Alex King on Wordpress development, the community and the Share Icon project
If you’re a Wordpress user, as in the self-hosted Wordpress version (as opposed to Wordpress.com), chances are you’ve come across Alex King. He’s the developer behind a lot of high quality and widespread plugins, as well as listed in the blogroll when you install Wordpress.
I’ve always been a fan of Alex King. His plugins work, not something that can be attributed to all plugin releases, and they usually fill a need. We use his Share This plugin here at Bloggertalks, which you can see at the bottom of each interview.
So how is it, being a plugin developer? All gold and glory within the community, truckloads of cash? No, you guessed it, that’s not the case, but let’s hear from Alex himself shall we?
You’re a known figure in the Wordpress community by name and your excellent plugins, but other than that, could you tell us something about the man behind it all?
Probably – what would you like to know?
Heh, well, what’s your professional background for starters? Hopes and dreams (not counting world peace)?
I spent about 6 years doing user interface and user interaction design for enterprise web based applications in the Bay Area. In 2004 I moved to Colorado and went off on my own.
Hopes and dreams? They don’t really involve blogging.
You’ve released quite a few plugins for Wordpress. What makes you do it?
To be historically accurate, I first released hacks for b2 which became WordPress, I converted them to plugins once the plugin architecture was added.
Almost all of my plugins for WordPress are things that I had an interest in creating for myself. A handful were done as favors to others, a couple more were done as paid contract gigs. I originally chose to package and release them because I thought others might find them useful.
When I first started writing b2 hacks, I was working a day job and was doing occasional hack development in my spare time. It was a good way for me to learn about the systems I was using, and to add functionality I wanted for my own blog.
However, the way your question is worded is actually quite interesting. It’s not the development of the hacks and plugins, it’s their release that is of interest.
Writing code and releasing code are two entirely different things. Writing the code so that it works for me is generally no more than 25% of the effort required to actually release it as a plugin.
I guess I started releasing them for three reasons:
1. I wanted to contribute back to a community I was benefiting from.
2. People were asking for them.
3. I had the time to do it.
The first 2 above still apply today, but unfortunately I have much less of #3 (time) than I used to – at least it feels that way. I imagine most folks feel they have a larger workload once they go independent.
The driving factor today is almost entirely a desire to share what I consider to be cool functionality with others. Unfortunately, I don’t have nearly enough time to satisfy individual requests anymore – plus the number of requests coming in has grown enormously over the last few years.
Is it possible to make a living doing plugin work for Wordpress? Is that something you have considered?
It’s definitely possible to make a living doing custom WordPress plugin and web development, but I don’t think it’s possible to make a living just building plugins and asking for donations.
I really like building products so I’m not interested in doing custom WordPress work full time. I am considering bringing on an intern or someone to help with the workload though, the number of requests coming in is growing every month.
Do you feel that users are ungrateful for your work?
Not really ungrateful, no, but I definitely think that some are blissfully ignorant. I imagine most folks don’t have an appropriate idea of the amount of work that actually does go into the things they can then get for free.
I definitely don’t like the attitude of folks who feel they are owed something or can place demands on someone who is donating their time.
I don’t get that either, the way some people seem to expect free support just because the software is free… I personally think that is something that the community in general need to work on, since it can really take the fun out of releasing something. What’s your take on that?
Perhaps, I don’t know that it’s something we should expect to improve.
Does the donation method work for you? We see all these donate buttons over the web, but does anyone actually donate?
Historically, no – donations haven’t worked for me. I’ve spoken with a number of other developers about this and I feel comfortable saying that very few projects receive enough donations that the money coming in is in any way significant.
I’ve been accepting donations since late 2002, and in that time I’ve brought in just over $3000 – or just a hair over 50 cents a day.
I’ve actually written a bit about this on my site in the past. Back in 2003 I postulated that micropayments could be a better solution. Specifically, a $1 paywall would have created a real revenue stream for me.
Though I never actually tried it, I somewhat resurrected the idea as an experiment about a month ago.
Now when someone downloads something free from my site, I show them a little form asking for a donation. The form shows after the download has already started, and if they ignore it, they ignore it.
In the past, the donation links were rather small and unobtrusive. The idea with the little pop-down is merely to encourage folks who may be willing to donate to do so – to get them thinking about the time and effort that goes into building what they are getting for free.
Since adding this, I’ve seen a big influx in the number of donations, but also a reduction in the average donation size. It doesn’t come close to covering the time spent on development, but it’s better than noting.
It’s an interesting experiment to me though – I’ll continue to tweak it here and there and see what the results are.
The concept is certainly interesting, and I think lots of developers are keeping an eye on the outcome. An increase in the number of donations you say, but what about the actual total amount, per month for instance? Any change there?
It’s an increase, mainly because donations had dropped to virtually zero. I’ll probably publish a spreadsheet or something next time I discuss it.
Are you in any way involved with Automattic, the company behind Wordpress?
“Involved” – tricky word choice. My company is included on their consultants page, I contribute from time to time to the software they develop and know some of the folks that work there. I think that’s about it. I’m not a partner or employee or anything.
Any love from them for your work in the community?
It may be a little easier for me to get in touch with folks to ask questions, but I imagine it is about the courtesy they accord anyone who has been contributing to the project for a few years.
Do you think they should help out people who release their work, be it plugins or themes, to the community? And how do you think they should do that?
I think they’re doing a pretty good job with everything. I’ve never had any “they should be doing X” thoughts.
Alex King at Mashup – photo by Adam Tow
Share This is a lovely project and a great plugin. What are your goals with the unified icon? Any progress there?
The mess of social icons littering many web sites is really a disaster. The intention is good, both on the part of the services and on the part of the folks who put the icons on their sites, but the result is a mess.
Share This and the Share Icon Project are at worst a working concept solution and at best a real solution. The adoption rate has been fantastic, with leading sites like GigaOM, 43Folders and Adaptive Path adopting it. There are over 600,000 pages listed in Google now using the plugin, and it’s been translated to various languages and ported to a number of different platforms.
So far, it’s been a big success.
What’s next for these two projects? Just keep the momentum, or do you have a grander scheme?
I’d like to have Share This ported to more platforms so that more folks can use it easily. I’m not sure what a grander scheme for this would be.
Wordpress 2.1 recently came out. What’s your take on that release, from a plugin developer’s point of view?
It’s a *huge* improvement. A lot of things have been significantly overhauled in very good ways. I’m impressed that this was able to be done while maintaining so much backward compatibility.
So you think it’s easier to develop for then? Right. But what about documentation? Every now and then you hear people complaining about the Codex and how it just isn’t updated enough – should perhaps Automattic make something happen there?
No, not easier to develop for – the core codeline is just much improved. It didn’t impact development much.
The folks complaining about Codex and documentation should stop spending time complaining and start spending time updating the Codex and helping with the documentation. Open source works best when folks “do” instead of “talk”. Inline code documentation should be improving as well from what I hear.
Sure, absolutely, but take the Codex for instance – it’s not something a new user can just go in and edit, since the new user won’t know how things work and can’t participate because of this. Complains can be whiny and just pure laziness, but they can come out of need as well. How should we make sure that the Codex comes up to standards? Is it perhaps something that Automattic should take upon themselves since they are benefiting greatly from the community?
Don’t get me wrong, there is a definite need for good documentation. I also understand that folks just starting out can’t necessarily contribute to the doc effort right away. However, if they would go back and add an entry in Codex for what they were looking for after they figured it out, it would certainly help as well.
Automattic can definitely help here, and I’m sure they will work on it in the future. Having good documentation is clearly in their best interest. One step they could take would be to reject all patches that don’t come with full PHP Doc formatted documentation. However, that only effects code documentation, end-user documentation is needed as well. I was surprised not to find a good “How to use WordPress in 10 simple steps” tutorial online when I was looking for one recently. Most WordPress users could contribute to that sort of effort.
You have to realize that writing documentation can be really unrewarding too. I’d say that 95+% of all the questions I get about my plugins are answered in the README included with the plugin and linked right next to the download on my site. Intellectually I know that some folks do read the READMEs and that the time and effort I put into the READMEs are helping them, but getting daily support request e-mails from folks who don’t read them doesn’t exactly inspire me to spend more time writing documentation.
Any words of advice for plugin developers out there? Any do’s and dont’s?
I probably should have some of these ready to go, but I can’t really think of any offhand. A good “do” would be to learn as much about the WP core infrastructure as possible. You make better decisions with more information.
Finally, what’s next for Alex King?
More of the same for the most part – I enjoy building things and I like taking on interesting projects. The current plan is to wrap up a few projects I’ve got going right now and get into some serious Tasks Pro development in the early spring. I’ve got a big list of new features I’m looking forward to adding.