Meeting Matt Mullenweg CEO of Automattic and co-founder of WordPress

There were many interesting discussions and lessons learned from one of the top minds in the tech world. It was great meeting Matt and when all is said and done, there are very exciting times ahead for WordPress and everyone using it.

Francois Brill

Francois Brill

13 January 2016

Someone like Matt Mullenweg needs no introduction to anyone that has ever heard of WordPress. Not only did he co-found WordPress, he also founded Automattic and is currently CEO of this billion dollar company behind WordPress.com. He took something from an idea to a highly successful business.

When we talk about WordPress it currently powers just over 25% of all websites, and their recent acquisition of WooCommerce has them powering over 30% of all online stores. This is no small feat for any company.

Matt comes from a development background, but seeing how he has grown as a person to shift his thinking from being a developer to running Automattic is truly amazing. It’s not often that you see brilliant people who are able to step up and be brilliant leaders. This doesn’t mean Matt is out of the loop of development. He is scheduled to be the project lead on the WordPress 4.7 release towards the end of this year and after the recent announcement of Calypso, it is quite evident that Matt is still very involved in the development technologies and in spearheading those decisions which is evidently the future of the company.

I had the tremendous privilege of meeting Matt at a recent meet up in Cape Town, and he is as humble as everyone makes him out to be.

Here are some of my take aways from the evening…

WordPress.com vs WordPress.org

For the first time I truly understood the difference between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. WordPress.org is the open source software that anyone can contribute to and anyone can benefit from, no one owns WordPress.org and hence the open source nature. WordPress.com on the other hand is developed by Automattic and operates under a licence from the WordPress.org trust.

Understanding this relationship sheds a lot of light on the recent release of Calypso – which is the new WordPress.com experience and is a complete JavaScript backend (no PHP as per the traditional WordPress.org counterpart).

Matt laughed and said if he could do it over he would give them different names as people don’t pay too much attention to what goes after the “dot” in a domain.

The nature of open source

Matt had an interesting approach of comparing open source software to a city. Open source is an ecosystem that is more like a city and not a product or a company. A product or company will always have some level of abstraction and everyone wouldn’t have access to all the ins and outs. In contrast a city is open to everyone, to a large extent you determine your stay and movements within the city. A city would have good guys (the normal users, contributors, etc) and bad guys (hackers, malicious people) and then you can have the police, enforcing the capital ‘P’ in WordPress 😉

Distributed Knowledge

One of the amazing things Matt said is that he believes knowledge is equally distributed among people all over the world. This is why Automattic doesn’t have any offices, and “Automatitions” enjoy flexible working hours to suit their personal situation and needs. With that said however, they have a very strict interviewing and on boarding process and a lot of people struggle to keep up with the pace when joining at first.

Innovate when possible, but also except defeat when necessary

A noteworthy moment was when Matt told the story of his “love-hate” relationship with TinyMCE – the WYSIWYG editor in WordPress. TinyMCE was introduced in WordPress 1.5 (occupying approx. 50% of the code base) and was very controversial at the time, people believed if you can’t code you shouldn’t be using CMS editors. Because of Matt’s love for building Content Management Systems he pushed to include TinyMCE and it proved to be a great success.

Years later one would think you can rebuild and recreate an improved WYSIWYG editor, especially with new technologies at hand. So Automattic took on the challenge of recreating the editor and placed 20 or so of the best of the best in the industry on the project. Then after 2 years of trying to innovate TinyMCE they eventually put a halt to the project as the new attempts were just not as good as the existing component once you take all browser fixes and cross platform compatibility into account.

Sometimes accepting defeat and taking your learnings from it is also OK. Success is not always manifested in what we set out to do in the first place.

Sometimes you have to make bold moves

Over the past couple of months there has been huge hype in the WordPress community over the REST API and Calypso, and ever since Matt gave everyone the ‘task’ of learning JavaScript at last year’s WordCamp US, a few unanswered questions remained:

Will the WordPress.org backend also become a fully JavaScript-driven Admin area as they have done with Calypso? What will this mean for us as designers and developers on this platform? How will it affect existing sites?

First off, the obvious answer would be to cater for backwards compatibility and not subsequently breaking any old installations of WP. But then Matt said a very interesting thing: it might be worth it to break the mould once in a decade to ensure future sustainability and growth if the reward is big enough on the other end. I am reading between the lines here, but it is not completely impossible to move away from the old and maybe we should keep a close eye on that 4.7 release Matt will be leading towards the end of the year.

In the meantime (and even if it doesn’t go there) we can have the best of both worlds: having WordPress.org Admin running on a PHP server with a frontend built in a JavaScript framework of choice (ReactJS / AngularJS) and have the REST API connect the two.

Conclusion

There were many interesting discussions and lessons learned from one of the top minds in the tech world. It was great meeting Matt and when all is said and done, there are very exciting times ahead for WordPress and everyone using it. Even if you don’t create for WordPress you create with WordPress and your editing experience and speed will only improve as we go along.

Watch the video here

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