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WordCamp Mid-Atlantic: Where It’s Been, Where It’s Going

Late in 2008, while I was transitioning from life in Baltimore to life outside of Washington, D.C., I was contemplating organizing the first WordCamp event in that area. Baltimore had begun to show signs of a healthy tech community and Washington had continued to flourish as a healthy communications scene. Philadelphia, just up I-95, had a healthy design and development community and I had become somewhat familiar with that city as well.

I made a point of making my event one that would set trends and challenge the status quo.

Mid-Atlantic

One thing I did think of early on was that I detested the trend that identified an event with a singular city, especially when there were multiple cities, all offering different, yet complementary modus operandi. I bucked the trend of identifying the event by a city, eschewing names like WordCamp DC or WordCamp Baltimore. These names, while celebratory of the city that hosts them, inherently bear the problem of inferred exclusivity.

From the very first WordCamp in the region, I challenged that designation and attempted to bring the cities together. It was called WordCamp Mid-Atlantic.

Three Cities, then Two

The original plan was to bring the three cities together in Baltimore for a WordPress event. Ideally, the result would be more collaboration and resources shared between the various communities. Ultimately, Philadelphia never bought into Mid-Atlantic (and in fact, ended up with their own successful WordCamp Philly). However, Mid-Atlantic was wildly supported by both Baltimore and DC. even garnering coverage in the Baltimore Sun business publication Maryland Daily Record.

For WordCamp Mid-Atlantic 2010, the event was geared mainly to the Washington Metro and Baltimore.

Keynotes That Challenge

In both events, I wanted to bring in someone from the WordPress leadership hierarchy as a Keynote as well as someone from outside of WordPress entirely to challenge the gathered attendees. This as quite controversial, actually. In 2009, I brought in Anil Dash, founder and former SVP at SixApart. Anil was known historically as somewhat of an antagonist, but did a wonderful job in sharing and illustrating the similarities between WordPress and SixApart who provided a competing platform. His message was one of learning from each other.

This past year, I opted to bring in Marco Tabini who has also been a frequent antagonist of WordPress. His message was one from the perspective of the PHP community and reconciling how the PHP core people could learn and help the WordPress core people, and vica versa. My inbox became a little tense in the weeks leading up to the event due to other incidents involving dissenting views about the GPL license and WordPress’ interpretation of it. Needless to say, Marco did an amazing job.

It’s Not My Baby

As most of you know, I have left the Baltimore/Washington region. As a result, this past WordCamp Mid-Atlantic was my last. People have asked me quite a lot about who I would pass the baton to. This is a tricky question because the event is not mine. It’s yours.

That said, this is not for just anyone to run. I cannot put any strings on who will run the next event but I do have the platform to voice my sentiments:

  • I want to see Mid-Atlantic stay in the event. I do not want to see a fractured event where there becomes a WordCamp Baltimore and a WordCamp DC. Both cities have user groups that meet frequently. I want to see the WordCamp Mid-Atlantic event retain it’s place as a regional/local event.
  • I want to see the idea of challenging (and even dissenting) opinions welcomed to the stage, like Marco… and Anil. We should not be scared of being shaken up. We should embrace it and learn from it. That said, future organizers should be sensitive as to who you have come and speak.
  • Retain the unconference. One of the amazing success stories of WordCamp Mid-Atlantic 2010 was the unconference, organized by Steve Fisher. Besides the pre-scheduled and organized tracks that are familiar to conference goers, we provided a separate, yet equal unconference for ad-hoc discussion and talks. The only thing I’d change is to make it true barcamp style and make a no-powerpoint rule.
  • No one organizer. I became the defacto organizer for both events. While I had varying degrees of help for both, I really became the guy for the event. This was not wise on my part. There should be an organizer in each city.

This is Baltimore’s event. This is Washington’s event. This event brilliantly integrated both communities. It really, really did. I want to see it continue (obviously with new leadership), but I want it to be with people who take it seriously and can make it better than it ever was. Put your own spin on it. Make it your own, not mine.

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Back in Startup Mode… Announcing WP Engine!

Since I moved to Austin, I have been very coy about what I’ve been up to. There’s a reason for that and today I can tell you all about it. Especially since my good friend Marshall over at ReadWriteWeb already has. :-)

It was very interesting. Back in May, my friend Pete Jackson, who works for Intridea, started making a point of introducing me over to Twitter to one of his friends in whatever city I happened to be travelling in at that moment.

It was in this way that I met Sean Cook, the manager of mobile integrations at Twitter in San Francisco and, when I was in Austin visiting in May, he made sure that I met Aaron Scruggs of Other Inbox who has since become a pretty good friend.

It was after that meeting with Scruggs in May that he connected me to one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, Jason Cohen. Jason is one of the two founding partners at Capital Thought, an Austin-based incubator. Jason has also built several companies and parlayed two of those into healthy exits. I’ve come to have a tremendous amount of respect for his technical and business savvy.

Jason described to me the concept for a business that he was working on along with Cullen Wilson. A premium, WordPress platform that would cater specifically to the customers who want to make sure their blog is always taken care of from a maintenance and upgrade perspective, but also would offer significant value adds that nobody else is providing in a WordPress-optimized environment.

I’ll get to what all those buzzwords mean in a minute. Stick with me.

We started talking about me joining up with them to take this idea to the bank. Shortly after moving down here to Austin, I joined the team and we’ve been working hard over the last couple months to get to the point where we could reliably take on new customers and talk about our idea publicly.

Today is that day.

So, you’re still probably wondering what the hell WP Engine is and why it’s important, right?

Let’s talk security for a minute. There have been significant security “incidents” in recent months. Most people on the outside simply see “WordPress hacked! WordPress hacked!” – I’m looking at you Chris Brogan, Robert Scoble and Frank Gruber (Techcocktail). In the WordPress community, we know the real issues in these cases were not WordPress but the hosts that the blogs were on. Still, people saw WordPress hacked.

We take this very seriously and have partnered with a provider that has multiple levels of security including Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) outside of our boxes. We have gone to great lengths to keep our customers connecting to us in very secure ways and keep a close eye on the activity happening on our boxes. This is all very important because if an attacker could get through our outside defenses, chances are they couldn’t do anything malicious without us knowing about it.

Our infrastructure is also built with optimization and blazing, fast speed as a core expectation and deliverable. We don’t overload servers and have the means to see potential performance problems before they arrive. With our dual nginx-apache server configuration, we are able to handle sustained high-volume traffic as well as spikes that are the pain point for WordPress bloggers who suddenly get a story featured on a prominent site.

For the people who claim WordPress doesn’t scale… I call bullshit. We believe we know exactly how to make WordPress scale.

But we’re not just a hosting company. If we were that, we would be our competitors. We are also working on additional features such as “Curated Plugins” which are plugins that are entirely open source, that are popular or in demand from our customers and have been vetted from a security standpoint. These are plugins that we support 100%. This does not preclude customers from using other non-supported plugins, and we don’t dictate what bloggers can have on their blog as some of the other hosted WordPress solutions do. We just say, “Hey, if you use one of these, we’re gonna have your back”.

Other things that make WP Engine different:

  • 3 Smart guys supporting customers personally
  • A “Staging” area for one-click deployments and testing
  • We give back to the community. In fact, I made sure that I could work on the WordPress open source project, write the second edition of my book, and that much of our work will be returned to the community. Code is a commodity. The people and service behind the code is not.

We are not perfect yet, nor do we claim to be. We are a young company and have hundreds of things still to do and hopefully learn from. We are in an “invite only” mode at this time as much of the stuff we are doing and want to do is still not ready. But we are open for business and taking customers. And for $50/mo 1 for a dedicated WordPress environment that has optimization, speed and security plus the flexibility of you doing your own thing with a safety net… it’s a steal, really.

Photo used with permission by Donncha O Caoimh

Notes:

  1. For most customers

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Impending Legal Precedent for GPL Licensing?

If you pay attention to the WordPress world, you might be aware that a landmark lawsuit is likely to be filed. I say landmark expecting that both sides will litigate and not settle – something that is desperately needed in the United States to validate and uphold the scope of the GPL license.

WordPress is a free software that is licensed under GPLv2 – a license that was created in 1991 to protect the ability of developers and users to gain access to software, create derivative works and distribute the copyrighted code in its entirety under the same protective license.

One of the tenants of the GPL that is argued prolifically is that derivative works are works that “link” into other works via APIs and dependencies (such as library dependencies). According to the argument, software that is considered a derivative work must retain the same licensing as the GPL’d work that it links into.

There are many legal (and non-legal) minds who would like to interpret this license in a variety of ways. There have been notable legal cases around the GPL in the United States, but all (to the best of my knowledge) have settled prior to litigation. One of these cases, Progress Software v MySQL AB, revolved around a product called Nusphere that was bundled with MySQL but was proprietary and incompatible with the GPL. The judge refused to grant summary judgement and eventually MySQL simply did not bundle the proprietary software.

Another case avoided judicial decision – and thus avoided judicial precedence. That case, Free Software Foundation v. Cisco, was settled out of court with a donation from Cisco and a pledge of commitment to the GPL.

Today, a major incident happened that has been brewing for years now. Due to an unfortunate incident which involved source code for the popular Thesis theme for WordPress (from DIYThemes) becoming compromised by a hacker, tempers started boiling over. Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress and the public face of )Automattic, the largest company behind the WordPress project, ended up on a live interview alongside Chris Pearson of DIYThemes.

Matt suggests (I think accurately) that a theme that is provided for WordPress (it does not work without WordPress) is a derivative work and requires GPL compatibility. He also suggests (accurately, I think) that GPL compliance would only enhance DIYTheme’s business as evidenced by countless other proprietary software providers who have gone open source.

Not to mention that a license does insinuate adherence to legal requirements provided by the license. If you don’t agree to the terms of the license, you’re not permitted to use the software. Makes sense.

Chris’ defense is that Thesis is completely independent of WordPress (which I question the rationality of since the software cannot exist absent of WordPress). He believes he has a business and economic right to maintain a license that is at odds with WordPress’ GPL license.

So my editorial question is… compliance with the WordPress GPL license is optional but compliance with the Thesis license is not? Hmmm.

Matt, in so many words, has already indicated that there will be a lawsuit that comes out of this. This could be landmark as, if the suit were not settled, it could define the parameters of open source software creation, usage and distribution reaching into every aspect of our life. Who uses Firefox? Yeah… depending on the outcome, that could be affected.

In a perfect world, the two sides reach an amicable solution. Thesis is popular, but it is not the only game in town. However, the second best solution is a legal precedent governing GPL software.

So we stand by and wait.

Image by Joe Gratz

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