sometimes large businesses. They just want to have their own branding and their own user experience and UI and everything else and that’s incredibly valuable when you’re trying to set yourself apart and present this professional front, right. Like, if you send somebody to, you know, a WordPress site, a Blogger site at the time, like, it just looked cheap and you didn’t look like a pro. And so, you know that will be like WordPress app basically or the application itself.

Max: So, when somebody when somebody is making their website for the first time, do they buy a theme? Is that the idea, do people go through themes over time or…?

Kyle: So that’s the other option, right, so I build custom WordPress sites for people. The other option is that a lot of developers make is building WordPress themes and those themes are usually somewhat customizable within themselves. And…but I never really got into that sort of marketplace aspect of things. I really rather to deal with…I rather enjoyed dealing with clients directly and kind of going through the branding exercise and kind of helping them develop an online identity. And so WordPress theme was a really good route for that, but I know people who’ve made a ton of money just doing WordPress theme development, which is you build a generic theme that is customizable and then you can sell that on a platform like…Oh God, what are the name of…?

Max: ThemeForest.

Kyle: There’s a couple. ThemeForest one of them, yeah, yeah, yeah. And so people make a ton of money doing that. And that’s kind of the, like, the other route that I know of. The third route that I know of is being a WordPress developer for, like, enterprise clients. So there are some pretty large companies, with large websites, that are surprisingly are still run off of WordPress….

Max: Sure.

Kyle: They usually require a lot of custom build out. So there are some agencies that deal…that hire theme developers to kind of manage the sort of, like, larger enterprise clients. And…

Max: Just to name two real quick. There is TechCrunch, TechCrunch was originally a WordPress blog and still is. And I believe The New Yorker, they host their website off WordPress too, yeah.

Kyle: I think I was…I’m still surprised at how many still do.

Max: Yeah.

Kyle: But I mean I…it’s a pretty good solid content management system and it’s, obviously, an active development, like, I know a ton of WordPress theme agencies, for some of this larger enterprise, clients who…they have developers who spend their full time working on WordPress core. So they actually donate some of their employee’s time to building out, you know, this open-source software, which is awesome, so yeah.

Max: So what skills do you have to acquire to do WordPress theme plugin development? I know there’s some HTML, some CSS. Was it your…was it a good intro into software development?

Kyle: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s a low barrier to entry…

Max: Okay, yeah.

Kyle: Which is…so you can get a lot of sort of free open-source themes that are sort of like static boilerplate themes that you can customize. And so if you’ve been able to teach yourself CSS and HTML, and then, like, just like a little bit of JavaScript, jQuery, you can start building out custom themes based on these boilerplates. So that’s a just a really easy way to get going and to build your own site. And then…and that’s the strictly the theme development. When you wanna start getting into the more plugin route, you have to be a little bit more…obviously, it depends on how sophisticated the plugin is, but you have to be pretty savvy with JavaScript, pretty savvy with PHP and you can just start kinda getting your…dipping your toe in kind of just functional and object-oriented programming and PHP.

And I think that’s a great way of doing it, especially since you can see WordPress is really well annotated and so you can get a lot of feedback just by reading the code that includes the comments and understand how thing…like a large scale application is put together and I…for me that was really important, like you know, I think that they really support developers who…and especially the WordPress community is, you know, for the most part very supportive and encouraging of new developers who are coming into it and so, yeah. So all those things combined, I mean, it’s a low barrier to entry and on top of that, you get a ton of support from the community. So it’s a great way to learn. I…the only caveat to that is that PHP itself is not the easiest language to learn just because I’ve…I personally find it a bit convoluted. You know, I find that, like, a language like Ruby is easier to learn just because it reads more like English. I think it’s just a bit more straightforward. Python I think is another language that is like that. But PHP can have some quirks to it that make it a little difficult to use sometimes.

But PHP can have some quirks to it that make it a little difficult to use sometimes. Click To Tweet

Max: Yeah, PHP has a long history of having a lot of security flaws and one of the things I remember WordPress been well known for the last decade has been just the series of targeted attacks that WordPress sites have faced. That’s kinda the big downside of being a super popular tool is that when a lot of people use a tool, it becomes the biggest target for security exploits and hackers, so…

Kyle: Yeah.

Max: I remember that being a big issue.

Kyle: Yeah, and it’s not…and it’s the last thing you want to hear from a client, is when you built them a site and then, you know, a year later or they whatever come back and they haven’t been updating the WordPress version, and they haven’t been updating their plugins, they have these vulnerabilities and all of a sudden they’ve become this bot for spam and so, yeah.

Max: For people who don’t know PHP or don’t wanna know PHP, a lot of WordPress’s market share has been attacked, recently, by these web page builder type services like Squarespace or or Weebly. So how…is there much of a marketplace for theme development or plugin development or HTML, CSS tweaking of websites that are built using those?

Kyle: Tweaking, yeah…

Max: Is tweaking…?

Kyle: I think tweaking. I mean that’s entirely subjective opinion, right?

Max: Sure.

Kyle: Like I don’t have data to back that up, but I do know fewer developers into WordPress theme route. And, I personally, wouldn’t use WordPress knowing what I know now, but I think it’s still a great solution for, you know, for small and medium sized businesses. And I think too they’ve had a lot of…WordPress has the advantage of the fact they’ve had a lot of developers working a long time, with a lot of feedback on how to get a content management system right. I’ve used some of those, you know, sort of WYSIWYG website builders like Squarespace and the user experience in the UI can get a bit confusing.

And the thing about building a WordPress theme is once you build it, you have to hand it over to your client. And some of my clients were not very tech savvy and or they didn’t have the resources to hire somebody to update their WordPress site for them. So as a result, they needed a tool that was user…very user-friendly. And WordPress has spent a lot of time, in their development over the years, making the, you know, the back end more friendly. Well, I mean the back end, it isn’t the back end, but the logged in experience, yeah.

Max: So is there much skills crossover to kinda better paying salaried roles in software engineering from WordPress development. Like, for your team at EverQuote where you’re running the user experience front end team, is there much crossover in terms of skills, like, would you consider hiring a candidate whose primary work experience has been with WordPress?

Kyle: Yes, absolutely. I mean, they…I was hired by the company that I…EverQuote, that I’m at now, I didn’t know Rails or Ruby when I started and some could make the argument that I don’t still know it very well, I mean, but I got, you know, I know my way around. And I didn’t know anything about it coming into it. I think that…I think PHP and Ruby are both C-based languages, I mean, that’s where their history is from. They’re coming from the same logic. So, you know, there’s a lot of things that are very similar you just…you notice, you know, how they handle loops and if you know, if-else statements, I mean, all that stuff is the same.

So I would kind of assert that, you know, if you know one programming language fairly well, you know, you are, at least, going to be more likely to go and pick up another language really well. Sort of like knowing Spanish, you’ll be able to pick up French. And so, I think, a lot of developers are willing to take a chance on you and for us, we’re hiring front end people and the front end stays the same, right? CSS, HTML, and JavaScript are all still part of the equation. So, yeah. Absolutely. If you had a rock star WordPress developer they…I know, I’m pretty fairly confident that they’ll become a rock star, any developer if they were given the opportunity to do that.

Max: For sure, for sure. Now one of the last topics I wanted to ask you about, and that I know is one of the popular features of WordPress, is how good it is for optimizing websites to be scraped by Google, and optimized for search engine…search engine optimization or SEO. So do you mind sharing a little bit about what SEO is real quick and why WordPress is…has been the go to solution for making websites that will show up in Google search results?

Kyle: So the reason that WordPress is the go-to option is mostly because they got into it first. I think Drupal and Joomla and plenty of other frameworks now get that formula right, but WordPress was the first to get it right just out of the box in that if you were using the product just the way that it was been presented to you, things were been categorized correctly in terms of the URL routing and then also it was inherently adding meta tags and basically that’s what SEO is based on.

So the reason that WordPress is the go-to option is mostly because they got into it first Click To Tweet

SEO is based on semantic HTML markup. So if your HTML is been used correctly, it is based on meta tags and making sure that the correct information is…the correct meta data is been appended in the head. And then, the other thing is the URL routes themselves. If the routes make sense that the names correspond with the content. That there is a certain logic to it. And WordPress was really the first or maybe not the first, but like definitely one of the best sort of risk-free, you know, open-source resources to get that out of the box. And that you didn’t have to spend a ton of time thinking about setting all that stuff up for yourself. It’s already there.

Max: Yeah, they’d reached critical mass and basically anyone anywhere who is interested in SEO would kinda contribute their knowledge about how to structure your HTML and your URLs of your website back into the WordPress community, so anyone who is using WordPress could relatively easily take advantage of all of the tips and advice and tools that other members of the WordPress community were creating and discovering, so yeah. That’s one of…

Kyle: Sorry, there’s such a robust, like, plugin development and free plugin development community associated with WordPress. So you’re right, if anybody figured out any, like, tricks with SEO, they could easily build a plugin and share it for free or for money, which plenty of people do. As well they should.

Max: As well they should. Awesome, well thank you, Kyle. I’m sure we’ll be back, again, next time with another topic of similar interest.

Kyle: Yeah, I can’t wait.

Max: Appreciate for having you on.

Kyle: Thanks.

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