Welcome to Press This, the WordPress community podcast from WMR. Here host David Vogelpohl sits down with guests from around the community to talk about the biggest issues facing WordPress developers. The following is a transcription of the original recording.
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David Vogelpohl: Hello everyone and welcome to Press This, the WordPress community podcast on WMR. This is your host, David Vogelpohl. I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine, and I love to bring the best of the community to you here every week on Press This. As a reminder, you can follow me on Twitter @wpdavidv, and you can subscribe to Press This on Red Circle, iTunes, Spotify, or download the latest episodes at wmr.fm. In this episode we’re gonna be talking about what in the heck are the engineers behind Genesis doing about full site editing? And joining us for that conversation from WP Engine. I would like to welcome the one and only Mike McAlister. Mike, welcome to Press This.
Mike McAlister: Thanks for having me back. happy to chat WordPress today.
DV: I was gonna say Welcome back to press this you want to remind the audience what you’re unpressed this for four years ago?
MM: Yeah, that’s right I was on. Shortly after WP Engine acquired a few of my plugins and my my theme collection. Array themes.
DV: The infamous atomic blocks and it’s in this way don’t think the supervillain
MM: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
DV: I like it. I like it. Well, that’s cool. I’m so glad to have you back here. I know a lot has changed in the block world since then. And for our listeners and certainly for their contacts. Mike is a principal engineer in WP engine in a company that also of course acquired the Genesis Framework and the suite of Genesis products. What Mike’s going to talk to us about today is his thoughts on what false identity is the impact he thinks it will have on WordPress theming. guessing it’s a big one and specific details around a brand new output product his team is working on codenamed FSE studio, final name TBD. But Mike’s gonna walk us through how the product works, what they have planned for the future and how you can participate in the Alpha yourself to up your FSE game at the same time. Alright Mike, I’m gonna kick it off. I know I already asked you this question four years ago, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t remember the answer. Could you briefly tell me your repressive origin story? When was the first time you used WordPress?
MM: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll give the TLDR version this time. Yeah. You know, I started out as a designer and you know I designed websites, logos, all that kind of stuff. And you know, eventually after designing so many websites, people started asking me can you also build websites? And so I got into the freelance world of building websites. And it wasn’t shortly after that where I was like, This is so archaic. There has to be a better way. And then of course, I stumbled into WordPress like many people do. And so, you know, having that content management aspect and being able to build themes and being able to kind of copy and paste themes from one project to the other and kind of have a you know, starting blocks every time you build a site. That was totally game changing. And so, what’s that?
DV: Oh my gosh, exactly like early 2000s.
MM: I would say like 2008 ish, probably
DV: And when was the nine rebuilding like sites I can coded before that or it was
MM: Yeah, mostly, you know, the clients I was dealing with, or they were in the domain space domain investing. So they were looking for a lot of landing pages. So really just had to be simple kind of HTML landing. Pages. But yeah, then from there, I started getting different clients who were like, Okay, well, now we need you know, blogging and all this other stuff. So that’s when I stumbled into WordPress.
DV: What’s cool so not too long after widgets shortcodes and, and even Genesis was 2007. So so real big kind of changing iframe to be in WordPress adventure that was an exciting time to to get involved. So we talked before about how you kind of joined WP Engine after the acquisition of atomic blocks. Group Could you briefly tell me about WP Engine and what you do there now?
MM: Absolutely. Yeah, as you mentioned, at the top. I am a principal engineer on my team. And you know, principle can mean a lot of different things for different teams for me. It kind of lets me use all of my skills of of being a software engineer, designer or product person and sort of somebody who’s always kind of looking forward and WordPress to see what’s coming next. And so I use all those skills to help my team build and maintain WordPress products to kind of support you know, efforts that are going on in the community, full site editing blocks, etc. But also kind of, you know, help push our company forward and in supporting our customer base and giving them the tools they need to build faster, better, quicker, more powerful websites.
DV: Excellent. Well, I know FSE is on a lot of folks mind in that regard. And I’m glad to hear more of the details on what a principal engineer was, I thought it was where the bad engineers were sent to you by their teachers if they missed the class, but now, right answers. Thank you for that. Okay, so for those maybe that haven’t been paying too close attention, Could you could you let us know from the high level what FSE is and how it is different than classic the means and then maybe while you’re doing that, like the benefits you think it’s providing the work for us, as it were, first of all, so this FSC future?
MM: Yeah, so folks were familiar with with classic themes. The concepts are very similar with full site editing means or FSC means full site editing, and the idea is kind of implied in the in the name there that your whole site will be fully editable in the WordPress editor and so we’ve seen kind of the rise of blocks and blocks are kind of building blocks of your content. So you know, being able to kind of jazz up your content area was the idea with blocks so but now we’re going to expand it out. Headers and Footers. So you need to be able to change your header and footer out. And then you know, sidebars, etc. So all of these elements of your site, the vision is that these should be able to be built, edited and maintained in the WordPress editor using the various tools like the site editor, global styles, blocks block styles, all of these things kind of come together and like kind of a more inclusive WordPress building experience.
DV: And so more of the controls are basically available in functions and settings are available in WP admin in order to build out your theme. Does that mean like I’m totally blocked from custom CSS and making it look the way I want to look?
MM: No, absolutely not. I think that’s the great thing is that this is an approach that is as iterative as you want it to be. You know, you could you could fully adopt full site editing and if you don’t want to write a line of CSS, you can pretty much almost get away with that. I think, by the end of the year, we’ll be a lot closer to that. But the benefits kind of outweigh the you know, the downsides at this point. And that you know, for the longest time we wanted a an inclusive design system and WordPress, right. We’ve we’ve kind of been left to templates and CSS to do that. But now you know, you can imagine the power of having a design system at your hands if you’re an agency and quickly fire off new sites and kind of give control to the editors publishers to kind of make changes themselves or if you’re, you know, a theme creator. You know, your business. You know, you can make themes a lot quicker or your business quicker and it’s a lot easier to maintain over time as well.
DV: Yeah, it’s really interesting the the kind of tug and pull between customization and the ease and, you know, everyone likes an easy visit button. Everyone uses ACF and doesn’t hand code there and fields plug in, because it’s there. But it is good to see you know, FSC providing that path for folks that do want to kind of dig in with custom CSS and other experiences, certainly addressing functionality through plugins and whatnot. So for those building themes and the way that you know, and then in the classic theme way, if you will, do they have to stop doing that are classic themes going to like blow up next month, month or something?
MM: I don’t think so. Because you know, FSC and kind of exposing controls and knobs to customers. isn’t always what is going to be right for every end user. You know, if you’re somebody who’s maybe building big enterprise sites for customers, I think you know, that classic fee model might actually be more in line with with what they need depending on their needs. And kind of having the design kind of more locked down and more tightly controlled with with version control and development. So it ultimately I think, depends on the end user. But I think over time as more and more tools and powerful editing bits and bobs get exposed in the editor. I think a lot of people are going to want to tie into that merely to like get the value benefits out of it, you know, being able to kind of quickly get in there and, you know, customize things.
DV: So there’s effectively like no end of life date declared for classic names. It’s still somewhat early days. And so there’s basically adoption curve and it’s good to get early on that right to be able to prepare for the future. But there’s no effectively like imminent AOL day where like your themes are gonna blow up. And I think it’s interesting to think about I know when the verdict came out, a lot of folks were concerned about having to convert all those sites at once. And obviously, a lot of those concerns are just founded. But I want to talk a little bit about how to really go about adopting false identity and I know you’ve been working on a tool to help folks with that, but we’re going to take our first break and we’ll be right back. Time to plug into a commercial break. Stay tuned for more press this just a moment. Everyone welcome back to press this the WordPress community podcast on WMR. This is your host David Vogelpohl. I’m interviewing Mike McAlister of WP Engine about what in the heck are the engineers behind Genesis doing about full site editing? Mike right before the break you were talking a little bit about what FSE is some of its role and how WordPress is evolving with theming really kind of having a lot more easy button buttons at the hand but also still being able to take those custom CSS approaches. Did you want to add anything to the stop building classic themes summary I kind of summarize your thoughts there at the end of the day before the break. I don’t know if that was a good summary or not in your view.
MM: No, it was a great summary. Long story short, those classic themes don’t have to go anywhere. If you don’t want to. It’s kind of a like I said, iterate and adopt as you’re as you’re comfortable with and that’s kind of what we’re seeing play out so no worries there.
DV: Okay, okay. I just want to make sure I didn’t feel bad if I built the classic theme. It sounds like I’ve got time to adopt. Definitely playing around with the MPC Studio as you want to kind of transition to as well. But you know, obviously, you have talked on Twitter and various places and showed a video demo, actually, of this prototype that you’ve named FSC studio at least as a codename. What are what are this seemed building challenges with FSC that you’re trying to address if it’s if it’s if FSC is meant to be more approachable and have more easy buttons. What are you doing to make it easier?
DV: What are some of those challenges like what are as folks create FSE themes? What are what are some of the kind of getting into like, what are the main functions of the plugin? doing that? Maybe you can connect this to me explaining a little bit about what we’ll say today’s FSE studio that’s sure.
MM: Yeah, in short, what we’ve done is created a custom user interface to kind of bring together several of these parts of WordPress that are currently kind of disconnected in a way so the site editor, theme patterns, template parts and site templates, all of these things that make up the WordPress, the new WordPress and one of the other big things is theme dot JSON. And this is kind of the style configuration file that ships with these new full site editing themes. And in that is all of these attributes and different style properties that tell your theme how to act, how to look what what features to enable, and, you know, the the amount of stuff that that file alone can do is a lot and that kind of it can be hard to understand. What What can I put in there, what can I customize and so part of what we’ve done is expose the user interface for theme to JSON to say these are all the settings that are available to you and kind of made it you know, in the spirit of WordPress and kind of simplifying everything going forward, provided a user interface to toggle things on and off, change your color palettes live. And you can save all that and preview your theme as you’re building it. So in short, it’s just a it’s a way of pulling together these different WordPress editing tools into one UI and giving people one place to build instead of 100 different places.
DV: So it’s really fundamentally focused on making the act of creating a theme with FSE easier, also leaning in on exposing the attributes within theme dot JSON to make that more intuitive. How are you Is this similar to customizer approaches the Genesis and other frameworks had taken in that kind of GUI for the design approach or do you think of it in a completely different way?
MM: I guess you could, you could make some comparisons there but I think with this, all of these new tools and WordPress are so new to us, just as they are to every one building. I think we want it to see again, I think and maybe this is particular to folks who have built a lot of themes, but we wanted to see you know, instead of doing this all this by hand, how much of this can we anticipate, and how much of this can we turn into automation? And, you know, lean into that. And so part of it is the user interface, bringing a user interface to all of these disparate actions. And also, part of it is just using smart tooling and automation and sort of taking the burden off of the team creators to kind of help them get to the next important part, whether that’s, you know, designing or whatever. So, yeah, it’s kind of something you have to kind of have to see to kind of, I guess, maybe get the full picture but it’s quite cool. And you know, one thing we’re also very conscious of is WordPress may have these features one day, but this is our way of kind of anticipating just like we deal with blocks and patterns, you know, you got to stay kind of ahead of the curve. You anticipate what WordPress is doing. Fill in the gaps where you can and try to use it as a moment of education for the community.
DV: So what are the interesting questions I feel with what we’ve talked about so far, especially for folks familiar with Genesis and frameworks like it is like the, the idea that FST Studio is a plugin versus a parent theme. And I know this relates to MSE specifically, but the thoughts on on why the plugin approach versus a parent theme Umbridge.
MM: Well, for us, you know, we look at MPC Studio is just a local development tool, basically. So you install this plugin locally, it kind of gives you you know, it’s just in a regular old WordPress install. But it’s it’s created a UI for you to generate a theme. So folks who remember, you know, underscores underscores was a an automatic project where you could go and generate a starter theme very easily just filled in a few fields and it spit out a theme for you. That’s kind of what we’re doing. So, this it makes sense to have that kind of functionality and a plugin where we’re basically, you know, giving you a framework to create stuff. And the byproduct of that is, you know, it spits out a theme, whether or not we get into the paradigm of parent themes and child themes in this new era. of WordPress is currently under discussion and there’s pros and cons. So, I’m more curious than anyone to see how that shakes out because it’s a pretty big paradigm. But it may or may not be necessary anymore. We may be able to use things like style variations and things like that to kind of get around that.
DV: It gets really interesting point because I know one of the struggles certainly like if you’re working like in an agency context is like yeah, I’m gonna install two themes, and one of them is called the parent theme. And then, like even explaining the construct to people can be challenging. So it’s interesting to think of it as a boat builder tool. So that the site you installed at the moment would not have to run that plug in effectively because you’re generating the theme with a plugin on whatever WordPress you’re reading it on.
MM: Yeah, right. Exactly.
DV: And so like one of the other constructs is Genesis framework itself and other things like it or themes like it have functionality in is that just going into kind of a plugin companion model you feel with FSE in general, or certainly, because FSC themes can’t run functionality like classic themes can Is that correct?
MM: Again, you could you could put you know, as a functions php file, like every other WordPress theme, and so you could put as much code in there as you want. But I think the idea is the paradigm going forward is what, how much less can we do with these can we do Can we can we remove a lot of this the stuff that has to go on every functions file, and, and maybe just handle that with the theme json file or, you know, some other smart way of doing it? So, you know, for example, I used FSU studio to kind of create a little starter theme over the past two weeks in my spare time and I found that by the end of it my functions file barely had anything in it. I mean, a few things and maybe some of that can even be pulled out so I think it is an interest in you know, I think the more complicated your site is the more you’re gonna gonna want it.
DV: It sounds like a weird I mean the that’s for sure. I’ll have to take a peek at that. We’re going to take our last break. We’re gonna come back and talk about the future of s MPC studios everybody hang tight. We’ll be right back. Time to plug into a commercial break. Stay tuned for more pressing this in just a moment. Well, everyone welcome back to Press This WordPress community podcast on WMR. We’re talking about what in the heck are the engineers behind Genesis doing about FSE with Mike McAlister. Mike right before the break, you were talking a little bit about the role of functionality and beams and how functions dot PHP is available in MSC themes and you can load it up with functionality, but you might not want to, because you can leverage theme dot JSON or I guess a companion plugin or other approaches to make that theme a lot more lean as you think about the future of MPC Studio I know you’re gonna think of the new names as maybe one thing on your list. But what are what are other areas you’d like to address? I mean, I know obviously, the Genesis Framework particularly has a history of like performance and SEO and other aspects. I was saying that like, that’s where you would focus but I’m just curious like how are you thinking about the future after the Alpha?
MM: Yep, that’s a great question. And you know, one of the awesome things about these lightweight themes and kind of getting rid of heavy style sheets and everything else is you get an A built in performance boosts a lot of these themes that come off of you know, at least FSE themes are so much lighter and more performant. But um, so that’s aside that’s besides the point but, you know
DV: I feel like because I feel like a lot of people are walking with the assumption they’re actually a lot more polluted, like, oh, yeah, I’ll be doing my blocks and people’s, you know, some views on that seems to be a lot lighter.
MM: Yeah, well, that would be something we would definitely want to knock down because, you know, now with WordPress, you know, getting likes and getting rid of these heavy style sheets and even only loading styles of the blocks that are on the page kind of tree shaking in real time. You’re getting like some crazy performance that we’ve never seen in WordPress.
DV: that seems like a pretty good reason not to wait for it to shoot you know more.
MM: Yeah. Yeah. I’m really leveraged the technology that’s in there. So but yeah, in terms of FSE studio, we are in alpha right now. And so, you know, I just shared one kind of tweet about it, and we got a lot of interest. And so, you know, this thing started as just an internal development tool. And so it was like, you know, scratching our own itch solving our own problems, and it wasn’t until we kind of built it out that we thought this might actually be helpful to both. So that’s what we’re working through now is the first run of the applicant and people in there using it saying, is this a product, is it not? We’re getting a lot of great feedback, but going forward, the plan is to keep an eye on on the alpha in the feedback, keep an eye on WordPress and see how that’s changing. And see how that kind of influences what we’re doing with FSE studio. And we’re just you know, at the end of the day, our goal is to like make building and WordPress easier. And so we’re gonna go with where WordPress goes and we’re gonna go with our into intuition on on that whether it means FSE studio or changing it to kind of adhere to, you know, our philosophy on building themes, and all with the endpoint of getting somewhere. Kind of like Genesis Did you know is a tool that was very popular, kind of turned a lot of people onto WordPress and gave them the confidence to build with WordPress to kind of abstract away a lot of the complexity and so that’s our goal at the end of the day. And so that’s what we use to kind of guide decisions on these these products.
DV: All right, well, it’s making my agile heart warm with that iterative approach. I really like that. I know you’ve tweeted about the with a link with like a link to the YouTube video. Is that pretty visible on your Twitter account if people want to go check it out?
MM: Yes, I can even pin it on my on my channel. There we go.
DV: Excellent. What’s your Twitter handle for those listening?
MM: It’s at Mike McAlister
DV: I buy like all the kids in my family their vanity name domain name for their girl. Yeah. Yeah, awesome. Well, if people wanted to participate in the Alpha what’s the easiest way for them to do that?
MM: Yeah, we do have a link to sign
DV: URL if you I mean, it’s a read that out. Yeah, that would be awesome. Yeah, it’s l i t t url.co. Forward slash F S E now. So yeah, that’s my that’s my own custom URL shortener. I know with WordPress my it is the only world’s actual headless WordPress site. It literally renders no content as at all the only true
MM: that’s a great use case for a headless site.
DV: Like it doesn’t extend any API’s or content though submission maybe in the everyone else definition of what headless me right. But this was great, Mike, thanks for thanks for coming on. Really appreciate it.
MM: Absolutely. Yeah. Thanks. Always. happy to chat about WordPress and where it’s headed.
DV: Excellent to have you on again before four years is That’s right. Awesome. Well, if you’d like to enroll in that alpha, again, that URL is litturl.com/fse. Now thanks everyone for listening to Press This the WordPress community podcast on WMR. This has been your host David Vogelpohl. I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine. And I love to bring the best of the community to you here every week on Press this.