Episode 165 The Future of WordPress with Brian Gardner

Show Summary

Rob Cairns sits down with Brian Gardner to talk about the future of WordPress.

Show Highlights:

  1. Brian Gardner’s Background.
  2. Where WordPress is going in the future.
  3. The WordPress Community.
  4. The future of Gutenberg and blocks.

Show Notes


Hey everybody, Rob Cairns here. I’m here with a gentleman who I admire and really respect in WordPress space. And that’s Brian Gardner. How are you today, Brian?


Rob, I’m doing great. It’s it’s a little cold and dreary here in Chicago, but it’s a Friday and we’ve got a WordPress thing going on today. So you know, it’s all good.


Yeah, anything would represses a good day, isn’t it? Brian?


So yeah, it sounds kind of nerdy. But there’s truth in that statement. Yes, there is.


Yeah. So I think I know, I’m quite aware of what you’ve done. But how do you just for listeners who don’t understand your background, how did you get into the WordPress space? And, you know, where are you now?


So 2006, I was sitting at a desk as an architectural project manager. And on the side, I was blogging, I wanted to just just I was just wanted to write, just write and share life stuff. And so I was using Google Blogspot at the time, friend of mine online friend recommended I look into WordPress. And so I did, grabbed a free theme from the free theme repository started tweaking it playing around learning a little bit of CSS and HTML. And the the fast forwarded version was that I taught myself that I built a product called the revolution theme I started selling it had to rebrand the company, which became Studiopress. Many folks know that today. Studiopress is the company behind the Genesis Framework, which I co created with Nathan rice. And in 2018, we sold Studiopress to WP Engine. And three years later, I joined the WP Engine team. So it’s a little bit of a full circle,


which is amazing. And now you’ve got a new theme in the Gutenberg space called frost Correct?


Yes, that is correct. Frost is, is a theme, currently a Genesis child theme really built around the idea of blocks and patterns and just sort of minimalist design meant for for building on?


Which is a really good thing.


Yes, yes, it’s a I’m a foundation mindset kind of guy. I like having something to start with sort of a framework, if you will, for people that build stuff. So I like creating products that designers developers users can use for their business WordPress based business that is sure


is where this conversation I want to have today came out of is you did an appearance recently on Nathan’s Wrigleys page builder segment that we got talking about where WordPress is going, do you feel that page builders are gonna die? Are they going to coexist with blocks? Where do you see the market going?


I don’t have a crystal ball. But what I will say is that having 15 years of insight in the industry, specifically WordPress and the whole ecosystem, my presumption is that they will coexist. For some time, I realized a lot of people thought, well, WordPress is going to come out with Gutenberg, that’ll kill themes that will kill page builders, and yada yada, yada. But that was three or four years ago, still not the case. I think, I think WordPress, the project is through block blocks, and consequently, block patterns and some of the newer technology that it’s coming out with, I think it’s going to certainly affect the business of and the way in which page builders do their their thing. I think a lot of people, there’s been several years worth of Headstart that page builders like Elementor, or Beaver Builder or even generate press for some to some degree, they have a little bit of a head start and you know, given their ability to move quicker than I think the WordPress project as a whole can move. I think, you know, there’ll be some some iterating and some things like that. But, you know, at some, on some level, I think WordPress is going to certainly impact their business.


I would agree. I’ve kind of got a different a little view point. And I’d like to throw it out there. I think new people coming to WordPress will probably jump right into the block ecosystem. I think we’re you’re gonna see a lot of not change right away is in some of the development shops who are using page builders, and they’re probably not going to move right away. Do you have any thought around that discussion?


Well, yeah, you know, I think you’re right. I think people who are new will go right into WordPress and because there’s no need to look elsewhere will will have more or less what they need there. And like you said, I think there’s there’s several folks out there I mean, WordPress is has traditionally been sort of like a long standing and loyal tenured software where if you and Genesis is a good example of this, the framework that we built, people who know how to use a system and have used it for years and used it successfully and with little hiccup, have a tendency to just stick with them. And even though WordPress itself is heading in a certain direction, those who are familiar with the tools they’ve used to build websites will continue to do that, unless there’s a really significant reason to do otherwise.


Yeah, I would agree with you, Brian, on that one on, I share with you and I don’t know if you’ve seen any of my tweets. So I’m in the process of moving my agency’s website from a page builder to Gutenberg box. And, you know, that has some challenges when you get it trying to get out of the shortcode world. And part of what caused a lot of that whole move is I want to be ready for box. But I’m also concerned, I’m a bit of a minimalist as well. And things like PageSpeed really matter as we move into the new ecosystem. Do you have thoughts on that one?


I do and and I won’t necessarily throw page builders are specific page builders under any bus here. But traditionally, heavier themes that can do quote, all the things or page builders and whatnot, generally tend to be more resource heavy, they require more scripts, more style sheets, and things like that, which as you know, consequently, affect, you know, core webbed vitals and PageSpeed and things of that nature. So given, you know, our affinity towards minimalism and lightweight building, it’s easy for us to want to use tools that are just that, that that don’t require much that that still can showcase and, you know, put emphasis and spotlight on the things we want them to. And as I’ve been building frost and even other full site editing themes, I’m more or less have Google PageSpeed and GT metrics, like open in a tab and I’m continuously running them through to make sure that they’re in the upper 90s, if not 100, on everything. So, you know, we’ll see, I, I think the core webbed vital thing has become more of a known commodity in terms of just a thing that’s happening. I think more people are aware of that, because I’ve heard more people asking about stuff like that. So I think, finally, that kind of thing is starting to matter, not just to builders, but to people who use products that builders you build for. So so we’ll see, you know, I think everyone will do their own thing on some level. But the best we can do is show them the way.


Yeah, and I would agree with you. And we all know, like with speed, it’s not just your web, hold your theme, or per se how you’re building. But you know, and you’ll understand this, I think speed actually starts with choosing a good web host. And I think that’s and choosing the right type of hosting to do what you want to do. And I think you need to start from there and then go down from there. Do you have any thought on that one?


Yeah, I would agree with that. Because a lightweight theme on environment that shared with 5000, other websites will, can only go so so far, right? Like if if the server or the box itself is slowing you down, having a lightweight theme will help but it certainly won’t give you the full result you want. So I think you need to take both into consideration on conversely, if you have a blazing fast web host that is loading a really heavy theme, you’re going to have the same problem just the other way around. So you know, I do diligence, I think it’s the responsibility of anybody who owns or operates a website to do just that, which is find the best host find the best theme, you know, produce the best content. And hopefully, from there, you get success.


Yeah, I would agree with you 100%. Now, as we move forward with blocks and and developing frost, you’ve spent a lot of time with them. I’m in the middle of, as I say a move to box, which features would you like to see implemented into the core blocks that come in WordPress, most?


I don’t know if there are any blocks or libraries out there that that would have a specific thing I think should be in core, I think what I’ve loved the last, I don’t know, six months or so is sort of the development of the group block, by far one of my favorite blocks, which essentially cannibalizes a lot of the black libraries that were out there, which had like container blocks. And so the group lock really helps keep things together. And this is sort of where we’ve seen the explosion of block patterns. Because with the group lock, you can now consolidate or compartmentalize several things into one place and then offer that up in a in a one click instance. And so the inclusion of the group lock I think more granular controls for things like colors and type and borders. And that’s what we’re seeing here with this whole theme dot JSON stuff. That’s kind of working its way into WordPress core by way of the Gutenberg plugin. And being able to to leverage that newer technology as a way of kind of offloading some of that work on the the theme stylesheet, or the editor stylesheet. is good. I want to see more progress in that I think, you know, they’re 15 to 20%, supportive CSS stuff that’s now a theme that JSON I mean, I’ve been following that very closely. So I’m kind of I get excited about the possibilities, but we’re not there yet. So it’s hard to get too excited. But those are the things that matter to me.


No, I I would agree with in the other box that I use, probably a lot more than most people. And I think people should get to us as learn how to use the reusable blocks. I find reusable blocks. So helpful. And so easy way you just got to remember with reusable is when you make a change to the master bar code changes things all the way across your website. And that’s, that’s something that people forget about, I think it’s really key, to be honest with you.


But that’s sort of the intent, right is to have a way to not have to go in and replace something five different times, right, the ability to sort of streamline the updating of something and some especially on like big sites, I work with smaller sites, my sites are always relatively small. But you forget, right? Like, there’s new sites and sites that publish 1000s of, you know, pieces of content, like per year, and so to have something that can very easily be updated throughout all of those pages would be and is very powerful.


Yeah. More importantly, as we take WordPress into the future, and you know, we’ve got the box, we’ve got two page builders, we’ve got a community that we were saying before we went to record this kind of diverse and kind of interesting. Where do you think we need to take the community as a whole and, and I preface this by saying, I sat down with poli sci recently. And one of the things Paul and I talked about quite quite a bit was, it’s really good to have people like yourself at the forefront of some of these big hosting companies, because of all the mergers and things going on. And I think the right people in the right places will help steer the ship, so to speak. Do you have any thoughts on that? Right?


Yeah, you know, like, it is one of the things I sometimes take for granted, I sometimes really embrace. And more than often, more often than not, I really enjoy having sort of that voice and platform in the community. I feel like I’ve earned it over the years with just all of the the choices I’ve made the decisions, the risks, and so forth. As I feel like I’ve got good intuition, right, like I can start to speculate where things are going. And, and that being said, with with something that powers, you know, more than 40% of the internet, you’re always going to have opinions, you’re always going to have communities within the community and stuff like that. And I’m a relatively pacifistic guy. So for me, it’s like, you know, let’s just let’s all be cordial, we can coexist in a world that doesn’t necessarily always see eye to eye. But the thing that make makes life easier for me now is that the company culture that WP Engine has the the people who are there, they’re very like minded, right? Even all the way to the top of the other burner, the CEO when her and I were talking about my position, she really painted a picture that excited me, she reached out and, you know, said, we’re thinking about a developer relations thing for WordPress. And I was like, well, that’s great, because it really would intersect the three things I love most which are designed WordPress and community building. And that got her excited. So it’s very easy now to do what I do, which is help, you know, people understand WordPress, where it’s going, where it’s been doing that by way of being on podcasts, or writing blog posts, or participating in contribution events on Twitter or creating products that help people you know, use WordPress better. And so like, I actually, it’s very quite cliche, but like, right now I am living the dream and and I love it. And I’m happy. And I tweeted just the other day that I’ve never been more excited about the WordPress than I am right now. And it’s so true. And life is good. I’ll just put it that way.


I actually saw that tweet, Brian, and I highlighted it and I wanted to know, besides the community, and I’m glad you brought that up what excites you the most about where we’re going in the long run?


I think you know, having been around since 2006. A lot of changes a lot of sort of technical debt that’s been accumulated a lot of backward compatibility stuff and I feel like it you know, for a while there for several years, WordPress was just kind of WordPress and there wasn’t anything really exciting about it. I think this whole Gutenberg thing, the whole block editor sort of paradigm shift is, at the very least, it’s an interesting thing for people in WordPress thing, you know, the community to just deal with. I also feel like it has empowered people to build websites quicker and better and faster and better design. And it just gives me sort of a new medium to paint my stuff on. Right, it’s like kind of throwing out the old canvas starting from scratch saying this is the new way that themes are going to be constructed, which in and of itself is exciting. But doing it in a way that’s that’s that, that doesn’t limit the creativity that actually allows for more of it. But delivering something for people to use. And there are millions of people who use WordPress products. And so the market is certainly not short of, you know, being frothy right now. It’s just exciting. I, you know, it’s like a, it feels weird to be this old in the industry, but also at such a sort of juvenile state now with, with where things are at and where they’re going.


Yeah, you’re you’re not that old. Brian, you’re young at heart. And I think that’s, that’s what matters. I mean, I think we’re at the point where Gutenberg has made it exciting again, and seeing you know, the fact that we’re, what are we at 40 to 43% of the market, depending on who you listen to or what stat you read today. I think that that’s kind of telling its story certainly brings up some other problems. I mean, the man you become 40% of the market, you become a target for our friends called the hackers and we all know what that’s like. And that becomes a pain and people will argue and say you know, WordPress, isn’t that secure? And my argument would be the minute you become 40% of the market that makes you a prime target


Yeah, they what do they say? Like you don’t know you’ve arrived until like someone comes after you sort of a thing. Like there’s a saying something, something like that. And yet you know, when you have success, there are people who always will have a tendency to want it to knock you down. And that’s a lot of it comes from envy. A lot of it comes from jealousy and just, you know, just ineptitude. I don’t know, but, but I think it’s strong. I think it’ll be fine.


I do too. And frankly, the pandemic hasn’t helped the hackers because they’re all stuck at home on board. So they’re just getting getting into more trouble I hate to say it if anybody wants that actually have some fun, create an assumed the account jump on Discord. And there’s actually all kinds of hacker groups that set out on Discord and they just, these guys are just a pain. I’d like to get rid of them. But maybe I don’t want to get rid of them because securing websites is part of my core business. That’s true. Yeah, it’s so true. Now with WP Engine is or what exciting is going on up there these days?


Well, as a company, there’s a lot of excitement going on WP Engine, we are growing leaps and bounds I think, over 1000 employees right now which which is mind boggling to me that a just a WordPress hosting company would have that many people but but true enough, you know, the acquisition of Studiopress then the acquisition of flywheel the the evolution and creation of a product called Atlas, which is our headless WordPress products is exciting, me coming alongside Developer Relations and really sort of formalizing that team and you know, just doing some really cool things, some good work, things that I probably would not have been able to do prior to this. For sure. The the change in which I do my thing is different. Now, I personally don’t have to worry about generating revenue for myself or my family or a small team. And so like I’m, I’m encouraged to and allowed to go out and try different things, right? There’s latitude now sort of with what I’m doing and kind of paving my own my own way, but in a way that is beneficial to the company in a way that helps promote the products expose the wonderful people. So a lot, a lot of good things happening there.


Yeah, there sure are. And I think I don’t think we’re done with the acquisitions. I gotta tell you, I think they’re gonna continue for a while. I think it’s just a factor of the market maturing itself out right now, I would say, right. You’re going what’s gone with WP Engine, what’s gone which a competitor, liquid web, you know, on some of these acquisitions, and I think January the floodgates are gonna open again. Do you think we’re done or do you think there’s some more Feeling out in the market to come?


Well, well, this the answer to this question is not a reflection of trade secrets I have inside of WPF. And this is just generally soaking across the whole of the, the WordPress space, I don’t think we’re done. I think I think the very obvious things have happened, the hosting companies wanted to be more than hosting companies, they wanted to become platforms. And so GoDaddy even as an example, liquid web, as you had mentioned, WP Engine, I think there are smaller, more niche specific products and services and things like that, that are of interest to these companies. And I think on some level, it’s sort of, okay, you made a move now I gotta make a move sort of a thing and that, on some level, like the strong get stronger, and those who are, you know, smart enough to create products that these companies might want. Will we’ll get there bill, I know, sort of the the outlier in this not a hosting company, necessarily, but juggernaut for sure. In this space is what sidewalk is doing with automotive. I know they’ve been, they just recently acquired Sandhills and all the products that are out there. So a little bit of a different model. But what SIADH is doing is genius. He’s got a lot of great people working with him, like Jared Acheson, and Thomas Griffin, and so on. And, you know, it’s just interesting, it’s interesting to have been here at the beginning of all of this, and still here, sort of on the other side of it, I will say this, I feel very comfortable with the group that I’m with that, you know, kind of a, you know, a badge that I wear proudly, I, I feel like I’m on the right team with the right people. And so I feel like I’m well positioned and will help fight that battle for him. So


and that’s a good thing. I think, as, as the big companies get stronger, it just makes the whole market stronger. And I mean, the one, you know, you talked about automotive and then the other one that caught I think everybody off guard was when into it kind of jumped in this space recently bought MailChimp for like billions of dollars, and, and they’re a Canadian company. And, you know, I was thinking about that one last night. And somebody said, Oh, why did they do it? And I said, Well, they do offer CRM type services within QuickBooks Online. So maybe they’re just trying to leverage that as an extension. And I honestly think before it’s out, some of the hosting companies are going to jump in and buy some of the big mail providers like to convert gets to get responses to the world. I think that’s gonna all consolidate as well before it’s out. Do you have any thought on that? Or do you think it’s too early to say?


That one’s probably too early to say, I don’t know if hosting companies want to deal with the the email marketing thing. I think I might see that differently there. I know. The MailChimp acquisition probably did great things in some way for Nathan Berry, who’s a good friend of mine at ConvertKit. Yep. Although I know Nathan, he’s one not to want to sell before other things, because he’s very much a different sort of founder there. And I respect that. But I you know, I think I think what it showed was just the value email marketing has, I know that there are even some smaller little newsletter based plugins, I think, Leslie.


News, Roger goof.


Yeah, yeah, I was like, I just kept thinking pizza, right?


Yeah, it’s okay. I understand how you think you pizza.


Her picture. Like, that’s an example of sort of a very niche that sort of like a mini version of ConvertKit. But built specifically around WordPress, I think there’s some really cool and creative solutions there. And things like things like I’ve even thought of, in credit, small products that really never went anywhere. But I see the writing on the wall. And I think there’s a lot of things I just don’t know if hosting companies will, will be the ones that go after him.


Yeah, but but some of them might change. I mean, you’ve got the fluent CRMs of the world and you’ve got the groundhogs of the world. developed. Groundhog is actually developed in Toronto, but in the Toronto area by Adrian Toby. Why know quite well. And I think some of these, the internal CRMs might force that and maybe,


yeah, that’s possible. I think what it depends on is, is what’s the real end game for some of these hosting companies? Do they want to be a place for people to build a website and kind of end the story? Are they looking to go kind of above and beyond that, which is ambitious, but also risky? No, I


would agree with you. If there were three things that happen in the WordPress space as we move forward to move the community forward. The three things you’d like to happen?


Oh, that’s a tough question. I’m not sure if I can pull that I have a couple things are one, you know, and this is a huge ask just because I know the weight of work to be done and that people are already trying to do this. I mean, I would love to see WordPress evolve faster. Sometimes when you have fast revolution, you sort of miss things. And I understand that part, too. I think the whole Gutenberg thing is sort of an example of something that’s just taken a little longer than we all want it. I think it’s hard to build for stuff that’s always in motion. But equally, it’s kind of fun to be sort of on that frontline. I feel like blazing that trail with the project has been fun so far. And I look forward to it. I mean, I would love to see, just generally speaking, I would love to see things like workcamps happening again. I mean, this is more more of a COVID thing. But like I would really like to see sort of the communities being able to get back together, whether it be meetups, or I know that some of the offices that WP engine just recently reopened. I think it’s just helpful for people who have you know, teams and you know, those who don’t work remote necessarily, you know, so a little movement, there would be good.


Yeah, I would agree, I would agree with on the meetup to Nord camps. i What I miss most in the community is getting out in Toronto has got a pretty strong WordPress community has many spots in the US and many spots in Europe. And I actually miss seeing people and whether it’s WordPress meetups, or marketing meetups, or are just getting out and hanging, I think we that’s a COVID issue, but I think it’s made it really hard. And I think a lot of us are starting to get virtual summit fatigue a little bit. There’s only so many online summits he can do and only so many. And you don’t quite get the same interaction. I mean, you know, I I thought you know, something was missing for more camp us this year. And I’ve been and I, I kind of watched it and said, Geez, I really wish we could have done this in person. And and it’s the people that make this community. And that’s so the key, right? Yeah,


I I’ve been to one three WordCamp us as the two in Nashville, the first one in St. Louis. And each time I’ve gone you know, like, the hallway track in the after hours tracks like that’s, that’s why I go to work camp, I can learn everything that people are speaking or watch it on a video but, you know, meeting new folks reconnecting networking with colleagues and competitors, just, you know, being able to, you know, grab a coffee or a drink with somebody who’s on the other side. Like, there’s something to be said about that. I think, for the most part, the WordPress community is good like that, where competitors are still friends and things like that. And, you know, workcamps really kind of spotlight that for opportunities.


No, I would agree, I think back to the last word camp I was at in Toronto, just before the pandemic. And Toronto says always, traditionally, the weekend before WordCamp us. And I think I saw two presentations all day. I spent most of my time, as you say, in the hallway track talking to people catching up with people, people and seen in a couple months, people who have ideas, just, you know, trying to figure out where things were going. And I think that is the true value in it. So if anybody wants to get a hold you Brian, what’s the what’s the best way and to get a hold here, see what you’re working on.


I do have a personal site at briangardner.com. It’s been relatively dormant. Probably the last year or so just because I’ve been trying to figure out what I’m doing next. I’m more active on Twitter @bgardner Connect with me on LinkedIn. I’m there I do Instagram often. I’m on Facebook that I don’t necessarily love to admit that at times, and I don’t do much there other than personal stuff. But yeah, Twitter is the best place to interact with me. That’s where I’m always on and talking about WordPress and connecting and sharing and, and all that stuff.


Thank you very much for your time. Brian, have an amazing day.


I appreciate it. Thank you so much, Rob. Thanks

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