Introducing Alex Sirota
Alex is a father, a husband, a son, director of NewPath Consulting, contributor in the WordPress Toronto community, a trumpet player and a University of Michigan football fanatic.
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.
Tara And now the conversation begins. This is episode 94.
Tara: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Tara Claeys.
Liam: And I’m Liam Dempsey. Today we’re joined by Alex Sirota. Alex is a father, a husband, a son, the director of New Path Consulting, a contributor in the WordPress Toronto community, a trumpet player and a University of Michigan football fanatic who wants to see software make the world a better place. Welcome Alex.
Alex: Hi Everybody. Hi Tara. Hi Liam. It’s very nice to meet you.
Tara: It’s great to have you with us today. Thanks so much for joining us Alex. Can you tell us more about yourself please?
Alex: Sure. I live in Toronto Ontario Canada. It’s also known as the great white north. Actually, I’m looking outside the window now and it’s a sunny spring day. We’ve had a very long winter and it’s very nice to see that it’s warming up. Everyone is coming out of their hibernation mode. I have lived in Toronto for 22 years. I’m originally from Michigan. I grew up in the Detroit suburbs area. I came here actually in December of 1996 for a job and I stayed here. I actually emigrated from the US to Canada, which is pretty unusual. There are about a million of Americans who live in Canada (that’s the estimate) and most people here are economic immigrants, meaning that they came here for some sort of opportunity or maybe got married to someone and they came here. But we do have actually…Canada is very interesting. We have about a quarter of a million immigrants from all around the world coming here now. About 100 to 150 thousand per year for the last probably 10 years have come to Toronto or greater Toronto area. It’s grown extraordinarily over the last few years. Their infrastructure is really getting tasked quite a bit.
Liam: I want to go back to Detroit for just a minute. This is more about me than about you. I’m originally from the suburbs of Chicago. I’m a big fan of Chicago style pizza. I met a guy recently who is from Detroit and talked to me about Detroit pizza and said it’s the best ever. Do you have an opinion on that?
Alex: They have a Detroit style pizza … I am not sure … there’s something about it. There’s a company there that kind of made it big called Buddy’s. Buddy’s pizza.
Liam: That’s the one.
Alex: It’s kind of like a local chain. You know? It’s a marketing thing really. It’s a special kind of feeling. It’s deep dish. I don’t really remember to be honest with you. I haven’t had it in a long time. There’s another one called Jet’s deep dish. It’s like crusty on the ends but I don’t think it’s as good as Chicago style. It’s good. It’s pizza, right? It’s a Midwestern thing cheese, bread, you know?
Liam: Well we can keep you on the show then. All right. Chicago’s the best. We are going to turn it back over Tara.
Tara: Well cheese and bread are popular topics too. But I think we’re going to talk a little bit more about you and your background and how relate to WordPress and in general how you relate to the world. So Alex what’s your background? How did you find your way to WordPress and a guest on our show today?
Alex: Yeah. Wow. WordPress is one of these technology platforms that I kind of look at. I am a technologist for the most part. I have a computer science degree. I have a development background. The reason why I came to Toronto was actually for a product management opportunity when I was in my twenties. Product management is interesting because it’s kind of like this idea of marketing technology. The idea of developing a product. WordPress caught my attention in the 2. something days when I worked for the Ontario government as a project manager. In Ontario…Ontario is a big place. Like it’s a very large province which is what we call states here in Canada. It’s probably the size of California or Texas in physical space but only about 10 to 12 million people live here. But a third of the country live in Ontario. We have very large Ontario government and they’re looking at technology to use. WordPress is actually actively being used in Ontario government, Toronto a whole bunch of different technology, Drupal as well. We were looking at it as a platform to do collaboration for an internal project. I just kind of looked at it as one of the potential platforms and I discounted it at the time because it still hadn’t really evolved to being what I thought was a modern content management system. This was probably before the idea of custom post types in WordPress 3.0. So I looked it I think just maybe a year or two before it became something very different. Then I started my own business in 2014 doing consulting. I was looking for a good technology platform to build out websites of a transactional nature. I kind of looked at it again and what really impacted me was not necessarily technology (which had grown by then by leaps and bounds quite a bit) but the more particular was the community was being formed around it. I was honestly blown away because I’d be on the Internet (you kind of see my gray hair on the video) but I have had email address since 1989 on the Internet. I went to the University of Michigan. So I’ve been on the Internet pretty much since the Internet or the World Wide Web I guess started. There’s always this conflict between proprietary software and open source software. It’s always been the case. Most open source software doesn’t really gather the attention for end-users. Like Linux not withstanding, it’s kind of a server side in technology. But WordPress was the first technology from my whole life that I saw that captured the imagination of a non-technologist. Publishers and stay-at-home moms and you know scientists and you know just hobbyists. I just saw this really interesting kind of paradigm shift that’s happening where people that don’t have a technology background are setting up WordPress and tweaking it and making unbelievable things. I also had an experience doing some content management systems work in the early 2000’s (during the dot .com days) and I saw the expensive content management systems that existed. Six figures/7seven figures and here I am looking at this product and technically and functionally it’s equivalent to those systems. It’s available for free. The community really captured my imagination because here’s thousands of people, tens of thousands, who are actively contributing and then there are millions of people who are using this product, kind of taking it for granted to some extent. And that’s the thing where I kind of said you know there is this really interesting thing happening and I want to be part of it. So we started to kind of do some work in it and I started learning more about it. And really I’m not like one of these WordPress people who have been in it for a while. I’m really interested in kind of how average people use a fairly advanced piece of technology to accomplish some really amazing things.
Liam: Alex? You shared that the community caught your attention when you were exploring WordPress as a content management system. You said that was right around 2014 or so when you set up your own consultancy. What was your first experience with the community? Did you go to a WordCamp? Did you find blog posts and were surprised that people were sharing this? Did you stumble on a Meetup? What was your initial experience?
Alex: It was strictly the plugin and theme ecosystem, right? There was nothing actually in person. I remember looking at where it stood in 20? I don’t know 2010 or 2009? So like 10 years ago. It was kind of like there’s a system and there are these plugins and themes. But it wasn’t really that developed. You know, 10 years later I looked at it and there’s tens of thousands of examples and functionality tweaks that really stood head and shoulders above anything else that was out there. Visibility, and I think that still is the case for a lot of people looking at it. They look at it from the perspective (and I look at it from the perspective) as here is a core thing what it does. But look at all the things you can do it and how inexpensive and/or compelling it is to try these things. To this day it’s kind of the pro and the con at the same time. You can do all these things. But the way you approach doing it could really be a good thing or a bad thing. It has this dual edged sword in a sense that you can choose the right plugins and themes and just do amazing things. You could choose the wrong ones and get yourself to a world of hurt. But the community of people contributing and building their own businesses, you can clearly easily see that there is this ecosystem built around the product. Having an ecosystem built around an open source product is extremely unusual. It’s just to this extent, I can’t think of anything else that’s actually been in the open source community that’s been this successful and continues to drive and capture people’s imaginations. Yeah. So that was first thing. It was just the sheer breadth of the ecosystem.
Liam: How do you engage with community these days?
Alex: Yeah. So, I am kind of a connector. I like to observe to be honest with you how people use technology in general. I do that because that’s how I see the pain points, where people have challenges. That’s how I like to have my consultancy address those pain points. I use my involvement in the community to really be obviously to participate in helping to grow this and helping the Toronto community grow the last couple years (which I will get into in a second) but also to learn and kind of become an observer of the challenges that people face which are quite dramatic. So in Toronto we’ve had for over a decade we’ve had various individuals that of been actually involved in the community. One of them is actually Andy McIlwain, who works for Go Daddy now. Andy has been kind of like a shining star in Toronto. Way back to the beginning he’s been very actively involved along with a few other folks here to kind of build the WordPress Toronto community. Then, a couple of years ago I met Andy and said I’d like to have a Meetup. Toronto is a big city, like New York and Chicago. We have a lot of geographic areas. It’s kind of hard to get around. And so we decided to have a strategy to create points of presence and have different parts of the region to have their own Meetups. So I volunteered to run the North York Meetup which is a northern suburb of Toronto, the furthest northern suburb which is fairly close to where I live. I started to have a Meetup there. We were kind of doing the typical thing like have somebody speak. About a year and a half ago or so we stumbled onto a format which we continued doing now which has totally changed the way that our Meetup attracts people. Basically the Meetup that we pivoted to, (because we were having trouble getting traction) was a let’s fix your website. Basically the name of the Meetup is let’s fix your website. So it’s essentially a group happiness bar. That’s essentially what it is. We get regularly between 20 and 30 people showing up to the event, even during the summer. It’s literally people putting on their Meetup. I have a problem with my site and here’s my url. Here’s the problem. I’ve tried to do this, this and that. They come to the event and it’s a free event. And it’s just one after the other. What’s your challenge? What are you trying to accomplish? We will put the website up on the screen. We will try to diagnose it in groups. So it’s kind of like a group therapy session. And it astounds me; it honestly astounds me to the degree to which people build amazing things and the degree to which people can totally mess up their WordPress site.
Tara: Yes. It makes you see how not easy WordPress is for people in a lot of ways as well. Liam and I both run local Meetups. It’s really interesting that you mention that because I run sort of an ancillary Meetup outside of DC, that’s part of DC. We get 20 to 30 people as well. But it’s always a struggle to find a topic and to find a speaker. So the last Meetup that I had was, it wasn’t let’s fix your website but it was an open Q&A. So bring your questions. People would come and write their questions down and we would just take them one by one. It was a really great format. I think for a place like Toronto, Washington, Philadelphia, cities that have maybe a more formal Meetup where there’s a speaker and a presentation, it might be really nice to offer that. So you have a pretty consistent following. Do you ever have trouble getting to everybody’s issues during those Meetups?
Alex: Every single time.
Alex: Every single time.
Tara: Do you break up into groups and sort of split people up, like theme issues and plugin issues?
Alex: No not yet. The Meetup naturally breaks itself up because sometimes it’s so big that there’s these natural…we’re not really like…it’s more like I kind of facilitate it. What’s interesting is we have naturally some people that are more expert. So they provide the input. Other people that have… they’re more new to it so they are more learning and listening. But really it’s kind of like almost like well, what do you all think? What’s the best approach? Inevitably one of the common refrains is (which I hope maybe the technology at its core will eventually address is) when you make changes you need to have backups. When you do things with WordPress you are managing a technology stack. So we start talking about this stuff, which I’d rather not talk about frankly. Like this is a code base. This is a database. This is a technology platform. I wish I didn’t have to explain it but I do because people sort of think well, it was just like Microsoft word, it just kind of works. No it’s like you own, you’re maintaining a technology platform. Therefore, when you make changes you should treat it as such. To be honest with you, I hope one of the things in the future happens is that you don’t have to consider it that way. It becomes a lot more resilient to changes and there’s a way to make changes that don’t require you to know the fact that you know you make a change and you can blow up your site. It’s pretty tricky. With the plugins that are out there and themes are extremely complex. Some of them are, with the way we describe them is, we kind of agree to saying it’s like a whole another piece of software on top of WordPress. So you’re not just maintaining your WordPress you’re also maintaining a piece of software that you’ve added. As a result a lot of people get an appreciation for that. But I feel bad sometimes to be honest with you because people get into these situations where they are out of their element by a long shot. It’s so complex. So when Gutenberg came out I was a big (and I still am a big proponent) not with standing all issues is that by far the biggest issue is Page Builders and how people get sort of lost in the myriad of options that are there. What is supposed to be a fairly user-friendly experience becomes extremely un user-friendly and it becomes like you are inheriting a site that somebody built. They have no idea how to manage the site. I’m actually really happy that there’s going to be this evolution of the product to make it much more friendly, to build more interesting looking websites without depending on fairly proprietary solutions. Not withstanding there’s a lot of other stuff that happens around WordPress that is fairly complex. On the other hand I also see people building some really cool technology that would of cost many thousands of dollars totally on their own. That’s just enlightening to see how productive people are.
Liam: I think there’s a lot of mixed messaging around WordPress and around making websites generally. We certainly hear advertising make your own custom WordPress website in minutes. Yet we would never do design your own custom house in minutes or design your own bulletproof in court contract in minutes for $15 a month. I know there’s legal solutions out there. But yeah, there’s a whole range of options and a lot of it is just around communication to try to clarify that. Speaking of communication and clarifying and what is right and what is wrong and what is good and what is different, I am going to change gears on this and ask you about success. One of the questions we like to ask our guests is what is your definition of success? That definition might be a personal definition, it might be a professional definition or it might be a mix both. I welcome your thoughts. How do you define success?
Alex: You know it’s probably something that my life, I think it’s changed over time because I think when I was young, I think the definition of success was very much career and money oriented and try to like become somebody that somebody knows something about. Like have a name for yourself and have all these accomplishments and stuff. As I get older I found it was a very ego driven sort of approach to accomplish and do all these amazing things. You know? It comes in my case at a cost. Like it’s very hard for people I think (especially when their young) to recognize what was important what’s not. So success now, I am in my late 40s, I think success now is building something that you can be proud of and that helps the world become a better place frankly. Like, it doesn’t have to be huge. It could be extremely local and something that people get value out of and enjoy and something that other people can get behind. You don’t put yourself as the central point of a relationship for example. So to clarify that a little bit more I feel successful in a technology project when the people that I work with, my clients actually internalize what they built and they feel proud of it and they can actually continue to operate it on their own. They’re not beholden to our company to be sort of dependent on them. I think a lot of technology, especially up until probably like when you have the cloud and mobile devices. Technology was really frankly a hostage-taking situation. My observation was that technology was sold in general and when you bought it you had to always, you had to derive the value out it. All the risk was with the customer. So for me success is to de-risk that, to actually make it so that customers can manage their own things, to be completely in control and to be able to manage costs and how much time is spent. So I look for people and solutions that actually are very customer centric and oriented as opposed to the solutions that are proprietary and lock people in because I think actually in general people can be more successful with those kind solutions. So that’s a philosophy that I have my business. Like we try to build systems. I try for example to write as little code as possible if I can. So I have people, I have regular subcontractors come to me say well, we’ve got to write this code Alex. I actually, no let’s try build stuff that doesn’t require code because I want our customers to be able to maintain this on their own somehow. That’s very hard to do. It’s very hard not to put yourself and say we need to create proprietary type of stuff. With WordPress, it’s interesting because you can actually write proprietary systems. But because of the license you have to use GPL. So it forces these business models to evolve so it’s just not proprietary it’s value-added. You can still help people and still make a business out of it but you still have a lot of control with your customers. I think success actually makes sure that you’re not sort of stumbling block, you’re not a bottleneck in the process. When I say you’re it means your business or your a director of a company and that your enabler to help people to do better things. So I try to do that as much as possible.
Tara: Thank you for sharing that. I’m going to talk a little bit more about running your own business because you mentioned early on that you opened your own business (I think you said it was in 2014). Talk a little bit about that decision and how you knew how to do that, where that came from and how that’s gone for you. Maybe what your challenges have been in being a business owner. It sounds like you have a good handle on serving your clients and you treat them well. What are your challenges and how did that come about?
Alex: I ran my own consulting business for a few years in 2001 and 2002. Then I started working for the Ontario government for about 11+ years. While I was working there I always wanted to start my own business again. I found the opportunity in 2014. I was basically, you know, let go effectively. I was running my business while I was working there on side, you know the side hustle thing. I think at some point we both realized my employer and myself that it would be best if I run my own business. So I got a bit of runway to do that. What captured my imagination was what I mentioned was this idea of these tools that are being developed that are aimed at consumers directly. Not at technology companies, not at IT departments but rather at everyday people that are going to use technology to make their lives better businesses, their businesses better. I started researching a bunch of products that did this. They’re all cloud based products. What I tried to do is two things. I tried to select products that I thought I could make use of and I think my customers could make use of, create almost like a Microsoft office of these cloud products. And I wouldn’t be building them myself. I’d actually be using them and reselling access them and recommending them. What I wanted to do is basically introduce them to small businesses and organizations so that they could assemble them together like Lego blocks to build solutions sets. I think this is actually technologically continues to be something that’s on the mind of a lot of people. Like how do I accomplish truly amazing things but without having to break the bank on technology spend. Actually, a lot of small business organizations…as I started working and targeting small businesses and organizations and not for profits, I saw how little they spend on technology and how little they use technology in general. I think there’s a reason for that because with technology you can easily spend a lot of money on technology. So it’s not a good idea for small business to do that. Inevitably, if you write custom code, if you do custom things, if you do things that you think are specifically are for you, you’re going to spend a lot of money. So a lot of small businesses chose to do exactly the opposite of this. Which just means that they run their whole business in Microsoft office. Or they run their whole business with their website and go almost no technology whatsoever. When they introduce technology it’s usually the owner, or a volunteer, or somebody that actually kind of says hey. You should try this thing. You try that thing. They kind of do that almost ad hoc. That’s ok. That’s actually what these technology companies these Software As A Service providers want you to do. So I thought that I could be more like a guide to this whole huge ecosystem of thousands of products that do all kinds of different things and aimed at all kinds of different companies and to try to assemble them together. So I selected several solutions. As my company evolved I had almost like a testing ground of a whole bunch of different products. In the last couple years I’ve settled on more of a targeted approach. I have like three or four products that I think I’m focusing more on. As part of my business practice I’ve actually built relationships with the makers of those products. There’s one called Wild Apricot, FormStack, and WebMerge. These are products that are automation products that have high value add for our customers but they require partnerships and in some cases they require some support from companies like ours. So I’ve tried to align myself with those partners so that they can help and refer business to me. So one of the things I found in almost all my clients is that they have difficulty getting customers. Like every single small business in the world has difficulty. I think a lot of them don’t rely on partnerships as much as that should. I think in the Internet you should be building relationships with partners that can help you. It’s a really powerful concept. So to be honest with you that was the turning point. When I started doing that, seeing myself as a part of an ecosystem as opposed to somebody that’s trying to change the world and seeing myself as a service delivery agent on behalf of these larger companies (WordPress being one of those) although there isn’t really a referral ecosystem it’s more about building a name for yourself to some extent. That’s actually when things really started to take off. They’re still sort of developing but from a marketing perspective it’s really helped my company. You can see that in the bottom line. You see that in the opportunities I get to do and speak at different conferences and stuff. It’s changed. By being part of this partnership ecosystem it’s really changed the way I look at, not just the way I my business but even how I talk to customers and say hey. You shouldn’t be doing this all by yourself. You should be looking at where your business model supports partnerships.
Tara: Right. That’s really smart. That’s a good business plan approach that you have partnering and becoming sort of that is your specialty or your niche in a way. I am going to consider that to be advice because that probably is something that a lot of us who run WordPress agencies could benefit from. It’s sort of deciding on an alliance with a product and becoming a specialist and a recommended specialist with that product. So I am going to consider that advice but then I’m going to turn it over to you and ask you if you have received any advice that you have really taken to heart, the most important perhaps piece of advice you received that you would share with us and that you’ve implemented in your life.
Alex: When I was at Apple, my first job out of school I was just like a software developer in a large call center in Austin Texas. Apple has to this day several hundred (maybe more now) people running and answering phone calls for support. My first manager’s name was David. And I was like this eager employee right out of school and I was working at this great company and I wanted to please everybody. We were using Microsoft outlook if you can believe that to answer emails. Outlook has this feature where
Tara: That’s funny.
Alex: you get an email (this was like in the mid-90s) so you get an email. It’s just like Slack, right? It bings and says hey you’ve got email and you see this bolded email messages kind of piling up. I would literally site there and be like ok. I’ve got to reply to this email. I wanted to please everyone. He observed this and said you know Alex? If you reply to every single email that comes in within like an hour so, first of all you’re probably not going to get anything done. Second of all, you’re going to develop this expectation that if you don’t respond to an email within a particular amount of time to the person that’s emailing you they’re going to think that they did something wrong and they’re going to think that you don’t like then anymore. So by setting up his expectation you’re going to get yourself into a really difficult position of not being as productive as you can be and also potentially setting yourself up for failure with other people. So he’s like look. If somebody really needs to get an answer from you or something, they’ll email you at least three times. Then eventually they’ll call you. It was a real issue. He was basically the first person that described to me how email can be abused. This was well before inbox zero and all this kind of stuff. He said to me don’t respond to every single email message. Just look at it and say it’s information. The expectation is not; this is not supposed to be like this real-time response system. And to this day, email to me is like a necessary evil to be honest with you. It’s like one of these technological things that everybody uses. It’s the one application on line that everybody uses no matter what. But it’s become extremely, it’s not good a design pattern for working. There are very particular use cases for it so I am really happy to see companies actually observing this and saying look collaboration shouldn’t be this sort of gotcha thing where people actually send each other emails and expect each other and there are all these politics around email. The blind carbon copy, and the cc and all this signaling, it’s just a really bad thing. As I kind of work with clients and stuff like that and I see how difficult it is for clients to wean themselves off email. We actually introduced Slack for our clients. We say look. If you’re going to work with us we’re going to introduce Slack. You can email us, but we’re going to prioritize Slack channels over email. Some of them are like no. I need you to have email. That’s fine. Just try it. You’ll see what we mean when we actually want to talk to each other like human beings as opposed to like sending an email with a whole bunch of pages and expect some sort of like formal response where it’s just not the way that people work. That piece of advice was really fundamental in my thinking about collaboration and how technology can actually be a really bad think if you let it be that way.
Tara: That’s excellent advice. I talk a lot about email and productivity and how it is a love-hate relationship. You have to use it but it’s so easy to get in the habit of mis-using it and checking it too often and responding to often. So that’s great advice. Thank you so much for sharing that on this show. I don’t think we’ve heard that before but it’s very helpful. We appreciate it. On that note, we will need to say farewell at this point Alex. It’s been great having on the show. I’m sorry that we’re out of time because Liam knows that when you start talking to me about email and productivity I get a little bit excited and can go on and on. Thank you for joining us. Where can people find you on line Alex?
Alex: Sure. I’m on Twitter @alexsirota. My website is www.newpathconsulting.com.
Liam: Alex? Thanks so much for joining us here. It’s been a real pleasure getting to know you just a little bit. I hope to see you again real soon.
Alex: Absolutely. Thank you.
Tara: Bye. Bye.
Alex: Thanks Liam and Tara. Take care.
Liam: Thanks for listening to the show. We sure hoped you enjoyed it as much as 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.