Introducing Mike Hale
Mike Hale is a developer at Rainmaker Digital where he helps build the Rainmaker platform. He’s also a collector of guitars, bizarre music and enjoys a nice cigar and bourbon in his downtime. He lives in the western suburbs of Chicago with his family and his two dogs.
Liam: This is Hallway Chats, where we talk with some of the unique people in and around WordPress.
Tara: Together, we meet and chat with folks you may not know about in our community.
Liam: With our guests, we’ll explore stories of living – and of making a living with WordPress.
Tara: And now, the conversation begins. This is episode 15.
Liam: Hi! Welcome to Hallway Chats. I am Liam Dempsey.
Tara: I am Tara Claeys. Today we are joined by Mike Hale. Mike is a developer at Rainmaker Digital where he helps build the Rainmaker platform. He’s also a collector of guitars, bizarre music and enjoys a nice cigar and bourbon in his downtime. He lives in the western boroughs of Chicago with his family and his two dogs. Hey, Mike!
Mike: Hey it’s nice to be here.
Liam: Hey Mike! Thanks for joining us today. Your intro very much caught my attention. When I asked you to introduce yourself, you just have to explain and talk about bizarre music.
Mike: Bizarre music. OK. So I got on a kick a while back at a flea market finding old just weird foreign or obscure LPs. So I collect them. It’s pretty much anything that a record collector would leave behind. That’s the stuff that I like. So if it’s anybody you ever heard of or know of I want it. It’s been a couple of years that I have been collecting the LPs. It keeps growing. Someday I’ll figure out something fun to do with it.
Tara: So they’re actual vinyl LPs, viny?
Mike: Yeah usually.
Tara: And you bring them home from these things and listen to them?
Mike: Yep. I bring them home, clean them up, digitize them and go through them.
Tara: Do listen to them more than once? Or is it usually just one-time listening experience?
Mike: Some of them you have to listen to more than once. Some of them are just so awful, and some of them are duds. You get then home, and there is nothing really special about them. Those get the once over. But yeah, if it’s something unique and super interesting they kind of make their way into the rotation a bit more.
Tara: I would love to see what you do with those when you digitize them. That sounds like a very cool website someday to visit. That’s very interesting. I’m also interested (we talked a little bit before we started recording) about Rainmaker and what you do there. I’d like to hear some of what you did before that, what your background is and how you got involved with WordPress.
Mike: Sure. I’ve been in web development for probably close to about 20 years now. I started doing websites back in the late 90s; standard static HTML sites back in the browser war days when it was Netscape 1 .2. I was there for the introduction of tables. So I’ve been doing that for a while. I started in WordPress probably around about 2010 or so where I really started to do it on more projects and not just for my own stuff. The first time I used it; I had a project that I needed a site for. Rather than building one from scratch in .NET. I knew of WordPress. I had seen it here and there. I thought you know? I think I’m going to roll up my sleeves and dig into this to see if it’s something that I can make work a lot quicker. It was quicker. So yeah, before WordPress I did a lot of .NET stuff. It was ASP before that. I was working for a lot of bigger corporate clients. I did web app projects for places like BP, Heinz, McCormick, Ulta Beauty; those types of places while doing some freelance web development on the side.
Tara: So you were freelancing and also an employee of those big companies?
Mike: When I was working for them, it is mostly in a consulting role. Outside of that I always had my own projects, or somebody would have something going. I worked like as a freelancer. I free-lanced up until three years ago when I went full-time with Rainmaker digital. I actually consulted with them. I had done development for them on Scribe, which is the content optimization software. It’s rolled into Rainmaker now. I had worked on the API and some of the web UI for that on and off for about three years. It just hit three years that I’ve been a full-time employee with them. Which is by far the longest I’ve ever had a job at one time.
Tara: Wow! So you’ve been on your own most of the time the past 20 years, except for the past three?
Mike: Pretty much. There was a lot of times where I’d be an employee of a consulting company but you know if you ever had any experience with that, you’re only an employee as long as they have a project for you to work on.
Mike: So you’re constantly looking for the next project.
Tara: Yeah. Talk a little bit about that switch. A lot of people that we talk to on this show are freelancers who have left a job or have never really worked for someone else and talk about flexibility of working for themselves. It sounds like you had that mostly and now you’re employed by someone else. Talk about that change, what that’s meant for you, and what that experience has been.
Mike: It was hard to let go of some of the freelance stuff and that control. But then again, you’re trading it in for some stability. I think I’m kind of in a unique position because working for Rainmaker; everything is remote. It’s all work from home. So it wasn’t that drastic of a change. It’s really like you’re working for one client, but then you have the stability and benefits of working for actual an employer. So it wasn’t too drastic of a change, but there were very few situations out there that I would’ve left the freelance world for. This was one of them. When the opportunity came along, I had to jump on it.
Tara: It’s good to hear that it’s been a good transition for you. Were you working a lot with Genesis before you started working with Rainmaker? How did you encounter them?
Mike: I started working with Genesis not too long after I had started working with WordPress. It’s kind of funny. It’s because of Rainmaker (I do real estate) I still do it kind of on the side…and I went to a real estate tech conference that Brian Clark and Brian Gardner were speaking at. Brian Gardner is from StudioPress. Brian Clark is the CEO of Rainmaker and the start of Copyblogger blog. Afterwards, I was talking to Brian Gardner just a little bit. I said I’m a developer too. I used WordPress and had a conversation. That’s how I started doing consulting work for them. I was just about to kick off another project. I thought if I’m going to do some consulting work for them, I probably should be using their product. So that was the first time that I had got my hands on Genesis. When I was doing freelance sites for people, it was almost exclusively Genesis. The only times it wouldn’t be was if it was a client that already had a theme or already had something in place that I couldn’t get rid of or had to use. But yeah, if it were my choice I’d always go with Genesis. From the range of doing completely custom themes, usually just kind of modifying a theme (which is why I liked it). I could take just a regular StudioPress theme and easily customize it to how I wanted it to work.
Liam: What a great networking story. I’m going to go back that. You’re at a conference. You bump into to the two guys running the program and chat with them. That leads to where you’re at today. That is awesome! I just love that. I think that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do with Hallway Chats. Just get out and meet new people and talk where you don’t know where it’s going to go. Just be friends, it might be nothing, but it might land a great job that you really enjoy. You may end up having it for the longest time that you ever had a job. That’s awesome.
Tara: Mike? Tell us a little bit about what the meaning of success is for you. Whether it’s just in your personal life or your professional life. You’ve changed from working for yourself to working for someone else, but it’s working really well for you. How do you define success?
Mike: I think I’m at the point now where I’m starting to look more at being recognized as being good at what I do. I’m working a little more around the personal branding I guess to make more of a name for myself out there. Anytime (businesswise) if I’m able to help somebody out; I get a lot of calls from people still where they are in a jam, or they have some problem or some hurdle that’s blocking their business…anytime I can help somebody out of a bad situation based on what I know I call that a win. It’s a very good feeling to be able to do that for somebody. So always continuing to learn new things and trying things and just take on different challenges, that’s kind of what I define as success. It’s not so much as getting to a certain point and saying hey! I’ve made it. It’s just always moving forward from where you’ve been.
Tara: I think that makes a lot of sense and I like what you said about being recognized for being good at what you do. Part of the way that you are moving toward that is by helping other people and using your knowledge and experience in a positive way. How are you interacting with the community in order to do that?
Mike: I’m a bit of a WordCamp addict. This year I will probably end up going about 8 or 9 WordCamps.
Liam: That’s a few.
Mike: Just a few yeah; anything in the Midwest. I do speak at WordCamps when I can. This year so far (if you count WordCamp Kent which is about to happen). It may have happened but the time this goes out. That will be the fifth one that I’ve spoken at this year. I really enjoy it. I really get a kick out of that. So going to WordCamps; I love that. I love hanging out with people. I have so many friends that I see a different WordCamps. There are different circles and different groups of people that I know kind of by area now. I also am the co-organizer of our local WordPress Meetup, which is WordPress, Naperville. So I live in Warrenville Illinois. It’s basically 30 miles straight west of downtown Chicago. There’s a couple of good MeetUps in the city. I was joking, but it’s true. There’s a real popular North Side Chicago WordPress Meetup that’s run by Becky Davis. That’s in the city. But from where I am at the time it is, you’d be easier for me to get to a different Meetup that meets at Beloit Wisconsin because of the traffic. So yeah we took over WordPress, Naperville. I think it probably would be about two and a half to three years ago. The guy who was running it just didn’t want to run it anymore. So we took over and found a new location. That one is actually now one of the charter Meetups. Everything with our venue and our Meetup fees are all handled by the WordPress Foundation, which is nice. We just have to worry about getting good topics in there. That’s another way by hosting the Meetup.
Liam: I really appreciate the city angle. We have a similar set up in the Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Meetup is fantastic, but I was in a similar situation. It’s going to take me an hour or an hour and ten minutes (and another hour to get home). Maybe there is another way. So I love what you are doing to just bring WordPress to you or help it grow where you are. That’s fantastic!
Mike: An hour! I’d be happy if the commute to that one was an hour.
Tara: I started one outside of DC as well. Although (full disclosure) I can get down to DC in about 20 to 25 minutes. A lot of other people can’t…so we’re all suburbanites…Meetup suburbanites. Tell us about your challenges, Mike. What do you find is the biggest challenge, whether in your daily life or in your career and how are you working on that? What is your biggest challenge?
Mike: I would probably, work-wise and it definitely gets to the personal life too. It’s very common I found especially among WordPress people for whatever reason. It’s really just when the imposter syndrome starts creeping in. It’s hard because with WordPress being open source, everything you do is public. If you write a plugin or theme and it’s out there for people, they can pick through every little line of code that you have. You think you know they’re going hate this. What am I doing? I still (even after three years working every day) some days you just wake up and think today’s the day. They’re just to call me up and say you know? We realize that you have no idea what you’re doing. That creeps in and really gets hard. Overcoming it, I think and just trying to stay positive. Actually, at WordCamp Jackson, Ian Wilson did a talk on this. One of the tips that I found was to keep a vision board or you can you keep a scrapbook of positive comments or a journal of things that I’ve been doing that lately. Anytime anybody says anything good about me, I either copy and paste into my Evernote or I save it somewhere.
Liam: Mike? You’re awesome.
Mike: I’ll just play that in a loop.
Tara: Yeah. That validation is really helpful. Where doessome of that fear come from? Has anybody ever criticized you or looked at your code and torn it apart? Have you seen it happen to other people? Where does that fear come from?
Mike: Not in a deconstructive way, has it ever happened. I tell the story how when I wrote my first plugin ever; I just wanted to have something in the plugin repo. So it’s a silly little plugin. All it does is in the footer links it makes them no follow because a couple of years ago that was the big no-no. If you had them all in there, that was considered spamming links. So I wrote this plugin for the Genesis framework and themes. I put in the review. The review went through. I was so proud of myself. I was so happy, so I Tweeted it out and went to bed. I’m thinking I’m awesome. I’ve got a plugin in the repo. I woke up the next morning, and I had about 15 notifications from GitHub. It was Gary Jones who is in the UK. He’s a big Genesis developer, and he’s all about code quality. He had gone through it and fixed a lot of things. He sent the pull request. It was kind of funny because as I said it was not in a bad way. He was doing it to make the actual plugin better, but it was kind of funny that I was feeling all good and then I was like ok. I guess there was a lot that I missed. I think it just comes from when you’re freelancing it’s really hard. You don’t have reviews. You don’t have somebody there. You don’t have coworkers sometimes to even bounce stuff off or to say hey! Can you take a quick look at this? When I did start working with Rainmaker one of the nice things was that I could bounce ideas off somebody. Within the development team that’s a really big thing that we do. It’s hey! Here is what I’m thinking. What are you thinking about? You are kind of out on an island sometimes. You don’t really have a lot of feedback. Even if a client says, we’re really happy. As developers, you kind of think that you’re over optimizing everything. You think well it worked for them, but there are so many ways I could have done this better. Even though it’s fine for what they actually need, it’s just kind of hard sometimes without that feedback.
Liam: That loops back around to your definition of success doesn’t it? It’s being recognized as knowing what you’re doing. I absolutely agree with you, as freelancers or stemming from freelance to employment or freelance into business, if we don’t have agency experience or we have not worked with a team…well it works but put in a few nails and some drywall up…it will stay up on wall for a while, but for how long and under what circumstances? So I get that feedback loop. It can be kind of tough from a freelance standpoint. It can contribute to that imposter syndrome. So if success to you (in addition to pushing yourself and learning) is maintaining a reputation of knowledge and in knowing what’s the single most important thing you do every day to either maintain that or continue to achieve that level of success?
Mike: For me, I think it’s always about staying up to date and learning things. I subscribe to (in Feedly) probably about 150 blogs on everything from growth hacking, to startups, to marketing, to WordPress, and writing. I subscribe to about 60 podcasts at least (61 including Hallway Chats). You can’t listen to everything that comes out in a day from those you know. Even if you’re on one and a half times speed, so you do pick and choose. When I say subscribe it doesn’t mean I listen to all of the 60 episodes. With the 20 or 30 different newsletters to my inbox which I’m very selective about, plus I’m going through Flipboard and my Twitter stream and reading all those links. I think it’s really about wanting more knowledge and more info. It gets to be a challenge where that starts to become work at a point. I’ve got twelve backlogged podcast episodes that I have to listen to. Sometimes you have to cut through them a little a little quicker. I think to me that’s what always makes me feel like I’m moving forward is if I’m learning something new, even if it’s just picking up some little interesting article or some little tidbit or some little trick that I can use someday. I think that’s really what I do. I focus and take the time to go through and consume a lot of content as well.
Liam: So, I love the idea of pulling together so many different sources of information. I wonder if you have a system for how you dig into that? Do you say every Tuesday at 4 PM, I scan Feedly for 15 or 20 minutes, I pull out 3 or 4 and I book them for reading and listening on Thursday or some other system? How do go about doing that?
Mike: With podcasts, I listen to them pretty much all day while I’m working. I find it a lot easier to listen to podcasts than music. I love music.
Liam: Yeah, bizarre music.
Mike: Bizarre music and regular music too. But I start worrying about what am I going to listen to next? So I listen to podcasts. What I do is use Pocket app (which is kind of a note-taking app), and so pretty much each night I’ll flip through my Feedly. If I see an article that looks interesting, I’ll put it into the pocket. I do the same thing with Flipboard. If I’m flipping through Flipboard and I see something that looks interesting, I’ll put in there. I’ll go back later when actually have some time (maybe twice a week or two or three times a week) read the ones in detail. I will save them away if I want to. I’ll also go through and put them all out to share through buffer so that I can share those links as well. So if it’s something that I’ve shared, then I’ve read it. That’s about the only way that I have found to manage that much. It is to skim through it, pick out the ones I want to read and then go back and read them later.
Tara: With your podcasts, I was thinking it might be helpful for you to attend that Chicago Meetup now and then because you could listen to a lot of podcasts on your commute.
Tara: I tend to listen to them on my road trips. I like to listen to podcasts.
Mike: The only problem is that my car is so old I had to get a little Bluetooth radio transmitter adapter.
Tara: Yeah they don’t work that well. It makes it hard to listen.
Liam: Mike? Let me jump in. You talked a little bit about what your favorite thing is to do. Let’s talk the other end of the spectrum. So you have full-time employment, you’ve got a variety of responsibilities within that. What’s your least favorite thing to do on a Monday through Friday basis? As you’re thinking about that, I’ll ask you to also talk to us about how do you overcome the urge not to do it? What drives you? What systems do you have? What mental approach do you take to make sure that you’re meeting the professional goals that you and your employer set out for you?
Mike: I think one the challenges gets to be is with Rainmaker being a platform supporting it. Like any good developer, I don’t want to work with legacy code or somebody else’s apps. I want to do something fun, exciting and new all the time. That does become challenging. Sometimes there are just things where it could be an issue that’s very hard to figure out or very hard to get through. I’m not always the best at managing and prioritizing the order that I do things. I do fall into the trap where I might knock off five easy things rather than taking on the one hard one. Again I do have the advantage of having some resources that I can go to within the company to say hey! Can you take a look at this too? But I think the general approach is to getting in that groove sometimes. If I do knock off a couple of little things or tiny issues and get a couple of little wins, then you feel positive. Then you can dive into that big thing. It’s not so overwhelming where you think I’m never to get this done or never going to get this fixed.
Liam: I find it very helpful as well. I’ve got a small team at my company. Those massive projects, we know they’re going to take hours to get through. I’m just overwhelmed by that and failed to realize that actually any forum or task has a 15 to 20 minute or half-hour task built into that. If we can chunk out or attack any one of those two 15 or 20-minute tasks; as we progress not only is time gone, but you realize that this wasn’t so bad. You realize it is not as daunting. Let me ask you this if I can, thinking about freelance versus working with a team; you’ve talked about the downside of you don’t have quite a mix or flexibility as you once had. You’ve talked about the upside of having a team having to the ability to bounce off ideas. Clearly, you like where you are professionally. You said earlier that this is the longest you’ve been with the company. You’re really happy about that. This is just kind of a theoretical question. Can I ask you where your career might be going? Could you see going back to working alone without that team? I’m not talking about do you want to leave and set up your own freelance but how much do you think you would miss stepping away from having professional, intelligent, and supportive team members to help tackle the problems you’re facing…building the product and making the company grow?
Mike: It’s hard to say because having gone from freelance to a corporate gig back to freelance, back to that, I’m okay with either. I know the benefits and disadvantages of each side of it. I do run into the thing where you I’m going to turn 45 this year, so now I’m having this thing of do I want to be a 50-year-old software developer? Not so much. I do have at least five years to figure that out.
Tara: What do you want to be when you are 50?
Mike: I definitely don’t mind being in the software business or something. I want to move more into business development. More of the strategy side of things. When I worked those corporate gigs, I was like a technical team lead. I usually led the projects. So it was kind of funny going to freelance. It was in a way kind of a step back because I didn’t have that cushy corporate job where I was kind of in one of those more advanced roles. But then you had the miserable commute going in each day to a job that you didn’t really care about at all. So it definitely is a trade-off. I’d like to move into that type of role in the future. But I definitely still enjoy writing code and learning new things. Last year one of my focuses was front-end development. I just did a project of my own with React which was kind of fun. I think if I ever start to feel like I don’t want to do this anymore, I’ll just take on a project to learn something new.
Tara: Do you find that you have more time, not as a freelancer? Was it less overwhelming? I’m curious not having worked in the corporate world for a long time myself. Do you feel like you have more boundaries when you’re working for someone else then when you are working for yourself?
Mike: The issue I always had when freelancing is your working with your clients, but then you’re also working on your business. So there much of that from accounting to writing proposals and all that stuff being taken away. It’s nice when you do not have to do that much client work.
Tara: That’s a good point. What do you miss about being a freelancer then?
Mike: I actually just miss working with different clients. I worked with a lot of smaller companies. So it is really interesting. I didn’t really have a niche market that I focused on. It was kind of interesting to learn what worked for one company and one type of business didn’t work for another and the kind of similarities and that what you take from having worked with a screen printer to doing a site for a local pizza shop. Stuff like that. So I liked learning about different businesses and how they ran their businesses.
Tara: That’s a good answer. I can definitely see that.
Liam: I enjoy that a whole lot too. It’s just different to realize that it was a concern for this particular industry. Or your course that makes sense. I would normally not appreciate that going in. It’s really neat.
Tara: Yeah. I don’t think about that very often, but that’s a really good point. Something else that we like to ask our guests Mike is to talk about advice. What is the best piece of advice that you’ve received that you would share with us? What would that be?
Mike: My guiding principle is if you know Occam’s razor or KISS (which is just keep it simple stupid) that the easiest answer or the easiest solution to a problem is probably the right one. I try to live that as my motto. I worked for a company, and it was really driven home where they just couldn’t get version 1 out the door because they kept adding to it and reworking things. I was like it’s good enough. Let’s see how people like it. I always just try to keep things on the simple side. Don’t over complicate things, make it work and then go back and learn what you need to learn from it. Then put all the finishing touches on.
Tara: I think that’s great advice. That brings me to another question that I struggle with in that regard. When you’re trying to do that and when you’re working in this industry we’re faced almost every day with a new and better way of doing something, right? When do you decide whether you take the time and energy to adopt the new way of doing things when the way that you’re doing it is easy for you and works? Do you have any advice about that?
Mike: You know I’ve gone through about every productivity type system from getting things done to the bullet journal. I like to try the different approaches and kind of pick little bits and pieces out of it that I like. Then that usually ends up becoming a hybrid that works for me (probably just for me) with the way my brain works. I like to go through them, learn about them, see what I like about them and see what pieces I can take a takeaway and use on my own.
Tara: That’s great. Maybe you can share those with me later. Mike? We’re just about out of time. Where can we find you? Where can other people find you online?
Mike: The easiest way and where I’m most active is on Twitter. I’m @Mikehale on Twitter. I also have a very neglected blog at MikeHale.me.
Liam: Do you want to throw a shout out for the soon to be launching website of your bizarre music collection? Do you have a domain name for that yet?
Mike: I do actually. I have eartrocity.com I still own. An atrocity of the ears.
Tara: We should have had you prepare one that we could use with outgoing music today. That would be fun.
Liam: You heard it here first folks. Youratrocity.com coming to a Web server near you before long. Mike? Thanks so much for joining us. It’s been an absolute blast. We really appreciate your time.
Tara: Thanks, Mike. It’s great to meet you.
Mike: Sure. Thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun.
Tara: We’ll see you at a WordCamp sometime.