Introducing Russell Heimlich
Russell is the lead developer at Spirited Media and works remotely from home. He has two little girls and lives outside Washington, DC.
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Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is episode 17. Welcome to Hallway Chats, I’m Tara Claeys.
Liam: And I’m Liam Dempsey. Today we’re joined by Russell Heimlich, the lead developer at Spirited Media. It’s a local news startup with sites in Philadelphia, Pittsburg, and Denver. Russel, hi, welcome.
Russell: Hi, glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Tara: Hey Russel, what can you tell us about yourself?
Russell: Oh, I’m just a WordPress developer that has kids, pretty much sums up my life at this stage at least.
Liam: [laughs] Can you share a little bit about how you got into WordPress?
Russell: Sure. Do you want the long story? No, let’s do the short story. One weekend, I had a website, I’ve started doing front-end development and then I heard about this WordPress thing and one weekend just sat down and just played with it and fiddled around with it. This was like 2008, I want to say, and I just took the default theme which was Kubrick at the time, and I made it match my site and eight hours later, I had figured out how to make a WordPress theme kind of look like my site. Then after that, I had a blog and I was like, “Oh, I guess I should start blogging.” So then I started blogging for a couple years and then that’s kind of how I got started with WordPress.
Tara: I love that. How did you get into front-end development, to begin with, before WordPress even came about?
Russell: I mean, it all kind of started in fifth grade I would say. I was outside my house and there was a new kind who was in school. He looked at my neighborhood and he was just kind of riding by on his bike. He was into skateboarding so me and him—he got me into skateboarding and we would be skateboarding for a long, long time. When you’re young and you skateboard all day, the next natural progression is to videotape yourself skateboarding. Then I convinced my parents to get me a video camera and they were kind of hesitant about it at first. So I got involved in just basically making skateboard videos, and then once you have skateboard videos, you need to have a way to distribute them. So I learned how to make websites via GeoCities. I had a GeoCity website. It was kind of neat because there was no YouTube back then. We actually distributed our video via peer-to-peer networks, Morpheus and Kazaa. We would just tell people, “Hey, go look for these keywords on this and download the video that way.” We had a skateboard video that got kind of popular, I guess, just by doing that. And progress, I started doing more websites. I went to college for video editing because that was really what I wanted to do. Then, by accident, I ended up doing web development and it turns out that web development pays better, it has more jobs, so I’ve been a web developer ever since I graduated college kind of by accident.
Tara: Well, since you have kids, I will say that I thought you were going to come back around and tell us that you’re now a skateboarder just like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Do you know that book? Your story sounded like it was going in that circular direction.
Russell: I hope so if my kids are old enough maybe I get back to skateboarding. My oldest daughter is two and a half, she’s too young to skateboard at the moment but maybe.
Tara: That’s a cool progression.
Russell: It’s kind of like my whole life, it’s kind of just being at the right place at the right time. There’s always like, something happened in the previous step which leads me to where I am today, kind of thing. It’s kind of like, if I trace it back, it’s all because of like, “Well, because of this thing, and this thing happened, and this thing happened.” There’s no way that you plan that out, it just happened that way.
Liam: The mystical stepping stones of life. Before I ask you about your current role at Spirited Media, I want to ask you, and this sounds really deep but it’s not going to be in the end, is the skateboarding video still online?
Russell: Oh yeah, the skateboarding website is still online.
Liam: Okay, that’s going to have to go into the show notes, absolutely. What’s the url for that?
Russell: Let me double check. I think it’s Mdskate.russellheimlich.com.
Tara: How old were you when you stopped skateboarding or are you still?
Russell: I mean, I could skateboard, I suppose, but I’m too old now really to be into it.
Tara: Russell – this videos is how old?
Russell: According to the web page, the last update was 11.11.2001.
Liam: That’s going back.
Russell: That’s going back. I made this all in Dreamweaver. It’s got like a tiled blood background. This was like 1998, I would say, are some of these things. 1999, 2000, around that time. I even have—there’s an mpg version and there’s a gif version, and they’re only a hundred kilobytes different but that was a big deal back then. This was like 56k and it took a while. I think that you were probably saving—I’m really into archiving stuff. I even made a website in high school—there was this competition when I went to high school that had—it was like miss universe but it was for high school guys, I guess, and it’s called Mr. HHS. I made a website for our high school, for that. I had that one, it’s mrhhs.russellheimlich.com. It’s of the era, it’s very strange looking back at it now, but it’s a lot of fun. When I found this site, I scraped it, I archived it, and I’ve sent it around to a bunch of friends that were actually in the contest and like, “Oh, this was such a long time ago, this is awesome.” I just like storing stuff like that.
Tara: That’s great, I love that idea. I use YouTube for that. Do you use YouTube now or are you still putting things on self-hosted sites like that?
Russell: I have all the tapes back from when I was skateboarding actually in a closet right behind me here. And one of my goals one day is to digitize all of them. I probably have like 30 or 40 hours worth of video that I want to digitize and just throw on YouTube, just to have it I guess. For my daughters what I’m doing is my wife’s really into Instagram and so I built a WordPress site for each of my daughters and it scrapes hashtags for them and it creates a little archive for their sites. So it just pulls down a copy of the video or the photo and it’s like creating a scrapbook that way but it’s all digital, you can search it.
Tara: That sounds like a great business idea, you can do websites for your babies. That is a great idea, I like that.
Russell: It’s a lot of fun figuring it out. I guess these are kind of my hobbies now. When my wife was in labor, they just gave her an epidural. She passed out and took a nap and I was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do now so I guess I’ll make my daughter a website.” Just figured it out there, got my version of it.
Tara: Very creative.
Liam: How does this creative approach, this, “I’m going to figure it out.” How does that come together when you’re on the clock at Spirited Media? What are you doing there and how does that all come together for you?
Russell: At Spirited Media, I’m the lead developer and basically, any kind of technical website issue is kind of my domain, is to figure out how to make it happen and how to align with what the editors want to do – how to make the technology part of that work for them. A lot of it is really just playing around. My whole life has really just been playing around with stuff and figuring out, taking things apart, putting them back together and just figuring out how things work. I have a degree in digital media production, which I got in college, but none of that really helped me in what my current day job, it was all kind of an accident and just kind of figuring it out on my own. If there is anything that needs figuring out, I just break it down step by step and go for it. I don’t believe in, “I need to get a class on this.” Or stuff like that. I’m always curious how things in the world work. When I drive on the road and I see big bridges and stuff, “How did people get together and decide they were going to build this massive infrastructure thing and make it actually happen?”
Tara: Russell, seeing as you are so creative and it sounds like you’re doing , as they say, scratching itches and solving problems and using your time resourcefully to develop your skills … Something that we talk about on this show is success and how our guests would define success. When you think about the trajectory that you’ve been on and what you’re looking forward to, where do you find yourself in terms of your definition of success and on that path where are you?
Russell: Sure. Yes, success. Success can mean a lot of different things in different contexts and stuff. But I think, in a general sense, if you can just get one thing done off of your list of things you need to do, then I think that considers a success because there’s way more stuff we need to do than we have time for and as long as you are making progress on something then I consider that to be a worthy success of your presence here on earth.
Tara: Is that something you approach on a day-to-day basis?
Russell: On a day-to-day basis I try to get at least one thing done. Sometimes it’s a real big struggle. And there are all these other things that come up that you track from your goal trying to get this one thing done and you just kind of roll with it. I’ve learned now as I got older that you can’t really fight a lot of things, you kind of just got to react and roll with it and make the best of it. There’s no use in trying to stop a lot of things, or get in the way of progress, I guess.
Tara: Where do you see yourself five years down the road, if you’re looking at accomplishing one thing each day? Do you have a long-term view as well?
Russell: It’s weird, I’m very long-term in terms of archiving, in terms of finances and stuff. I am into retirement savings, which sounds kind of weird to say but I enjoy that. I enjoy planning out saving, I guess. But in terms of what I’m going to be doing day to day, I hope it’s with websites and I hope it’s in media somehow. It seems to be where I ended up in my life is doing media creation so I hope that I continue doing that. In terms of long-term, no matter what I say here, I’m going to be absolutely wrong as to what actually happens. If you asked me 10 years ago, “What would you be doing?” And you said, “Build websites.” I’d be like, “That’s crazy. I don’t believe that. I’m going to be a video editor.” Look how everything turned out. I don’t know. In terms of long-term, I hope to be doing WordPress stuff and doing website stuff and just being happy doing that.
Tara: That’s good. Going back around to the day-to-day, getting something done each day, what would you say is the most important thing that you do every day?
Russell: Most important thing I do every day? Gosh, if I could name just one thing? If it’s for the website stuff, it’s just kind of being there for my team, I’d say, is the best. I have one direct report and just trying to answer questions he might have or helping him in whatever problems he might be facing. That’s something that’s very important, I think. Then, helping my wife if she has questions or needs help with something. That’s another thing I consider really important success is to help my wife with stuff that she needs and help my kids. So I guess it boils down to helping people every day, it’s what I do.
Tara: That’s a good approach. And you work from home?
Russell: I work from home, yes. I’m doing this for about two years of working remotely. Took some adjusting but I like it a lot, there’s pros and cons.
Tara: Yeah, have you ever worked for yourself or have you always worked for an agency or a company like you do now?
Russell: I never worked for myself as a primary career, I’ve done some freelancing on the side every now and then but not like, “I am working for my freelance. My job, myself, is my primary job.” I’ve never done something like that. I’ve always worked for a company or something like that. I generally enjoy when other people find the work and I do the work, as opposed to going out and finding the work and then doing the work. It’s not my favorite thing to do.
Tara: That makes sense. I think when we talk to freelancers, I’m doing that kind of work myself, you hear a lot how the actual work that you’re doing for your clients is one small part of what you have to do. You have a lot of business stuff to take care of that when you’re working for someone else, you can avoid that. There’s definitely an up sign to that. What kind of flexibility do you have working remotely in your job now?
Russell: I love the flexibility of being able to like—I can take my daughter to daycare and come home and my day doesn’t really get started until 10:00 AM and stuff. On the flip side of that, I sometimes go later or at night, on the weekends sometimes. I just enjoy being able to like, “I’m tired and I need to take a nap because I’m not productive and doing anything like that so I’ll take a nap. Because that would be a better use of my time than to try to pretend like I don’t need to take a nap and try to work through something and not getting anywhere.” The whole flexibility of being able to customize my setup and my office the way I wanted to. I painted my office myself and set everything up that way, the way I like it. I like that.
Tara: I like it too. No one else can see it but I can see it, you have very cool decor in your office.
Russell: Yeah, blue horizontal stripes, and what you can’t see is I have this octopus curtains that are out of view but my wife helped me set all that stuff.
Tara: That’s very nautical.
Russell: Custom desk here, too, yeah.
Liam: I see a Wapuu on a shelf.
Tara: Same one right behind you, as a matter of fact.
Russell: I also have a collection of Event Apart lunch boxes that I like to display because I really enjoy the conference of Event Apart. If you have the opportunity to go to that, you should check it out. It’s for people that work on the web. It has something for everyone.
Tara: Speaking of events, talk a little bit about your involvement with the WordPress community. I know that you have been involved with the DC WordPress Group. Can you talk a little bit about what that means for you and how you got involved in the WordPress community?
Russell: Sure. DC has a really thriving WordPress community. WordPress DC has been going on since at least 2010, if not earlier maybe. When I used to actually work in the city it was not a big deal for me to stay late at work and then go to the Meetup. I’d usually get there early and I’d help set up chairs and eventually I got wrangled into like, “Oh, you should be an organizer.” So I started setting up chairs and getting all the emails of all the invites from Meetup.com of all the people that were coming and stuff like that. I’ve just been involved helping any way that I can with the Meetup with my limited time and just trying to help keep it going. I know that WordPress DC Meetup was run by Leland, and Courtney, and Beth, and other people. They’re doing an amazing job and I just kind of sit on the sidelines and cheer them on from time to time. DC WordPress seems big, I think there’s over 1200 members in the WordPress DC Meetup.
Liam: That’s exciting.
Russell: It is very exciting. Yeah, a lot’s happening.
Tara: Do you interact with the community in other ways, online?
Russell: Every now and then when I have a free moment I like to go on to the WordPress stackexchange site and just look at the questions that haven’t been answered and just go through it, put my thoughts in there. I’m active in the Advanced WordPress Facebook Group so I help to monitor things that go through that and get my feedback where I can there. Just kind of helping answering questions, I think, it’s probably the best way for me to give back. There’s a lot of questions out there and a lot of people probably need help with things.
Tara: Yeah, it’s hard to find time to do that so anytime you can devote to it is appreciated by the community, I know.
Russell: Even if it’s just one question a day, that helps so much. If everyone just answered one question a day, there’d be no questions that are unanswered.
Tara: That’s a good point.
Liam: It’s always a bit of a trick to —someone shares a question or are in a setup, and because of the asynchronous way that communicates on Facebook, or on Slack, or on forums, get a question like, “Well, I can see answering it this way and this way.” And then we ask all, “How are you configured? What’s going on? What is your setup? Can you share a link so we can see the front end?” Then what I find as a struggle is by the time they get back to me sometimes, I’m buried on work and family and it takes two weeks to get back to them. Like, “Hey, we gave you the link. What’s next?”
Russell: Yeah. One thing I like about the Facebook, though, is you can see when someone’s typing so you can see what they’re answering back right away. A lot of the times it’s like, I’m just going to put my comments here and that will hopefully guide them in the right direction. Hopefully, I know a thing or two that they don’t know.
Liam: I like that. Let me ask you this. You talked about being involved in WordPress and you talked a little bit about how your career is progressing. Now that you’re with this media company, within that environment, what’s been your biggest challenge to date and how did you deal with it? Or if it’s ongoing, how are you dealing with it?
Russell: My biggest challenge? One of the things that struck me when I first joined was figuring out how—it was a technical problem, it’s website hosting. We have a dedicated web host there but I was kind of itching to do a big website deployment infrastructure rebuild project, I guess. I saw this as an opportunity to make that happen, so I came up with a written document and I figured out Amazon’s web services from scratch basically, and we made it happen. In about three or four months, we switched website hosting and now we’re cheaper and we’re more flexible for our website as we scale to more cities. That was kind of a big challenge and how we overcame it took to build something that wasn’t there before like that.
Liam: That’s pretty impressive. Would you describe yourself as more of a back-end developer, more of a sysadmin, somewhere in between? How would you describe yourself if you had to pitch your whole technical skills in some way?
Liam: Yeah, that goes back to what you said earlier about liking to figure things out. I can see that’s rolled out in your career. I think Tara had a question for you.
Liam: Would you say that you’re the type of an individual that learns by doing and by having an actual project? Rather than hearing a theory or reading the book, you prefer to dig into it and just explore and maybe google a thing or two when you really have to get your fingers onto the keyboard and a hand on the mouse to get more knowledge?
Russell: Absolutely, that’s the best way to learn is by doing, I think, and it actually informs you to then—I think by doing it a little bit, then you open yourself up to being more aware of the theory behind stuff, as opposed to just hearing the theory and then not making sense of it at all within context and then once you actually do it, it kind of makes more sense that way.
Tara: Do you find that you learn something fully or deeply when you are learning it to solve a problem, though, or do you—something that I ask myself a lot because I will have a problem and I’ll learn how to solve that one problem that I don’t end up learning the whole entire language or the whole entire package, and I just solve the problem.
Russell: Sure, yeah. I think at first, you always start to solve that one immediate problem and then you start encountering similar problems like that over and over again, and that’s kind of when you learn it deeply. Then after you’ve done it a dozen times maybe of solving the similar problem, then you think about like, “How can I go even deeper with this?” And that just leads you into this rabbit hole of going—I started front-end, and then I wanted the front-end to be a certain way so I went back-end to output the code on the front-end better. And then the back-end, I wanted to perform better so I learn server stuff. It just leads you down this path of going deeper, and deeper, and deeper until you get—it all started just with fun and trying to make markup pretty.
Tara: I think your approach in how you’ve taught yourself all of these things really shows that you like to dive deep into thing and you like to solve problems creatively, which is why you’ve been successful in solving something every day, it sounds like, Russell.
Russell: I’d say I learn something new every day. Every day is different.
Tara: That’s great. What would you say in your development from skateboarder to front-end, to back-end, full-stack, and working for different companies, people that you’ve encountered, what would you say is the single most valuable helpful piece of advice you have ever received?
Russell: Single most valuable piece of advice I ever received would probably be something that my dad said when I first started working and I had a job. He was like, “That makes total sense logically, but in the business world, it makes no sense at all.” He basically was telling me that there’s a lot of things that don’t make sense in a context of a company, or a corporation, or the business world, that probably makes sense to yourself as an individual. I guess he just prepared me that the corporate world is really weird and it doesn’t work the same way as the normal world you expect, I guess. Just preparing stuff for that, I guess. I guess it’s not really advice, it’s just kind of prepping me for what’s ahead. “Why do you do it this way?”, “Oh, we’ve always done it that was because of X, Y, and Z.” It’s like, “Oh, okay.”
Tara: Do you think that’s prepared you to approach things the way you have, which is trying to find a better solution?
Russell: It probably helps with that. Whenever someone says, “You can’t do something.” I always try to figure out a way to prove them wrong and do the thing they said I couldn’t do. Yeah, if I ever see a problem, I like to just tackle it head on and try to figure it out and not ask permission for it or wait around for someone to tell me that I should work on this problem kind of thing. It’s really just, if you see something wrong go and fix it and that will hopefully make things a lot better.
Liam: Let me ask you this if I can. Your father’s advice sounds like it was really helpful and prepared you mentally. What are you doing currently to make sure that you don’t become the employee or the corporate leader that your father warned you about? How do you avoid falling into those mental traps of ‘this is how we always do it’, ‘this is the way it should be done’, in that kind of overly strict kind of way? How do you avoid that?
Russell: I like to think that I listen to what other people are proposing or what they’re saying and try to—could speak the idea as opposed to trying to shut down the person or say I’m not interested. Being very open to feedback and being very open to what other people are thinking, I feel like I’m more aware, I have more empathy, I guess, to issues like that than other people. Trying to look at things from their point of view and seeing where they’re coming from and how we might be having a middle ground or something or where they’re coming from to see what’s influencing their statement, I guess.
Liam: I like that. It makes me ask a somewhat related but not immediately on-topic question is about the wider WordPress community. Given that it’s open source, and I’m mostly asking this to anybody listening, ourselves included, do you think as an open source project WordPress is more likely to draw in and attract people like yourself with that mindset of, “I want to hear what you have to say. I want to hear your thoughts and your views and where you’re coming to this.” Just by the very nature being open source where the code’s out there, the discussion is out there, the plans for the future are out there. The only way to move those forward together as a community is to be open to different ideas.
Russell: Yeah. I mean, yes and no. The code’s out there and you can go and take it. You can build plugins, you can extend it, you can make WordPress do whatever you want. It’s super flexible in that regard. But then in terms of, like, the whole bureaucracy of core, I guess, just like, you want to make a change so you file this ticket and then there’s a whole bunch of reasons of why it’s not going to get in and why we can’t do that. And this and that, it’s very—that part of it of WordPress kind of turns me off. It’s like participating in the wider community and trying to—I’d like to get back and do code stuff for WordPress core but there’s just a lot of politics and a lot of stuff that prevents—I just like to take WordPress and do my own thing with it, I think, and not have to worry about making this work through all kinds of different languages and all kinds of different situations, and all kinds of themes and plugins and different servers and all that kind of stuff. I like to take WordPress and do things that I want to do with it. In that regard, being open is awesome, it helps in that regard, but then maintaining that is something that—I can’t imagine how WordPress is still going. It seems very—It’s one of those mysteries, it’s like, “I don’t know how open source can work. It seems like it shouldn’t work on paper.”
Liam: Maybe it’s what your father was talking about.
Liam: I understand that dichotomy of the desire to create a tool that really is available and powerful for everyone to use, regardless of their cultural position. On the other hand, “I just want to use it. I want to make it my own, and frankly, my deadline is tomorrow so how do I do that?” That’s a tricky balance and I think it is one that’s likely to cost people to pull hair or stress out about. I don’t think we’re going away from that anytime soon but I welcome your thoughts on that.
Russell: Props to all the contributors that work on WordPress day in, day out.
Liam: Amen to that.
Russell: I don’t know how they do it or how they can—it takes a special type of person, I guess I’m not that person to figure out how to make all these people agree and work together and stuff like that. I guess I’m not there yet, maybe that’s something I’ll acquire when I’m older with more wisdom.
Tara: Well, I think it takes some patience but when you have something that’s as large as this, I guess you have to have some bureaucracy built in or it wouldn’t work also.
Russell: It goes both ways, yeah.
Tara: Yeah. Russell, I’m sorry to say we’re out of time. It’s been great having you Hallway Chats. Where can people find you? And we are definitely going to include the skateboard videos in the show notes, but where else can they find you today?
Russell: My screen name is Kingkool68, that’s kool with a K. That’s pretty much I’m on the internet. No one ever told you at middle school that whatever screen name you pick, it’s going to stick with you for the rest of your life.
Tara: Is that your skateboard name, Kingkool?
Russell: That’s my skateboard name. In elementary school, I thought that was fun so that stuck with me for some reason. It’s K-I-N-G-K-O-O-L-6-8. That’s my handle on Twitter, that’s my handle on Instagram, Github. You can find me all over the internet that way. My website’s russellheimlich.com which I haven’t updated since 2006 when I graduated college. I haven’t had time to work on that. It still has a flash version so you can go check out what a flash version website looks like.
Tara: Wow, I love all the history we’re going to get when we look you up, Russell.
Liam: This is going to be awesome. I’m very much looking forward toward clicking on the links. Mr. HHS, here I come. Russell, thank you so much for joining us today, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Really enjoyed getting to know you. Thanks for sharing your time and your thoughts with us.
Russell: Thank you guys so much for having me, I hope to hear more great episodes.
Tara: Thanks a lot.
Liam: Thanks for the listening to the show. We sure hope you enjoyed it much as we did.
Tara: If you like what we’re doing here – meeting new people in our WordPress community – we invite you to tell others about it. We’re on iTunes and at hallwaychats.com.
Liam: Better yet, ask your WordPress friends and colleagues to join us on the show. Encourage them to complete the “Be on the show” form on our site, to tell us about themselves.