WCSEA 2015: John Jacoby — Keynote

I’m at WordCamp Seattle today and will be posting notes from sessions through­out the day.

“Welcome to WordPress”

This is a talk from John James Jacoby on his personal story with contributing to WordPress, to help us earn from some of John’s mistakes and experiences. He’s contributed to WordPress since 2007.

WordCamp.org session description

Find John Jacob Jacoby @JJJ on Twitter and jjj.me on the web

WordPress History

Before blogs were blogs, there was software called b2/cafelog. Eventually that software was abandoned, but it was open source. Matt and Mike were two guys on the internet using it and liking it who decided they didn’t want it to die, who breathed new life into it. Thus, WordPress came out of a different way of developing software than is common today. It’s more common today for people to contribute to something that already has momentum, not something that’s abandoned.

When John first got involved, it was easy to contribute. It was before tools like unit tests and compile/build tools, which have added difficulty and learning curve for people to get started. WordPress wasn’t great yet, so it was also easy to identify areas for improvement.

WordPress.org was originally just running bbPress, which inherited its database user table schema from MyBB (sp?), its ancestor. By default you don’t see a profile when you visit the author page, but rather a series of the authors’ posts. BuddyPress makes it more about the users and less about the blog itself.

WordPress.org has grown from just being support forums, to running the project by using BuddyPress (plus moving from SourceForge to Trac, adding Multisite, etc.).

John’s personal contribution story

He taught himself VisualBasic as a teenager. He was active on forums and familiar with building forums. He was frustrated with the limitations of forum schemas: Topics were limited to one topic, one forum; you couldn’t have a topic in multiple forum.

John Googled for how to solve this problem — multiple taxonomies — and found bbPress because it was beginning to address this problem at the time. Then, he found his way WordPress MU (“MultiUser”, at the time).

These three pieces — bbPress, BuddyPress, and WordPress — weren’t good at working together, so John focused his contributions on making them play better together.

John never installed single-site WordPress. He’s always worked with Multisite and these three pieces.

Contributing to WordPress: Our motivation, and the difficulties

No one sat in a room like we’re doing at this conference to talk about WordPerfect. It’s remarkable that 200 some people are sitting in a room together talking about a piece of software. (“Let’s talk about the toolbar… and the menus… so great!”)

We do it because we’re all able to see how it works, influence the design, change things, etc.

John found it easy to find people to contribute with a bunch of other people back in the day, because working in isolation is lonely, and because there wasn’t a lot of structure like there is now.

But the process today isn’t super inviting. With make.wordpress.org we’re trying to provide some structure and guide people to get in, but it was easier when there were fewer parts. Now there are different specialized teams, and several companies involved with various focuses.

John seemed keen to validating for people in the audience finding it hard to get involved and contribute that, yes, it’s harder now.

Rather than try to influence every little thing, which used to be easy, today it’s easier to focus on something specific. Skills tend toward specialization. Eventually there will be so much to do in every specific area, there will be people who work full time on just one specific area. For example, with WordPress today there are already contributors who focus nearly all of their contributions on just improving icons.

From Volunteering to a Career

John’s volunteering story: When he was a kid growing up in rural Wisconsin, there wasn’t much to do for fun except break things. So his first experience with volunteering was actually being “voluntold”. But he loved it.

And, he realized that if you want to do something, the easiest way to get it is to just do it. Eventually you’ll become one of the best people at it.

Then, eventually you can transition into an actual career. Start practicing piano and you’ll be terrible on day one, but keep at it, and eventually people might want to pay you to play for them. It’s the same thing with code.

John started answering questions in the WordPress forum. It was easy to lurk long enough to make sure he knew the right answer, then help others. Eventually he became knowledgeable enough to contribute patches. Today he’s one of the community’s leaders.


or, what I will call WordPress/Life Balance.

Contributing to WordPress becomes a cycle of reward. You do something good, and people say thank you, and that feels good, and so you do it again, and repeat. This can become an unhealthy sort of addition: some people may end up spending too much time at their computer, neglecting other responsibilities, or their health.

The nature of remote teams makes it more difficult for people to notice when you’re going crazy, or looking unhealthy. (Or not having a good work/life balance with how you spend time.) We can hide behind our computers.

On the mental health side, imposter syndrome can creep in and devalue our sense of self. This is basically a constant feeling that you are not awesome, because you’re surrounded by brilliant people, that you can’t compete with directly.

So it’s important to remember to focus on your health. It’s important to maintain perspective on how awesome your contributions really are. You are awesome, because you have practiced and gotten good at what you do. It’s also important to define success for yourself as something broader than your work in the WordPress world.

Defining Success

Define success uniquely for yourself. Identify what you want to do to feel good. If you don’t do this, you won’t be able to tell whether your hard work is good, or useful. And you may be measuring yourself against your coworkers and feeling like you fall short — even against people who have an entirely different focus from you.

Go easy on yourself with what success should look like. Allow yourself to be human — don’t expect a superhuman experience where things always go as you plan. We all have bad days, and need days off.