I was invited by David Vogelpohl to appear as a guest on the PressThis podcast, to talk about the Genesis Framework:
The transcript is below.
Introduction Welcome to Press This, the WordPress community podcast featuring exclusive content and interviews with leaders in the WordPress community. Covering everything from development to integrating your digital marketing strategy with WordPress. Join host David Vogelpohl of WP Engine and special guests from across the community as they keep you up to speed on the latest advancements in WordPress. Let’s get started.
David Everyone, welcome to the Press This, WordPress community podcast on webmaster radio. This is your host, David Vogelpohl, and 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. As a reminder, you can always subscribe on iTunes or iHeartRadio or download the latest episodes at WebmasterRADIO.FM. In this episode, I’m really excited for this one, we’re gonna be covering the rise and rise of the Genesis framework. And in order to do that we brought a very special guest to the show, core contributor to Genesis and general community leader, Mr. Gary Jones. Gary, welcome to the show.
Gary Thank you much for the invite. How are you doing, David?
David Doing great. So glad to talk to you here today. I know, you and I spoke shortly after WP Engine acquired StudioPress and the Genesis framework, and I really enjoyed that opportunity to get to know you then. But also enjoying this opportunity today to get to know you a little bit better and share a little bit about the Genesis framework with those that are unfamiliar with it. So basically what we’re gonna be covering today are Gary’s thoughts on the kind of history and evolution of Genesis, the power of the community behind Genesis, which is really quite large and impressive, and then at the end really how brands and agencies use Genesis kind of in their day to day to scale the work they do and frankly to build better experiences. So fun, fun stuff. And if you’re unfamiliar with the Genesis framework, you’re on the right podcast. Gary’s quite an informed person. Gary, you have history, right? It’s not just like you picked up the Genesis framework last week.
Gary No, no. I’ve been using Genesis for about eight years now and contributing to it for all that time as well. So yeah, fairly in depth usage and knowledge of the code base and the community and everything that surrounds Genesis.
David Awesome. Well I know and I actually ran a Genesis agency for five years and was involved with the community. But you know, one of the roles I have at WP Engine was leading the acquisition team behind StudioPress, and your name just kept coming up over and over and over again. So again, super excited to have you here today to talk about these things. But you also have some big news. You just accepted a position. Is that correct, Gary?
Gary Yeah, it’s correct. After 10 years of running my own agency, which was a predominately Genesis-based agency as well, I have accepted an offer to be a VIP Developer at Automattic. I start as of the date of recording, next week. But as I think when this recording goes live, then it will be tomorrow.
David There you go, you’re talking to future Gary now. But congratulations on that. Such a good company to get aligned with and glad you found a home there.
Gary Yeah, thank you very much, yeah.
David Awesome. You told us your Genesis origin story a little bit there, but I’m kind of curious. What is your WordPress origin story? How did you first get connected to the WordPress world?
Gary So I started many moons ago. My first real experience with writing code for the web was when I went to university back in 1998. The IT suites were available all night, and that was my first chance to experience kind of permanently connected web. The IT suites were rocking the latest in the browsers or Netscape Navigator and IE4 at that time. I soon found some online chat rooms. They’re not live now unfortunately, but they were a fairly simple affair. You type some text into a field, you hit submit, and every few seconds a page would reload with the updated chat from yourself and others.
Gary Some of the folks had color text, though, so I was wondering how they did that. And how they had different sized text and depending which browser you were using, the text scrolled across or the text flashed. When I found out how to do that, then it was the HML, and so my first introduction to coding was the font, marquee and blink tags. So it was a promising start. From there, I moved onto Geocities and as every self respecting new developer did in the ’90s. It was just static HTML pages. I later discovered that you had server-side includes and then CSS appeared and so I didn’t have to spend my days updating thirty different files just because I changed the photo for instance.
Gary During the eight years or so I graduated from university, I started teaching in schools and prisons. Moved my sites over to some proper hosting. The design still sucked, I’ve never claimed to be a designer. And it wasn’t yet WordPress but all that time it was just a hobby. Around 2007 I had to go to, went to Malaysia, my wife was sent on work out there. And because I wasn’t allowed to work out there then I started playing and discovered WordPress around then and started playing with it, experimenting and customizing. From that point I was definitely hooked into WordPress. It was right about version 2.3 at that time.
David You touched on a lot of bases there. You got IE4, you got flashing text, you got Geocities, you’re really building your resume up. I see why VIP at Automatic hired you Gary.
Gary Absolutely, I’m kind of top drawer. [crosstalk 00:05:31]
David … Just absolutely stellar resume here.
Gary I’m good. I mean and it’s fun to think of the history that someone like myself has gone through who’s completely self taught. We didn’t have the Zacs and the Weses around at the time to offer the courses on the latest and greatest within web development. If you didn’t go to university and learn it there, I mean my degree was in teaching so I was all self taught, and that for me has been the best way of doing it. I’ve taken the long way around, it’s taken twenty years. Eleven years of WordPress and ten years running an agency but that’s a lot of experiences and cases to come across. And be, not necessarily a better developer but an all-round developer because of that experience.
David Well, I’m with you there, coming up in the nineties having to be self taught. Because there certainly wasn’t, certainly college material but definitely even the courses and things we enjoy today so fun times. Now, shifting gears a little bit, kind of the topic of the podcast, is kind of around Genesis and what it is and why people use it and that kind of stuff. And obviously your role as a open source contributor to Genesis I think for all this time puts you in a unique position to answer these questions. You know this question comes up a lot to me but what benefits does Genesis afford to a business or agency? Why choose a theme framework like Genesis or any other of the theme frameworks out there?
Gary There’s a few different reasons but for me as business it was a chance to grow. Be able to grow my business because it was a tool that I could make use of, but also for my own brand and reputation that I wanted to establish myself. Not just in the WordPress niche of web development, but in the Genesis niche of the WordPress community. So it was my chance to be part of the community, to get involved. And if this was a tool that I was going to be basing my business on then I wanted to see it always be continued to be improved. By contributing to the code base I got exposure and referrals from Brian Gardner. People who were contacting him, somebody who wanted a website, wanted to a Genesis developer, he would pass those on to me.
Gary Also spending time in the forums and helping people in the Genesis … There was originally a Skype group and then there’s a Facebook group. There was a LinkedIn group. On Twitter at the moment obviously you’ve got a Slack workspace. I was getting referrals from other developers for projects that they couldn’t manage and doing code audits for them. Which helped to improve their coding abilities as well as whatever project they were working on. So even before you actually start looking at the code and how that can help speed development then the community is a big factor of why use Genesis.
David Yeah. It’s so funny, I asked you the question like what benefits did it provide and you didn’t talk about, in the beginning, around workflows. You didn’t talk about capabilities, you didn’t talk about features. You talked almost exclusively about the community. And I think, you know I think that’s one of the powers I think of WordPress, but then also certainly the Genesis sub-community. And you know as I’ve engaged with the community more, having been involved with it more, seeing that sub-community and how people help each other, how people help each other to succeed, and the benefits that they extract from participating and contributing, has really been really awe inspiring. And then to hear you have that be your first response was testament to that.
David Then if we switch gears a little bit, if the primary driver benefit for you is the strength of the community and how you were able to both contribute but then also extract value and benefit from participating, what is the more technical reasons? Why do people use Genesis and theme frameworks?
Gary It’s, I mentioned it briefly before, it’s the speed of development. The way Genesis is built and can be customized it’s makes use of the action and filter hooks rather than the template parts. And that benefits me. You don’t have to edit multiple files to make the same change in different contexts. And if you look at the latest Twenty Theme I think the main element appears seven times across various different files and templates. So if you want add an attribute to it it means editing seven files. Whereas Genesis, being a little bit more abstracted, means it’s four lines of code for me to add an attribute in there. The snippets to do any of those customizations or templates but also, you can have text or keyboard shortcuts in your IDE that makes dropping in the logic easier.
Gary For developers you’ve got the same code base to work on, whatever the site looks like. The visual design of what the child theme has to be to meet the requirements for the client is completely decoupled from Genesis itself and how you go about doing those customizations. You get built-in value for the client so you can let them choose the layout per page. Or it’s got the basic SEO field supports. And then there’s a ton of plugins that will allow them to choose what the footer or the hooked in content will contain. So it’s flexible for advanced developers but also for other, perhaps less-knowledgeable people.
David Novice people yeah, [crosstalk 00:10:54] I do want to touch on that, absolutely. I do want to touch on that. It’s interesting, but to just kind of recap, it’s efficiency because you’re working within a framework so you kind of have a bit of a common language. It’s abstracted or in a sense kind of decoupling the notion of your theme settings with your theme itself in some ways. So it enhances things like theme portability. But it was interesting to hear your observations on some of the benefits on the engineering side.
David And you started to talk about the novice side and what I want to do is after this quick break we’re going to come back and I want to kind of dig into a little bit of that kind of dual personality of Genesis. So everybody hang tight and we’ll be right back.
PART 1 OF 3 ENDS [00:12:04]
David Hello everyone, welcome back to The Press This, WordPress community podcast on WebmasterRADIO. This is your host David Vogelpohl and I’m interviewing Gary Jones, one of the core contributors to the Genesis Framework. And right before the break, Gary, you were sharing some of the benefits that Genesis provides to development teams. And you started to kind of get into a little bit about how Genesis can also be beneficial for the novice user, and you know, Genesis is kind of funny and the community is kind of funny because it has this duel personality, right? It helps novice people build better sites, but it also helps advanced teams build sites faster and more performant. So how do you think … you kind of share your thoughts on Genesis’s role for the advanced developer, what are your thoughts for, say, the more novice website user or person building their own site? What are the benefits of leveraging something like Genesis?
Gary The benefits, it comes from the same origin as the fact that Genesis is built on the Hooks API. So the same way that advanced teams can hook their customizations in directly is the same way that you can get tools like Design Palette PRO, or Genesis Extender, Genesis Layout Extras, Genesis Super Customizer. These are all plugins that are either free or premium in the WordPress space, either from StudioPress or from third parties that allow Genesis users, who are not comfortable in the command line or with code to make the changes that they want to do. It’s very easy to see, I mean, there’s so many Genesis specific plugins, it’s easy to see how Genesis acts a bit like a PostCSS or Remarq with all of their kind of respective, separate customization packages. It is the framework, it is the hub and there’s a lot of ways to extend that, that you aren’t just relying on the main Genesis itself. I think the main issue of this duel personality comes down to the marketing, is gonna be the tricky bit of the duel personality. It’s gonna be a fine line to balance.
Gary I mean, have a look at the plugin page on the StudioPress website, it mentions kind of 15 plugins that StudioPress has built and there’s only one from a third party there, yet there’s many free and open source plugins that exist on WordPress.org and GitHub.
David I think there’s 219 at my last count that are specific to Genesis on WordPress.org. And then countless-
Gary And there will be many more. I mean, I know I’ve got some on GitHub that I’ve not put on WordPress.org. But again, down to the marketing issue is that if you look on the main Genesis page it includes some words, ’cause I was looking at it earlier today, of “schema.org” and “microdata” and “turnkey designs”. Now, for some audiences that’s just gonna be jargon. As novice users, they’re not gonna know what that is, necessarily care what that is. And perhaps there’s some sort of level of education there, that they will benefit from this if they understood what it is. But yet, for other perhaps more advanced people, that might be exactly the type of features that they’re looking for. And so marketing, this duel personality kind of package is where the trick is, I think.
David Yeah, it certainly can be challenging speaking to both audiences. For me, I don’t know, if you think about the WordPress context for a minute, it also has this same issue or the same duel personality, where it’s used by novice, non web-developers, non-WordPress developers, extensively and millions of times. And then it’s also used by advanced teams of huge agencies building super complex things. And I don’t know, it’s almost like the flexibility of WordPress, but also in the Genesis context of flexibility of Genesis allows you to use tools that make it easy as a novice, but then also allows, say, your engineering team or your developer, or your agency to build crazy stuff, but build it in a way that makes it easy for you as a novice to then work with and deal with. Have you found that to be true?
Gary Yeah, absolutely. I mean, yeah, there’s definitely stuff that for client work that I’ve been part of, that we’ve gone over and above where anybody ever thought Genesis would be able to do, just because we’ve done some customizations and we’ve moved parts of the page around, and we’ve added in more semantics or moved bits and pieces where it needed. So yeah, it’s very flexible for those who need it, but it’s that same flexibility that allows these extra tools to be used as well.
David Yeah, great, great point. And again, kind of parallel to the power of WordPress itself, which I think is really interesting. So earlier you talked about kind of the role that the community played in your business and the Genesis community in particular. And I know that there’ve been … you know, I’ve talked to half a dozen people that have talked about their journey as a WordPress developer and Genesis, and other framework’s role in that in helping them build complex experiences, build things kind of above their punching weight a little bit. And a lot of that value came from the community as well, help them figure out problems, learn new things. But how do you think of the overall benefit to the community? Explain how it affected you, but when you engage with people in the community, when you see others engage with them, what benefits do you think people are getting from participating?
Gary Predominantly support. For those who want to do customizations, there’s a ton of tutorials out there. And I know that for the kind of upcoming versions of Genesis, where we might be looking to change some bits and pieces, one of the key factors is, well let’s not break things so much that these tutorials no longer work. So that’s very important. You could kind of look at Slack, there’s the community support forums, there’s groups on other platforms, there’s Genesis meetup. There’s lots of ways to find interact with other Genesis users, who you can ask about how to do X or find the best plugin to do Y. One prominent member of the community, a gentleman called Sridar, and he went along the forums, and he was answering just for everyone’s benefit. But instead of just answering the forum question specifically, he was putting it onto his own website and then actually could build up a business from that because he built up all these tutorials, 300-400 tutorials, a link back to them from the support forum, the person who asked the question and from there he was able to turn it into a premium website.
Gary So that community aspect has allowed him to develop kind of a subscription business model. In terms of other support, I mean, we had a Genesis Camp, which was like a virtual conference. A bit like the WordSesh Conference in the wider WordPress environment. And that was 2015 and we had some 36, 38 videos and it was covering development workflows or how to deal with clients, or understanding Genesis hooks, or selling maintenance plans, internationalization. I was part of the UK Genesis kind of set up there, we did a podcast episode. There was Troy Dean doing about recurring revenue, so there’s a lot of things that isn’t just relative to how do you do X with the code in Genesis, but how do you run your business. How do you as a freelancer or a small agency kind of make best use of Genesis to grow your situation.
David I love that you called that out and specifically Sridar, and the work that he did. I got a chance to talk to him the other day and learned more about his backstory. And it was really kind of inspiring to see that he started all that, not starting a business, but helping others and then through that was able to establish a business that provides a good stream of income. And so it’s so interesting to see that, but then even if you go to the Genesis WordPress Facebook group and look at people’s questions in there, and they’re very particular. Like you said, support is a key part of this. And they’ll say, how in this way do I do this thing, or using this feature, how do I accomplish this objective. And there’ll be half a dozen, you know, multiple dozens of responses helping them, thinking about it, offering options and then again, just to see that and see that level of assistance from the community I thought was also really inspiring. And then as you pointed out, all the different businesses that have kind of popped up in that ecosystem, and really kind of the sense of community, or the analogy of stone soup, right? I’ll bring a little something, you bring a little something and we’ll walk away with a good meal.
David But to see that kind of expressed, I thought was really interesting. And of course, we see that in the broader WordPress context, but to live that on the edges and my Genesis agency, and then kind of come more into the center as we’ve worked with the community and worked with the products, I think was even a little bit surprising to me. I don’t know if I’ve participated in a group that’s active with helping people.
Gary Yeah and I know Brian Gardner was very key in … There might be, I come in and say perhaps we need an advanced sample theme, perhaps we need this, perhaps we need that. And he’d say well, look, if we’re not doing it at StudioPress, you go ahead in the community, and you do it because we will support you to do that. And if you come up with a subscription model that does this or some other service, I think there’s so many people doing services from converting from the HTML 5, no sorry, the XHTML Genesis Child Theme into HTML 5 Child Themes. And it was a particular service, particular kind of niche. It wasn’t something that was gonna be automated from StudioPress, so people could do that as a business, and StudioPress and the Genesis community would support that. So yeah, very interesting to see that happen as well.
David Excellent. I certainly feel the yolk of that heritage, as I participate in helping to support the community moving forward. And you know, the kind of principles that Brian set down and operated by, that the community then kind of reacted to and oriented around, to me is a great degree of responsibility, that we feel in necessary to honor and to support and to grow and expand. I think these are fun things to do. And glad also to have Brian Gardner as our partner in still doing that and continuing that legacy. So, I do have some more questions Gary. This is fun, interesting stuff, but we’re going to take a quick break. When we come back we’re going to dig more into Genesis in the community. So, everybody hang tight and we’ll be right back.
PART 2 OF 3 ENDS [00:24:30]
David Everyone, welcome back to Press This, the WordPress Community Podcast on WebMaster Radio. This is your host David Vogelpohl talking about the Genesis framework with Genesis core contributor and Automattician, Mr. Gary Jones.
David Gary, before the break we were talking a little bit about the power of the community and the role that it plays in supporting others and even things like spawning businesses and all of that cool stuff. But, I wanted to wind back the clock a little bit because, at a point in time you had discovered Genesis, you had discovered the community, you wanted to participate and be part of its future and be a contributor. But, what was that moment? What was that moment you decided, for example, and I mentioned earlier I ran a Genesis agency. I never bothered with learning how to contribute or having my staff contribute. I never bothered with really participating in the community, I think, to my detriment. But you did. You did bother with that. You did lean into that. What was that moment for you where you said: Look, this isn’t going to directly drive revenue for me, but I still feel the need to do it. How did you make that transition?
Gary My story starts even further back than that. When I first started getting into WordPress, somebody suggested the Thesis theme, and I used that for a couple of years. That served well for the time, it allowed me to create client projects and client websites. But, where I got frustrated with it was … I mean, two parts. One, it seemed to work against WordPress. It has very opinionated concepts and approaches, whereas Genesis tends to work with WordPress. But the second was that I really wanted to help improve the code base, be through documentation, through a new feature, through better code standards, whatever it might be, and just found that I was being blocked on doing that. There just was no interest in me being part of that.
Gary I then was introduced to Genesis. A lady called Darcy, she was in Thesis community and had moved over to Genesis and she told me about it. I looked at it and then she, very quickly, introduced me to Brian Gardner via email … very standard introduction email. He said, “Ooh well, if there’s any suggestions for Genesis then please let me know.” I sent him a big long email list of items that I think could be improved and he was like: “Wow. Okay. We need to get you onboard here.” It was that willingness to be open and to listen and to request and require … Not require. But to request contributions or allow contributions to be made.
Gary That was the turning point. It was like: Yes. Somebody wants to listen. I don’t know it all, but I probably know some things different, so if they’re wanting to listen, I’ll go ahead. As I said before, if it can help improve my business because that’s what I’m going to base my client work around, let alone my brand and reputation, then that’s what I want to help with.
Gary It was only later that I realized that helping so much on the forums, for instance, well, being part of the forums allowed me to not only answer those questions and build the knowledge base of the code, but also to help individuals improve theirs, while at the same time improving my brand and reputation.
David That’s really great thoughts. So, basically the gist is, that this was an important tool for you and that without having that voice and the ability to help improve it, maybe felt a little powerless. But by having the voice and the ability to contribute and make it better, you ultimately made your own product better. And in the process, benefited from all the ancillary benefits of the community, in terms of your business and so on and so forth. Really, really interesting to think about those things.
David I have a friend, actually, who runs a conference. I remember he was telling me this story. Back in the day he went to someone who ran the industry’s biggest conference at the time, and said, “Hey, we have some ideas and think it would be fun to do this.” And that person flat out rejected those ideas. So he and his partner went out and started their own conference, and now that is the industry-leading conference in that particular industry. But it was that moment where, if that person had just listened. If that person would just have been thoughtful about those suggestions, they could have had allies in helping them in their mission, rather than someone that might be going out elsewhere. Not that you would have done that per se, but to have that outlook with Genesis was helpful for you to make sure that you could rely on the product and have a voice in its future.
Gary Yeah, absolutely, yeah.
David So, last question here and maybe a real quick one. What is one fun story from the history of Genesis? As quick as you can.
Gary Not so much with Genesis. The only one I could think of is that, back in 2013 WordCamp Europe in Leiden. It was lunchtime, I was standing outside. I was chatting to Joost de Valk, obviously head of Yoast. We were just having a conversation, it was the first time I’d met him. I was still very starry-eyed, as one of these WordPress heroes. Somebody came up to interrupt, said: “Oh I’m really sorry to disturb you guys.” Then started talking to me. He said, “Gary, I just want to thank you for the work you’ve done in Genesis. For everything you’ve done, it’s been really helpful. I’ve learned a lot.” And so on and so forth. Really complimentary towards me, then he effectively just walked off.
Gary The fact that he did just interrupted myself and Joost de Valk, and I think: Well, hang on, he’s talking to me and not Joost. Now perhaps he knew Joost already. Perhaps he already spoken, I don’t know. But it was interesting or I found it mindblowing that somebody would, at that point, come and talk to me and thank me for the stuff I’ve done on Genesis, even though the very famous, even back then, Joost de Valk was standing there as well.
David Ah, that is a fun story. Well I definitely thank you Gary for your contributions. I don’t know if you know this or not, but Joost actually used to host this podcast, and then-
Gary I didn’t know that.
David Yeah. And so now I have the helm, but funny story to hear. Gary, I wanted to thank you so much for joining the show today. This has been really enlightening and interesting and I really appreciate your time.
Gary Oh, thank you for inviting me.
David Awesome. Well thanks everyone else for listening to Press This, the WordPress Community Podcast on Webmaster Radio. Just a reminder, you can always subscribe on iTunes, iHeartRadio or download the latest episodes at WebmasterRADIO.FM. Again, this has been your host, David Vogelpohl, and 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. PART 3 OF 3 ENDS [00:33:33]
PART 3 OF 3 ENDS [00:33:33]