How it is to interview the interviewer? Well, we’re going to find out today. It is my pleasure to say that our guest is Topher DeRosia. Among many other things, he interviews people whose lives were changed by WordPress and shares their amazing stories on his HeroPress site. He is a WordPress developer for iWitness Design and an important member of the WordPress community which is like a family to him. He is also a big WordCamp lover and speaker.
Topher is passionate about the people and their life stories. His beautiful website HeroPress is the place where you can read some moving real life stories and be genuinely inspired. He shared his own story there as well, so make sure to check it out. Thanks to this guy I ended up sharing my personal WordPress story on HeroPress and we had the opportunity to meet him in person during WordCamp Europe 2016. Topher is a very simple, easy going and warm hearted guy, so take some free time, relax and enjoy his interview. At last, but not least, we just found out that today as we are publishing this interview he celebrates 100th interview on his HeroPress site. So, if you just found out about his site there is a lot to catch up.
Hi Topher, first of all thank you for taking your time for the interview. Let’s take a peek into your life. Could you tell us a bit more about your background and how your life led you to WordPress
Sure! In my growing up years I had very little contact with computers. Some friends had them, but in my own home we didn’t even have electricity. We lived far enough from town that it was very expensive to connect to the grid, so we simply didn’t. My parents finally got electricity in the house when I was in college.
While in college I was using a typewriter and someone said “Why don’t you use The Computer?” We only had one you see. I quickly learned how to use DOS and WordPerfect. My next college had a mainframe computer with dumb terminals all over campus. They had an email system, and you could send electronic mail all the way across campus! It was amazing.
Soon after, we got Internet access and could send email all over the world. MORE amazing. Then we got Telnet access, then Gopher, and finally Lynx, so we could access the World Wide Web. It seems so common now, but it was really breathtaking to experience.
A friend built a small web page and suggested I make one too. I told him I could never figure out anything that complex, and he said “no, it’s easy! look!” and 30 minutes later I knew every HTML tag there was. There were about 25 tags at the time. CSS didn’t exist. We couldn’t even see images on our dumb terminals.
I started making web pages for people, and at some point someone paid me to do it. In the late 90’s PHP-FI was the new hotness and I picked that up along with MySQL. Soon it was PHP2, and I was making web pages on the side for money.
In 2010 I decided to go freelance 100% and someone asked me to work on a WordPress site. It was WordPress 2.9, and I thought “Wow, this thing really needs custom post types.” I wasn’t watching the release cycle at that time, so it seemed like magic that a few weeks later 3.0 came out with custom post types.
I haven’t really used anything else to build web sites ever since.
How did you start your career path? Do you have some formal education related to coding? Did you know exactly what you wanted to be when you grow up ;)?
I sort of answered this above, but here are some more details. I don’t have any formal coding education, I’m almost 100% self-taught. I can feel this most keenly when I realize I’ve been doing something wrong for 10 years. I could REALLY have benefited from working more closely with other developers.
I actually started my career path intending to be a missionary pilot, and got distracted by the Internet. 🙂 More on that later.
Is there a project you’ve been working on that you are specially proud of? Can you share some of the projects that you are working on at the moment?
The projects I’m most proud of were done while I was working for an agency, and I can’t talk about them. I can say that I’m quite proud of the company I’m currently building with my business partner, Tanner Moushey. I think we’re going to be able to do a lot of good in the world with it.
Let’s talk a bit about HeroPress. Could you tell us a bit more about HeroPress? What does it mean to you?
That’s a super deep question. HeroPress really has become a part of me. I’ve had so many amazing experiences because of it and met so many amazing people. I’ve learned a ton about our World, its cultures, and people. I’ve seen with delight things that are exactly the same in all people, no matter what culture. I’ve had my own understanding of many cultures completely thrown out, because people who live There aren’t anything like what I would have expected.
People from all over the world have entrusted their stories to me. They’ve trusted me to accurately represent them on HeroPress, but they’ve also told me many things privately that I can never tell anyone. Having that kind of trust from relative strangers is wonderful and terrifying at the same time.
Many people I’ve met because of HeroPress have become as close as my own family, literally.
How many of the people you interviewed for HeroPress have you had the opportunity to meet in person? Can you share some interesting stories?
I’ve done a terrible job keeping track of this. 🙂 I’d guess maybe half, and a surprisingly high number of them from outside the US. I visited India and WordCamp Europe, which gave me a wonderful chance to meet people from many countries. Food in India was fun. I didn’t eat anything too spicy, and nothing gave me Delhi Belly. 🙂
People that share their stories on HeroPress are often, beside WordPress , talking about courage, sadness, happiness, mental health, ups and downs, and other universal topics that we can all relate to. Do you know how much impact their stories had on other people’s lives? Is there a particular story that made an impact on you as well?
Early in HeroPress’ venture I had a number of women tell me they didn’t want to tell their story. They didn’t feel like they were “special” enough, or they were afraid of negative feedback. A few women did it anyway, and then I had a woman come to me out of nowhere and tell me she had been holding back, but seeing other women write gave her the courage to do so as well. Since then I’ve had several women tell me they got the courage to tell their stories from seeing other women do it.
That taught me quite clearly the value of representation. Many women would not have written if it were not for the few who led the way. They wouldn’t have see the strong women going before, and have now become strong women themselves, leading others.
One of my favorite stories is by Maedah Batool. She’s a young woman in Pakistan who teaches other Pakistani women how to make a living with WordPress. At the time she had taught literally hundreds of women to support themselves this way. I checked in with her the other day and she’s getting more classes together, still going strong. Such an enormously powerful tool she’s giving them! She’s one of my heroes.
When and why did you start contributing to WordPress, volunteering and speaking at WordCamps? What do you think about WordCamps and how are WordCamps beneficial for the people?
No fair, that’s about 4 questions in one! 🙂 My first contributions back to WordPress came in helping out at my local meetup and subsequent WordCamp. I quite quickly fell in love with WordCamps and started going to as many as I could. I counted the other day, I think I’ve been to 22 in the last 3 or 4 years. I started contributing to core when I started working at XWP and it was encouraged. They helped me learn how and mentored me in that.
My first “away” WordCamp (not in my own city) was in Austin Texas. Siobhan McKeown was there, and I learned she worked on the documentation project. I’ve always loved teaching, so I spent about 30 minutes working up the courage to talk to her and then said “Hi, I’m Topher, I think I might like to work on the docs project.” She was very friendly and about 20 minutes later I had full edit permissions to all the docs on .org. That startled me a bit!
I really enjoyed working on the Plugin Manual, which was about half done but stalled. I picked it up and finished it about 6 months later.
Since then I’ve worked in the support forums, volunteered at WordCamps, spoken at WordCamps, and generally tried to help out wherever I can.
Now, about those WordCamps. I think WordCamps are fantastic for a wide variety of reasons. For people who need it, they’re a wonderful source of education. These days I tend to go more for the culture and the networking. I love meeting new people, finding out where they’re from, what their stories are, etc. I love connecting with old friends. A very common theme in HeroPress is that the community is what’s magic about WordPress. WordCamps are the heart and soul of that community.
You gave a talk on WordCamp, how did you decide to do it? Did you have stage fright?
Ah, I’ve given many WordCamp talks. probably more than 15. By the time I found WordCamps I had already spoken at tech conferences many times, so the fear was long gone. I chose to do it because I love teaching. Every time I’m explaining something and I see the light come on behind someone’s eyes I get an adrenaline rush. It doesn’t even have to be that they understood what I was saying, but what I was saying inspired them or excited them in some way. It’s an amazing feeling, as close to pure joy as I can imagine.
Also, if you speak you get to go to the speaker dinner. It’s like an after party, but small and quiet. 🙂
What does the WordPress community mean to you?
That’s probably best summed up in my HeroPress essay: https://heropress.com/essays/making-family/ The are many people in the WordPress community that I now love like family, and I know there are some that feel the same way about me and my family.
What does your working day look like? Do you have some tips on how to balance work and free time?
My alarm goes off at 7. I usually get up and get to work as soon as possible, so I’m often working by 7:20. That gives me some quiet time in the morning to work. I typically eat breakfast and lunch at my desk. My office is in our basement, at the bottom of the stairs. At the top of the stairs is the kitchen, so it’s a short trip to get meals.
I usually work until about 4 or 5, and then stop and be with family. We usually eat supper soon after I quit work. Sometimes I work on side projects in the evening, but if I do it’s on my laptop on the couch with family near.
The balance comes from being deliberate and firm about it. Make your rules known to those around you. This doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes work long, or take a call in the evening, but people know they’re pushing on a rule when that happens, and try to avoid it.
How hard was it to choose what you wanted to do in your life? Did you have some other serious interests that could have become your daily job?
From the time the movie Top Gun came out until I was in late high school I knew I was going to be a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. I grew up near an Air Force base, had tons of culture from there, and loved it. I studied aerospace, aircraft engineering, and everything else I could find. I could tell you all the stats for all the aircraft AND all the possible weapons any given aircraft could support.
Then one day someone told me I could never be a fighter pilot because they have to have perfect vision, uncorrected. I was legally blind. My glasses got me up to 20/20, but without them I struggled to move across an unfamiliar room. I was absolutely crushed.
I decided to keep after my desire to fly however. I decided to become a missionary pilot. I went to college for it, and studied hard. I got my private pilot’s license, flew home solo for ice cream with my family one day, and generally did ok.
I also was required to become an aircraft mechanic and I hated it. Hated it. I passed half the class, and didn’t even take the test for the second half. The test cost $100 and I knew I’d fail.
I started my instrument training and the school wanted $20,000 up front for the training. By this time I had really fallen in love with the internet, and that is what I wanted to do. So I ended my aviation training and changed college majors in my 5th year. I needed one more year to make up all the credits I lost, so I graduated after 6 years of college with a degree I never intended to use.
There are other interests I may get to someday. Before my father died he spent some years both as a cabinet maker and blacksmith. My family still has all his tools, I’d love to get into that someday.
What does success mean to you? How would you define success?
Since I’m a word nerd, of course I’m going to tell you that success means reaching your goal. 🙂 Another question is “what are my goals?” They’re actually pretty well defined. I’ve thought about them a lot.
1. As a Christian I want to serve my God in whatever capacity He sees fit.
2. As a husband I want to care for and nurture my wife, helping her to be successful in whatever she wants to be doing.
3. As a father I want to raise my daughters to be strong, confident, Godly women.
4. As a developer I actually want to mentor and lead more than code. Helping other people become better at what they do is wonderful.
For HeroPress my goals have sort of refined themselves over the years. One goal is to help people be bold about their own stories. To help people own their stories, and declare them in their own way.
Another HeroPress goal is to inspire and educate people about their options in life. I hope every story makes at least one person say “Hey! I didn’t know anyone could do that! I wonder if I could try it too.”
I actually know those goals have been met, so HeroPress is already a success. When the day comes that HeroPress isn’t helping anyone I’ll shut it down.
Do you have a role model or a person that had a major influence on your life?
Oh so many.
In high school I heard a speaker at camp. He was a cool guy, but I didn’t run into him again for many years when he found me and asked me to build a website for him. He didn’t know who I was, but I remembered him. From that point on we became good friends. Then we drifted apart again, and when we got back together I found that his wife had died. He was probably in his 60’s at that point. Rather than mope or go sit on a beach, he became a missionary to Romania. He simply moved there, and specifically moved to a poor farm area. He got to know his neighbors and learned about their needs, and did what he could to help. He found out which families didn’t have enough wood to stay warm all winter, and set about getting that wood. He found warm clothes, he found food. He came back to the States again and again to help his friends here get to know his friends there. Many of us (not I sadly) went with him to visit and get to know people. Mostly he listened. He didn’t go to talk at them; he went to listen to them. He did this for more than 20 years. This last fall he was at his home in Phoenix Arizona to see his family and he died quietly in his favorite chair.
His “family” in Romania loved him, and he loved them. When I die I hope to have had the same relationship with the people I know.
There are many more, but it could be an entire blog series. 🙂
What do you enjoy most about your life? What do you love to do other than development and WordPress?
I dearly love being a remote worker. Not having to waste time each day commuting is amazing. I would even struggle to have a private office of my own in my own city. I’ve considered having a place across the street, but even that is too much.
I love the freedom it’s provided my family. We homeschool our children, and my wife also works remote, so we have the freedom to go and do what we want, when we want. When we visit the zoo or the water park, we make sure it’s when all the kids are in school, and we get the place to ourselves. When we want to go visit family for a week or four, we simply go.
Other than development and WordPress I love to read, play games, and watch movies with my family.
What are your plans for the future?
That’s a big question as well. My children are almost grown, so my wife and I are thinking about what to do with the rest of our lives. We’ve considered getting an RV and seeing much of the US while I still get to work remote. We’ve considered getting a little place on a little beach somewhere in the Caribbean. Aside from keeping my job and running HeroPress, the future is pretty wide open.
Finally, here’s your chance to freestyle:). Write anything you think could be interesting or useful to our readers.
The older I get, the more I realize how scary and chaotic the world really is. There’s wonderful good in the world as well, don’t get me wrong, but that good is always in danger of being destroyed by hate, and anger, and fear. The best way I know of to defend the good is with compassion, understanding, and love.
This is hard, because often the people who need it from you the most are the difficult ones. The painful ones. The hurtful ones.
People are rarely arbitrarily hurtful. Usually something happened at some point to tip them that way. They may not even realize it. Angry people are hurting people.
Try to have some compassion. It makes a real difference. Here’s a scene from a favorite movie showing how:
Kathrine does go to Green Gables, and she learns again how to laugh. How to not snark at people. I wish there was video of her realization of that, but the best I can do is the text:
“Oh, I know I’ve been looking older than my age. I didn’t care. Why should I? Nobody else cared. And I’m not like you, Anne. Apparently you were born knowing how to live. And I don’t know anything about it . . . not even the A B C. I wonder if it’s too late to learn. I’ve been sarcastic so long, I don’t know if I can be anything else. Sarcasm seemed to me to be the only way I could make any impression on people. And it seems to me, too, that I’ve always been afraid when I was in the company of other people . . . afraid of saying something stupid . . . afraid of being laughed at.”
Anne’s compassion and sacrifice of her own comfort changed a life forever. I want to be strong enough to do that for the people around me.