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Interview With Helen Hou-Sandi

I recently did an interview with Helen for my talk at WordCamp Tampa. I was only able to use such a small part of that interview due to time. However I thought that her thoughts were very relatable, and therefore I didn’t want them to go to waste. The subject of my whole talk – and therefore my questions to her – was about contributing to WordPress. I wanted to get Helen’s “origin story” about how she started to contribute to WordPress core, and what she could relate to others who want to give back to WordPress in some way (either by contributing to core or some other method).


How did you discover WordPress?

I was helping a fellow collaborative pianist with the Collaborative Piano Blog, which he runs on Blogger. He asked me if I’d ever heard of WordPress, but I hadn’t. Not long afterward I was learning about buying a domain and hosting of my own, and since I had looked up WordPress and saw that it supported static pages, something Blogger did not at the time, I thought it would be a good thing to try out for my blog through the host’s one-click installer. This would have been early 2008, I think around the time of the 2.5 release.

What was your first experience contributing to WordPress? What were your motivations starting off?

I had started following along a little bit with betas and RCs during my first WordPress project at my first web development job, and started another major project that was dependent on features and refinements coming in 3.1 with a target of launching during 3.2, so we were developing against trunk. I didn’t know enough then to be patching much in those areas, but there was a tiny UI bug that was really bothering me and I wanted to challenge myself to learn how to make a patch. I really liked the idea of being able to fix a part of something so widely used, not because I wanted to be recognized for it, but because even something really small becomes big when multiplied so much.

My first experience contributing code (it was not my first Trac ticket) was fairly smooth. I got good feedback on my patch from two other core developers and it was committed fairly quickly, which kept me from becoming discouraged right off the bat. It also taught me that even something that seems like a small CSS change still needs to be done with a wider view of the code base and comes with gotchas, like how to patch against unminified files and what to do about those minified files. It’s a little scary, sure, but I’m a person who likes challenges and weighing many considerations.

What fears or thoughts did you encounter (especially in the early days), and how did you overcome them?

I was so terrified of opening my first Trac ticket, which was about a character encoding problem on .org. I think I asked Jen Mylo on Twitter if it was okay to do because I was worried that I would sound stupid. Another one of my early tickets was invalid (at least, it was then – it isn’t today!) and I definitely felt silly afterward, even though looking at it with the context I have now, I can see that it was really quite small and everybody was perfectly nice about it. My worries were (and are) the same as many – afraid of doing something wrong, wary of making a decision that will bite us later, conflict with certain personalities, and so on.

Overcoming those fears has really been a matter of learning to reason with or ignore my inner pessimist – those feelings don’t just go away, and it’s unreasonable to expect yourself to “just get over it”. Some of it has also changed because of where I sit – worrying about ramifications of a decision are now taken as me being sage instead of slow :) Largely I think it’s about personality traits, which makes this different for everybody. In particular, I’m pretty aggressive and don’t like to let people stand in my way of something. Not rebellion against obstacles, but just always wanting to move forward on my own terms. I will confront somebody or something that’s blocking me, but if they won’t move, then I’ll go around them. That’s how I cope – not necessarily something I recommend for everybody. It’s important to find what fits you as a person.

Can you point me to your first commit?

My first props is here, for 3.2: https://core.trac.wordpress.org/changeset/18362

The path to contributing often has bumps in the road, from just starting out to being the lead on WordPress 4.0. What would be a time where something went wrong or things weren’t going well briefly, and how did you not let that deter your efforts and passion?

Things go poorly on the micro scale constantly and consistently, with occasional visibly bad situations, and I feel frustrated and defeated frequently to varying degrees. This is true of basically everything, though, which is the important thing to recognize. I think the hardest period for me was when a lot of general life factors amplified each other negatively. In some ways, I couldn’t let it deter me so I forced myself through, because I couldn’t afford to not be working. I also did a lot of learning about the working world to get myself in a better place – negotiating for more community time with an end goal of full-time and the tough topics of salary and parental leave. Those are important lessons, especially in an industry where a lot of people are in their first or second job and haven’t matured in the workplace yet.

Some things that have been happening recently with over-mixing of the personal with the work parts of being in WordPress have also been very difficult to get through, and I’ll fully admit to wanting to leave tech entirely. But there are so many good people and good things about doing this, so I try to focus on that. I also blow off steam in a variety of ways, and maintain hobbies and activities that have nothing to do with computers :)

What about contributing to WordPress do you find most satisfying? How have you benefited personally and professionally from contributing?.

The thing about client work that was tough for me was reconciling things that professionally I would and should support but personally could not. I’m practical, but also have a stubborn ideological streak. WordPress can be used for any purpose, but not having to be directly invested in a given purpose fits me much better. Being able to work from anywhere, with a huge amount of flexibility, mostly reporting to myself, on something I really truly believe in – and get paid well for it! – is incredibly satisfying and almost impossible to believe sometimes. I’ve also made incredible friendships and been challenged intellectually.

If you were to offer advice to someone about contributing, what lesson(s) did you learn that you could pass along that might inspire them?

It’s important to have empathy while letting go of sentiment. Empathy allows us to find motivations that are more resilient, like “what is the right experience for the majority” or “how can we fix this common pain point in a way that won’t be a pain point later”. It also allows us to communicate better while being flexible about interpretation of written communication. Sentiment, on the other hand, sets us up for disappointment – being attached to a given approach or idea that will almost certainly evolve over time, whether in patch form or once it’s in core, or allowing conceptions of personal relationships to affect work approach.

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Speakers And Organizers: Dealing With Conference Rejections

giphy So you spent a good amount of time and thought into a speaker application for that special conference. It’s the conference that everyone in your circle is talking about. You get the application in… but a short time later you find out you weren’t accepted. That’s a disappointment. Granted in the grand scheme of things isn’t life or death – but with the message from many conferences (including local based events like WordCamps) about “don’t be afraid, apply!” – it does get frustrating at times, especially if the rejections seem continuous.

I’ve been on both sides – i’ve been a speaker coordinator for WordCamp Miami (also help organize the WordPress meetups in my area) and also have applied to speak at events. Here’s some thoughts I would like to share.


I think this is important to get yourself in the right mindset. Honestly ask yourself why you are applying to speak in the first place. You should have more than one reason but the number one reason shouldn’t be self-promotion. If that’s your number TWO reason, fine. But in my experience and from what other conference speakers have shared (speakers from large and/or “professional” conferences) is that organizers and attendees (assuming you get through and speak) have a good tendency of picking up your true motivations.

I believe this to be true – experienced organizers tend to pick up when a particular application sounds more like a piece of marketing copy. Attendees can detect self-promotion in your presentation and when it goes beyond an acceptable level. Again, not to say that promoting yourself can’t be a motivation – actually, I think it should be. It just shouldn’t be the primary one, and when that is the case then rejections for your presentation tend to feel less personal.

Realize Your Odds

If you have a humble attitude and realize that you are applying for a conference that has a small number of open slots, you’ll understand why you might not be accepted even if you are an experienced speaker with a great application. My only advice is to keep trying.

A nice response from Adam Culp on how many applications one conference gets:

Ask For Feedback

This one is simple… if you don’t get feedback on your rejection, ask for it. Explain that you just want to use the feedback as a learning experience, and if they have any tips for applying for a future submission. Have a professional tone and aim to ask privately (email or direct message) to avoid putting them on the spot (and therefore defensive).

Do More Local Speaking

Speaking at meetups and smaller events is a great way to scratch that itch for speaking, plus it gives you experience. Asking for feedback from other professional speakers and event organizers might be a good idea as well.

What Conference Organizers Can Do

Conference organizers have a responsibility to treat any applications sent on time with a measure of respect.

Acknowledge You Got The Application – A confirmation message after a form submit is great, but for most people an email is better. Both are automated but still an email feels personal and that they at least have your email address makes you feel like they have your entire application.

Let The Applicant Know They Weren’t Picked – This seems obvious, but some conferences (sadly both “professional” and community based ones) don’t email the applicant back if they weren’t selected. That’s not right. Even an automatic email is better then none.

Let The Applicant Know Why They Weren’t Picked – This is tricky because you are running a conference not a consulting service for speakers. You likely don’t have anywhere near the time to respond to each application on an individual basis. It might be helpful to categorize the rejections into a few categories (subject matter doesn’t fit with conference, similar talks were submitted, etc.) In your reply: honesty is good but avoid being blunt. It’s preferable you encourage them to apply again next time, and even suggest possible other events in the area (or that fit a similar subject matter) that they could also look at. But SOME sort of feedback would “soften the blow” so to speak while providing perhaps some sort of education.

Let The Applicant Know When You’ve Closed The Call And Reviewing Applications – This is a “nice to have” because in my experience prevents people from emailing you asking if you’ve reviewed applications because they want to book travel… it’s a “hey we didn’t forget about you” message.

Make Public the # of Applications – This is up to you but might people understand after the event how much competition they actually had.

It’s about communication. The better the communication, the better the receiving of the rejection. Perhaps even a bit of an educational experience for the genuine applicant.

Go Ahead And Do It

To wrap up this post, it’s good to understand why people should continue to submit applications EVEN when they probably know they’ll be rejected anyway. I thought these were excellent points:

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I’ve created a bare-bones plugin if you use BuddyPress and interested in posting activity to your Slack channels. It’s available from my Github account, but also from the WordPress.org repo.

I created this plugin in less than a day and it was really for my own purposes. I don’t plan on supporting it officially although (1) I do plan on adding features as time permits in the future and (2) I’m open to being hired by another party to customize it for them, or add features.

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