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Hi! I'm Rachel Carden, a web developer/designer at The University of Alabama and community/event organizer (WPCampus). Ask me anything!

Nov. 11, 2015


I'm a web designer and developer living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I was born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama and have lived in this great state all my life. I started using WordPress 5 years ago when I took a job at my alma mater, The University of Alabama.

I've worked in the world of higher education for 9 years, first at Mississippi University for Women (Columbus, MS), then Samford University (Birmingham, AL) and then back to my alma mater, The University of Alabama, where I'm currently in my second position as the web developer for the Division of Student Affairs.

Multisite is my friend.

I have a degree in graphic design but my passion meter tends to learn towards development. I've built my fair share of custom themes and plugins for my job and for fun. I've never released a theme to the WordPress repo, but I have a few plugins available and some that are in development.

I'm a big proponent of collaboration and professional development and am the organizer of several communities, meetups, and conferences, including WPCampus, a new community and conference focused on using WordPress in the world of higher education.

Outside of WordPress and the web, I love spending time, and traveling, with my bad-movie-loving boyfriend, Josh, fitness, anything remotely related to Disney, and binge-watching old TV shows on Netflix and HBO GO (currently watching Boardwalk Empire).

Ask me anything!

p.s. Roll Tide!

26 votes   Flag
Ryan Love

Hi Rachel, thanks so much for doing this, looking forward to seeing what questions our members put to you!

Now, onto my questions...

What are some of the biggest challenges you face with running WordPress multisite and how do you deal with them?

What features do you think multisite is lacking the most? Or what's on your feature wishlist?

How's WPCampus coming along?

P.S. For some reason it appears this post isn't being pushed to the front page despite having more then enough vote strength, so it's probably not getting as much attention as it deserves, bear with me while I look into this!

Rachel Carden

Hi Ryan!

Some of the biggest challenges I face with multisite are also its strengths. I use (and love) multisite because it allows me to easily manage my network of sites in one place with one codebase (core+plugins+themes) and one database... but that also means I'm managing lots of sites with ONE codebase. If something goes wrong in a plugin, it goes wrong everywhere, or at least everywhere that plugin is active, so I have to be double sure of any plugin I put on my network and I have to be double sure of any changes I make to MY code since any push I make to the server will affect basically all of my sites. It is, sometimes, not for the faint of heart.

Up until now sharing one database was a big pro for me because it also meant I could easily share content across my network by just querying the database and pulling from any table/site I want. Now with the REST API at my fingertips, that's slowly becoming less of a need. I've enjoyed experimenting with the API to help share content across my sites and get rid of all those crazy custom queries. :)

The other big issue for me is, dare I say it, security. I have NEVER had a security problem. I've never been hacked (although they've tried) but the worry is still there sometimes because all of my sites share the same database. Our database is constantly backed up and I could be up and running again in minutes but I worry when it comes to potentially sensitive information, e.g. information gathered from forms. In my last position, where I had a large multisite network, I setup an entirely separate WordPress install that was locked down with every security measure our OIT department could throw at it and we used that install/domain solely for any online applications/forms that gathered potentially sensitive information. I didn't feel comfortable enough to host that on the main network with all of the other sites.

Our sites are hosted here on campus and thankfully my server admin is pretty awesome and does a pretty good job of securing things down. Our campus also has a VPN so, using .htaccess, I block the WP login page so it is only accessible to folks on campus. This basically got rid of any and all brute force attacks.

I have no problem telling people multisite is not the answer for every project but I am a big fan. Having everyone in my division on the same network also allows for my content managers to move from site to site easily and with one login which makes everyone super happy, especially since I wrote a single sign-on plugin that allows for our users to login with their campus username and password. :)

As for what it's lacking? I wish it was easier for plugin developers to add settings pages to the network admin so it was easier to make their plugins multisite compatible. I wish it was easier to share content across sites on your network (thankfully the API is here which is one solution). I need to start writing these things down when I come across issues because my mind is blank but I'm going to be writing code for my network all day today so I'll post any more I can think of. :)

WPCampus is going splendidly! We are currently asking for universities to apply to host our first event, which is available on our site: wpcampus.org/apply-to-host/

Lots of ideas are being worked on for ways our community can provide value to members and non-members alike so be on the lookout for some WordPress in higher ed resources in the near future!

Adam Wayne Fout

Have you found that your design background helps you as a web developer? Has it given you more of a "feel" for how to develop a website that also looks good?

Rachel Carden

Yes, it definitely helps from both ends! My creative/design background not only helps me develop solutions that look good, it also helps me think differently when problem solving. My developer background helps my designs go further because I know how all the gears move so I have a complete picture in mind when I'm deciding what design or layout is best for my content. I'm also not restricted in my design because I know what is and is not possible.

Knowing how your bread is made and buttered can be quite an advantageous skillset. :)

Brian Krogsgard

What are the hardest parts about using Multisite in an educational environment where departments have varying needs?

Rachel Carden

Keeping all of the code organized. I've gotten smarter over the years, and more creative, but it's been a learning process to figure out the most efficient way to manage my code, store my code (theme or plugin), know when it's run, and know where it's run.

Thankfully a lot of the sites share the same template and a good bit of functionality but some sites do need to do their own thing sometimes.

I'm currently in the process of migrating a bunch of sites into a new network but let's imagine its finished so I have at least 25 sites using the same template (the main division site and a site for each department). I also have a few odds and ends sites that use a different theme. Some functionality is shared across all sites like news, events, staff directory, and social media. Everyone will also have common areas in their page layout, e.g. a banner at the top and a footer at the bottom, no matter what template they use. Here's how I manage it all:

- I have a parent theme that EVERY theme on the network uses. This theme holds the skeleton and base styles of my front-end framework (runs off Foundation) and any functionality that I want to run on every site. Technically some of this could/should be in a plugin (and I might move it) but I consider this theme my global codebase and I'm not in a rush to separate any of these into even more sections that I have to manage. This parent theme has TONS of hooks and filters that I use in my child themes and plugins.
- The majority of sites have the same template so while I have about 30 sites at this point, I only have 3 themes, all child themes of my parent theme. The child theme, obviously, holds all the stylings and front-end functionality that's independent for that theme. I also have a nice SASS system setup that lets my child themes pull in SASS from the parent theme and override settings to customize the Foundation and my parent theme's SASS even more for each specific child theme.
- Then, because 25 sites share a theme and each of those sites will have functionality solely for their site, I have a plugin for each site that holds that site's unique code.

Goodness. I have quite the system but when there's just one of me managing all of these sites, there has to be a method to the madness. All of that code is stored in a Bitbucket GIT repo (free education account!) and, as soon as a site launches, I make the code available on our Bitbucket account: bitbucket.org/uastudentaffairs/

The parent theme, which I call our theme framework, is up there already and my main template should be up by the end of the year when our first site that will use the theme launches.

Rachel Carden

I'm also about to implement Jeremy Felt's awesome idea of having a versioned directory of all the plugins I use on our network to better manage any issues or tweaks I have to make to anything.

You can see his list here: github.com/washingtonstateuniversity/WSUWP-Build-Plugins-Public

Rachel Carden

Also user management. With varying needs comes varying responsibilities. I'm a power user of WordPress capabilities. I depend heavily on Justin Tadlock's Members plugin to restrict what users can do to the necessary minimum.

I have a variety of users on our network with a variety of skill sets. It's my job to protect the network by making it as difficult as possible for users to mess anything up, in other words users only have the capabilities to access what they need to access and nothing else.

Roy Sivan

How has working in education, maybe specifically higher-education, affected how you code when working on something that isn't for work? Have you learned new things or created new standards for yourself that you now use, and if so, what?

Rachel Carden

Accessibility has become a big standard in all of my projects, work or freelance. We should want all of our users to be able to easily navigate, consume information, and buy products and services from our websites no matter their disability, device, or internet speed. And in case that wasn’t incentive enough, what makes up a good majority of accessibility is great markup which boosts your SEO rankings!

I definitely contribute this new standard to my experience in higher education. Because I work for a federally-funded institution, my university is required by Section 508 to "make [our] electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities".

You can read about Section 508 standards at www.access-board.gov/guidelines-and-standards/communications-and-it/about-the-section-508-standards/section-508-standards and learn more about their proposed plan for updated requirements at www.access-board.gov/guidelines-and-standards/communications-and-it/about-the-ict-refresh.

Thankfully accessibility seems to be growing out of the world of higher education and popping up in more and more general discussions, presentations, and initiatives. I'm proud to say my campus just approved funding to purchase and provide resources to help web professionals all across campus make their sites accessible so A+ to my campus's Director of Emerging Technology and Accessibility, Rachel Thompson.

Accessibility is very important to me and something I love to talk about. If you're interested in more information, you can join me tomorrow on The WP Crowd to talk about web accessibility in higher education! www.thewpcrowd.com/accessibility-podcast/the-a11y-episode-1-web-accessibility-in-higher-education/

JazzFan Junkie

Hi Rachel! Which would you rather fight: one horse-sized duck, or 100 duck-sized horses?

Ryan Love


Hat tip to your consistency!

Rachel Carden

Hmm. That's a tough one. One the one hand, one opponent would be much easier but imagining a horse-sized duck charging at you sounds like the stuff nightmares are made of. On the other hand, if I had 100 duck-sized horses I'd be tempted to quit web development life and go run a duck-sized horse farm because that sounds like the best animal ever. We'd run, we'd play, we'd have miniature equestrian competitions... but I digress.

If one must fight, and choose between taking down something that would scare small children and the entire lineup of My Little Pony, I'd have to go with the horse-sized duck. I've got to protect my niece and nephew.


Hi Rachel,

Which factors do you take into account when selecting WordPress host? Or do you self-host the sites?

Kaylee Flemings

What skills do I need to start learning Wordpress?