Episode 14: Interview with Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress

December 1, 2017


Pramod Shashidhara

Matt Mullenweg is an American online social media entrepreneur and founder of WordPress. He founded Automattic and currently serving as CEO.

 Interview …

Pramod: Hello people, welcome to Mapping the Journey. WordPress is a free and open-source content management system. As of March 2016, WordPress drives 26% of the web. WordPress along with wordpress.com has made sharing ideas, stories, photographs and building websites easy. Today, I have the opportunity to speak with the founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg. He’s an entrepreneur, also founder and CEO of Automattic. Let’s hear about his life in times, journey with WordPress and a lot more. Matt, welcome to mapping the journey.

Matt: Happy to be here.

Pramod: Matt, we all know you as a co-founder of WordPress, and now you’re serving as a CEO of Automattic. Tell us more about yourself, life before WordPress?

Matt: Sure, well I started working on WordPress at a pretty young age, 19. So, most of the life before then was in Houston Texas, where I was born and raised and kind of school and music. I have lived in the same home my whole life, and that was in a normal neighborhood in Houston and I had just began to discover a love for science fiction and reading and technology music, kind of as I grew up.

Pramod: Okay, even at high school, I think you studied Jazz saxophone, right?

Matt: Yeah, I started playing the saxophone like in second or third grade. Mostly, because my father played the saxophone and then that developed. There is a really good Jazz team in Houston, so I got really good teachers from a young age, including Summer camp and stuff. So, then I was going to a high school for performing arts, the same high school that Beyonce went to and I was able to spend two or three sometimes four hours a day in my art area which was jazz saxophone.

Pramod: Your love affair with blogs, when did it start?

Matt: This time, I was spending a lot of time on the internet like many people my age and I remember reading somewhere about blogs, like Dave Winer, scripting data work, Anil Dash, dash’s, probably a few others. Those were just early blogs, early writers and it was very exciting to see. I love the authenticity and the honesty of their voice, and like, they would find the coolest things, and you’d follow it. So, I was a reader of blogs far before I started my own or wanted to make software, to create them.

Pramod: Okay. As you said, you were studying jazz Saxophone in high school, when was your real introduction to computers?

Matt: My father worked in computer programming, he worked mostly for oil companies, but got a computer science degree, before I was born like in the 70s and so, kind of they were always around. My grandmother had bought a computer because she wanted other grandchildren to learn it and I just took to it. Maybe following my father’s footsteps again just like saxophone, but even though I ended up learning a completely different set of technologies than my father who had been mostly focused on kind of Microsoft based stuff.

He was pointing me in the right direction, and I was very much like an early O’Reilly book, mastering regular expressions or the Campbell book, the book on Perl, kind of pointed me to these things, reading Wired magazine, but these were all kind of early introductions into the world of programming, which just seems so incredibly powering that you could write code on a screen and press a button and then it ran. I know that sounds so simple but to me, it kind of blew my mind. I felt like building something.

Pramod: How easy or hard was it to change tracks? You started as a musician and then changed paths to start programming?

Matt: I never really changed tracks. I was doing both, and in fact, I was paying my rent with the music, not with the programming. But then once I started WordPress, and that took off like age 19 or 20 and I got the job offer, moved to San Francisco, it became clear that I had a unique talent in programming and one that could maybe have a much more significant impact but as a musician, I was just okay. There were many of my friends that were much better, and my passion was more on the technology side. So, I was spending more and more of my hours on the computer and not practicing the saxophone.

Pramod: Next, we will move into the more interesting stuff with respect to the WordPress. So, when and, why did you start contributing to open source project B2?

Matt: From our early age my parents had always made me volunteer, whether it was Boy Scouts or local nonprofits or a church, they always, particularly my mom set a great example there. She was always doing something around the neighborhood to help out and so, open source is kind of the same thing, just online. Therefore, as I was learning the program I learned a ton by reading open source projects via like the gallery, old PHP gallery app, PHP BP, B2 Google type, whatever else was out there. And yeah for the Cafelog, the community which was the predecessor to WordPress, was just very friendly, inviting and open. The founder had a cool blog, seemed like a cool guy. He did, photography, like I just also thought something needs to be involved with on the side.

Pramod: Okay. And you were back then 19. You along with Mike Little and Michael Valdrighi started programming WordPress. I was just curious how did you convince, Mike Little and Michael to join you?

Matt: Oh, Michael Valdrighi was the former developer B2 so he kind of disappeared at that point, but with Mike Little, I think we both knew each other from the forum, so we’re both kind of volunteers. He had written some cool extensions for B2. I had published some cool code for B2. There wasn’t any convincing; we were both kind of doing it anyway. We just decided to work together, and that’s been something throughout my career, I found that when I collaborate with a team or a partner it’s just what I can create is so much better than what I would create alone. Also, it’s kind of like jazz like you can play jazz by yourself but it’s far way more fun in a group.

Pramod: Yes, definitely.  So, then Michael, kind of, joined you guys later?

Matt: Yeah, so he came back. I don’t remember the exact timing but he kind of came back online, and there were a few forks of B2, this one called like B2 evolution, B2 ++, WordPress, and he looked at WordPress and said: “Hey, this is great.” I would like to proclaim this. I’m going to stop working on B2 and WordPress is the official continuation of the project. So, he recommended people to check it out and also contributed to WordPress which was very cool.

Pramod: So, at the same time, I think you moved to San Francisco, right? Working for CNET.

Matt: It was about a year later.

Pramod: Okay. So, until then you were remotely working and just trying to build, develop WordPress.

Matt: Yeah, mostly I was just going to school, hang out around Houston. It’s just kind of doing college kids stuff.

Pramod: Okay, then you took a job with CNET I guess?

Matt: Which was, it’s not around anymore, but it was called CBS Interactive. There was a check journalism, news, devices and gadgets place on the web, kinda like you might think of a verge now.

Pramod: Okay. I think you were working with CNET when the first release of WordPress came, February 2005.

Matt: Well, WordPress started in 2003. So, part of the reason CNET hired me was that they had seen WordPress and they were impressed with it. But I did some good releases as well at CNET. I think the version 1.5 which included support for a theme, came out a lot at CNET.

Pramod: Okay, you were putting some time doing this work, working with the CNET?

Matt: Yeah, I got a pretty cool job at CNET, I really enjoyed it and that was kind of like my 9 to 5 and then from like 5:30 to midnight every day I would, I’d work on WordPress, sometimes 2 am or 3 am.

Pramod: So, then you left CNET to focus more on WordPress and also you announced Akismet several days later. How did Akismet happen?

Matt: Oh, Akismet was just the idea that, if you created a centralized server set to do a better job-fighting spam than a decentralized service. Now it seems obvious, but at the time most people are trying to do sort of individual plugins to fight spam. And what you a call Akismet today is like machine learning, artificial intelligence, like it’s a learning system that gets better the more people use it and that the more data it gets. So, it works with definitely a lot of data of over 500 billion comments now, I think, and it just learns what’s spam and what’s not and gets better and better over time, so early versions were very rudimentary, but now it’s pretty sophisticated. So, it wasn’t the very first versions wasn’t too hard to write, but very quickly the spammers adapted and I enjoyed working on it also, adapt it to beat them.

Pramod: Were you the only developer of Akismet?

Matt: I was the only developer for the first couple years of Akismet.

Pramod: Okay. Nice, it’s kind of interesting, you announced wordpress.com at the same year, I think November 2005. I was curious, when did you realize that there is this huge opportunity for creating such a platform for blogging and how did you go about this?

Matt: I think it was really from that, people were using WordPress, and they liked it; it was challenging to get started with it. Kind of set up a database and upload bunch of files, then you had to upgrade them. So, this was just the idea, people love WordPress, what if we make WordPress easier to use and see what happens. It is the stuff we’re doing to this day, like 12 years later.

Pramod: Okay, so you were in your early twenties. Was there someone who provided you with guidance along the way or like how did you deal with all this?

Matt: A ton of people. The first one, first earliest users of WordPress and then who introduced me to a lot of folks and he is now like a brother to me, Om Malik, who was from India but then moved to the US.  He was at the time, a tech journalist and as an early blogger, early user of WordPress, he introduced me to the folks, which I would later work with and still work with to this day. Tony Conrad, Tony Schneider and Phil Black, who were some other early investors, advisers, and Tony Schneider, who actually, I convinced to live here and he enjoyed being CEO of Automattic for its first years.

Pramod: Take us through the journey after 2005, from an open source project to a massive platform used by millions of developers around the world.

Matt: It was very gradual, over many, many long days and nights; I think the main thing was, we would just try to make WordPress a bit better every day. There were a few early tipping points like where one of our competitors changed their licensing or things, but it was just being prepared like so when other people had a misstep, we had folks who wanted to switch over to WordPress, we were all ready and waited. And then just, organically building a passionate user base and having them tell their friends about it for many years, kind of accumulated, it was like, ‘’ah, what’s the word, the compound interest.’’

Pramod: Okay. WordPress or even wordpress.com was not an overnight success at all. Especially there were other platforms as well. Tell us about some of the initial hurdles or difficulties you faced building WordPress?

Matt: Well, quite what we did in the early days, particularly wordpress.com and people hadn’t done as much before. The way that we decided to shard the databases, running saas servers or some identical code that would run on kind of normal web hosting. So, the WordPress we were on wordpress.com, is it saying that you download you could put on a five dollar GoDaddy account like all those sorts of things. It was new grounds, but it wasn’t like rocket science, working with some other pragmatic engineers, designers and other folks like, we were able to figure out pretty much everything that happened, even if it was a little messy along the way.

Pramod: Reading about the infrastructure of wordpress.com. Tell us more about it, it is very highly rated in the industry, the infrastructure of the wordpress.com and how you guys host & provide services?

Matt: I think, in the early days, both myself and one of the early engineer Danka both had a lot of experience just running Linux servers. And so I wouldn’t call the lockers French, we both had a bit of experience, so we were able to configure it and set up things for wordpress.com. And then later, early on folks like Jason Hoffman, he is now a CTO at Ericsson and Ibrahim, even now to this day run systems at Automattic were just really able to set up and configure things that could be solid.

Also, this was at the time I want to give credit to Brad Fitzpatrick, who was doing Livejournal before but now works at Google. I think with the Go language; he open sourced a lot of the tools that he made to run Livejournal, and so we were able to leverage all those open source tools to build wordpress.com, and that was huge in helping us get over early bottlenecks.

Pramod: In the same year, a lot of development happened. You founded Automattic, December 2005. Now it holds a suite of products and also open source products. What was the objective back then when you started Automattic?

Matt: I mean the goal with Automattic was really to create someplace that I want to work. A company that was distributed, that had open source at its core, and that was trying to make the web a better place. And I’m not trying to lock everyone in, but really kind of be true to the web’s ideals of being open distributed and open source. So, that was the goal, and it’s grown far beyond my wildest imaginations today.

Automattic is made up of 650 people, and we’re still hiring for, as fast as we can for every open role. We built the company in a completely distributed way, so what’s cool about that is, we can hire people no matter where they are in the world like, it’s not just people in the Bay Area. If someone is amazing and is located in Kenya or Alabama or Brazil, we can hire them as well, and they can be on equal footing with everyone at Automattic because we’re distributed.

Pramod: So, yeah, 650 people. I remember in one of your interviews you said, you did not want to grow big; I did not know there are 650 people working with Automattic.

Matt: Well, it’s funny as now, 650 to me feels kind of small. So, we definitely do a lot for our size and like I said we’re trying to hire as fast as we can because we have a lot more that would want to do.

Pramod: WordPress is built on PHP. PHP was established and it’s easy to understand. There was a huge community for PHP already. How important was that “WordPress was powered by PHP” for its popularity?

Matt: Yeah, and I know that you interviewed a lot of folks that make languages and things which I think is very, very cool. So, PHP is amazing in its ubiquity. Part of the reason I switched to it from Perl and Python and other things that I wrote early on, is just, it was so; it’s integration with Apache web servers, which is so darn easy. You didn’t have to mess with file permissions and everything else in the same way, and then every web host supporting it also make distribution easy.

So, our use of PHP and MySQL as the core or technology versus one of our competitors who is Perl and BBB but also supported by MySQL. What I think is, huge! Because that provided us kind of a platform that people could run on pretty much anywhere place in the world. And even to this day, even though a lot of Automattics work is now in Go, Node or JavaScript or different things, it’s still nothing beats PHP for kind of its server-side scalability and sort of distribution. So, we still plan for the server side of WordPress to be in PHP for the foreseeable future. And the improvements in PHP, like the 7 and 7.1 in which doubled speed, half memory usage, is now also, very fast and performing.

Pramod: Yeah, even my first language is PHP. It’s really easy, definitely, I would say, WordPress running PHP was a big deal.

Matt: It’s a bad reputation. I mean you can totally write bad PHP, and because it’s successful, a lot of people do, but you can write beautiful, elegant PHP as well. And in fact, if you like writing beautiful, elegant PHP, you can work at Automattic.

Pramod: I built this MappingTheJourney website using PHP, and I was having a discussion with my roommate that I’m using WordPress. And he was like, seriously, PHP today? Are you worried about the decline of PHPs popularity may affect WordPress?

Matt: I have seen that for a little bit, so we have rules for different things and for us its way easier to hire JavaScript engineers than PHP folks right now. And I do think that there is like, for the type of PHP person we’re looking for, someone who’s very practical, very pragmatic. Maybe, they’re just all gone to Facebook or something; I don’t know.

Pramod: When you look back, are you surprised or feel lucky with the overall success of the WordPress?

Matt: Yes, I was very surprised at the initial success, but as it started to gain some initial traction, our vision for what it could be which is to democratize publishing, to create a platform for the open web. We had very early, and since then it’s, it’s not that it’s surprising or not surprising, but that every step that we take is satisfying, but I still feel very acutely that there’s so much left to do. The web still has so many forces pushing it to be more closed, and so we want to create the best product possible so that we can help the web be more of what its potential can be.

Pramod: Okay. So, there are plugins, localization, CMS, ease of use, among all these, what attributes for the WordPress success?

Matt: It’s a little bit all of those things, but I think first and foremost, you need to have a great product out of the box, to get users. And so we’ve always focused on trying to be accessible and easy for people just using it, they don’t need to be technical or anything and that is something we can probably work on the rest of our lives, right? Because,we can always find ways to think things right, things easier more intuitive.

Number two, it is for developers making plugins or themes making it a platform that was easy for people to learn to develop and easy to find distribution, through the plug-in directory, it’s probably the number two thing

And then thirdly, this is still ongoing. It’s like taking what worked in English, making that available in other languages is a really huge part of the growth. Now today, over half of WordPress users are not in English and someday I hope that Maps population of the world, so English is only 10% of WordPress users and 90% is using in some other language. And that’s kind of the general distribution of languages all over the world; someday I hope that we are popular and adopted widely enough that we match that.

Pramod: Okay. I love the ease of use and also plugins. You just have to decide which plugin to use and it’s all available. Were you ever tempted to introduce licensing for WordPress use?

Matt: Well, we do have licensing, it’s the GPL. It’s open-source license and we adopt that over and over again for all of our new products like Calypso, Jetpack, etc. So, it’s a license I am most fond of and, and trying to put the majority of my life’s work under.

Pramod: Okay, cool. I posted on Reddit that I’m talking to Matt, the WordPress Reddit group and they had some interesting questions. One of that was, what’s next for WordPress? Do we ever see WordPress released in any other programming language? (the backend)

Matt: Probably not the API side, but definitely all of them, all of the most exciting new features being developed for WordPress on JavaScript and the biggest and what we spent the majority of this year on and I’ve been working on personally is that what we call the Gutenberg Editor.

So, Gutenberg is this fundamentally new way of writing posting pages, which makes it kind of like playing with LEGOs, you can move blocks around and insert really rich blocks whether galleries, contact forms, videos images, whatever. And so it makes building posts and pages fun and then next year what we’re going to do is take these blocks, make it so that you can design your whole website with it. So, this is all in JavaScript currently using the react framework, and it’s been really exciting as the project has been moving incredibly quickly. We’ve done 15 beta releases of Gutenberg so far. It’s a bit of change because it’s the biggest change to editing which is the core of WordPress and a decade and, and it’s gonna break some backward compatibility, but that’s something that I feel like, once in a decade is worth doing!

Pramod: Any plans to abstract the WordPress DB to be able to use other databases?

Matt: Some plugins do that today. Microsoft has a plugin that puts it on, MS SQL and so there are some plugins to do it but to be honest, there is not as much need for that, as it appears to be. Because you have MySQL and MariaDB which are compatible and then you have, I think it’s called Aurora. Amazon has its version that is MySQL compatible, so there’s like lots of options for MySQL compatible databases, they develop and test with WordPress, so they always work with WordPress.

Pramod: Okay, Today what are the most recent challenges you are facing developing WordPress? The technology has changed so much.

Matt: The biggest challenge that we’re running into with Gutenberg as well is that people who are very comfortable or attached to the way that things currently work, can sometimes be scared of changes. So, when you make changes, it’s not just doing the change, you also have to communicate a ton and listen to everyone’s viewpoints and everything. It’s not a bad thing but it does slow things down quite a bit.

So probably, yeah by a factor of two and it’s a different kind of work and, and not all developers love that type of work, and it’s something I’m happy to do because I love WordPress community and I love listening to people and have their stories. It is a big challenge to kind of move quickly, while still making everyone feel like they are heard and that they’re, that their kind of concerns are being met, but then something new.

Pramod: During this last 10-15 years, What has been your most satisfying moment in your technological journey?

Matt: Oh…! I get such a thrill. It’s something I do, I only get to do it for fun but the thrill of writing some code and that first time, you get it working. It’s still like a total high for me, and I remember distinctly the first time I ever submitted code to B2. I remember distinctly when Akismet started working; I remember distinctly changes throughout wordpress.com that launched new features

Like a few years ago I wrote the feature that did phone blogging, it’s a silly feature, but you can call a number and talk to, essentially record a message that posts to your blog and there’s just such a thrill when you get that going, and I still love it to this day. It’s only matched perhaps by the thrill of tracking down an amazing bug.

Pramod: Okay. And on the similar lines, entrepreneurship versus programming, which do you enjoy most?

Matt: Oh, what I love about programming is, it’s a finite problem. So, I can sit down work on it and say it’s more deterministic, and I can say hey, this is solved, this test runs or this bug is fixed.

What I love about entrepreneurship is, its infinite problems so, there’s nothing that says you did it right or not even if you’re successful. Maybe there’s an opportunity cost, or you could have been much more successful, or when you fail, you don’t always know why and people are obviously nondeterministic. I get a huge to look out of it because I love people, I’ve become very passionate about how to grow organizations to be effective, and as I said earlier, I just love working with teams.

So, I find it very, very rewarding but it’s, entirely different, and I think that sometimes, that’s why I like to read books or have hobbies or learn something on the piano or, or write some code if I could find the time, just because you get more of that sense of completion. For my CEO job, I feel like it’s never complete, there’s always something else.

Pramod: Yes, definitely. Last question Matt. Anything you would like to share with the WordPress programmers around the world?

Matt: Oh, yeah I guess one thing I’ll say is that, like I said earlier, we’re hiring, so wherever you are in the world, Automattic is looking for great people to work alongside.

Two, I’d say that is one of the most important things you can develop, especially if you’re doing code is empathy. And so learning kind of cross-disciplinary, just reading a book about design don’t make me think or watching someone try to use the code you made or helping out friends use software that you made, doing tech support which is something I still do to this day. Whatever you develop, empathy and a bit of understanding for every user, it’s really just the number one thing, and it’s funny that when you’re small, and you only have a couple of users and even one year the size of WordPress, I can still get so much value out of just doing tech support or helping a friend upgrade their site or whatever it might be. So, I try to do that as much as possible, and you’ll become the type of developer that everyone loves working with.

Pramod: Awesome…! Thank you, Matt. Thank you for being on the show and thanks for providing us WordPress. We all absolutely love it and hosting websites has been so easy with wordpress.com, Thank you

Matt: Oh, it’s been a lot of fun working alongside everyone who’s contributed to WordPress over the years.

Pramod: Thank You. Wow, fantastic speaking with Matt Mullenweg. At such a very young age, he has achieved so much in his career. Such an inspiring story!

Next episode, I will be speaking with the founder of PostMan, Abhinav Asthana. We all love PostMan and looking forward to talking with him. After this episode I will be doing one every month, 3rd Thursday. I love interviewing, but Podcasting is a lot of work, and I’m just one man army. Until I get some help, I will continue to do one excellent episode.

Byeeeee take care, Happy Holidays!

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