Kaare Mulvad Steffensen

We continue with our series of interviews with WordPress people. As MC at WCEU 2019 I had the honor to personally meet the speakers I had to introduce. So, this month we interviewed one of the WCEU 2019 speakers who, to my pleasant surprise, is also a fan of our Nelio A/B Testing plugin! So, without further ado, let’s welcome Kåre Mulvad Steffensen.

Hi, Kåre, thank you very much for giving us your time for this interview. It was great to spend some time talking together about Nelio A/B Testing and Gutenberg’s future. But before talking about these topics, could you please tell us a little about yourself and your relationship with WordPress?

First of all, thank you, Ruth! It was a pleasure to meet you and learn more about Nelio at WCEU. 

So, to give a short intro to how I ended up on stage at WordCamp Europe in Berlin… I got my first job as a programmer in the final days of 1999—I was actually schooled in php, but the job required me to learn asp, so I did. I didn’t come back to php until early 2008 after a career as anything other than programming, working as a project manager, product owner and the likes, and I started freelancing in 2009, just when the economic crisis hit 🙂 

At that time, I had played a bit with WordPress at my previous work, but they opted for some other now forgotten CMS. So when I was my own boss, the choice seemed easy, and I chose to start building websites based on WordPress. 

You’re someone with long professional experience in very different professional environments: you’ve co-founded your own startups and you’ve worked as a WordPress specialist in large companies such as, for example, Peytz & Co, probably the largest WordPress company in Denmark in terms of developer manpower. So now come the two classic questions. First, what have you found most rewarding about the two professional environments?

Haha, well yes the word FREElance says a lot… You really are more free!

When I started out in WordPress, I was a classic freelancer, but with an added outsourcing setup with some cool developers from Sibiu in Romania called Olivestudio.net, whom I’ve met a couple of years back in a different job. That gave me the development powers of a large company. Although on my own in the beginning, my company  eventually grew into a business with employees. Recently I’ve been at Peytz for almost two years, but after summer, I’m starting in a new position and re-starting my freelancing business on the side.

To answer your question I think that there is a special kind of work you know of—if you have your own company—that is to work ON your business. You know, building the business, rather than building the products you sell, that stuff is what you do IN your business. 

The process of working IN and ON your own business teaches you how things always are intertwined—that is a realization that I’d hope for everyone to understand since it counters something you often see in larger organizations, where different parts of a company works without thought to other departments. 

And the second one, which one is more complicated or difficult and why?

Well, perhaps I gave that one away with my previous answer… Freelancing, or being on your own, is less complicated for sure. Of course being a one-man-band means you have to either be able to do everything you sell (IN) your company by yourself, or you need to be a team player. I know a lot about WordPress, but let’s face it—I can’t do everything myself, and it’s been so many years since I’ve done any real programming, I’d be too slow if I could even code today…

So being part of a large organization, there are some obvious benefits that you of course need to consider!  A paycheck every month, a team of specialized people around you, probably access to larger projects, and so on.

The complications start if the internal processes (ON) of a company become too overwhelming and hamper the work that is to be done (IN). When that happens—and it happens with a lot of companies, young and old—I feel it will eventually hurt the brain capacity of the entire company. People might stay or they will leave—either way, the company is losing sight of its purpose. 

The complication is, that if you spend too much time IN your business, just hammering out stuff you can sell, and no time ON your business, you get the same result. It’s kind of a balance you need to strike between the two. 

You started participating in the WordPress Community in 2009 when you were working as a freelancer, and you’ve been very active within the Danish Community. Could you summarize your contributions to the WordPress Community?

Since 2009, I’ve been participating in a lot of casual meetups called all sort of things with like-minded people. I guess it was a bit hyped back then, but one of the events I stumbled upon was a WordCamp in Copenhagen, called WordCamp Denmark. That was my first encounter with fellow WordPress people, pre Facebook and all 😉 

Anyway, I attended a couple of years, and Meetups became a thing and I helped out a bit, and eventually I co-organized a WordCamp first in Copenhagen, then in Aarhus, and then back in Copenhagen (can’t remember the exact order of things here).

The community in all of Denmark is fairly small, but an open and welcoming one, and every WordCamp or Meetup, I’d end up on stage, most often hosting a live Happiness Bar session where I’d fix people’s problems live on stage 🙂  

In between events, we’d have the classic forums and of course Facebook when that happened… I don’t know how many questions I’ve answered in there, pew!

I was a speaker at WordCamp Stockholm one year, on “How to Build a WordPress Website – No Coding Needed.” When we talk about contributions, I think it’s important to remember that all this non-coding stuff are also contributions to the community.

Even the contribution I did to WordPress 4.9.6, the GDPR tools, was a huge contribution, but I did not code a single line. I came with the base idea of how we could do this, and the idea was validated by the community and eventually a small team created the first versions of the tools that are now called Core-Privacy and I’m currently a member of the core maintainer group to help shape the next versions of that component. 

You’ve mentioned that you’ve also been part of the Core-Privacy maintainer group and were involved in the design of the GDPR tools that went into WP 4.9.6. Could you tell us a little bit how you entered into this group and about what has been your contribution and experience within it? 

Ah yes, GDPR is where I earned my Core Contributor badge, and all without coding, but I’d say I did what I would have expected from anyone in EU at that time, with my years of experience. I guess I was just the one knocking on the right doors. 

This I NOT a short story, but here it goes…

I read about the new regulation, and I don’t know why, but I thought two things. Firstly, I thought, why has no-one thought of putting this into WordPress, it’s going to be HELL for any WordPress installation using plugins that might or might not handle personal data, and secondly, perhaps I should read the actual law text.

So I did read the law and I can just say one thing: TL;DR !!

I got a good idea on what was needed, and I drew up this initial idea that I shared with my friend Peter Shum from Branchci.com. The first drawing was on a piece of paper, which I later conveyed the same message to a designer, but here it is:

Initial idea about what WordPress needed to be GDPR compliant
Initial idea of what WordPress needed to be GDPR compliant.
(Don’t miss the dot at the top of the image).

I guess the words that followed the drawing made more sense 🙂 Anyway at that time, we were advised to look at our solution as a feature plugin—that’s just a fancy way of saying: if you can make it work as a plugin, we can figure out if it’s good enough to be merged into core at a later stage.

With a drawing and a description of how I saw WP as a central unit where plugins and themes could (or should) register any data fields that handled personal data, I started asking around on Slack to see if there was any work done in terms of putting GDPR into WordPress.

Eventually I got the attention of Allan Snook @allendav and I think it was him who arranged a video chat with me and Paul Sieminski, both from Automattic. Paul was who knew it all in terms of who had a finger on the GDPR pulse. 

He asked me to get in touch with Heather Burns whom Automattic had commissioned to spearhead this GDPR thing. I call it a thing, because—no ill will towards any of the mentioned people, but as a European, it felt as if GDPR was not important to people living in USA—the odd “minor” version number 4.9.6 goes to show that GDPR was not on anyone’s roadmap 😉

Anyway, Heather had for years spoken about privacy and as a fellow non American, she’d been working on getting a group together to not only talk and write long texts about this, but to get some actual tools into WordPress.

Allan Snook was lended to the team together with Nabeel Sulieman, and they took my first thoughts into real code.   

From there, the team grew, and the first version of the tools went into WordPress 21 days ahead of the EU commission’s deadline, as the only CMS in the world I believe, to have GDPR tools available.

So, one thing is to have the basics ready, another is to get everybody to use them. That’s why I decided to join the Core-Privacy component group as a maintainer. Which means that I try to help out in finding direction on this component for future developments.

Let’s now talk about your presentation, which I highly recommend, at WCEU: “How Gutenberg changed the way we sell WordPress sites.” You talked about your experience transitioning existing clients from a non-Gutenberg setup to Gutenberg. What are the most important benefits that you’ve found to Gutenberg in this regard? 

Gutenberg is for me a natural progression for WordPress. For years, Page Builders—and I’ve been a big fan—have taking WordPress to extremes in terms of what was possible without coding. As you can probably already guess, I believe in not having to code stuff since that is the ultimate democratizing of the web. 

I’m not saying that Page Builders have no future place in WordPress, but Gutenberg did what no page builders have really done so far; Gutenberg kept a focus on CONTENT rather than layout or structure.

So the main difference between Gutenberg and Page Builders in general, is that Page Builders have a layout first approach, where Gutenberg has a content first way of seeing things.

That obviously means that if you worked with Gutenberg in the early versions, expecting the layout capabilities of your favorite builder, you’d be unhappy.

But from a content creators perspective, a content first approach is the only approach. So Gutenberg made a lot of sense to me, and to our content creators. Layout capabilities have since then evolved, and with nested blocks, you can build quite advanced layouts. 

What you would like Gutenberg to do next?

I think I was a bit harsh on stage when we had that panel debate. But I do believe that the continuous improvement to the UI of the backend is very important. In that regard, if Gutenberg could help streamline how a good UI could look like, so that block developers didn’t have to figure out for themselves, that would help content creators very much.

Also, the project of taking Gutenberg outside the content area, which I know is a focus right now, is very interesting. Along with that, I suspect we’ll see ways to build pre-build layouts that can help you setup types of pages and posts easily. 

Since you’re a fan of our Nelio A/B Testing plugin (I love you have one of our stickers in your laptop!), during WCEU I shared with you that we’re currently developing a new version of our plugin using new technologies and aiming at new testing possibilities. So now make your wish: what you would like to see in our new tool?

Picture of Kare's computer including Nelio A/B Testing sticker.
Picture of Kåre’s computer including Nelio A/B Testing sticker.

OOH, that’s tough. I think I mentioned the idea of being able to split test on block level. That could be very cool. At least on reusable blocks, since they exist outside of the page, and could probably be easier for you to setup a test around. 

In our interviews we always ask the guest to “prove” his humanity by sharing some epic failures of the past. What did you do to screw up?

HA – when did I not screw up!? I have nothing to show for my long career… everything I’ve ever did was deleted and someone else took over and re-did it after a couple of years… but OK.

As a programmer, I think one of my more memorable failures was when I worked at dba.dk. I was in charge of setting up and sending our newsletter out to a lot of people. I mean in Denmark, EVERYBODY knew what dba.dk was. So it was a lot of emails!

Back then, load balancing apparently wasn’t automatic or built into anything, so our agreement with the national tele company, who operated the physical network in Denmark, was that we’d send out in small batches of a few hundred over a long period of time.

Well, I forgot that, causing panic and our website blacklisted for quite some time. For a business like that, it means money out the window… 

As a startup, I think it’s been too much trial and error. Probably what lead me to take a break (and get a job) after 8 years was that I’d trusted a guy and invested on him, and then he just disappeared one day which cost me a bankruptcy. I’ve also created huge websites that didn’t have a market, and I’ve failed to scale a company beyond its initial stage because I couldn’t get the working IN vs. working ON the business just right.

And to end this interview, who would you like us to interview in the future? Tell us 3 WProfessionals that you want to be on the blog.

Well, you should reach out to my two good friends: Peter Shum from Branchci.com and hear his amazing story; and to get a feel of a real community person and a story on localizing WordPress, you should talk to Mark Gazel—he’s been at it for so long, that WordPress equals Mark in so many aspects of how a community should feel.

Thank you Kåre for this interview and I loved your artistic contribution to it. It was a pleasure to share the stage with you at the WCEU 2019. And to you, reader, see you next week with another post in the blog and next month with another interview. Stay tuned for news!

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