Press This: Break Your WordPress Site to Make it Better with Jacob Warren

Dec 11, 2021

Welcome to Press This, the WordPress community podcast from WMR. Here host David Vogelpohl sits down with guests from around the community to talk about the biggest issues facing WordPress developers. The following is a transcription of the original recording.

David Vogelpohl: Hello everyone and welcome to Press This the WordPress community podcasts on WMR. This is your host, David Vogelpohl, I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine, and I love to bring the best of the community to you hear every week on press this as a reminder, you can find me on Twitter @wpdavidv, or you can subscribe to press this on iTunes, iHeartRadio, Spotify, or download the latest episodes at wmr.fm. In this episode we’re gonna be talking about breaking your WordPress site to make it better. Joining us for that conversation from Warren research. I’d like to welcome to Press This Mr. Jacob Warren. Jacob, welcome.

Jacob Warren: Thank you for having me, David. I truly appreciate it. Looking forward to this.

DV: Yeah, it’s a fun topic. I really love breaking websites. It’s a passion of mine actually. And I really want to unpack with you that what you mean by that. And for those listening Of course, it’s really around the notion of safely deconstructing the sites you manage to refine them into something stronger and better at driving growth, which I think is pretty cool. And I know that that’s one of my first stops when I’m optimizing decided to see how much I can break and does that really matter in how might I build a deck better? So Jacob to kick us off, I’m going to ask you the same question I asked all our guests can you briefly tell me your WordPress origin story?

JW: So it’s it took me a little bit or it can takes me a little bit to think about that because I actually the first time I’d say I touched WordPress was probably short, really after around 2006 Believe it or not, so I go way back I didn’t get into the development side of it and until a few years later, but the first time I truly experienced WordPress was back then so then the with it for a while now.

DV: What did you do in 2006? What was your first activity with WordPress, creating a basic blog?

JW: Honestly, it was one of those that I was I had developed my first web page site page all the way back in high school and so I got fascinated with it and continued on and started doing some small projects here and there. Because my career actually started in the IT world. And I had a side passion with web development that turned into more and more of that core passion from then on. So I was always looking at things like Joomla Drupal and things like that back then. And then I got turned on to WordPress, I think through a Linux form. I was reading back then on building websites and stuff and heard about WordPress and then around 2006 started with just kind of a tinker project

DV: Oh, that’s really cool. I think you’re the first guest we have learned about WordPress and you know, Linux forum. So that’s the first for you there Jacob. That’s pretty cool. So 2006 this would have been right after themes and plugins are introduced. But before widgets and shortcodes kind of an interesting time to get in. I think maybe you can see why even maybe waited a while before we started building in it. Maybe in addition to your personal journey there. I was wondering if you could also tell me a little bit about war in research. We kind of mentioned your roots in it. But obviously you’ve grown into WordPress and web development since then. But what is what does Warren research do?

JW: On research that is quite aware technology and digital marketing company. And what that is, is so I have career over the last 23 years in both it and love in digital marketing in so I started this company actually in 2019 and based on a career of both freelance and working for anywhere from federal contracting, to working for mom and pops over my career and started the company to basically help people get the most out of current technology resources in order to so they in order for them to continue to grow their business and continue to build something they are passionate about. So I had an opportunity to branch off on my own again and started warn, research with that core focus of just simply how can I help people go after their passions and goals in in the business work.

DV: I like it. I like it. I love objective based optimization as always the best part. Okay, so it sounds like you’ve had some experience working on and optimizing lots and lots of different websites, different kinds of websites even it sounded like so I’m guessing you’ve had the opportunity to break a lot of sites and break the notion of like breaking your site of course is a little bit counterintuitive. And but can you tell us what you mean by that when you think of like quote breaking a site and a new customer or or project what what do you think about when you’d say that?

JW: So best way to summarize it is discovery. You can only figure out what’s completely wrong with a site by truly break being willing to throw caution to the wind and and dive into it. Now. There is there is one of those great aspects with that is if if a site is not performing well, if if a site is not achieving what it’s intended to, that’s when you should truly consider breaking the site within the confines of a staging or development environment. Cowboy development on it is not I don’t recommend it. And it is something that you you need to make sure that you’re definitely not a junior level developer doing it. If you need to do that. There’s that there’s the disclaimer. But the reality is, is WordPress is a framework. It allows you it has a lot of power and a lot of potential. And that’s where we look into those plugins and other related modules and API’s that you can work with in it. So when I think about breaking the site, you have to be willing to not assume that anything works correctly.

DV: So fundamentally the I mean obviously I love the staging disclaimer operation at the very beginning of the episode here. Obviously breakers staging first. Like you kind of framed it in this notion of discovery. And then you kind of talked about you know, diving in, I guess to breaking it by by breaking it. Do you do you mean like like changing the functionality turning off plugins like helped me understand what like an active braking might mean.

JW: An active braking is okay, so when you create a website you should have a a goal a mission as something that the site has a certain purpose. You need to be able in especially how the landscape has changed how performance requirements as far as PageSpeed and all that needs to be addressed. You need to find out where are the lagging points within your site. And if you are one of those that just layer on layer different plugins there there are a lot of plugins that are well intended. They’re not coded perfectly, which is awesome because it gives you the ability to do what you want the site to do, but you need to have the mindset that the purpose of the site is the user experience matched with the objectives of that site, whether it’s a business site, the site for a nonprofit, what what are you trying to achieve? Is your site effectively achieving that in the most efficient and way possible?

DV: And that’s really, that’s it sounds like you’re thinking about like the plugins in particular sounded like in your example, but there are jobs that the plugins are doing collectively the mission of the site and the plugins and beam or whatever is being used to facilitate it is to achieve some kind of objective. And so you’re not breaking that, that you’re maybe breaking all the other or not all of them but like other pieces of the puzzle, presumably to see if they’re materially contributing to the mission of the site. And I guess in exchange for the cost and performance or whatever else the plugin introduces in the system, from the high level would you say that’s fair?

JW: From the high level, I’d say that’s definitely mostly fair. It’s one of those that to break something for the sake of breaking. That’s not what I’m speaking into, to break something to learn how to do it better if the intention is to build something better. That’s at the high level I say where, where the idea and the passion of breaking the silence.

DV: I love it. I love it. I love it. Okay, so great. We talked about kind of the philosophy of breaking a site and thank you for that. I want to dive into more of this particulars and then the strategies to use there. We’re going to take our first break, and we’ll be right back.

DV: Well, everyone welcome back to press this WordPress community podcast on WMR. This is your host David Vogelpohl. I’m interviewing Jacob Warren about breaking your WordPress site to make it better. Jacob right before the break you were sharing a little bit around your views about what you know breaking your site means in the near view. Earlier though you were you gave the kind of disclaimer about not breaking your site and production. I wanted to kind of get a little bit more particular for this part of the interview. How do you like what how do you manage things like local Dev and staging environments? Do you have any specific recommendations or just generally what is your approach there?

JW: My approach is, at times somewhat chaotic. So I’m one of those that up until my adult years meeting, just within the last few years, I had ADHD challenges. So a lot of my development process was all over the board until recently. But it’s one of those were I so to match with client objectives. Definitely throw everything on the development side a call that before you start diving into anybody’s site is to be with a hosting provider or if you I mean, there’s all sorts of different applications and software tweaks that you can do to bring in environment where you can spin up locally for staging in staging meaning that you have an area where you can test and destroy and quickly revert back to a process to be able to refer back to a point before you started breaking things to always have that that working model to pull from. Hopefully that makes a little bit of sense for those that are kind of all different scales.

DV: Sure. So sounds like you know, generally of course, you’re doing the work in a staging environment. Sounds like you’re maybe using different models, depending maybe even on the clients you’re supporting. I don’t know just how your techniques have evolved over time. But it sounds like the first recommendation you made was, you know, to work on your host to see if they support some sort of staging environment or cloning, for the purpose of staging. Was that accurate? Like on your first kind of recommendation there?

JW: Yeah, that’s perfect. Yeah, it’s one of those that work with us required to have the staging environment so or I was actually when I was just speaking, blanking on it, but I’ve used things like MAMP on Mac, you can use for setting up environments. There’s things like local that you can use. Basically, something that you can set up a test server or environment for a specific project, but the key that I find that helps me the most is the ability to revert back to a specific snapshot. Yeah. No, that’s perfect. I have to go from there.

DV: Yeah, I mean, that’s a really good point because simply having a staging environment that you can’t roll back to a prior instance, means you’re gonna have some extra steps there to to get it to roll back if you will, depending on the system that you’re using. I’m glad you mentioned a local that’s a tool by WP Engine that can be hired for I love it it’s free.That’s that’s actually my go to for local WordPress development. I’ve not tried with MAMP Is that what it’s called? I always forget how it’s pronounced.

JW: Yeah. And it’s basically it’s a non Oh, it’s a non Docker kind of like a nother software development group created that’s NACA specific and I think they do have a Windows version now. But it it before and I just started using local within the, within the last year or so. Because historic it was one of those things that I I just you get your normal toolset, and you work with it forever. Until you find something different. And then you’re you’re kind of you adapt to that. And so if MAMP remind me you are there’s a lot of features that local does that’s more simplified because that the key point I want to come back to is you have to have something that’s simple to revert back to something. Because if it takes even 10 minutes to revert back to a certain point, that can affect your development cycle in a way that makes it where your willingness to experience or experiment is hindered. Because that’s really what you need to be able to do is try break, test fix, and then analyze it, achieve the end result and then repeat on the next day

DV: And that’s a fantastic consideration. I haven’t heard very many people actually mentioned that any consideration around your local or staging environments, but it makes all the sense in the world love it. And so I can even imagine the things I do to make it easy to revert changes for the same reason. So definitely hits home for me. Earlier we talked about what you thought about breaking your site, and a little bit around, you know, well you might want to break but how do you think about what to break?

JW: Think about breaking the options table every day of my life. Okay, okay. Well, here’s the thing. WordPress is a framework. It’s awesome. And it has its flaws. Great. The, one of the reasons a client hires us is to make their to develop a site or to make their site better. Most likely, that client has had multiple different individuals, multiple different plugins, multiple whatever you know, you can put whatever there. Work with that site. However, a lot of a lot of developers a lot of users, and just plain everybody misses the point or just doesn’t think about how does your might sequences like? How does WordPress function overall, due to all these different plugins being installed and uninstalled? What do you need to add alone? What not? And that really leads me into the point of an options table can be your worst nightmare, and it can be your hair, all in the same breath. So the options table is specifically one of the key areas you look at braking.

DV: Are there any particular optimizations to the options table that like are consistent points for you of optimization, like things that just pop up all the time? A lot of points to making sure who clear out plugins that are not utilized as far as what the leftovers are.

JW: Your chances are your WordPress instance overall has a lot of leftovers, and a lot of the quote unquote cleaning plugins can only do what they can properly categorize. So if you have a site that’s been highly customized, or we’re or had modifications, chances are that from the database optimization side, it’s a mess. And so when you’re working with the options table, you can actually find out what is a mess of what’s not by enabling will be enabling things and being willing to break it to find to find out what is truly needed is what I think of of breaking the WordPress site because in that you can find a lot of bloat, and a lot of things that can be removed or done differently to make sure that the user experience is great that the site is is achieving its objectives. And that at the end of the day you don’t have a chaotic mess that nobody can pick up and continue to build on from whatever stage that site is.

DV: Okay, so that makes sense. And you know, like listening to us talk through the specific points. I think the thing that leaps out to me is kind of a consistent truth working with engineers over the years and that’s everybody wants to remove the quote code blood simplify and refactor the software you know what I mean? Like every time someone picks up a project I thinking like okay, I need to make this better. I need to make it more efficient. This was done efficiently. In there’s like this, this this great, even to your own code, this great attraction to go back and refactor. And so you start to think like, Well, is it worth my time? Does it work well, even though it’s messy? Does it achieve the outcome even though it’s messy? Is it is it worth investing to do it a better way? And I think like philosophically, we know it’s better but like, is it worth the trade off? And so I really want to understand how you start to measure the trade off and the time you’re investing to break and rebuild things. But we’re going to cover that when we’re back after this last break.

DV: Well, everyone welcome back to press this the WordPress community podcast on W EMR. This is your host David Vogel. Paul we’re breaking websites to make them better with Jacob Warren. Jacob right before the break you were talking a lot about the opportunities for optimization and breaking things and making them better, particularly around the options table. And then you kind of have gotten into identifying, you know, remnants of the past and blue that might be getting in the way of performance or other aspects of the site that you could clean up. And I’m just curious and I kind of hinted at this before the break is like, you know, it takes time and energy to do these things. When you’re when you’re breaking and rebuilding. How do you know that that was the right decision in the end? How did it affect the user experience?

JW: That that’s the key. Do you have a because just cleaning up code or or thing like that. It’s only worth the time is it’s bringing value and as a company that’s focused on providing value to it and client. It doesn’t help them achieve what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to get users to, to interact with the content on the site and to work with it. So there becomes a balance that you have to identify for a project of, okay, am I doing this just to make it work better because I know work better, or is there real world indications that this is improving the user experience in a way that the users are actually using the site? That’s the core direction that I highly recommend focusing on first and foremost, you feel that that generally, sometimes always aligns with the business objective of the site?

DV: That’s the core direction that I highly recommend focusing on first and foremost, you feel that that generally, sometimes always aligns with the business objective of the site? You know, obviously easier. I’m just curious your thoughts on like the notion of measurement quote, was it worth it by the business objective of the site? In other words, do sales have to go up or is the customer experience the user experience? Good enough as you will for optimizing?

JW: This is where it gets into something that is, I think, missed quite a bit, is it? It’s not only on sales going up? After the change its retention of the customers and how the sells is actually happening, or happening for the clients. There’s, a lot of times there’s a disconnect between sales departments and development and that’s something that needs to especially in a, in an environment that’s always changing, meaning the marketplace, the digital marketplace overall. Now, there needs to be more of a synergy of that is the client satisfaction from the interaction to the website to achieve a purchase? Is it something that the that the end client slash user enjoys? Are they actually are they quickly buying what what is the variables there? That’s preventing them from not not purchasing the service or product that they’re doing for whatever site? Because just changing and optimizing your code or anything like that, if it’s not a good product that’s even being sold, you’re going to have a variable there. That’s not going to be good indicator. So it’s really important to focus on from the user experience. Are they able to do Are they enjoying themselves? Essentially.

DV: It’s really interesting thinking back to my agency days and, you know, building sites for new companies or new offerings, if you will, and feeling like the user experience was great, but you know, the sales in some cases might not have been what everyone expected. And so you start to think about the role of the web design versus the role of the product and its purchase ability, if you will. And it is an interesting tug and pull because it’s difficult to unwind the root cause of both what the product you sell and the way you describe it, of course, are critical parts and I think are you know, I mean, obviously part of the site you’re building if you’re an engineer, but not necessarily your direct area of concern, but yeah, it’s it’s an interesting bugaboo. I know that’s what we’re what we were talking today terms of breaking it but I think it’s helpful to understand like, measurement because you know, I know it can get frustrating for software teams when things don’t result in financial outcomes. But you think what you did was good, and having a language and measurement system to maybe show that it actually was for some reason?

JW: Yeah, well, and if you don’t mind, return in there, David. Yeah, good. Um, there is. There is a key component there, that looking at it from the backend, and the front end, you have to make sure that you’re that there is constant communication there. You can only optimize so forth, and so far you can have the fastest engine in the world. But if it’s in a, you know, if it’s in a vehicle in a bus, it’s not going to perform as if it was in something that was the size of a g of MetroTech Gil. And so if it doesn’t matter how fast you get there, if nobody wants to get there in the first place, and that leads into a whole bunch of other compensations now on the content side, which we definitely don’t have enough time even today to cover all that

DV: Well, I think this has been great, Jacob, I think you’ve given people lots of ideas and utilized when breaking their sites and the login poll of the different concerns when doing so. So I thought this was awesome. Thank you so much for joining us today. Jacob.

JW: Thank you so much for having me. And yeah, it’s it’s one of those that that the core thing of this whole experience, and again, thank you, it’s just be willing to break your site. Be willing to dive into the nuts and bolts and be okay with learning to fix it. I mean, that from both. Not so much on the client side. When you’re when you’re rendering client services, but in your test environments, and take your site, rip it apart, learn. Don’t be scared of it. That’s what I would kind of summarize everything we love. It

DV: I love it. If you’d like to learn more about what Jacob is up to, you can visitwarrenresearchinc.com Thanks, everyone for listening to press this the WordPress community podcast on WMR. Again, this has been your host David Vogelpohl. I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine. And I love to bring the best of the community to you here every week on Press This.

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