WCLDN 2017 preview: Heather Burns and Alain Schlesser

As we recently wrote about, WordCamp London 2017 is almost upon us. In the lead up to the event, we’ve been talking with several of the speakers – to get a feel for them and their talk, and also, their journey so far with WordPress. First up we have Heather Burns and Alain Schlesser:

Heather Burns


1) Tell us a little about yourself Heather

I’m a digital law specialist. That means I help people like our London WordCampers to get to grips with the laws, policies, and regulations which impact web design and development. You can view my blog at https://webdevlaw.uk/blog. I’ve been working with WordPress since 2008 and was a full time web designer from 2007 to 2015. I’m a co-organiser of WordPress Glasgow and a member of the organising team for WordCamp Edinburgh 2017.

For the record, I’m old enough to have caused my parents to get a three-figure phone bill from every time I dialled up to log on to the internet. Yes, I got in yuge trouble for that. Yuge.

2) Can you give us a sneak peak into your talk, and what attendees should be able to take away from it?

My public speaking this year is taking a very different tone from talks I have given in the past. In London, I’m speaking about what I call “Defensive web development”, which are the actions and workflows we need to adopt in the face of hostile, authoritarian, and openly racist political currents.

This may seem like a counter-intuitive thing for a digital law specialist to say, but the first thing I want the audience to understand is: don’t rely on the rule of law. Data protection, privacy, and human rights legislation are under real threat now. Our London audience is facing an uncertain future after Brexit as well. We can’t wait a few years for lawyers and politicians to sort these questions for us. We have to take proactive and defensive actions on a code level right now.

Earlier this month I showed an audience a slide with that creepy photo of Donald Trump and Theresa May holding hands. I want every developer to print that photo out and put it up. The message I want that photo to send is that as developers, coders, and programmers, we actually have a tremendous amount of power. We build the tools. If the tools we build do things which can target or harm people, we bear part of the responsibility for that. So when governments declare all data to be fair game in the name of national security, it’s time to talk about data minimisation. When all data – even this email I am writing to you – is slurped up in the name of terrorism, it’s time to talk about end-to-end encryption. When governments want to build databases of people based on what countries they have visited, it’s time to drop tables.

I really want to fire my audience up to think about practical actions they can add to their workflows as well as wider initiatives they might want to get involved in. This is the time to show the world what you’re really made of – and your coding-fu doesn’t matter a jot.

3) As a speaker at WordCamp I imagine WordPress features in your life in at least some small way. What’s your WordPress journey, where has WordPress taken you?

One interesting thing I found working with WordPress, as a web designer, was that it becomes a means to measure what a client is really made of. I worked with clients who started out perhaps revamping an old-closed source brochure web site onto WordPress and once they realised its potential, started adding all kinds of new content and functionality. Their web sites are now used as vital digital tools for everything from fundraising to online chats. They use WordPress as a springboard to bigger and better things. At the same time I would have clients, particularly in the charity sector, who would commission a WordPress web site, and ever after training, would never once add anything new. They needed a web site because a funding evaluation said they had to have a web site and they had to get that money out the door by a deadline. So WordPress, in an unintended way, helps you to find out which clients approach their work with passion rather than procedure, and therefore where you should focus your energies as well.

One last thing I would like to say is to thank 34SP.com for their ongoing support of WordCamps across the UK. I love how you take a real interest in local WordPress communities. And you have epic swag!

Alain Schlesser


1) Tell us a little about yourself Alain

I am a freelance software engineer and WordPress consultant currently living in Germany. I am originally from Luxembourg, where I was working for a long time as a government agent for the Ministry of Justice. I was part of the administrative division of a prison, where I was overseeing quite a diverse range of areas, including HR, IT, records management, technical maintenance and logistics.

However, working for the government was a very frustrating experience for me, mainly due to the direct impact of politics causing a lot of my efforts to remain fruitless and be reversed after each election. My wife and I reached a point in our lives where we both just wanted to quit everything and start afresh. As I needed to think of a new career path, I chose the one thing I had been enjoying without interruption since I was a young boy: software development.

So, about three years ago, we quit our jobs, moved to a different country, and started building a new life for ourselves, while trying very hard to avoid any daily activities we did not enjoy. This lead me more or less directly to what I am doing today: software engineering and web development as a freelancer, using PHP and WordPress as my main tools.

2) Can you give us a sneak peak into your talk, and what attendees should be able to take away from it?

My talk for WordCamp London is titled “Wrapping A Modern PHP Architecture Around A Legacy WordPress Site”. It is a case study about a number of related sites owned by a global futures trading company. The sites are quite diverse in terms of their rendered frontend results, and there’s a regular influx of new sites being added to the bunch.

I planned and implemented a shared architecture for all of their sites that allowed us to run all of these sites from one common codebase, providing lots of centralized tools to improve both the reliability of the offered services, as well as the speed of execution of new developments.

Every site we now hoist onto this architecture can immediately benefit from proper dependency management, auto-wiring dependency injection, centralized logging and notifications, abstracted business domain models, and (soon) a centralized and persistent message bus.

As soon as this architecture was deployed to production, the time to fix bugs was drastically reduced, the time to modernize additional sites was almost reduced to nothing, and the development work is growing in capability and ambitions.

All of this is done in a way that the large marketing teams responsible for the content can still use the regular WordPress content editor that they know and appreciate. However, all of the actual business processes, which were never meant to be controlled by CMS mechanisms, have been extracted from the normal WordPress code flow and can now even be executed with or without WordPress running.

3) As a speaker at WordCamp I imagine WordPress features in your life in at least some small way. What’s your WordPress journey, where has WordPress taken you?

When I started my freelancing career, I quickly decided to specialize on WordPress based on a very simple metric: market share. The reasoning was very simple: if it has a large market share, I have a large chance of finding clients.

Even though I was pretty new to web development at that point, I had ample experience with a large number of programming languages and technology stacks (amongst others, I have worked with C/C++/C# and Assembler, am a certified Oracle and Sharepoint developer, and have been building computer games since I was seven). For that reason, learning PHP and WordPress was rather easy for me, and I quickly started to test the boundaries of what is possible with WP. At that time, I also discovered Slack, and really enjoyed learning all the intricacies of both PHP and WordPress by answering questions that people were having in Slack.

Slack has been vital in my progress as a WordPress developer, as it allowed me to connect with the most experienced and ingenious WP developers I could find. I started to become a bit disillusioned after some time, though. All of the advanced WP developers were disgruntled and frustrated, and WP Core development seemed to turn in circles to me. I was almost at the point of switching to another platform when one of the most important events of my recent life happened…

… I attended my first WordCamp! It was WordCamp Europe 2016 in Vienna. It was such a great, inspiring experience, and it left me with that one piece of the puzzle I was still missing. I never bothered caring about the Community, and concentrated on the technical side of WP instead. However… the Community cared about me, and made me feel welcome!

Since then, it has been an exhilarating journey. My wife had accompanied me to the WordCamp in Vienna, and although she expected to meet boring nerds and listen to technical gibberish, she was blown away by the wonderful people we met. Since then, we’ve been to all WordCamps together whenever possible, and we even volunteer together whenever we can.

I am now heavily invested into the WordPress platform, working more and more on Core, and taking part in the Community Meet-ups and WordCamps whenever I can. I enjoy every single minute of it!