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Happy Birthday, Matt Mullenweg

Matt Mullenweg in HawaiiAs I prepared my annual public “Happy Birthday, Matt” post for , founder of WordPress (with a lot of other amazing people), I spotted the birthday greeting by Jane Wells of the WordPress Foundation. She thanks Matt for all the ways her life has been changed since meeting him, a perfect way to say thank you and honor a man who has changed all of our lives, directly, indirectly, personally, and from afar.

I encourage you to publish your own tribute to how , , and the man behind the original vision, on this day. I rarely gush here, but yesterday I taught my first college-level class on WordPress, so I’d say my personal story about how WordPress changed my life matters, too, as does yours, but mine first. :D

Thank you, Matt, for Helping Me Become Me.

Suddenly single and clueless about dating many years ago, as I do with everything I started with a list. The list boiled down the 26 traits I required in a mate. I found many with 22, 24, even 25, but only one eventually with all 26. Him I married, and my life has never been better, happier, more exciting, and safer during these last twenty years spent with my best friend.

As I look back through almost nine years (that many?) of knowing Matt Mullenweg, that list popped into my head. A quick mental glance back, I find he has almost all of the items on the list (how are your language skills now, Matt? Speaking two foreign languages was critical to my list!). On that list was “he must make me be me all the time.” Matt, while you don’t know this, that’s been a strong part of our relationship from day one. Thank you for that gift.

Lorelle interviews Matt Mullenweg at WordCamp San Francisco 2009How has Matt Mullenweg changed my life? That’s a complicated question to answer as it involves how WordPress changed my life and the influence Matt has had, directly and indirectly, on my life. It’s hard to extract the two.

WordPress changed my life because it gave me a platform upon which to have my say – all my says. It not only made my main site at the time, , one of the oldest personal websites in the world, easier to maintain and use, it led me back down the old familiar college path of code hacking and whacking, and my life has never been the same.

Sitting in a steaming hot cupboard called an office in my flat in Tel Aviv in the late fall of 2003, I dug into WordPress, ripping out its innards and finding a way to make it work for me. I had over 2,000 static HTML web pages on my site. After two years researching and experimenting with the new crop of Content Management Systems, I was left with a horrible taste in my mouth and it wasn’t the water.

About August of 2003, I started hearing about this WordPress blog thing. I checked it out and found it simple, clean, and incredibly simple. I was staggered at the simplicity of it all. With one to three HTML pages of code, I could quickly easily update my site through the easy-to-use interface. No more search and replace, downloading, uploading, and hours (sometimes days on dial up) spent fixing one comma or tiny bit of text or code. With a few keystrokes, my work was on the web for all to see. I had a test site up and running in minutes, all ready to go. No jumping through hoops of code or high learning curves. Incredible!

I started creating a method to port over all 2,000 static HTML articles into WordPress. It took three or four months but I finally got it to work, learning more about server crap than I ever wanted to learn. Then WordPress 1.2 was released, bringing with it our first introduction to WordPress Plugins.

Mark Jaquith, Lorelle VanFossen and Aaron Brazell at WordCamp San Francisco

Mark Jaquith, Lorelle VanFossen and Aaron Brazell at WordCamp San Francisco

I’d been hanging out in the WordPress IRC with fellow fans and we’d been playing with all the ways we could get WordPress to sing and dance for us. My frustration with some of the early functionality of WordPress attracted some of the earliest developers of WordPress Plugins to me with solutions on how to make my site work better, faster, and cleaner. Many of the first WordPress Plugins were built for Camera on the Road, and many of the first hires for WordPress and Automattic teethed on that site.

Several of them made me the first official WordPress Plugins Crash Test Dummy and my inbox quickly filled with Plugin authors begging me to test (and break) their Plugins. What a time of joyous creativity and risk taking as we all broke our sites repeatedly and willingly to improve WordPress.

It was a dream to work with but the real magic came with WordPress 1.5 which introduced WordPress Themes and the power to really control what your site looked like and how. We watched in fascination with WordPress start spreading across the globe with intelligent early adopters “getting it” as I did the year before.

In 2004, digging through the first WordPress wiki, and brand new , a frustrated moment to fix the horrible stream of misspellings of the word “separate” led me down the path towards creating a strong and usable online manual for WordPress users, which continues to help thousands daily. Oh, we had so much fun. I started pounding on the virtual heads of coders and developers to help explain what it was that WordPress did and how to do it.

In winter of 2004-2005, we moved from our move from the Middle East and human destruction and violence to a world of mother nature destruction and violence along the Gulf Coast of the United States (we arrived immediately after Hurricane Ivan and just before five hurricanes, including Katrina, destroyed much of the area). After a few weeks barely online during the move, I was eager to get back to work and refocused. I gathered as many people together virtually as possible and we had a six week campaign session of non-stop work on the WordPress Codex. We were blogging, networking, emailing, trying to get as many people as possible involved. I don’t know exactly how many but at least 100 people participated in building up the Codex over the six weeks.

I don’t think I slept more than a few hours every other day as people around the world talked constantly on the WordPress IRC and worked overtime to write articles to fill the WordPress Codex with technical know-how while others moved in to edit and clean up the documents and coders triple checked all our little bits of code. We sometimes had four or five people on any single article at a time. Many of the articles created during that insanity still bear the test of time today as valuable guides.

Donncha and Lorelle at WordCamp 2007

Donncha O'Caoimh and Lorelle, WordCamp 2007

Donncha O’Caoimh invited me to be among the first testers of in 2005, knowing I was an expert at breaking WordPress. Not sure what to do with it, I put it through the ringer by publishing a lot of the posts I’d already written on using WordPress on my other site, and promptly broke it. Several times. When WordPress.com went public, many flocked to find out what it could do (and promptly left because they couldn’t get their hands on the code – my, how times have changed). They published posts eagerly revealing what all the excitement was about, and in time went on to other things. I was the only one left continuing to talk about what WordPress.com could, and couldn’t, do, and I continue to do so seven years later.

People were desperate to know how this WordPress thing worked, not just WordPress.com but the whole WordPress deal. I was providing the hands-on, step-by-step instructions for all the little details not covered by any help files or the WordPress Codex. With no analytics or stats, I was as stunned as everyone when Matt introduced me at the 2007 WordCamp (the second one) as one of the top bloggers with over a million pageviews. Who knew? I certainly didn’t. I was doing what I had been doing all along, following the adage well of writing about what you know.

That WordCamp led to more, including the first official WordCamp outside of the United States in Israel a month or so later. I’ve been the keynote and featured speaker at dozens and dozens of WordCamps. I’ve lost count over the years. I was already traveling too much with my own work, and now I was gone five to seven months a year with WordCamps and web conferences added to the schedule. The longest I was on the road without coming home was eight weeks through three countries…no maybe longer. It’s all a blur of faces, business cards, WordPress blogs, WordPress Plugins, Themes, and new friends. Conversations started online were continued in person. I even did a year of that high-pace travel with a shattered left shoulder and damaged right hip from a sledding accident…which included time spent in hospitals and recovery in between flights. Totally nuts!

As I met more and more people passionate about WordPress, I kept hearing over and over again about how WordPress changed their lives. What? It’s just a publishing platform. Do you hear people swoon over how Dreamweaver or GoDaddy changed their lives? What about Microsoft or Apple? Do people actually start to cry when they talk about the impact these operating systems have had on their lives? Maybe they should, but with WordPress, I’ve seen it happen over and over again.

Lorelle as the WordPress Fairy Blog Mother in Portland, Oregon, WordCampMatt and I were somewhere at a conference or WordCamp when a young woman came up and thanked him for creating WordPress. She started to describe how important WordPress was to her and burst into tears. Matt just gave her a hug until she got herself under control. It was amazing. Everyone around them was touched by the moment. I can bet that wasn’t the only time.

When WordCamp PDX (Portland, Oregon) came to me to be the keynote for their first WordCamp, Aaron Hockley asked me how we could spice things up a little. We came up with the WordPress Fairy Blog Mother, which led to an amazing experience for all, including me. What fun!

The keynote was titled How WordPress Changes Lives. I’d spent the previous two months at WordCamps and web conferences asking people how WordPress changed their lives and inviting them to have their say on camera. I was blown away by their responses. After showing the video, I invited audience members to step “up to the mic” and share their evangelical moment with WordPress – they did. Many did. Crying, laughing, and eager to tell people about the impact of WordPress on their lives. We were all truly humbled by the experience and I’ve shared these videos at WordCamps around the world and gotten similar responses.

Lorelle as the WordPress Fairy Blog Mother in Portland, Oregon, WordCamp, takes over the streets with the WordCamp

Below are two of the videos I made on how WordPress changes lives. For the most part, they are similar but the one from Hawaii includes some noted Hawaiians having their say on how WordPress changes their lives.

What does any of this have to do with Matt Mullenweg? Everything and nothing.

Sure, I made these things happen myself, but he opened the door. One of the most powerful moments in my life was when Matt publicly defended me by saying, “because I like her blog.” I think I cried over that one.

So how has he really changed my life? Matt helped me most by his leadership and by setting an example.

Matt Mullenweg photographer at workHe has been no end of fair to everyone and everything. I’m sure, like me, he’s had moments where he walked away and went into the bathroom or around the block to scream his head off or cry out of the frustration of idiot people or unbelievably ridiculous and painful situations. I’m sure he has, but never have I ever seen him lose his temper in public or knock someone down or walk over them just because he can. He’s always been kind, listened (when he’s heard it for the millionth time), and responded with compassion and yet truth – the real truth not the made up, suits-the-situation truth.

If he’s made a bad decision, he’s come out to say so. If he’s changed his mind about a long held policy, he’s explained to us all why and what changed his mind. While he’s kept some things close to the chest for professional reasons, he’s been open and honest when it was time for the truth to out. If there was a position that needed to be taken, be it philosophical or line in the cement, he’s taken it. I’ve seen him jump fast when someone’s rights were violated, eager to defend and protect. Even to the detriment of the masses, he’s always kept the big picture in mind, even if we couldn’t see it. With all the venom tossed in his direction over the years, at 18 years old as well as now, all these years later, he’s stood the test of time as a thoughtful, sincere, and can’t-help-but-like-him guy. I adore that kind of consistency.

Matt Mullenweg holds up an autographed sign that says "Lorelle is awesome. Thank you.To give you a glimpse into the world-wide community that now exists around WordPress thanks to the tireless traveling around the world non-stop to speak to anyone and everyone about WordPress, while I was in the hospital in Portland, Oregon, my friend Kym Huynh was at the first WordCamp Australia and got a picture to cheer me up of Matt holding up a sign he’d written saying, “Lorelle is awesome. Thank you! Matt.” Around the world we all stayed connected, through the good times and the bad.

Matt Mullenweg gives a state of the world presentationBefore he was twenty-one, Matt’s air miles rivaled the US Secretary of State. He traveled everywhere giving presentations on WordPress and meeting business people, convincing them WordPress was the right choice, but mostly answering their eager questions on how WordPress worked, how it could help them, and how could they help make it better. If you get a chance to ask him about some of his most adventurous (and oddball) WordCamps, take it. He’s got some brilliant stories to share.

His ability to trust others humbles me. He’s even admitted how hard it was for him to give up control and “trust the crowd,” but he learned that he had to in order to make WordPress and his other projects grow. He gives people a lot of rope to hang themselves, and those that don’t and exceed expectations, he rewards them.

Matt Mullenweg coordinates the WordPress Tattoo Competition at WordCamp San Francisco

Matt Mullenweg coordinates the WordPress Tattoo Competition at WordCamp San Francisco

When he left CNet (a REAL job), we discussed it on our weekly IRC meetings (the first “business” meetings for WordPress) and stood behind his decision to risk everything on his faith for WordPress and what it would become. We weren’t sure what it would become but we trusted him. He said his dream was to make enough money with WordPress and other projects so he could start hiring and paying those who contribute and “make it go.” When he hired his first official employee, Donncha O’Caoimh, it was a huge moment and we all shared in the thrill, even though we really had no idea what Donncha was working on. It was the first official WordPress employee. He was working on WordPressMU, which became then WordPress MS, and the rest is literally history as it now hosts millions of sites and is the main income producer that helps to keep WordPress free and open.

Matt taught me courage. Each way along the path to building WordPress and into the legends they are today, he’s taken huge risks. His risks started even before that, moving away from the known in Texas to the big unknown, crazy city of San Francisco while he was still so young. Walking away from a degree program and fascination with political science (and music) to be the guy behind a lot of coders and hackers making one of the most powerful publishing platforms in the world – don’t tell me that doesn’t take courage.

He also gave me the gift of power. This is a hard one to explain. In the WordPress Community, it doesn’t matter who you are. What matters is what you do and how you show yourself to the world. At a personal low point, my life was in upheaval, still reeling from five years spent living in a terrorist war zone and coming too close to more than my fair share of suicide bombings and attacks, followed by a year and a half of non-stop hurricane death and destruction…I was sitting in my trailer feeling like trailer trash indeed as I finally realized we had more leaks than walls, listening to the water drops drumming into buckets set on my dining table and couch, looking out over a beautiful but very isolated horse farm in the foothills of the Coastal Mountain Range of Oregon near Portland, barely able to get a cell signal or Internet connection, my father had just died and my family exploded, and my friend, David Bullock called with WordPress troubles. Can I help?

I dug into his site and fixed it, which led to another question and another, and soon he had me laughing as usual and the world shined again. Then he pointed out an error on the front page of the WordPress Codex. I hit edit and fixed it fast, embarrassed that such a blatant mistake was missed. I tried to apologize but he started shouting, “Oh, my god, you are brilliant. You are amazing. You are one of the most powerful people I know!”

“What?”

“You! You just changed the front page of the WordPress Codex! I know someone with the power to influence millions and change the WordPress Codex just like that. Amazing!”

Matt Mullenweg, Mark Jaquith, Andy Skelton at WordCamp San Francisco, 2008

Matt Mullenweg, Mark Jaquith, Andy Skelton at Automattic offices after WordCamp San Francisco, 2008

I tried to explain that anyone could change the WordPress Codex at any time – then I realized that he was right. One of the greatest gifts Matt Mullenweg gave to all of us is the ability to let our voices be heard not just through our blogs but in our power to help change and influence others. Anyone in the world can help another use WordPress better by editing and adding articles to the Codex. Anyone can help in the WordPress forums, giving someone else the help they once received on their path to WordPress enlightenment. Anyone can contribute bugs, fixes, patches, or code to WordPress. Anyone can write a WordPress Plugin or Theme. Anyone and everyone has the same power as I do, but until you realize that, you don’t know what a gift it is.

One of the most important things Matt has taught me – nay, reminded me – is that we all have a right to have our say and be heard. When Turkey was the first to ban WordPress.com blogs, followed not long after by China and Brazil, while few people seemed to care, Matt did. He didn’t give in. At the risk of his entire business, he stood up against international courts and did not stop the blogger from blogging, nor close their account or make any changes. His dedication to the true spirit of freedom of speech is found in the WordPress.com Terms of Service:

Our service is designed to give you as much control and ownership over what goes on your site as possible and encourage you to express yourself freely. However, be responsible in what you publish.

At a time when many countries around the world punish you or having your say, WordPress.com is a publishing platform reminds us that you have the right to have your say and be heard – for free – and that this right comes with a responsibility. What a gift to the world.

There are so many things on this list, I could spent hours describing them all. However, it’s your turn.

Happy Birthday, Matt, and thank you for helping to change so many lives. Don’t stop.


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Copyright Lorelle VanFossen.

7 Comments

  1. Posted January 11, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    WordPress changed my life too. Thanks Matt and Happy Birthday :)

  2. Posted January 11, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    WordPress (.com, offcourse) is now a part of my education. Thanks Matt and a very wonderful birthday to you.

  3. Posted January 11, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Great read Lorelle, thanks for posting it! :)

  4. Posted January 11, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t Matt the CO-founder? Isn’t the other CO-founder Mike Little?

    • Posted January 11, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

      @miroslav, Mike Little is a part of this, but Matt is referred to as the founder. I don’t know what Mike’s title or position in WordPress is today.

  5. Posted January 11, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    A fascinating article. Nice to see your face in the flesh. Yu have a kind face – to my eyes.

  6. Posted January 16, 2012 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    WordPress has fundamentally changed how the web is used! I think it’s safe to say without him, many of ur favourite sites wouldn’t be what they are today.


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] I wrote a very personal birthday message to Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, I tried to explain how WordPress changes lives and what makes the [...]

  2. […] the IRC. He didn’t hang out there much except in the earliest days, but we connected and he changed my life as much as WordPress did, by example and tone. He is a perfect leader for WordPress. His vision will enable it to out last […]

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