Yo! Podcast #007 – Gilbert Pellegrom – Software Engineer, Nivo Slider Founder

Published by @RobHope in on September 12, 2019

Gilbert Pellegrom (@gilbitron) is a Scottish software engineer with an impressive resume working with the likes of WooCommerce, ThemeZilla, Dunked and now Delicious Brains. He is also a side-project heavyweight and was the man behind the popular Nivo Slider jQuery plugin used by thousands including Dell, AOL and eBay. Gilbert and I chat about nightmare NDA situations, the state of online privacy, Biffy Clyro and if all side-projects should be monetized.

The conversation topics, episode links and text transcription are found below – hope you enjoy the interview!

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Conversation Topics:

  • 00:58 – Interview starts
  • 02:16 – Current work at Delicious Brains
  • 04:10 – Intermission: True, False, Maybe
  • 05:05 – Nivo Slider
  • 08:18 – Should all side-projects be monetized?
  • 09:08 – Adam Wathan Cameo
  • 09:18 – Nivo Slider peak sales, decline, sale
  • 11:04 – Nightmare selling WP-Updates
  • 12:42 – Intermission: No Context
  • 13:25 – Biffy Clyro vs Foo Fighters
  • 14:30 – Online tracking and privacy
  • 16:04 – Laravel Vapor
  • 17:48 – Why do you build side-projects?
  • 18:55 – Intermission: Donate a coffee
  • 19:12 – Staying on top of dev skills and trends
  • 20:13 – Hardware and software
  • 21:51 – Should developers learn to design?
  • 24:15 – How do you stay motivated working remote?
  • 25:45 – Outro


Transcription:

Audio-to-text transcription by Speechpad <3

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Rob: Yo, Gilbert, my man. Welcome to the show!

Gilbert: Yeah, thanks for having me, Rob. It's honestly a proper honor to be on the show given all your previous guests. I feel like people are going to be like, who's this weird Scotsman that Rob's kind of picked up out in the middle of nowhere? So yeah, it's nice to be here. Yeah.

Rob: Honestly, stoked to have you on. So just quickly before we start, in my research, I googled famous Scottish bands, and result number three was the Red Hot Chili Pipers.

Gilbert: Yeah.

Rob: Is everything going okay over there, dude?

Gilbert: Yeah, it's great. My sister-in-law actually went to see them just last week. Like, they're great. They just do covers of big tunes, and it's just a pipe band, basically, and...

Rob: And they've huge support over there?

Gilbert: Yeah, it's a big deal. Like, they sell out gigs all around the country and stuff. Yeah, it's good fun.

Rob: Epic man. So yeah, damn, it was great to meet you finally, and hang out in Berlin. For some background, Gilbert and I both attended WordCamp Europe, and yo, it was a good time, dude. And I'm actually kind of glad we didn't record over there. The schedule was packed.

Gilbert: Yeah, it was busy. And it was a great conference, but yeah, it was great to meet up with you, and finally speak to you in real life. Yeah, it was great.

Rob: Awesome. And I think I put on about five kilograms from all those pilsners and sausages. I was actually kind of relieved to get out of there, to be honest.

Gilbert: Yeah, beer and sausages. It was great to be in Berlin, got to admit. Yeah.

Rob: Yeah, good times. So, you're over there with the Delicious Brains team. You want to tell the Yo! listeners what are you are currently up to with them?

Gilbert: Yeah. So, I've been working with Delicious Brains for four or five years now, and I'm currently building SpinupWP, which is a WordPress hosting control panel. But it's a wee bit different in the sense that it's a completely hosted control panel. So you don't install it on your own servers, it's hosted by us, and you just use it to spin up servers that are tuned for WordPress, basically. It's a wee bit like if you've ever used Laravel Forge, it's the same idea but for WordPress, pretty much. So yeah, so that's what I'm doing with them full time at the moment, and loving it. Yeah, it's great.

Rob: Awesome. And then are you basically working remotely from Scotland, and you're a soft-engineer for them?

Gilbert: That's right, yeah. I've been working remotely for probably eight, nine years now. I worked for a few years, before Delicious Brains, I worked for a few years for Orman Clark, who runs Dunked.

Rob: ThemeZilla...

Gilbert: Yeah, ThemeZilla. Yeah, so I did ThemeZilla themes, and then we built Dunked. And yeah, so I've been doing remote from Scotland from home for, a good eight, nine years now. So...

Rob: What exactly is a software engineer in 2019?

Gilbert: Yeah, software engineer is...that's a good question. I think, like...I studied software engineering at university, so that's what my degree is. So I kind of like to use that title because I earned it. But really, it's just whatever you want it to be. I mean, I do web development pretty much solely now, and I've been doing that for years. Like, I think even at uni, I very quickly realized that web technology, web software was what I wanted to do. So you could call me a web developer, that's really what I do. You could call me a front-end developer, a back-end developer, a full stack developer...

Rob: Full-stack...

Gilbert: Full-stack. Basically, I just love to build things in the web. That's the way I see it.

Rob: Before we take a trip down your work history, let's break into a quick intermission I like to call "True, false, or maybe." Simply reply with either of those three words, no explanation needed.

Gilbert: Okay. Yeah.

Rob: All developers should be working on side projects.

Gilbert: True.

Rob: The majority of people with businesses online are paying too much for hosting.

Gilbert: Mmm...maybe.

Rob: Laravel is the most exciting thing to happen in web development in the past five years.

Gilbert: True.

Rob: Okay, let's turn it up a notch. Sean Connery's birthday is a national holiday.

Gilbert: False. Definitely.

Rob: The national animal of Scotland is the unicorn.

Gilbert: Yeah, it's true.

Rob: WordPress has peaked.

Gilbert: False.

Rob: Scotland has the highest proportion of redheads in the world.

Gilbert: Ah, it must be true.

Rob: Second to last question, they sell haggis burgers at McDonald's in Scotland.

Gilbert: Sadly, that's false. Although it does sound awesome.

Rob: And the last question, the Nivo Slider jQuery plugin you built was used by Dell, AOL, and eBay.

Gilbert: True.

Rob: How did you find out that your slider was being used by all these companies? Was it via the purchase emails, or just stumbled upon them in action?

Gilbert: Yeah, some of it was through purchase emails, some of it was through sites like BuiltWith that kind list, high-end sites that used certain software. So yeah, that's how I discovered who'd been using it. But to be honest, I didn't realize it at the time. This was years later, or a couple of years after it had launched, that I'd realized just who had been using it, and what sites. But, it was just crazy.

Rob: Amazing. So I mean, just like for context for the listeners who don't know, what exactly did Nivo Slider, accomplish?

Gilbert: Yeah, so the Nivo Slider was a jQuery image slider, and that's literally all it was. And I built it over a weekend when I was at uni, and it was just an image slider. That's all it was. You saw them all over the web six, seven years ago, whenever it was. I just built it and launched it, and didn't think much of it. And somebody posted it to Reddit, I think it was the day after I launched it. It then went on Hacker News, and I think that first...the first day after the weekend I built it, it had 80,000 hits.

Rob: Wow.

Gilbert: And then yeah, from then, it just took off from then on. It just gained momentum, and was really popular, and...

Rob: And why do you think it actually took off?

Gilbert: I think the key to it was that it was simple to use. So there was other image sliders at the time that had just kind of launched, but they were really fiddly to set up, and they were quite complex, they didn't really work really well. So I just took the idea and made it into a really simple, easy to understand and easy to use package. And I think that was really why it became so popular so quickly. I think the other thing is is that unintentionally, I sold it quite well. Like, I used good images in the demo, and it looked pretty good, and...

Rob: You used the artwork from the "Up" movie...

Gilbert: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was like Pixar images that I'd used. It was probably copyright, but... You know, it just looked good on the website. And I think the combination of looking good and being easy to use, I think that's really what sold it originally. Even though all of that was totally unintentional.

Rob: So, simpler and better, and just presented well...

Gilbert: Yeah, I think so. That was the key.

Rob: You mention in other interviews, all this action was happening with the jQuery plugin, but it wasn't monetized. And then as soon as you actually went down that thought process of how can I make the most of this, it immediately came to mind that you should make a WordPress plugin. Do you think you should be monetizing from the beginning? Or do you need to validate your free product first?

Gilbert: Yeah, good question. So I think, these days, validation's probably more important than it used to be. When I created the Nivo Slider, and certainly when I created the WordPress plugin, WordPress was a different ecosystem. It wasn't crowded, it was far easier to get into the game and pick up steam. And it's a tough one, but I do think validation these days is probably more important. Because without some kind of audience to begin with, you're probably not going to get the initial momentum that you need, whereas in those days, I think... Because Nivo Slider, that was 2010, it's nine years ago now. Like, in those days, I think you could launch stuff and just throw it out there, and enough people would probably come and look at it. So...

Rob: And do you believe that not all side projects or, just say JavaScript frameworks, should be monetized?

Gilbert: That's a good question. It's that whole should...you know, how does open source become maintainable financially for people? You know, how do people support themselves? Like, when I created the Nivo Slider, it was purely just as an experiment, it wasn't...I never dreamed of making money from it. I created the WordPress plugin a year later, and realized that it was going to be something that made quite a bit of money. But that was totally accidental. But I'm not sure that that's always the way it should go. Like, I think...I don't think there's anything wrong with building something, and just building it because it's useful and helpful to people, and letting people just use it for free. You know, like almost everything I open source is MIT licensed? It's just so people can do what they want with it?

Rob: Incredible. So, you sold the plugin in 2016 to Ionut from ThemeIsle?

Gilbert: Yeah, that's right. Yeah.

Rob: But you retained the name Dev7studios. I want to know why you sold it if it was making money for yourself?

Gilbert: So yeah, it's one of these things where, it'd been making good money for a couple of years. Like the first couple of years, it probably made the best part of $100,000. And then it kind of started to tail off, and it was that kind of, the long, slow decline... You know, image sliders, in general, weren't as popular anymore. And yeah, things just kind of tailed down, and it was probably running about a tenth of what it was, when it was at its peak. So yeah, at that point, there was a lot of support, it was quite a big maintenance burden. I had a full-time job still...because I never worked on it full-time...or even part-time, it was always a side project. So...

Rob: Wow.

Gilbert: Yeah, I had a lot of other stuff going on. And I think in the end, I just kind of got fed up with all the maintenance and support and decided it would be great just to clear my plate and fresh start, I guess.

Rob: I mean, fair play. So, you sold the actual assets of Dev7studios, and you just retained the name. You know, what lessons did you learn from the sale that you would probably redo? Was there anything you would, change in hindsight?

Gilbert: I think in hindsight, I wouldn't have sold it.

Rob: Oh, fair.

Gilbert: Yeah, I think in hindsight, I wouldn't have sold it. Like, I think looking back now, I think it would have been...I would love to have another go at making something that's that big and popular, and really making something of it. You know, building a company out of it, and putting a lot more into it.

Rob: Yeah.

Gilbert: I think in terms of the actual sale itself, it was okay. It was fine. You know, Ionut was great, and we got kind of a fair sale price in the end, and that was great. I think one of the things that I learned from a previous asset sale that I'd made with an app called WP-Updates...

Rob: I was a subscriber, yeah.

Gilbert: Yeah. So, selling that was a nightmare because basically, they wanted... It was a brokerage that I used, and they wanted me to sign an NDA. And so I basically sold it and didn't tell anyone. Or certainly didn't tell my customers that I'd sold it. And the week after the company bought it and took it over, the site crashed and went down. And of course, it was one of those nightmare scenarios where I couldn't contact the company, so they couldn't fix it. I had no control over it anymore, so I couldn't fix it. But all the customers thought it was still owned by me, so...

Rob: Wow, that's a unique nightmare.

Gilbert: Yeah, they were going mental at me because it was their updates. Like, it was their livelihoods, if they had premium plugins and stuff. So yeah, it was a proper nightmare, that. And then eventually, I think the site did come back up again after a couple of weeks. But the new owners obviously didn't care about it all that much, and yeah, that was a nightmare. So the lesson I learned there was never sign an NDA when you sell a product, and definitely tell your customers about it and be upfront about it.

Rob: And do you feel that you should actually sort of know the vision of the new owners?

Gilbert: Yeah, I think that's the other thing. I didn't vet the new owners nearly enough at that stage. Like, I just was keen to sell it and move on. So I think, yeah, in the future, I would always make sure that whoever was buying the product, whoever owned it had some at least interest in keeping it going, if not, building on it. And I think that was true with...you know, when I sold the Nivo Slider to ThemeIsle. You know I knew that they would take care of it, I knew their customers used the Nivo Slider a lot. That's why they wanted to buy it, mainly, so you know, I knew it would be in good hands.

Rob: Awesome. So, I want to break into a second intermission I like to call "No context." So, just reply with either of the two options I give you, no context needed at all.

Gilbert: Yeah, go for it.

Rob: Whiskey, with a Y or an E-Y?

Gilbert: With a Y.

Rob: Mel Gibson in "Braveheart," or Daniel Day-Lewis in "Last of the Mohicans?"

Gilbert: Aww...Mel Gibson in "Braveheart."

Rob: BMW or Mercedes Benz?

Gilbert: Ohh...BMW. That's a tough one.

Rob: Windows or Mac?

Gilbert: Mac all the way.

Rob: Alexander Graham Bell, or Alexander Fleming?

Gilbert: Ohh...Alexander Graham Bell.

Rob: Open source software, or recurring revenue?

Gilbert: I'm going to go with open-source software.

Rob: Attending the final Biffy Clyro show ever, or the final Foo Fighters show ever?

Gilbert: Aww, don't do that, man. Ehh...I'd have to say the Foos. It's got to be the Foos.

Rob: So I mean, I've seen both, but I've just got one memory of Biffy Clyro when they came to South Africa. And I think the bloke was named Simon, he had his shirt off...

Gilbert: Yeah.

Rob: ...he has tattoos, and it was like the tattoos were just strumming that guitar. And I think they were, like...and they were playing "Stingin' Belle." Thinking of that moment...like, wow, dude. This is one of the most rocking bands I've ever seen in my life. Have you seen them?

Gilbert: Yeah, I saw them live just after their second album was launched, I think. And I'm very much early Biffy Clyro fan, like before they were mainstream. But yeah, they just...

Rob: What, like before were like before "Puzzle?"

Gilbert: Yeah, before "Puzzle." Like, their first two albums are my favorite albums by far. And yeah, they just...like, they just rock. And they were from Glasgow, they were from Scotland? And they were just Scottish boys. And seeing them live was amazing, and...yeah, just a great band.

Rob: Anyway, so when researching your music tastes and stuff, I was inspecting your LastFM account, and you know, it's heavily tracked. And I want to know how you feel about the current state of, statistics and tracking. Should we track all the things, or should we keep ourselves anonymous online?

Gilbert: Yeah, I probably have an unpopular opinion on this, which is there's value in tracking. Like, my view... Like, stealing data is wrong, obviously. But if companies need my data to make my life better, then I'm actually okay with that. You know, like targeted ads is one thing, but you know, I think like Google, if they can put things from my email into my calendar, or if I've got an event in my calendar, they can show it in Google Maps and stuff, and...you know, and obviously, there's a lot of tracking needs done to be able to do that. But I think that's great because it enhances my life. Like, I'm not bothered by that. And that, I'm actually, like...I don't know, I'm a bit of a fan of just tracking all the things, anyway. Like, I've got a Gyroscope account. I don't know if you've seen or heard of that app? It connects to all these other services that track your data, and it's basically just a life tracking app, basically. And you know, it gives you a health score, it tracks your, your sleep, your weight...

Rob: Yeah, why not just use tech to improve our lives?

Gilbert: Yeah, exactly. And I think, yeah, I understand why people are against tracking, in general, and big companies snooping on us and all the rest. But I don't know, maybe again, it's a simplistic view of mine. But I'm like, if the worst that they're doing that for is to show me targeted ads, then fair enough? That's all right. I don't care that much.

Rob: You've got a side project going on, I think you call it Surveyr, and it's a cron schedule monitoring for Laravel.

Gilbert: Yeah.

Rob: I've got a question here from Gavin from Australia, "What are your thoughts on Laravel Vapor? And did you get into the beta?"

Gilbert: So, I haven't got into the beta. I do like the look of Vapor, though. I think serverless, although it's not perfect yet, probably is the future in many ways. Certainly for big apps. I think the one qualification I would put there is that, serverless, at the moment anyway, probably involves too much complexity for most apps, kind of small to medium apps. Like in most cases running your app in a single server is probably more than capable. If there's something we've learned from SpinupWP, it's that, with page caching enabled, it's amazing how much, traffic a small server can handle. Like, it's really...it would blow your mind. So I think in most cases, it's probably overkill. But I think for big apps, and for complex apps, or for really high-performance apps, serverless probably is the future. And Vapor looks awesome. Just that way... Like, we've spoken, I've spoken with colleagues in the past about how AWS, it's kind of a nightmare to use. The control panel, it's complex, and you know, it's just not designed for good user experience. But if somebody built a kind of good kind of wrapper to it, basically, that just had a nice UI that let you deploy your apps, and yeah, was just really nice to use, that it would be a great moneymaker. And I feel like Vapor's a wee bit like that for AWS Lambda, certainly, just making it really easy to set up and deploy your apps, and do all those bits and pieces. It does look awesome, I've got to admit.

Rob: Beautiful. So, I want to step into the mindset of side projects. You know, you've got lots on. Why did you greenlight this project? You know, was it to solve a need, or to dabble in Laravel?

Gilbert: Yeah, I think it was to solve a need. Most of my side projects tend to be...well, in the main, they tend to be kind of "dog food" projects, where I need something to do something, so I build something. Like Surveyr came about because with SpinupWP, which is a Laravel app, we used separate services for chron monitoring, and none of them really kind of worked the way I wanted them to, and none of them had specific, kind of Laravel-specific integration. So you know, I decided that I'd just build one for Laravel. That was kind of the motivation behind it. So...

Rob: And same with WP-Updates, you probably needed to manage your WordPress updates for your...

Gilbert: Yeah, it was exactly the same thing. I built Sellwire back in the day, which was like a kind of hosted sales platform. And I built that because I needed something...or I wanted something to sell my plugins with because that was before...you know, [inaudible 00:17:44] that was before, all these kind of big, hosted platforms existed. And WP-Updates was the same. Yeah, we needed to serve updates for premium WordPress plugins, and there was nothing that really did it easily, at the time. So...

Rob: Hey, friends, it's Rob from the edit. I'm trying to keep the podcast advertising-free, but have put up a coffee donation page. Head over to robhope.com/coffee if you're digging the Yo! podcast, but no pressure if things are tight.

Rob: Awesome. So, how are you staying on top of your skills, and you know, and trends and so on with developments? Are you listening to podcasts, anything noteworthy, any blogs you're reading?

Gilbert: Yeah, I tend to use some...I'm quite a heavy Twitter user, so I kind of use that to kind of keep up to scratch with...

Rob: Yeah, same.

Gilbert: ...what's going on in the web development world. And there's loads of great resources these days. I would love to be more of a podcast listener, but I just struggle to find the time, actually, to do that. I think working from home makes that a bit harder because, I don't have a commute, I don't have time when I'm not working, where it's easy to just put something on.

Rob: I'm exactly the same.

Gilbert: Yeah, it's not easy if you don't have kind of...PDs during your day, but there's nothing else to do, so... So I tend to use, yeah, just blogs, Twitter, video courses. And yeah, like Laracasts is a great resource that I use quite often, just to keep up to date with, like what's going on in, specifically, the PHP world, and Laravel world...and Wes Bos is another, he's another great guy that does great courses, so...

Rob: What's your setup right now? You're running a Mac, have you optimized your workflow? Are you stoked how productive you are, or are you forever refining?

Gilbert: No, I think it's forever refining, isn't it? Like, my apps change regularly. I change my email client probably once a year. I literally have just gone through the process of changing my main core data, or like...I was using Visual Studio Code for a while when it came out, and it was great. But I found the PHP support wasn't great, so I went and tried Atom again, went back to Sublime for a while, and eventually settled back using PhpStorm, which is...it's still the best IDE for PHP that I've used. It's slow, like it's laggy because it's Java-based, but that is still the best, and has great features. So yeah, I settled on that. And even browsers I've been using Chrome for a long time, but I just recently tried switching to Brave.

Rob: Really?

Gilbert: Yeah. It uses Chromium under the hood... And it's never a set process, I always find the productivity is...it's an ongoing battle of trying to find the best things to fit what you're trying to do.

Rob: And you're always signing up for offers and beaters just to see what's up. Is that your mindset with things? Like, we need to support these developers, we need to give them feedback...

Gilbert: Yeah, I tend to...I'm certainly, on the scale of things, I'm certainly, towards the beta end of things, and helping people out when they're trying to get going, and trying things out for them. I try to stay away from bigger bits of software. Like, I tried the Mac beta once, and it was a mess. So, I try to wait 'til the, the main releases are out. Yeah.

Rob: Second to last question, should developers learn to design?

Gilbert: So, I think that developers should learn the fundamentals of design. I think there's value knowing a certain amount. Because when you build something, inevitably, somebody's going to have to use it, right? And if you build something, but it's a total disaster in terms of user experience, then people are not going to want to use it, right? So I think it's good to at least understand, the kind of fundamentals of maybe not just design, but user experience? Like making something pleasant to use, easy to use, minimizing complexity. Or certainly, increasing clarity? I think these things are important. I wouldn't say that developers need to become full-blown designers, but I think there is value in getting that kind of base-level knowledge. And I think, what Adam Wathan and Steve Schoger have done recently [with Refactoring UI] has been great, just teaching developers just that, the fundamentals of design, and giving hints and tips on how to do...how to approach certain problems. They've been great at that. Learned a lot from them.

Rob: Their success has been, obvious justification, the need for that.

Gilbert: Yeah, I think it's that thing, again, of wrapping something in a way that's easy to understand, it's accessible, it's simple. Like, I remember going through one of the courses, and Steve Schoger was talking about color, and you know, how to use HSL instead of RGB colors to, change the hue in certain things, and how that was just a great technique of using different colors without having a crazy palette. And it's just little things like that, that make all the difference, I think. Definitely.

Rob: Thinking back to the Nivo Slider demo you did with those great images, think how many other projects out there are using blurry pixeled images...and that's just a basic example. It doesn't embody the whole of design, itself. But that makes a massive difference in your demos.

Gilbert: Oh, yeah, totally. Like, and you see the same with WordPress themes with...you know, when they have demos, live demos and stuff. Like, it's so important to get those bits right, to get something that looks aesthetically pleasing, that actually sells your product, even if it is just a demo image or something. And resources like Unsplash have been great in recent years, for making that process much easier. You know, finding good images to use, and demos that are royalty-free and stuff, like...

Rob: Last question, okay? For someone who lives in Scotland, you probably spend a considerable time indoors and online. You know, what motivation tips can you give to others in remote locations who are hampered, maybe, by daylight hours? I know my bro lives in Norway now, and they go through seasons, go to work in the dark, come back in the dark. How do you stay motivated being inside?

Gilbert: Yeah, it's a good question, actually. I think, like...you know, I think being disciplined is a massive part of remote work? Like, having a separate space for work, and setting aside proper time during the day to work is good to help with motivation, keep you centered, and stop you from drifting. But I think just making the most of what's around you is a big thing as well. And especially here in Scotland I like to think I live in a beautiful part of the world, and...

Rob: You really do.

Gilbert: We do. It's amazing. And, we've got a forest out our back door, we've got a beach that's six miles from us, we've got a mountain range about 60 miles from us. So it's like, yeah, go out and make the most of it? If you're not at work, then don't spend the rest of your time inside? And yeah, in Scotland, we have that winter season where, it gets dark at 3:00 pm, and it's not light 'til about 10:00 am the next morning. But I think the other thing with that, though, is you just, you kind of acclimatize to that. You get used to it. But definitely, getting out when you can makes all the difference.

Rob: And like, really thrash it out when it is sunny.

Gilbert: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Rob: Awesome. Gilbert, yeah, thanks so much for coming on the show, man. Great to chat to you.

Gilbert: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.


Hope you enjoyed the Yo! Podcast interview!

Much love,
Rob

Twitter: @robhope
Instagram: @rob_hope
Email: rob@onepagelove.com