We are on a tram to Manchester, tapping away on our phone as we update one of our blogs, engrossed in the words and thinking little about the underlying code which is making all of this possible. Just as the last few words are written, the tram stops and we make our way up the escalator to Piccadilly Station about to meet the man who created the behemoth that is WordPress, the very blogging platform we had been using throughout the journey.
Our meeting is being held at a railway station because Mike Little, who is from Stockport, is a busy man. He has already had one meeting before we shake hands and he is due to have another. We decide to sit in a coffee shop and he grabs a sandwich before telling us about his latest venture, which is – unsurprisingly given the software is used by 18.9 per cent of the top 10 million websites – very much related to WordPress.
Little is currently working on a series of screencasts which showcase how WordPress can be used, explaining the fundamentals of it to encourage more people to get involved with blogging using the platform. It’s a slow process – “it takes about an hour to edit a minute’s footage,” he says – but he’s getting there. The idea is that the screencasts will form a paid-for online course. “I want them to be better than anything else that is out there, so they have to be done right,” he says. “There is a lot of rubbish being made where you get someone just filming what they are doing and there are lots of ums and ahs and backtracking. My screencasts won’t be like that and people will certainly get value for money.”
Little, who also teaches WordPress to classes face-to-face, continues to work with WordPress for professional clients too. After all, if he cannot produce a killer website for companies and organisations using the software, then nobody can. It is fi tting, then, that he has worked with Downing Street on government sites. He appears most proud of a science-engagement site for children called I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here, which has spun off into I’m An Engineer. “I really enjoy doing these,” he says, explaining that his entire freelance career has been based around WordPress since he left full-time employment in 2008.
WordPress has, therefore, shaped his life. In between mouthfuls, he tells us all about the WordPress project, barely pausing for breath, and there is little doubt that he is proud of the part he played in the initial years of WordPress’s inception. If there was any doubt, then the snazzy WordPress T-shirt he’s wearing at our meeting certainly puts paid to that.
Little has been programming professionally since 1990. His first six years were spent at an industrial software house called Pantek in Stockport, where he became responsible for a team of six and developed Visual Basic apps, learned C++ and gained experience in DOS, Windows SDK, assembler, Novell, TCP/IP and Microsoft networks. After leaving Pantek, he went on to work at various other software companies in the Greater Manchester area, but he was also an early blogger.
He used software called b2/cafelog which had been written by Michel Valdrighi, the first Corsican blogger. A small community had built up around the software with around 2,000 active users on the forum, but development of b2/cafelog suddenly ground to a halt when Valdrighi disappeared, leaving behind an app that had a few bugs, a couple of security issues and a domain that was up for renewal.
Another programmer, Matt Mullenweg, also used b2/cafelog, or, as it was more commonly known, b2, and he was concerned not only about Valdrighi’s disappearance but also about the lack of development of b2. He posted an article on his blog called The Blogging Software Dilemma which discussed how he had come to be using b2, primarily because it was the best of the bunch and something he was able to develop. Mike Little spotted this blog post and responded, asking Mullenweg if he would be interested in forking b2. Mullenweg said he would. The pair then got together, albeit remotely over the internet.
“I’d communicated with Matt a couple of times before because he had a website with a really good gallery on it and I’d emailed him to ask him about the software,” recalls Little. “I’d actually communicated with him on the b2 forums as well, but I didn’t know he was the same person as the one who ran the gallery site. So when I saw his blog post about b2, I was interested. As it turned out, I was the only person who responded to his posting at the time.”
Mullenweg and Little took the b2 software and began to work on it, fixing bugs and adding extra features. Then Valdrighi reappeared. He declared Mullenweg and Little’s software as the official successor to b2. “It turns out he’d been made redundant or something like that, had to give up his flat, gone back to his parents who didn’t even have internet and so on,” smiles Little. “So it was just the real world was much more important than a bit of software.” WordPress was thus born.
It was January 2003. Little had been learning PHP and he felt he would work his way around b2 and make alterations. “No software is perfect, so it was just a case of thinking of things that we wanted to add to it,” says Little. “That first release of WordPress had a couple of extra features that I’d already created or b2 and the same for Matt: he’d had a couple of extra features that he’d added to b2. We’d shared
these things on the forums and we kind of incorporated those into the core project. And yeah, we just took it from there.”
One of the biggest changes was the introduction of Pages, which made a massive difference to WordPress and set it apart from its rivals at the time. It enabled WordPress to become more than blogging software. But the ‘killer’ feature, Little says, came in the guise of hooks. “It meant you could write additions to the product without having to modify the code, and that was something that only really big grown-up software did, like some of the Java Stacks,” says Little. “This ability to actually change the way it behaves and add things to it without having to touch any of the core files was crucial. It’s still the hardest thing, I think, for new developers to get their heads round how it works, but I think that’s what made it so much easier.”
He said it made the process of updating the software so much easier. “Prior to that, with anything like Drupal or any of those tools, whenever there was an update you were in danger of losing your changes because you’d modified original files to call your stuff or to add somebody else’s stuff in. You’d stick these function calls in there. It meant that as soon as you got the new version, if you just literally FTPed the new one over the top of the old one, you were going to lose your stuff and lose your modifications. So I think that was probably one of the key features and I don’t think it’s necessarily something that people appreciate because these days they just never see the problem. They update WordPress or they update the plug-ins and oh, it’s the new version, and nothing’s gone wrong. And yet before then you had to save those files you modified before you updated to the new software.”
Mullenweg and Little continued to work on WordPress and the first release came in May of that year.
Little and Mullenweg saw WordPress as an evolving product. Little worked on doing what he could to eliminate the ability to make mistakes, which he believes was a crucial step forward. “With the original b2, you could lose your settings,” he says. “But with WordPress, I added the config sample PHP and it just took that ability to make a mistake away. I took what was the original b2 settings file and created an Options interface for it. It was another file, you didn’t have to fiddle with it – you didn’t have to know how to edit these files and FTP them back up to your server and stuff like that. I think all those bits helped make it easier, made it harder to cock up and I think that all helped.”
The need to be userfriendly was at the forefront of the minds of both developers. It was also important for them that WordPress, like b2, was an open source project. They loved that b2 operated under a General Public License, which meant they had the freedom to take the code, change it and distribute it to other people. They loved that it was free too. “I’ve always been a huge open source advocate,” says Little. “Matt was kind of new to the open source idea, but that was one of the reasons behind him choosing to use b2.”
Little attributes the popularity of WordPress to its open source nature (“if it wasn’t open source, if it wasn’t GPL, there wouldn’t be the 20,000 plug-ins that have been written for it or the 10,000 themes,” he says) and it matters not to him that he has not made any direct money from WordPress. “Nobody does,” he says. “It’s not sold and yes, I continued in my day job. Matt went [to work] for CNET, which had just started using WordPress for just a couple of things, and they actually had him doing a standard software development job. But they paid for him to work one day a week on WordPress itself and I think it was through working there that he met a guy called Tony Schneider, who had just sold some software to Yahoo! for £25m or something like. Matt had started Automattic at this point. Schneider later managed to help raise funding for him and joined the service that eventually became WordPress.com. But me, I continued in
my day job up until 2008.”
Little considered becoming part of WordPress.com, which is a blog web hosting service provider owned by Automattic, but this was prior to the funding and the company couldn’t afford to pay him a wage. Today it is financially supported via paid upgrades, VIP services and advertising and can pay wages, but in the early days there wasn’t much cash for this and the bulk of the fundraising efforts went on infrastructure.
Up until the first release, the development team consisted of just Mullenweg and Little, but five people were working on the project by the end of 2003 and it continued to grow after that. By the end of 2005, Little wasn’t able to stay involved. “I had issues at home, real-life issues which meant that I couldn’t spend the time working on this thing voluntarily,” he says. “It was still a very techy thing, a very geek thing, it wasn’t as good and as user-friendly as it has become today and it certainly wasn’t as prominent.”
Cash, he insists, is something that does not motivate him, however. “I need to pay the bills and we need to eat,” he says. “I am the breadwinner of the house and I always have been, but I just wish I could put that side of things in place and do what interests me from that point on. There’s no doubting my passion for open source computing.”
Indeed, he has read up on the philosophy behind the General Public License and he has devoured Richard Stallman’s story of how he created the free software movement. “I not only found it very inspiring,” he says, “it just seemed the morally right thing to do, for me. The fact is that, at the time, in the 1970s and 1980s, software companies were effectively creating artificial scarcity, based on intellectual ideas that were almost free to reproduce. Back then firms were making floppy disks and putting them in boxes and getting manuals printed and they were charging £500 or £600 for a product that had just £30 or £40 worth of materials. As things moved on, it got easier and easier to distribute software online where the distribution costs and the reproduction costs approach zero, so to then charge artificial amounts on top of that just seemed like the wrong thing to do.”
He hopes that future generations go down the same path and release open source software. “But first, he says, “I think it is crucial that we just get kids learning how to code. There are some good moves in that direction and I love what is being done with the Raspberry Pi. Suddenly, a school can’t say it cannot afford to buy lots of computers to experiment with. These are costing £25 each. It’s a great time to be in computing and I feel it’s good to be putting back in and helping people learn.”