Interview with David Vogelpohl at WordCamp US

David Vogelpohl Interview

David Vogelpohl spent 12 years at WP Engine—the industry leader in managed WordPress hosting. As VP of Web Strategy, and then VP of Growth Strategies, David has shared his knowledge and expertise on WordPress and WordPress hosting at numerous conferences and events. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing him on multiple occasions and he has always been very generous with his time.

At this year’s WordCamp US conference in San Diego, CA, I had the opportunity to sit and chat with him about the current and future state of WordPress, web hosting, WordCamp, and a number of other topics.
Web Hosting Cat: Great to see you again. Have you enjoyed the WordCamp US so far?
David Vogelpohl: I really enjoyed it. I mean, I haven’t gone to any conferences at all since the start of the pandemic. I’ve done some business travel and done some company-oriented things, but not seeing so many people from across the community. And so, I think it’s a little surreal, but it’s so amazing to see so many familiar faces, just to meet new people again. It’s been a lot of fun. The content, the people here have been just outstanding.
WHC: Now the last time we talked, I think Gutenberg had just been released or had not been out very long and we weren’t sure how things were going. Now, it’s been out for a few years. What’s your overall impression of Gutenberg and what do you like about it?
DV: Well, I think, when it first came out, like anything, there weren’t a lot of tools around it. There wasn’t a lot of support, documentation, tools, to kind of get you up and going. And I think the block world has changed a lot since you and I spoke. There are wonderful tools in the core project. There are wonderful tools like ACF blocks, Genesis blocks that allow you to create custom blocks without necessarily having to learn the react that goes along with it. The ability to customize blocks and create new blocks is easier than ever and I think that people are finally starting to adopt and use it in their builds.

It’s helpful, of course, for the non-technical site creator, but it’s also helpful for the technical site creator because it puts more of that customization power in the content creator’s hands, which means less dev tickets. It just takes people a while to adopt new technology when they want to kind of let it settle in, if you will. And then secondly, they need to start identifying the opportunities and take advantage of it.

The other huge development we’ve had since you and I last spoke was the introduction of FSE themes, full site editing themes, which has created a new way of theming that allows also for less code-oriented customizations, but still leaves the door open for code-oriented customizations, to take it to that next level. And so, all of this is really interesting to me because it feels like what made WordPress special in 43% of the web was the way it provided value for both content creators and developers. And so, this to me is strengthening the content creator side, but it’s also enabling the customization on the developer side, to be able to do the things that the site needs to do and the user needs to do in order to drive growth or value in the website that they’re operating.
WHC: What about WordPress overall these days? What are some of the things you really like and you think they’ve done really well? And maybe, what are a couple of things you think it needs more work on?
DV: I think over the years watching WordPress’ security practices evolve, and I think the WordPress security team and the efforts behind making sure not just WordPress is secure, but the ecosystem has that culture of security. I think those have always been very, very strong. And I think over the last couple of years, you can see that even more so than ever and I think the community is also coming along. There’s a lot of people who make independent plugins, independent themes. And of course, individuals, freelancers, and agencies who manage sites and hosts, of course, who manage some of the software layers and around that. It’s really been nice to see the entire community come along. Acknowledging vulnerabilities in a plugin is a great thing. Patching them right away before they’re public is, of course, key to that. You see that happening over and over and over again in those security practices. It has been really great to see that kind of be a cultural thing that is now emanating throughout the community. So that’s, I think, on WordPress. What’s the other half of that question?
WHC: Maybe some of the things they could improve?
DV: Could improve. Yeah. I think like, as the platform evolves, there’s things that are introduced that change things. As people think about adopting new ways like building blocks or building FSE themes, there’s one a rush to adopt because it helps for testing and identifying how to improve the efforts. But then, of course, people are kind of set in their ways of doing things. And so, I think, it’s really this permanent tension in open-source software projects where like, “Test, test, test. We want it to be hired first. Test, test, test.” And so, I think as the community in the WordPress core contributors, so on and so forth think about engaging with the community, I think leaning into that and then trying to find paths that make it easier for folks to adopt, make it easier for them to see the business value, and the value to their organization, and then connecting that to trying that technology. Because if you can build pages without blocks today and you can do it tomorrow, you kind of need that extra push there. And I think that’ll always be present, but that will ultimately lead to a stronger community.

WHC: Can you talk a little bit about the headless WordPress platform and go over some of the advantages and disadvantages with headless WordPress?
DV: Sure. So headless WordPress is effectively using a decoupled architecture where the content engine or layer, if you will, where the content creator enters the content is decoupled from how the front end of the website is rendered and headless or decoupled JavaScript architecture, it’s usually the front end is rendered by a JavaScript framework. So, the most familiar framework in terms of file structure that a WordPress developer might want to try, for example, is NextJS. And so effectively, what you do is you take the content from WordPress, and of course, you inherit the back end, the user management, the ability to create custom posts and custom fields, people are even using Gutenberg blocks and headless configurations. But that data is effectively entered, configured and stored on WordPress and then rendered through the JavaScript layer or JavaScript framework. Now, you might be thinking, “But why? Who cares?” One of the key benefits is scale so you’re able to scale and in decoupled configuration at a much greater rate. You can also have faster performance. There are trade offs though, like you have to learn JavaScript. And you may not know JavaScript, so that’s a big one.

But there’s some familiar paths. At WP Engine, we provide a free sandbox account for people to get going. It has blueprints and like the environment is automatically configured and you spin it up. But you also then have blueprints for like, I want to build a headless brochure site or I want to build this kind of site or that kind of site. And they’re the starting points. And so, it is early days with decoupled architecture. And we believe it’s really, I feel, true that WordPress is really well-positioned for this. One of the bigger proprietary platform players in this space for the CMS behind headless builds is a company called Contentful and they have a wonderful solution. But it doesn’t have the depth of content creator experience that WordPress has. So, the front end that renders, and people have different opinions on what you should do and why. But there’s security benefits, there’s scale and speed benefits with decoupled architecture and there’s also integration benefits. And so effectively, the data and content on the back-end talks to the front end via API and that’s fundamentally how it delivers.

I think that’s one of the great testaments of WordPress, is that it is such a flexible engine for developers and content creators where the whole paradigms in web development start to change. It can be used to take advantage of it. So, I’m really excited about headless. It is really cool. I think the trick in the next five years is going to be preserving that content creator experience because decoupled architecture is already optimized for the developer experience. So, I think marrying those two that’s what made WordPress 43% of the web. In headless, it still needs to do that part. But there’s some people making some wonderful gains there and we’ll definitely see more around that.
WHC: What about WP Engine these days? Is there an area that WP Engine is focusing on more than the other, whether it’s ecommerce, small business, or agencies?
DV: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, certainly those are our bread-and-butter customers, if you will. WooCommerce is the largest eCommerce platform on Earth. And we’ve always had a very high number of WooCommerce site stores on our platform. Starting in 2021, we developed an eCommerce specific hosting option. It comes with integrated search. So, WordPress search can slow your store down. It doesn’t provide super high levels of customization. And so, we use a service called ElasticPress that comes with our eCommerce offering along with a bunch of other build tools we added in the beginning.

Starting in 2022 though, our offering has customized caching for WooCommerce, that can make up to 90% more of WooCommerce pages cachable. And so, this allows you to scale but it also allows you more speed in the moment to convert. And then we just introduced a feature that addresses the cart fragment issue, which can cause trouble for your store when your store scales. If you get a lot of shoppers at once, it can basically not allow your shoppers to use the cart experience. And so, these are some of the areas we’ve been investing in there. And then on the small agency side, we just released Growth Suite to WP Engine, which is an agency client billing and site management platform. So, you can do custom reports, recurring billing for maintenance and care plans, and then you can couple hosting along with it. So those are some of the things we’re working on.
WHC: Flywheel Hosting, which is now under the WP Engine umbrella, is also an excellent managed WordPress host that we’ve reviewed on the website. Some people might wonder what the difference is between WP Engine and Flywheel. Is there a situation where one would be a better choice than the other? What would you tell people?
DV: Yeah, it is really interesting. So, first off, the pricing parity is about the same. We purposely did that, not to provide people with hard choices as they thought about solutions in our universe. There are a lot of similarities between the two offerings. Like if you look at the back-end portal and you think about the key functionality, a lot of it is actually quite similar. So, in those ways, you can also think about the look and feel and how you might like one portal or another. But the functionality is actually very similar. If you look at the infrastructure side, the WP Engine side has a new part of our platform called the vault that we’re bringing more and more of our customers on to, and it’s a container-based architecture. The flywheel platform is a container-based architecture already. And so, our legacy platform is effectively moving to Evolve and Evolve is available to all customers. But sometimes that can be important to you. But of course, the WP Engine platform scales quite well without the container-size architecture, with very, very large clients.

So, I think as people think about the differences and like, which one would I want versus the other, there’s a lot of similarities. And I think the Growth Suite offering is an interesting example, like we’ve been bringing parity to both sides for a long time. Growth Suite is a good example. That was only available on the Flywheel platform. And now we’ve brought that into the WP Engine platform. So that didn’t really help my answer, but the other thing is both have money back guarantees so you can try both out and then choose the one you think is best. But yeah, so I haven’t done a full, like side by side internal competitor analysis. But both are amazing offerings and the people behind them are incredible. I was part of the due diligence team looking at Flywheel before the acquisition and the parallels between our culture, between our traditions, our commitment to the work we do and our customers was just really over the top. And I mean since the acquisition, that’s really shown through my co-workers in Omaha that work primarily around the Flywheel offering and the remote folks that also focus on it who are just incredibly driven and incredibly customer inspired. And so, it’s like asking someone like, “Who’s your favorite child?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. They’re both great.” But yeah, I really, really love the Flywheel site.
WHC: A long time ago, we talked about the differences between WordPress and the website builders like Wix. As someone who’s been in the hosting industry for a lot of years, do you think the hosting industry has done a good job in promoting the advantages of their plans over Wix as far as the benefits that we’ve talked about? 
DV: Well, it’s interesting. WP Engine is a managed WordPress hosting provider and our starting plan is around $30 a month. Now, when people are building a site from scratch and they’re doing it on their own, and they’re a non-technical person, there’s a lot of barriers with WordPress, like, yes, it comes automatically installed when you get on your host. But of course, you need the theme, the plugin, you probably need demo plugins, and you need demo content. There’s a lot of steps that you have to do. And so, what we’ve seen in the industry is that hosts that offer lower starting pricing points like lower priced hosts, really lean into that kind of guided experience and we’ve done that as well on WP Engine. But our “bread and butter” customer isn’t necessarily like a novice making their first site. They’re trying that out on other hosts.

Now, the interesting dynamic when we look at the rise of no code solutions, Wix and there’s a variety of others, of course. And they’ve been around for a long time. There’s always been this like no code approach. But even for my agency days, I remember this being very prominent, which was people would start the site on their own and then it would grow to a level where they wanted to invest in it, or where they needed to make it better for SEO, or they wanted to do a design. And what they found was that it was difficult to do that customization with the freelancers and agencies and professionals they were hiring. And really, it gets down to customization and trying to be different than your competitors. And so, as more and more people start their journey in building and optimizing their website on no-code solutions, the eventual path there is to a customization solution. And WordPress has actually been really good at this. Even though Wix is easier to get going than WordPress out of the box, it definitely is without compliments like setup wizards and things. But the setup wizards do provide a meaningful starting point. But if I start on a proprietary closed source system where I’m basically like renting my website, when it comes time to customize, I now have to do a full CMS migration. I might have to do complicated redirects to account for prior links and prior linking structures. And it takes a redesign project from a new theme and some new layouts to like, my whole website change. And I have to rip out all of the guts and then put all the guts together again in this other system.

So, I think from the freelancer and agency community, the rise of no-code site building is probably a mixed blessing. Because like there’s less of those lower end people like relying on them, but there’s more work when it’s time to actually go. So, it’s kind of a trade off, but it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. In the end, customization wins. And so, I think we haven’t necessarily seen a strong showing of that from the proprietary closer solutions. I mean, even things like Shopify, in order to really, truly customize Shopify, you need to either use the API for a headless build, which again, requires advanced technical knowledge and has a limited number of people that know it, and you can hire around it, especially as a small business. You can use the Ruby on Rails framework with it for other further customizations. But Ruby on Rails developers are really hard to find. Freelancers and agencies are really hard to find. And so, as a small business, you kind of get locked in but then like when it’s time to move, it’s this very painful process off. WordPress being an open platform allows you that fluidity to be the non-technical site creator and operator and then when it’s time to customize, there’s just tons and tons and tons of PHP developers and WordPress developers who can dive in and do that customization without ripping up your whole website.
WHC: Where do you see WordPress in the next five years?
DV: I think that WordPress’ strength is, what got it to be 43% of the internet is the way that it marries the developer and content creator experience. And I think, if you look at the releases in WordPress, they’ve been focused around the content creator experience. If you think about how people build sites, they tend to spend their time on the front end and not the backend. And WordPress itself has been focusing on the back end, but still leaving that core principle of openness and customization through code. So, in my mind, this trend is really strengthening the developer experience because it puts more power into the content creators’ hands, power that the developer can customize, power that the developer can augment, that can limit for the content creators, so they don’t do bad things. And that’s wonderful.

I remember when people were saying, “Oh, WordPress is going to turn into Wix.” I don’t think that’s what it does at all. I think what the block editor does is it allows developers to create custom websites to work their way for the businesses they’re optimizing for, and that’s an incredible amount of power. And I think there’s a lot of smart thinking to think like, okay, this is where we should be focusing our efforts in core, and it’s been an area that languished for a long time that back into WordPress really didn’t change for 15 years until we had the block editor. It really had a meaningful change.
Postscript: Not long after our interview, David announced that after 12 years at WP Engine, he was making the move to another company. David is now the Chief Marketing Officer at FastSpring—a payment platform for software and SaaS businesses. They also have connections to the WordPress space. So, while I’m saddened that David will no longer be our top connection to WP Engine, I’m happy that he’ll still be part of the WordPress Community.

I want to take this opportunity to again thank David for being so gracious and generous with his time over the years. It’s been a great pleasure getting the chance to chat with him about WordPress, WP Engine, and other topics. Hopefully, we’ll see each other at a future event, or perhaps we can do a remote interview. Congrats David, and best of luck!

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