As an Oxfordshire WordPress Web Developer who specialises in Ecommerce Websites, Jon Walter has a proven track record of building, and maintaining successful ecommerce websites that have gone from generating hundreds of pounds in sales per month to the tens of thousands of pounds in sales per month. Today I look at how Jon works, what his go to marketing approach is and how he keeps ahead of the competition at Twenty Eighty.
Like how long have you been a developer, how long you’ve been in the industry? What was your path journey?
I’m a WordPress and front-end web developer. I’ve been in the industry now for around 10 years. For me, my journey into this started off when I was much younger in my early teens. I always wanted to do something more creative actually normally predominantly around kind of video games whether that was kind of 3d animation or something like that. But I really struggled to create things, and have it look how I want it to work and I found that really frustrating.
Then because of things like my space coming out where you could hack the code together and stuff and change things, which is something that I always found quite interesting and quite cool and then all of a sudden, I could make these little changes and tweaks.
Then now, if I had a vision of how I wanted something to look, I could go back into the code and tweak and change it until I got there. Which was kind of my first introduction to that.
By this point I was onto university there I started doing working on modules in programming, which I loved and got really into that. I did really well and I then lucky enough to gain a placement year at the Xerox corporation, working in their web multimedia team.
At the time I was working with flash which I still get a little bit sentimental over, when I hear that flash is dying out in the industry… which is the correct thing to do mind you!
It’s one of those things I invested a year of my life working solely with it. It’s a combination of that and doing email marketing as well. I would work with the design teams within Xerox whenever there was a new product launch or something and design these emails and send them out.
While I was doing that I picked up working with WordPress. I started doing work on peopleperhour.com and trying to get sort of my foot in the door of freelance work. I mean, I had six months of just getting hard rejections from people because I had no work to show them. Also, you’re competing with places, cheaper agencies, and individuals in other countries, which has always really difficult.
Then one day I had someone message me saying that they had paid three pounds an hour for someone to build them a website and funnily enough, they weren’t happy with it. Even though I was five times the price, they thought that they would take a punt on having someone who might have a bit more about them. Did it really well. And then that kind of got the ball rolling really.
After that, I then started getting a few odd jobs with just graphic designers who would design websites and then came full circle when I got into programming because I couldn’t do things creatively and now I was helping creatives who couldn’t do stuff technically, which I really enjoyed. I did that and then started being able to sort of pay my way through my final year at Nottingham Trent University.
Coming back to Oxfordshire I started working in a digital agency as a WordPress developer. Within a couple of years, became the lead developer. The whole time I was still doing freelance work on the side, I was taking on bigger, more interesting projects.
I worked briefly with Shell. I worked briefly again with Xerox, I worked briefly with a couple of other kinds of big corporations on small miniature one-shot projects. And then one of my regular customers asked me if I would quit my job and become a full-time developer and work with him- so I did, and that was three years ago and I’ve been in business by myself, well ever since, but sort of taken on a couple of employees, and now that’s been my route really into development.
What was your University course like?
The course was great. It was in digital media technology, which was a really good a bit of a jack-of-all-trades kind of degree – haha, if that’s a thing… There was like web programming, but there was also editing for TV and film. You did a bit of stuff about animation for like video games.
There was stuff about main standards and computer science methods, like networking and hardware. There were also some things about imaging and optics. So how the brain processes light into objects and stuff like that, which I found really interesting.
Looking back on the time at University and everything that you’ve learned, something I’m always personally interested in is comparing what you learned at university and applying the actual learning into your day-to-day work when you get to your first job post. I remember when I finished my design course that I’d had learnt more in the first couple of months of being in a design studio than I did in three years studying graphic design.
This is s something that I’ve always maintained, if I could go back to when I was in college, I would say don’t go to university. You just don’t need it. As you say, I learned so much in that first week/month of employment that was so practical.
What are the biggest trends that you’ve seen over the years? What do you think has worked the best or which have been under cooked?
The main trends in the sphere that I work in, being front end, have been the rise of responsive design really, and how having things work across devices. I think going back to 2010, 2011, it wasn’t uncommon for big websites to have their own separate mobile website.
Then Google came along and said, actually, we’re going to start punishing you if you do that. We want you to have just one website that works across the board. And that was a massive massive shift that changed all sorts of stuff.
I think even if you look at the way people designed websites and the trends that came in there, in stuff like skeuomorphism in the original iPhones that had that kind of realistic look and all of their materials and how many people adopted that. And then finding that when they had these very specific looks that worked well on a desktop, then translating that into mobile didn’t work. And I think that was kind of a big, that kind of trend.
That at moment, seems big, but in the reality of it, it’s something like 0.3% of websites uses these technologies. But we’re now starting to see that they’re still very much in their infancy. I think that people are still kind of putting their eggs in those baskets, possibly a bit prematurely, especially when these things have a noticeable performance impact as well.
For me, I tend to use it for interaction stuff. So, when you’ve got a carousel of images that change or having a nice little animation to validate a form to make sure that the stuff like someone’s putting in the correct password and stuff, that’s how I see Java script used. It can do so much more.
How’s that affected speed of a website?
If it’s done properly and you’ve got the right kind of hardware and stuff behind it, it can be really fast. But what I typically see is that it’s because of the way it works or people not fully understanding the correct way of using it that it massively increases load speed.
I’ve seen websites that really should only take a couple of seconds to load, end up taking around sort of 15 or 16 seconds, which is, you’ve just killed it. You’ve killed your website.
Can you expand on the importance of website page speeds?
It’s massively important. The sweet spot, according to Google and search engines is three seconds for your page to load. If it loads after, if it takes four seconds to load, something like 60% of people will close it down. Then after that, it severely drops off. If you get to sort of eight or nine seconds, that’s like being on the fifth or sixth page on Google, like no one’s going to be looking at your site or at such a minor number, the fraction of it that it might as well not exist.
What’s your coding tool of choice?
I know how it looks and at a glance, I can see how things work. On top of that, it then synchronizes with my repositories, which means that I can push all of my work into the cloud. And one of the other members of my team can then pull that work down and work on it alongside me. So, it’s a really good tool for collaboration.
I also use a piece of software called code kit which is a compiler. So certain bits of code that I write need to be pre-compiled and code kit does a really great job of that. And I don’t have to do a lot of maintenance on the work I do. Code kit takes a lot of that, which I really think has saved me a lot of time.
Then other things like Bitbucket, which is the repository I was talking about, which is really important. And then that interfaces with my web hosting so I can make changes, save it. And within a few seconds, those changes will be available for my clients to see.
For people like me, a designer, who pretends to understand developer language, but actually doesn’t. Can you expand on PHP?
Ha,ha, at least your honest…. PHP is a server-side programming language. Which means, that when you first type in a web address, it goes to the server, the server says, okay, I need to load this web page. And then this webpage says, before we do that, we need to do all of these different bits of code and functionality, and then that all gets kind of served up.
So that’s kind of what PHP is in a nutshell, I’m sure there’ll be people who could give a much, much better description of that. But then on top of that, the way I then use that is normally I use it to speak to a database or to pull in from like different websites.
If I need to, for instance, if I want a Google map on a page, I could use some PHP to then say, we want to load this Google map and we want to then say, we want these different locations to appear and can get all of the correct location information from them.
Then also on top of that, if specifically with WordPress, WordPress is built entirely on PHP. So any of those websites need to use that as a way of just being able to pull down the correct post data and things like that.
In my series of designer talks, interviews, one of the areas that I’m always really interested in is trends. Are you able to talk around past trends, recent trends, and where you can predict any trends in WordPress or websites going forward?
I’ve always found these trends quite cyclical. We will always repeat the same stuff. I think that where I see things going now is that because the average webpage size is becoming much, much bigger. I think at the moment it’s around five or six megabytes is the average. Even though you should be down to around three or 400 kilobytes. The main thing that drives that is images.
My favorite question, how do you know you’re working with a good designer?
For me, from a very, very basic level it all depends really, to begin with on the type of files that I work with and get given. If a PSD file is layered nicely, if everything sort of sensibly located, and it’s all put into a really nice place. That’s just a dream for me.
I’ve worked across the gamut of really amazing PSD files to having to work off of a PowerPoint document before, and that’s just an abomination to workers and so difficult to work with.
So that’s the first point. The second point for me is about communication as well. Being able to have some degree of input and say, actually, I don’t think, we should be doing this a little bit differently, or this doesn’t necessarily work and having that collaboration of being able to problem-solve together as well is an important one.
That’s good. What are your thoughts on digital branding, how as a developer, what are your views on digital branding?
For me, it’s vital. It’s one of the things that is the difference for me between a good project and a bad project, to begin with, is how strong is the digital branding. I find that if there isn’t any, it makes my job a bit of a mountain to climb. Whereas if there’s a really strong digital brand, to begin with, everything we do then becomes so much easier, that answers a lot of questions, to begin with.
If we’re working from a design, that’s great that there will always be some things that crop up that aren’t necessarily in the design that we need to think about. If we know what the branding’s like already, and if it’s been communicated really well, we can then use that and say, well, they’ve done it like this in other places so we should do it like this here. Just purely from a development point of view, it makes things so much more streamlined.
That leads nicely into the next area of discussion, visual versus function?
So, it’s a tricky one which is always a balancing act. And for me, it comes down to what the purpose of the site’s supposed to be. There needs to always be some function and there always needs to be some visual as well, obviously.
But it’s getting that level right, depending on what you need to do. If you’re having a, using your website for lead generation, you can probably be a bit more visual with it and play that kind of imagery.
If you’re trying to evoke an emotion, in some case, you’re never going to do that with function, but visuals will definitely lend itself to that. But on the flip side, if you’ve built a website and you’re trying to sell products and your products have a lot of different variables, for instance, if you’ve got so much visual clutter, people might not necessarily take the necessary steps so that you want a more kind of functional design based on that.
What advice would you give somebody coming into the industry now, or actually, what advice would you give 21-year-old Jon who’s just left university. What advice would you give him?
I would say don’t immediately think you’re going to build or have the tools to build the next Facebook. I think people can get lost a bit in the bigger picture. And as a result, they don’t take a lot of time to learn the fundamentals, really start from the bottom and learn HTML properly.
I think as a result of that, even if you do manage to pick that up, the stuff you create, won’t be as good as it can be if you just took your time with it.
Could anybody be a developer?
Absolutely. I think that it just takes time to learn. I don’t think you need to have, like, you hear a lot of people say that they were really good at math’s or something like that, and that’s the kind of work that they do. And that’s not really necessarily me. I think as long as you’re good at problem-solving, I think you can learn development because everything’s a problem you just need to solve it.
The comparison to be made is not everybody could be a designer because you need to trust your eyes, understand your audience… plus it’s subjective, that’s the thing about being creative and designers, it’s completely subjective. Being able to put a rationale behind that subjective subject compared to development, which there is a moment of it’s either right or its wrong.
Exactly. That’s always what I thought. And I think that it’s, I almost brute-forced my way into learning these things. And it was just repetition learning how to do something, looking at a problem. How can it be solved, finding an answer, thinking, is this answer the right one? No, how can we get to that point? And you will get that eventually. And eventually, you retain that knowledge and information, which, as you say, isn’t something that you get with a subjective sector, like designers compared to development.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
In the next five years, I mean, I think I will probably be stepping away from development because of running the business. But I think that the work that we’ll be doing in five years will be quite different because of the way things look like they’re changing.
I think that because of the work we’re seeing now and because of the last 12 months, we’ll be working more predominantly with e-commerce businesses and working on those kinds of websites and looking at things more from actually that more functional level of making sure that these systems will work correctly and speak to each other.