Book Review: Let My People Go Surfing

“Quality is absolutely objective and definable” is the main idea I got from this book. Patagonia founder and owner Yvon Chouinard tells the story of his journey of starting a company, defining its quality and ethical standards, and running it sustainably through the years.

My favorite passage that relates directly to my work at Automattic is about the questions designers at Patagonia ask to see if each product fits their standards—things like functionality, durability, simplicity, authenticity, and timeliness. I loved reading about their central tenet of concurrency versus assembly line production. Every product decision involves the designer and producer at all stages, and they work together until it’s done.

Recommended if you love reading about products and companies, as well as an intimate look at a very popular outdoor clothing and equipment company.

Many of the principles built into Patagonia’s standards can and should apply equally to software and product design. Here are some of my favorite bits from the book.

Without a serious functional demand we can end up with a product that, although it may look great, is difficult to rationalize as being in our line—i.e., “Who needs it?”

This is relevant to building web apps or products—who’s going to use your app? Is it needed in the marketplace? Does it add value? As product builders and managers we should cut out products no one uses. They clutter up our codebase and confuse users away from our core products that help them the most.

The best restaurants in the world have set menus, and the best ski shops have already decided which skis are best for your skill level.

Make the best choice for people. You know how your product works intimately, and you use it yourself. Design for that core use case and you’ll find your software helps other people, too, naturally. This goes well with the WordPress project’s philosophy of decisions, not options.

The best-performing firms make a narrow range of products very well.

I love this since it requires you focus on doing one thing really well—a principle espoused by software greats like Microsoft, Apple, and Google.

Moreover, we carefully define, rather than just assert, what makes each product the best of its kind.

This is important for the why below the what. Explaining your philosophy and why its important—and carefully building your products to match that creed—rather than just saying you do things the right way.

Market trends are less important than strong intuition.

As a craftsperson, go with your instincts born from experience and intuition and pay less attention to what everyone else is doing. Don’t just copy your competition. If you follow your own way, you’ll innovate and they’ll soon be copying you.

Photo credit: Tom Walker, Flickr.


This is my book review of Let My People Go Surfing, The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard—founder and owner of Patagonia clothing and equipment company, based in Ventura, California, USA.

See more of my book reviews and check out my Goodreads profile.

A Journey of Theme Craftsmanship

My name is Lance, and I love themes.

What was my standard opening line for many years when starting a WordCamp talk is still true today. “My name is Lance, and I still love themes.”

I’d like to tell you the story of my journey of theme craftsmanship—the ups, the downs, the unexpected results—and how I’ve now become an apprentice again in a new field.

It’s been a journey of adventure and learning where my skills have expanded beyond anything I’d expected—not just the technical path from web designer and developer to “front-end expert” and WordPress themer—but also writing, speaking, and leading. And more.

It’s September 2015 and I’m now back in an apprenticeship role. Working hard on finding my craft: tools, skills, patterns, workflow, and process. Discovering myself, my passion, my community, and opportunities to learn.

Continue reading A Journey of Theme Craftsmanship

Shop Class as Soulcraft

Shop Class as Soulcraft is a thought-provoking essay about the future of manual labor, work, and craftsmanship by Matthew B. Crawford in New Atlantis.

The craftsman’s habitual deference is not toward the New, but toward the distinction between the Right Way and the Wrong Way. However narrow in its application, this is a rare appearance in contemporary life…

While I heartily agree with this sentiment, in this piece Crawford seems to lump everything computer related into “information systems” as a departure from manual craftsmanship, and ignores a bit the manual craft of making software. It can be very much a manual job in the sense that you type the code into an editor and make it run. And isn’t just plug-and-play necessarily. Though some systems (cough, .NET) do encourage GUI-based software development. A true hand-coder I think is just as much a craftsperson as someone building a wooden table.

But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.

My version of this is: “Does the website work?” It needs to work, especially on my phone, and load fast everywhere. My kind of heuristic.

The essay points out the permanence of certain goods: it is easier to achieve a long-lasting product with hand-made goods, probably, such as furniture or motorcycles or cars. A website is obsolete almost the moment you launch it. It probably won’t outlive you. A well-made table could live hundreds of years.

The concluding words are a great takeaway:

So what advice should one give to a young person? By all means, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into liberal arts and sciences. In the summers, learn a manual trade. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems. To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.

Via Yegor M.

Speaking at ThemeConf

Update: see my slides and notes here, and a full text write-up here.

I’m thrilled to announce my part in ThemeConf, an exciting new conference “for developers and designers who make themes,” organized by Automattic and set in the beautiful landscape of the Lake District (Keswick, UK on September 2–4, 2015).

Recognizing the fact that I don’t make WordPress themes any more, I’m honored to attend, speak, and share a bit of a retrospective on my career in web design and development, including a few stories about how my career in WordPress themes kicked off in 2010.

On a sunny summer day in Winnipeg I sit in The Forks dining area eating delicious fish and chips, the proper way, straight from the newspaper cone. I’m here for the first ever meeting of the Automattic Theme Team.

I’ll talk about my journey of theme craftsmanship—the ups, the downs, the unexpected results. From meeting Ian Stewart for the first time on that hot and humid August day in Manitoba, to my first theme launch on, getting a premium theme marketplace off the ground, shepherding default themes for, to building a team of 30 people strong.

A journey of adventure and learning where my skills have expanded beyond what I’d expected—not just the technical path from web designer and developer to “front-end expert” and WordPress themer—but also writing, speaking, and leading.

I’ll share how in 2015 I’ve now become an apprentice again, in the field of software quality and testing. Working hard at finding tools, skills, patterns, workflow, and process in my new craft. Discovering myself, my passion, my community, and opportunities to learn.

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A special discount for my readers: use code lancetheme for 25% off the ThemeConf registration cost—which at only £49 for the conference and £99 with the workshop is quite a bargain!