I decided to interview a newly formed German team of Matthias Günter and Jan Karres. Together, they are called devowl.io and create top-quality plugins. Even when it was just Matthias developing WordPress Real Media Library, it was clear to me that he is on the next level. By now, it’s clear that this duo should be looked at as a role model or even a holy grail in our scene. Why? They use the technologies and practices used primarily in corporate-level software development. Their approach provides astounding results when applied to good old WordPress. We saw way too many subpar plugins, and having devowl.io tilt the balance towards quality is a blessing. People just aren’t doing WordPress like that.
I’ve known Matthias for years and he opened my eyes to various tools. First, I learned PHP namespaces from his code when they were still new to me. Then he showed me the Cloud9 IDE, which later led me to AWS. Eventually, he switched to Visual Studio Code that I also adopted. When I look at the WordPress Plugin Boilerplate, I don’t even know which abbreviation/technology to begin learning, as that is the manifestation of all the best things he considered useful.
My questions include both personal and professional interests, so you can get to know them a little bit better. Jan is the one answering in-depth, and as you can tell, I was happy to have him. It was interesting to see how another team handles the challenges similar to ours.
How did you find each other?
Matthias and I (Jan) met years ago in our childhood when we played computer games. In 2010, together with a friend, I ran a Counter-Strike Source community. One day Matthias joined the game and wrote to me because he had a question. Somehow we discovered that we both are interested in software development. This led to our first bigger projects in 2011: Voocler, a vocabulary trainer software. The website itself was not very successful, and we both made our own way in the software development business but stayed in touch a bit. In 2019, Matthias came up with a new idea where he needed my help and started the journey to found devowl.io, to develop even more high-quality WordPress plugins together.
Do you meet in real life?
This is a funny question because even though we have known each other for about 10 years and live only about two hours by car away from each other, we only met each other in real life the first time a few months ago. I think I can speak for both of us that our first meeting in real life doesn’t feel too different from our online activities.
How often do you voice chat and on what platform?
Since January 2020 we are working full-time on our projects. We have a mixture of topics from software development and from the marketing perspective, but both of us have a professional background in software development. That’s why we try to work according to the Scrum principle and have a daily video chat every day, weekly sprint planning and biweekly retrospective meetings. We do all this with Google Meet, as part of the G Suite that we use every day. We’ve made a conscious decision to make not only voice calls but video calls as well, to fill the gap created by our different locations.
What are your roles in the newly formed team and in consequence how does your average day look like?
The day of Matthias and me starts and ends at different times. He is an early bird and is happy to start before 7 am. Compared to him I am a night owl and want to start late, but sometimes I work after 9 pm. But that’s good because he can start early to support our customers and I can also answer questions in the evening. While Matthias does most of the WordPress software development, I concentrate on the marketing and take care of everything concerning the organization. So while Matthias is focusing all day long on writing the best possible code in his tunnel, I have to switch between several smaller topics every few hours.
Do you ever argue?
It depends on what you see as an argument, but surely we have different perspectives on problems and the way we want to solve them. From our point of view, it is good to argue about them if we end up finding a way to solve them together. And that might even be better for your customers because a debate often leads to a better solution.
What motivates you to create newer and better products?
Matthias comes from SAP development, and I have a background in business informatics as an interface between software development and business issues. From this point of view, we both know that even if the functionality is done properly for the business case, the design matters. By the term design, I mean both the design of the user interface for good user experience as well as the software design for a reliable and long term maintainable software.
When I look at the more than 50,000 plug-ins available in the WordPress ecosystem, I often find that neither is the standard in the WordPress business. Many plugins look and feel like a completely different piece of software compared to the WordPress core itself where the plugin is used. Also, to be honest, you often don’t want to look at the coding of the plugins, and this is not only because of PHP as the scripting language of WordPress, which is known to be a bit messy, but often hobbies code.
We believe that we can do both better: Develop a reliable WordPress plugin that feels like a core feature of WordPress.
What kind of project management tool do you use?
We use and love a less popular solution: ClickUp. Both Matthias and I had to work with big solutions like Jira, Basecamp or Trello before. Some of them were overloaded (and hard to configure), some of them had missing features for our workflow. ClickUp gives us most of the features we need. They have a fast cycle in developing new features that the community wants. This gives us even better opportunities each month to improve our project management in terms of planning and control.
Do you plan on adding new members or hiring an additional workforce?
At the moment, we are happy to work as a two-person team, but in time we hope to grow so much that we will be forced to hire people. In this case, our clear vision is to build a remote-first team to give all team members the opportunity to work where they feel most comfortable.
Are you seeing traffic benefits after offering a free version of Real Media Library?
We released the free version of the Real Media Library just a few weeks ago, so we have limited data to talk about the impact of a free version. But so far we’re seeing an increase in our user base, and some of the users of the free version have already become users of Real Media Library PRO.
You not only sell great WordPress plugins but you also have a boilerplate for developers who want to create their own WordPress plugins. It uses cutting edge technologies and frameworks like Docker, GitLab CI or React. Don’t you think that these technologies could become obsolete?
You’re right, we use modern technologies in WP React Starter to ensure the best experience for both developers and users of the WordPress plugins. Where I would disagree is that they are so new that they do not have a longer life span.
From an infrastructure perspective, we chose Docker and GitLab CI as two components that could be cutting edge in the WordPress world. But if you look at other parts of software development, topics like cloud, containerization, DevOps, continuous integration and continuous deployment are already an essential part of the day-to-day business. Consequently, since 2016, the famous Gartner Institute publishes its own hype cycle for emerging DevOps technologies, which is updated every year. I think this feeling of cutting-edge technologies shows exactly the problem of WordPress (plugins). It’s a dinosaur world with a huge market share in the CMS business, but the environment has changed a lot over the last ten years.
We think that WordPress will not die in the next 10 years because it is too system relevant. But we believe that even in this dinosaur world, a little “rocket science” is good to take the whole ecosystem a little further.
Is a formal education important in our field?
We come from Germany and here the general formal education is important for many companies. From our point of view, this should not be the case at least in software development. As software developers, the most important skill is to have experience. If you compare the code and infrastructure of our vocabulary trainer project from about ten years ago with what our code looks like today, you can see the clear lack of experience from back then.
Between those ten years, we also did formal education to learn abstract concepts, patterns, and structures. But we as autodidacts often felt a little lost in the classroom. Because what they explained there is what we have intuitively known for years (sometimes without ever hearing the formal names of the concepts). And our classmates forgot about these topics just a few weeks after the exam, because they had no time to internalize the knowledge.
Our personal advice is if you want to become a great software developer or an entrepreneur: Go, make and get some experience. Even if you fall, get up and try again. That is the most valuable thing you can do!
Do you offer freelance work and customizations?
At the moment, we want to concentrate on creating high quality WordPress plugins for many people and therefore we do not accept freelance work. However, anyone who has an idea of how we can customize the Real Media Library or any of our other products is welcome to share this idea with us, and we will discuss whether we will implement this feature for all our customers.
Who other plugin developers do you network with, whose products do you recommend?
We work together with some other WordPress developers. Mostly we try to improve each other’s products with feedback from the other side or by working together to make the products compatible with each other.
For example, we have enjoyed working with Jordy from Media File Renamer to make the Real Media Library compatible with this plugin or with Firsh to work on deeper integration of the Real Media Library into the Justified Image Grid.
We also receive regular requests from inspiring developers who want to use our WordPress plugin Boilerplate WP React Starter to create their own WordPress plugins. It is always most fun that we can encourage a few other people to create their own products.