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An Interview With The “Godfather” of PHP: Cal Evans

For this interview, we wanted to have the best representation of the vibrant PHP community and couldn’t come across a better name than Cal Evans. He is a true mentor who is always willing to extend his support for the developers and enthusiasts. We at DevriX are over the moon about this interview and thankful for his time and never ending support for the PHP community!

For us, this is not just an interview but a chance to absorb some hard-core, development knowledge of more than 3 decades. Our CEO – Mario Peshev – had the opportunity to meet Cal at PHP conferences, and talked about Cal’s expertise over the years with the platform and the broad community. So, without any further ado, let’s get started.

A Little About Cal Evans

When you combine 35+ years of PHP experience and a lifelong commitment to help the community, what you get is Cal Evans. He is undoubtedly the Muhammad Ali of the PHP world – one of the most influential and respected personalities of the community.

Cal Evans is working tirelessly to make the lives of developers all over the world easy. His book “Culture of Respect” is a masterpiece that serves as a guide for discovering, hiring, engaging and retaining PHP developers.

There is no one like him when it comes to sharing, helping, mentoring and propagating PHP.

Cal is right now a Technical Manager, Training & Certifications at Zend Technologies and has previously worked and helped build PHP at iBuildings.

He is a true symbol of inspiration and motivation for developers – and before we get down to the interview, we would like you to watch one of Cal’s favorite motivational videos from Ze Frank.

Here is our small interview with the living legend…

Q: Hi, Cal, you’ve been the godfather of the PHP community and one of the most inspirational speakers at reputable PHP events around the world! Could you tell the audience a bit about yourself?

A: I’m old. I’m old enough to remember when we only had 255 characters and a picture of poop wasn’t one of them. I’ve been programming computers since I was 18 years old. I was given a Commodore 64 for my birthday and from that point forward, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

I moved to PHP around 1999/2000 and have never looked back. I keep telling people that I will move to another language when I have a problem that can’t be solved in PHP. So far, everything I need to do can be done in PHP.  So I keep using it.

In my 34 year career, I’ve worked in several different languages and in several different communities. Of all the tech communities I’ve been a part of, the PHP community is my favorite by far. If you get involved in the PHP community, you are part of a huge family of developers who want you to succeed. It’s awesome.

Q: What made you switch to the PHP ecosystem and the model of building open source technologies?

A: I switched to PHP out of necessity. I was doing a project for my parent’s company. I had built them an entire web presence using Microsoft Windows, IIS, and ASP. (Classic, this is before .Net) I was using SQL Server as the backend. Then Microsoft decided that to use SQL Server on the web you had to have a different license. To get the new license, I had to upgrade my Windows Server licenses as well. All told, to move to the new paradigm – without any new functionality or real benefits – it was going to cost me $15,000. We didn’t have that kind of money. So I started looking around. There was this language called PHP hat talked to a database called MySQL and it looked interesting.

I rebuilt the entire system in PHP and MySQL on RedHat Linux for the cost of the hardware, $4,500. Since then I’ve only used PHP to build things. It is my Swiss Army Knife of programming. I write server management scripts, websites, WordPress plugins, all kinds of things using PHP.

Q: Your blog runs on WordPress and you have openly supported WordPress as a viable product in the PHP universe. What’s your take on WordPress as compared to other competitors or PHP frameworks out there?

A: Like any good tool, the answer to “when to use it” is “it depends”. I love WordPress for a lot of things. I would never use it to build a pure API SaaS or something along those lines. While you could do it, there are much better tools out there for that. Zend Framework Expressive, APIgility, etc.

On the other hand, anytime I have an idea for a new project, step 3 is always “install WordPress”. (Step 1 is register a domain name and step 2 is register a twitter handle.) I’ve used WordPress for everything from just a blog, to a brochure-ware site. Most recently I used WordPress as the back-end administration for the now defunct “The CFP Report”. I wanted something more than just a mailing list. I wanted user management. I wanted to give users the ability to set options and control their experience. You can’t get that with a simple mailing list. So I installed WordPress. I used MailChimp’s Mandrill system (back when it was free) to actually send out the emails. On top of that foundation, I wrote about 300 lines of code to give users the ability to change things. The system generated over a thousand emails every morning, one at a time. Each email was generated specifically for a user. WordPress gave me the ability to focus on the interesting parts. I didn’t have to worry about User Management, building an admin section, database abstraction, any of that stuff.

There are times when WordPress is the right choice, even when some developers might not consider it the obvious choice. I’m lucky. I’ve been working with it long enough so that I understand what can be done with it and can make the decision as to whether or not it is the right choice.

Q: What is your most favorite thing about WordPress (be it a feature, or a general trait)?

A: It’s ease of use. I LOVE the 5-Minute install. I love that I can focus on my project and not my project’s website.

Look, I am a programmer, I can write whatever I need. I choose WordPress because I don’t have to. Many times, I’ve been able to install WordPress, a half-dozen plugins, and get the job done. Then I can move on to the fun parts. Even when I can’t do it 100% code-free, with WordPress and tools like Gravity Forms and WooCommerce, I can minimize the amount of code I have to write. That is my favorite part of WordPress.

If you were a looking for a technical answer, sorry, that’s not my favorite part.

Q: If you had a chance to change one thing in the WordPress Core, what would it be?

A: Honestly, I don’t dig into the core of WordPress. Haven’t in a long time. Yes, there was a time when I used to hack the core…those days are long gone. As long as they keep making it cleaner and faster, I’m fine with whatever they do under the hood.

Q: As a Technical Manager, Training and Certification at Rogue Wave Software, could you tell us what does the PHP training entail and how could it benefit WordPress developers around the world?

A: At Rogue Wave our PHP training is broken up into 3 parts, Fundamentals I, II, and III. Each course is designed for a certain skill level.

Fundamentals I takes you from “I know HTML” to “I understand the basics of programming and can make my web page do things.”

Fundamentals II is for someone who has 6-24 months of experience using PHP and wants to learn more advanced concepts in both PHP and in programming in general. We don’t recommend you take these classes back to back. They are designed for you to spend at least six months actually working with PHP between them.

Fundamentals III – which is having the finishing touched put on it – takes your knowledge to the next level. Again, we recommend at least six months between I and III. Not just waiting six months, six months of actual work using PHP. Writing code, building websites, creating plugins. Then you are ready. You have experience, you’ve applied the knowledge you’ve learned, and now you are ready. Fundamentals III gives you the knowledge – but not the experience – to be a Senior level PHP developer.

The skills we teach in our Fundamental courses, especially Fundamentals II and III are useful to every PHP developer, WordPress or otherwise.

Q: You run a PHP community called “Nomad PHP”. What value does community leadership bring to the rest of the ecosystem?

A: not specific to Nomad PHP, but community leadership helps you build your knowledge, and your network of experts to help you when you get stuck. Along the way, as you are helping others grow, you are building your leadership skills. You grow as you build your local community and as your local community grows, the entire PHP community grows with it.

The sad thing to me though is that around 1% of PHP developers will ever take an active role in the PHP community. Whether that is attending a conference, attending a local User Group, or just hanging out online with other PHP developers. I wish I could reach out personally to every developer using PHP and show them the impact that the community has had on my life, my friendships, and especially my career. Lorna Jane Mitchel over in the UK used to do a talk at conferences. She interviewed a bunch of people active in the PHP community about how it has had a positive impact on their careers and then she tells their stories. It’s a great talk and it highlights the important point that investing in the PHP community is investing in yourself.

Q: What would you advise the WordPress community in terms of working closely together and appreciating more the Open Source software and all the people working together for the noble purpose?

A: Leading Open Source Software projects is largely a thankless job. The higher-ups in the WordPress community do a good job of celebrating the people who are taking leadership roles in developing WordPress, but that doesn’t usually trickle down to the individuals. I know it is difficult to thank everyone in a project o large, but helping spread the word that there are a lot of people donating their time and talents just so we can all have this wonderful platform to work on would be a good idea.

Also, while you should ignore the haters, don’t be a hater. Sometimes when a project is ridiculed publicly like WordPress has been in the past, the community circles the wagons and shoots at anyone they see not loving the project. Don’t do it. Everybody is entitled to their own opinions and when those opinions don’t agree with yours, smile and walk away. Trust me on this one. We get as much of it in the general PHP community as you get in WordPress.

Bottom Line

Time spent with Cal during the interview was full of fun and learning. We would like to thank him again for taking the time out and doing what he does best – helping the PHP community. To stay in touch, you can also check out Cal’s personal blog and connect with him on Linkedin.

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