It’s not uncommon for me to ask someone to write a HeroPress essay and have them respond with “Why me? I’m not really on the periphery of anything. WordPress didn’t really help me overcome any hardship”. Almost every time I help them realize what an impact WordPress has made on their life, and how it has enabled them.
It took me quite a while to walk that path myself. I was a web developer for 15 years before I started working with WordPress, and if I hadn’t found WordPress I’d still be a web developer, and making a good happy living.
While WordPress as a technology made my career more pleasant, and certainly easier, the thing that has changed my life, and the life of my family, is unquestionably the WordPress community.
Who I Am
Another common requirement for writing a HeroPress essay is that you need to write to an audience. Who is this message for? This essay is for people like me. Read on and see if you’re like me.
People call me Topher, and for the new folks, I manage this little site. I’ve often said that everyone is on the periphery of something. I don’t feel like I’m on the periphery of anything. I’m an educated white American man. That right there puts me smack in the middle of most things. But if I had to pick something a little different I’d have to say it’s the way I was brought up.
In 1979 my parents sold almost everything they had and moved 100 miles north. They bought a little plot of forest in the middle of a very large plot of forest and put up a tent and we moved in. Then we built a little shed, and my dad, my uncle, and I moved into that while mom and my sisters moved back to the city for a few months. We cleared the land and started building a house.
When it came time to hook up to the electrical grid we were told it would be $20,000 for the hookup. That’s nearly $70,000 at today’s rate. My dad simply said no. We didn’t get connected to the electrical grid for another 15 years.
If you’d like to read more of that story I did a nice long series on my own blog.
How I Got Here
I taught myself to type in high school because it was way better than writing all that stuff by hand. When I got to college and it came time to write a paper I found that the library had a typewriter I could use. It was an old IBM Selectric with a little motor that spun and hummed the end entire time.
One day a guy said to me “Why don’t you use The Computer?”.
“We have a computer?” I asked. He showed me where the IBM 286 with WordPerfect was and I spent about a week learning everything I could about it. Soon I was typing papers for other people at a penny a word. That’s about $2 a page.
Then one day someone donated a new computer to the college. It was a Microsoft Xenix server, with 5 dumb terminals. Five people could use it at the same time! It also had something called “email”. It wasn’t on any network, so we could only email people in that room. But we loved it. Everyone swapped emails.
Fast forward a couple years and I went to a different school which ALSO had a server. This one was a giant VAX/VMS system. The machine was about the size of an old Volkswagen bug. There were terminals all over campus. You could send an electronic message to someone who was almost a mile away! It was amazing, and I was enthralled.
In my 4th year of college I was told that we could soon be connected to The Internet. I’d never heard of that, so I started learning. I found out that it would be just like what we had, but we could send emails to other schools! And people all over the world. It was AMAZING.
To try to keep a long story short(er) I moved through telnet, Gopher, and finally the web.
One day a friend came to me and said “Hey, look what I made!”. It was a web page. With his own content on it! He said “It’s really easy, you should try it!” I told him no, it looked far too complicated. He said it really wasn’t, and showed me.
That afternoon I learned every HTML tag there was. All 40 of them. And I started making web pages. Page after page. I made lists of interesting websites, and connected them all together. I built an unofficial website for my college. I joined the local Freenet, even though I didn’t have a computer of my own, and started building pages for them, for my city. It became an obsession.
Eventually I talked the college into paying me to build them a real website. Here’s a screenshot:
After college I took a 6 month contract building an intranet website for Kellogg’s (the cereal people). It was their first internal website, and I had to make sure there was backward compatability for Netscape 1.0. It was still all plain HTML though. CSS hadn’t been invented yet. If there was back-end scripting to be done it was CGI in perl.
Fast forward to 1998 and I was working in my office with some co-workers and one of our designers came into the room. He said “I have a contract to build a site for a realtor, but I need someone who knows PHP”. No-one said anything, so I said “I’ll do it!”.
That night I went home and learned PHP.
I built the site and got paid. Let’s just say I’m glad it’s not around anymore.
I started taking more PHP jobs, getting better and better. A new thing became popular on the web called “web logging”, basically keeping a journal on the web. People soon shortened it to “blogging”, which confused all the old people.
I tried some blog software, but it was crazy hard to set up. One platform even required an Apache module of its own. I decided blogging wasn’t for me, and probably wouldn’t be going very far.
In 2003 I was working as a PHP/MySQL developer at a radio station attached to a college (the very same at which I started so long ago). I was teaching a class called Intro To Web Development. I’d recently heard about WordPress and tried it out. I wasn’t very impressed. I could build that. I required each student to have a project for the year, and I took one for myself. Build something better than WordPress.
What I came up with wasn’t better than WordPress, but it was good enough that I used it as my main blogging software for 10 years. Looking back, I really wish I had become involved in the community then. Where would I be now?
Spinning Off Into Chaos
In 2010 I had been doing side work non-stop for several years. I did the math and realized that I was wasting a LOT of time and money going to my day job every day. Literally tens of thousands of dollars being lost by going there 5 days a week.
I went freelance and the work poured in. I took a contract that used WordPress and was pretty impressed by its blogging abilities. It was still a chore to make any other kind of site with it, but I was able to bend it to my will. I loved that WordPress took care of permissions and user management for me. I quickly found out that most of the “WordPress developers” out there didn’t really know PHP. I had a huge advantage.
I used WordPress occasionally until 3.0 came out. Everything changed.
Custom Post Types made practically anything possible! It was literally breathtaking. I hadn’t been so excited since the early days of web development, when a new browser version meant major new web technology.
Everything in my life began to change rapidly as well. I went from freelancing to being CTO in a startup to being a WordPress VIP developer at a major agency to trying something cool (HeroPress) to writing documentation. 5 different job changes in 6 years. It was pretty stressful for my family.
There was something consistent through most of the last 6 years though.
My first experience with The Community was when I went looking for a Theme Framework. I found Startbox, by a guy named Brian Richards. I found out he lived only a few miles from my house! He answered SO MANY QUESTIONS. I wouldn’t be the WordPress developer I am today without him.
We formed a local WordPress meetup, and one of the first things he said was “We need a WordCamp”. What’s a WordCamp? He told me all about it and said he wanted to pull one together in only 4 months. I thought he was CRAZY, but sure enough he did it, and WordCamp Grand Rapids was born.
I was hooked. I couldn’t wait until NEXT year when we could have another one!
Then I learned they happen all over the place! ALL THE TIME!
My first Away WordCamp was Austin in April 2014, and it felt like it changed everything. I mustered up the courage to approach Siobhan McKeown and ask her about writing docs. 15 minutes later (literally) I had admin rights to work on the Plugin Handbook. I spent the next 6 months finishing it.
I met Shayda Torabi, Chris Lema, Shawn and Kay Hesketh. I met for the first time my own co-workers at XWP.
And my father died.
My sister called on a quiet Sunday morning at sunrise and told me he was gone. My dear brother Luke Carbis cried with me. I’m crying now as I write this.
More of You
I was surprised to learn soon after that XWP wanted me to go to WordCamp Miami. I didn’t expect two WordCamps in one year! I met David Bisset, Karim Marucchi, Joe Hoyle, and dozens of other people who are now solid friends.
Then another, I found out I was going to WordCamp San Francisco! I met Rocio Valdivia, Julie Kuehl, Dave Rosen, Shane Pearlman, Jake Goldman, and more and more and more.
It was at that WordCamp that someone nominated me to be XWP’s WordCamp Outreach person. Dave Rosen looked at me with a sparkle in his eye and asked “Would you like that?”. That moment was the true beginning of HeroPress. That’s where he started thinking “What if?”
Until HeroPress WordPress was a tool to further my career. I’d made some dear dear friends, but maybe I would have made dear friends without WordPress. Dave Rosen came to me and told me he wanted me to do something great for WordPress. He told me it was my journey to discover. He wanted a business, a new product that would change everything.
He also sent me a picture.
It was a narrow alley in India. I don’t know what city. In the center of the alley was a small child, maybe 3 years old, getting a bath. His or her mother was pouring water to rinse.
“I want to help that child” Dave said. “I want to make a world where that child has the ability to make a good healthy living, without having to leave home.” The child was looking right at the camera.
Right at me.
Dave also made available to me a WordPress agency. “If you need to build anything, use them, I have them on retainer” he said. They were from Kolkata. I got to know one person there, a young man named Jeet. We spent months together trying to come up with something great to do for WordPress. I learned about his family, and he learned about mine. He got married in that time.
One day Jeet let go of some frustration. He was trying to get enough work for his agency to stick together. It was really a group of friends who had been freelancing, and they wanted to make it work as a team. But he couldn’t get good work. There was plenty of work for “cheap labor from India where they work for almost nothing”. But that doesn’t work for actual grown up developers feeding families. He asked me how to get good work.
I felt helpless. I’d never been to India. I wasn’t any good at business really. What do I know?
So I set out to find someone who DID know. Someone who’d made a successful WordPress business in India.
That’s where the core idea of HeroPress started. That’s why HeroPress essays now need an audience. It’s about connecting people to each other to share wisdom.
I lost track of Jeet not long after the HeroPress Kickstarter failed, and I’ve been looking for him ever since. If anyone knows where to find Soumyajit Saha, I’d love to know.
The Kickstarter failed. My job situation was uncertain. Jeet never got his advice. The kid in the alley would certainly never get a good job. That’s ridiculous of course, but I could still see those eyes.
Then people started saying things like “HeroPress is such a good idea, please don’t let it die.” People who couldn’t afford to give more than they had, or any at all. People said “I couldn’t afford to give any money, but I have time, if you need anything done, I’ll do it”. Dozens of them.
I started thinking about how I could make it work. If I gave up on video, and went with plain text, how hard could it be? What could it cost besides hosting? I decided to go for it.
I emailed Dave and asked permission but he didn’t write back. He was busy on something else at the time. I asked again. Nothing.
So I did it anyway.
I found Rarst and asked him if he’d do his presentation in text form, and he said yes. We published. It was breathtaking.
Then I thought “I should have another, right? Umm… next week?” So I tracked down Saurabh Shukla, who had given so much great advice on how to talk to people from other cultures. “Sure!” he said. Then I needed another. For about the first 3 months I got contributors merely days, sometimes hours before publish time.
Failure turned to success. Text is BETTER than video. It’s cheaper, faster, more accessible.
It’s not a viable business. No-one’s making their living from it. From the viewpoint of the original goal, it has been a failure. From the eyes of everyone who talks to me about it, I can see it’s a success.
In the spring of 2014 I went with my wife and two children to WordCamp Chicago. We all made new, wonderful friends. My children know people from all over the world, some of them that I don’t even know, because of WordPress. My wife now has dear friends she talks to all the time because of that WordCamp.
We were hooked. We decided to go to another WordCamp. Then another. We went to Chicago, Dayton, North Canton, Milwaukee, Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Virginia Beach, St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbus, and WordCamp US.
Without my family I went to Pressnomics and WordCamp Pune.
At every one of these places we made more friends. More people with whom we still stay in touch and to whom we have become close. Some of them we saw over and over at WordCamps all year, and traded stories of travel and family and life.
The longer we’re a part of the WordPress community the more I realize we’re not making friends, we’re making family.
Family from India, Ukraine, England, Argentina, Nepal, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and literally hundreds of other countries.
WordPress didn’t rescue me from anything. The code shaped my career sure, but what has changed me is you. The lives of myself and my family will forever be better because of you.