Interview with Jason Cohen of WP Engine

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Jason Cohen of WP Engine
Jason Cohen of WP Engine.

Jason Cohen is the founder and CTO of WP Engine.

As a successful serial-entrepreneur, he has expertise in both the business and technical aspects of web hosting.

We had a short interview with him about WP Engine and WordPress itself; software development and the management of large projects; and even his opinion on the pressing issue of Star Wars vs Star Trek.

WP Engine and WordPress

WhoIsHostingThis: When you started WP Engine, you were one of the first hosts to concentrate solely on the WordPress market. There have been many hosts to follow in your footsteps, of course. Has this affected WP Engine's strategy? How does WP Engine distinguish itself from this competition?

Jason Cohen: The many entrants in the space validates the size of the market and the demand it generates. However, we don't spend much time thinking about competitors.

It's never wise to build a strategy around "what competitors are doing." One reason is that companies have different goals, different motivations, different amounts of capital to put to work, different team, etc. Therefore, what's good for one company isn't necessarily good for another.

Also, as the largest company in the space (many times over), we should have the best insights into what the market needs, as well as the most resources to fill those needs. Therefore, we think about what's best for our own customers, and where we believe the market is headed — as opposed to looking in the rear-view mirror at what competitors are doing.

WIHT: Can you tell me about WP Engine's staging environment? I think this is a fantastic tool; can you explain how this benefits WordPress users?

JC: At WP Engine we have created a one-click tool that allows you to create a clone of your live production site that can be easily created to test plugins, themes, custom code, and any other changes you'd like to make.

This allows you to make all sorts of creative changes to your site without any fear of affecting your live site. After making changes to the staging site, our tool allows you to push those changes to the live site with the click of only a few buttons.

WIHT: What does the future hold for WordPress hosting?

JC: Recently, we've seen that WordPress is gaining momentum in the enterprise space. Enterprise users demand security, scalability, speed, and service. A great host delivers on all of those fronts.

The power of WordPress comes from its ability to customize. Enterprises don't want a one-size-fits-all approach; they want the power to make a website look and feel exactly the way they want. That's where WordPress excels. Enterprise customers also require a different level of technical support and customer service. We at WP Engine have developed a white glove approach for enterprise customers that drives high customer satisfaction and helps showcase the benefits of WordPress all the more.

Through our efforts, WP Engine has contributed significantly to establishing WordPress itself as a platform that can be reliably deployed in a range of enterprise scenarios. We were involved in introducing or popularizing platform features that have become key characteristics of hosting, including site staging (as we mention above), integration with developer workflow tools, and advanced caching strategies. With the recent launch of our Page Performance service, WP Engine is adding a layer that is likely to continue evolving customer expectations of a managed WordPress offering. Performance Intelligence for sites, of which Page Performance is the first product, will be an area of continued investment for us.

Software Development and Management

WIHT: What kind of development environment do you use?

JC: We use a variety of languages here at WP Engine. Python is our go-to if it's not inside WordPress itself, but we have Erlang, Java, and yes, also Ruby-on-Rails. At WP Engine we pick the right tool for the job; again, we use Ruby on Rails for our User Portal and it's great!

Nowadays there's also all the DevOps stuff as well, which are complex enough that they're essentially languages too, like Ansible, the Docker Universe, the Hadoop Universe, and others, all of which we use.

WIHT: Your thinking seems to have evolved a bit — as have the languages. Back in 2011, you wrote a strong defense of Java against attacks by Ruby and Python enthusiasts.

JC: I still stand behind that article. If I had to manage a team of 100 developers working on a single code-base, I'd prefer Java over Rails. In Rails it's practically impossible; in Java it's hard, but in fact, there are teams like that all over the world that operate just fine.

WIHT: It seems every year there is a new "hot" language, even though the language is never fundamentally different from the languages that are already widely used. Does this affect you in your development?

JC: I disagree that languages aren't fundamentally different. While of course it's true that you could write most software in any language, there's vast differences in the experience in doing so, eg in how fast to v1.0, how easy to maintain, how likely the code is to be working properly in five years, whether a team of 50 developers can work on it, how easy it is to deploy, the availability of libraries, and more.

WIHT: So you don't think programming fads are a bad thing?

JC: There's more than one fad language per year, and that's fine. It's good that we explore different ideas; often the better ones make their way into the mature languages. For example, Python comprehensions have been emulated by others, Ruby closures have too, Javascript and CSS has become practical at scale with the inventions of SASS and TypeScript and their brethren. Node.js has transformed what Javascript can be. Go has proved itself to be important, powering more and more things (eg, Docker), and certainly isn't a fad. The jury might still be out on RUST, but it's interesting. These are good things!

WIHT: Although open source code can be managed in any way, its nature tends to be more anarchistic than traditional top-down approaches to development as you might find discussed in The Mythical Man Month; where set groups were writing new operating systems for idiosyncratic hardware...

JC: You can't compare modern open source process with 40-year-old enterprise process. Better would be to compare it with modern closed-source process.

WIHT: Then what are the trade-offs between open and closed source projects?

JC: Having disjoint people on a project gives it strength because new ideas are able to thrive and enter, which is how innovation continues even past maturity. But many open source projects lack the organization to press on with the 90% of drudge-work that's needed for any software project to be successful, whereas it can simply be mandated with closed-source.

WIHT: When talking about open source development, we tend to focus on its positives. Do you think that the open source revolution (for lack of a better word) has resulted poorer code quality? Or do the great number of eyes offset any negative aspects?

JC: In both cases, once you have a successful, widely-used code base, new changes are difficult and risky and process-heavy. This is certainly true of WordPress and Drupal, but equally of Linux, MySQL, and SQLite, and others. I don't think you can say "open source software is of poorer quality."

Certainly the projects I just listed are of higher code-quality (in terms of bugs, performance, and security) than almost any closed-source project, in part because so many people have worked on it.

There's a lot of crappy "shelf-ware" open source, but that's only because projects are done in the open. If you looked at scraped closed-source projects, would they be better? Sometimes they press on even when they should be shelved!

WIHT: There is a lot of competition to MySQL, including by its own branches. How does the future of MySQL look to you?

JC: MySQL remains one of the most performant, stable, and powerful tools in the world. There's Percona, Maria, and now things like Aurora, which are all exciting. (We use Percona at WP Engine.) Of course that doesn't mean MySQL is always the best choice! But MySQL is not a component of our stack that we're at all worried about.

Fun Stuff

WIHT: First computer?

JC: TI 99/4A with 16kb RAM

WIHT: First program / script you wrote (language, purpose, age)?

JC: TI BASIC - a text game (eg, "go north")

WIHT: First domain name you registered? When and why?

JC: — a tool I made in college to enroll in classes that were still available, and filling a schedule according to what you say is optimal.

WIHT: Star Trek or Star Wars?

JC: Both, but if I have to pick, Trek.

WIHT: You're a serial entrepreneur, bootstrapper, investor, and parent — obviously a risk taker. Do any of your hobbies follow suit? Sky diving? Mountaineering? Scooter riding?

JC: I used to fly planes, but no; I reserve my risk for the office, so home life is tame by comparison. (PS: being a parent is the riskiest of the set of things you mention. For example, it's the only one you can't decide to stop being.)

We'd like to thank Jason Cohen for his time and insights. You can check out the WP Engine website for more information about their managed WordPress hosting, and follow Jason on Twitter @asmartbear.

WP Engine

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Images used by permission of WP Engine.
Frank Moraes

About Frank Moraes

Frank has worked in the tech industry since the early 1990s — as a writer, programmer, and manager. He’s an insatiable blogger and “Don Quixote” fanatic. In his spare time, Frank writes experimental plays — usually involving puppets like Grumpy Squirrel in his image.


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