Experience at Palantir in Chicago
Teaching WordPress' Gutenberg editor
What the WordPress & Drupal communities can learn from each other
IVAN STEGIC: Hey Everyone! You’re listening to the TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business and the humans in it. I am your host Ivan Stegic. In this episode of the Podcast, Steve Persch, lead developer advocate at Pantheon. Steve has been on Drupal.org for at least 11 years, and before Pantheon he was at Palantir in Chicago. Steve! It’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Podcast.
STEVE PERSCH: Well, thanks for having me on! I guess I just missed my Drupal birthday again. The last one I remembered was 10 years. (laughing)
IVAN: Yea, it looks like more than 11 years. That’s a long time!
STEVE: Yea! That makes sense for what I was doing 11 years ago.
IVAN: How many versions ago is that?
STEVE: Well, I got into Drupal with 5. I think 5.0 was the current version when I started working with Drupal.
IVAN: I think that’s when I started too. Let’s see, 11 years ago would be 2007, so that’s when TEN7 was founded, so that would’ve been Drupal 5 for us, as well, I think.
STEVE: Yea. I’ve worked with WordPress a little bit before that, and, the first time I remember distinctly hearing the word Drupal was at an Arts & Business council of Chicago event. I was on a panel speaking about some WordPress sites I had made for a theater company, and one of the questions from the audience was basically, “WordPress seems to work with these blogs that you’ve talked about, what would be used for something more complex?” And, someone else on the panel said, “well, obviously, Drupal is the thing for that.” I made a mental note, started looking into Drupal because I knew I wanted to be building more complex sites.
IVAN: So, tell me more about those WordPress sites that you’d been involved in, prior to that. How did you get introduced to WordPress?
STEVE: I got introduced to WordPress because, well I wasn’t asked, I volunteered myself to build some blogs for a theater company when I was in college, between my junior and senior year I had a summer internship with the Looking Glass Theater Company in Chicago. It’s a prominent theater company that came out of the college that I was going to. I was super into what they were producing, very happy to have an artistic department internship, which mainly meant things like filing headshots, and running auditions, things like that. About three weeks into the summer internship I heard one of the artistic directors just kind of, muse aloud that they really should have a blog, because that was the thing to have back then. In the nineties they had produced a physical 'zine, and this artistic director, I think, was missing that kind of creativity and wanted a blog, and I had just taken a class on web development, so I volunteered myself, and basically, that summer changed from regular artistic department internship to Steve figures out how to build WordPress sites by the end of the summer.
IVAN: And that was WordPress early on, I would imagine, with version 2 maybe?
STEVE: Yea, 2 something.
IVAN: 2 something, wow! So, you’re obviously studying some sort of art degree then?
STEVE: Yea. I was a theater major at the time.
IVAN: Wow! A theater major. And now you are a lead developer advocate. That’s almost as crazy an arc as Drew's.
STEVE: I know. Well, I think there are a lot of people in the Drupal community with a similar arc of basically being the person at some kind of organization, who somehow became responsible for the website, or volunteered themselves to be responsible for the website, and then just kept going from there. I think for, certainly myself, and I think a lot of people in the Drupal community, the web development career path looked more appealing then whatever was the other career path.
IVAN: So, let’s actually take a step back. I want to find out where you were born, and where you grew up. So, prior to landing in the WordPress development business in liberal arts college, where did you grow up?
STEVE: Yea, so, I spent almost all my life very close to Lake Michigan. So, I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, same home all the way from birth through graduating high school, and then to Northwestern University in Evanston, just North of Chicago, then moved to Chicago for seven years or so, back to Milwaukee for four years, and now Minneapolis.
IVAN: So, tried and tested Midwesterner.
STEVE: Exactly. Yea. Love the midwest.
IVAN: That’s awesome. I love it too! So, you went to high school in Milwaukee, made a move to Northwestern, and studied liberal arts. And, you did an internship at a theater company, and somehow this led to Comedy Sports, right? I saw that in your bio as well.
STEVE: Yea. Comedy sports was even earlier. So, Comedy Sports is an improv company that started in Milwaukee, there are branches all over the country, though. The way I like to explain Comedy Sports for people who aren’t familiar with it, is by referencing Whose Line is it Anyway, pretty much everyone has seen that at some point in time. And, on that show they say everything’s made up and the points don’t matter, but in Comedy Sports, the points do matter. It’s the same kind of short form improv but it’s done as a faux competition. Basically, there are three people on two different teams, the red team and the blue team, and they’re competing for audience laughs and points, and things like that.
IVAN: And this was in high school?
STEVE: It started in high school, yea. I first saw it when I was in grade school and the high school Comedy Sports team came to visit my grade school, and do a show, and I thought that looks amazing, I want to do that. It further confirmed my choice of high school. I decided to go to the same Catholic high school that my parents had gone to. My brothers decided to go to a different Catholic high school in the area, but I wanted to go to the one that had a much stronger arts program. It was also coed, that was a factor in the decision.
IVAN: So, unlike me, you saw them do improv, and you thought, cool ! I totally want to do that! (laughing) I look at that and I’m like, “Wow, that’s really scary. I don’t know how I could do that. I should probably do that to put myself outside of my own comfort zone.” What was attractive about it?
STEVE: I think what was attractive about it for me was, knowing that it was outside of my comfort zone. That it would push me to do something that wasn’t very natural. There are a lot of people in improv who are, natural, extroverts in doing improv, and it’s just kind of a natural extension of their normal personality. For me, it was more of an effort. It took me outside of my comfort zone, but it was something that could be practiced, it was at least in Comedy Sports, something very structured, so it is, of course, loose and comedic, and you’re making things up, but, especially with short form improv, there is a lot of structure there that I could hang on to and feel like I knew what was going on.
IVAN: The structure to me sounds really interesting to be put around something that’s supposed to be unstructured.
STEVE: Yea. One thing I’ve noticed. I did improv starting in high school, age 15 or something. I was heavily involved in improv really all the way through my time in Chicago, which ended in 2014, and then coming back to Milwaukee in 2014. I did start performing at Comedy Sports again for about a year and trailed off as I started the job at Pantheon and had a baby, basically, other things became more important. And, all through that time I found that people not doing improv assumed that there must be some trick to it, that we must be planning something out in advance. But, it’s not the content that gets planned out in advance. You don’t meet backstage and say “alright, we’re going to do a scene about a baker. And, the baker’s going to go on a journey, or something like that.” You might talk about the pace at which you want to play, you might talk about the styles or techniques, the improv techniques that you want to use, but the content is always made up on the spot.
IVAN: How do you think it’s helped you with your professional career? I’ve seen you give very many talks, and I’m always impressed by how eloquent you are. I’ve seen you on panels before. They must be related to the training you’ve had in improv, at Comedy Sports.
STEVE: Absolutely! The improv training gives me confidence to get on stage without a full plan. And, maybe that’s not always a good thing. Maybe I should be stepping on stage at a conference or something with more of a plan. But, it does help just reduce that anxiety, that I know I would be feeling, and do still feel, speaking at a conference or speaking at different work events. I still feel that anxiety to some degree but knowing that I have that improv background gives me more confidence to just start, then just do it.
IVAN: So, spending time in the theater, you started getting involved in WordPress. How long were you in WordPress before that panel discussion and someone mentioned Drupal, did Drupal become something serious to you?
STEVE: About a year. So, it was the summer of 2006 where I was starting with that WordPress site launched by Fall of 2006. Maintained those sites for a little while, and basically that senior year of college was a transition for me. I finished all my graduation requirements in fall, and just kind of pretended to be an undergrad through June, continued with my improv group, produced and directed a play, did all the undergrad activities, just didn’t go to any classes other than my acting class. That then gave me more free time, to take on web work on the side. So, during that year I maintained a static HTML site, which gave me a great appreciation for server-side languages. Hearing Drew mention maintaining 5,000 static pages, I thought, “oh yea, that was formative for me too, having to maintain the static HTML website for the theater company, that was however many hundreds of pages, and seeing there are menus that are kind of the same, but inconsistent, presumably because no one was paying too close of attention, and now it’s my job to pay attention to such things, and I’ll put it in PHP includes and eventually just switch it over to Drupal.” So, it was about a year, I guess, of thinking WordPress is the thing to switching to Drupal, as the thing that’s going to help me build what I need to build.
IVAN: And, was that about the same time that you started at Palantir? Or, was there something in between there?
STEVE: Four years in between. So, I was a freelancer for a number of years. I did some subcontracting, started with a company called Mighty Bytes, got to have those pun names. Started there in 2009 and worked on, what for me then, was the biggest website that I had ever worked on. It was a music startup. I don’t think it’s around anymore called Music Dealers. Basically, the idea was if you are an independent music producer, or band or singer, or whatever, you could upload your MP3’s to this site, Music Dealers will then try to sell that to McDonalds, or film producers, basically, anyone making commercials, televisions, movies, and they’ll just give you a direct 50/50 cut of the royalties. That was an education in complex websites, kind of, trial by fire.
IVAN: Yea. So, then you started at Palantir in Chicago.
STEVE: Two years later.
IVAN: Two years later. Ok. And, had you ever contributed to Drupal.org before starting at Palantir? How soon did you start?
STEVE: In bits and pieces. So, in that time at Mighty Bytes, I was “the Drupal guy” and I would go to Drupal meetups, and I spoke at Drupal Camp Chicago in 2008, so I did have some community role and a few minor patches, but I kind of felt intimidated knowing that there were companies out there like Palantir, who had developers who, at least by appearance, were much deeper, and Drupal knew much more than me, and looking back there were things I was working on at Mighty Bytes that I could have, should have contributed back to Drupal.org, but for whatever reason I thought, well maybe this isn’t good enough, I need to work on it more, and would never get contributed. But, at San Francisco, DrupalCon in 2010, that was the first time I distinctly remember getting that really positive, contributor feel. Someone from the White House was there and they showed a list of modules that the White House was using, and one of those modules was a module that I had a patch in, and that feeling of, “oh wow,” I mean, it was a tiny patch in rules module, but just knowing that I had contributed to a piece of something that was inside of the White House was very satisfying, and basically gave me the Drupal bug even stronger than I had it then.
IVAN: Yea, there’s something about being able to contribute code, and it actually being used in production and affecting people’s lives that really makes you stop and think about the real power of open source, and what we’ve created in this ecosystem. And so, you’re at Palantir and Workbench is this thing you start working on. Was that a problem that Palantir was trying to fix, by introducing Workbench? What’s the genesis of that idea?
STEVE: So, I joined Palantir the month before DrupalCon Chicago, where Workbench launched. I started in February 2011, Workbench was basically getting polished up internally. Essentially, it’s a suite of modules that helps with content, workflow and governance. So, it basically provided a better landing page dashboard for people who are signing into the site to work on the content. Basically, an improvement over that admin/content view that you get by default. In addition to that base module of Workbench that was basically just that, landing page set of views, and a grid sort of thing. There was Workbench Moderation which was meant for publishing workflows, a draft needs review, published sort of workflow. and then Workbench Access which allowed for different content editors to have permission to different sections of the site. It was made because there were, I think, three major projects running simultaneously at Palantir before I joined, a university, a museum, maybe two universities, I’m not quite sure. But a couple of large institutions that needed those things, needed the ability to section off different parts of the site, so that only the appropriate people could edit pages, and they needed an approval process, by which people could move from draft, to needs review, to published, and possibly additional custom states. So, when I joined Palantir, pretty much everything was written. There was some testing to do, some clean up to do, and I was basically able to spend my first month on the job leading up to DrupalCon Chicago, finishing off a couple patches, adding some documentation, I think, and starting to think ahead towards what additional functionality might go into these modules.
IVAN: It’s quite an exciting time to be joining a company when it’s releasing a new site or releasing a new module, and DrupalCon is in the same city as where you’re based.
STEVE: Yea, it went from DrupalCon San Francisco feeling like, “I’m not quite fully in this community.” I kind of felt like a bit of an outsider at DrupalCon San Francisco in 2010, to then being hired at the company that, the owners of Palantir, were the co-chairs of DrupalCon Chicago. Of course, Palantir at the time had a ton of people who were top contributors and had a bunch of sessions going on at DrupalCon Chicago, so it felt like a fast track to the inside. Ken Rickard, the author of Domain Access, was one of the main authors of Workbench Access, so, yea, for my first week on the job, he flew into Chicago from Georgia, and, basically, started mentoring me, getting me ready to contribute to those modules. I had never used Git before, so that was something I had to learn quickly.
IVAN: That’s a major thing. (laughing)
STEVE: Yea. That’s my advice for learning Git, just start, and don’t go back. I sometimes reference Git as an easy thing to learn, when I talk with other developers, and they look at me funny, and I think, well, ok, I guess it was easier for me because it was just a hard transition from SVN at my old job to all Git at the new job, and I could always lean over the cubicle wall and ask somebody for help if I needed it.
IVAN: I remember the days of SVN and CVS even, before that, and boy, those were tough days. I was so glad when we discovered Git and decided to just standardize on that.
STEVE: Yea, everything got faster and easier.
IVAN: Yea. Absolutely.
STEVE: My first version control was just Dream Weaver, check in, check out.
IVAN: (laughing) I think that still exists, doesn’t it? It must exist.
STEVE: It must! Yea. I think so.
IVAN: Cool. So, fast forward to Minneapolis, with a stop in Milwaukee in between, and you’re now at Pantheon, and you’re not just exercising your Drupal skills, you’re actually bringing back all of the WordPress things you learned long ago, as well, right?
STEVE: I am, yes. So, at Pantheon we’re a platform for both Drupal and WordPress development, so, it’s nice to play in both worlds. In fact, at the past couple DrupalCons I’ve done WordPress focus sessions. At DrupalCon 2016 I did Lessons from WordPress Core with Andrew Taylor, one of my co-workers, and then this year we did, Andrew and I did another session on the Gutenberg editor that’s coming to WordPress core.
IVAN: Do you spend any time at WordPress conferences talking about Drupal?
STEVE: I try to. I don’t think I’ve gotten any of those sessions accepted myself, but plenty of my co-workers have done that.
IVAN: So, it always feel like we’re up against each other as CMSs, right? WordPress does this better, and Drupal does that better, and we really have genuinely, passionate people in both communities. Are we really that different as communities?
STEVE: No! Definitely not. Well, I go back and forth on that question. In my time at Pantheon, so I’ve been here three years, and the first few WordPress conferences I went to, I thought to myself, wow, these differences are so completely exaggerated. I’ve been deep in Drupal for years, and I’ve been hearing that WordPress is totally different, and they’re still on PHP 5.2, they have different spacing rules. How could we ever work together?” As I went to, I think it was WordCamp US, basically, the DrupalCon equivalent in 2015, I went to some contributor like days, before the main event, and just thought to myself, “oh, yea, these are developers working in a GPL, Land Stack, CMS, trying to solve pretty much the same problems for pretty much the same sets of clients, and we need to break down these walls that don’t need to separate us.” In those three years, I’ve gone back and forth, like I said, a little bit, thinking, there are some differences. WordPress, I think, has done a much better job of keeping the end user in the community. There aren’t many decisions made in Drupal core, made by people whose job it is to use Drupal, like, purely through the UI most of Drupal is driven by people who interact primarily with the code, and that just changes the priorities changes what gets built. I guess one of the main reasons that WordPress has just continued to grow in its adoption wall, Drupal is at a similar spot to where it was years ago.
IVAN: What do you think the top things are that we can learn from each other as a community?
STEVE: I think the main thing I’d like to see Drupal focus on, as far as a lesson from WordPress, is to keep that focus on the main end user, as I look at, say the, the initiatives that are currently happening in Drupal 8 core. A lot of them are, sort of, two sides of the same coin. So, there’ll be an initiative that is developer focused, and then a separate initiative that’s basically what that will mean for the end user, and in WordPress those would just be one in the same. And, actually, in WordPress right now, there’s pretty much just the one core initiative of getting this new Gutenberg WYSIWYG editor finished, and merged into core, whereas, Drupal is, I think, working on literally 11 or 12 different initiatives at once. And as far as what WordPress could learn from Drupal, the modernization that’s happened in Drupal’s PHP code base, has been beneficial, and the fact that the WordPress is still on PHP 5.2, holds some things back.
IVAN: Yea, it certainly seems to. Have you heard of the Twin Cities Open Source CMS Unconference that Tim Ericson and Wilbur Ince are putting on?
STEVE: Yea, Tim was telling me about that a couple weeks ago. I think that’s a Saturday in October.
IVAN: Yea, I just found out about it last week, and we have an email out to Tim and Wilbur. I’m hoping to get them on the Podcast so that we can record something about that. It seems to be the natural evolution of these two or more open source communities living together, trying to talk to each other. Right? It seems like this is a way to get ourselves off of our respective islands.
STEVE: Yea. In Drupal we’ve talked about getting off the island so much, and that was, basically, the metaphor we wove through that DrupalCon presentation at New Orleans, that Drupal has a twin island essentially in WordPress. WordPress also has the same kind of getting off the island conversations, because they know that they’re about just as isolated from the wider PHP community. Perhaps even more so, because there’s not the composer bridge in the same way that there is from the Drupal community to the rest of the PHP mainland, as it were.
IVAN: Yea. And it’s not just WordPress and Drupal. Joomla still has a presence in the market.
STEVE: Yea, Joomla’s still around with a pretty decent market share. But, it must just be my filter bubble that I, sort of, very rarely encounter people using Joomla. I mean, of course, my job is to work with developers who use Drupal and WordPress, but for the market share Joomla, has, I’m surprised I don’t see it.
IVAN: I’m surprised too. When we first started working for clients, when I first started TEN7, we built a WordPress site, a Drupal site, and a Joomla site, and I kind of did that to see what the major differences were, and where we would hitch our bandwagon, so to speak, and Joomla I remember being…it felt like it was solving all the problems in all the right ways, and I guess I just lost touch with it.
STEVE: Yea, Joomla never really clicked for me. It must’ve been Joomla 1.5 at the time? In 2007. So, after hearing that person on that Arts & Business council panel say, “Drupal is what you need.” I did some more research and I came across Joomla, and kind of did the same thing of trying to figure out can I build the same basic functionality in WordPress, Drupal and Joomla. And, it seemed like I could, but Drupal just clicked for me in a way that Joomla never did. I never felt the same level of comfort in the admin UI, the way information architecture got built in Joomla just didn’t click for me the same way it did in Drupal.
IVAN: So, Pantheon is not supporting Joomla just yet?
STEVE: Correct. I suppose because we are basically providing PHP, we’re providing a database.
IVAN: That's the way to do it, right?
STEVE: We added WordPress years ago partially because this was before I joined Pantheon. But, as I understand the story, one of the major agencies using Pantheon basically, figured out how to make it work, and told the people at Pantheon at the time, “hey, we got WordPress running. Are we allowed to do this?” (laughing) And Pantheon basically figured out, “well, if you got it working already, we should make our real support for WordPress more mature.” There are people who run Symphony, Pure Symphony applications on Pantheon, and we don’t support it in the same way we support Drupal or WordPress. Like, you can open support tickets with Drupal and WordPress, and we’ll be able to help you to some degree, but if you got Joomla running, or you got a Pure Symphony app running on Pantheon, we simply wouldn’t be able to help you if it suddenly broke.
IVAN: And you also support Backdrop, don’t you?
STEVE: That’s a little muddier, in that it’s something that runs on Pantheon, because its code base is so similar to Drupal 7. It runs, but it’s not something that our support team is capable of answering questions on, the same way they’re capable of answering questions on Drupal and WordPress. So, it is in kind of a gray area, and that’s probably something that we should clarify.
IVAN: You should talk to Drew and see what he says. (laughing)
STEVE: Exactly. I’ll see if we can prioritize getting more Backdrop clarity, because there are some Backdrop sites running on Pantheon, but we don’t have it documented the same way we have Drupal and WordPress documented.
IVAN: What are you excited about in Pantheon right now? What’s coming up that you may be can tell me about, or can’t tell me about, that is really kind of making you itch?
STEVE: One thing that excited me relatively recently was hearing about the Drupal 9 announcement, that there’s suddenly much more concrete information that’ll inform how people migrate away from Drupal 7 eventually. I released a blog post about that last week with kind of an edu focus. I think the Drupal 9 timing announcement will encourage some people to stay put, basically, take it as a green light to just stick with Drupal 7 until Drupal 9 comes out. And, some people will take the timing announcement, but perhaps, more so, the release of 8.6 with a lot of front-end public facing, or end user facing features, that I think will prompt a lot of Drupal 7 site owners to reconsider.
IVAN: I think you’re right. I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head there. I’m excited for it as well. It’s a really interesting decision to sunset support with two versions at the same time.
STEVE: It’s supposed to be the case that moving from 8 to 9 will be the same level of complexity, as moving between 8.5 and 8.6, but we’ll only know when that actually happens.
IVAN: Do you have any recommendation for a book that you’re reading right now, or a book that I should be reading, that you’re absolutely enthralled with?
STEVE: Sure. So, the Alexander Hamilton book comes to mind, because the Hamilton musical is in Minneapolis right now. I was lucky enough to see it with the original cast. It was the best birthday present ever. The play opened on Broadway in October of 2015, so it was the same month as my birthday, I started listening to the soundtrack, thought it was great, mentioned it to my wife Paige, and she, while I was at BADCamp that year, just decided, “oh, I’ll just get tickets.” There was a tiny window of time after it opened on Broadway, where you could, just get tickets, and we had to buy them for the next Spring, but, yea, we were able to see it in March with the original cast. The reason I bring it up as a book, is because, I feel like the book, of course, is longer and covers more detail, and the part that I like about the book that you get to some degree in the musical is, that these are just real people. They get mythologized in so many ways, in popular culture, but the depth of the book for me was one of the best ways of seeing the regular humanity of the Founding Fathers.
IVAN: Yea, I agree. I’m a big fan of Hamilton and I was able to see it in Chicago last year, with my daughter, who basically memorized the whole album, the whole book, and also has the book you’re referring to. So, I never really thought about actually picking the book up and reading it. So, now I think I’m going to do that.
STEVE: Yea, it’s pretty good.
IVAN: Well, thanks for the advice. And, thanks for the suggestion, and really appreciate having you join us on the Podcast. Thanks so much for spending your precious time with me.
STEVE: Thanks for having me, Ivan.
IVAN: So, you’re @stevector on Twitter and on Drupal.org. So, maybe before we sign off, tell me about Steve Vector. I should’ve asked about that before. How did that come about?
STEVE: Yea, you know. Calculus class, senior year of high school, there was a website we were supposed to sign into, basically a forum, and make conversation about Calculus, so I thought, “well, the username that I should have for this Calculus website is obviously Steve Vector,” and, I should’ve left it there, and just made Steve Persch my username in other places, but I did not. So, I’m Steve Vector, I guess, for the foreseeable future.
STEVE: Wordpress.org. Pretty much everywhere.
IVAN: And, I would assume you have stevector.com as well?
STEVE: Oh, I do. Yes.
IVAN: We’ll link to all of that in the show notes. You’ve been listening to the TEN7 Podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is [email protected]. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.