August 7, 2014

Apply Filters
Episode 23 - Helen Hou-Sandi

Helen Hou-Sandi is a WordPress core contributor and also the release lead for WordPress 4.0. She joined us today to tell us about her history with WordPress and her transition from a professional musician to a full time backend developer working on one of the web’s largest web publishing platforms.

This episode was sponsored by GravityView, a plugin that integrates with the popular Gravity Forms plugin and makes it easy to display entries on your website. Easily Embed Gravity Forms entry data in a post or a page, control what data is displayed using a drag & drop interface, moderate what entries are visible before they appear on your website, and even allow users to edit the entries they created.

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Show Notes:

Photo Credit: Matt Mullenweg

INTRO: Welcome to Apply Filters, the podcast all about WordPress development. Now here’s your hosts, Pippin Williamson and Brad Touesnard.

PIPPIN: Welcome to today’s episode for number 23. Today we have a special guest, Helen Hou-Sandi. She is the WordPress 4.0 Core lead. That means she’s leading the development of WordPress 4.0.

Before we get in and start talking to Helen, though, let’s give a quick mention to our sponsorship. Today we’re honored to be sponsored by GravityView, which is a new plugin from Zach Katz that allows you to easily display entries from the popular Gravity Forms plugin on your website. So you can easily embed Gravity Forms entry data in any post or page. You can rearrange how it displays, create really cool outputs, etc. You can check it out at And if you check out the show notes, they have a special discount code for the next two weeks for 20% off, so go check it out,

Helen, do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself? Say hello and tell us what you do.

HELEN: Hi. So I’m Helen, and I’m the Director of Platform Experience at 10up, a really awesome Web agency that focuses on publishing experiences and doing really cool things for clients. And I’m also a WordPress Core committer and the 4.0 release lead, and that’s, for the most part, what I’ve been doing with my time recently.

PIPPIN: Awesome.

BRAD: Helen, when did you get started with WordPress?

HELEN: Oh, man. So I started with WordPress as a user. I used Blogger when I was in high school, I guess, so 2002, 2001, that kind of area. And I ended up going to college for music, and didn’t really blog or really do much on the Internet anymore. I then went to grad school, that kind of thing, and realized, hey, I’m probably needing to become a professional musician, and I should probably have a website because that’s what people do these days is look people up on the Internet and MySpace.

People would be like, oh, why don’t you use MySpace? They do band pages. It’s like, I play classical piano. It seems really weird, so I should probably learn about making my own website.

And I looked at Blogger because I was like this is familiar to me. But, at the time, Blogger didn’t do pages. They just did posts. And somebody I knew who runs a blog on Blogger was like, well, have you ever looked at WordPress. I’m curious what you think of WordPress. And I was like, I don’t know. No, I haven’t, but I’ll try this since I need to make a website.

I ended up making a static website because I didn’t know how to make my own theme in WordPress or anything like that, but I did start a blog using WordPress.

PIPPIN: So you had static pages and then one page was the blog that was WordPress?

HELEN: I think it was installed on a sub-domain or something. I think it was totally separate. They weren’t related. It was more like I thought maybe I could use something for my website, and I couldn’t figure out how to do it, so I went back to just a plain….

PIPPIN: Nice. I remember doing that.

HELEN: There was a little bit of PHP. Yeah.

PIPPIN: Having websites that where part of it was just static and then I had another part that was WordPress whether it was a blog. I remember at one point I even had random header sections that were part of WordPress.

HELEN: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t think I did anything all that complicated. I was working in the computer lab at the time as a grad student and the tech people and the ed tech people were like, hey, you know, you’re sitting here. Maybe you should learn a little bit about PHP and MySQL because it’s what we use on our website. Maybe you could edit a couple of pages related to things that you do at the school. I was like, cool, that sounds pretty sweet because I had done some C++ and Java in high school and college, so if you’ve ever done C++ or Java, it translates to PHP pretty easily.

PIPPIN: Yeah, it definitely does.

HELEN: So I picked it up pretty quickly. Yeah, I didn’t know anything about WordPress. Then, after I graduated with my Masters Degree, I decided to stay there, where I was, for grad school.

PIPPIN: At the tech lab?

HELEN: No, not like to stay in the computer lab forever. I decided to stay in Rochester.

PIPPIN: Got it.

HELEN: Where I went for grad school, and didn’t have anything to do. It’s really hard to be a full-time, professional musician in an area that has a large music school because there are so many students. And they hired me as the Web developer at the music conservatory, a Web developer, and so I started working on the website.

At some point we did — we had to do a blog site for something related to the school. I was like, well, I’ve used WordPress, and it seems pretty cool and really easy to use, so we should do that. So I made my first full on WordPress site. It was pretty simple, but it was a custom theme, and I had no idea what I was doing. I think about it now. I’m sure there were tons of terrible plugins and who knows what I was doing in the theme even though it was fairly simple in terms of, like, they were just posts.

But that’s what I did and, because I was using it, I thought I should know what’s happening with the software. I don’t like just blindly using things. That’s sort of like a core thing about me is I just have to know more all the time when I’m doing something. So I started sort of following along with what was happening in WordPress, like using the betas and reading the news announcements.

And I saw that they were working on — so this was during 2.8, 2.8 and 2.9. And then I saw that 3.0, when they started working on it, they were like, oh, we’re going to be merging this thing called multisite. Actually, before that, in 2.9 they introduced the custom post type API. And there was another site we were working on that basically used its own really terrible CMS. It was like a couple of Web forms behind basic HTTPS, super secure. I though, oh, you know, this whole custom post type thing that they’re doing in 2.9 would translates really well to this other website that’s related. Maybe that would be a good idea. We didn’t do that.

But then when 3.0 started they said, oh, we’re merging in multisite. And around this time, we had a bunch of budgets cut. This is like 2008, 2009, so like the whole recession thing, and we had a bunch of budgets that were cut, so we had no software budget. People had direct FTP access to the website, so we had somebody accidentally delete the homepage of the school site.

PIPPIN: Oh, no!

HELEN: And we thought, okay, so this is kind of terrible. We shouldn’t maybe use an actual CMS kind of thing. And we had no budget, so all those traditional, big CMSs are not an option. So we looked at WordPress because I was like, well, we’ve been using it really successfully on this other blog, and it seems to do more, and now they’re merging this multisite thing, which for a university makes a lot of sense. So you have the home of the university is the home network site, and then each office, department, and a music school studio, so like a teacher’s area can have their own individual site on the network, and then you can kind of give more granular permissions. You can be like, hey, so the TA for this person’s violin studio can have access to that violin studio site, but they can’t access anything on the main site, so you can get more granular in that way.

BRAD: Right, like they can’t delete the homepage.

HELEN: Right, exactly, and they can’t even post anything that could possibly appear on the main site, so totally sequestered off. We thought, hey, that would be a really smart idea, so we started that. A couple months after we got into planning for it, WordCamp New York 2010 happened, I think, and they had a higher ed track.

Rochester is like a six-hour drive from New York, and I saw it announced the day before it was happening or something, and I thought, oh, my God. I really probably should go to this thing, so I drove overnight down to New York, crashed with a friend, and went to WordCamp New York, and it was my first ever tech conference, gathering of tech people because, up until then, I had been a musician.

Yeah, it was amazing, so I got to see people like Boone speak. I think I saw Nacin speak, a bunch of people, and I thought, you know, this is a really cool vibe, this community. Most people seem really smart. They’re really helpful. They’re really opening to talking to this random girl from a music conservatory in Upstate New York. I really like it, and I think we should stick with it.

It took us about a year from start to finish. I was part time at that point, but we launched the site eventually on WordPress. So that’s what happened.

PIPPIN: That’s amazing. That’s awesome.

HELEN: Yeah, that’s how I found WordPress and then started maybe developing story.

PIPPIN: Yeah, that’s amazing. I love hearing people’s kind of like their origin stories for how they became developers, how they got into WordPress, etc. And I think it’s very clear that you have a drive to educate yourself and to learn more about not just the platforms you’re using, but become more involved with those, which I think is a good segue into what I want to ask you next.

You started. You just told us how you got into WordPress. At what point then — was it shortly after WordCamp New York or in that next year that you started becoming more and more interested in WordPress Core? I know that you said that you were kind of paying attention to what was happening, you were following betas, you were following announcements, things like that, but when did you really start diving into WordPress Core itself and trying to contribute back to that?

Yeah, so it was while I was still at the university, but toward the end of it, we started running our test site on beta. It was like 3.1 beta probably at that point. And I was just noticing some little visual quirks here and there, so I was very much a backend developer then. When I first started that job, I was a PHP and MySQL application developer. I wrote custom, in-house applications that had to hook to File Maker, which is not my most favorite thing to deal with.

PIPPIN: My father is a full-time File Maker developer.

HELEN: Yeah.

PIPPIN: I’m very familiar with that.

HELEN: Yeah. It made sense. I just didn’t love it. Actually, that site has a custom WPDBA connection to the File Maker server for its admissions thing. It’s still there, I’m sure. I doubt they changed it.


HELEN: Yeah, so I wasn’t really a front-end developer or anything. I sometimes don’t necessarily really think of myself that way. But I definitely have an eye for details, so I was just noticing these tiny visual quirks. One day I was like, well, I heard a session at WordCamp like six months ago or whatever about how to contribute or — I don’t think it was even about how to contribute. Just somebody mentioned contributing, which is not something I had ever even though of doing. It never occurred to me because I thought, well, maybe I should figure this whole version thing out and whatever.

PIPPIN: That’s awesome.

HELEN: Yeah.

PIPPIN: You’re jumping in and saying, oh, this is something that maybe I should just learn about, whereas I think a lot of people are much more the mindset of: I’m going to figure this out once I have to.

HELEN: Yeah.

PIPPIN: Once I need to.

HELEN: Honestly, I felt like I needed to because it had become clear to me that version control was a thing. I didn’t know. We were just still FTP-ing everything up at the time, so I didn’t know what version control is. I was like it seems like so many people feel really strongly about. I should probably at least find out why they care so much about it.

Yeah, so I figured out how to make a patch and submitted it, and Dominik ocean90 reviewed my very first patch and was like, you don’t have to edit the compressed file. I was like, what do you mean? When you look at CSS in Inspector, it tells you.

It’s like using the minified files. So how do you test something that’s in minified file, but you want the patch to only touch the mon-minified file? I was like canned editing a minified file? And, yeah, so I didn’t know. What do I know about this stuff? We weren’t doing anything like that. At the time, in Core, it wasn’t a build tool.

PIPPIN: Right.

HELEN: It was the committer ran YUI compressor every single time. So I just didn’t know. And he was like, you don’t need to do that. And I was like, oh, okay. I’m learning. I don’t know. Then with some edits, eventually a patch went in that sort of resembled my original one, and I got props for it.

PIPPIN: Is that first props kind of what drove you to just keep going?

HELEN: Maybe a little bit. I just — I like tinkering with things, I think, and I didn’t like the idea that tiny, little, visual inconsistencies would be there and that I would notice them. But if I didn’t say anything, that felt kind of wrong.

BRAD: Cool. So you’re the lead on the 4.0 release of WordPress. How did that come about?

HELEN: Yeah. We’ve been doing the release lead thing since 3.5 when Nacin was the release lead and Koop was the backup lead. The release lead is a lot of things. It’s part technical project manager, right, so where you figure out what kind of resources you need and help people who are stuck and need things. There’s a lot of that, and there’s some development that happens. There’s some decision-making. Sometimes it’s technical. Sometimes it’s not. In a lot of ways you just need to know enough to be able to make the decision, whether or not you’re actually technical in terms of what you do day-to-day.

But really, we ask for volunteers. At the end of 3.8 it was starting out like, hey, so who would like to throw their hat in the ring for 3.9? And I think the only person who did was me. And it was sort of thought, okay, so 3.9 has got some good stuff going on, but it would be cooler if maybe you spent this release kind of tracking future plugins and helping out with those and just seeing how they go, and then lead 4.0 instead.

And I thought, yeah, that’s real scary, but sure. That sounds like a good plan. Let’s, you know, I’ll monitor some future plugins and give feedback and that kind of thing, and then I’ll lead 4.0, and it’ll be cool. That was sort of the discussion that we had during 3.9. I think it did work out better because, at the time, I have a son and he was really young, like under a year old. So it was much tougher to put in the kind of funny hours I do sometimes. I think, overall, it was better that I waited for 4.0 to lead, but basically it was a combination of putting my name out there saying, hey, I’d be willing to lead 3.9, and then just also being a known person who has earned trust and earned respect.

PIPPIN: I think it really helps to show that making yourself visible and obviously helping build up a reputation of writing, writing good code, having been a logical, intelligent developer. But mostly making yourself known is a really good way of, well, I guess, getting higher up and getting better at contributing to Core. Would you kind of agree with that?

HELEN: Yeah. Definitely. I mean it’s virtual, right? It’s virtual and it’s volunteer, so by nature, the louder you are, and the more noticeable you are, the higher the chances that you’ll be noticed. You know, it’s still best if you have a good attitude and you don’t say nasty things to contributors, that kind of thing.

PIPPIN: Right. Volume alone doesn’t do it.

HELEN: Right. But —

BRAD: Just go on Trac and start trolling all the issues.

HELEN: Right, yeah. Let’s not. Yeah, certainly you can’t notice somebody who is not noticeable.

PIPPIN: Absolutely.

HELEN: And you know that was not easy for me. I’m not really the kind of person to be like, hey, pay attention to me. But at the same time, like I say, it didn’t feel right that there was a chance to work on the software and I have the privilege and the luxury of being able to work on something in my spare time. Having that spare time is something really valuable, and I have that. And I have the ability to contribute to the software. So if I complain about it, and I don’t do anything about it, then I’m kind of horrible if I do that.

That’s how I felt about it. I certainly wasn’t ever aiming to become a committer. That was not in my lifetime bucket list.

PIPPIN: I think that’s probably true with a lot of the people that are on the Core committing team, and not just with WordPress, but open source projects in general. The people that have, in some way, more of an altruistic about it, and they just want to give back. And it turns out that through that they get recognized as being really good at it.

HELEN: Yeah, I would agree with that. It’s self-selecting your contributors, right?

PIPPIN: Definitely.

HELEN: It’s not super easy to contribute.


HELEN: That’s, like, I’m not going to deny that it’s not always easy to contribute. But at the same time, there is an attitude and a tenacity thing that comes with open source and not just WordPress.

PIPPIN: You have to be willing to step up and say, I think this should happen.

HELEN: Absolutely, and advocate for what you want, and really follow through on it.

PIPPIN: With that, what do you think were some of the main challenges? Also, on the flipside, some of the main highlights of being the release lead?

HELEN: I’ll start with highlights, I guess. Highlights have been getting to know contributors, and especially ones who I might not otherwise interact with very much because they float around areas where I don’t really get into as often. But as release lead, I’m paying attention to a little bit of everything as opposed to really focusing on one area.

PIPPIN: Even areas you don’t necessarily like as much.

HELEN: Yeah, I mean I think I like most things in Core, but certainly I don’t typically look at the customizer API, for instance.


HELEN: And I’m not making decisions on that necessarily for this release, but working more closely with Nick Halsey–celloexpressions is his handle, if you’re more familiar with handles–and Westin has been really cool because, I think, otherwise I might not have really interacted with them a whole lot, so that’s been really nice. It’s been nice to — I’ll be honest, it’s been nice to feel respected.

It’s really easy to just get in the hole of, okay, I’m getting stuff done. I’m just working. I’m just working. It’s all good. I’m not really paying attention to what else is going on. But certainly I’ve felt the support of the community as I’ve been working through this release. And the committers, other committers and people that we consider component maintainers have been really amazing this release, just a lot of people putting in a lot of really good work and me feeling like, yeah, I have this group of people that I could be like, you know, that I can rely on and respect me and my decision-making, my opinion, and that kind of thing.

That’s been really cool because I think my ride from musician, and I’m still a musician, but my ride from being a musician most of the time to being a Web developer most of the time has been pretty fast. And it’s easy to keep thinking of myself as like, I don’t want to say a nobody because that’s not the way that I really think about it, but it’s really easy to forget that, you know….

PIPPIN: Yeah, it’s really easy to feel really, really small on the Internet.

HELEN: Yeah, it is. Yeah, there are a lot of issues about me particularly being on the Internet, right?


HELEN: It’s been really nice to feel validated with what I have been doing.

PIPPIN: And any specific challenges that came with the role as well?

HELEN: Challenges: I think I expected all of them because I’ve been through several releases now. There’s always a point where you just feel like everything is terrible. Any project is like this, right? Client work is the same. You reach that point toward the end where you’re like, oh, how am I ever going to get all of this done? What’s even going on here? Everything looks terrible because I’m looking at it too closely. You get to that point with everything. I experience the same thing with client stuff, and that’s been hard. I think wrangling volunteers can be very difficult —

PIPPIN: Definitely.

HELEN: — because you want to be respectful of the fact that you’re doing all this stuff based off of people’s goodwill, right?

PIPPIN: Yep. It’s volunteer time. There are only so many demands you can put on them.

HELEN: Right, exactly. I can be like, hey, do you think maybe you’d be interested in helping. I can’t be like, just do it, except for with a very small group of people who I know are working on it.

PIPPIN: Right.

HELEN: You know, for some sponsored amount. And even at that it’s like, unless it’s like another Core committer or lead developer, it’s still at the whims of whoever is sponsoring them, so you have to be respectful. I think that’s just been a challenge. Managing people is always a challenge, trying to schedule out time and make sure that things stay on track, really stay on top of, like, to get reports and what’s going on. Making hard decisions to punt tickets, that’s always unpleasant.

PIPPIN: No one wants to hear their ticket was punted.

HELEN: Yeah, sorry about the password thing.


HELEN: Yeah, so those are really hard too because —

PIPPIN: It’s hard to be the bearer of bad news.

HELEN: Yes. It is hard to be the bearer of bad news, and it’s also, you know, you’re looking at it and going, yeah, this is totally valid. We need to fix it, but you have to make a decision at some point, right, because we don’t do three-year release cycles or whatever. We do rapid ones, and we do iterative ones. And with that comes chopping things down because you have to, and that’s also been tough.

BRAD: You mentioned that you pretty much expected the challenges that you faced, but were there any that were kind of unexpected?

HELEN: I don’t know that there was anything that I wasn’t expecting. And I think, honestly, that’s a big part of why I was chosen to be a release lead is that I’ve been around enough that some of these things that happen don’t really surprise me. They still take energy and that kind of thing, but nothing has been out of the ordinary as far as releases go.

PIPPIN: Of all of the different things that have come in that are going into 4.0 or that have already been finished, two questions for you. Number one, what is your favorite improvement or change that has gone into 4.0? And maybe what was your favorite that didn’t go into 4.0 that was maybe originally slated for 4.0?

HELEN: I think when we started 4.0 there was some hope that the WP REST API would go in. I think we all knew that it was a long shot. Certainly everybody was hopeful because it sounds cool. It’s the future of the Web, and it’s 4.0 because it’s a nice round number and all of that kind of thing. There was some hope, I think, for it. I’m glad it didn’t go in. When you’re building an API like that that’s going to be used at the kind of scale it’s going to be used at, you have to be really, really deliberate about it.

PIPPIN: You really have to get it right.

HELEN: Yes, and I think that what we’re doing now is we’re really seeing people build on it and what kinds of pain points come up as people build on it in the real world because that’s why I can — that’s why 10up pays me to work on WordPress is, besides the community thing, it’s also that I’m bringing back what we’ve learned as pain points because we do integration work. Right? Every single different use case is going to reveal different pain points. The more things that get built on the API now before it becomes a slow moving part of Core the better off we’ll be, right, because once it goes into Core, it can only update with Core.

PIPPIN: Right.

HELEN: As opposed to being a plugin where it can update as much as it wants to.

PIPPIN: You could update every night.

HELEN: Exactly. Rapid iteration versus deliberate iteration.


HELEN: Yeah, so I think that was nice. There is a part of me — I certainly didn’t do it deliberately, but there is a part of me that is very glad that we don’t have one giant trumpet feature for this release, and a lot of it is combating that round number bias.

PIPPIN: Right.

HELEN: Right.

PIPPIN: Hey, this is version 4.0. Where is that amazing new feature?

HELEN: Yeah. This is WordPress 4.0. What makes it 4.0? And it’s like, well, that’s not how we number things. Yeah, you know, if you’re into version numbers and whatever, like, that is super confusing, and I get that, but we just don’t things that way. Honestly, there’s so many things already in WordPress that iterating on what we’ve got, to me, is what really defines this as a project, right?

PIPPIN: I 100% agree. Iterative development and doing releases that are refining existing features is one of my favorite kind of releases. Definitely, as a developer, I know there’s times as a user I see a new version and I don’t see that big, new feature, and I do get into that trap of being like, oh, it could have been more.

HELEN: Yeah.

PIPPIN: But then I can take a step back and realize, wait a minute, this little area right here is so much smoother. For example, the double scroll bars now that are gone from the editor is amazing.

HELEN: Yeah.

PIPPIN: I love that feature so much. I actually knew that it was happening, but then I saw it the other day when I was playing with Trunk, and I was going around. I was working on some other plugin, and I just noticed it offhand, but it grabbed me because I was like, this is amazing. And so those little kinds of refinements, they’re beautiful.


BRAD: There’s a tumbler called Little Big Details or something like that. Have you guys ever heard of that?

HELEN: Yeah. Yeah, I can’t remember the name.

PIPPIN: Yeah, so they kind of highlight some really cool stuff in apps, so some granular details that are really minor, but important, that add a lot to the user experience. And I think that’s kind of what we’re talking about here.


PIPPIN: I think it definitely is. Those little details, to me, say a lot about how much the developers and the maintainer of a project actually care about the project.

HELEN: Yeah.

PIPPIN: Anybody can build a big, new feature. Not everybody can polish it so well.

HELEN: Yep. Yep, and also —

BRAD: Actually, it’s That’s the site.

HELEN: Yeah, there you go.

PIPPIN: Ah, there we go.

HELEN: I recognize that.

PIPPIN: Awesome. Helen, you are actually paid by 10up to work on Core full time or mostly full time, right?

HELEN: Yeah.

PIPPIN: How was — tell us about that. Was that a huge contributing factor in becoming the release lead and a factor in how much you’re able to put into Core? Obviously you’re not — since you’re paid by 10up to do it, it’s not as much of I’m trying to find my time in the evenings or late at night or early in the morning. So you work on Core most of the day, right?

HELEN: Yes. There are a lot of pieces to this. It’s not what I started at 10up doing. Believe it or not, I was the first employee, full-time employee at 10up almost exactly three years ago. It definitely was not why I started at 10up because I hadn’t done a whole lot with it before starting at 10up. For me, it does enable me to do a lot of things that I might not otherwise be able to do now because I have a family. It enables me to work on it during the day as opposed to during weird hours.

PIPPIN: Right, right.

HELEN: Although the reality —

PIPPIN: Two hours after your son goes to bed.

HELEN: Right. The reality though is that I work on things at weird hours, and that’s a part of working with people all across the world, right? So I do things at really weird times of day still. So it actually hasn’t really changed. It just means that maybe I can take an hour off during the day instead when maybe otherwise you should be working or in a client meeting.

PIPPIN: Right.

HELEN: Yeah.

PIPPIN: I just thought about this because I’ve got two developers that work with me remotely here in town for the week. We started getting down to the subject of what do our neighbors think about what we do. My neighbor is blue-collar worker. I think he works at a dealership. He’ll be going to work in the morning, and I’m sitting outside in shorts and a t-shirt obviously just woken up, drinking my coffee, and I realize I bet people think that I’m a bum.

HELEN: Yeah.

PIPPIN: And that I don’t do anything. I think that’s just an effect of — it’s just what happens because of the weird hours that we work. Not necessarily the weird hours, but also the weird circumstances in how we work compared to most people.

HELEN: Yeah. Yeah, I think they’re a little bit confused.

PIPPIN: Do you think that that’s happening … do you have a hard time explaining or like when people ask what you do or how you’re working at home?

HELEN: I think, around here, so I live just outside of Manhattan. Around here I think it’s more common to find people with less traditional job paths, so I actually don’t get so many questions about it. I think what does confuse people though is that my husband is a musician and also is full time, realistically, he’s the parent. He’s a stay at home parent, so we’re both at home all the time. I think that’s confusing for our neighbors is that they always see us during the day.

PIPPIN: Yeah, my wife and I are the same way.

HELEN: Yeah, so they probably think that we don’t do anything or something. I think they do know better. I think Web development is something that’s pretty well understood. Well, I guess at least as being a legitimate job.


HELEN: Yeah, so I don’t get so many questions about that. But certainly one of the things that I’ve been sort of battling a little bit is that when we do go out and meet, you know, meet people or we encounter people around here, there’s this really subtle way of always asking, you know, because we have a baby, so they always ask my husband what he does, and they never ask me.

PIPPIN: Right.

HELEN: So there’s this assumption that I am a stay at home mom who isn’t her own person or something, and so that’s been a little weird. Yeah, but that’s really —

BRAD: Yeah, my wife gets the same thing.

HELEN: Yeah.

BRAD: She’s been doing her Ph.D., and people just kind of assume that she’s a stay at home mom.

HELEN: Yeah, it’s like, oh, you’re just hanging out at home. Yeah, that’s not what I’m doing at all.

PIPPIN: Making the Internet awesome.

HELEN: Yeah, I make the Internet. That’s what I tell people sometimes, and they give you this look of, like, oh, ha-ha, you’re so funny. And it’s like, no. They’re like, really?

PIPPIN: No, no, seriously, I make the Internet.

HELEN: That’s actually what I’m doing. Yeah, so I get paid to do it, which just means that I’m more able to not do the client stuff, I guess, is really all it is.


HELEN: I am a director at 10up, so I do some internal leadership. Some of my community time doesn’t just go to Core. I call it community time. Obviously a lot of it goes into Core, but I also speak at a lot of WordCamps. I now co-organize a meet-up here in Jersey City, along with Jenn Schiffer. We co-organize Jersey Script, so that’s pretty cool. Yeah, I do things like that. I’m trying to get out of the WordPress world a little bit, so I’m trying to speak at events that are not WordPress oriented.

PIPPIN: Branching out.

HELEN: Yeah. I spoke at 200 OK, like a Web development conference in Tulsa last year and that was pretty cool.

PIPPIN: Very cool.

BRAD: What was your motivation for branching out?

HELEN: Branching out — my personal motivation, there’s a lot of things. There’s obviously self-betterment, just getting better at my craft, meeting people. I like to spread the word about WordPress. I think, as we all know, there are a lot of misconceptions about WordPress. There are also a lot of valid complaints about WordPress. And I like getting out of our —

PIPPIN: Out of our bubble.

HELEN: We are. Yeah. It is. I mean, that’s what I love about the community too, right, is like we are a very positive group for the most part, and such a lovely group of people. Every time you go to WordCamp, you make new friends. But at the same time there is a point where not everything is positive, and we’re not our own best users, right? So there’s huge value in getting outside of….

PIPPIN: It’s really nice to talk to people that not just are not WordPress users, but also maybe who are no longer WordPress users and find out why.

HELEN: Yeah, there’s a lot of, like, this thing burned me and I don’t want to go back.

PIPPIN: Yeah, definitely.

HELEN: And if we think about the way that we think about things as well, we do the same thing. It’s just that we are so invested in WordPress that we forget that, when you get burned by something, you don’t want to go back.

PIPPIN: Absolutely. I can think of my first experience with a couple of other CMSs, and I could go back and say that didn’t work out very well, and I have no interest in using them. And it’s because I got burned. Yeah, absolutely.

HELEN: Yeah, so that’s been really nice. Obviously for 10up, it’s great for recruiting. It’s great for getting our name out there. When we pitch to clients and that kind of thing, they love that we have demonstrated deep knowledge of WordPress, that it’s publicly visible and that you have that kind of expertise on the team. Being in this area in New York, I meet up with clients fairly regularly, both for new sales and also for just continued strategy and that kind of thing. And I do enjoy doing that as well because I love 10up as well as I love WordPress.

PIPPIN: That’s awesome.

HELEN: Yeah, so I love doing those things for the company as well.

BRAD: If someone is listening that is interested in getting involved, contributing to Core, what would you tell them or what would you say to them?

HELEN: I would say to scratch your itch — we say that all the time. It sounds kind of corny, but it does require some tenacity to contribute, right, because depending on where we are in the dev cycle, we might not be able to commit that thing that you worked on so hard right now. Right now, a lot of people are like, hey, can you commit this thing? I made a patch. It’s like, sorry, no enhancements right now. Sometimes you have to wait, right? And sometimes tickets, they don’t get noticed because WordPress is a very busy project, which is nice and healthy, but also is just a lot of information parts all the time. Either sometimes tickets get lost, so you have to be willing to come and be like, hey, can somebody please pay attention? Hey, where are we with this?

PIPPIN: Don’t you have to be willing to speak up?

HELEN: Yes. You have to be willing to speak up and willing to wait a little bit sometimes and understand the dev cycle, which is like self-learning. I think, when you have something you’re working on that is really meaningful to you, as opposed to just looking to work on something because you’re looking for a quick props, I think there’s more success in those just because, when you’re invested in it, it’s easy to stick with it. Of course, if you’re comfortable with something like a bug tracker, then you can look through Trac and be like, hey, I see this is slated for 4.0. It needs a patch, and I should work on it. But you’re not born knowing how to use Trac, so it’s not always a great place to start.

Yeah, I think looking for something that you’re into, so like for me, my first patch was some stars had the wrong colored border. It sounds really small, but that’s something that I noticed and was bugging me, so I wanted to work on it, right? It wasn’t like, oh, this is already, you know, this is guaranteed to get into this release. That’s sort of a funny motivation. It’s not bad. It’s just not the way that we operate the project.

PIPPIN: I think it’s very easy for people to come in and kind of have a misconception that says, okay, I found this issue, whether it’s an enhancement or a bug. I wrote a patch. The patch seems to work, so it’ll just obviously go right in. Well, right, duh? No. And people have that misconception, but that’s just not quite the way that it works.

I learned that the hard way for sure. I remember a couple of my first patches. I put them in, and they sat there for months. I was like, why is no one looking at this? But then once I spoke up and kind of asked, I got that process. It was made more clear to me. People explained it, and I think that helped a lot. But it was really that speaking up and trying to figure out not just about getting noticed, but saying, hey, here is this; I would love to know what someone thinks about it.

HELEN: Mm-hmm, yeah.

PIPPIN: As opposed to just assuming that someone will see it.

HELEN: I think it touches on a really interesting thing that we’ve been working on in terms of Core project management, which is that you’re right. I think a lot of people do submit patches and assume they’re going to be reviewed or at least looked at, right? I don’t think that’s an unfair assumption. But I don’t think that we’re equipped to do it because it’s such a large project, right? And it’s a high volume of stuff that’s coming in all the time.


HELEN: What we’re working on, and mostly through Nacin, working on things on the .org side, but so there are components, right? Trac has a field for components, and we think of components as this functional piece of WordPress, right? So like the customizer is a functional piece of WordPress.

What we want to do is find people who become then the maintainers of that component that’s not a committer. Being a committer, honestly, is not really all that glamorous. It’s not about becoming committer. It’s about saying I have, through whatever means, developed this expertise in this area of WordPress, in this functional component of WordPress. I, therefore, feel empowered to understand not only how this component works now, but have a vision for how it could work in the future.

PIPPIN: Certainly.

HELEN: Right, and how we maintain that compatibility, where it could go, what awesome things it could be, how it’s going to work on different devices, whatever, all kinds of aspects of whatever component. And we want people who have developed that deep knowledge in whatever means to come and say, like, I am a part of maintaining this component. That person then is empowered by way of trust, essentially, right? Hey, I’m a — they’re listed on the page as a component maintainer. For the customizer, we have Westin, Nick and, I believe, Dominik listed as maintainers of this component. You can subscribe to a component if you just want to check it out, so there’s that aspect to it as well.

PIPPIN: I think that right there, being able to subscribe to individual components, is one of the biggest things that I’ve found personally that made it a lot easier. Just being able to see what’s happening in a particular part of Core that I care about, maybe more so than other parts, and just seeing those tickets come through, seeing that discussion and being like, oh, I could jump in here.

HELEN: Yep. Yeah, and that’s the other thing is like —

BRAD: It really helps cut through the noise.

HELEN: It does. Yeah, there’s a lot of noise, and I think also with that then that’s a way to develop that kind of expertise in that component over time.

PIPPIN: Definitely.

HELEN: Just by watching what happens in Core, learning what other parts of Core maybe you do have to consider, and then — so, like, in an ideal world, right, we have a component maintainer who may or may not have commit access. It’s sort of beyond the point because commit access for us is just a formality of pushing code … version, so a component maintainer should be able to see the tickets as they come into their component and give quicker feedback than waiting for one of 10 to 13 committers to come review it. So there can be a much larger body of component maintainers. As a new ticket comes in, they can kind of give it an overview. If there’s a patch, they can review the patch, give feedback on it, give feedback on the ticket, maybe close it out immediately, which is also super helpful so that we just don’t have so many things open all the time.


HELEN: It’s great to have open tickets, especially because we track features and wish list items too. But just cut out the noise, right? We don’t need this.

PIPPIN: Definitely.

HELEN: We can close this and do….

PIPPIN: Make it easier to find things. Make it easier to keep track of things.

HELEN: Right, exactly. And also to define future roadmaps for that component and that kind of thing.


HELEN: And so ideally these people, they would be able to review a patch and say, hey, this is really for commit. I think this is awesome. Then all a committer has to do now is do a final review and hopefully commit it. It goes much faster. Pippin, you at the WordCamp New York contributor day, reviewed a patch that’s actually been in my court for like months. But because it hadn’t — it had some people look at the patch and say, oh, hey, it works, which is also really helpful, but I don’t think anybody had really done much of a patch review.


HELEN: But I felt like, okay, so I know Pippin. Not just because I’ve met him or something, but I know him, what he’s worked on, and stuff he’s done in Trac. I feel pretty confident that he’s looked at this patch, and it seems good to him, and I still have a question about this patch now having looked at it, but now I know that there is a person that I can communicate with and ask this one last question of before I go commit it. Right? Instead of me having to do the initial review, leave feedback, wait for a response to the feedback, and then maybe commit it. Right?

PIPPIN: Definitely.

HELEN: That’s a lot more time and energy than just doing a last cursory review of something before committing it. And so that finally went in, not just because it was slated for 4.0, but because somebody who wasn’t a committer —

PIPPIN: Because somebody else looked at it.

HELEN: Right.

PIPPIN: And helped give that extra feedback.

HELEN: Exactly. Somebody kicked it and was like, hey, here’s one less step that a committer has to take in order for this to come to Core.

PIPPIN: There’s definitely lots sitting around in Core that can have that, so for anybody who is listening, if you’re having trouble getting active, I think that’s a really great way to go ahead and get involved is go find those ones that have been sitting around and need that extra kick.

I know we could go on probably for hours talking about Core. Unfortunately, I think we are getting about out of time.

HELEN: Oh, yeah.

PIPPIN: Helen, thank you so much for coming on. It’s been an absolute pleasure. Quickly, tell people where they can find you online for any questions that they may have if they want to get in touch or just look up what you do.

HELEN: Sure. I am @helenhousandi on Twitter. I’m fairly active there. I’m just Helen in freenode in IRC if you want to come find me for WordPress development things. We hold daily bug scrubs right now at 11:00 a.m. eastern. So if you want to just see how that works, you can come check that out. You don’t have to say anything. You can just sit there in the WordPress dev channel and watch.

PIPPIN: Absorb knowledge.

HELEN: Yeah. Just see how it works. It really is not a scary glamorous thing.

PIPPIN: Awesome.

HELEN: I’m if you want to see what I do, and is our lovely company.

PIPPIN: Awesome. Thank you so much, Helen.

HELEN: Of course.


BRAD: Yes. I just wanted to mention Big Snow Tiny Conf. It’s the ski getaway and conference for business owners. So if you have a business, and you would like to do some skiing, snowboarding, and talk business, come join us at Sugarbush Mountain in Vermont January 26th to the 29th. for the details and to subscribe to our mailing list.

PIPPIN: Very cool.

BRAD: Also, you should head on over to iTunes. Leave us a review. That would be awesome. It not only helps us, but it also helps people find our podcast, so we’d really appreciate that.

I just want to say thanks again to our sponsors, GravityView and WP Ninjas.

Thanks, everybody.

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