Welcome to Press This, the WordPress community podcast from WMR. Each episode features guests from around the community and discussions of the largest issues facing WordPress developers. The following is a transcription of the original recording.
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Doc Pop: You’re listening to Press This, a WordPress community podcast on WMR. Each week, we spotlight members of the WordPress community. I’m your host, Doc Pop, I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine and my contributions over on TorqueMag.io. You can subscribe to Press This on Red Circle, iTunes, Spotify, or you can download episodes directly at wmr.fm.
Headless WordPress is a big topic in the WordPress scene these days. But many folks like myself might still be a little scared off when we hear the term headless. And not just because it’s near Halloween and we get creeped out for that. I think it’s time to get over this fear. So I’ve asked Fran Agulto, a Developer Advocate at WP Engine to help me understand the pros and cons of headless. Fran, how’re you doing today?
Fran Agulto: Oh Doc, thanks for having me. And yes, you’re right it is Halloween but we shall not be scared because the Headless Horseman is here. Yes, I’m doing just fine today. Thank you.
DP: Awesome. You know, I’m gonna start off if you could just tell us what is your WordPress origin story? How did you get into this space?
FA: Great question. Actually, my WordPress origin story funnels through WP Engine. When I first started looking for a job in tech, I had no coding experience. I actually only had touched one WordPress site once in my life and that was back in college. And I was just making a shift trying to get into tech.
Well, WP Engine was hiring for sales representatives. So I got on board with WP Engine on the sales side of things with WordPress not on the technical side starting.
So that’s my origin story. I got through WP engine on the sales side of things and you know through their training here at WP Engine, if you’re more on the sales and marketing side, they give you the whole kind of spiel on what WordPress is as a CMS and as a management system, if you will.
DP: Yeah. And so you and I were talking at WordCamp US in San Diego, and I know that headless is a big thing for you. What is your current role at WP Engine and how does that kind of tie in with headless WordPress?
FA: Yeah, so that’s a good question. My current role here is Developer Advocate, Level Two, on the headless developer relations team here at WP Engine, and it ties into headless WordPress. With the developer relations team at WP Engine, there are two sides of the house, Doc.
There’s the traditional WordPress side of the house which most of the people that use WordPress are familiar with, if not all. And then there’s the headless side of the house, which I’m advocating for on my end. And that’s what I do. I essentially just write blog post technical articles and YouTube videos on coding and how to not be scared off, if you will, as you were saying in your intro of adapting this methodology.
DP: Well, you know, we’re talking about being scared and we’re going to try to keep this, you know, honest and talk about the pros and cons of headless. I guess let’s start off with just the pros of headless via WordPress. What comes to mind when you think of those?
FA: Yeah, so there’s actually three main positives or pros if you will, Doc, on why people, organizations, small to medium businesses, agencies, go and adapt headless WordPress. The first thing is speed. Right? Because from a user experience standpoint, everybody knows in web development that if you have a slow site, guess what it’s going to bounce, your users. Bye, bye. So you know, you want those super fast, speedy sites that essentially give a great user experience and up those Google Core Web Vitals.
That’s one of the pros of headless WordPress, is instead of a monolithic, traditional WordPress server side rendering mechanism that’s what WordPress does is on upon every request. When you’re a user visiting a site, it takes a round trip. It goes to the server, the PHP runs the code and then sends the HTML back to the browser for you to consume. Now, again, you can speed up traditional WordPress, but at its core on the headless side out of the box, when you decouple WordPress and just consume it as an API layer and have static files on a CDN data already pre built, it’s fast.
That’s the first and foremost pro, Doc, and then the second one is security. And the reason for that is when you decouple any web application or website it doesn’t have to be headless WordPress, your back end is hidden. Right? Most people that are savvy with tech, and might be able to decipher if you are using WordPress won’t even know if you’re using WordPress unless you’re exposing your environment variables in your repository.
And then the second thing, why it’s safest because the surface area of attack is that much less, essentially, because when you decouple, you’re on a front end framework that’s responsible now instead of the PHP of rendering the HTML in the browser, and it’s just a lower surface area of attack because there’s so much nefariousness you can do in a browser.
And then the third and last one, essentially is the future proofing of your tech stack. What I mean by that is with headless WordPress when you decouple your tech stack, you take what’s called the API driven development approach or methodology. And that way, like it’s much easier to not only have your users access your website or web application through a desktop browser, but a kiosk, a screen in a Tesla, a mobile app, it’s just much easier to consume that WordPress data and then throw it on any kind of like, node that your user is going to use. So that’s the pros of it.
DP: Okay, yeah, that’s interesting. Now there’s a couple that come to mind for me and I don’t have a headless site, I haven’t experimented with headless, I do use WordPress. You can let me know if this is right. Well first off content management if you’re using WordPress and you’re using a headless you can point it to you know, whatever web app or whatever you want to do. That content management side being pre built, you know with WordPress is got to be super smooth. Anybody regardless of their knowledge of how to use a website or how to build a website they could very easily go in. The same advantages just WordPress in general. They can go in and write their blog post and kind of publish it super easy, right?
FA: That’s actually 100% correct. Yes. You’ve nailed you’ve nailed that. Yep. In a summary, Doc, you nailed it. Yep.
DP: And then I guess other things that come to mind that you didn’t mention, it was kind of like checking to see, it seems like if you’re building headless WordPress, I might be wrong on this but it seems like you’re gonna have a lot of tools because of all the plugins that people have made available, that you’ll be able to integrate, unless there’s some reason you can’t do that with headless. But it sort of seems like you could probably get like a lot of SEO plugins or whatever. And very quickly, all the WordPress ecosystem is at your fingertips, even if you’re building headless does that sound right?
FA: One of the actual cons of headless WordPress is on the WordPress side of things, Doc. Especially plugins, obviously, that would render or manipulate or change your front end. You can forget that. That will not work in a headless fashion. And, in fact, I would say most WordPress plugins do not work in a headless sense.
What you’re going to have to use to have a parody or comparison, what a plugin is to the traditional WordPress developer in the front end ecosystem of Node JS and frameworks like React, Vue Angular, you have NPM packages, which stands for node package manager. And if you’re a WordPress developer, those are what plugins are on the front end ecosystem that you’re going to have to get accustomed to and use.
DP: You know, I think that’s a great spot to stop for a minute. We’re going to take a quick break and when we come back, we’re talking with Fran Agulto about the pros, and we’ll get back and we’ll talk about the cons of headless WordPress. You’re listening to Press This.
DP: You’re listening to Press This a WordPress community podcast on WMR. This week we’re talking to Fran Agulto, a Developer Advocate at WP Engine. We’re talking about the pros and cons of headless and why you should or shouldn’t be scared of headless WordPress.
So far, we’ve covered the pros which simply are faster loading. You’re saying that headless WordPress is just super snappy. Security, not making it clear what the site is built on? You’re not getting hackers, any of that information, it’s kind of just front facing.
Future proofing. I mentioned content management, and then we got into cons and you were just saying most plugins do not work. Statistically speaking, you’re just kind of saying you feel that most WordPress plugins are probably not going to work with headless and I’m guessing that’s because most of those plugins are probably designed with like front end kind of changes.
FA: Yeah, that’s 100% correct. Yes. The fact of the matter is, if any plugin in the traditional WordPress sense is made to make some kind of alteration to the front end, it’s not going to work because the whole idea is you’ve decoupled the front end so that breaks. That’ll break in traditional WordPress, or in headless WordPress, excuse me.
However, Doc, here’s the thing, any WordPress plugin that only does something on the backend. Right? Like, Doc, I’m sure you’re familiar with Advanced Custom Fields, which helps you create custom content types. And there’s Yoast SEO for WPGraphQL which is a headless WordPress plugin. Those things work because people have written PHP code to extend those plugins to be able to be integrated with a headless approach, if that makes sense.
DP: Yeah. So let’s talk about some other cons of doing headless WordPress.
FA: Oh, yeah, there’s many. [laugher]
DP: Oh well, okay. [Laughter] Well we got like seven minutes. What kind of comes to mind, what’s the maybe the biggest con that someone’s thinking about going headless they may not want to actually do it because of this con?
FA: Yeah, here’s the thing, man, I tell you. I was at WordCamp US, in fact, I met you over there, Doc, and I was talking to a lot of people who just came up and randomly asked me this question. The fact of the matter is, at its core, and why it was invented, WordPress is so simple, it’s WYSIWYG, “What you see is what you get.” Right? And I gotta tell you, my mom, and my own sister, they know how to use WordPress. My mom is not technical at all. But she knows how to get into WP admin and just write some content in a block. And she goes, “Oh, look, it’s live on a URL.”
DP: Ooh. My heart’s beating. [laughter]
The second thing, the major con of it, is the gap or the bridge between, and I think some of this stuff we’re actually solving at WP Engine, which is awesome. And I’m not just saying this. I love WP Engine, I work here but I can choose where I want to work. We’re solving the issue of the fact that when you have a marketing team or a content editor in your organization, or whatever it is you’re using WordPress for, they’re used to going into WordPress, in the block editor, writing down content, typing content in, hitting either that preview button so that it could see what it’s going to look like live on the URL, or just hitting publish and seeing it live.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case in headless WordPress. You also have to configure and manipulate things which WP Engine is solving for out of the box. In order for that bridge, if you will, Doc, to work. So that content editors will be more familiar with the workflow. Because it is a decoupled headless, if you will, workflow when you go disattached like that. So those are the two main main cons of it. Is the complexity, and then you essentially have to hire coders. And then guess what, what you’re used to on the WYSIWYG has to be configured and there’s things that you have to wire up now in order to replicate that.
DP: So I think what I’m hearing is that when I go to my WordPress site and I make a change, I hit refresh, or whatever, I go to the website, hit refresh, and that change is there. And with headless traditionally, you’re going to have to do a few more steps than just hitting refresh. Is that what you’re saying?
FA: 100% Yep, that is 100% correct. Yeah. Yep.
DP: And you’re mentioning what you’re working with WP Engine. I’m assuming that’s Atlas?
FA: Yes, that is Atlas. Correct. That’s the shameless plug, everybody. But that’s what I was referring to is how WP Engine is solving for this. We’ve essentially taken the developer toil, I would like to call it, of the pain steak of having to wire all that up that I just told you about, Doc.
So now if I’m a developer and my company or my team or I’m in an agency and the agency goes, “Fran, you have to code this site. The owner of the site wants to use WordPress as their CMS but they want to go headless for the pros of it.”
With the Atlas platform, Doc, within two or three clicks, you’re configured and it allows that content editor to be like, “Oh man, wow. I can hit preview or publish. And it’s essentially the same work flows as I was using in a traditional WordPress sense. But now it’s headless. And I don’t even have to know about it.” Because it’s essentially a parody. It’s the same flow. That’s what WP Engine has solved for.
DP: And so let’s just recap the pros and cons one more time. So we’ve said the pros are faster loading security, future proofing, content management’s going to be easier.
FA: 100% Yeah, you essentially have to go into a command line, a terminal, you have to deal with repositories and checking out branches. Yeah. So there’s a complex learning curve.
DP: Well, I think that’s a good place to take a break. And when we come back, we will talk about how to get over those fears, if you have them. If you do want to be doing headless WordPress, how to kind of get over them. And you know, it’s kind of wrapping up on this episode, so stay tuned for more with Fran Agulto.
DP: You’re listening to Press This, a WordPress community podcast on WMR. Each week we spotlight members of the WordPress community and this week we’re talking to Fran Agulto, a Developer Advocate at WP Engine about headless WordPress, which sounds great because it’s kind of the time of the year to be scared. And you know, before the show, Fran, you and I were talking about rock climbing. And I’m just kind of curious, like with rock climbing, were you scared of heights when you first started?
FA: Oh, I mean, yes I was. I definitely had a more than healthy fear of heights, Doc, let’s just say.
DP: A healthy fear, yeah. And I’m just kind of wondering if there’s any lessons there. Maybe this is a stretch. Is there any kind of lessons there to kind of how you felt and how you overcame it with how some people might be nervous. They probably have an application that would be you know, they probably should be doing headless WordPress, but they’re just nervous about making that jump. What crossovers do you have from like, your climbing days that you could bring over.
FA: yeah, that’s actually a good analogy, if you will. Here’s the thing, right. At the end of the day, most fear I think, Doc, and it pertains to web development, to rock climbing, which is why this is a good analogy or even like, being married or having kids, whatever you’re doing in life. Fear is mostly because of unknown and unfamiliarity. Humans fear things that are unfamiliar.
But guess what? That fear gets lessened, the more you’re used to something, so let’s take a step back here. WordPress. Doc, you’ve been in the WordPress game longer than I have. I mean, I’ve been dealing with WordPress for four years now. How long have you been in the WordPress game?
DP: Like four years in a month. [laughter]
FA: Oh four years and a month. So we’re even.
DP: No, I’m a month ahead! [Laughter} No, it’s like 12 years I think working with WordPress companies and stuff like that.
DP: So yeah, it’s a while.
FA: So here’s the thing. The reason why it’s the most beloved CMS and it’s like, I don’t know 35-40% of the internet. I didn’t stay for Matt Mullenweg’s State of WordPress at WordCamp, I got busy. But WordPress is huge. And there’s a reason for that. It came out early and gained familiarity with its ease of use. Okay, so people are just comfortable with it.
Now, from a flow perspective, I think, Doc, honestly especially with what WP Engine is doing and how people are just adapting this. Once it gains traction, and, our Developer Relations Team are helping lessen the barrier of entry and get people more enabled on this, and understand what exactly they’re getting into. And, again, it’s not for everybody, but to your point, if it’s something that’s needed, if it’s like, oh my god, diagnosis wise, your site should be a headless WordPress site. Yeah, there’s definitely a normality that you need to have to lessen that fear.
DP: Absolutely. Well, we’ve been talking with Fran Agulto, Developer Advocate at WP Engine today about headless and this was a great conversation. If you’d like to follow up and learn more about what Fran is working on, you can follow him on Twitter, @fran_the_dev.
Upcoming episodes of Press This we’re going to be talking to Nev Harris next week to talk about how to recession proof your WordPress agency. Thanks for listening to Press This WordPress community podcast on WMR. You can follow my adventures with Torque magazine over on Twitter @thetorquemag or you can go to torquemag.io where we contribute tutorials and videos and interviews like this every day. So check out torquemag.io or follow us on Twitter. You can subscribe to Press This on Red Circle, iTunes, Spotify, or you can download it directly at wmr.fm each week. I’m your host Doctor Popular I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine. And I love to spotlight members of the community each and every week on Press This.