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Zao: A Look Back at 2017

Last year, we celebrated a huge 2016 with excitement and anticipation for what the future would bring.

We’re happy and humbled to report that 2017 didn’t disappoint. We added a Project Manager to our team, we posted some rad content, worked on some incredible projects, and learned a lot along the way.

Here are the highlights of what went down in Zao’s 2017:

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WordPress, Gutenberg Project, WordPress editor, WordPress thought leaders, WordPress thoughts, WordPress professionals

My Thoughts on Gutenberg

We’re in an incredibly exciting time in the development of WordPress as a platform: the REST API is in core, we’re imagining a new JavaScript-driven future for WordPress, and we’re in the early stages of development of a new editor for WordPress, Gutenberg.

As one might expect, anytime major changes happen in open source software, hot takes abound! While my take isn’t necessarily as hot (I highly recommend each of those posts!), I’d like to share some of my observations on the community reaction to the process of introducing Gutenberg to WordPress.

This post is not a feature-by-feature review of Gutenberg. Any of the posts linked to above do a far better job of that than I could hope to. Rather, I’d like to explore the general sense of animus this project has seemed to introduce into our community – and if possible, I’d like to explore that without pointing any fingers.

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project management tips, project management role, why do we need a project manager, what a project manager does

A Few Ways Project Managers Support The Discovery Process

We’ve talked about the importance of the discovery phase before, and now we’re here to share the role of a project manager during this endeavor.

Your development team plays a crucial role in the process of discovery. They’ll handle digging into the existing technology, researching tools and methodologies that will ultimately be a part of the project, and strategizing the best way for the project to get done. At Zao, we make sure to dig into the client’s short and long term business goals. We lay a solid foundation not just for an immediate technological upgrade, but for our client’s long-term success as well (particularly as their company grows).

You may think your project manager won’t have a major role in discovery, but that’s all wrong! Having a solid PM on your team can help elevate the process, making sure you have all the info you need to catch red flags, scope appropriately, and manage the details.

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WordPress economy, WordPress business, WordPress web development, WordPress jobs, WordPress developer jobs,

The WordPress Economy is Changing, and Zao Is Ready For It

Not too long ago, Post Status’ newsletter covering Rainmaker’s move from a SaaS product model to a service-only model served as the catalyst for a lot of conversation on Twitter. We saw the esteemed Brad Williams tweet this thought about the WordPress economy:

And it sparked a conversation in the Zao Slack about the WordPress economy and how this impacts us, too.

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team building, who to hire, should i hire an optimists, should i hire a realist, teamwork, how to get your team to work together better, best team member qualities, best hiring qualities

Your Team Needs Optimists and Realists for Your Business to Thrive

One of the things we often hear about hiring is that people want a good fit for their “company culture.” If you have a group of high energy, endlessly optimistic go-getters, you might think that a no-nonsense realist will chill your vibe. If your small organization is filled with purely pragmatic, only-dealing-with-the-tangible types, you might balk when you consider how an idealist may approach problems. Hold up, though! Can these two types work together for the greater good?

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modern tech apprenticeships, paying to learn on the job, getting paid to intern, should i pay my interns, should i pay my apprentices, should i pay an apprentice, should i pay for my employee to learn, should i pay for my employee's education, should i pay for my employee's class

Yes, You Should Pay Your Employees to Learn

Many of the folks in the WordPress space have come up without a formal education (or without a tech specific education), and became successful through avid learning and self-motivation.

John Hawkins is an excellent example of someone who paved his own path without a formal education: he founded 9seeds, is well-respected for his work with WordPress, and is now the Business Development Manager for WebDevStudiosHelen Hou-Sandí went to college for piano, not tech, and is self-taught in web development; she is the Director of Platform Experience at 10upLisa Sabin-Wilson, partner and COO of WDS, worked as a nurse before she heard about WordPress (when it was in its infancy). After further investigation, she dropped everything to make it her new career…and became the author of WordPress For Dummies and a force to behold in the WP space. Brad Parbs dropped out of college while studying computer science to make his own websites; he is currently a Senior WordPress engineer at Human Made.

Our own founder, Justin, funded Zao’s earliest days by working at Burger King, and now Zao is a burgeoning WordPress eCommerce and custom development agency that is experiencing an incredible growth spurt, after over a decade of steady upward success. JT was a house painter who started fiddling around with WordPress for his church website, joined the WebDevStudios team, advanced to Director of Engineering, and is now a Managing Partner of Zao.

Some of these folks landed in companies where they had an opportunity to unofficially apprentice: they found a position that allowed them to work and learn simultaneously. Others ended up using their own determination and the educational access built into the open-source community to create their own companies. Although they might not have gone through a formal apprenticeship in the way that many of us think, they still sought opportunities for their skills to be developed and to be mentored while also still providing for themselves and their families.

“I don’t pay people.”

Recently, I heard this uttered–without an ounce of shame–on a panel talking about the rise of apprenticeship programs.

Apprenticeships are growing in popularity, particularly in the tech industry where employee retention is low, truly entry-level jobs are rare, and where many people want to work, but don’t necessarily have the applicable skill sets for the positions that are available. The panel was a group of experts discussing their experiences taking on apprentices and how that works for them. One of those experts said the above.

Side note: While I understand that there may be curiosity about who said this or what panel it was, I am intentionally not providing that information as I think it’s counterproductive. This isn’t intended to be a “call out” post, but to examine the flaws in this particular approach.

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A sign saying thank you

The Importance of Generosity and Gratitude in Business

There are billions of books, articles, journals, and thoughts about how to run a successful business and be the most profitable. Search “run a good business” in Google and you get 441,000,000 hits. Clearly, a lot of people have a lot to say about this, yet there isn’t enough time in a lifespan to cover it all.

While I’m by no means an expert in the business realm, I’m a small business employee and I have a tangible experience and perspective in the job market. So, naturally, I do have my own two cents on the subject. Generosity and gratitude can have one of the most profound effects on your business, beyond what is easily measurable.

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a team of people around a wooden table with a white woman writing on a notepad and the post title "So You Want to Hire a Contractor"

So You Want to Hire a Contractor… (Part 1)

If you are running a small development or design agency (or working solo, but looking to grow), you may wonder when you’ll be able to actually hire employees. Hiring a team–even one person–can be intimidating.

You may be worried about taxes, whether you can afford it, or how you’re going to find someone who is a good fit. You might be panicking at the amount of work you have piling up while knowing it simply is not possible to hire a team member and offer them the full benefits of a regular employee. You know you need additional hands on deck, but you’re not sure you can start fleshing out a team of full time employees

That’s when it’s time to hire a contractor.

Getting started

One of the easiest ways to find someone who is a good fit is an obvious one: ask around. It’s likely someone in your industry has a solid lead on who can help you out.

You can contract for whatever help is needed the most.

Here are a few things I’ve seen developers hire contractors for in the past:

  • Development
  • Design
  • Social media management
  • Content management
  • Writing
  • Customer service
  • Tech support
  • Project management
  • Virtual assistance

Word of mouth is a great way to find folks, as is reaching out to any professional communities you’re involved in for recommendations.

While trying to find someone within your network is a good start, it’s also worthwhile to put out a call to online job boards (or even just a call out on your site). While we’re all inclined to invest more trust who is only a few degrees of social separation away, you want to have options. You never know who is lurking out there and will jump at the opportunity to work with you. Maximize your opportunities to create an amazing team by utilizing both your network and platforms that expose your call for a contractor to a new audience.

Vetting

A huge aspect of productivity and success is having an incredible team. Although someone may not be formally joining your company, working with them even on a part-time or short-term basis means that you are working as a team.

A part-time or short-term team member can still have a huge impact on the work you’re creating and your clients’ experience. You want to make sure that they’re a good fit! If you don’t put the effort into finding a contractor that will enhance your team, you’ll wonder why you bothered at all. A bad personality or work style fit can create stress and unrest, and diminish the overall quality of your work. You want someone who is going to work well with you and deliver the goods.

Do your research

Do they have a website with samples of their work? Resumes are great, but often incomplete–especially if they’re performing a specific kind of work (development, writing, etc.). You need to see samples of the work they’ve done in the past.

Keep in mind: if the work is live on a client’s site, it may be different than what the contractor intended. How many times have you recommended something to a client, only to have them shoot it down? Or, worse, go in a completely different direction that you think is questionable (at best)? We’ve all been there, and as we know, clients get veto power. They’re hiring us to create what they need and want, and sometimes we disagree on the best way to accomplish that.

You may come across a sample that makes you go, “Buh? What is that?” Make sure you compare other pieces of their work to that, and look for consistency. Ask yourself, “Is this a deviation or a norm for their work?” You want to make sure that you’re not judging them based on decisions that weren’t entirely their own.

If you find a sample that makes you go, “??!?” to be anomalous, you can bring questions about it to your interview.

Doing this research gives you a fantastic starter for your first conversation with them, as you can ask them how they created this work, what kind of challenges they experienced while doing so, and other relevant questions. These questions offer insight into not only the work itself, but how they conduct themselves professionally and when facing adversity.

Ask for references

And make sure you check them! Even if you get a word of mouth recommendation, make sure you ask for a few additional references and follow through on tracking them down. You want to know that your contractor can consistently deliver good work and maintain relationships. Several good recommendations can give a lot of insight as to who they are and what they’re like to work with.

For example, what most of my references will tell you about me (both good and bad):

  • I’m a consistent, open communicator.
  • I’m also an overcommunicator, meaning I check in a lot and tend to follow up with the persistence of a hungry bed bug out for blood (or a puppy looking to play ball, if you’d prefer a less disgusting analogy).
  • I work hard to make sure what I’m delivering is the best it can be, and have an eye for additional opportunities (don’t get them started on how many times I’ve said, “That’d be a great blog post!” in the middle of a meeting).
  • I’m opinionated and outspoken, which surely can be annoying, but it comes from a place of advocacy and wanting things to be as high quality as possible.

Does this mean I’m a good fit for everyone? Surely not! A good fit for some, but not for others. It’s good information to have either way. A “good fit” is entirely determined by your personality and working style.

Another example:

If you find out that your contractor is a bit lackadaisical with communication, but always delivers work on time, you’ll have to determine what’s the most important to you. Would you prefer someone who communicates well but is sometimes flexible on deadlines? Or would you prefer someone who doesn’t communicate as much, but always shows up exactly when they say they will?

Of course, ideally you’ll find a candidate that checks off all of your boxes, but people are fallible creatures. If you know what your values are, you’ll be able to parse the information recommendations provide and apply it to your dream team scenario with ease.

Conduct an interview

Get on the horn and talk to your potential candidate! Even if most of your communication while working will be done virtually, take a moment to hop on a call. You want to get a sense of who they are through their tone and the way they verbally communicate. You’ll want to use this time to set your expectations for them. This is also an opportunity to ask questions about their experience and the way they approach problem solving and conflict.

Make sure you’re upfront about who you are and how you work, too. Give space for them to ask questions. Remember: This interview is their opportunity to interview you, too. It’s about finding a mutually beneficial set up, not just about you finding a crony. It needs to work for everyone.


In part two, we’ll cover what you need to get organized and logistics for hiring contractors.

Have any questions about the start of this process or any burning questions about hiring contractors? Drop it in the comments!

Macbook laptop sitting on a brown table with WordPress dashboard open next to a cup of coffee, with the title "Yes, You Want Your Business Site on WordPress" across the lower center of the photo

Yes, You Want Your Business Site on WordPress

WordPress is powering more than a quarter of the web, but many businesses have shied away from taking the leap. Overhauling an entire site to move to a new content management system (CMS) can be intimidating. Businesses have a wide variety of concerns that prevent them from making such a big technology shift–even if the shift would be beneficial in the long-term. There are also a wide variety of myths surrounding what WordPress does and how it can benefit a business (or, rather, how it won’t).

I’m here to give you a few reasons that you want your business site on WordPress:

WordPress isn’t just for blogging

Although those of us in the WordPress industry already know this to be true, there are a lot of non-WordPress folk who still believe WP is just for blogging. Many of them aren’t even clear of what WordPress is.

WordPress provides all kinds of opportunities for your entire site, and it’s not just a place to host thoughts scribbled in a blog. Whether you want a member site, an e-commerce store, or a sleek, beautiful design to represent your company, WordPress can do all of that–and more. Since WordPress is endlessly advancing and changing, the bounds of what it can do are determined by the skill and creativity of the person building on it.

The learning curve is a little steep, but it’s worth it

Although WordPress boasts a five minute install, the average person is going to spend a bit longer setting it up. For someone who doesn’t have the technical savvy, getting a WordPress site set up the way that they want can be a challenge.

Don’t let that stop you from taking it on!

One of the best parts about WordPress is that it’s open source software, which means the source code is available to the public for study, alteration, and distribution. Most of the folks in WordPress are deeply committed to advancing open source software and giving back to the public by making it better and faster. The best and brightest professionals are giving their time to make a free software the absolute best it can be–which benefits all of us.

The work developers do requires expertise and skill, and when you hire them to do the work for your business, you pay for their extensive time and effort. In addition to that, they provide a public service by making WordPress, a free tool, widely beneficial and accessible to everyone. You may hire one developer, but when you work with WordPress, you benefit from the community work of countless brilliant minds.

If you stop and think a moment about all the people who generously give their time and knowledge, often without compensation, to create one of the strongest platforms available, you’ll realize it’s a community worth joining.

Since WordPress enthusiasts, professionals and amateurs alike, are so dedicated to enhancing the software and innovating with the tools provided, there are a ton of resources available for learning how to do what you want to your site. Sites like WPBeginner and WP101 aim to educate people on the fundamentals of WordPress, and if you do some Googling, you’ll easily find a wealth of answers to almost any question you have.

If you’re still worried about that learning curve, many WordPress developers and designers offer WordPress education as a part of their services, so the day to day dealings can be handled by you or your staff without a struggle.

WordPress makes content management easy

Yes, WordPress is a content management system, but that doesn’t just refer to blogging. “Content” describes nearly everything on your site–videos, photos, and text.

As a CMS, WordPress is the absolute best. Once you learn the basic terminology and know where things are in the dashboard, updating your site is easy peasy.

Even if you have a staff of Luddites, teaching them how to handle basic content management in WordPress is super simple! This means your staff will be empowered to make those changes and can handle the content on your site as a part of their duties. This means less oversight from you, which gives you time to focus on running your business. Empowering your staff to use your technology allows you to delegate responsibly and allocate your time to where you need it most.

Integrating with WordPress opens up your audience

One of the ways we’ve helped our clients is by building them their own WordPress plugin. This is particularly helpful for companies that offer a digital product or service and have a target audience that is building out their own business sites.

We have an example of this from our own experience:

Quantcast Corporation is a technology company that provides real-time measurement and analysis of advertising and audience engagement. Quantcast hired us to create a WordPress plugin that puts a JavaScript snippet in the header of their users’ sites. This extended their service out to the greater WordPress community and provided a huge benefit to their existing users. Quantcast users with WordPress websites can install the Audience Analytics plugin. Then, their Quantcast account is linked directly to their WordPress site and they can access their site analytics through WordPress super easily.

WordPress can scale–which means it can grow with your business

To make it do so successfully, though, you’ll definitely need the assistance of a professional. This part gets a little technically advanced, but Smashing Magazine took a look at what different developers have done to set up high traffic sites for success. WordPress isn’t the only key component in the fight to keep your site performant, but it’s not going to be what holds you back.

Getting on WordPress means being in good company

There are tons of businesses and major publications that are on WordPress, including:

  • WorldPay
  • Amazon
  • Disney
  • Politico
  • The NBA
  • Discovery Communications
  • USA Today
  • Microsoft Office Blogs
  • FiveThirtyEight
  • Airbnb

And many, many more. Big names take their technology seriously, and they’ve chosen WordPress to best serve their massive audiences.

So what are you waiting for?