WordPress Development, Freelancing, and Taking Time Off, with Lara Schenck

By M. David Green , Tim Evko
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WordPress Development, Freelancing, and Taking Time Off, with Lara Schenck

In this episode of the Versioning Show, David and Tim are joined by Lara Schenck, a freelance web consultant and educator. They discuss making a living as a freelancer, productivity and the art of procrastinating, networking and answering emails, self teaching and gaining experience, using metaphors to explain things, understanding what clients really need, taking time off, saving money, and progressively enhancing babies.

Show Notes

Conversation Highlights

I will say it sounds like a dream, but you can’t separate work and life in the same way you can when you have a job and you can leave. One important thing about freelancing is not working in your bed or in your PJs. It’s getting out of the house, going into a co-working space.


I think, maybe, there’s more pressure for the networking part that seeps into your every day. So if I go to a bar, even if I’m talking to someone, it’s like, Ooh, I wonder if they need a website, or if they know somebody like who wants to learn WordPress.


an important thing to mention in terms of taking a bunch of time off, you have to have the right project that allows you to do that.


I think I scoff a lot at articles that are like you should work 10 minutes, break three minutes, whatever they are. Stand up, walk around. Everybody has their own thing. My (probably) biggest strategy is procrastinating … as weird as that sounds. The longer you have to do it, the longer it will take. If you shrink that down to the time you actually need to complete something, then it’s more efficient that way.


for media queries. I talk about starting with a baby — a baby which is like size zero and then progressively enhancing it, I guess. You move up, and like at age 10, the baby now has a little dress on, or long hair, and then age 21, they have a nose piercing, they’re holding a beer …


Things like boot camps can be great for jumping off point, and really give people a good inventory of terms and concepts within the industry, but it’s not like the be all end all. You have to have real project experience.


A big thing I figured out during my time in New York was to give people options. I would say, Okay, maybe you don’t know what you need. A lot of times you start talking to someone who needs a website. They don’t need a website. They need a business plan.

WordPress Development, Freelancing, and Taking Time Off, with Lara Schenck

Transcript

Tim:

Hey, what’s up everybody. This is Tim Evko …

David:

… and this is M. David Green …

Tim:

… and you’re listening to episode number 30 of the Versioning podcast.

David:

This is a place where we get together to discuss the industry of the web from development to design, with some of the people making it happen today and planning where it’s headed in the next version.

Tim:

Today, we’re talking with Lara Schenck, who works with WordPress. She is a web developer. She is also a teacher and a pretty good cocktail maker. So we’re going to talk about a whole bunch of different things today. Let’s go ahead and get started.


David:

Lara, we’re really glad to have you on the show today. Thanks for joining us.

Lara:

All right. Thanks for having me.

David:

I’m definitely going to want to find out more about those cocktails, but first, since this is the Versioning Show, we want to ask you a philosophical question. Your philosophical question for the day is: in your current career, what version are you, and why?

Lara:

Oh. I would say 3.0.

David:

[Chuckles] How did you get to that?

Lara:

3.0 because I think I started out, after college, I worked with a startup for about a year or so. I was doing freelance projects. After that startup caved, I moved into doing freelance work. So a lot of custom WordPress sites for small to medium-size businesses. And not organically — maybe around Version 2.8 — I organically moved into a lot of teaching. Recently, I stopped. I had a little bit of burnout and took a five-month break-ish. Now, I’m just starting 3.0.

David:

Well, welcome to 3.0. I’m curious, you said you took a break. At this point in your career, it’s an interesting choice to make.

Lara:

Yeah, it is, because I was living in New York for about three years and was doing really well. I had a ton of work. I was always going to get referrals from emails or whatever. I say, Oh, my next availability is March of next year. It was always that kind of thing. And it just got to be a lot. New York takes its toll. So I decided to try out the ski bum lifestyle in Utah … of all places.

David:

That’s a good way to take a break. That completely removes you from the work you were doing, I guess.

Lara:

Oh, totally. Well, so I went back to Pittsburgh for a few months, which is where I’m from. I had a great time, ended up getting to a pretty cool relationship, which is really fun. I was just, I don’t know, for lack of a better phrase, partying a lot there. And then was like, Oh, crap. I’m going to Utah. I was able to ramp business down pretty easily. I bar tended at a ski lodge in Alta, Utah, which is a pretty awesome ski mountain up there. It was fun for a while, and I was like, I need to use my brain again. I like building websites. So I moved to L.A.

David:

I know how that is. Tell us a little bit about the career that you were stepping away from. What led you to that burnout? How did you get there?

Lara:

Sure. I worked with individual clients a lot. It’s all very project based. I never did any full-time contract work. I would get a referral from something. I spoke at a lot of meet ups and did things like that. So a lot of referrals came through people that saw me there, or whatever. I had a few great clients, and would do this four month-ish projects for websites. It was a little bit one and done. I was trying to do more teaching too. I did a lot of tutoring. It became a lot of the business operations part, and scheduling, and working around that. It just became exhausting. Like emails … I have a little PTSD about that.

So my goal is to intentionally respond to emails slowly now. Because I think in my head, you set these expectations for yourself, like Oh, I’ve got to respond in three hours or whatever. I’d be checking my email constantly, and that’s something you have to consciously not do. I think I just wanted to be able to get out of the city more often. I love New York. I definitely miss it now that I’ve been gone for a while, but I think I just needed a little step away to get excited about things, again, too.

Tim [3:58]:

I’m curious, because I have experienced burnout before. I’m sure a lot of us have, but I think there’s a little bit of fear, at least, for myself when I think about just stepping back and taking an extended leave. I feel like — I don’t know — I’m going to lose all of my skills and spend all of my money and end up as a failed web developer. I’m curious if you had any concerns like that, and how you got over them.

Lara:

I definitely did. I was thinking like, Oh, I hope WordPress isn’t obsolete when I come back, or HTML might be really different. But it turns out, HTML is not that different. Although, I don’t know what the hell is going on with the JavaScript world … [chuckles] … not that I did too much before.

So I did fear that a little bit, becoming out of date, because being part of teaching is being able to answer these questions — about buzzwords, new concepts, things like that. You really need to stay up to date.

I’ve just been getting back into working and looking for work. I’ve been just reading a whole bunch of news, too — seeing what the new conversations are. I guess, coming back into it, I haven’t had any development projects yet. That’ll be cool to dive back into that.

I think, organically, we’ll figure out the best way to do things. Because you always run into problems, or something’s not working. You end up googling it, and you’ll look at the dates of the blog post and notice what’s changed. I think that’s not really something to worry about. Other fears like finding the work. I’m starting from scratch there a little bit. I still have some good contacts from being in New York, but I’m in L.A. now, which is super different, and so spread out. It’s weird figuring that out. Yeah, we’ll see. I started meeting some people here. I’m talking at the WordPress meet up next week, so …

David:

That’s definitely a good way to build up the network in a new city. What made you choose moving from the East Coast to the West Coast?

Lara:

Well, I have a couple of really good friends out here, and this relationship I mentioned — my girlfriend is living in L.A. now, too. She moved out here. So yeah, the people, and I wanted a big city again. Maybe some sunshine, because I got my fill of winter.

This is a cool prospect. I’ve got a lot of questions about how I get work and operate as a freelancer. It’s a cool prospect to be like, Okay, I’m going to do this. I think my philosophy is, you do a lot of stuff for free at first, get your name out there, be a genuine person, and the referrals come in. It might take a few months, but that’s something that kind of happens organically.

David:

I think a lot of listeners would say you’re pretty much living the dream, because you’ve created a career for yourself in which you can freelance, you can take six months off to be a bartender and bum around, and then just dive right back in and pick up where you left off.

Lara:

Pretty much, yeah. I will say it sounds like a dream, but you can’t separate work and life in the same way you can when you have a job and you can leave. One important thing about freelancing is not working in your bed or in your PJs. It’s getting out of the house, going into a co-working space. The other thing is just, I guess, emails and constantly being out looking for contacts. I think, maybe, there’s more pressure for the networking part that seeps into your every day. So if I go to a bar, even if I’m talking to someone, it’s like, Ooh, I wonder if they need a website, or if they know somebody like who wants to learn WordPress. That kind of thing. It’s just a little more pervasive in your day-to-day life, I think.

And an important thing to mention in terms of taking a bunch of time off, you have to have the right project that allows you to do that. Before I left New York, I was doing a part-time contract with a startup there doing front-end for them. So it was like revamping all of their Rails apps. I was doing the whole front-end for that and making a little style guide for them. That paid really well. I was able to do that for a few months. They ended up not needing me any more, and then I could take the time off. You have to have that one project that gives you a huge cushion.

David:

That is, again, one of the advantages of working in this field that we’re in, in that we have the opportunity to take on projects that can be a single project for a short period of time that can really cover the bills for a while.

Lara [7:57]:

Yeah, totally. And then, of course, I can’t emphasize enough: if anybody is interested in going out on their own, having that cushion — and this is a totally unsolicited plug — but I use Simple bank, which is so fun for a little savings goals and anything you use. If you’re trying to just put away money a little bit and you have that four months of living expenses, that needs to stay there, because you don’t know if a project is going to drag on and on and on and then you’re not going to be paid for it any more.

David:

Did you start your career as a freelancer, or did you work yourself up to freelancing along the way?

Lara:

I’ve always freelanced, pretty much. I had this startup job out of college for a year. That was a full-time thing. Technically it was contracting, but I was continuing to do freelance projects then. But I’ve been doing it full time for probably like seven or eight years. I figured out this WordPress niche. A lot of people, especially in the non-WordPress development community, scoff at it. Their association with WordPress is hacking themes and it’s not enjoyable work, but it can be great.

Tim:

I always find that scoffing a little bit ridiculous. I personally just completed a small WordPress, implementing a theme for a company and redoing the website all in WordPress. But man, if that isn’t tough work. There is really a lot of knowledge that you need to have. That is, for sure, the realest type of web development that you can do.

That being said, I have another question around productivity. You steped back after getting a little bit burned out with a crazy schedule. I’m wondering if your approach towards, and ideas about, productivity have changed after you’ve had this hiatus or sabbatical in between the time that you are doing a lot of work and then you stepped off a little bit. Are your ideas about productivity different after that whole transition that you went through?

Lara:

That’s a good question. I have thought about that, for sure, because right now, any productive things I do are totally self driven. Everything is self driven, but I’m not working with a client right now. So it’s all like, Okay, I should write a blog post. I should write an email blast — that thing. I’ve been able, recently, to set small deadlines for myself. But there was an author of the Pastry Box (which no longer exists … I don’t know if you guys know that …)

David:

I remember that. Which one was Pastry Box?

Lara:

The Pastry Box Project … It was a website with just general thoughts from people in the web industry — some semi-technical things, but a lot of it was along the lines of productivity or just industry issues in a more social or general sense. He’s started a blog now about productivity and asked me to write an article for it. I was like I can’t. I have no idea. I think I scoff a lot at articles that are like you should work 10 minutes, break three minutes, whatever they are. Stand up, walk around. Everybody has their own thing. My (probably) biggest strategy is procrastinating … as weird as that sounds. The longer you have to do it, the longer it will take. If you shrink that down to the time you actually need to complete something, then it’s more efficient that way. Does that make sense?

Tim:

Yeah, definitely. A very interesting strategy, indeed. I might try it, but I’ll probably get it wrong and just end up not doing a whole bunch of things.

[Chuckling]

Lara:

Yeah. I’m figuring out in terms of new perspectives, I think, I got to get things more underway now that I’m back, and see.

Tim:

Is there anything else that you’ve formed a completely new perspective on since you’ve taken this amazing-sounding break that I have been considering lately?

Lara:

[Chuckles] Well … I think, not sweating small things. Like I mentioned emails before were a big stressor for me, because it’ll take me 20 minutes to write a two-sentence response to something sometimes. That’s, maybe, exaggeration, but I think realizing that stuff you might stress out about, other people are not stressed out about your response to. I’m like, o my gosh, I have to just write a little note about meeting up with someone and I’m thinking about the wording a whole bunch. It’s like, yeah, that’s kind of important, but at the same time, that’s a small part of another person’s life. So, maybe, don’t sweat the small stuff, I guess.

Tim [12:05]:

Also, an excellent tip for public speaking.

Lara:

O, for sure.

David:

Speaking of public speaking, you also mentioned that you did some teaching as well and not everybody who does the development side of things is also comfortable getting in front of other people and teaching. Could you tell us a little bit about that side of your career?

Lara:

Yeah, I love teaching. Particularly, beginners to intermediate. People that are just starting from no knowledge of what a website is or is made of, all the way to people that are getting into Gulp and Sass for the first time, or digging into WordPress development further and trying to customize sites — that kind of thing. One of my favorite parts about teaching is using metaphors to describe things, because, a lot of times, the things you read online or hear in videos — what have you, any materials — are so full of jargon. A lot of times, people just don’t understand these fundamental concepts. Something like how a client–server relationship works. I’ll abstract that into a restaurant, or I’ll use a metaphor of a human body for front-end technology. It’s like, HTML is the fact that your arm exists, and CSS is the color of your fingernails, and then JavaScript is like you poke me and I make a sound. Stuff like that, and breaking it into digestible chunks. I have a lot of fun with that, and a nice little inventory of metaphors.

Tim:

That’s my new favorite analogy. I’m definitely going to use that now. Thank you.

Lara:

The other one I do is for media queries. I talk about starting with a baby — a baby which is like size zero and then progressively enhancing it, I guess. You move up, and like at age 10, the baby now has a little dress on, or long hair, and then age 21, they have a nose piercing, they’re holding a beer …

David:

That sounds absolutely delightful.

Lara:

Yeah. I like doing little white boarding stuff. I love teaching in person. It’s not always easy to find places for that. Especially like, now, in a new city. I use to teach at Pratt in New York, which is a design school. That was really fun, because it was talking to a lot of designers and visually minded people, which is my background. But whiteboarding and the physicality of it when you really get into what you’re talking about, I think, people appreciate a lot.

David:

I was going to ask about that. What background do you bring to the work that you’re doing? I know that in order to teach at a design school, you need some sort of credentials or some sort of masters or something. I’m curious — what background are you bringing to what you’re doing?

Lara:

Well, I have a degree in fine arts. I did printmaking for a long time, and then got into doing some web stuff in my senior year. One of my teachers was actually, You should learn how to make WordPress websites and then you can freelance and call your own shots. I was like Okay, I’ll try.

David:

You really took that and ran.

Lara:

I figured it out. I took it very literally. That’s how I got started there. But yeah, I have a design/fine arts background. I did some design and branding work in logos, but I’m not interested in doing that anymore.

David:

I think it’s encouraging to hear about more people who are getting into this field without degrees in engineering, for example. I know that a lot of the people we’ve interviewed don’t have that engineering background. I’m curious how you trained yourself — what resources you used to figure out what you needed to know in order to do what you’re doing?

Lara:

I think having a project is the most important part. Google, I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that. I never really did tutorials too much. I’ve never had the attention span for it, really. It’s always learning what you need to know for a specific task. One of the projects this teacher gave me in the end of college was to remake this WordPress theme. That was a super-specific goal. He did give me some guidance along the way. He was like You should figure how to do this now, and gave me some Google terms, some words to look up and tasks to accomplish. I think a project with general guidance is important.

Obviously, there’s a lot of emphasis on learning to code now through various venues, code schools, online schools, things like that. A lot of it is stuffing your brain with words and things people are not understanding. In that amount of time, it’s impossible to become a super-qualified software engineer in three months. I think things like boot camps — I have a lot of opinions about this. Things like boot camps can be great for jumping off point, and really give people a good inventory of terms and concepts within the industry, but it’s not like the be all end all. You have to have real project experience. A lot of them are doing good things, but it’s still a little bit of an iterative process.

David [16:30]:

A lot of the boot camps focus on getting people very quickly from graduating from the boot camp into an actual company where they can start applying the things that they’re learning. I think that’s really where the learning happens — when you take the things that you’ve learned in those boot camps and you start using them in real projects, with real colleagues.

Lara:

Yeah, totally. Well, what I think is is ironic about these boot camps (maybe this has changed in the months I’ve been off, but …) a lot of people I met in New York ended up … they graduated from the General Assembly — whatever web development boot camp — and they end up working with WordPress, because there’s so much work in WordPress, and there’s still low barrier to entry. So you need a portfolio, and your mom’s cousin pays you $500 to make their WordPress website. That’s valid work experience, and it’s going to be really frustrating and difficult, and you’re going to learn a lot from it. I think it’d be cool if there was more emphasis on getting work experience through freelancing. Because a lot of times, tech companies aren’t going to hire people straight out of boot camp, because there’s a big learning curve and it may put pressure on other staff or other employees to train someone into that role.

David:

You raise a very valid point. In fact, I’m curious whether you’ve thought about doing some training around how to freelance effectively, which is something, I think, a lot of people need to know about.

Lara:

Yeah. I’ve definitely thought … It’s hard. I tried to — not tried, I did and it wasn’t bad — but I built this online course called, the Tackle Box. That is not necessarily about freelancing, but it’s teaching web development from the ground up. I’ve definitely thought about doing something along the lines of freelancing with WordPress. It would be cool to have a boot camp around that, or maybe some part-time thing at least. This guy — Paul Jarvis, his name is — has a really good online course called Creative Class that’s all about freelancing. That’s a good way to get started with that too. I’ve definitely thought about it and it always comes up whenever I teach — a lot of questions about that like pricing, proposals, and that stuff. It just takes a long time to learn.

Tim:

Yeah, especially with WordPress. It goes so deep, right? I’ve been a Core contributor to WordPress on, at least, one occasion. There are, still, different APIs, and functions, and just so many different things that you can do within that piece of software. It would be very interesting to — I don’t know — you could definitely teach a class for a very long time on WordPress itself.

Lara:

Yeah, totally. WordPress is also a Wild West in its own right, but there’s such a huge range of what a WordPress website can be. I’ve always used the analogy of cars or even weddings. Your WordPress website made from a theme is, maybe, your 1994 Dodge Neon, or walking to City Hall to get married. You can have a Tesla version of a website, or rent out a private island wedding. When people are like, How much does a website cost? Like Well, let’s talk about this.

A big thing I figured out during my time in New York was to give people options. I would say, Okay, maybe you don’t know what you need. A lot of times you start talking to someone who needs a website. They don’t need a website. They need a business plan.

It can really vary. I’ll say, Okay. Well, let’s do this brainstorming session, and I’ll write up some recommendations for you, and I’ll give you a price for that. Maybe that’s $500. If you want me to teach you how to make your website, because you’re going to change your mind too much for me to do it for you, then we could do some kind of tutoring package. That goes all the way up to a five-figure site, which is a super custom site, and all the focus is really on content structure and making it as maintainable as possible.

David [20:18]:

Yeah, the business models around that — you can set up so many different ways to do that. What’s amazing is that WordPress is versatile enough to support such a wide range of things. I was recently listening to an interview with Matt Mullenweg, the guy who founded WordPress and who runs Automattic Lounge in San Francisco with — I think he’s got 500 employees, and they’re jointly responsible for 25% of the traffic on the internet or something.

Lara:

Yeah. It’s pretty wild. Automattic is a company you can work for and fulfill the living-everywhere dream too. I think they have completely remote employees. But WordPress is such a cool project, too. Just how everything operates, open source-wise. Tons of contributors. Anybody can be. It’s also interesting to see the division of who contributes to WordPress. Automattic, the company, has a large portion of it. Just the general community members are. A lot of agencies will have employees that work full time on WordPress Core as contributors, and it’s all free. It’s such a cool thing and great community, very varied community too.

David:

It’s something you can feel good about participating in. I’ve worked in startups and folks have dissed the trashy PHP back-end code, and said a lot of negative things about the way that the code is structured in WordPress. But the fact that it is such a big, open-source project, and it has had such a massive effect on the internet, what you’ve done essentially is by specializing in this, you’ve created a niche for yourself that is really very broad.

Lara:

Yeah. The biggest thing is how users take to it. With the kind of sites I do, I use Advanced Custom Fields, which is a plug-in that allows you to easily add custom fields to the WordPress back end. You can create these super modular content blocks. Whenever I do a site for a client, we map out everything ahead of time. The next step is build out the database structure. Then they add content immediately and see if the back end is comfortable. For example, I did a site for a graphic design company, and they sell stationary, and there were different collections. We have the collections model, essentially and then the collections have pieces, and then each piece has dimensions, and colors, and things like that. But all of that can be editable in the back end of WordPress. Yeah, it does scale strangely at a certain point, but that kind of power with such accessible technology is really cool and being able to customize it that way.

Of course, some of these premium themes are just like a disaster, with page builders and what not, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

David:

Well, I’m sure that there are a lot of people out here are going to want to find out how they can get in touch with you and maybe learn some more about how they can up their WordPress chops. How do people find you online?

Lara:

Sure. On Twitter, I’m @laras126. It’s important to note L-a-r-a. My website is notlaura.com — so not L-a-u-r-a.

David:

[Chuckling] I’m guessing that’s something that comes up a lot for you.

Lara:

Yeah, it does come up a lot. My email address is lara@notlaura.com. Whenever I get emails from people that have definitely typed that into their to: field, and they’re still like Hey, Laura, blah, blah. I’m like, I don’t know if I ever want to write back to you.

[Laughter]

Tim:

Yeah. I think when we first met, that was how I learned your name: just don’t call me Laura. I was like All right. It stuck ever since. At least, I hope.

Lara:

Yeah.

David:

That is strong branding.

Lara:

The most important part is spelling it correctly, but yeah, notlaura.com has a description of my philosophy and stuff I do up there, and on Twitter, I suppose.

David:

Fantastic. Well, thank you, Lara for joining us today.

Lara:

Yeah. Thanks for having me. Great to talk to you guys.

[Musical interlude]

David [24:04]:

One of the things Lara mentioned that really touched me — in a soft place in my heart — was the issue about taking too long to respond to emails, and not respecting the true asynchronous nature of email.

Tim:

Yeah. I started working as a freelancer and then moved into working at individual companies and businesses, and I noticed there is a little bit of stress that comes with responding and replying to emails. I’ve noticed myself taking too much time worrying about how the wording should be, or if someone is going to view the sentence negatively if there’s not an exclamation point at the end. That can really be a stressful thing that you wouldn’t guess.

David:

I think, maybe, Twitter has trained us badly, since you have to be so careful about every character in a tweet that you end up becoming that way with absolutely everything that you write — including emails you should be able to dash off in a few minutes or a few seconds.

Tim:

I would like to see a little bit more brevity emphasized in communication between emails. You don’t need to write a story and end with ensuring that its reader has a positive day. That’s not on you. Just communicate the message and go on with your day … or at least, that’s what I try to tell myself.

David:

That’s what I try to tell myself too, but like Lara, I have had the issue of feeling burned out. I think a lot of it, also, for me comes from the stress of the responsibility that I take on when I try to manage communications. Sometimes it just feels to me like … I take too much of it on myself and feel as if I’m projecting all of these little nuances that can’t possibly be conveyed in ASCII characters.

Tim:

Yeah. Can I just say, I was amazed — I’m not exaggerating here — amazed at Lara’s bravery. I can’t imagine taking a five-month break from just anything. I would be way, way too stressed to do that. But she managed to plan a little bit — plan this out so that she could have that five-month break and do some amazing things. Like decide to just bartend in a ski resort in Utah for a couple of months. Just because that’s something that sounds cool and that she’s obviously good at. But again, thinking about pretty much any habit that I have in my life right now, taking a five-month break from that sounds just terrifying. I think I would be way too paralyzed with fear to take a break like that from work and yet, it sounds so invigorating and it’s an honestly healthy thing to do.

David:

Well, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Tim:

[Chuckles] Yes!

David:

I have retired at least twice in my career. I follow the adage of Retire early, retire often. The first time, it was a very scary and unusual feeling. I had been working full-time. I think I visit Apple Computer for a bunch of years, and then I was at salon.com for a while, and then I just retired. I walked away from everything and did not set myself up with any plan about returning to the type of work that I’d been doing. In fact, when I came back to work, I was doing completely different things. It was revolutionary for my brain. It really allowed me to change my focus and think about things in ways that I wouldn’t have expected. It was a very scary thing, because I’d come straight out of college, straight into work. In fact, I’d started working before I graduated at the same company that I worked at. This was Apple for years. And then to suddenly be without daily responsibilities, without anybody expecting me to wake up early in the morning and write something or respond to something, it was just a major life change.

Tim:

I think, for now, I will just have to stand back from a far and watch and admire. It’s too scary a though for me, to be honest!

David:

I don’t know. I recommend it. I recommend thinking about your life in terms of those retirements and planning on taking more than one.

Tim:

It sounds like we’re going to have to title this episode, Tim has an existential crisis.

David [28:02]:

Isn’t that the title of every episode that we’ve done?

Tim:

[Laughter]

It may as well be! Very interesting to know, but I think, honestly, Lara’s journey has been very interesting and that’s why I asked her to come on the show. I would love to see a conference talk — or maybe even a book — on those five months, because I think something understated on this show and I think everywhere else is the value of taking time off. It is not something that we praise. It is not something that we talk about enough in this career, or, really, anywhere in the professional world, but it is so helpful. It is so important.

David:

I’ll refer you back to the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, and the whole notion that we have to be working ourselves, essentially, to death in order to maintain our standing in our society. It’s something that, I think, comes from being Americans. For the most of the world, it’s not part of the ethos of their cultures.

Tim:

It is definitely something that’s a defining characteristic of our culture. I do find myself every once in a while thinking that I let the stress of work get to me a little bit too much. To be honest, if we’re going to talk about how to be a really good developer, part of that involves taking breaks, and part of that involves learning how to reduce the amount of stress, if it is possible.

David:

One of the things that I’ve been doing is a mindfulness practice. I have found that very helpful in terms of reinstating that sense of calm and connection to a larger source, to a place where I feel safe in the universe, when things seem chaotic in my local environment. Just being calm, being mindful, taking that 20-minute break every day. It’s once a day, a little bit of meditation. It can really help centre you. The trick is not to do it as bandage to cover up the stresses that you’re putting on your life, but rather to do it as an opportunity to remind yourself that you don’t need to do that to yourself.

Tim:

Yeah, definitely. I would say, everybody needs something like that that they can continually come back to and ground themselves on. But that being said, let’s segue just right into WordPress — to stress out our listeners as much as possible!

David:

Yes. I notice you brought Lara on, and I know you’re a WordPress developer, and I know she’s a WordPress developer. I figured that had something to do with it.

Tim:

It was refreshing to hear her talk about how often people can diss WordPress. It is an easy target, I think, but I have to say I had front row seats to their release process, and the amount of forethought and planning that goes into every release cycle is unbelievable. There are security teams and different developers specialized across a number of disciplines that look into every single line of code for every release they have. It is impeccably well done. Actually, there’s a release lead for every single time they release. It coordinates all of these groups together to make sure that everything that gets into needs to. It’s an incredibly well thought out and detailed process.

David:

Considering how much of the internet runs on WordPress, it has to be.

Tim:

Yeah, exactly, and they take that seriously. It is literally 25% of the internet. There is not a soul on that team or who has contributed to that project who doesn’t have that hang over their head whenever they’re working on it.

David:

It blows my mind when I think about it. The scale of it is so massive. I’ve worked in SoMa in San Francisco and I’ve walked over to the Automattic Lounge. I’ve even been inside and chatted with the folks in there. It’s very sparsely populated. There isn’t a large group of people there, usually, because a lot of people of that company work remotely. It’s amazing how they coordinate and get so much done.

Tim:

Yeah. It is, really, an incredible thing. If you have a chance to get into the WordPress community and contribute, I would say, definitely take it. I learned so much, and even if, maybe, only one or two lines of my original project made it into WordPress Core, it was 100% worth it. I would say, again, before you judge any open-source software, think about what goes through the head of people contributing to it, especially when it’s something that is used by so many people. It might be an easy target, but you’re more than likely or almost always not giving it enough credit.

David [32:20]:

Finding those easy targets, though — the things that people are dissing so easily — sometimes can be a great career choice. I remember myself, when I got myself back out of my retirement and started working my way up to being an engineer, I targeted CSS, because everybody hated CSS and nobody wanted to deal with it. These were back in the IE6 days.

Tim:

Oh, man.

David:

It was a challenge, but because I dove in and because I loved it and I was able to take it on, people were just flocking to me to find my CSS skills because nobody else wanted to deal with any of that. I think Lara has done much the same thing. She’s built a career for herself around something that is incredibly popular and incredibly unpopular at the same time.

Tim:

Yeah. You can tell that she’s very passionate about teaching, specifically. The analogy of media queries being compared to a human growing up from infancy to adulthood was just genius. I felt like I was rediscovering CSS media queries as I was hearing about it. It’s like, O my goodness, I can connect these pieces in such a different way.

David:

Yep. It was mobile-first development, and presented in a way that just makes it material, makes it solid for you.

Tim:

Yeah. It’s something that everyone can have a frame of reference for. Everyone has a human body. If you’re able to connect that to how HTML, CSS, and JavaScript relate to each other, there is not a person in the room who’s not going to be able to grasp that or walk away at the end of that lesson thinking, I understand this a little bit better now.

David:

You can tell that she’s somebody who really loves to teach. I hope that she will teach some of those business practices that she was talking about. Because, as she said, people come to her for WordPress sites, but what they really need are business plans.

Tim:

Yeah, that’s also something that I wish I had heard earlier on in my career. There are plenty of times — and not just freelancing, in companies too — where you’ll get a specification for a new product or a new application and it comes to you in such a way that it is basically just a set of shadows. It’s a set of poorly defined concepts, and yet you’re expected to build an application out of it. We all know how that process turns out. It turns into a lot of reworking things that you’ve already done, and frustration, and rebuilds, and bugs. It turns into this whole soupy mess. It is so much more helpful to turn around if you can and say, What you’re asking for is a new thing, but what you need is to clearly define the concept that you’re presenting.

David:

I think there’s also an agile solution to that that allows things to be a little bit more murky and still move forward. But it’s true — a lot of companies do find themselves in a situation where they’re asking for one thing, but what they really need is another thing. It can be completely clear to the engineers, and completely unclear to the people who are doing the asking.

Tim:

I am curious, because that’s actually something that I’m dealing with right now in my current company. What is the agile solution to that?

David:

Quit.

Tim:

Ah …

David:

No.

Tim:

End the episode right there!

[Laughter]

David:

I know. The agile solution is to allow people to define specific requirements that go from the top of the product to the bottom of the product and create a slice that can completed within a specific scope of time, and then see where you are and move forward from there. But define very clearly one small incremental step that you can take to move from where you are to what the next increment of the product is going to be. Don’t think about the wild blue yonder where the product is going to be six months down the road and tell the engineers, Okay, I’ll come back in six months and see if it’s ready yet. You have to work step by step with people and make sure that what you’re doing every step along the way is moving you in a direction that makes sense from a business perspective and also from an engineering perspective.

Tim [36:12]:

That is brilliant. The more companies that I work at every couple of years, the more I realize that every single company just needs a full-time agile coach, 100%. Work would be so much easier.

David:

Everybody can be out there advocating for these techniques and advocating for these approaches. It’s not that difficult, and you don’t have to have a certification, you don’t have to have advanced training. The principles are very simple, and I’ve never met an engineer who hasn’t been able to grasp them and apply them pretty quickly and easily once they’re explained.

Tim:

That’s true. It’s working out the same way for me. The more I witness the hours that agile fixes, the more I understand agile, and then the more I can yell at my superiors about implementing agile.

David:

Of course, that’s just the engineering side of things. As Lara said, so many people are coming to their engineers, or, essentially, to the people they’re trying to hire to build their WordPress sites, not knowing what they need and actually needing a business plan rather than needing the product that they think that they need.

Tim:

The other thing that I found interesting was how Lara’s view of productivity shifted after she took her break. I often find myself right before I feel burned out thinking that I’m very productive, and then all of a sudden, I step back and realize that I might be productive, but I’m also overworked. How would you balance those two things? Have you felt that before? If so, what are your strategies for dealing with that?

David:

Well, personally, what I have tried to do is incorporate practices into my own life like meditation and mindfulness that allow me to be more aware of what I’m doing to myself along the way, and trying to set reasonable expectations for myself. But there do come times when you’ve built up so much that’s going on around you that retirement, really, is an appropriate approach. I applaud her for making the choice to retire and step out of things and give herself some perspective on what’s going on in her life and in her work.

Tim:

I think I just thought of the title for this episode, which should be, Micro Retirement with Lara Schenck.

[Laughter]

It’s a good one, right?

David:

I think she’d like that.

Tim:

I think this concept of micro retirement is a very interesting idea and probably deserves its own Ted Talk if you think about. It’s a really interesting and helpful way to realign yourself with your relationship with work, especially in our culture.

David:

It’s very integrated, too, with the gig economy, which is, I think, what we’re all essentially moving toward right now — where you’re not working full-time for one employer, but essentially juggling a whole bunch of different employers and keeping yourself up to speed with the marketplace. The only way you can do that is if you build in the time to stay up to date with what the market actually needs, and that involves stepping away from actual work for a while and allowing yourself to absorb.

Tim:

Yes. To absorb and observe. Those are two words that are difficult to say one after the other.


Well, thank you so much for listening, everybody. We always enjoy getting to talk technology with all of you.

David

We would also like to thank SitePoint.com, and our producers, Adam Roberts and Ophelie Lechat, with production help from Ralph Mason. Please feel free to send us your comments on Twitter — @versioningshow — and give us a rating on iTunes to let us know how we’re doing.

Tim:

We’ll see you next time, and we hope you enjoyed this version.

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