WordCamp ATL Friday Sessions

I’m in Atlanta this weekend for WordCamp ATL at the Savannah College of Art and Design. My hotel is a half a mile or so from the building, an easy enough walk (if not a particularly scenic one). You walk in and then go through sort of a maze of hallways to get to the elevator that takes you to the fourth floor, where the setup is very nice — one big room (not an auditorium exactly) and several satellite classrooms. There’s loads of fruit and muffins and juice set up for us, and the registration process is very smooth, the only hitch being that I forget for a minute that I’ve actually had the nerve to sign up as a speaker and so have gotten in the wrong short line. There are big faceted jugs of water with lemon slices floating in them and big jugs of water with what I think are lime slices floating in them, but they turn out to be cucumbers, which is nice but a bit of a surprise. I alternate throughout the day between lemon water and cucumber water.

We learn during the opening remarks that a couple of speakers aren’t able to make it (food poisoning), and unfortunately, one is the speaker I had been hoping to see for my first two sessions. It definitely hasn’t been a wash, though. Read on for my notes from the sessions I’ve attended today.

Thomas Griffin, Awesome Theme Functionality? It Probably Needs a Plugin

He told us about a nightmare scenario involving urgent 1am phone calls from a distressed client. The cause? He had built a theme that did more than skin the site. Core blog functionality (things like custom post types, meta boxes, shortcodes, custom taxonomies, etc.) were built into the theme itself rather than an accompanying plugin, and when the client changed themes one day, their content disappeared.

The speaker proposed using a “core functionality” plugin that you require from within any theme you develop. Once installed, the plugin bits remain on the site whether the theme itself is later uninstalled or not.

He went on to talk a bit about his core functionality plugin, which does things like managing suggested and required plugins on theme installation using WP_Filesystem. It seemed like a pretty neat plugin for those who handle lots of site deployments and find themselves requiring the same things over and over again.

Although this wasn’t a terribly technically deep topic, I suspect some of the details were over the heads of a lot of the attendees. I enjoyed it and was glad to learn about this plugin and to have the best practice of theme/plugin separation reinforced, but I didn’t learn much new (which is ok — I’m not sure I expected to).

Mike Schinkel, Mastering Custom Post Types

  • Slides
  • Custom post types made WP a really good all-purpose CMS
  • Recommended tools:
    • PhpStorm
    • Navicat for MySQL
    • VirtualHostX
    • Transmit/FIlezilla
    • HTTPScoop (or Fiddler on Windows)
  • After creating a custom post type, you have to refresh permalinks. You can do this programmatically too, I think he said, but then he talked about a site that was refreshing them on every page load, so you have to be careful.
  • add_meta_boxes action (just something I hadn’t known about, since I’ve never made a custom post type with any further intent than testing the most basic functionality).
  • re taxonomies: the “hierarchical” key when registering determines whether a taxonomy is a tag or a category (categories are hierarchical)
  • You can add a custom post type filter to the posts page (allowing you to filter by e.g. a given comic) using the restrict_manage_posts and pre_get_posts hooks.
  • I thought this was a nice intro to custom post types. If you have trouble absorbing info in the Codex, this was probably a great session, and I picked up a few tidbits I hadn’t known before.

Dre Armada, WordPress End-User Security — The Remix

I had heard about Dre and was eager to hear his talk, and although I was already familiar with the material he covered, I thought his presentation was really good. He was animated and understanding of his initially quiet post-lunch crowd. I think his presentation was probably eye-opening for lots of the attendees, and he reminded me that even though I know the stuff he was covering, there’s lots of room for improvement in my adoption of security best practices. I took a bunch of notes, but they were basically a transcription of his slides, which you can see here. It’d be good for veteran and new users alike to review them.

CSI WordPress — Getting into the Guts

This speaker was a no-show, making that three sessions I had hoped to attend that didn’t turn out as planned. Would-be attendees (turned presenters) Doug Cole and Mark Jaquith were conscripted to speak on general WordPress development topics, using an old presentation Doug had handy and then doing a general Q&A. It turned out fine but wasn’t the sort of thing that demanded much in the way of note-taking. It was certainly not time wasted, but neither was it the more tech-heavy session I had hoped for. Kudos to the two for stepping up to fill an unfortunate gap.

Sara Cannon, Design Swoon — Visual Trends and WordPress

Sara is quiet. I attended her session because I have no eye for design and wanted to see what I could learn. She started by showing us some really neat HTML5 sites (e.g. beetle.de) and then moved on to talking briefly about mobile, and responsive themes. She’s a big fan of Twenty Eleven and recommends it as a great starting point for doing responsive design. Some other things she covered, mostly by showing us some nifty web sites and talking through them:

  • Movement
  • Simplicity
  • What not do do in 2012
    • Don’t use Comic Sans (even ironically)
    • bingo cards (too many thumbnails all together)
    • sliders (if you use them, make sure the content they house is curated, and well-curated)
    • don’t use a fauxgo
  • What todo in 2012
    • break your borders and breathe (don’t box your web site in), e.g. paulmitchellkelly.com
    • there is no page fold (don’t be scared of scrolling)
    • design is everything
      • web design is 95% typography
        • ringboxingclub.com
        • don’t let your site dictate your content; let your content dictate what your site will look like
        • metadata will be key to making sure your styling is relevant to your content; e.g. put pull-quotes in metadata
  • Some neat tools

I dug seeing some of these sites, and the tools listed near the end are really cool, but this wasn’t a session that really taught me anything. The attention to WordPress was scant, but short of digging in and workshopping the creation of a theme, I don’t know how she could have shoehorned WordPress into a “visual trends” topic anyway. I should probably have gone to Russell Fair’s session on mu-plugins but wanted to try something outside my usual skill set. That’s not to say that Sara’s session wasn’t good (the designers in the room in particular seemed really engaged and asked some good questions); it just wasn’t quite the design tutorial I had imagined (though put on the spot, I couldn’t describe what I’d expect anyway). Sara’s doing another talk in the same room and time slot on typography tomorrow.

Starting the Knoxville WordPress Meetup

Back in September, I started the Knoxville WordPress Meetup group, and we’ve been meeting ever since. Last week, Jane Wells, who does project management (and many other things) for the downloadable WordPress software, announced that the WordPress Foundation was working toward helping foot the bill and provide resources for local meetup groups, and she followed the announcement up yesterday with an account on her personal blog of how her startup of two local meetups had gone. I thought I’d update here with the progress of my little group as well.

We held our first meetup in October. I paid for the meetup.com registration out of my pocket (one of the things the foundation’s support will prevent the need for) and just proposed a time, date, and place. I tweeted about it and posted to Facebook, but these aren’t terribly great advertising channels for me, as most of the people who follow me on Twitter aren’t local (I’m a hermit in real life), and most of my local Facebook friends could care less about a WordPress meetup. I also have a hangup about spamming people. I was surprised when people started joining the meetup group and even more so when eight or nine of us showed up for the first meetup. We met at a Panera, and the agenda included basically a meet and greet, plus discussing what we might like to cover at future meetups. We settled on second Tuesdays at 7:30 as our general meeting times.

One of the attendees, Mike, whom I’ve known for upwards of a decade by now, happens to be on the board of a local organization that has a small space for coworking and community technology-related meetings. He offered the space for future meetups, and I took him up on it, not least of all because I’m shy about flying any sort of flag about myself and my interests in public places like Panera. A restaurant was great for a first meeting, but I was happy to have a dedicated, private facility at my disposal, and we’ve met there ever since. I’d say we could probably grow to 20 or so people in this facility before needing to find something bigger.

In November, we had a smaller crew, and though I had hoped that some of the WordPress novices (or at least those who blogged but didn’t really know much about theming or development) would show up to take advantage of what I had billed as a theming workshop, we were mostly a few developer types. I gave a little presentation about theming and we chatted a bit, but it wasn’t, to my mind, the most successful of meetings. I had hoped some of the more technical among us could help some of the less technical with specific problems they were having with their themes (hence the “workshop” title), but it wound up being me giving some info without any application of it. (That said, some of the info seemed to be new and interesting even to the developers who showed up.)

One of the challenges, when you’re a small group with mixed experience (ie, developers and non-developers) is finding a way to hold meetings that interest everybody. Topics that require too much technical knowledge will stink for the novices, and many topics that would be helpful for the novices would be a snooze for developers. As you get bigger and can break into smaller groups, I suspect this becomes less of a problem, but when you can count your attendees on one hand, or one hand and a couple of fingers, splitting up isn’t really a great option.

For our December meeting, we were again a smallish crew, and I gave a presentation on securing your WordPress blog. It seemed to be pretty well received, and of course, although I was giving a presentation, we also had back-and-forth and sidebars where needed.

I was too lazy busy over the holidays to put together any sort of presentation, so for our January meeting, I proposed the topic “Bring a Question or Problem,” figuring that even if those present didn’t know the answers offhand, we could go hunting for answers and help each other out. With eight confirming that they would attend, I thought we might be on the verge of having a lift in our attendance numbers, but only five of us showed up. Still, there were some good beginner questions and one slightly more technical question I really enjoyed trying to help out with. The format here worked very well for our small group. Mike proposed in the Meetup forums that even when we have some formal topic or presentation, we keep it fairly brief and dedicate a hefty chunk of our time to Q&A, and I think he’s got the right idea. Of course, if nobody has any questions, I guess we’ll wind up having a short meetup.

So, there’s a history of the Knoxville WordPress meetup to date. Our regular time slot in February falls on Valentine’s Day, and I’m working on trying to figure out whether to cancel or move the meetup. Our topic will be “Squeezing Performance out of WordPress” (something I need to read up on a bit beforehand). This is one of those tricky ones that would be easy to make too technical for novices and not technical enough for developers, so finding the right balance may be tricky. I’ll probably err to the side of simplicity but try to have a little more technical info in my back pocket for any sidebars that come up among the developers.

Our meetup page boasts 23 members, though we’ve never yet beat the attendance record we set at our first meeting. Those of us who have shown up pretty regularly seem to have a good rapport, and I enjoy the meetups. They force me to formalize some of the vague knowledge I have about using certain features of WordPress, which is part of why I started the group to begin with.

Knoxville WordPress Meetup

In August, I went to St. Louis to meet with members of my team at Automattic. Among the many fun things we did while there, we (some 20 of us) descended upon the St. Louis WordCamp. For the person-and-a-half who reads this blog and doesn’t know what a WordCamp is (of the maybe four people who read the blog, period), it’s an inexpensive conference at which people convene to learn about WordPress. Like any conference, a WordCamp hosts speakers who know a bit about what they’re talking about, and then others give of their time to volunteer to staff the event. Still others spend their time and money attending the event. In St. Louis, the audience seemed pretty varied. I spoke to people who simply wanted a little help setting up their blogs, and of course many in attendance knew a great deal about the guts of WordPress.

At the end of the day, WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg stopped by and did a Q&A, and during this hour or so of candid chat, a humbling thought occurred to me: These people had organized themselves around a set of products and services that I’m fortunate enough to have the privilege of working on. Let me frame that a little differently. Imagine you work for a company that makes widgets. One day, you learn that people all over the world are spending great effort and money from their own pockets to gather voluntarily and talk enthusiastically about your widgets. Even if you’re passionate about fabricating widgets, it’s still kind of amazing to think that people like your widgets enough to assemble and talk about them as if they were, well, important, valuable, enriching. It was a great feeling to bring away from that WordCamp.

For those not lucky enough to have WordCamps organized in their necks of the woods, there are of course WordPress meetups, which are less formal, typically free, smaller gatherings of WordPress enthusiasts and users. Inspired by my experience in St. Louis, I decided after my return home to set up a WordPress meetup of my own. And then I promptly let it sit untended.

My neglect was based on a few things:

  • I’ve never been to a WordPress meetup and don’t know exactly what goes on there or how to run one.
  • I’m generally very shy.
  • Although I’ve used WordPress off and on (mostly on) for many years now, I hadn’t done much recent development on the platform. Even my job with Automattic sees me working more on the non-standard bits of the code than on the core code. So although I’m in the position of someone who might seem to be something of an authority on WordPress, there’s still a whole lot that I don’t know. Accordingly, I fear that as the putative authority founding a meetup group, I’ll fall far short of expectations.

Bah, excuses, excuses. Today, I’ve bitten the bullet and scheduled the first actual meetup gathering for the group I hope to start. So far, three people (including me) are members of the group, and I’m the only one who’s RSVP’d. If you happen to be a Knoxville blogger, developer, or designer (or anything else) who’s interested in WordPress, I hope you’ll visit the meetup page and consider keeping me from being lonely at the event I’ve scheduled for a few weeks hence. If anybody shows up, we’ll do introductions, get a feel for where people’s experience/comfort with WordPress is generally oriented, and try to figure out where to go next.

Whither Daryl?

Several months ago, I posted a status update on Facebook to let my friends know that my employment with my then-employer, Flock, was going to come to an end. Flock was bought by online gaming giant Zynga, and for various reasons I decided not to go along for the ride. Flock did need some ongoing help with the transition, however. We had a service and a few dozen servers online that needed to be kept up and running while things wound down. Flock asked if I’d be willing to stay onboard and help with that wind-down, and I agreed to do so.

Meanwhile, I interviewed at several places. Among them was a company named Automattic. Automattic is most famous for making WordPress (both the downloadable version and the service), though they provide other services as well.

I’m Christmas-morning excited to report that I’m a full-time Automattician as of today. I have the whimsical title “Happiness Gardener.” In a nutshell (without getting too technical about it), I’ll provide support primarily for the “Happiness” (or support) team in the form of internal tools. I imagine I’ll do some public-facing things as well, as part of assuring happiness among our users is trying to make it so that they don’t require support in the first place. I’m working with a great bunch of really smart, nice people, and I feel lucky to be invited along. After months of dragging along around my neck the albatross that Flock had become, it’s a real relief to have moved on and started a new and challenging venture.