Life… life finds a way.

Well, here we go! It’s already mid-March – how am I doing on all those goals I set back at the beginning of the year? I’d say uneven.

The good news is that I submitted a pair of talks to both WordCamp Kent in June and WordCamp Sacramento in September. In my goals, I outlined that I wanted to submit to a non-WordPress conference, but at the time, I’d completely forgotten about the fact that I still haven’t spoken out-of-town, an Unconference session about Xdebug at Pacific Northwest PHP several years ago notwithstanding. I actually updated that post after I initially published it to reflect that change.

I’ve given one of the two talks previously at WordCamp Minneapolis-St. Paul last year – Modernizing Your Development Workflow Using Composer. Composer is one of those utilities that I use in almost all of the work I do, and still, I’m learning more and more about it every week. I’m looking forward to potentially having the opportunity to share what I know with folks at those two conferences.

I also submitted a new talk, titled return new Presentation( ‘Software Architecture in a WordPress World’ );. At WebDevStudios, we recently released the 0.1.0 version a package I’ve been working on called OOPS-WP, which is a collection of interfaces, abstract classes, and traits intended to improve the consistency and speed of scaffolding common data structures needed for object-oriented programming based plugin and theme development. With WordPress’s recommended version of PHP set at 7.3, and minimum requirements finally updating from 5.2.4+ later this year, it’s high time to start having some serious conversations about modern development practices, including use of namespaces, SOLID application design, abstract data structures, and more.

Coincidentally, coinciding with my OOP talk submissions, Carl Alexander released his new book, Discover Object-Oriented Programming Using WordPress. Which is to say, I think we’re going to start seeing much more of this in regular conversation, and I’m happy to help contribute what I can toward broadening the OOP skillset of WordPress developers.

Another goal I’ve succeeded at in a big way is working away from home at least 1 day per month. One day in January, I worked out of the George Latimer Public Library in Downtown St. Paul, and in February, I booked a last-minute trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and split time between working in my hotel and the FreeRange Co-Working Space. Albuquerque is a great town, and it was fun to spend a week in another city while working remote. I’m hoping to do it again later this year.

Other, smaller progress: I’ve worked a bit on my Gutenberg education, going through tutorials on WordPress.org and creating the example blocks, versioning that work in my Block Study repository. I attended some WDS growth calls the first week in January, but haven’t been back yet – I love my morning time too much. I started building the 2019 infrastructure for this site in December, but haven’t gotten back to it. Maybe that’s less of a win, but it’s a good reminder that I set the groundwork for that to happen this year. And, of course, I’m writing this blog post, so that’s 1/12. I’ll count it as development-related. :)

The rest of the goals, well, I haven’t gotten there, but writing out all my successes is making me realize that I’ve accomplished quite a bit in the past 2+ months. Hopefully I can keep this momentum going and close out a few of the tasks and start making progress in others.

The big news, of course, and something that I think will help be a catalyst for further progress: I deactivated my Twitter account yesterday. I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time despite knowing I would miss the lack of direct connection to people I respect in not just the development community, but also the indirect connections between those doing good work in the social and political spheres. That said, I didn’t like the way I was personally responding to the firehose of bad news, and felt it was better for my well-being to end my association with the service. As a new goal, I’m looking to find better, healthier ways to connect with the people and communities I care about. Submitting talks, traveling, and attending my local meetups will be one such way to make those connections. If you are one of the few people who reads this infrequent blog, I hope to see you around.

RIP 2018, You Were Kind Of a Bust

Lesson learned – fail to set goals, and you only fail yourself. I think that was the biggest takeaway of 2018 for me.

Despite everything, I did achieve some things. I gave a talk at WordCamp Minneapolis-St. Paul focused on getting WordPress developers introduced to Composer. I worked on the first data migration project of my career. I participated in the WP-CLI overnight hack-a-thon, where I got to write my first-ever behavioral test in Behat. I got in the habit of regularly adding topics to our backend engineering scrum at WebDevStudios, so that we always had interesting and fruitful discussions. I went to a couple of PHP conferences and bonded with people in the community. I joined a group of board game designers, which sparked an interest in designing my own, which I did (I even got to play-test it a few times!).

These are things to feel good about, but they were driven by a smattering of whims and circumstances, rather than focus on a collection of goals. In 2018, I often let whatever was immediately in front of me dominate my attention, and I didn’t carve out time for intentional growth. In the few places I did set goals, I failed miserably, such as the 25 books I was supposedly going to read (I read about half of 3).

Back when I joined a full-blown team of designers and developers, I was introduced to SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound). Here’s a nice overview of what they’re about:

What I like most about this time of year is the opportunity to detox from the pressures of the day-to-day, and instead spend time with considering what it is I want out of my professional and personal life. I’ve largely avoided it for the past couple of years, and more and more, I’m starting to feel the repercussions. A fresh year is a good time to re-evaluate, to set some goals for myself, and figure out a plan for how I want to spend my time.

Goals for 2019

Here’s a list of the areas I intend to work on the upcoming year. It’s absolutely certain I’ll accumulate some of those unintended feel-good achievements in 2019, but I need to focus my attention on the things I want to accomplish in order to feel like I’ve made progress by the time December 31st rolls around again.

Professional Goals

In the past year and a half, I’ve noticed my skillset in certain areas of engineering slowly diminishing. In particular, I want to work to retain my knowledge of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, because as much as I love creating backend logic for applications, I’m hugely passionate about user experience, user interfaces, design, and the interactions between them. With my professional day-to-day involving my server-side engineering skills, I don’t get as many opportunities to practice these skills, so I need to set aside time to do them for myself. Some goals to help me achieve that include:

  • Revisiting my knowledge about Webpack and Gulp
  • Building a new theme for this website
  • Finishing my rewrite of my Scorekeeper app in React
  • Learning how to make custom Gutenberg blocks in WordPress

The “measurable” part of the above goals involves a deliverable: a new theme, a new app, a new block (or set of blocks). In fact, one way I might handle the Gutenberg piece is by reimplementing my Dudley patterns framework, which would give me a much better understanding on how blocks are created, and how to integrate the old with the new. The frontend tooling piece (Webpack/Gulp) is related, because I’ll need these tools in order to accomplish the other goals.

From a backend perspective, I’m looking to accomplish the following:

  • Learning to build a personal blog site using Craft
  • Creating a mechanism for automatically updating a Satis package server on git push
  • Creating a Docker container from scratch
  • Building custom tooling for WebDevStudios to support client project development (this is measurable, but it’s as much as I’ll get into it here)
  • Learning about CI tools, and integrating one into my personal workflow

Unrelated to computer skills (or not specifically to frontend/backend), on a professional level, I’m also looking forward to:

  • Publishing 12 web development-related blog posts
  • Applying to speak at an out-of-town WordPress conference
  • Applying to speak at a non-WordPress conference
  • Participating in WDS growth calls

Personal Goals

I’m still sorting this piece out, but there are a few things I want to achieve, and a few I want to get back into the habit of doing:

  • Reading 10 books
  • Finalizing the mechanics of my first board game design
  • Connecting with my local community by attending 12 meetups or conferences
  • Working away from home at least 1 day per month

It’s going to be difficult to achieve everything above. But, by writing it all out, I’m given not only something I can refer back to in order to check on my progress, but I can ask others to help hold me accountable for my own growth. I want to retain my hard-earned skills, grow into my career, help others along their paths, and make sure I’m a better person at this time next year than I am right now. Putting it all down in writing is that important first step.

JavaScript vs. the World

Before I started my backend developer position at WebDevStudios, I needed to buy a laptop. Having worked exclusively on Apple computers since 2004, I bought what was at the time the latest and “greatest” offering, the late 2016 model of the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.

It has come to be perhaps my biggest regret; I have had nothing but problems with the machine. Occasionally glitchy graphics, power control issues when running dual 4k displays, and start-up/shutdown issues aside, my biggest complaint has to be the keyboard. It’s gotten so bad, in fact, that just yesterday, I finally brought my laptop in to have the keyboard replaced, only to notice beforehand that the “Service Battery” message was displaying.

The tech at the Genius Bar told me I’ll perhaps get the battery replaced for free as part of the keyboard replacement, because apparently the keyboard, battery, and track pad are all one component in these machines. I’ll find out in 7-10 days, but in the meantime, I’ve powered up the ol’ Raspberry Pi that I won as part of a contest at Midwest PHP a couple of years ago.

Adventures in Computing

I’m on vacation until after the new year, and going from a powerfully unreliable machine to a reliably non-powerful machine is a shift. In fact, before I remembered that I even owned this Raspberry Pi, tucked away in a drawer as it was, I thought I might just have to miss out on the coding exploration I’d so looked forward to as part of this vacation.

Last weekend, I spent upwards of 10+ hours scaffolding out a new infrastructure for this site, wrestling with server configurations, learning how to properly register a subdomain, setting up a package server, and otherwise doing the sorts of modern dev-ops-ish sorts of things I do every day at work. Of course, I didn’t intend to spend my whole vacation that way, but I did want to do enough of it that I’d feel satisfied that I learned something new over break. Taking my laptop in for repairs and being told it would be 7-10 days before I saw it again was something I dreaded, but knew I’d deal with. I do, after all, have other devices I can use to browse the web, but nothing else I can use to make it.

After I rediscovered my Raspberry Pi, I dug out all of the things I needed to make it work: a power supply, a wired keyboard and mouse, and an HDMI cable. My first job was to figure out how to uninstall the RetroPie app I’d installed awhile back to play the SNES games I own at my desk. Thankfully, the developers included an uninstall script that did the job, and before I knew it, I was back online browsing in…the Epiphany Web Browser.

Let’s say that this was a less than ideal experience.

Fast forward a couple of hours, and I’ve installed the following on this tiny computer with 28GB of storage and just 1GB of RAM:

  • Git
  • PHP
  • Nginx
  • MySQL
  • Chromium

I’ve also read tutorials that suggest that the IntelliJ editor is installable on Raspberry Pi, and I’m going to give that a go next.

Still, the most fascinating part of all of this is just how unusable the web has become.

Browser Testing

The model of Raspberry Pi I own ships with two web browsers: the aforementioned Epiphany Web Browser, and something called NetSurf. Epiphany is functional, but appears to run an outdated version of WebKit where most websites will tell you you must update it to access their site. I was able to login to Gmail only after watching it crash a handful of times, and even then, I received an HTML-only experience that dates back to a much simpler time. NetSurf is a non-starter, as it doesn’t seem to have an ECMAScript engine to speak of, and of course, the vast majority of the web requires JavaScript to function at all.

After installing Chromium, I was at least able to get a modern web experience, though even writing this post in the new WordPress editor, I’m starting to notice significant lag as more and more blocks come into play. Amazon-owned sites like The Washington Post and Amazon.com both crash after trying to load all of their assets, so clearly they’re not designed for everyone.

It’s been a bit of an eye-opening experience, browsing the modern web with a modern (for educational purposes), but underpowered machine. As a developer who works in the WordPress sphere, it’s especially interesting to think about how “democratizing publishing” has changed so drastically, to the point where it may in fact be much less democratized when factoring in JavaScript rendering engines and accessibility. I hope these are some of the problems we start tackling in 2019, and that we’ll remember that not everyone is viewing our work using the latest and greatest technologies.

Getting Back to the Basics

First things first: I’m writing this in the polarizing new Gutenberg editor that shipped with WordPress 5.0. My site, as little as I update it, is extremely barebones – no metaboxes, no shortcodes, no real extended WordPress functionality to speak of. As such, I knew I could reliably update it without issue, the dangers of updating without first backing up my database be damned. Since I’ve been doing primarily back-end development work for nearly the past two years, I admittedly haven’t had a lot of cause to pay much attention to the state of where Gutenberg was until it actually shipped. It’s finally here, though, and I’ll gladly admit: in just typing this initial paragraph, I’m already enjoying it immensely more than the old TinyMCE editor. 

I never really got into blogging. And though I don’t think this new editor experience is going to change that, one thing that is immediately evident to me with this new WordPress experience is that it’s possible that I might start to do it more. The old experience, clunky as it was even with this minimalist install, felt like a chore. The window was small, even in “distraction-free” mode, and as a result, I could never get the words out even when I felt like writing them. Gutenberg, with all of its flaws, does at least seem to give me some space, to try and get out of my way so I can have fewer distractions between whatever it is I want to say and actually saying it. Kudos to the WordPress Core team for seeing the project through despite the challenges and legitimate accessibility issues. I hope future releases will come more quickly and iteratively address the concerns people have about it, so that over time we can move forward with further enhancing the CMS overall. There are some really big projects underway, and I’m especially excited about the work that’s being done to finally get the minimum version bumped, hopefully to what will eventually be a currently-supported version of PHP.

A Holiday Break

This coming weekend marks the beginning of the first substantial amount of time off I’ve taken since Memorial Day week: 11 consecutive, uninterrupted days of relaxation, spending time with friends and family, exploring personal projects, playing (and designing) board games, and otherwise recharging my batteries after what has felt like a particularly challenging year for me. 

I switched over to full-time backend development upon switching employers in March last year, and in many ways it’s been super rewarding. I’ve learned how to write unit tests in PHP which, in turn, has completely changed my approach to writing object-oriented code. I’ve dug in with Docker, improved my command of the terminal (see what I did there?), and have advocated for the adoption of modern coding practices. More and more, I’m using Composer in my day-to-day work, and this year I gave a presentation about it at WordCamp Minneapolis-St. Paul. Some folks even gave me very nice feedback about it.

I got to do a bit of work-related travel late last year and early this year. I took some vacation time in July to attend a first-year PHP conference in Detroit, where I bonded with great folks in the PHP community that I like and respect a lot. In some ways, I’ve paid it forward, too, having great conversations with folks at and outside of work about my philosophy and approach to writing software for the web, and hopefully giving back as much as I’ve been given. I need to do more  – there’s always more to do – but having the opportunity to bond with others in my community was kind of one of the reasons I got into this thing to begin with. I love talking shop and taking the information I’ve learned and applying it to the next project. In some ways, though, it hasn’t panned out exactly as I’ve hoped.

A Knowledge Gap

I didn’t notice it right away, but ever so often, a problem arises with the presentation of a site that I’m working on. It seems that no matter how much you try to isolate yourself onto one side of the system, in an agency setting, you always get pulled back into the front-end. 

I actually like front-end technologies quite a bit. Back when I did full-stack development in my previous roles, I prided myself on writing clean, semantic markup, making my stylesheets as extensible and reusable as possible, and learning the ins-and-outs of the latest JavaScript techniques. Well, to the best of my ability, at least. I loved the UX aspect of front-end: learning to make elements accessible, making interactions delightful, and making my components reusable. I didn’t care for cross-browser testing and the million media queries required to harmonize a broad collection of components at various viewports.

Still, a lot of those skills are required of me to this day. And, I’m finding out more and more, since I don’t do them on a daily basis, that my knowledge about how to do them well is slipping. I need to dedicate some time during my break and in the new year to catch up. 

I guess that’s a long, roundabout way of saying that I’m glad Gutenberg is finally here. I’m glad I have a vacation coming up, where I’ll have a chance to apply everything I’ve learned about unit testing and behavioral testing and continuous integration and apply it to my personal projects, but also revisit the front-end aspects I don’t get to spend as much time with. 

Into 2019

This next year is going to involve a lot of growth and adaption. I need to learn to set aside time to more regularly exercise the skills I have so I don’t lose them. I need to learn how to adapt to the changes the WordPress project is throwing our way, so that I can continue to be in a position to serve my clients well. I need to keep finding ways to learn from my colleagues and friends in the community, as well as step up to share with others all that I have learned. And, most importantly, I need to continue to grow and adapt and change and learn as much as I can about software development in general: learning new frameworks, new techniques, and even new languages, so that I continue to feel the spark of excitement about this field that I had when I was brand new to the industry.

Four more days. Or, if I change my perspective just a little – tomorrow. It all starts tomorrow.

Some Things I Should Have Said, Vol. II

An Anniversary

This past May, I celebrated five years of working full-time as a web developer. When I first started getting paid to write code, I remember looking forward to a point at some time in the future where I would have a base level of knowledge I could leverage when working on new projects. Five years later, I believe I’ve accomplished that goal, but in that time, I’ve also come to accept that there’s just so much still to learn (and that it will always be this way).

There’s a certain peace that comes with that understanding. Today, when I take on client projects, I may not always know how the work will be done, but I at least have some ideas about where to begin, how it will need to be structured, what kind of functionality I’ll have to write from scratch, what can be imported from elsewhere, where to find the right documentation when I have questions, who to ask when I’m completely stuck, and when to extract something into a library so I don’t have to write the same thing over again later.

It’s been a long, often frustrating journey, but after all this time, I’m more certain than ever that I’ve chosen the right career path. I love writing code, building something out of nothing, and delivering functionality that helps others make their own jobs a little bit easier.

Areas of Interest

In progress game of Century: Golem Edition

Over the past year, and particularly since seeing Chris Tankersley‘s talk about shell scripting at Midwest PHP in March, I have become increasingly interested in developer tooling. I’ve been digging a bunch into Bash scripting, the Symfony Console Component, delivering custom utilities via Composer, and trying to figure out ways I can use my knowledge to create useful tools I can pull into projects to make them more enjoyable to work on. It’s really opened my eyes to all of the possibilities that are out there, and I’m looking forward to seeing what sorts of things I’ll learn over the next five years and where it takes my career.

In addition to the command line, I have become increasingly interested what’s happening in the JavaScript communities, particularly with package development and frontend templating. Because I play a lot of board games in my spare time, I developed a small webapp a couple of years ago to log player scores when pen and paper are neither available nor practical. Recently, I’ve begun refactoring that app on top of React, which has helped scratch the itch for frontend work a bit. I registered a new domain for my blog, too, so that I can separate my more personal writings from the blog here, with the longer-term plan of rewriting this site in Laravel so I get some broader PHP framework exposure.

All in all, it’s been an exciting time for me!

Events and Happenings

While I’m posting, I’ve got quite a few things to look forward to in the coming months that I should probably talk about here. But first, something from the past! On the chance you missed it, I participated in the All About WordPress episode of the PHP Roundtable podcast in May. Tessa Kriesel (Pantheon), David Hayes (WP Shout), Jenny Wong (Human Made), Adam Silverstein and Ryan Welch (10up) all participated in the panel, where we talked about the sorts of things that are top-of-mind for WordPress developers (*cough*Gutenberg*cough*).

That was only my second time participating in a podcast, but I’ll be getting another opportunity on July 24th, when I join my WebDevStudios colleague John Hawkins on an episode of the HawkTalk Podcast. John and I will be talking about board games, hockey, development work, and anything else that comes to mind.

Though I won’t be presenting, I am also looking forward to attending the inaugural PHP Detroit conference in Livonia, MI on July 26-28. The two-track schedule looks very good, with at least one topic of interest to me during every time slot. I haven’t spent any time in Michigan since my music touring days, so it’ll be fun to hang out there for a couple of days.

Lastly, I have been accepted to speak this year at WordCamp Minneapolis-St. Paul for my second time ever. The conference coincides with the Minnesota State Fair, so attendees from outside of the state will get a chance to check out the Great Minnesota Get-Together first-hand. My talk – Modernizing Your Development Workflow Using Composer – will cover the basics of getting started with the Composer command line tool, with an emphasis on using it for WordPress development and the benefits and caveats that go along with it.