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I'm Beth Soderberg, Independent Developer and Organizer of Lots of Training Related Things, Ask Me Anything!

Jun. 1, 2016

Hello there! I am an independent developer and digital communications strategist based out of Washington, DC. I love my clients and I love to code, but I am also passionate about empowering people with technology and spend a lot of time working on projects with this goal in mind. I am very involved with the WordPress Training Team, help organize the WordPress DC Meetup, and I also really love WordCamps. Outside of the WordPress world, I am also a co-organizer of the annual DCFemTech Hack for Good in Washington, DC. DCFemTech is a coalition of women leaders aimed at amplifying women in tech organizations, sharing resources, and bringing technologists together to close the gender gap.

You can find me on the internet at my website, bethsoderberg.com, and on Twitter @bethsoderberg. I'll be available here from 7pm to 1am GMT -5 today. Ask me anything!

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6 votes   Flag
Vladimir Prelovac

Hi Beth

Thanks for doing an AMA.

I read about your determination to write a book can you share your experience?

What is a life of a WordPress professional like in Washington, DC?

What is the biggest challenge you are facing in your professional career at this moment?

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Beth Soderberg

Thanks for asking a few questions Vladimir! I'm going to answer each question in multiple comments, so here goes!

You're right that I am determined to write a book. Everyone can read my very public proclamation on that subject here: bethsoderberg.com/blog/i-am-writing-a-book-this-november/

In general, I find that sharing my goals publicly motivates me to actually do whatever it was I said I was going to do. That being said, I did not write a book in November, but I DID start. The book is basically going to be the book I wish had existed when I first started to be interested in web development (I had zero technical background). There were a lot of resources out there that claimed to be for beginners, but I I never found anything that quite filled the gaps I had. I was lucky to have an amazing mentor who was willing to answer all of my questions (repeatedly, mind you), but not everyone has a real person willing to tolerate and able to accurately answer all of the questions I had. So the book is for that person.

I have struggled a bit in writing it because I have too many things I want to say. I have a pretty extensive outline and have been working with a few folks who are at the early stages of learning to code who have been generous in continuing to provide valuable feedback on the ideas I'm putting together. I have also gone through my chat logs to find the questions that I asked early on.

I'm finding that the whole process is taking a lot longer than I thought it would, but that I am getting to a much more clarified idea of what the book should be and what it should contain. Once I'm done this research/organizational piece, I think the actual writing part will come together easily. In a previous life I worked professionally as a writer and editor, so I think things will get easier once I organize all of my thoughts to a point where I can actually start writing in a more substantive way.

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Vladimir Prelovac

Thanks for the in-depth answer! What I can share from my experience is that writing a book took me an entire year of dedicated time during which I did very little other than blogging. Getting the book published was one of the hardest things I did in my life, but also one of the most rewarding.

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Beth Soderberg

Thanks again for the question! I can totally see how writing a book would take a whole year of dedicated time, but I am also glad to hear that it sounds like you're glad that you did it, even though it was hard!

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Beth Soderberg

Question #2!

DC is a very small town - I've lived here for about 12 years now and the reason that the concept of a "Washington insider" is so pervasive is because there really aren't enough people here to have more than a few degrees of separation between any two people.

The WordPress community in DC is really vibrant and I super duper love our meetup group (check us out: www.meetup.com/wordpressdc/ !). The best thing about the WordPress community in DC is the people in it. There are some amazingly talented, kind, generous people in this town and I adore them. Beyond that, there is a vibrant tech scene here and lots of meetups and in-person training opportunities that are available. I don't go to these as much as I once did, but when I was first learning to code I went to any training I could find that was free/cheap.

The other thing that I think is unique about DC is the political nature of much of the work. You can certainly do just corporate type development work here if you want, but I have chosen to do quite a bit of politically oriented work. Part of the reason I moved here in the first place was because of my love for politics and social change, which is exactly why I take on these types of projects now.

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Beth Soderberg

Question #3!

This question is a doozie. For the first time ever I have a fairly clear vision of what I want to do with my career, but pesky things like only having 24 hours in the day get in my way. The things that end up getting sacrificed are the personal projects I have that I want to do to learn more and grow as a developer. For example, I want to start writing on my blog again, redo my website completely, and I have a whole bunch of books I haven't read, tutorials I haven't worked through, etc.

I've decided to approach this problem by becoming as efficient as possible so that I can refocus some time on these neglected pieces. A few of the things I do to be efficient are mentioned in the response to Carrie's question below, but in brief, they include:
- aggregating my calendars into one (and I'm SO angry Microsoft is killing Sunrise)
- chunking my time and setting blocks of time to do all the little tasks
- auto-filtering all email that are from non-human senders
- making sure that when I'm working, I am 100% focused
- hiring an accountant so that I don't need to worry about doing my own taxes
- using the app Todoist to track all of the things
- favoring Slack over email whenever possible
- never emailing clients over the weekend or after 8pm, even if I write emails to send later during these times
- trying to respond to messages as soon as I see them so I'm not reading anything more than once
- attempting to reach inbox zero each Sunday (to do this I save drafts of emails to send later so people don't assume I'm always available)

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Vladimir Prelovac

Sounds familiar. What did wonders for me in terms of winning my time back was getting rid of the smartphone. I am a happy user of this www.amazon.com/Phones-Ultra-Student-Version-Black/dp/B00JN82EFO?ie=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0

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Beth Soderberg

Interesting! For me I think that my smartphone is one of the keys in making things more efficient, but I think part of the reason for this is that I don't have a car and rely entirely on public transportation. So I spend lots of time on the metro writing email. I can totally see how your phone would be helpful for lots of people!

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Vladimir Prelovac

I know this is tough but it just takes strength of will. I read a lot of material on this like this piece that came out recently.

aeon.co/essays/does-each-click-of-attention-cost-a-bit-of-ourselves

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Nemanja Aleksic

Hey Beth!

1) What do you believe every designer should know about coding?
2) How big is the Training team? How much time per week do you devote to community involvement?
3) As someone actively fighting for gender equality, what do you think is the best way to get businesses involved? Apart from providing equal treatment for their own employees, of course.
4) How do articles like this affect the gender equality issue? www.wpmeta.org/women-wordpress

I've got more coming your way later, especially on the training subject :)
Thanks!

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Beth Soderberg

Hey Namanja! These are awesome questions - I'm going to answer each one in a separate comment, so here goes on #1!

I believe that every designer should understand the basics of what is possible to actually build on the internet. I don't think that every designer needs to code, but I definitely believe that designers who know how to code a little bit have gained valuable experience that informs their ability to have conversations with developers about what is possible to execute in terms of what they've designed.

There are super basic things that should be wrapped into the theoretical aspect of how someone becomes a web designer (versus a print designer, package designer, graphic designer, etc.) and I think that those things include understanding:
- how colors work on the internet (e.g. Pantone colors aren't going to cut it)
- what values to use (e.g. pixels - I recently received a design file from someone who purportedly has years of experience where the units of the files were set to inches)
- how vectors can be so much better than bitmaps for the internet
- the concepts of file size implications on load speed
- the idea that a web design needs to be able to reflow and maintain the general feel of the aesthetics of the site

Most importantly, I think the key for many designers who are first venturing into web design is talking openly with their developers about what is and is not possible. I also think that it's the responsibility of developers to be open to these conversations and to collaborate with designers in a constructive way.

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Beth Soderberg

Question #2!

The training team has about 10-15 regularly contributing members and then a number of others who come in and out as their schedules allow. Anyone who is interested in contributing to WordPress by creating or testing lesson plans to be used in in-person trainings should join our team every Tuesday at 17:00 UTC for our weekly team meetings in the #training channel in Slack. You can also learn more about what we're doing at our website: make.wordpress.org/training/

According to my time tracker, I average about 20 hours a month for things related to community involvement (this is both the WordPress community and the DCFemTech community). Some months are higher though (March was almost 40 hours, eeks!). In my head, I try to do at least five hours a week on these types of projects and try to stop myself at 10 hours.

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Beth Soderberg

Question #3!

I think equity in regards to technical positions is something that needs to be framed within the larger context of workplace issues including equal pay for equal work (see narrowthegapp.com/gap/web-developers); access to paid family medical leave, including maternity/paternity leave; and flexible work schedules for all workers as appropriate. These types of workplace policies are imperative for equity throughout the workforce and don't apply any less when we're talking about web design and development teams.

On a more day to day level, businesses and supervisors may be treating their employees equitably, but need to keep in mind that not everyone else will and that these experiences in the broader world will shape the motivation and long-term decision making of the people from underrepresented communities on their teams. Everyone comes to their roles on these teams with relative degrees of privilege or lack thereof and it is important for everyone on a team to recognize that each person is coming from a unique standpoint. Culture of teams matters and it's everyone's job to make sure their teams are friendly places for everyone else.

It is also very important for companies to actively pursue a diverse slate of candidates when hiring. This means actively recruiting people from underrepresented groups. I think a lot of lessons can be taken from companies like Etsy (firstround.com/review/How-Etsy-Grew-their-Number-of-Female-Engineers-by-500-in-One-Year/) where there was an explicit and extensive effort to recruit women engineers.

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Beth Soderberg

#4

The thing that strikes me about this article is that if I remember correctly, when it first came out it was simply a long scrolling article, which seems to have since been taken down. When I clicked on the link you provided, it looks like the original article was made into a special section with navigation to go from woman to woman and the comments turned off. I've also noticed that some profiles have been updated to reflect changes in what some of the women are doing professionally and I think (though again, can't be sure) that some of the caricatures have been removed?

I thought the way this article was originally framed and the caricatures used to illustrate the women profiled were problematic in a number of ways. Of course I want to see women who contribute amazing work within the WordPress ecosystem be recognized for their efforts, but I don't want to see anyone touted as a token either.

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Donna Cavalier

I love that you focus on enabling your clients to manage their sites. Wondering what you find is best, technically-speaking, for helping users manage their content in WordPress? In other words, how do you usually make WP easier for clients to use? Some possibilities I've tried included custom fields, shortcodes, and drag-and-drop editors. They all have their good and bad points, but I'm determined to find the sweet spot for the average small business mom or pop owner, so they can feel comfortable creating the content that they want to create.

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Beth Soderberg

Thanks for your question Donna! This is a a complicated subject, but overall I believe that the best approach is to pick one method of approaching building a site and stick with it.

Personally, I am not a fan of shortcodes as I have seen users be profoundly confused by them quite a few times. Due to that, I am hesitant to use them and tend to avoid them. I have never used drag and drop editors in WordPress and am a bit skeptical not because of the concept of a drag and drop editor, but because of the idea that the user may one day have a question, google "how to do X in WordPress," and not be able to find an answer because their interface and how they interact with WordPress is not what you'd find in the typical example.

So that all leads to my typical approach, which draws heavily on the following ideas:
1. Custom Post Types - I spent a few years working primarily in Drupal and learned a lot about how custom post types could/should work from all of the things that you can do with content types and views in Drupal. Given this experience, what I do is make custom post types for everything that applies, I make sure that everything has a logical name, custom icon, etc. From there, I automate all of the output of this content through template files (mimicking the functionality you'd find in Drupal views in a way). My goal with all feeds, archives, landing pages, etc. is that if something appears there that has a primary "home" on its own page elsewhere on the site, that this information is fed into the template using whatever PHP is appropriate to automate it. This means that users never have to worry about where things appear in feeds or how those feeds are formatted.
2. Custom Fields - I use custom fields for everything that is possible to use them for so that everything the user needs to edit is on the same page. For example, if there is a slider on a homepage, I will use custom fields on the page that will be the homepage to have an image upload, a caption text box, etc. Then I'll output those custom fields into the template and use a library to generate the slider rather that using a separate plugin to govern the slider.
3. Admin Dashboard Modification - I make tweaks to the admin dashboard to make things easier for users to find and to eliminate things that just don't apply to their website. For example, if a website doesn't use posts, I remove posts from the admin navigation. If I left it there it would be massively confusing to the user as it really, in their case, would server no purpose. I spoke about this subject at WordCamp NYC last year, you can watch the video and get the links to my slides, code samples etc, from the WPTV post on that: wordpress.tv/2015/12/17/beth-soderberg-empowering-users-modifying-the-admin-experience/
4. Training and Documentation - I train my clients in how to use their websites and, depending on the agreement, write documentation for them. Half of the training is making the client comfortable with the concept of what they are doing. In addition to showing them how to do specific tasks, we also have a conversation about user roles, what to do when they don't know what to do next, and so on.

At the end of the day, some clients are never going to be comfortable doing everything themselves and that is OK. In that case, I view my role as an ongoing support person. Never should they ever feel incompetent because of their website. I always tell my clients: "Your expertise is in X business, not in website management. I've built this in such a way that I have tried my best to make sure you can change everything you need to change and so that you can't break anything in the process, but at the end of the day, you have not failed if you still run into questions."

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Donna Cavalier

Insanely awesome answer, thank you!

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Beth Soderberg

You're welcome! :)

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carrie dils

Hey Beth,
You do an amazing amount of stuff for the WordPress community and beyond. How do you find a way to balance your "donated" time with work, family, etc.?

Cheers,
Carrie

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Beth Soderberg

Hey Carrie!

Your question is 100% my biggest challenge. I love all of the things I do professionally very much, but I also love my family, cats, yoga, etc.

There are a few ways that I try to balance things, in no particular order:

1. I track almost all of my time, including volunteer work. This way I can see when things are getting out of control in any particular area.

2. I wake up early and try and do any small little tasks that are on my plate in the morning. The rest of the day I chunk my time so that I am only doing one thing at a time. This makes everything much more efficient because you're not constantly switching back and forth between different tasks (though there are obviously emergencies, and that's fine).

3. I have an incentive system for relaxation that my fiance invented because he astutely recognizes that I am a workaholic who will exhaust myself if given the room to do so. I have to earn five "stars" per week that are earned by doing things for myself (seeing friends, cooking something new for fun, going to the gym, etc.) and there are financial penalties if I don't get five. If I do get five, I don't get a reward.

4. I have an accountability partner that I check in with once a week. This helps me step back and make sure that I'm prioritizing the right things and that I'm not overwhelming myself with tasks that are either not important or are totally outside of my overall goals.

5. I have a mentor and a few close friends/family members who I know I can go to with anything at any time. I have never been great with large groups of people and really value my one on one relationships. The reality checks that these folks provide for me are invaluable and I do my best to do the same thing for them.

6. I don't do things if I don't love doing them. I 100% love the community projects I work on and the people that are involved in them and I won't work with clients I don't like. I've been fortunate to be able to build my life around projects (paid and unpaid) that I think are meaningful. Some weeks I decide that my priority is something that isn't paid and I give myself permission to put the effort forth on that thing.

7. I try to be 100% present in anything that I do. I don't check email while with friends or family and I chunk out time in my schedule for them the same way I do for my projects.

8. The order of my priorities are always as follows: family/friends, health/wellbeing, clients, unpaid projects. While I was writing out the answers to one of these questions my college roommate called - we've been playing phone tag for awhile and so I picked up the phone. She is more important than getting my next answer up quickly.

9. Every Sunday evening I try to get to inbox zero on all of my email accounts (there are too many, but there is nothing I can do about that!). I also assess where all projects (paid/unpaid) are and determine what needs to happen for them throughout the week.

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Shawn Hooper

Hi Beth -

Hello from Canada's capital to yours!

Living in a city that's in the political & government bubble, have you had any experience with WordPress in government? What challenges, if any, have you encountered in this space, and what could the WordPress community be doing it make it easier to "sell" to government?

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Beth Soderberg

Hi Shawn!

I hope Canada's capital is less sweltering than our swampy capital right now! All the sudden, summer is HERE!

I have had experience with WordPress in a few government agencies that of course I can't name on the internet, or really ever :P I've found that in the U.S. at least, government is still obsessed with Drupal, even when there isn't an ostensible reason why Drupal would need to be used for a project. Security is still the main argument I have heard in terms of why Drupal needs to be used in these contexts, even though I think this argument isn't really valid at this point. Perhaps if the larger community was able to grow the reputation of WordPress as a super secure platform, this would help?

From an agency perspective it still seems much easier to sell a Drupal project to a government agency than it is to sell a WordPress one. I think a lot of this has to do with a lack of examples of WordPress being used in the government context, though right now there are some major projects happening in one unnamed branch of the U.S. government that are all based in WordPress. I think that the completion of this set of projects will start to open the door for other agencies to explore WordPress more seriously as an option.

There is also some groundbreaking work happening in the U.S. from within the Smithsonian, which is a cultural institution, but is also part of the government here. You can learn some more about what the Freer/Sackler Museum is doing with WordPress in this talk from Courtney O'Callaghan and Mel Choyce from WordCamp US this past year: wordpress.tv/2015/12/12/mel-choyce-and-courtney-ocallaghan-wordpress-open-source-and-museums-a-look-at-the-tools-and-processes-of-moving-our-collections-online/

Additionally, we need to consider who we're talking about here. There was a fascinating piece in the Washington Post the other day that addresses why some areas of government are intentionally using obsolete technology: www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/05/26/the-real-reason-america-controls-its-nukes-with-ancient-floppy-disks/

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