Interview with Tim Sisson of InMotion Hosting
Our bags are packed! We’re headed to WordCamp LA this weekend, to promote Up and Running and to speak.
One perk of the trip: We’ll be right in the backyard of Friend of WPShout InMotion Hosting. We’re collaborating closely with InMotion over the weekend—for starters, we’ve teamed up to create a really fun sticker that helps you remember WordPress conditional logic:
We’ll be handing them out this weekend, so if you’re anywhere near LA, please come on by!
We also recently had the chance to interview someone truly cool on the InMotion team: Tim Sisson. He spoke to us about WordPress and nonprofits, some new tools InMotion is exploring in its server configurations, and life as a technical person at a hosting company.
Lastly: InMotion has offered us something awesome: One year of free hosting for WPShout readers. If you want to take them up on their offer, simply join our mailing list and follow the instructions you get on the confirmation page.
Enjoy the interview!
Fred: We’re joined by Tim Sisson, a WordPress developer and frequent WordCamp speaker who is Customer Community Manager at InMotion Hosting. Tim, would you talk us a bit through your exposure to WordPress?
Tim: My first run-in with WordPress was with an engineering company that had a WordPress site a number of years ago. I was a marketing manager, and that’s where I was introduced to WordPress its infancy, as a user.
After I left the engineering company and came to InMotion full time, then it was different story, because we work with clients that have WordPress sites, so I dove headfirst into it—what it was really good for, and what are the pain points?
F: Let’s hear about the pain points.
T: WordPress can’t be everything to everybody. It’s grown a lot over the years, and it’s really cool to see how it’s morphed into what it is today. But it has changed a lot. In its infancy, would I have used it to build an e-commerce site? Probably not, it wasn’t really designed for that at the time. For the most part, especially for most of our clients, there are very few instances where WordPress can’t meet the needs of our customers, which is really cool to see.
On Hosting WordPress
F: Is there anything difficult about hosting a whole bunch of WordPress sites? Is that an interesting challenge?
T: With any content management system, speed is everything. In e-commerce, the speed of the page determines your conversion rate. If the page isn’t loading, people don’t want to stay on the page. So that’s something that we have to deal with on our side. And we have a great team for that.
For us, having different verticals and different products helps customers. We don’t need to start a small business out on a VPS or dedicated server, but as your business grows, so should your hosting and so should your infrastructure.
One thing that we’ve done with my team lately is look at a web server called nginx. cPanel is what we use for hosting, which is Apache based. But there’s a plugin for Cpanel called cPnginx that allows you to drop that in, and it lets you use nginx in front as a proxy server. Anything that isn’t cached within nginx itself is just passed onto Apache. Typically when you move a site from Apache to nginx, you lose things like your .htaccess file, which isn’t fun. This cPanel plugin is really nice because it allows you to use nginx in conjunction with Apache, so you don’t have to change your rewrites or anything like that; it works straight out of the box.
We’ve done some testing with a couple different content management systems, to see how it delivers, and what we can get out of it. So that’s one thing we’ve been playing with to see how we can maximize what our customers are getting. It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s been a great learning curve for me and my team.
David: Is that using nginx in the front cache in the same way you might use Varnish?
T: Yes, it’s a lot like you would use a Varnish caching system. For big box things, you may use nginx to serve the pages and put Varnish in front of it, which is a really streamlined optimized web server. However, setting that up can be a real pain. So for us, it’s really finding what meets the needs of the customer.
F: What seems to be the road to working at a hosting company like InMotion for someone from a freelancing background?
T: The entry level for most people at the company is through support: they start as a tier-one support rep where they’re fixing everything from email to hosting to getting their feet wet with WordPress. Then, if the technical side of things is what you love, you go into being a tier-two rep and moving up to the system admin roles. There’s a pipeline program that lets you get your knowledge base to where it needs to be. From there it’s endless: we’ve got a design department, a development department, system admins, and so on.
Work at a Hosting Company
F: How does working in this environment compare to your earlier work?
T: I worked in one particular company where we had a lot of subsets of what we sold; so it wasn’t just one site, it was one site per industry. I’d manage all of that and build new sites when they needed it. As you start adding on sites, you become this multi-store cluster of ecommerce, and your server needs change; you go from “I can run everything on a VPS” to “maybe I should be thinking about a dedicated server or two-server architecture setup.” So that was my background.
It’s different here, obviously, but I love people and I truly love WordPress. For me, for someone who loves to learn, I can spend a lot of my time learning about things that I love, in a community that’s really good to me. It’s a win-win for me: I get to manage people, I have a great team, and I get to learn what I love. What more could you ask for out of a job?
F: I’m imagining that being a WordPress freelancer has more freedom but also more insecurity relative to working at a hosting company. Is that the case?
T: Absolutely, it works both ways. I’ve seen guys that come here and they love what they do, but the freelance side is really for them, and working here affords them the opportunity at some point to take that leap into the wilderness. It’s a great way to keep your skills up to date. Some of my guys go home and build a plugin, or work on themes, or some conceptual website that they’ve been working on for freelance projects.
For me, I like the structured environment; and I’ve got three girls at home, so the whole working from home thing has never worked for me. I have to come into the office, I have to see a computer and a desk, because if not with my kids I’ll never get anything done.
WordPress and Nonprofits
F: We were at WordCamp Miami. Your talk was on using WordPress in a nonprofit setting, right?
T: Yes. I’m passionate about giving back. I was approached about a year and a half ago by some friends who wanted to start a charity called the Special Operations Care Fund, raising money for the families of killed and wounded soldiers. They wanted it to be completely volunteer, and they needed a nerd to get the website spun up. For me, being the nerd of my friend group and network, that’s really awesome, because I could use the skills that I’ve built to help this charity that I believe in.
So I built a WordPress site for them, and we crossed a lot of bridges over the last 18 months. When I wanted to start speaking at WordCamps, I asked, “What do I know about WordPress? Sure, I know about code, but I know a lot about what it takes to run a nonprofit from a WordPress perspective and what it can do for you.” That’s where the idea came from.
We learned a lot through the Special Operations Care Fund’s model. For example, people would give one-off gifts, and we’d have to raffle them off or auction them. So how do you build an eBay site out of WordPress? Or how do I sell merch online through my website, or tickets to events?
I’ve really been thankful; I didn’t expect to do the talk as often as I have. It’s cool to me, but it really kind of took off, and I’ve really been lucky to speak about it as often as I have.
InMotion: The Beauty of Above-and-Beyond Support
F: Tell us a bit about WordPress for InMotion site owners.
T: We have hosting to meet any WordPress user or developer’s needs—everything from shared business class hosting, VPS hosting, and dedicated hosting, to commercial-class hosting—say, for customers with an optimized, streamlined WooCommerce site that’s doing millions of dollars a year in revenue—on to reseller hosting for developers that build sites for clients and can sell hosting on and monetize that way. We have a great affiliates program as well, which lets designers and developers monetize without having to worry about monthly transactional stuff like in reseller hosting.
Our mainstay is really our support. In hosting, everybody has a fairly similar product; our differentiator is our support. I work with the support staff every day. It’s 24/7/365, by email, phone, and chat, and we genuinely want to help you.
We have a questions and answer section, which we monitor from 8 AM to 9 PM. If a questions comes in, we have 30 minutes to answer it, which is pretty unheard of.
That extends to application-based questions: support says “This isn’t hosting-related, you need to seek out a developer,” and then my guys come in and do that. That’s really a differentiator—nobody ever wants to dig through someone else’s code, except my crazy guys.
F: It’s really interesting that you guys field pretty much any kind of question that comes your way. Wouldn’t it be easier to just not answer people’s questions that aren’t hosting-related?
T: The easy answer would be, “We’re a hosting company; we’re not going to tell you how to set up and run your e-commerce business.” The hard answer is, “We want to help you do that,” because we believe that our success is rooted in theirs. If they’re successful, they’re going to remember that, and as they grow so will their hosting infrastructure.
So if you need help, don’t be shy, visit our customer support center. We’re here to help you, whether you’re a customer or not. We want to thrill you.
F: It’s great to talk to you, Tim.
T: Absolutely, I’m glad I could. Thanks a lot, guys.