The Community Got Me To Where I am Today

Once upon a time, I was called a hobbit at a conference and it served as my introduction to the greater PHP community.

Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of ups, downs, short jokes, open source contributions, conference talks and more. However, let’s go back to the beginning and see how the community helped me get to where I am today. I will skip briefly to the ending, not so much a TL;DR but more of a “wow” factor. It’s to hopefully drive the point of my story home quickly. The point is this: if I ever get married the attendance list will look like a who’s who of the PHP community.

I started programming at the age of 26. Before that, I was a bartender as well as a guitar instructor. A lot of people don’t know I have a genetic condition which requires me to take steroids daily to stay alive, it’s great /s. Neither of my two jobs gave me health insurance (America!) so I looked for an avenue to get insurance and out of bartending. I read a post on Reddit from a programmer about being able to work from home, make good money and I didn’t need a college degree. I tried college a few times and neither time it worked out for me. A google search led me to Codecademy which in turn pointed me to Treehouse. I did the HTML, CSS and JS tracks (tracks back then weren’t what they are today). Immediately following the JS track, the very next video started down PHP so we could build a cart. PHP was something I had never heard of before this video. My mother at one point thought it was PCP, a hallucinogenic. I quickly learned the power of the include, require, dynamic date values and thought I was cool. Who knew the cool shit I would learn next.

It wasn’t until I was accepted into an internship program that I saw the power of the PHP community. The office we were at was about 45 minutes north of Atlanta but we trekked down on a cold night for AtlantaPHP. It was there I met Chris Spruck, the start of one awesome friendship which continues to this day. As I kept returning to AtlantaPHP, I kept meeting more people. I had the honor of meeting Ben Ramsey (who I thought was Ben Edmunds… a story for that wedding I suppose), Phil Sturgeon (who to this day we talk APIs and bicycles), Davey Shafik (a great advocate for diversity and mental health), Cal Evans (who hasn’t he had a hand in guiding?), and more. These people would be instrumental one way or another. Through this small community, I tapped into the larger community with Twitter. I followed everyone I could even if I had no business following them. I was in awe, it was like a kid in the candy shop. Brilliant people talking about concepts I’d never heard before. Things like HATEOAS, DI, CI, CD, HTTP, and 123s! Through this community, I got my first real job offer and led me to the next set of brilliant people, the Germans: Arne Blankets, Stefan Priebsch, and Sebastian Bergmann. It was through these guys I learned the power of PHP, the brilliance of OOP and I learned how to write a unit test.

At this point, you must be wondering where the hobbit thing comes to play so here it is. With this big kid job, I got a big kid conference ticket to Sunshine PHP. My first conference and I was unashamedly star struck. Through Twitter and IRC, I had a loose idea of some people I’d see there from Cal to Joe Ferguson to Phil and a few others. But one person I met who would ultimately change my life in more than one way was Jacques Woodcock. After a weekend with him at Sunshine, and through Twitter; he saw something in me and offered me a job to work with him and Elizabeth Smith, who is brilliant and I am not overstating that. While that only lasted 4 months, it opened more doors for me to speak at Nashville PHP (my future home), as well as Upstate PHP, Nomad PHP Lightning Talks, and more. But before most of that happened, I was called a hobbit in less than fun terms by Samantha Quinones. It shocked me and kind of popped my excitement. At the urging or some, a blog post later appeared detailing what was an incredible conference experience minus this one thing. Within an hour tweets and emails came in from people I didn’t even know offering support. People went out of their way to make me feel welcome. Samantha herself immediately reached out and apologized. Samantha and I even joke about it today, along with the majority of the community. But it was that incident that really showed me the PHP community cares.

In my short time in the community, we’ve had plenty of GoFundMe’s for elephpants and developers who need some help in between jobs or when tragedy strikes. When one of us loses a job we are quick to tweet out recommendations and words of support so that they are never without work for long. We respond to calls to action like when two conference organizers bit off more than they could chew and Cal put up the signal and helped them raise the money they needed. One of those organizers was me, by the way. This community has taken me across the country for conferences and helped me build meaningful relationships with people I would have never had met if I wasn’t writing code. This community was there when I moved to Nashville and I was immediately welcomed at NashvillePHP. However, one of the best memories I have of the PHP community being incredible isn’t at a PHP conference, but it was going up to NYC for 24 hours to see Ben Edmunds and his fiancé for their wedding party. What started as a day of drinking and bantering almost turned into Phil Sturgeon and I getting into a fight with a hot dog cart vendor and finished with me sleeping on Ben’s couch. These are the friendships I could never replace and the memories I wouldn’t be able to create without this community. It’s because of these friendships and connections I was able to coordinate getting David Stanley and Ben Edmunds to Nashville for my birthday and putting on a panel discussion for our user group that included Nicolas Grekas, Fabien Potencier, Ryan Weaver (as shoeless as you’d expect), Jacques Woodcock, Rachel Weaver and more.

I can’t possibly list all the friendships, acts of kindness and more that have happened during my short (hehe) time in the PHP Community, but I can tell you this: I am forever grateful and indebted to the people in this community who took a chance on me and forever grateful for the amazing friendships I have today. These people are the ones who see my tweets about anxiety or depression and reach out, celebrate successes together and make life better. The ones who will offer me help when I need it, and ask for my help even though I never know what I’m actually supposed to do.

As I look back at where I today, working on a team of people way more brilliant than I am (people like Jonathan H. Wage, Pablo Godel, Dan Revel, Jonathon Suggs, Cody Covey and so many more. I definitely married up in this case). I wouldn’t be on this team if it wasn’t for the community and the doors people opened for me. And because of people opening those doors, it’s my turn and my mission to open as many doors as I can for newer developers.

This community is so much more than framework flamewars (Laravel vs Symfony anyone? We all know the real answer is Kohana), debating if braces belong on the next line or not (they do), whether you should use Vim vs eMacs (PHPStorm, duh), or what conference is the best (Southeast PHP was pretty baller). Its identity for people, it’s a community that may or may not exist IRL for some but it absolutely exists online. Whether you know it or not, being a part of the community helps people far and way in ways. Some people live in remote areas where they may be the only programmer and our online community gives them belonging. People who were lost may have found happiness and solace in our community. It’s a resource for others to get that jump start in life they need. It’s friendship at the most basic level.

Attend your local user group and introduce yourself to someone new, just like someone did when you were new. If you don’t have a user group, roll up those sleeves and get one started. All you need is one more person. If you can’t for time reasons, or life is in the way, join NomadPHP, it’s a wonderful resource. Join us on Twitter and use the hashtag #phpc, introduce yourself and be prepared for something awesome.

We can’t wait to meet you.

Reflections on 12 Years in the PHP Community

I’m going to take some time to reflect on my introduction to the PHP community and how that’s affected my life.

I started programming and shipped my first web site when I was around 11 years old. I started with QBasic, then HTML, eventually making my way to Perl. I was homeschooled, so was able to begin working at 15 years old at a local computer repair / networking company near my hometown in Alabama. I started down the path of working in IT for awhile, with various small programming projects on the side. My first corporate job was at a robotic automotive manufacturing plant, I was hired to do IT support there but eventually saw the need for reporting and data visualization of the production processes. This evolved into my first job as a software developer and was also the first time I wrote a line of PHP code. Back in the PHP 4 days.

Another robotics engineer at the company hosted an NFL site/forum that was written in PHP so he introduced me to it there. We eventually built an app for reporting the plant’s various data using PHP, MySQL, Python, VB, C#, and lots and lots of duct tape. Thinking back on that app, it was some of the worst code I’ve ever written; SQL queries directly in views, no idea about APIs, security issues at every turn, but it solved a huge business need and was one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on since it combined the digital and physical worlds in a very tangible way.

What really stuck with me most from this experience was the accesibility and flexibilty of PHP. I gained experience with many different languages, learned much better design patterns and best practices, but the experience of being able to create something so useful, so easily, with PHP really left an impression on me and it became my language of choice for web development.

I became involved with CodeIgniter a few years later. I ended up moving to Jacksonville, Florida for a web development job that was mostly in PHP and Javascript. Which was a pretty transformative experience for this Alabama boy. Moving to a new city sparked my love for travel and it led to my entry to the PHP community.

It was there that I started using CodeIgniter for several of our projects, which lead to getting involved on the CodeIgniter forums, #phpc, meetups, and eventually open source development. I still remember one of the first meetups I went to, Cal Evans was in Jacksonville promoting his employer at the time, Adobe, and trying to convince us all to start developing in Flex. I wonder how many people’s first exposure to the PHP community was from Cal Evans. That’s a damn scary thought…

I spoke at my first conference a few years later. Which was directly tied to my open source development and the friends I made there. I met Phil Sturgeon on the CodeIgniter forums, we started collaborating on open source software together, and built a friendship. Phil was organizing a conference in New York City and invited me to come speak. It’s really amazing how something as small as a forum post can evolve in to speaking at a conference and a long term friendship. Actually now that I think about it, I met two of my co-founders on that same forum and it turned in to us building multiple companies together over the years.

This community is one of the most inviting development communities I’ve ever been a part of and it has greatly improved my life. It started with a horribly written piece of duct tape software, a move, a forum, and then a meetup. Here I am now, 12 years in to using PHP, and it has given me the opportunity to do so many things. I’ve moved around the United States. I’ve met some of my best friends at conferences, on forums, and via open source projects. I’ve had the chance to speak at conferences around the world. I’ve met some of the smartest and kindest people I know. Been exposed to so many cultures and ideas. Worked on some really awesome projects with amazing people. Everyday I’m thankful for the opportunities presented and how much the community we’ve all built is a part of that.

In closing I want to implore you to do what you can to strengthen the community and add a bit of yourself to it. That might take the form of going out of your way to answer the newbie questions on forums, IRC, or slacks. It might take the form of giving talks at meetups and conference. Or it could be something as simple as going out of your way to show someone something new that helps them level up just a bit.

I hope that in another 12 years I’ve helped a few other people have the same great experience with you all as I have. This is our community, let’s appreciate it and contribute to it’s growth. As the year wraps up, use it as a good excuse to reflect back on your experience as well. I hope you had a great year.