Interview

Published on June 27th, 2013 | by Michelle Oznowicz

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Finely Tuned Consultant: Noel Tock

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International WordPress consultant Noel Tuck created happytables, an optimized web solution for restaurants.

By Austin Gunter | January 11, 2013

Meet Noel Tock, international WordPress consultant. Noel is Swiss, currently living in Zurich, and is one of the more active European developers in the WordPress Community. He solves problems that SMBs and the non-profit sector have, and created happytables, a full restaurant solution that provides an optimized web solution for restaurants. Happytables has seen substantial growth in 2012, and Noel sees the platform growing very quickly in the next year.

“I’m not a developer or a designer, but I’m definitely a WordPress consultant. You might say that I’m a sort of jack of all trades, but just enjoy creating scalable solutions that solve a real world problem. I think it’s good to experiment. For example, I break the look and feel of wp-admin and public plugins to learn how they work and imagine how to improve them.”

When was the first time that you really got excited about WordPress and at what point did you decide to make it your career?  

I only got excited a year after I had initially started using WordPress. I have always used WordPress from the point of view that it’s a tool, a means to an end. In that regard, I had initially been outsourcing various theme work. When the quality didn’t line up with my expectations, I finally took the time to learn the basics of PHP and how WordPress works from a theme development point of view. My first theme took a few weeks to develop, the second a week and now I can code up a basic concept within a day or two (Better Restaurant Websites is a good example of a small project).

Making the web my career came from a number of push/pull factors. I built my first website in 1995, but only made the full-time jump last year. It had always been a hobby, but a time comes when you take the plunge and embrace the risk. Nowadays, I’m still very excited at the ability to rapidly prototype and ship ideas using WordPress, it’s very empowering. Even more so with a platform full of users that are able to grow their business using our solution happytables.

Where do you go first to get your WP news, insights, and updates?

A couple of the original WordPress news sites have slowed down, and it seems as if WP Realm has picked up where the legacy ones left off. It’s becoming the leading source surrounding WordPress. More importantly, it’s a balanced and diverse group of contributors. There’s no company or sponsor behind it that influence content, just plenty of passionate users. Follow the Realm on Twitter.

What WP consultants deserve more love than they get? Who should we be paying attention to?

In the UK, Human Made  and Code for the People. In the Netherlands, ForSite Media. In Switzerland, required+. These are all agencies that can flip serious projects and push the boundaries of WordPress. If you are in those areas, hire them.

What performance tips would you give to other pros (as related to speed, scalability, security, plugins, backup, etc.)?

Pros wouldn’t take performance tips from me; I’d be taking it from them! If you’re still reading, these are the sort of issues I don’t see many sites handling correctly:

  • When loading web fonts, only use the character sets you need (chances are you don’t need “Extended Latin”)
  • Only load additional JS/CSS on the pages/templates you need
  • Use an adaptive image solution for images within your content area (here’s Hammy, something I put together for my site)

Confess to us your biggest moment of WP fail…

Ugh, where to begin? There’s been a few facepalm moments, mostly surrounding cowboy commits when I sold themes. My business drive was bigger than my coding abilities so I was releasing updates full of feature-bloat and bugs (only to have to e-mail my users again and again with apologies). Partnering with Tom and Joe was the best decision I made in that respect, it’s the only way that happytables came to be.

If you were going to spend this weekend creating a plugin that doesn’t exist, what would it be?

I don’t often create plugins, but when I do, I just copy paste it from an existing project. Not a plugin developer by any means, but something geared towards charities and non-profits is always awesome.

Do you use Themes & Child Themes, Roll your own, or both?

Besides outsourcing a few early on, I don’t think I’ve ever used a premium theme. Ever since I started to learn PHP, I’ve always enjoyed the building process enough to do it myself. Whilst my first steps were quite exhausting, the bulk of my WordPess work these days is back where it used to be, with front-end development  (as WordPress has quite a seamless theming layer).

What’s your favorite theme or theme framework? Why?

I’ve used a couple theme frameworks, but never got the hang of them. Ever since I’ve been creating my own themes, I’ve more or less been starting from scratch. Back then it was with Starkers, now it’s Underscores. I’m not against frameworks, I just enjoy starting with a minimal foundation as I learn something new every time. It also provides a degree of confidence as you own all the code and are not dependent on any 3rd parties (unless you choose too with specific features/libraries).

The only common ground is my front-end starter package Prometheus which is available on GitHub.

Favorite plugin?

WordPress SEO. Sure it’s cliché, but it saves me a ton of time on every single project.

Least favorite plugin?

Anything that contributes to making the web a worse place. Be it bad SEO practices (cloaking, keyword stuffing, hidden content, etc.) or tools that promote interruption marketing or other dark patterns (pop-ups on page exit, overlays with no cancel/close button, etc.). It’s all bullshit.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done with Custom Post Types?

What haven’t I done!? Most ideas I have relating to WordPress, I try to solve using custom post types. They’re truly awesome. The coolest would have to be the food menu feature for happytables. I’ve blogged about it here (including a video). The gist being that we took a complex set of data (food menus) and created an intuitive drag and drop interface to manage the order, design and content of all food items. That alone is worth signing up for happytables quickly to play with it.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that WP consultants will face in the next year?

I don’t see any one particular challenge standing out. If you’re in the business of being reliable, then it will be business as usual. The problem is much more likely to be that good consultants will not be able to meet the incredible demand that is out there.

If you could change one thing today about WP, what would it be?

Convince core developers that CSS within wp-admin should originate from a pre-processor such as LESS or Sass. It would make the lives easier of anyone trying to turn WordPress into an application or software as a service. There’s nothing wrong with the default styles, but it’s not one size fits all. The CSS in admin today is over 10’000 lines, that’s painful when you’re trying to extend WordPress for specific requirements.

Where do you see WordPress going in the next 2-3 years?

With regards to core, I don’t see much room for new features to be added (not in the traditional sense). It’ll keep making sense for those extensions to come from the github/wp.org plugin community. What will certainly be interesting to see is the continued focus on the UI (such as the new media uploader in 3.5). Even though these sort of changes often go unnoticed, the increased productivity and ability to learn WordPress even faster will be dramatic.

Tell us a story where you saved the WP day for yourself or on a client project.  What made the difference for you?

I can’t say that I’ve ever been in such a situation. Unless you’re unlucky, this sort of issue only happens if you’ve dropped the ball or taken on a bad client.

What’s the biggest misconception you encounter about WordPress, and how do you clear it up for your clients?

Besides the obvious “blog” one, I think it’s how the WordPress license functions. It’s quite easy to read through and everyone should take a look at least once to understand the main points.

If you were interviewing another WordPress developer for a job, what is the first question you would ask and why?

Whilst skills are cool, they’re certainly not the most important. Anything that’s also found in a textbook can be learnt relatively quickly within the right environment. Of much greater value is understanding what drives the person and where they want to go. As such, I’m stealing the first question from Kevin Morrill over at Referly which is:

“I want you to explain something to me. Pick any topic you want: a hobby you have, a book you’ve read, a project you worked on–anything. You’ll have just 5 minutes to explain it. At the beginning of the 5 minutes you shouldn’t assume anything about what I know, and at the end I should understand whatever is most important this topic. During the 5 minutes, I might ask you some questions, and you can ask me questions. Take as much time as you want to think it through, and let me know when you want to start.”

It’s incredible how telling such a question is, how would you answer it?

What did we miss? Here’s your chance to fill in the blanks and add something you want people to know about you!

I love working on real world problems and finding solutions for them. This is why you’ll often hear me at WordCamps discussing the opportunities that exist in niche markets and/or verticals. It’s also part of the reason why I don’t label myself as a “developer” or “designer”, but a jack of all trades that strives to bridge gaps online.  Once you start selling to the real end users as opposed to other developers, you’re greeted with a huge challenge in bringing your product to market, finding distribution and continually evolving. That’s what I enjoy working most on.

Thanks Noel!

To learn more visit NoelTock.com and happytables.


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