Introducing Susan Walker
Susan Walker is a web developer at Rutgers University Camden where she manages the WordPress multi-sites. She’s a co-organizer of the Philadelphia WordPress meetup, has been a WordCamp Philly co-organizer, and has spoken at WordCamp US.
Tara: This is Hallway Chats, where we meet people who use WordPress.
Liam: We ask questions, and our guests share their stories, ideas and perspectives.
Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Liam Dempsey.
Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is episode 81.
Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today, we’re joined by Susan Walker. Susan is a web developer at Rutgers University Camden where she manages the WordPress multi-sites. She’s a co-organizer of the Philadelphia WordPress meetup, has been a WordCamp Philly co-organizer, and has spoken at WordCamp US. Hi, Susan. Nice to see you, today.
Susan: Hi. How is everybody?
Liam: We’re doing very well, Susan. Thank you so much. Great to see you again. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself, please?
Susan: Well, I live in Haddon Township, New Jersey. That’s about 15 minutes by rail from center city Philly. You mentioned that I work at Rutgers Camden. My official title there is web developer but that only is a little bit of what I do. Not much to tell about myself personally. Single, no kids, right now no pets but looking forward to getting a house fairly soon, and I will probably get myself a couple of little guinea pigs.
Tara: Oh, guinea pigs. Have you had guinea pigs before?
Susan: Oh, I have since I was a little kid.
Tara: Great. Do you teach at the university or do you run their web stuff?
Susan: No, I do no teaching whatsoever. The closest I ever come is pulling aside the content people, we call them ninjas and train them on specific things such as building web forms. But I do stay out of the classroom and that’s probably a good thing for both me and the students.
Tara: [laughs] So how did you find WordPress and get into web development to begin with?
Susan: Oh, gosh. That’s two different stories. Starting with WordPress, I was actually hired by Rutgers Camden as a Drupal developer and I don’t think that they had fully worked out the plan of what they were going to do with me once they got me onboard. They put me in an office and I basically sat around for four weeks and then the department head came in and said, “Well, we’ve decided you’re not going to do Drupal. You’re going to be doing our WordPress. And they had never actually asked me in the job interview if I knew anything about WordPress or done it before.
Liam: That is awesome.
Susan: Yes, I think about a week and a half into trying to figure out how to build a theme, I was just kind of sitting there crying because I knew that I was going to get fired once they figured out I had no idea what was going on. But it did work out and with a lot of time on Google and a lot of patience, I think about six months after being told that, I had built my first plugin and my first theme and we were starting to get things on the right track.
Liam: Can I ask, were you a Drupal developer at the time or were you a developer generally and you were going to dig into Drupal? What was the hiring process and where were you in terms of your development career with respect to getting hired in the first place?
Susan: I had started working with HTML about the year 1999 and that was because I was a public information officer at a two-year college. They told me that I would be working with the IT group on setting up the course catalog and I wanted to get ahead of the curve on that and figure out the conflicting information that the IT group told me, and found out that I enjoy doing HTML a whole lot more than what I was doing for living. And I was pretty good at it, that’s how I made the transition then. I spent about two years after that just kind of learning on my own, and then my first really full-time job doing web was in 2003. I won’t mention the company name but I was working for a Fortune 500 company that provides IT and consulting services to universities. I was based out at Sul Ross State University in West Texas where I was working on a classic ASP and SQL server-based content management system. It was starting to die out so I started researching other CMSs and that’s how I picked up on Drupal.
Liam: cool, thank you. That’s–
Susan: A very long way around.
Liam: That’s a story right there.
Tara: Yeah. There’s a lot of activity these days in the higher education component of WordPress. I know, I believe it’s Rachel Cherry who runs WordCamp S and there’s a lot that goes into university website systems. Can you talk a little bit about that, and if you’re involved in that community at all?
Susan: I do attend all of their events virtually. I’ve not had an opportunity to be out there yet or be as deeply involved simply because I’m so involved in the Philly WordPress community. There just becomes a point of when you can’t do everything. I think one of the things that you’ll find with the education community is that there is an awful lot of multi-site and multi-network installations, probably compared to the way that WordPress is used in other areas. And I think a lot of it is instead of the idea of, you have a client, you build and you deploy and maybe you provide support after that, but you really don’t have to deal with it actively. The whole concept of multi-site and really you’re talking about managed hosting and you’re talking about sustaining the ecosystem and optimizing it for your particular kind of user instead of just the +do it and then you’re done with it’.
Tara: What is your biggest challenge in running this multi-site at the university, would you say?
Susan: Manpower. For us, when I started out, it was a single multi-site that was really struggling to find its purpose. There were maybe 30 sites on it, only two of which were departments. It was pretty easy to get a grip on but we were so successful with it that by various measures, the growth of the system in the seven and a half years that I’ve done this has been 2300%. We still have myself and the sysadmin.
Liam: 2300% growth? Wow. That’s really interesting, thinking about multi-site for a university. And I’m just thinking aloud here is that it could be for the department of history, it could be for the sub-department of modern European history, it could be a multi-site for one modern European history professor and all of her students to have it. I could see very easily how, “Well, can’t you just give us another website?” Suddenly becomes 17,000, at least started and often abandoned blogs.
Susan: Ah, yes, yes, yes. Actually, one of the things that I’m proudest of having worked on this is with a multi-site of any kind, you need to think about an exit strategy when things fail. Specific sites or blogs, people want the space, they set it up and then it sits there for all eternity. I wrote a script that we named Alice, and Alice’s job is to check every night for the sites that have not launched yet. We know that whether we’ve got a domain name mapped to them. Then it will check the date that the site was registered. And if it’s been out there for a year, then it will automatically archive that site and it will give the content providers warning 30, 60, and 90 days out before that deadline. But it basically serves them notice that this can’t sit out there indefinitely and it does a great job of keeping things cleaned up but taking the politics of it.
Liam: that sounds like a good idea. It’s always good to steer clear of politics. Then I want to ask you about your involvement with the Philadelphia WordPress community. For the edification of those listening, you and I have been on the organizing team for WordCamp Philly the last couple of years together, and it’s been a real pleasure working with you. But I don’t know the story of how you got involved with the community. Certainly, you shared with us about your abrupt introduction to WordPress itself, but hopefully, your introduction to the community was a little bit more in your own hands and more enjoyable. Can you talk us through that?
Susan: Yeah, in 2012, the sysadmin mentioned to me, “Hey, there’s this thing called WordCamp coming up in Philly, and you might like to go to it.” They paid for my registration and WordCamp Philly 2012 was my first event in the area. And I had the great good fortune to sit in on a presentation, and I wish I could remember their names but they were from the tri-college cooperative with Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore and Haverford, and they had two of their people talking about the challenges of WordPress multi-site in education, and it was just this amazing moment where I thought, “Yes, these are exactly the challenges that I’ve been running into.” And I actually found myself ahead of them on a couple of strategies getting help with.
Liam: That’s always fun.
Susan: Yes, it really was such an affirming moment that I did my best to try and get out there. I think it was actually maybe 2013 and it was, in fact, a presentation that you did for WordPress Philly, it was ‘Advanced Custome Fields’.
Liam: Ah. [laughs]
Susan: I remember it was the University of Pensylvania.
Liam: Yeah, it was at U Pen.
Susan: So I started looking into that a little bit and we actually went with toolset types and views to do a lot of the same things but it was a better fit for us. Then I just tried to make it every time I could and at some point, Regusto noticed that I was there a whole lot and thought, “Well, maybe she’d like to talk one time.” And he invited me and I did a thing about multi-site back in 2015. And from there, it just kind of snowballed. I talked at a WordCamp and I got invited to be a co-organizer for the meetup, and then a co-organizer for WordCamp, and here I am.
Tara: That’s a great story and a great trajectory and pathway, I think, an example of a great way to get more and more involved in the community. Yeah, I’ve got a long history there. Susan, can you tell us about your definition of success? How do you define it personally, professionally, what does success mean for you?
Susan: You know, I saw that question and it is such a whole meaning of life thing. How do you–
Tara: Yes, it is. That’s why we like to ask it. [laughs]
Liam: Yes, you’ve called us out rightly so.
Susan: [laugh] And I think in the grandest sense, one of the things that I’ve read along the way was I think from a Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde’s definition of happiness was being in harmony with your surroundings. I think that in the grand scheme of things, that maybe once you’ve got your basic needs met, you’ve got your bills paid, and a roof over your head, and you don’t have too many economic worries and you’re a little bit beyond that. You’re making your little corner of the world a bit tidier in some way without sweeping the dirt into somebody else’s. And you found that harmony. And I think that’s just probably the greatest success there is because it’s your scale of who you are and what you do.
Liam: Oh, I love that holistic approach to it. That can be on many different levels, individual harmony and being at peace with who we are and where we are and what we’re doing. And then, you know, I love that you said you’re tidying up your little corner of the world without sweeping dust in everybody else’s. Again, that has meaning on many different levels. It’s not just being friendly and neighborly, but it can be looking out for people less advantaged than we are, or pick a venue or a situation and that kind of being in harmony inevitably means compromise and support and generosity to self and to others. I love that, Susan. You’ve struck a chord with me with that definition. Thank you.
Tara: I agree. Thank you for sharing that. What are some of the things that you do toward that idea of success, maybe outside of your WordPress stuff?
Susan: Yeah, and some of it is just having a sense of who you are or at least who you’re not. Sometimes, figuring out who you’re not is one of the most important things. And I think for me, one of the things people don’t know about me is I’m actually a service brat, my father was coast guard. I lived in nine different states and–
Tara: what’s your favorite place that you’ve lived? Sorry to interrupt you.
Susan: Oh, here, definitely. For me, and this is a very specific thing that obviously I can’t recommend to the rest of the world, is find that community where you felt like you are a part of it and try and come home to it when you can. Though I would also add that if you’re already there, don’t isolate yourself in that community, get out and see the world and try and spend some time in it.
Liam: So, find your home but don’t be afraid to leave the home, too?
Susan: Right, right. And it’s really interesting coming here and I think one of the things that I always loved about the Philadelphia area is it has what I guess I would describe is an educated working class. You’ve got very much people who are in day-to-day jobs but they seem to have a higher level of interesting surroundings and in learning and in growing. I often wondered if maybe that has something to do with the quicker routes of the community here, and some of the philosophy has rubbed off on the culture in interesting ways. I do know that a lot of the people who most epitomize that are actually Swarthmore graduates or there are circles in their families.
Tara: Yeah. I think also that there’s a great tech community that’s really growing in Philadelphia and it seems to be a very socially-conscious community as well, very progressive, I’d say, in how the tech world interacts with each other and diversity and all of those things, I’ve noticed a lot of conversations in that Philly community about that kind of stuff. I think that’s a great thing about the Philadelphia area, too. If that’s true, that’s my perception.
Susan: It really feels like it’s a lot more inclusive than a lot of places, and I would also add that for the arts community here which I have the pleasure and privilege of knowing a lot of people from and it is just a very welcoming and very diverse group. And I’m glad that the tech community is also doing that.
Liam: Yeah, it’s a great little community to be a part of and it’s wonderful to see. When you said educated working class, what is it Susan, something like over a 100 universities in the greater Philadelphia area? Maybe not over a 100 but certainly more than I could count. It would take the better part of the morning to Google them all and find them all. It’s a lot of universities, there’s so much education here. Susan, I want to spend a second here before we move onto other questions to take you back, because in your introduction, we mentioned that you spoke at WordCamp US. And I was privileged enough to be in the audience for that talk. And you were talking about some of the challenges of website administration within a university environment. Just given the size, and the scope, and the scales, and the competing needs that a university has. One of the slides that you shared with the people in your talk highlighted, and referenced and detailed something that you have, I’m going to say affectionately referred to as the Walker Principle. That has stuck with me and caused me many a laugh. And also, I find great insight in it. I wonder if you can share that with us? I also would love to know the backstory of how you came to discover that principle?
Susan: Walker’s Principle is dysfunction in your organization will manifest itself as dysfunction on your website.
Tara: I like that.
Susan: Everybody who hears that seems to be laughing and nodding their heads and recalling their favorite story of something that didn’t quite go according to plan because of the organizational structure and there’s just so many ways that that can possibly happen. In my last job, I started out actually as a web content technician, rapidly became the web developer there. And just like I’ve been pretty much a single person with a department at Rutgers Camden, it was a very similar situation there where honestly, the administration was thinking that the whole web thing was kind of a fad and that it was going to go away. Of course, this was 2003 so they never really fully bought into it until they realized that maybe it would be useful for marketing. But one of the things about working at a very small university is you can see all the different parts moving, and get a handle on it in a way that you can’t at an ivy league school or a big ten university. You can see the very specific cause and effect of things and why they’re not working out on the web. Of course, in the broad sense, I don’t pursue it as a hobby anymore but I was actually looking into physics as a career path at one point. Second law of thermodynamics, which is basically entropy over time, systems are going to fall apart if you don’t put energy and effort into them. It’s pretty much the driving force behind any website any time ever. And a lot of what I’ve tried to do is one person usually trying to handle too much web presence is to try and plug the holes in the system and make it the closest thing to being a self-sustaining machine that you can possibly make it. Because the less effort that you put into a website, the longer it can go without things starting to fall apart on you.
Tara: Interesting. I’m thinking about that as, from your perspective, a part of the organization, so you can have an impact on the dysfunction or function level of that organization. For those of us who run agencies and do client work, that’s not really something that’s in our control. And I think sometimes organizations pull in agencies outside people to come in and build their website and don’t understand that the website is dependent on that Walker Principle, right? On that idea that their organization’s level of interest, involvement, and function or dysfunction is going to have a proportionate effect on our ability to create a great website for them. And I think that that’s a really interesting way to look at it as well. How do you approach that if you’re internal versus external and how do you create a great website and have an impact on the level of functionality of that, of the organization itself? A really great question, a great thing to ponder, I think. I like that Walker Principle, I’m definitely going to keep that in mind. I wonder if I can put that on my website somehow. [laughter] That’s really interesting. I’m going to take that as an opportunity to transition a little bit because what you’re sharing with us is along the lines of advice in a way. And we always ask our guests to share with us advice that they have received in their life and implemented something that’s had an impact on you. Is there any advice that you can share with us that comes to mind?
Susan: One of the things that I have always enjoyed was a quote. And I think it is from the movie producer Arthur Freed who said, “Don’t try to be different, just be good. To be good is different enough.” And I’ve tried to live by that and do well in a small way. When you’re working on web design and web development, it’s very easy to get distracted by all the things you can do. The bells and whistles and the shiny objects and so on. I think to try and stay focused on what the actual purpose is and who are you serving by this, and placing for me the web visitor first, and then the content providers, and then everybody else. And strive for the best that you can possibly do there, and just being successful in any way at that is a great thing and a different thing.
Liam: Be you and be the best you.
Liam: Yeah, the simplicity of that, I think is really important and we always talk about in business anyways, what’s your differentiator, what makes you better, what makes you unique, to the point of the advice that you just shared, just do a good job as often as you possibly can, do a good job. That alone is a fantastic differentiator, I love that advice. Thank you for sharing it.
Tara: Yeah, I think the temptation to stand out, be different, be unique is maybe, in this community where we have so much of the same in terms– websites look the same, all those things, how do you stand out and be different can distract you from being good, I think that’s important to keep in mind. Absolutely. What is your favorite thing to do, Susan, in your job at the university? What’s the favorite element of your day-to-day work?
Susan: Oh, in work, I love doing development. I like to think of it as puzzles to be solved rather than problem problems. And when I actually managed to solve one of those puzzles and especially when I managed not to break something else when I do it is a wonderful thing. I do because my scope is actually beyond WordPress. I am the department comms person. I keep the Twitter account going, I do the graphic design work. I love to be able to shift gears and work on some of the message boards and graphics work and so on where you can be cute or funny or whatever. It really helps to clear the clutter out of your head so that when I come back to the next puzzle that I need to deal with on the development side, it’s just really refreshing like I’ve had a nice long nap and I’m ready to go.
Tara: That’s right. Great. How about in your non-work life? Tell us about that?
Susan: Theater, absolutely. And I don’t know where in my family this comes from. We are not a particularly arts-oriented family in any way. My mother came from a bunch of science and math nerdy types. I’m actually like the third generation of women in stem on my mother’s side of the family. And on my father’s side, I have no clue whatsoever. But apparently, I just was born with this where I love to create shows. And when we lived in West Virginia, I would round up the neighborhood kids and direct them in fairy tales. Then we would do a production on our front porch and we would charge the family members each a penny to get in. My mother was telling me when I did this, I was all four years old. [laughter] I first got involved in theater sometime in between fourth and sixth grade. Starting in high school, I was a regular in community theater productions and I’ve been a community president for a couple of years. In this area, I’ve performed with Shakespeare in Clark Park and most recently, got to workshop a show that Team Sunshine Performance Corporation is hoping to be able to stage in 2020 or 2021.
Tara: That’s great. Do you attend a theater as well?
Susan: Oh yeah. Unfortunately, not being a millionaire, I don’t get season tickets to everything. I just have to kind of pick and choose.
Tara: Do they have any same day type things? I know at our theater sometimes they have same day, you can show up like an hour before the show and if there are seats, you can get them for a discount.
Susan: That is the sort of thing you usually get more at the Broadway level and I actually cannot see so many of mainstream productions. So, no, you don’t really get the discounts like that in the Philly community. One great way, if you are in the area and you’re interested but can’t afford it, is if you volunteer to usher, you can go see the shows.
Tara: Great. What’s your best or favorite performance that you’ve done, that stands out for you?
Susan: Oooh. The most challenging that I took on just because I had so many lines in the show was a production of Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero, and that was back in another era. I was really excited, not this past summer but the summer before, I was in a production of Coriolanus and got to work with actual theater professionals. I had two lines which is like, there is no other way that I would ever be able to do Shakespeare like that. That was fantastic.
Tara: Fabulous. Wow. Well, the curtain is closing here, on the theatrical note. We are out of time, Susan. It’s been such a delight to meet you a little bit more. We’ve met before, but to meet you here and learn more about you. Thanks for sharing your story and where can people find you online, Susan?
Susan: My website when I actually show up and post something out there is Susanwrotethis.com. It’s sort of like a bus driver’s holiday when you go out and work on it. And you’ll find me on Twitter at @susanwrotethis, and LinkedIn, and GitHub.
Liam: Susan, thanks so much for joining us here today, it’s a pleasure to see you again, as always.
Susan: Oh, thank you for having me.
Tara: Thanks, Susan. Take care, bye-bye.
Susan: Take care, everybody. Bye.
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