Philip Arthur Moore is the Premium Theme team lead at Automattic. I’m thrilled to have been able to ask Philip some questions about WordPress.com premium themes, their processes, and working at Automattic.
His answers are thorough and very insightful, and I’m thankful for the time he spent on this.
You’re the Premium Theme Lead at Automattic. So what does your typical day entail? Support, brainstorming, code?
I spoke a lot about what I do on the WordPress.com blog and much of that still applies. I make sure that premium theme users are supported well, see to it that every single line of code that comes into the premium theme repository on WordPress.com is audited for security, bugs, and best practices, and manage the onboarding and ongoing relationships we have with new premium theme partners.
During the last several months since taking on a more active team lead role I’ve also added a few more things to my plate: organizing team meetups; acting as an ambassador for all things premium on WordPress.com; interacting as much as possible with the business-focused WordPress community; checking in with my teammates to make sure they’re all set; and thinking deeply about what the next 6, 12, and 18 months will look like for premium themes on WordPress.com.
A typical non-lead day involves performing code reviews on premium themes, triaging Trac and destroying theme bugs without remorse, working on public-facing documentation for WordPress theme developers, jumping into _s, and continuing learning how to code. A typical lead-day involves any task that will see to it that the premium theme team train stays on the tracks. This can mean anything from team meetings to partner meetings to brainstorming to project management.
It’s important for me to stress that if you were to ask me the same question six months from now, the answer would probably be different. Things change rapidly at Automattic, and what’s most important is not what we’re working on now but whether or not we’re making ourselves better and more suited for the work to come.
Have premium themes been successful for WordPress.com?
The overarching goal of the premium theme team at WordPress.com is to make premium themes a world-class experience for all WordPress users. Nothing else matters if our work doesn’t contribute to the joy users feel when using a WordPress theme. We tackle this primarily through rigorous code and usability reviews on every single theme that’s launched on WordPress.com. Ask any of our current partners how thorough our code reviews are and they’ll likely have stories for you. We’re obsessed with making every premium theme amazing and have very strong beliefs about the right way to do things when it comes to theme development, and that carries over into every facet of our work.
I’m naturally not someone who spends too much time reflecting on successes, both personally and professionally. Instead of the massive amount of good that has come out of the premium themes work done by WordPress.com, I could probably tell you the thousand things we could be doing better. I’d like to see us have more premium theme partners on WordPress.com. I’d like us to review themes more efficiently and quickly. I’d like our partners to have more tools to directly interact with their WordPress.com customers. There’s tons of room for improvement, but compared to where premium themes on WordPress.com were two years ago there’s no question that they’ve been a success against the original goal so far.
What’s changing now, though, is our definition of success for premium themes on WordPress.com, which is something we’re refining and working on daily. If we can ensure that our goal of making users happy is always met, then everything else is up for experimentation.
Is that process invite only? How do you guys decide which theme shops you want to work with?
Selling themes on WordPress.com is largely by invite right now, if only because of how much care and attention we give to each partnership. We currently have 3 members on our team who are primarily responsible for nurturing 11 ongoing relationships, and over the next month or so that number will jump to 13 or 14. Every premium theme launch takes time: there’s code and usability review, custom plugin functionality that I and my team have to write so the themes perform beautifully with our Custom Design upgrades, theme demo site setup, and announcement posts that have to be written for each new theme.
We want launches to feel important, and there’s only so much that three members of a team can do for our partners. I’m confident that we’ll figure out a way to make this such that all amazing theme shops have a way of connecting with us if it means that our users will be happier.
Who we decide to work with often comes down to how “leveled up” the theme shop is. Most of the developers who make premium themes for WordPress.com are among the best in the world at what they do. They don’t require tons of coaching or teaching, and we trust that the themes they’ll send us will be as close to launch-ready as possible. If someone comes to us today with an absolutely beautiful theme but the underlying code is a mess, we won’t be able to launch that theme or work with that shop until they master the fundamentals necessary for launching a theme on a platform that hosts millions of users. Likewise, if a theme’s code is brilliant in every manner but its visuals lack polish, it’ll be difficult to justify spending lots of time on launching it. It’s a tricky balance that we’re trying to pull off between aesthetics, code quality, and timeliness.
How do you decide what the next commercial theme is going to be on WordPress.com?
The order in which partner themes launch on WordPress.com is largely determined by when the themes are sent in for review and how much work needs to go into them before they’re launch-ready. The moment a premium theme is ready for network activation we want it available to our users, so we’ll either soft-launch it early in the week and announce it on Thursdays or simply launch and announce the theme on the same day.
We trust our partners to send us amazing themes and aren’t too hands-on when it comes to selecting which premium themes they’ll send in, but every now and then we’ll either not be able to launch a theme because it’s not a good fit for WordPress.com or specifically request for a theme to be sent in for review because we know it’ll do well on WordPress.com.
Non-partner, Automattic-developed premium themes are mostly organized and launched by the WordPress.com Theme Team, who I think of as the older sister team to the WordPress.com Premium Theme Team.
How many people usually get their hands on a theme? Do Automattic designers use Photoshop, design in browser, or both? Do some team members design and develop themes?
For free or in-house premium themes, one person on the Theme Team will usually develop (or design, or both) a theme and one or two people will “break” a theme before it launches. Depending on the complexity of the theme, a launch could take anywhere from one week to four weeks. So for Further — which is now the base of Twenty Fourteen — Takashi spent a lot of time coming up with the concept of the theme, designing it, and developing it. Further was his baby and has his soul written all over it. Some of the Theme Team members reviewed it and made sure the code was up to snuff and the design and usability made sense, but Further was almost all Takashi. I’ll never be able to look at the theme again without thinking about him, and that makes me happy. He’s one of the best theme designers in the world.
For partner themes, each person on the premium theme team who does code review — either me, Mike, or Kirk — owns a theme and launches it. I rarely touch a theme that Mike or Kirk launches and reviews unless one of them needs an extra hand with it.
What’s it like working in teams when people are spread out all over the globe?
Toni Schneider wrote on his blog several compelling reasons why companies should be distributed, which every CEO in tech should read. Matt also touched on Automattic, Forbes, and the future of work on his blog. Both of these pieces give solid insight into what it’s like to work for a fully distributed company.
Teams within Automattic are small enough and self-contained enough to overcome any of the technical challenges associated with working internationally; there’s a magic number for team sizes that usually falls anywhere between 3 and 8 members. Anything within that range feels natural for managing projects and goals, and anything beyond that range starts to feel a natural momentum towards a team split, like cells.
Things you do start noticing after working at Automattic for a while are the types of questions that come up in day-to-day conversations. When chatting online instead of “How are you?” someone might ask “Where are you?” And long P2 (now o2) threads might sprout up about the best ways to manage jet lag while traveling or how best to pack light or how to always be charging.
The best answer I can give is to say that things feel different working somewhere like Automattic, mostly because we’re stripped of the assumptions that we would normally make if everyone we worked with came from the same place. Company meetups thrill me not so much for the work aspect of them but the anticipation of encountering a mass of individuals who come from far away places that I’ve never been and know nothing about. Working here raises my awareness and appreciation of our deeper differences that go beyond technology.
Do you ever miss collaborative office environments?
I’m a bit of an odd one in that I’ve never really worked in a traditional office environment. The moment I graduated from university I moved back to Vietnam and began my career in contract-based web development. It didn’t take long to figure out that if you’re good at what you do, trustworthy, and transparent, the work will come. The majority of my clients were from the States, Australia, and the United Kingdom; they didn’t care that I lived in Asia.
After several years of going it alone I joined Thad and Chandra at Graph Paper Press. In the few years I worked with them we met in person once; Thad was in DC at the time and Chandra lives Kathmandu. Still, we talked on the phone every week and briefly chatted online probably every day that I worked with them, and today I very much consider both Thad and Chandra extremely close friends of mine. Neither one of us found our locations to be impediments to our process of collaboration and creativity. In fact, that we were spread out and isolated from each other gave our individual ideas enough space and time to grow on their own so that we’d each have richer visions of our collective future to bring to weekly chats.
That I now work for a distributed company in Automattic is not an aberration but very much a natural progression in my career and professional values, so it’s hard to miss something that I never wanted for my life in the first place. And even if it were, I see enough of my coworkers and industry peers in person that there’s not much that a forced office environment could offer me at this point in my life, if ever. I’m incredibly introverted — Chris Coyier wrote about what this really means — and need a lot of recharging time after I’ve been around people for too long, so the 80% me time, 20% in-person company time works well for my creative juices.
In your opinion, where do you see themes going in the next couple of years? Feel free to answer in both terms of form and function.
Some of my thoughts about themes are summed up by the talk that my colleague and friend, Ian Stewart, gave at WordCamp San Francisco last month. I’m not much in the business of predicting the future — weren’t premium themes supposed to be dead in 2008? — but I will say that I see themes becoming much more integrated with WordPress and much simpler. Think no more options pages but full customizer support; or themes that do only one thing and one thing well; or themes that look and feel nothing at all like what we’ve come to expect from a WordPress theme. I’m excited about what’s next.