Lessons Learnt Connected to Rejuvenating an Old Plugin
Ronnie started his web career doing accessibility audits of websites at The University of Texas in the early 2000s. He has taught algebra and calculus at the secondary level and online undergraduate courses in writing and critical thinking. For the past 12 years, Ronnie has worked at the intersection of WordPress and education, including helping to build plugins, themes, hosting platforms, and university website redesign. He lives in Austin, Texas, and is currently leading the Sensei LMS team at Automattic.
This Week’s Key Questions for Ronnie
#1 – Ronnie How did you get into the world of WordPress?
#2 – Over the past 10 years you have worked for a number of well-known WordPress plugin service providers, now you working for Automattic what’ are the major differences culturally and how have you personally dealt with these differences if any?
#3 – You are now working on the Sensei LMS plugin what are Automattic medium plans for the plugin and what are the opportunities do you see for the plugin?
#4 – What are some of the leading trends in the world of online education that excite you the most?
#5 – What are some of the leading lessons have you learned that you like to share with the tribe connected to building commercial WordPress plugins?
#6 – What are some of the biggest challenges do you think the WordPress platform and community face in the next 18 months?
This Week Show’s Sponsors
Intro: Welcome to the WP-Tonic this week in WordPress and SaaS podcast, where Jonathan Denwood interviews, the leading experts in WordPress, e-learning, and online marketing to help WordPress professionals launch their own SaaS.
Jonathan Denwood: Welcome back folks to the WP-Tonic this week in WordPress and SaaS, it’s episode 681. We have a fantastic guest, we have Ronnie, Burt; he’s the head of, I can never pronounce it. Sensei LMS & Automattic, I apologize for my pronunciation to the guest and to the tribe, but you all got used to my inability to pronounce things. I also have my great co-host Andrew, who is not inflicted by this problem, thank God.
Andrew Palmer: It’s Tourette’s.
Jonathan Denwood: It’s a slight problem for a podcast host, isn’t it, but we have to deal with this stuff. Ronnie, can you quickly give us a 10, 15-second intro about yourself?
Ronnie Burt: Absolutely. And thank you very much for having me. I’m Ronnie Burt, I live in Austin, Texas; I’ve been in the WordPress world for quite a while now, and I am currently for the last five months been at Automattic & Sensei LMS.
Jonathan Denwood: I see. And Andrew, would you like to quickly introduce yourself to the tribe?
Andrew Palmer: Sure. I’m Andrew Palmer, bertha.ai, and co-host today on Thursday, looking forward to this because I wanted to, and I’m going to ask a couple of questions. They’re not drive-by shootings, don’t worry, but it’s about working remotely, which is what you guys do at Automattic, and you’ve kind of got that pretty much soused, so I’m going to ask a couple of questions about that.
Jonathan Denwood: That sounds good. Before we go into the main part of the interview, we got a message from our major sponsor, Castos.
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Jonathan Denwood: We’re coming back. Castos has a great special offer for the tribe, plus some of the other great sponsors like Bertha, they all have great special offers, plus I have a list of recommendations of the best plugins and services to help you as a freelance WordPress professional or agency owner. You can get all these goodies by going to wp-tonic/recommendations, and you’ll find all the goodies there, isn’t that marvelous? So, straight into it, so Ronnie, maybe gives us a little bit more insight, into how you got into the crazy world of WordPress in general, Ronnie.
Ronnie Burt: Sure. Well, back in college, in university, I was lucky to be able to intern at what we called the Accessibility Institute at the University of Texas here in Austin, and I was basically doing website reviews for accessibility, for different university websites and interpreting some automated reports and sending those off. And that was kind of my first intro into the world of the web and work there, and got to know they were using some technologies, movable type, this was before WordPress really existed; and kind of opened my eyes to the world of open-source and all that sort of thing.
And then when I graduated from university, I spent six years as a middle and high school math teacher, teaching algebra through calculus, but the whole time I was teaching, I had these side projects going on, where I was building, whatever I could think of, whatever I could find; built a search engine for finding lesson plans for math teachers, building school websites as a freelancer. And that’s really where I kind of got into WordPress, actually for some of the things that I was trying to build came across Wpmu DEV and became a member there, it’s the first thing I think I paid for as a plugin, and in service.
And so, I got on their mailing list and got an email one day that they were hiring for a marketing person for, they had an education project, Edublogs, that the same company-owned, and I was familiar with Edublogs, in fact, I was kind of building some things that were kind of similar and I applied, I think they hired at least one, if not two other people before me, that didn’t work out. And so, maybe six months later I joined the team and was there about 12 years, so the rest is really history, we grew from five or six freelancers, we were all freelancers, most of us doing other side projects to a company of 200 plus people working on WordPress projects.
Jonathan Denwood: Oh, that’s quiet.
Andrew Palmer: It’s an amazing story, that Wpmu DEV story as well, isn’t it, and I kind of want to go, I want to kind of leave the room to what you’ve done to build a, yeah, let’s just build a search engine for a math project. Yeah, that would be good.
Ronnie Burt: Well, and I’m not a developer and that’s why I rely on Google custom search and being able to embed that in a WordPress site and call it a day and just try to just tape things together.
Andrew Palmer: Absolutely.
Jonathan Denwood: So, do you want to ask the next question, Andrew?
Andrew Palmer: If I can find it. Yeah, sure, bear with me. So, the past 10 years you’ve worked for a number, as you’ve said, Wpmu DEV, you’ve worked for other companies and stuff like that, service providers…you’re working for Automattic or working with Automattic because I think that’s the mantra, isn’t it, we all work together. There are some cultural differences, and I kind of just alluded to that before we went on air, is you’re a fully distributed workforce, pretty much, there are some people in an office somewhere I think, or I think that’s even been closed down now in New York.
You’ve worked for Wpmu DEV, that’s a distributed business as well, from the businesses that you’ve worked for, or with that aren’t distributed, what are the major cultural differences between those companies and any other company you’ve worked within the WordPress arena?
Ronnie Burt: Yeah. Most of my experience was with Wpmu DEV and we were kind of a micro-version and modeled a lot of what we did, either intentionally or just serendipitously off of what Automattic was doing; fully remote, fully global, open-source at the ethos, all that sort of stuff.
Andrew Palmer: Sure.
Ronnie Burt: There definitely are some differences; Automattic is the largest company I’ve worked, and with.
Jonathan Denwood: Yeah, that was the main reason why I wanted to ask you the question because it’s over 2000 people now, I think isn’t it?
Ronnie Burt: Right around that number for sure.
Jonathan Denwood: It’s a much larger organization than the previous ones, apart from your university experience.
Ronnie Burt: Yeah. I was a student there and we were a small organization and teaching, there were schools, that maybe had a hundred people or something working there, that’s definitely a difference. And one thing that I think Automattic does really, really well, and I’ve heard it kind of talked about and makes sense to me now that I’m kind of in there is that there is bureaucracy, there are some expectations, there are some guidelines and things that you have to do around reporting and around training and around the way that we do it.
But it’s structured in a way that we’re a bunch of teams, all the teams are maybe on average four to eight people, if you get bigger than that, you’re kind of split into teams and every team, if you zoom out, it’s kind of a fractal is the way, I guess I’ve heard Matt and others describe it. Where no matter how far you zoom out, it looks the same, you zoom in, it looks the same, you have a lot of autonomy, a lot of freedom and flexibility within our teams, as long as we’re kind of meeting these bigger parameters and guidelines which seems to work well.
And we had some of that at Wpmu DEV as well, but it just, maybe wasn’t as standardized across what we were doing, we weren’t as large.
Jonathan Denwood: Right. So, you were interviewed, I don’t know if you were interviewed by Matt, I don’t know if he’s still interviewing everybody that joins Automattic, at one time, I knew that he was part of all the interview process. What attracted you to take on this project? This particular plugin I thought it kind of was going to be maintained, but they were going to slowly let it die, obviously, you’ve been brought on board to rejuvenate it; there must have been opportunities why the job interested you?
So, first of all, what interested you about taking on this particular project and what do you see as the opportunities for the plugin and for online education maybe? That’s a very large question, so maybe we’ll keep it to, what do you see as the clear opportunities for the plugin?
Ronnie Burt: Sure. Yeah. What attracted me to it is that I’ve been in WordPress, I’ve used Sensei, I’ve used many of Sensei’s competitors, I’ve been working with universities and school districts on using these sorts of things, so I understood it. Actually, at Wpmu DEV, there was a time when we had our own competitor, CoursePress, which I think is what we called it, but that no longer exists, well, it’s still on GitHub, but it doesn’t have very much use.
And so, my background is an educator, my passion is in education, and I had gotten really far removed from that in my day-to-day, we were doing marketing websites for universities and really into the weeds and enterprise hosting, which was fascinating, but I was getting too far removed from where I really wanted to be. So, then this opened up, an opportunity just kind of happened, we had some conversations, this was a pretty lengthy process.
Matt’s not still doing chat with everybody, and so I didn’t have that, but it’s kind of replicated a similar experience I think, from when that was much smaller; it’s just the pace that we’re hiring, I don’t think anybody could do that anymore.
Jonathan Denwood: Impossible. But, I thought he might have done it because I would imagine them wanting to, and I’m not sure if I’m utilizing the right word, the word that you think is appropriate, so I’m using the word rejuvenate.
Ronnie Burt: Yeah, no, I love that word.
Jonathan Denwood: For them to make that decision, you’re, as head of this project, I’m grasping for the right.
Andrew Palmer: You would have thought that the head of the company would get it.
Jonathan Denwood: Yeah, of all the projects, there is a lot going on, but it’s a reasonably important project in all the projects that are going.
Ronnie Burt: Yeah. No, definitely, the idea to, and it’s not just me that’s been brought on, we’ve tripled the team of developers working on it; we have more marketing help and everything around it has been growing, and that’s definitely come directly from Matt and all the leaders of the organization of what we should be focusing on and putting those resources there. Now, one of the reasons that did actually attract me to the job is that when we were talking about it, is there, just to be clear, there’s not a specific plan in place, so there wasn’t already a specific plan in place before I came onboard on how we will grow it or what we need to do.
It’s really what excited me about it is I get to come in and be part of those discussions and meet with as many customers as possible, work with our team and come up with those plans. And so, that’s really what I love to do, we’re not starting over, as you said, we’re rejuvenating, in fact, I really like that word because the plugin has been period of growth, and never really seen a period of decline in use, but some flat periods for sure, and our aim is to get that going back into a steeper increase of growth and usage.
Andrew Palmer: If I can a question, Jonathan, that would be great because it is associated with WooCommerce, right? So, you’re working with Automattic, and, obviously, because of that, WooCommerce, when you were being interviewed for the job, or when you expressed interest in the job, was the fact that it was associated with the biggest eCommerce, WordPress plugin out there, make it even more attractive to say, well, I really want to work with this because this is not going to be that difficult to make sure that it gets front and center of everybody because WooCommerce is so big?
Ronnie Burt: Yeah, it’s definitely a competitive advantage, you can’t deny that for sure, it’s listed in the [food 14:42] or on WooCommerce still, it was originally a WooCommerce or a Woo back when it was WooThemes project, and it launched as part of a theme I believe, when really WooCommerce wasn’t the main thing that Woo was doing at that time, that was nine years ago. And yeah, it was just acquired with the WooCommerce acquisition and it was then put into periods of maintenance modes and periods of growth and some attention, and, yeah, up until a month ago, the only way to purchase anything related to Sensei was through WooCommerce marketplace.
That’s something that I wanted to change and that we’ve been working on to make it a little easier to find a reason to use Sensei, but that relationship is still there and is still the number one way people find Sensei for sure.
Andrew Palmer: Yeah, for sure. Brilliant. Brilliant.
Jonathan Denwood: Well, I think we’re at a good place for us to go for our break. When we come back, we’ll be delving more about Ronnie’s plans for Tiki Sensei, we’ll be back in a few moments folks.
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Jonathan Denwood: We’re coming back. I want to point out, that I do a fantastic newsletter, it’s based on some of the stories that we discuss on the Friday show, the notorious WP-Tonic Round-Table Show where guests come to die. But I write an in-depth editorial about one of the stories I’m scathing in my comments, I’m barred from many places in the WordPress community because of my editorial.
Plus you have all the recommendations from the panel sent to your inbox; what more could you ask for on a Monday morning to brighten your morning up and it’s all free, so please sign up for that, and you get that by going to wp-tonic/newsletter. So, Ronnie wasn’t laughing at some of my jokes in there, I thought they were quite good actually.
Andrew Palmer: He’s acting afraid, he’s like most guests.
Jonathan Denwood: Yeah, he’s probably afraid there; he doesn’t know what the hell he’s gotten into.
Andrew Palmer: What am I doing on here?
Jonathan Denwood: Yeah. That’s what Andrew thinks every time he comes on this, so there we go.
Ronnie Burt: To be fair, and quite honestly, for at least the last six months, I’ve listened to that panel every Saturday morning when I’m running.
Jonathan Denwood: It’s the news of the world of WordPress.
Ronnie Burt: Yeah. I really like the way that flows.
Jonathan Denwood: Yeah.
Andrew Palmer: Well, that’s really good to hear, that is really good to hear, I’m sort of just transferred onto this Thursday one to meet the people individually because I can’t make the panel much more anyway.
Jonathan Denwood: No, it was conflicting with his golf, Ronnie, his golf comes first.
Andrew Palmer: Yeah, that’s what it was, it was golf.
Jonathan Denwood: Alright. So, onto the next story. You have a lot of competition in the WordPress space, but also you have a lot of competition in the SaaS space, obviously, with the purchase of LearnDash, Chris Lema is the head of that now, so you have some serious competition. Chris Badger and his joint founder, Tom are personal friends of mine, they have a fabulous product. Plus you have all the SaaS competition out there and there’s a lot, what are your plans in the medium term for this plugin, and how do you feel that you can build it, only a small question, what do you see as the opportunities that will allow you to build up the plugin and move it forward?
Ronnie Burt: Yeah, no, that’s a good question. I definitely have been following both of those guys you just mentioned for many years and have a lot of admiration for the work that they do, and I think competition makes us all better and especially our customers win there. For sure, I believe that the LearnDash acquisition may have been announced on my very first day on the Sensei job, so that was fun, and good timing, welcome to the news and I.
Jonathan Denwood: Fantastic.
Ronnie Burt: Yeah, it was pretty fun. And some of the things that we’re working on, the first thing that we’ve been really spending a lot of time on is we’ve been growing the team and we got a lot of new folks working on it and most of them are new to Automattic, many are new to WordPress development, but very experienced developers.
So, we’re spending a lot of time kind of in-house and figuring out our systems and our process, but we’ve already pushed out a ton of really good things; we’re very in-tuned with what’s going on in the WordPress world, and right when FSE and 5.9 launched, we have full-site editing compatible theme experience for our courses in Sensei. And that was not something anybody asked us to do, it was just something we realized really early on that we could leverage and it actually made it a lot easier to develop than what was already kind of being worked on before I joined.
So, this is an experience that, you can use your normal WordPress theme, you don’t have to opt into this, but when you open up a letter, you can instead display this theme that supports full-site editing, so you can really customize it, add blocks in different ways. One of the big projects that we’re working on now that should come out pretty soon is actually, I know that I’m working on an LMS, but I’m a big believer that learning takes place in lots of places, and outside of the LMS is a good thing, and you’ll be able to use a lot of the blocks that we’re working on for learning and building interactive content outside of Sensei lessons; in blog posts, landing pages, in other LMSs even.
So, we want to just try new things and try them in a different way, and our focus really will be on helping course creators create lessons that are high-quality and really focus there
Jonathan Denwood: Just a quick follow-through question. I think one of the problems, it’s not a problem, but it’s also an opportunity, is learning management system, but there are so many different, you have the competition inside the WordPress ecosystem, but I see the real competition as the SaaS. And there are so many different learning management systems, those that are aimed at corporate learning, those that are aimed at higher education, which LearnDash has some following, then you have the individual entrepreneur trying to build a membership website, which may be LearnDash and Kajabi and Teachable.
So, there are so many subsets of this market, is that one of the things that you’re really focused on is trying to find your niche, find the area or tribe, and then really focus on giving the best experience to that particular subset.
Ronnie Burt: Yeah, absolutely. And I don’t know that we have a hundred percent nailed exactly if we’re going to have one focus or try to do a few at the same time, but one of our focuses for sure is really what I think has been the bread and butter of WordPress in general, and the reason of WordPress growth is that developer community and the agency community and the ones that are building courses and helping people build courses for others.
It may be a little bit less of a focus on that single entrepreneur that wants to do it all themselves, I’ll give you an example; I have a neighbor that is, she’s an occupational therapist and she does online courses for helping parents work with children, and she does coaching and all sorts of stuff around that. I knew that she was doing online courses, so I asked her, what are you using to run that? And she said she didn’t know, she had no idea, she was the one running these courses and building the content, but she had hired a freelancer to just do it all for her, and she sent them Word documents and videos to put in the course.
And I really think that’s a huge marketing community, and if we can be that tool of choice for freelancers, all agencies, large agencies, whatever, then Sensei will have a good opportunity there and a big part of that is still making it simple enough to use and something an individual expert can use as well, but we’re going to focus on that developer.
Jonathan Denwood: Alright, over to you, Andrew.
Andrew Palmer: Yeah, but do you think that’s focused on price because you’re not expensive, right?
Ronnie Burt: Right.
Andrew Palmer: And you totally integrate with WooCommerce?
Ronnie Burt: Yeah.
Andrew Palmer: From the off, you don’t need any extra add-ons for that, I don’t know, I’ve not used, I used Sensei actually a few years ago, it’s one of the first plugins I did use, but it was so long ago that I can’t remember what it was about, but a lot of the LMSs; LearnDashes and the ones we’ve mentioned, you have to buy an add-on to be able to charge for your courses. Is that the case with yours or it just totally merges and you can use it?
Ronnie Burt: It is, you do need the paid version, the pro version for the integration with WooCommerce, and then if you do want subscriptions or memberships, then you’ll need those extensions as well.
Andrew Palmer: You’ll need the WooCommerce subscription, which is expensive. Which, do you need that with anything else really?
Ronnie Burt: You do, that is changing, and right now I believe it’s only rolled out to the US, but it should be rolled out soon, where if you are using commerce payments you won’t need that subscriptions extension.
Andrew Palmer: Yeah, because WooCommerce gets a kickback from Stripe and the payment provider and stuff, so that’s the way.
Ronnie Burt: So, it helps there, but that’s, I totally understand is a subset of people using that.
Andrew Palmer: Yeah, sure. But we have to be able to monetize things, I’m commercial, so I’ve got no problem about people making money out of anything, especially if it takes down, I think newcomer WooCommerce subscriptions are 250 bucks a year or something, it’s quite a lot of money to be able to do something, and you can do that with Gravity Forms, you can do it with WS Form and things like that. So, you can build an income, but on the face of it, Sensei is one of the more cost-effective plugins, if you then take in the WooCommerce add-ons, it becomes pretty much the same price as any other LMS out there. What are your thoughts on that pricing, and, obviously, with Woo payments you’re going to storm it really, aren’t you?
Ronnie Burt: Yeah. I don’t, just in my first five months we’ve been focusing on product and what we can build, and then we’re going to have to figure out the pricing because that is such a complex thing. I don’t have a specific plan to double prices or anything like that, we’re going to want to be competitive, we realize, and totally appreciate that we have a reputation to rebuild to some extent, but also we’re not going to undervalue ourselves on purpose.
Andrew Palmer: I see a bright future because you have the Jetpack video add-on as well that you can have, and all of that will help with the download speed or the reliability of downloading the videos. No, you have to look at these, John, you have to look at these different advantages of being part of Automattic.
Jonathan Denwood: Personally, I don’t see Jetpack as being an advantage, but that’s my personal view.
Andrew Palmer: They’re having all the advantages of things that you can offer, let’s say, let’s calm you down for a second. You have your video, you have your WooCommerce, you have your Woo payments, you have Jetpack, all the additions on that, so as an offering, Sensei is, you must be pretty excited by it, right?
Ronnie Burt: I’m excited, I just wish I had a time machine to just and could have even three times more developers so we could get it out there faster because it never gets developed as quickly as you think, but the video is a good example. We do have VideoPress, which you can get through Jetpack, but there’s an opportunity for VideoPress service through Sensei without the need for Jetpack or something like that, and if we can make, even better what I would love to do is make those videos more interactive, being able to easily pause and put a quiz question in the middle or something like that. If we can and extend on that and those definitely project that we have in our mind to get going on.
Andrew Palmer: Brilliant, brilliant. Right, onto you, John, you can ask the last question or second to last.
Jonathan Denwood: I think we’re going to wrap it up actually, and you’re okay, Ronnie, to continue the discussion in what we call bonus content for another 10, 15 minutes, are you okay with that?
Ronnie Burt: Yeah, that sounds great.
Jonathan Denwood: Which, you can see the whole interview plus the bonus content that we’re going to have with Ronnie on the WP-Tonic YouTube channel, and please subscribe to the channel, tribe, because it really helps the podcast, helps the WP tribe and the community in general, so go over there and watch the bonus content. We have another great guest next week, we have, I’m amazed at the quality of guests that we have coming up in the next couple of months like Ronnie, but we have some really fabulous interviews coming up, which I’m sure I and Andrew are going to be delighted in presenting to you, tribe. So, Ronnie, what’s the best way for people to find out more about you and what you’re up to?
Ronnie Burt: I’m at Ronnie Burt on Twitter, ronnieburt.com, and senseilms.com.
Jonathan Denwood: So, Andrew, the Andrew Palmer, what is the best way to find out for the tribe, what you are up to at the present moment and your travels?
Andrew Palmer: I’m not saying anything; I’m just not going to tell anyone what I’m up to these days. No, I’m @ArniePalmer and @BerthaAI_, which is obviously Bertha Ai.
Jonathan Denwood: Which I must say I’ve been using more and more lately and it is fabulous. I’m becoming a Bertha convert, Andrew, which must be music to your eyes. We will be back next week with another fantastic insightful interview, we’ll see you soon, tribe. Bye
Outro: Hey, thanks for listening, we really do appreciate it. Why not visit the mastermind Facebook group and also to keep up with the latest news click wp-tonic.com/newsletter. We’ll see you next time.
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