Moving Deeper Into WooCommerce as a Hosting Solution with Chris Wiegman from WPEngine

Moving Deeper Into WooCommerce as a Hosting Solution with Chris Wiegman from WPEngine
Do the Woo - A WooCommerce Podcast

 
 
00:00 / 00:38:23
 
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What is involved with bringing a hosting company deeper into WooCommerce based on clients needs? Chris takes a deep dive into WooCommerce and shares with us his newest challenges.

A Chat with Chris Wiegman with WPEngine

In episode 51, Mendel Kurland and I chat with Chris about:

  • His journey in the WordPress space and landing at WPEngine.
  • The growing focus and interest around the market shift in WooCommerce.
  • The opportunities for small businesses to use WooCommerce.
  • Where WooCommerce is going or should be going.
  • What is the edge that WooCommerce has over Shopify.
  • How WPEngine taking the approach to expanding more into the WooCommerce space.
  • What challenges Chris has found with WooCommerce.
  • His take on what we might see as more companies bring products to market that solve unique WooCommerce problems.

Thanks to our sponsors


I invited Chris to join us to chat about his newest position at WPEngine and how it comes with a deep dive into WooCommerce. We start with a what Chris is doing at WPEngine and his journey through WordPress.

The conversation takes several interesting twists and turns, from touching on the growth in market shift in WooCommerce within the WordPress community to talking about the opportunities for small businesses using WooCommerce.

Mendel gets Chris’s thoughts on where he thinks WooCommerce is going and where it should be going.

After that, I put the question to both Chris and Mendel: what do they consider are the strengths of WooCommerce over Shopify.

Throughout the conversation, Chris dives more into his experiences and challenges with WooCommerce, and the approach he is taking on the WooCommerce journey at WPEngine.

This is a great conversation with a lot of nuggets scattered throughout the chat along with some serious Woo geekiness between Chris and Mendel.

Where to find Chris on the web

You can also find Chris around the web by simply searching Chris Wiegman.

The Conversation

Mendel: Hey ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Do the Woo, Episode 51. Today I'm here with BobWP and Chris Wiegman. But before we start chatting with Chris, I wanted to thank WooCommerce.com as our community sponsor for Do the Woo. Thank you very much for your support, as well as MyWorks.software, providing automatic syncs between WooCommerce and QuickBooks. And WP Security Audit Log, a comprehensive activity log of the changes that shop managers and customers do.

Ladies and gentlemen, your co-host BobWP. How you doing Bob?

Bob: Hey, Mendel. Doing good.

Mendel: Today on our show we have Chris Wiegman from WPEngine, Chris, how's life?

Chris: It's good. It's good as anyone could be after a month and a half at home, right?

Mendel: Yeah, but that's where we all like to hang out, anyway. Right?

Chris: Something like that. Yeah.

Mendel: It's good to have you on the show.

Chris: Good to be here.

Mendel: We are going to try to bring a little more energy here today, Bob. So here it is. Don't get scared. Don't get worried. Chris, you're here, you're ready to talk WooCommerce and we're excited to hear what you're working on over at WPEngine.

What Chris is Doing at WPEngine

Chris: A new team, frankly. The last seven years building developer tools and the dev kit, we've discontinued the dev kit as we moved into local with WPEngine through Flywheel. So with that, I decided it was time to move on. Now I'm working on WooCommerce. And a lot of pretty normal stuff. The team's only been together a few weeks. So we're tackling all those low-hanging-fruit performance issues, getting the platform up to speed, a lot of things like that.

We all know who WP Engine is, I think. It's been a hosting choice for over 10 years now. But it's never really focused on a specific niche within WordPress. It's just been a general WordPress host. We are starting to work on things with some of our larger WooCommerce customers as far as performance optimizations and stuff like that, with a lot of room for movement in the future. We're still putting that roadmap together.

Starting on the WooCommerce Journey Recently

Bob: I just want to interject that Chris had contacted me because he was starting to dive more into WooCommerce documentation. And one of the things I thought was really cool is that we usually ask about the journey to WooCommerce. For Chris, that started like two months ago; I’m just kidding.

Chris: Yeah. In all fairness I have to say that there was some Woo work back in my 10up days and with other agencies, so it's not like I was a complete noob to it, it's just not been my focus before this.

Mendel: Well, let's talk a bit about before this, because I think the journey is interesting. I'm curious to hear how this journey led to where you're at right now. So you were strongly focused on security. You were working on security, your own product and then you started doing agency work. Now you find yourself here, doing what at WPEngine, before working on WooCommerce?

Chris: Let me let me back up. All that time, doing security wasn’t my goal, it was something I needed to do. For the product, I was working on it as a student, so it was either scale that up to a full company, but I didn't want to be in the security space in that fashion. So I dumped that and jumped around for a little bit. Almost immediately, after that, I was building developer tools, mostly vagrant stuff. Remember, triple D? I can say this, right? Very vagrant vagrant. Yes. I can't say it right.

Mendel: Yeah. And you didn't come up with that name did you.

Chris: Nope, that was actually a 10up project. I had something as an alternative to that one for a lot of years.

Mendel: With a better name?

Chris: Primary vagrant was all I called it.

Mendel: Maybe it's an easier name to say. But by the way, if you haven't checked out VVV, it's also awesome.

Chris: But I mean, come on. My security plugin was named Better WPSecurity. I'm not very creative with this name thing. Back to what I was talking about, different agencies, different stuff with WordPress on the side. When I was at the University of Florida for a couple of years, I was doing a lot more DevOps work. So I took vagrant into Docker. And that still wasn't quite my full-time job, although I enjoyed working on it.

When WPEngine called and said, Hey, we're looking at making a command line, Gooey, command line first and then Gooey development product, do you want to be part of it? I said, Yeah, that sounds great. It was a hell of a lot of fun until we bought Flywheel. And I don't mean that as a negative, that's great for the company. Now local is part of WPEngine, but the dev kit product that I was hired on for, of course, sunsetted. So I just decided that it was probably time to find a new focus.

After so many years of dev tools, let's try something different. This was two months ago and we were spinning up a lot of WooCommerce work. We're starting to look at WooCommerce and eCommerce in general. So they asked me if I'd want to be part of this team and here I am.

The Market Shift to WooCommerce

Mendel: So what do you think precipitated that change in focus, or that interest in WooCommerce? Because we see this in a lot of places, right? Liquid Web and I think maybe GoDaddy made a WooCommerce-focused product. And now WPEngine. So what do you think is leading to this kind of market shift towards WooCommerce?

Chris: It's the whole evolution of WordPress, right? I mean, WordPress started as a blog, it now does a little bit of everything. So hosts that started as, well, the help blogs now have to evolve with their customers. A blog starts with hosting, maybe it's digital content or your ebooks. Pick your niche, what is it in, right? So all these sites start evolving over time and selling something, trying for a return on investment for all your time on your blog. Whatever your site becomes, it's a bigger thing.

And as you all know, with WooCommerce it comes with some scaling issues. So once you get the business. clients with these huge stores having these scaling issues, what do you do with them? I know that this has been something WPEngines talked about jumping into, off and on, going back to about 2015. But it was never really on the strategic roadmap until recently. So now we're finally putting some resources into tackling the problem. Because a lot of our largest MRR customers, of course, are going to be on WooCommerce or similar platforms.

Mendel: t's an interesting problem, isn't it? WooCommerce and WordPress, in some ways, scale very similarly, because they have commonalities in some ways. They're really intricate, interesting issues when you start getting into mass amounts of people logged, mass amounts of people trying to check out and mass amounts of people trying to view non-cache content and things like that. So the engineering challenges are more interesting to make a performant WooCommerce site. Especially when people start talking about enterprise WooCommerce and the large organizations that use WooCommerce. It's possible to run enterprise WooCommerce, but there are also interesting engineering feats that have to be accomplished in order to do that.

Chris: Yeah, very much so. Anybody who's been around Woo knows a lot of the big problem has to do with WordPress and its very simple database structure. It doesn't scale when you start doing a lot of these crazy queries that WooCommerce needs. It's hard to keep track of a cart, what's in the cart, is it still in the cart, did somebody else buy the thing you're trying to buy already within the 16 seconds since you put it in your cart. All those queries that start taking place there.

You're right, it overlaps WordPress in a lot of ways. In some ways. I think it overlaps WordPress a little bit too much. It didn't rely on its own database structure early enough, leading to a lot of problems now. I mean, they're fixed. I've watched what you all have done at Liquid Web with the Custom Orders Tables plugin. That's a great thing going on there. There's other solutions that are being worked on at various places. So the problems are not unsolvable. It's just a whole lot of them. It becomes quite apparent when you start digging into a lot of the performance problems.

Chris’s Experience with WooCommerce

Bob: I'm just a little bit curious. Was there any work with, or did you have an interest in, WooCommerce prior to taking on this new project at WPEngine?

Chris: Honest answer? Nope. I've actually been moving my personal stuff off WordPress. But I like the scaling challenges and have always loved the enterprise space when working with universities. I keep bouncing in and out of universities and have worked for three universities until budgets would either run out, or in the case of leaving University of Florida, just simply a project that I was dealing with.

But I love that enterprise solution and whether it's an LMS, whether it's WooCommerce, there's a lot of areas in which you see this same enterprise issue showing up in WordPress. So to get to look at it from that angle is a lot of fun for me. Whether it's specifically eCommerce, which is our first challenge because it's the highest return on investment. But that'll benefit other areas as well, especially the learning management systems, social systems, Buddy Press, things like that. There's a lot of options for that type of stuff.

The Opportunity for Small Businesses to Use WooCommerce

Mendel: What do you think about the way WordPress works and the unique challenges of small businesses? There are a lot of small businesses out there looking for ways to sell online right now. They're looking to drop things at your door. I know coffee shops around here that didn't deliver before because they wanted to be elite and have you show up to their door Now they're delivering or they're letting you pick up. Do you think there is opportunity for these small businesses to use WooCommerce? Do you think it's too difficult to performance tune? How do you feel about that?

Chris: I think there's a lot of potential for those small businesses. But I don't think the speed of spinning up something is really feasible for a short term. It can't be reactionary, it has to be proactive. If you're looking at something from a proactive six to 12 months out, you very much can handle spinning up WooCommerce at lots of levels. That's not just specific to WooCommerce. Whether you're going to use Shopify, BigCommerce, all these stores, if you plan out a little bit ahead of time, the transition can happen very quickly. But the reactionary, oh my God, I have to get into this now, what do I do?

Even simple stores. Think of Uber Eats with a similar type of model is what you're referring to at the coffee stores. How many stores have hopped on Uber Eats or DoorDash and their menus are wrong. All the little mistakes that happen in a well-established, very easy, in theory, platform to move to. WooCommerce with the complexities there, just like anything else, it has to be proactive, not reactive. But the possibilities are endless. And going forward, the possibility to improve the UX and shorten that lead time, I think there's a lot of room to improve there.

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Where WooCommerce is Going or Should Go

Mendel: Maybe we should talk about opportunities. I've known you for a while now. And I've known you as somebody that knows his space, has been around, has talked with a lot of people and has worked on a lot of interesting projects. I think it would be interesting to hear your take on where you think WooCommerce is going or where do you think WooCommerce should go?

Chris: The honest answer to that at the moment, we have a lot of catching up to do here where I'm at, and we're working very hard to make sure that happens. We're starting very cautiously to look beyond the point at which we can catch up and say, hey, we have problems with larger stores on our platform with speed and scalability. Once we can cross those basic scalability problems, and they've been crossed elsewhere, then I can pay a bit more attention to the future. But in the less than two months that I've been on this team, my entire existence has been consumed with how do we fix problems that we know are already present at that point. Then we can start moving forward to the future. So that's a little bit of a non-answer there. It's not that I haven't thought of ideas, but they're not something I've really fleshed out in any any kind of presentable option for the future.

WooCommerce’s Main Advantage Over Shopify

Bob: I was in a discussion in an online group earlier and there were just a few people there, mostly agency or product owners. The question came up, what advantages does WooCommerce have over Shopify. So I would like to hear both of your answers.

What is the advantage of WooCommerce over Shopify? Let's start with you Chris.

Chris: I would say extendibility. How many years ago was it with Matt talked about his operating system of the web? Everything else is very purpose built, which is great for getting started, but doesn't always extend and evolve with your needs over time. With a WordPress WooCommerce setup, that ability to completely brand your site to differentiate your experience from that of your competitor is better than having to migrate to another entire system.

I've talked to a few folks who say, we've looked at Shopify, we started with Shopify, but we moved to x or y. But with Woo, as long as you can handle the traffic we’re picking up, which its biggest problem right now, that scalability factor, at least locally, once we cover that scalability factor, the possibilities to do other things with, really, the sky's the limit.

Mendel: Yeah, I think extensibility totally makes sense. It's a huge pro in the column of WooCommerce. If you look at things like Shopify, they are pretty extensible too, in a different way. But they're catching up as far as extensibility.

For me, I would say price and cost of management, and also, ease of setup and management, with the caveat that you're using a managed hosting. If you're doing it yourself, WooCommerce can be a bear to configure, to make performant, all those things. If you're working with a managed host, it's easier now. That being said, if you're doing something super complex, and you don't want a managed host, then of course, you have to figure out how to roll all of those things yourself and you're probably really good at it.

So cost. I've actually done some comparisons between Shopify and WooCommerce. And the reality is thousands of dollars, even 10s of thousands of dollars difference in the product cost, based on hosting, transaction fees, plugins or add ons, all those things really add up. And the big one is cost of management. Whether you're talking Magento, where you need a custom developer to take care of of it for you. You need somebody to do some custom modifications in Shopify, with WooCommerce. I think there's so many WooCommerce or WordPress developers out there that can help you figure some of these things out. It drives the cost down, especially for midsize businesses. So for me, extensibility makes sense, but I think there are some platforms that are starting to catch up.

Bob: Interesting.

Chris: That's fair.

WPEngine and WooCommerce

Bob: Yeah, that is. Alright. Chris, is there any elaboration you can make on what you're doing at WPEngine that you haven’t touched on?

Chris: My function is a lead developer on a team of one, for the moment. We're hiring up to as many as half dozen people for this team. There's a product manager, but I'm the only developer on it right now. Right now we are only a few weeks in. The product manager came came from an eCommerce SAAS product. So he's still spinning up, I'm spinning up, and this may sound strange, but I was spending six hours assigned to Flywheel at Local for six months. And for all practical purposes, I wasn't really at WPEngine. As much as I want to answer that question with, hey, we're gonna do this and that, we're still putting together roadmaps. We're identifying integrations, we're identifying wins we can make and we're identifying needs of our customers that can help keep them on the platform and help them grow.

Challenges with WooCommerce

Bob: And I like the challenges that Mendel brought up.

Chris: To me it's been really fascinating digging into some of the problems that come up over and over. Cart fragment, orders, too many orders, the product table stuff. It's a lot of validation which I mentioned before. Instead of starting with a Gooey with Gutenberg, the database structure should have been overhauled and revisited in WordPress itself. That never happened. And you see those challenges when you expand out of standard content. I'll come back to Liquid Web and try to give you credit where it’s due. That order table plugin that you have is excellent. It handles a lot of the same type of problems that need to be tackled in other parts of Woo and WordPress in general before we are going to move forward.

That's the type of thing I'm dealing with right now. Where are the bottlenecks? What other bottlenecks can we identify? Trying to answer questions for right now, on various hosted levels, how many concurrent customers can we expect before they crash? We don't even know in some cases, because that's not data that's specific to WordPress as a whole. In our eCommerce niche, just trying to put all that stuff together to come up with a rational answer of what's next. Where do we focus? How do we focus? There's a lot of hypotheticals. I could look at Liquid Web's research, Kinstas research, how much of this can we confirm with our own customers? We work in product, we have to measure with our own customers. And that's really where I've been focusing my time so far.

Mendel: Have you had the opportunity to look at any like crazy integrations from customers, or clients where you are like, Whoa, I didn't realize that you could sell that. Or I didn't think of leveraging WooCommerce in that particular way?

Chris: I haven't been digging into too many stores directly. I've been digging below the store level. Why are we hitting on this level of my SQL database? Why are we crashing on selects? One query could take six and a half minutes to run and it's run 17 times. That's the type of level I've been digging into.

So as far as the stores themselves, there's been a few I've browsed. I had more fun with that. What can WooCommerce do? I did a lot more of that level of things when I was with 10up. Stores divided over country, used for multi-language divided up by country, with shared product databases and stuff like that. Those were some fun sites.

Mendel: Some of this is just uncovering the truth that already exists, though, right? I remember doing an import of around 100,000 orders. And it was like grinding every step of the way. Then I realized, oh, it's not the host thing. It's not the platform. It's a database, right? And one index strategically placed on the right field, and all of a sudden, I made everything work. Sometimes it's just thinking through the logic of hundreds of people that have been before you, writing code, getting inside their head, and then trying to rethink it in a new and interesting way.

Chris: And that's exactly the types of questions. I like how you bring up generating 100,000 orders. I spent a week spinning up test sites, generating orders and customers and products and using the plugins, and wondering what the hell? Then trying to go back and retackle it from there. In other words, I don't much care what the data is right now, we're still trying to figure out where the bottlenecks in the platform are.

Mendel: Because to be clear, 100,000 records in MySQL is not a big deal. But some of the things that you're actually doing to those records, in the general course of business are a little unique, or convoluted. There always seems to be a reason for most of that stuff, too. Which is kind of funny as well, because, you know why all this stuff is happening? Let's just cut it out, but you can't always cut it out.

Chris: Going back to what I said a few minutes ago, I would have loved to have seen WordPress itself rethink its database layer before it did the Gooey on top of it. Obviously, that didn't happen. I love some of the workarounds, whether it's order tables and Woo itself has worked on some custom product tables. There's all kinds of neat hacks right now, hacks to work around all these odd little limitations. Why is just about everything has a freaking left join? That's not normal. I mean, sure, excuse me a left join has its usage, but not in almost every query you see in WordPress. There's all kinds of oddities where you start going, oh, here would be a neat spot to add an index. If you rewrite and filter the query a little bit, whatever it might be, there's all kinds of neat little tweaks that you can pull out of it.

Mendel: Right. Yeah.

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Building Out WooCommerce Over Time

Bob: So Chris, you're literally a one-person team. With WPEngine’s continued growth in the WooCommerce space, I imagine there's going to be other ways that this will affect the entire hosting platform, such as maintenance, etc, etc. And you're going to have to put all that stuff in play at some point?

Chris: Oh, very much. Like I said earlier, we have catching up to do. It's no secret in the WordPress space, it's no secret to your listeners, we're going to do that catch up and then we're going to start moving forward. Lots of speculation of where our roadmap will go, but even until I have a full team behind us, I don't know what specialties there are going to be. It's really hard to scale out a roadmap at that level, and just the historic data. What do our customers need? What are the biggest items in Zendesk that are bringing out WooCommerce stores? Nobody's ever really recorded that specific to WooCommerce. So going back and analyzing all that data. In other words, right now my goal is to come up with the questions and then we can start answering.

Mendel: It's interesting to see how WooCommerce seems to be maturing in some of the same ways that WordPress has over the years. As WordPress has matured into a platform with things like auto updates that a lot of platforms don't have and has pretty easy, relatively speaking, extensibility. Now more are looking towards WooCommerce and focusing energy on that and looking at its growth and starting to work through the unique issues with WooCommerce.

The Direction of More Products Filling WooCommerce Needs

I think it's interesting to see the some of the parallels and growth. I don't know if you've given a whole lot of thought to community and where that goes with WooCommerce. Of course, you've got your head in code. But I also know that you've spent some time focused on community and that's something that you care about. So where do you see that going as more and more companies start to bring on either managed products or focused products that help solve unique WooCommerce problems.

Chris: What I've seen so far is there's a lot bigger market for that community as a separate entity, from general WordPress, for example, WordCamps and Wordpress podcasts. I think that the segmentation of that community from the general WordPress community is only going to get bigger. It has a lot more options for the money in it to form the community over time, whether it's our hosts or large sellers on the platform. There's a lot of talk, positive and negative, about the money coming in from various WordPress sites and how that affects WordPress.org’s main core. How does that affect WooCommerce going forward?

I think I've given you guys a whole lot of non-answers. I intentionally delayed this talk with Bob for a little while so I hopefully would be a little further along with what's going on. We're still putting a lot of things together. I'd like to see us as WPEngine becomes more involved with that. We're doing very little, doing a lot fewer WordCamps these days and a lot more enterprise-type conferences and things like that as a percentage of where our event budgets are going. And I was at, but I can't even think of the name of it. There's a big open source conference that was in Raleigh- Durham last year that I was out for. There's other types of conferences, even our summit, which are a lot more enterprise-focused than a lot of what you see with WordCamps and WordPress stuff. So continuing that model, I could see at least from our point of view, a lot more pitch to the enterprise in that type of community rather than the grassroots consumer or developer community.

Mendel: Yeah, I actually think it's a really good thing that you came on Bob's show at this point in your journey because it kind of helps to paint a nice picture of what I think every host has gone through. Or a flavor of what every host has gone through, whether it's managed WordPress or managed WooCommerce or any other type of managed product. The engineering tasks and the product manager tasks are interesting. And they're not simple problems to figure out. I think sometimes people are quick to tell hosts when they've done something wrong and they're less quick to tell the host when they've done something right. Because when it works, it works right and you don't really realize how much went into the development of that product or that experience for the customer to make it work?

I actually think it's cool for people to get the opportunity to hear you say, hey, listen, we don't have all the answers, right? WPEngine is a respected company and does a lot of great things with WordPress and has a lot of WordPress experts. For you to say, hey, we don't know all the answers, but we're going to figure it out. This is my path forward. This is where things start. I think that's an opportunity that most people don't get to take a look at that starting point because what they see is the ending point.

Chris: You can run WooCommerce on a WordPress host we all know. WPEngine succeeded well with WordPress for a long time. Now our push forward will be for many of our larger customers who focus on Woo, as that's really the big deal. And you have to start somewhere. I can't go out quoting numbers from other people, we need to know what our customers are seeing.

I'm going to leave the distinction between Flywheel and WP Engine. But Flywheel tends to look at a much lower price point and they focus on small agencies and freelancers, whereas we focus largely on enterprise. One of our catchphrases is yours, we should be our second CMS, we don't need to be Adobe.com. But if Adobe needs to spin up a new campaign, do it for a third of the cost or whatever it might be, and spin it up on WordPress. With that type of focus, trying to put those answers together and trying to move forward to handle WooCommerce correctly, with that level of client, is a big deal. And we're going to get there. We're moving pretty quickly so far. But it's interesting as those questions need to be answered for our users.

Bob: Exactly. I don't really have any news and announcements as nothing came across my radar lately. Do either one of you have anything? Whether it's personally or professionally, is there something either of you want to share before we head out?

Mendel: I just wanted to mention that my my doors are open for office hours on my website, if you need help with your WordPress site, your WooCommerce site, anything like that, hit me up. Because I dig helping you out. I've talked to some super interesting people from working on migrations to somebody in the early stages of trying to figure out how to create a website for skateboard shops. So if you need something, let me know.

Bob: Cool. Excellent. I would like to thank our sponsors one more time. WooCommerce as our community sponsor, we do appreciate their support. Our most recent sponsor, WooCommerce integration (opens in a new tab)" href="https://myworks.software/integrations/woocommerce-quickbooks-sync/" target="_blank">MyWorks.software, a perfect example of extensibility. It syncs your store’s information with QuickBooks to keep your books on track. And WP Security Audit Log, a great way to to keep on top of changes, edits and other things happening with your team in your store. When somebody let Mendel into your site, and you say, who's this? Who's this user? I'm not quite sure of. So Chris, where can people find you on the web?

Where to Find Chris

Chris: Sure. I'm Chris Wiegman on most major services Twitter, GitHub, whatever. And ChrisWiegman.com.

Bob: Well, thank you very much for taking the time. Enjoy your Wooness at WPEngine. It was our pleasure having you here.

Chris: My pleasure to be here. Thank you, appreciate it