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A master in both piano and WordPress

How Helen found herself at the inspiring intersection of music and open source software.

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Helen Hou-Sandí

The ReadME Project amplifies the voices of the open source community: the maintainers, developers, and teams whose contributions move the world forward every day.

Helen Hou-Sandí // @helen

Helen Hou-Sandí is a classically-trained pianist and daughter of Chinese immigrants. She’s also a Lead WordPress Developer and Director of Open Source Initiatives at 10up, one of the largest WordPress agencies in the world. An enthusiastic technologist and leader in the OSS community, Helen currently lives in Costa Rica with her husband and two children. When she’s not programming, she can usually be found making music with her extended family.

OPENING QUOTE: I think we passed 40% of the web at some point this year. It's been a really wild ride and not at all what I was aiming for. I was just here to figure stuff out because I was using something and thought, "Hey, I guess I have the right to change it and make it better." And each step forward led me here. And so, here I am today and it's like, “Wow, I'm on a GitHub podcast. How cool is that?”

Brian: That’s Helen Hou-Sandí, Director of Open Source Initiatives and WordPress Lead Developer at 10up, one of the largest WordPress agencies in the world. And this is The ReadME Podcast, a GitHub podcast that takes a peek behind the curtain at some of the most impactful open source projects and the developers who make them happen. I am bdougie aka Brian Douglas…

Neha: And I’m nerdneha aka Neha Batra.

Brian: Every episode, Neha and I invite a maintainer or open source developer into our studio to explore the impact their work is making on the world around them. 

Neha: In this episode, we speak with Helen who came to programming in a circuitous way. A pianist since the age of five, and the daughter of Chinese immigrants,  Helen got a masters in piano and while at her conservatory, was asked to help with creating the collaborative pianists blog. All this was new to Helen but she had been blogging in her spare time, so had a sense of creating new things for the web. When she caught wind of WordPress, she was intrigued. Fast forward to over a decade later and Helen has become one of the world’s leading developers of WordPress, a content management system that represents at least 40% of the websites on the internet. In our conversation, we spoke about her journey from pianist to programmer, how the two disciplines inform each other and the ways in which she hopes to make WordPress relevant to a new generation of coders.

But first, we asked Helen about her earliest memories of using a computer. 

Helen: There's this picture of me in Manhattan in the '80s at a computer as a baby. My dad was a research assistant at Columbia. But my first meaningful computer experience that I can think of, we got a Windows 3.1 computer, the ones with the turbo button, right?

Brian: Yeah.

Helen: In the early '90s. And playing solitaire, trying to understand, like, what are all these different things. But one of the first things I remember, at least that also was code related, was—my dad's a math professor so he knows little bits and pieces about programming and logic. Well, a lot about logic, I guess. And he's also a violinist. And I'm also a pianist. So, he showed me BASIC and how to make the little onboard speaker make sounds, like, the ones that could just make one tone at a time, like, a MIDI type of speaker. And he showed me how to use BASIC to get it to play melodies by giving it Hertz values and the length of time that you wanted to play a note. So, that's one of my earliest meaningful memories at the computer.

Neha: That's so interesting. So, that means that your first interaction, meaningful interaction, with a computer was also embedded with music as well and they were intertwined, right?

Helen: Yeah. Completely.

Neha: So, walk me through that. How did those two grow together, like, between music and technology?

Helen: Yeah. Continuing on with my dad because he learned violin on his own, self-taught, because he lived through, I mean, if you look at history, a very difficult time in China. And so, he self-taught the violin. And so, he was just always really passionate about learning things and driving yourself to do that. And he was really into, and remains really into, tuning systems and the math, like, the Pythagorean theorem and how that relates to the tuning system, the musical scale that we use in Western music, as it's known. There's that old cartoon, Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land that talks about it, if people want to check that out. It's one of my favorite things. But yeah, he was really into just the math of music.

And I started piano really young. I was five. I don't know, we call it standard practice. But yeah. Five is young and so, I was in piano. And I did my undergrad and my master's degree in piano. Honestly, I started as a double major in computer science and music when I started college. And I did not like computer science as a major. It was... I don't know. It was a lot of things. I didn't really have a great computer. And I was often the only girl/woman in class and just sort of generally felt like... compiled languages, it was Java at the time. And I just didn't feel excited about it. So, I went into music.

And music's really hard to study because you get a ton of zero-credit classes. And they're also one of the highest credit count degree programs there is, typically. So, I think my undergrad degree was something like 120 required credits, where a lot of other programs would be, like, a 100. And then you're taking zero-credit classes through that. So, it was really challenging, but it really taught me a lot about discipline and how to be a good professional because you're freelancing a lot as a musician. So, how do you find work for yourself? How do you negotiate contracts? And then you have to practice. Nobody can sit there practicing with you. Practicing is a self-directed way of doing things. And so, yeah. Got through all that stuff.

Neha: Despite the hard work, Helen continued studying music and went on to get a masters in piano. Interestingly, it was in grad school that her curiosity in programming was piqued.

Helen: I worked in a computer lab. It was my student job. And working in a computer lab mostly meant making sure that other students aren't doing things on the computer they're not supposed to be doing, and refilling the printer. But I did get to know some of the technology people at the music conservatory and they were like, "Well, you seem reasonably good with a computer. So, why don't you try making a website for the grad student association?" Because I was the VP of the grad student association. They were like, "Why don't you try making some pages?" And they ran just a PHP. Just a plain PHP4. Dating myself here, but a good old procedural PHP in that time. And they were like, "Here's what PHP is. Here's what MySQL is. Some basic concepts around that." And having learned a little bit of Java and C++ in the past made PHP really easy to pick up because it's really like C-style. It's C under the hood.

And so, I was like, "Whoa, this is actually really fun because I'm not having to deal with compiled languages anymore and trying to write weird things on an operating system. I'm doing something on the web. And the web is super cool," like, sharing of information. It's that instant gratification, especially with PHP in that time. It's like you just save and reload and all your stuff's there and understand databases, which just sort of instantly clicked for me, which was a really cool feeling to have been through so much music study and be like, "You know what? I can still learn how to learn something new all over again." And it was really exciting.

And so, when I finished my master's, it was like, "Ah, I need a job. I don't want to do a doctorate. What am I doing here?" And I was actually really young. I was 22 when I finished my master's and was like, "Yeah. I'm super not ready to go get a really serious doctoral degree. What am I even doing here?" And so, they actually hired me as a web developer at the music conservatory. And from there, I got into WordPress. And that's taken me to where I am today.

And it's just been really wild. Everything's completely mixed together. So, it's not just the disciplines, but it's also the different things that I did in my life that brought me here in the first place.

Brian: What an incredible, and surprising story. Helen’s path to programming was an unexpected one but also, upon reflection, makes a lot of sense. Studying piano was a collaborative effort; she specialized in playing with large ensembles, collaborating with others to make something beautiful. Open Source mirrors that same level of commitment to collaboration. Helen now lives in Costa Rica, with her husband and two children, and while most of her time is spent programming, her husband and extended family are all musicians that continue to play together. It made me curious about her background as a collaborative pianist and how that played into her work as an open source programmer.

Helen: There are discreet concepts, like leadership by influence. With music, you're playing with a peer group. So, unless you're the conductor or the director of the ensemble, you don't really just get to be like, "You do the thing." You don't have authority over somebody else. And so, it's really about building consensus, giving everybody the context so you can all get on the same page and not getting everybody, leading by influence, not by exerting power. That's a big part of it.

There's also just the scale of collaboration, especially as a pianist. Let's see if I can explain this in a way that isn't too deep into the weeds of being a musician. But, for instance, in grad school, part of my scholarship for school, my assistantship, was working with five other people. And that was what I was getting paid to do by the school. And so, you have to remember what five other people are up to and all the things that they need to get done. And you can't just be like, "Okay, I'm just going to tunnel vision on this one thing that I want that I really need to focus on this week." You have to be making progress across all the things all the time because the other people are not waiting for you. You still have to scale across all those other people.

And open source is a lot like that. It's really rare that you get to just tunnel in on one thing, especially as a maintainer. You're just jumping between pull requests, trying to remember, what pull request is this person on? Maybe they're burning out because you keep stringing them along, giving them half-baked feedback and that kind of thing. And so, it's a lot of just remembering the context of all these individuals that you're working with, remembering that everybody is trying to move forward and that you can't just be like, "You know, I'm having an off week, so all five of you get to suffer." It can't be like that. So, that's also a big part of it as well.

Neha: Yeah. I'm so curious, especially since you've gotten this experience through getting your master's in collaborating on the piano and then even with the larger ensemble. I see a parallel between collaborating with the people that you're playing music with on a small scale and open source maintainers, the group of people who are working together, and then even with a larger ensemble, the greater open source community and being able to see what's going on overall and seeing how you're impacting your audience. What are the core tenants that you've taken over from music to do this?

Helen: Wow. Yeah. That's a great question. I don't know if I've ever really thought about it that way before. For the smaller group, certainly there's that understanding of what it means to have a private context versus a public context. So, open source itself, technically, is just licensing. Somebody in open source is going to get mad at me for saying that, but open source, at its base, just the term itself, is really about licensing the user's rights. But as a part of the broader ethos is that open process part of it.

Neha: Right. Absolutely.

Helen: Right. So, technically, you don't have to have an open process to have something that's open source, but as a part of what we really mean, the spirit of the word, the phrase, we have this open process.

And so, with music, we don't really have that as much, but we do have this concept of master classes, which is learning in the open. And so, you get up on stage in front of an audience and ask somebody to criticize you. It's kind of a weird thing to think about. But it is like that in open source as well. You're putting yourself out there and you're asking somebody to criticize your code in public because that's how much you want to learn. And I think that sometimes as maintainers, we forget that. We forget that this person's putting themselves out there and we should respect their time and their effort.

The public part, I was thinking about this earlier. One of the things we don't get that is not a parallel is the scale of public feedback that you get in open source. And I read something the other day that was, like, humans just were not meant for the scale of feedback that something like social media gives you. We just, mentally, this is not a reasonable thing to expect from humans. And in open source sometimes, that can become really overwhelming because there is nothing else like that except politics essentially. Open source is like... everybody's like, "Oh, we shouldn't make it political." And it's like, well, first of all, open source, as a movement, is political. And second of all, the closest parallel to that style of work and that scale of work is politics, is public policy, public works.

And so, thinking about just what has it meant to learn how to receive that volume of feedback and learn what to do with that, the sheer amount of it, and then that very human tendency to only remember the negatives or you might have a crowd where 98 people out of 100 said something really nice to you and it's just those two people who are being rude, frankly, but it sticks and you're like, "Oh, no. Have I made a mistake? Am I messing up everything in my life?" Just because of these 2% of people that say something. That's something that's been a huge lesson for me in open source is, like, how do you deal with that? What can you even do as a person with all of that information?

Brian: Many of us stumble our way into open source but are then hooked by the power of collaboration—critics and all. Helen’s story follows that track as well, she came upon open source by chance. Having decided not to pursue a doctorate in piano, she was exploring what may be next for her and, in the meantime, became the webmaster at her grad school. There, a pianist who ran the collaborative piano blog needed a new blog. And he reached out to Helen to build it.

Helen: He emailed me one day and was like, "Have you ever heard of WordPress?" And I was like, "No, but it looks kind of cool because it can make static pages," and at the time Blogger could not. And those were our options. This was like the Blogger, LiVEJOURNAL, WordPress coming up era. And I was like, "Oh, that's kind of cool. It can make static pages." And so, I was like, "Okay, well, I know what WordPress is more or less. And it seems like the right choice for a blogging platform that this department needs. And it's in PHP. We run our stuff on PHP, MySQL anyway. So, it matches our stack. We don't have to worry about installing new things or whatever."

So, we went with WordPress. And I promise you that this site was built terribly by me, like, weird plugins. We had a single sign on thing with phpBB, I think, the old forums, bulletin board stuff. I had no idea what SSO was. So, what was I doing? I don't know. It worked, but I don't know. I'm sure if I were to ever see that code again, I'd be like, "Wow. Embarrassing. Please don't ever look at me."

We got into WordPress. And as a part of that, I started lightly following along with what was happening in WordPress because in order to deploy updates to the software, we would kind of need to know when it was happening, what to be prepared for. And as I was watching the development of WordPress, this was when a feature called multisite was being merged in. And what multisite allows you to do is it allows you to take one WordPress installation and create a network of subsites under that single WordPress installation. And so, rather than just your main website, you also could have, in our case, departments, music studios, professors, deans. They could all have their subsites and therefore their own permissions. So, you could have somebody who can update stuff on the registrar's webpages, but they can't change the homepage.

And we had recently had an incident where somebody, I think a contractor, managed to wipe out the homepage by accident because we used Dreamweaver and Direct FTP to change stuff on the site. And we were like, "How do we avoid this?" And with that feature coming into WordPress, this was WordPress 3.0, it was like, "Whoa. Actually, that kind of setup makes a lot of sense for a school—sub-sites. So, why don't we draw up a plan to migrate all our stuff over to WordPress?" And so, that was my job for the next year, architecting what it would mean. Who are all my stakeholders (before I knew the word stakeholders)? So, who are all my stakeholders? Before I knew the word “stakeholders.” Who are all the interested parties? What do they need? What should we make? We're not going to try to fully redesign it, but where can we kind of move all the content over? Who wants permissions? And so, we were using WordPress.

Neha: This was a turning point for Helen. WordPress was a new world to her, as was the practice of anticipating its evolution. 

Helen: I really had to pay attention to the beta, how software cycles worked. And, again, this was all completely new to me. The idea of version control: new to me. And I was learning Subversion at the time because that's what WordPress still uses. So, we're in Subversion and just understanding what is a software release cycle? And kind of understanding that in music terms of where we have our weekly cadence of lessons. You have something more like a beta state, which is represented by studio classes, where you're performing for your peers. And then you have the launch, which is the performance. And in music, a performance, there's no wiggle room there, especially if you're working with other people. You can't reschedule an 80-person orchestra because one person isn't ready. So, I'm used to hard, hard deadlines. And so, it was like, "Oh, yeah. Actually, these concepts all make sense to me." And I started following along.

And then my first contribution was in, I think, June of 2011. And it was that I just saw a mis-colored border somewhere in the WordPress admin. And I was like, "You know what? I've started learning about this stuff. I'm curious about Subversion and patches and Trac," again, a thing we're infamous for, and like, "What do I do with this? Can I fix it? Is that a thing I can do?" And I remember I had read something on the site about the four user freedoms of the GPL. And, again, I have no idea what any of this is. But I read it. And one of them was the right to make modifications and distribute your modifications to other people, to learn to modify. And I was like, "What does that even mean?"

So, I get in there. I make a patch. It was a bad patch because we had minified files. I didn't understand that. So, I'm out here modifying minified files to get it to show up. And that was my patch. But I got feedback. I got a code review super quick, like, within a couple hours. And they had merged it in within a day. And so, that was a really exciting experience for me. And I realize that like, yeah, okay, I could downplay it by saying like, "I just changed a border color," but when you think about small changes multiplied by the scale that a piece of software, like WordPress operates at, even at the time, it's like, wow, even a small thing like that, that change can multiply and really have an impact. So, I just kind of really got hooked on that.

Helen: My husband got a professorship in Kansas. And I was like, "All right. Well, I can't keep working for the university remotely," because at the time, that was not really a thing that they supported. And I had started to hear about fully remote jobs and was like, "Wild." And I actually really hated being in an office. I found it exhausting. And so, after three years in an office, I was like, "You know what? I'm ready. Let me just work from home. It'll be good." And so, yeah. I was like, "Okay, I'm going to find a remote job as a WordPress developer." And I did. Through a random Tweet I applied to work for 10up, which is where I still am. So, it's been 10 years. And they hired me. I don't know what an agency is. I don't know what a consultancy is. I don't know any of these things. I'm like 25ish. And so, I don't know what I'm doing. Let's go. Let's see what happens.

And it turned out that I was the first hire. We're at, like, 280 people now. So, that's been pretty wild to go from one and only, plus the founder to this big company. But through there, the owner, Jake Goldman, and I were really philosophically aligned on the meaning of open source, what it can do for you as an individual learning for your company in business terms, but also just philosophically, right. We're working on WordPress sites. It's on us to help maintain that platform that we've built an entire business on. That's our responsibility right to the community, to the ecosystem. And we always agreed on that. And within a few months, he had started giving me a few hours a week to work on WordPress itself. And I was attending like IRC chats, Again, the time period. And yeah. I don't know. People just trusted me really quickly, which I still think about all the time. It's like, "Wow, why did people trust me so fast? I hope they don't regret it." So, people just trusted me really quickly. And yeah, just within months, I had donated time back to WordPress through my job and was running UI meetings and efforts and that sort of thing, even though I was coming from PHP and MySQL, but because I'm really particular about how things look and feel, really got into front end and UI development from there. And I still, I love doing all of the above really. It's just fun to jump in and out of different things.

From there, I just kept increasing my time until in 2013, I went on parental leave. And when I came back from parental leave, I just never went back on client projects. And I was full-time from that point onward working on WordPress. And in, gosh, 2015, became one of the lead developers. And there are only five of us. So, it's high pressure, high responsibility for something that now, I think we passed 40% of the web at some point this year. 

So, yeah. It's been a really wild ride and not at all what I was aiming for. I was just here to figure stuff out because I was using something and thought, "Hey, I guess I have the right to change it and make it better." And each step forward just led me here. And so, here I am today and it's like, wow, I'm on a GitHub podcast. How cool is that?

Neha: There's something so relatable in Helen’s story—that there’s this beauty to just following curiosity and interest. This became particularly clear to her when she moved to Kansas and thought, "Hey, maybe I could do even more." Pushing yourself beyond your initial comfort zone takes a lot of courage but it often has huge rewards.  I wondered, when did Helen feel like her code started making a difference?

Helen: Oh, gosh. When was my code making a difference? Maybe not even a code thing. I've kind of frequently been kind of more behind the scenes. One of the earliest things that I did was I proposed CSS coding standards for WordPress. And so, that's not so much my code as much as my opinion of the code, but that was one of the earliest things that I did. And I remember talking about CSS coding standards and like, "Can we have concepts of backwards compatibility in something like CSS, which does not have the same paradigms that PHP has?" And I remember Chris Coyier tweeted something one day and was like, "This is a really smart way of looking at CSS." And I was like, "Oh my God. What? Are you serious? This person whose WordPress book I read back in the day when I was learning what all of this was is now saying that I have good ideas?" And it was like, "Wow, I can actually do something with that. I'm not just making it up. Maybe I haven't learned all the fancy terminology. Maybe I can't get in there and understand enough Python to make Trac work or whatever., but I can get around. I figured it out. And I can have some impact on things that make a difference for somebody."

And then in, I guess, I don't know, what year is anything anymore? But I think 2014, I was the release lead for WordPress 4.0. And what was really exciting about that release was that people went into that with huge expectations because like, "Wow, big round number. What are you going to do?" But we don't version stuff that way. So, 3.9 is the same importance as 4.0 is the same importance as 4.1. Again, point of contention, but it is what it is. And so, I was leading 4.0 and people were expecting big things. And I think, at the time, people were a little like, "What are the big things?" But there were so many small things that we put in there that were about that delight, you know, that sort of intuitive experience. And one of them was that we have oEmbed in WordPress. So, oEmbeds are like a response from a URL, the way you have open graph images and that kind of stuff. So, an oEmbed response is like a rich embed response. Also returns sort of in the same way from a URL. So, you can just paste a YouTube URL into WordPress and it will embed the video.

And what it used to be was that in the visual editor, you just paste it on its own line, don't link it or anything, and it's that way in the editor, but when you look at it on the front end, you get the embed. But it's a little of the save and surprise thing, where you save it and then see what happens. So, we thought like, "Okay, what can we do about this that could be better?" Galleries in WordPress have visual previews, so why can't the embeds?" And so, a contributor, who today works on the block editor and is just one of the smartest people that I've ever had a chance to work with, came up with a way of capturing that event, like when you pasted your URL, and captured that and turn it into a rich sandbox embed inside the visual editor. And how cool is that?

And to most people, it was like, "Oh yeah, but WordPress was already doing the embeds. You're just putting stuff in the pretty editor. And me, as a fancy developer, I never used the visual editor anyway.” And it was like okay, well, first of all—boring! And second of all—how cool is that? That's just such a delightful little thing, where you paste a URL and you get a thing that matches what's on the front end and it just magically became this thing. And that's really become the underpinnings of where our editor has gone in the years since.

And now, we have this whole React, REST API-powered editor, the block editor. And it's really rich. And it does these rich embeds. And so many of those concepts come out of those things that we were working on then to match your expectations between the editor and the front end to provide that sort of instant delight, instant understanding of what you're doing. And that's really... yeah. It's been several years, but that's what's been really exciting for me and what's been so cool about actually getting to live and breathe something for so long, is that I get to see that these things that, yeah, they felt like relatively small, even if exciting at the time, but now we can see like, yeah, all these little things really made this huge impact and it's just changed the direction of WordPress entirely.

Brian: When you look back at your work at WordPress, do you ever take a step back and be like, "Instead of Java, they're going to be teaching WordPress in college and teach how to construct a project that gets adoption that takes over the entire web?” Do you ever take a step back and think about that?

Helen: All the time. Yeah. I actually just got a ping from somebody that I owe a response to, in classic form, about WordPress training materials. And it's like, "Wow, we've reached a point where WordPress is the thing to learn." And at the same time, I don't know, there's something about that that I also maybe don't like as much because if we're out here being like, "You have to learn these things about WordPress.” Well, that means that we have things that we could improve about how intuitive it is and what the experience is, both for UI users and for your developer users. So, does that mean that we have something we can improve? Almost certainly.

I know one of the things I really struggle with sometimes in that open feedback realm is when people are like, "Oh, well, of course, you think WordPress is great," or, "Of course, you think this. You're biased toward WordPress." And it's like the people who are the most critical of WordPress are those of us who work on it because that's literally my job—is to find all the things that are wrong with it and do something about it. I would not be doing this for work if I thought it was perfect. It doesn't make any sense. So, yeah. I think about that a lot.

Neha: I hear this a lot, that it’s always exciting—and even sometimes surprising—to see the various ways the community can use and build on your work. Even more so, for Helen, it must be incredible to see fellow developers seeking out ways to learn WordPress. And new developers considering it early in their education. 

Helen: It's like, yeah, people are like, "I need to learn WordPress and I need to study it," or you have boot camps and I see kids in school. And so, there are some WordPress people. And we have WordCamps, so low-cost, local community events for WordPress people. But this being said, you have tracks for developers, tracks for contribution, open source contribution, but you also have tracks for content creators, tracks for designers. It's anybody who's using WordPress. And we have people involved in these events, and now their kids are getting involved in these events. That's how old of a project we are now, I guess. It's like we have people with teen, young adult children who are really promoting the cause for getting their peers to get into WordPress to learn, to learn how to use it—because it's so much of the web so you're almost guaranteed to be using it at this point. I know the GitHub blog uses it. So, getting to know it just because it's a good skill to have, being able to use Word. Thinking of it in that way is always like, "Whoa, we're in that same category now."

And then there's also the meaning of open source and getting more and more young people into understanding that and the value of that and the connections it can bring, the skills that it can bring you and teach you. And I just think that's also just super cool.

I love seeing what younger people are doing. That's part of what I love about TikTok, like you mentioned. I love seeing how creative teens are. I think about what I was doing as a teen and it's like, what was I doing? I was sitting there listening to whatever the latest Neptunes production was while playing Minesweeper on my computer. So, I grew up in Virginia Beach. So, that's my hometown, right? It's like Neptunes, Missy Elliott, Timbaland. So, it's like that's all I listened to. It's like that's what I was doing as a teen. And now, I see them on TikTok or all sorts of forums and they're creating these... they're super funny, they're super smart with their devices and timing. And their humor is so good without being “attacky” or relying on old tropes. They're super funny in ways that are not harmful. And it's like wow, they're doing such cool things. And so, encouraging them to also participate in something like open source is just like, yeah, that's what's super cool to me. It's like, I don't know, my peers, the older millennial crowd, like, yeah, whatever. We've got our own things going on. We should know, more or less, what we're up to at this point. But yeah. It's the younger crowd that I'm really excited about.

Neha: Yeah. And I think, in fairness, back in the day, we didn't have as many options to be as publicly creative as we wanted to today. So, it's almost as though we can see them co-evolve, like, the ability to be creative and inspire each other and the technology that enables you to do so. It sounds like you're drawing a lot of inspiration from the younger crowd. How's that affecting what you do today?

Helen: Yeah. It's a good question. It's affecting a lot of what I'm thinking about too. What you said about there not being those forums when we were younger, it's true. And what would I have done with that if I had it? If I'd had Twitter as a teen, I don't know, I'm sure that I would've done something incredibly stupid and regretted it for the rest of my life. I think I'm thankful that those things did not exist when I was a teen because I was up to a lot of dumb stuff. And so, I think about that. But yeah. It's very much that...

Also, in the WordPress space, there's sometimes a lot of concern about, like, are people still making websites? Do people still think of WordPress as just another blogging platform? Do people care about blogging? How can people just end up Tweeting instead of blogging? I was kind of joking around one day and was like, "What if we made Twitter into a WordPress Live blogging platform, where you could pull a Twitter thread and turn it into a WordPress post?" And somebody actually created it. And it's in Jetpack, the big WordPress plugin. So, you can create a blog post out of a Twitter thread. But it's like we have to be really good about thinking about what the advantages are of these platforms.

And I was just talking about this this morning, what does it mean to operate as a distributed installed piece of software in a world that is increasingly app-based, cloud-based with no concept of a file system? It's on the verge, that piece about even STEM students have no idea what a file system is anymore. And how can we rethink what we're doing because we are so used to these ideas. We are that crowd that knows what that save icon actually means. And so, how do we rethink our own perspective?

And how do we take something like WordPress that is so different, is so outside of those concepts of an app, of cloud-based, because you're talking about something distributed, installed, you have to keep updated. So, how do we take that, and how can we make that relatable for a totally new mindset, a totally new mental model of how things work? And it cannot be about we're going to force the kids to use Windows 98 for a while and understand the pain of eight characters in a file name. No, no, we're not... that's not real. That's not happening. So, how could we, as the people with experience, take that and rethink how we’re approaching stuff? So, how can we make WordPress make sense to people who don't think about stuff on the computer as directories, who don't think about things that way because they don't need to.

Neha: Yeah. I love that so much. It's like creating space for freedom and letting that freedom take you where you need to go, right?

Helen: Absolutely. Yeah.

Brian: The growth of WordPress has been continuous and Helen’s impact is certainly felt. There’s no doubt it will surely carry into the future. Maybe the next time we meet, it'll be 50% of the web.

Helen: I feel like that's been the goal. Maybe not the goal. We always like... it's a trailing indicator. We always try to remind ourselves of that. It's a trailing indicator of, like, are we doing well? But I feel like that's something we've been rallying toward as a project for so long. It's like can we be meaningful enough? Can we be usable enough? Can we be appealing enough? Not just entrenched enough, but can we be good enough to hit that point?

I don't know if it's going to happen. I feel like we're kind of hitting this point where there are a lot of things out there that are a lot more compelling and they're able to be because they're hosted services, because they're able to provide things that you just cannot do because you're distributed, because you can be used on shared hosting, because of your licensing, because of your ethics.

Let's take images, for example. So, relating back to that mental model of, like, do you think of things as being in a directory? And it's like, no, people just expect to be able to plain text search. They expect to be able to search books in their camera roll and get every single photo they've ever taken of a book. Can we implement that in WordPress? I have no idea, but that's the kind of thinking that we need to be pushing toward. It's not about, like, what's React? What's PHP? What kind of application are we? It's like can we reach that type of audience? Can we reach that kind of usability in this type of project? I don't know. I think that's a really exciting challenge for us. So, that's what I'm excited about.

Brian: That's awesome.

Helen: Thank you.

Neha: This was awesome.

Helen: Thanks. I had so much fun.

Brian: It was great  to speak with Helen Hou-Sandí and have her on the ReadME Podcast. To learn more about Helen and her work, please visit, undoubtedly built on WordPress.

I am Brian Douglas, aka bdougie.

Neha: And I am Neha Batra aka nerdneha. The ReadME Podcast is a GitHub podcast that dives into the challenges our guests faced and how they overcame those hurdles. In sharing these stories, we hope to provide a spotlight on what you don’t always see in the lines of code, and what it took to build the technology that inspires us all. 

Brian: It’s been really great spending time with you. The ReadME Podcast is part of the ReadME Project at GitHub, a space that amplifies the voices of the developer community: The maintainers, leaders, and the teams whose contributions move the world forward every day. Visit to learn more.

Our theme music has been produced on GitHub by Dan Gorelick with Tidal Cycles. Additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. 

The ReadME Podcast is produced by Sound Made Public for GitHub.

Please subscribe, share, and follow @github on Twitter for updates on this podcast and all-things GitHub. Thanks for listening!

Meet the hosts

Neha Batra

Growing up in South Florida, Neha Batra has always loved building things. She dug into robotics in high school and earned a mechanical engineering degree with a concentration in energy from MIT, then jumped into a role as an energy consultant—but craved an even faster pace of life. She taught herself to program and worked as a software engineer at several companies, including Pivotal Labs and Recurse Center. She was also instrumental in helping make the world of open source more inclusive for marginalized genders on the board for Write/Speak/Code. Neha now lives in San Francisco, where she’s an Engineering Director at GitHub designing products to improve the world of OSS. She’s also a foodie who’s into planning trips, and has a thing for national park magnets.

Brian Douglas

Brian grew up in Florida, and was in full-time sales before the birth of his son inspired him to build an app—and he saw an opportunity for a new career. He taught himself how to code, and started blogging. His content caught the eye of a San Francisco tech company, and he never looked back. Now living in Oakland with his family, Brian is a developer advocate at GitHub, where he creates space for other developers to find their voice. He’s passionate about open source and loves mentoring new contributors. He’s also the host of the Jamstack Radio podcast and created the Open Sauced community.

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ReadME Project

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The ReadME Project is part of GitHub’s ongoing effort to amplify the voices of the developer community. It’s an evolving space to engage with the community and explore the stories, challenges, technology, and culture that surround the world of open source.

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