14 comments | Posted: 4 April 07 in Interviews, by Nathan Smith
While in Austin for SXSW, I had the chance to meet Leslie Camacho. He is VP of EllisLab, the company behind the popular CMS ExpressionEngine and the open source PHP framework CodeIgniter. I learned that Leslie is a fan of Godbit and uses our desktop backgrounds. Leslie fielded several questions, deferring on a few topics to President of Ellis Labs – Rick Ellis.
You have been doing web development for quite awhile now, currently serving as VP of Ellislab. When you graduated with a degree in Marketing Management in 1998, did you know that you wanted to get into the web as a profession, or was your career path more gradual? Would you care to fill in some of the history that led you to pursue web development?
I got my start in web development on a 386sx PC that my Dad bought when I was in 7th grade. I discovered I could play RPGs on Prodigy’s bulletin boards which sparked my love affair with computers and the net. I worked my way through college as part of the university’s faculty computer support staff; one day a couple of the techs called me into the back room and I watched Mosaic load a web page. It was love at first site (excuse the pun) and I ended up crafting my honors thesis as a web site.
I owe my love for entrepreneurship to Dr. Johnny Thomas, the dean of the School of Business at my University. Dr. Thomas came to the US with a couple hundred dollars and turned it into a successful career in venture capital. Dr. Thomas invited me to “dog and pony shows” where millionaires pitched ideas at each other and I helped do grunt work for his venture capital firm drafting business plans that were used to secure funding, start companies, etc.
Dr. Thomas also taught me how to be a man of God in the business world, befriend people outside my comfort zone, and be solid in what is often a shady business world filled with unfortunate compromise.
I emerged from these experiences with a fairly unique skill set. I knew the web, business, entrepreneurship, how to work with extremely smart people, and I had a solid ethic of putting others first. This led to being CTO at a small marketing firm straight out of college where my job was to pitch web sites to clients, develop the site, and work with programmers for the more advanced functionality.
That’s how I discovered pMachine Pro. I immediately recognized that I could replace expensive, contract database programmers with a $125 blog tool for most of our projects. It made our small firm competitive with the big guys and we consistently underbid others by 70-80% and delivered a site the client could self manage; a revolutionary idea at the time. Because pMachine Pro was the foundation of most of our web business, I got very involved in the community (back when there were really only 40 or 50 of us), got to know Rick Ellis, and eventually ended up the VP of what is now EllisLab.
I blame the strange career path on God as I have the dream job I never knew I wanted, get to work with an outstanding team, and I help people succeed everyday. You couldn’t pay me enough to do something else.
With such high visibility around the recent re-brand of pMachine to Ellislab, you guys seem to be the hot-topic nowadays. If you don’t mind, please share a bit about the metamorphosis from the early days of pMachine Pro to ExpressionEngine, culminating with the recent transformation to EllisLab.
The movie synopsis would read something like this:
“Bald rocker working for Nancy Sinatra releases blog tool on whim. Unexpected success necessitates hiring a brilliant philosopher, a long-haired theist, and a man baring a striking resemblance to Mr. Bean. Follow the hilarity as this motley crew navigate the stormy waters of internet capitalism, avoid the faddish temptations of Web 2.0, battle trolls, thwart pirates, foil spammers, and outwit the dread l33t haXtor on their quest to create the best web publishing system ever in hopes of winning the undying love of their community.”
Rick Ellis has less exciting, but more accurate answers to these questions:
A recent article at Juicy Studio compared several popular CMSs side-by-side, examining them in terms of accessibility. They had some really nice things to say about ExpressionEngine, but had reservations about recommending it whole-heartedly because of a few issues they saw as being accessibility barriers. Is accessibility a priority for future versions of EE, or do you have to gauge ROI from a business perspective, catering to a majority audience?
The answer is yes on both counts. Accessibility is a planned for future versions and we do have to gauge ROI from a business perspective. Investing in accessibility makes long-term business sense so these ideas are not mutually exclusive. We haven’t done so extensively in the Control Panel yet, but it’s certainly on the list for future versions.
What the Juicy Studio review does not mention is how straight-forward it is to build accessible sites using EE. The template engine basically gives you a blank slate which means if you know your accessibility, you can create accessible sites easily in EE without worrying about the template engine interfering with your code. This does not absolve our CP sins, but I hope it shows that we do have a commitment to accessibility and we started with the front-end user experience since that’s where the most demand for accessibility is (at least from our customers).
Last year, you guys caught the framework-fever inspired by Ruby on Rails, and now offer an abstracted PHP framework named CodeIgniter. Yannick Lyn Fatt certainly is a fan, and has written about it here at Godbit. Would you care to discuss the decision making process that drove the creation of the framework? Was it a difficult choice from the standpoint of sacrificing opportunity cost, when so much company time is spent on your flagship CMS?
CodeIgniter leverages much of ExpressionEngine’s assets. In fact, had we not had EE’s extensive libraries at our disposal, CodeIgniter would have never happened. It would have been too daunting. Thanks to those libraries, CI was developed in a short period of time, without diverting EE development efforts.
CodeIgniter is often compared side-by-side with CakePHP. Recently, freelance web developer and author Jonathan Snook did an impartial assessment of the two frameworks. What would you say the strengths and weaknesses are of both CodeIgniter and CakePHP? Are there any features in Cake which you guys hope to implement eventually?
I haven’t spent much time using Cake, so I’m not the best person to compare it to CI, although I have installed it and benchmarked it and looked at the features it supports. Cake has a more advanced active record database class, while CodeIgniter has a much broader set of libraries, enabling more capability out of the box. CodeIgniter is also a lot less rigid in its rules, and it’s simply faster. I’m proud of the fact that CI has the best performance of any framework I know of. In my benchmarks it is significantly faster then Cake. Ultimately, though, we’re not in competition with anyone. Our goal is to provide good tools for our users. There is plenty of room for several products to happily coexist in the marketplace so I truly don’t see Cake as our “competitor.”
In my mind, one of the strongest arguments in favor using ExpressionEngine and/or CodeIgniter is your dedication to writing good documentation. I appreciate the fact that the user manual is actually easy on the eyes and has correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. Do you have a team of in-house writers documenting your products, or is that all done by developers?
It’s all done by the developers and myself. We feel that forcing developers to write documentation yields better code, better docs, and a better application/framework. Writing about how you do something often changes your perspective in a positive way. If it’s too complicated to write in plain English then chances are something needs to be improved in the code, interface, and/or the functionality. That’s not always true, but its a good starting point.
Usually the development team writes the initial drafts of the docs and then I go through and polish things up, add screencaps, and so on. We take our docs very seriously and will even delay release if the docs aren’t just right. Several “doc hounds” live in our community and sniff out every single error we miss. We do our best to correct those as quickly as possible.
I am glad that I was able to meet you in Austin at SXSW. We had talked briefly about our mutual faith in Jesus, but I wanted to hear more about your life experiences. If you would, please share your testimony and how you came to be a Christ follower.
This is a long story that I’m happy to tell in person, but here I’ll give the condensed version. I grew up a preacher’s kid and as such “knew” all the answers, meaning I could give you the “right” answer to anything concerning the Bible and God. But I didn’t really know Christ, which also meant I didn’t have a clue what the real answers were. And, in moments of honesty, I realize that it made me quite foolish.
In college I gave up on the church I grew up in and in Christianity in general. I decided to make my own way and turned my back on God. This was a private decision that I didn’t really share with anybody outside a few close friends. I ended up miserable and devastated on the inside while looking happy and successful on the outside.
A few years later, for reasons I can’t explain but am eternally grateful for, Jesus made himself blatantly obvious in a way that I couldn’t ignore or reason away. Within a few minutes I dedicated my life to Him and never looked back. It has been quite the journey and I have not regretted it for a moment. The biggest revelation was understanding that Jesus did not come to make bad people good, but bring the dead to life. I was dead, but now I’m alive; that’s why I follow Jesus.
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