Interview with Lance Willett – Sweeper at Automattic

Listen to this article
Lance Willett – Sweeper at Automattic

We’ve been posting interviews for a while now on the WisdmLabs’ blog. The more distinguished professionals I speak with from the WordPress community, the more I am convinced about its thoughtfulness. The interview with Lance Willett once again resonated my opinion on this! He was absolutely accommodating right from the word go. *respect*

Lance who calls himself a Sweeper at Automattic, is a web developer specializing in WordPress and leads testing and triage efforts for He is also involved in themes and customization projects with and has led default theme development teams for Twenty Twelve to Twenty Fourteen. All this is just the tip of the iceberg though. Let’s get this interview going and get to know from Lance himself his Journey with WordPress, his experience of working with Automattic, the REST API and all things WordPress. 


How did you get started with WordPress development?

My journey to WordPress started with a personal need and a passion for web standards; I wanted blogging software for my personal site that was easy to install and use — and would produce clean, semantic markup. The other options at the time just didn’t feel right. I don’t remember where I first heard about WordPress, it could have been a mention on Eric Meyer’s site or

My first WordPress site — an update to my (previously hard-coded HTML) personal site at — went live in summer of 2004, running on WordPress version 1.2. It was amazing to be able to publish quickly and easily and not hand-code each page! Besides ease of use, I also loved how it championed using correct typography. Other than a brief flirtation with Textpattern I’ve used WordPress for my personal sites ever since.

In 2005, I went full-time with my web design/development business and through the years WordPress was a big part of my work — and part of my fun “hobby” time as well. You could say it’s in my DNA as a web professional.

In projects that weren’t specifically built with WordPress I usually found a way to tie it in somehow. For example, when I was on the engineering team at DigitalFusion we used the P2 theme for an internal team communication tool. In other client projects I’d drop in a WordPress-powered blog to sites running on other software.

In 2010 I joined Automattic full-time as a Theme Wrangler.


What is it like working with Automattic?

It’s my dream job. I love the work and the people I work with. When I joined, I knew I’d found a perfect match with the fine folks running, Gravatar, Akismet, Polldaddy, and many other great projects.

Why do I love working for Automattic? It’s a distributed company: I can work from anywhere. We work on exciting, innovative projects. We are a prominent and active member of the open source community, and I want to be involved in that. There’s room for me to learn and grow. My work influences millions of blogs and websites, and — I hope — makes the web a better place.


There is a lot being discussed about the WordPress REST API. What are your thoughts on the use of JavaScript and the REST API for theme development?

Yes, please. I think this is not hard to answer because it’s the future of theme development — the future of the web, as well. If you are a WordPress theme developer, you should be paying attention to both the WP API progress (coming soon to core) as well as theme projects like Picard.

We’re moving away from traditional PHP server requests and page loads to asynchronous loading and fine-tuned page rendering with JavaScript. Web applications are here to stay. That doesn’t mean *all* WordPress themes need to feel or work like an app — there’s still room for simple and beautiful themes that just work the old way. However, most high impact and high traffic websites should go the way of the single-page application; it just makes sense for the user experience (faster, more intuitive, easier) and to vastly improve practical things like reduced server load and smarter browser rendering.

I think we’ll see a lot of interesting projects in this space in the coming months.

For JavaScript itself: no question, WordPress developers today should learn JavaScript as a primary language. Its ubiquity is undeniable, and any fluency you have with it will pay off immediately in any WordPress or front-end project. The next generation of web development could be completely in JavaScript, from the server to the client — so it’s a good investment of your time.


You resonated with the idea that ‘Bootstrap is a bad fit for WordPress themes’. Do you have a similar opinion for all CSS Frameworks? What about theme frameworks like Genesis or Thesis? According to you what is the ideal approach theme developers should take?

Theme developers should do what works best for their workflow and style. Whether using a default theme, _s, framework, your own starter forked from something else — I think everyone should decide for themselves.

I personally recommend _s for everything (see because it’ll save you 1,000 hours of development time. It has just what you need to get started on your design and specific theme features without reinventing the wheel. The right amount of lean, well-commented, modern, HTML5 templates and a smartly organized starter CSS in style.css that will help you to quickly get your design off the ground. It does everything “the WordPress way.

As my colleague Ian Stewart says, “It has just enough to get you started, and more than enough to build WordPress sites.”

I don’t like CSS frameworks for live sites (code released into production) because they are too bloated for most projects, and you’ll have many extra lines of CSS that you don’t need. However, they are valuable as prototyping and scaffolding tools. Say you want to fire up a working web app with a registration form and several page layouts.

Well, you could use something like Bootstrap to get that going very quickly. After that, though, you’d want to trim it down and just use the things you need — converting the classes into the semantic values that match your project and not the generic ones used in the framework.

Theme frameworks are another story. In general, they are also a bit too complex for the benefits you get. The idea is to not touch the code of the framework, either using theme options to change your site or create a child theme to hold your customizations. I love that concept — it’s smart to not edit a parent theme and use a child theme if you want to get future updates from the parent theme (framework) author. I don’t recommend frameworks to authors that want to learn theme development — you just won’t get a chance to tinker and create your own functionality enough. They can be great for specific use cases like building 30 similar sites for a chain of restaurants: one parent theme with basic functionality, 30 child themes with design changes and tweaks to make each site look a bit different.

I do have to say I’d never recommend Thesis (even though I’m a fan of the author’s previous free themes like Cutline and PressRow) specifically because it doesn’t use a GPL license.



Most WordPress development companies recommend the use of premium themes instead of free themes for commercial website development. What is your opinion on this?

I haven’t heard that before; I don’t think it’s true that most companies prefer commercial themes versus free themes. They are looking for a theme that’ll fit their clients’ needs if it’s a quick project without a lot of heavy lifting — or a great framework or starter theme if they are doing work from scratch.

When you pay for a theme, you expect something more: superb design, advanced features, dedicated support and maybe more timely updates from the author. The truth is, those expectations aren’t met all the time. Your mileage may vary!

That said, having a favorite theme company and following them closely is a great technique to discover new and exciting themes. What I look for in the best commercial theme companies is: top-notch support and documentation, great community record and contributions to WordPress, positive user reviews, do they blog?, advanced features, fair price, GPL license on everything, and high quality design and aesthetics.

I think probably the reason someone would choose commercial over free, in terms of the theme author, is for the support and knowing they probably won’t just leave you high and dry if you have a bug or problem. Free theme authors do sometimes support as well or better than commercial authors, but theme shops that sell themes set a certain expectation of support.


What are your views on the misuse of GPL? And its effect on the industry as a whole?

I don’t think it’s something everyone in the community needs to worry about. GPL is the standard for everything WordPress. My take on it as theme author would be: go build cool stuff, build a community that wants your themes, and you’ll have fun and probably also make money. The few folks that decide to cheat you probably would steal the theme or design anyway — regardless of license or copyright. If you have an issue that affects your business or your bottom line, find legal help.


Your advice for people looking to join Automattic would be..

Be the best. Be curious and willing to learn and improve. Get involved in contributing to WordPress and be active in your local tech and WordPress community. It doesn’t hurt if you release your work as Open Source, either; it’s a great way to showcase your skills as well as give back to the community. Read up on everything WordPress and Automattic, and introduce yourself to Automatticians at conferences or meetups and ask them questions.


Lance, thank-you for taking the time to talk to us. Your answers reflect your wisdom and passion for open-source development. There’s a lot every developer can learn from this. For those of you out there looking for more from Lance, you can follow him on Twitter @simpledream or on simpledream where he blogs on web design and development.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get The Latest Updates

Subscribe to our Newsletter

A key to unlock the world of open-source. We promise not to spam your inbox.

Suggested Reads

Join our 55,000+ Subscribers

    The Wisdm Digest delivers all the latest news, and resources from the world of open-source businesses to your inbox.

    Suggested Reads