Episode 41: Mark Wahl


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Hallway Chats: Episode - 41 Mark Wahl

Introducing Mark Wahl

Mark helps build teams and manage processes to create digital products and services, often using WordPress! He is Technical Director at the Jake Group, a DC-based digital agency.

Show Notes

Website | Jake Group
Twitter | @markawahl
LinkedIn | Mark Wahl

Episode Transcript

Liam: This is Hallway Chats, where we talk with some of the unique people in and around WordPress.

Tara: Together, we meet and chat with folks you may not know about in our community.

Liam: With our guests, we’ll explore stories of living – and of making a living with WordPress.

Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is episode 41.

Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Liam Dempsey.

Tara: And I’m Tara Claeys. Today, we’re joined by Mark Wahl. Mark helps build teams and manage processes to create digital products and services often using WordPress. He’s a technical director at the Jake Group, a D.C.-based digital agency. He’s also a dad, amateur woodworker, cider maker, and a Yankees fan. Hi, Mark.

Mark: Hello.

Liam: Hey, Mark, welcome. Tell us a little bit more about yourself, if you would please, sir?

Mark: Sure. Thanks for having me. I am Mark Wahl. I live in Annandale, Virginia. I am originally from Western New York, Rochester New York, and I came to D.C. about 12 years ago, and I’ve been here ever since. I have two kids, I’m a dad, and I work in WordPress building websites and other products and services for all-manner clients.

Tara: How did you get started with WordPress, Mark? What’s your background with tech?

Mark: Sure. I thought about this a good deal and remembered some things that I hadn’t thought about for quite a while. I guess, when I was in middle school in the ’80s, my school offered a basic programming class. And I took that over the summer and I thought that was cool. Then I promptly stopped doing that sort of thing for about 15 years and went and studied English in college and literature. Then I came down to D.C. to work for environmental non-profits. That was my thing back then. But that was late ’90s and we were looking for new ways to communicate our message. The web was just sort of emerging then. I remembered how much I enjoyed that programming and I was kind of the guy, me and the other guy, at my organization that was willing to get their hands dirty figuring out HTML and the web, and I had a lot of fun doing that. Soon thereafter, I ended up in a graduate program at Georgetown called Communication Culture and Technology. That was very multi-disciplinary and people studied all sorts of different things from the economics of the internet to policy. And among the things that I studied was, actually, code, and I got involved with an internship there and a group building websites. I really enjoyed that and built some cool stuff for the university and some related clients. After that, I ended up still interested in advocacy and non-profits, I did that for about another year after grad school until I really realized my passion was more on the engineering side of things. I made some moves then, freelanced for about a year, and connected with some people. Then ended up building websites for living. I’ve been with the Jake Group for about 12 or 15 years now, building all sorts of different things.

Liam: That is a pretty impressive story, to work its way from Western New York down to D.C. and around to like– what really caught my attention and from the way that Tara is smiling, I think it caught hers, was the degree that you explored and got at Georgetown. Can you talk us through that a little bit? I’m trying to remember the three words you said, something like culture, creativity, and it wasn’t code but it was like technology or something like that. Talk to us more about that if you would, what did you study?

Mark: Sure. It’s called Communication Culture and Technology. I started in ’99, I think the program started in ’96 or ’97. It was really an attempt to make sense of what this new thing at that time, the world wide web, was becoming. It was sort of born out of many different disciplines, from more on the liberal arts side, more on technology side, like I said, economics, and policy. There were and continue to be a lot of great professors there from all those different disciplines. It represents itself as a, I think, multi-disciplinary or intra-disciplinary program. In terms of academic, I really focused on the economic-side of things, but there was a group there called Keybridge.net at the time. That’s where I started getting my coding jobs working with them. There are all sorts of people out there who are CCT grads who do all sorts of different interesting things. I do code and technology but there are people in government, people doing more artistic stuff. It’s a very interesting program, especially if you’re sort of self-directed and have an idea of what you want to do. I was at a conference this weekend, World IA Day, and I saw someone speak. I really enjoyed her talk and I thought, “She actually looks pretty familiar, I’m not sure why.” Only a couple of days later did I realize that we graduated from CCT together. And I haven’t reached out to her yet, I have to contact her.

Tara: Wow, that’s really fascinating. What a great opportunity that you had to do that. I’m sitting here sort of jealous because I live in DC, too, and I’m thinking, “Gosh, how did I not know about that?” It sounds like a great mixture of all the things that now are so important in the kind of work that you do, that we do, anybody who works with the web. But you were really on the forefront of that, that’s really exciting.

Mark: I’ll add, it was ’99 and 2001 that I was there, which was smack dab in the middle of the .com crash, main crash. When I went in, everyone was very excited about all the business opportunities that there were. When I left, everyone was a little bit realistic.

Tara: Interesting, that’s great. What did it take for you to go back to school after already working? Or had you thought about that when you graduated from your undergrad? Did you always plan to go to grad school?

Mark: I didn’t always plan to, it was an option and I think it was just the discovery of the web and how it was changing things that we were doing at the environmental group I was at, and how big that seemed to me. And I wanted to be among a group of people who are thinking about those things, and get an opportunity sort of to learn more together.

Tara: How does that translate into what you do now at the Jake Group? How long have you been there and what’s your role with them?

Mark: In 2003, that’s when I started freelancing and I did that for about a year, which was a great experience. It was great for me but it led me to a more formal job, and I think that was what was right for me. One of the things that led to was that my colleague, Anneli, who is the creative director and president of the Jake Group, also graduated from CCT with me. There was a relationship there but also I think the broadness of that program, beyond just the code and building of sites and technology, really gives me an ability or perspective, anyway, to talk to clients and bring there some sort of critical thinking and some problem-solving to their issues and challenges.

Tara: What is your specific role there and in terms of, do you mostly do coding and tech work there now? You’ve been there a while so I imagine you’re in a management field.

Mark: I do code working in WordPress largely. I’ve always been a little bit more on the back-end than the front-end but I do both. But that’s not primarily what I do right now. I’m more often working with the team, leading the development team and trying to find ways for folks to work more effectively as individuals and together. And also working a lot with clients, I work with clients in managing projects and speccing out projects and finding solutions to the issues that they bring to us. More often than not, I’m working with people, working with teams and trying to build teams to execute the projects that we’re working on.

Tara: Sounds like you get to wear a few different hats and do a lot of things. I’m going to ask you a question we ask everyone, which is to talk to us a little bit about what success means to you, how you define it, where you find yourself if you’re on a path towards success, where you find yourself on that path, and generally, what’s your definition of success?

Mark: I gave this some thought. I think for me, success is a process because one destination is just a moment in time really and so success for me is a process and that process involves being involved with work and with people and relationships that allow me to contribute to some ends that’s bigger than myself. That can be as simple as helping a small company come up with a web presence, to working on a project that contributes to some public good, to personal things like being involved with my family and the community. But being able to contribute to something that’s bigger than myself, and then so feeling like I’m growing and improving, and able to do more in the future, learning and moving forward. One thing that I would add to that is that ends that I talk about, some way of measuring that. That’s something that I try to bring to our clients a lot is, when we talk in the beginning of our project about discovering and planning, how are we going to measure that. I don’t want to be too soft with my answer, there has to be some way of measuring, I guess, in order to determine we’re meeting goals, or at least to have a target to move towards.

Tara: Yeah. How does that work, is that intimidating to make a promise and then measure it and follow through? What kind of measurement are you talking about? That applies to your clients but also how do you apply that to your own self in terms of measuring your own ends?

Mark: I guess I would say for clients, it is at first intimidating to say, “I’m going to promise you this level of ROI on your project.” However, I think what we– we’ve been around for a good long time and the one-off projects are less fun and less productive for us than the ongoing relationships where we develop a relationship with maybe some small project and then work together for a really long time. And when you’re working together for a really long time, you have to have those milestones along the way. To say, “We wanted to accomplish this thing and this is how we did or did not do that.” The fact is, even when we don’t do it we can usually show progress and find ways to better reach the next milestone. What I find is setting those goals is not so much a way to be evaluated, than it is a way to build the team and work together to try to meet the next goal and then the goals after that. For myself, that’s a harder question, I hadn’t really thought about that. I have lots of lists, I’m a list person. I use Trello for my own self as well as scans of paper, and I tick things off. I guess I could say goals are measured that way but yeah, I hadn’t really thought as much about that. I set a goal for myself for how many books I want to read this year, so I guess that’s one way I measure things, too.

Liam: I am very good at setting goals around the number of books I want to read and I am very bad at achieving goals around the number of books I want to read.

Mark: Yeah, me too.

Liam: Mark, let me ask you, within your definition of success of being empowered to contribute to projects that are greater than yourself, but that allow you a capacity to grow and improve, what’s the single most important thing you can do or you do every day to help ensure that you’re staying on that journey, as you said, you’re staying within your process?

Mark: One thing that I think is really important to stay on target is almost exactly that, staying focused on the important work at hand. We’re a small group at work and we all are familiar with all the demands and requirements. And what I find to be most helpful is being able to, at the beginning of a day or the beginning of a task, identify what the key thing is that needs to be done, and focus on that. That’s very hard, it’s not only the most important thing but it’s also the hardest thing. When you have a lot of different things going on, a lot of different projects at any given time, figuring out what is the thing to focus on and pointing yourself in that direction and staying in that direction I think is one of the most important things I can do. And hopefully can help others do that as well. That’s sort of a short-term thing. I would also a sort of a broader thing is building relationships to the extent that my day involves interacting with my team and vendors and clients, and building relationships that extend over time that helps us get where we want to go.

Liam: I like that building relationship, especially with your internal team, but also you mentioned earlier how you prefer and find more value in working with clients and setting goals as a way to build team. What does it look like, as you’re trying to help the team, both within your company and on the client side, stay focused? How do you work together to determine what is the most important goal, and then ensure that there is, if not collective buy-in, at least collective support for achieving that goal or staying focused on?

Mark: Right. That’s an ongoing process. The thing that we’re doing of late, we’ve adopted using Asana as our cast management system and I’ve done a good deal of reading and learning task boards and things like Kanban and Scrum. We’re not doing anything really formal like that, but we do use a board to assemble a backlog of our tasks that not only I am sort of in charge of but anyone else on the team is also very closely involved with. It works best when we can talk about high-level priorities at the beginning, at the outset of a project or at the beginning of the week, and then let people, individuals prioritize what it is that needs to be done. Now, in a small organization like ours, there’s constantly something that’s coming in to disrupt those things. Having each one able to make those decisions on our own, as well as the ability, literally– our office is very open so literally to turn around and consult on things. That communication and that backlog of tasks is something that we’ve found helpful so far in helping to prioritize work.

Tara: It sounds like you’ve adopted a new system using Asana. How is that integrated with your team in terms of overlapping and when you were talking about sharing these tasks, not stepping on each other’s toes? Has that been something that you’ve found difficult to manage or has that been pretty smooth?

Mark: Well, this iteration of a sauna has worked really well. We adopted a tool called Creative Manager Pro I think in 2005 or even before that, which is a huge system and it did so many things, it was wonderful. We used it for about five minutes and then realized we had to invest so much time in setting everything up that it just wasn’t working for us. We’ve done it several times over the years, including with Asana in one previous iteration, and just never made it work for us. This time around, Asana is working for us, and the reason I think is that we have limited the scope of how we’re using that to very specific things. Managing those tasks as opposed to trying to create an overarching project managing system, which is probably not what it’s best for. We do use it to some degree to interact with clients on some bigger projects where we can share documents and share process reports and stuff like that. But it’s really that granular element of finding a way to manage our day-to-day stuff that it’s quite useful for.

Tara: Interesting.

Mark: There are lots of other tools that we use as well. And I talk about that bottom-up assembly of tools as well as for top-down. Maybe if we figured it all out, we could find a top-down tool that does it all. It’s been bottom-up that worked best for us.

Tara: Yeah, I know you and I have had conversations before about tools because you know I’m kind of a tool junkie but they’re good for helping to overcome challenges. What would you say is your biggest challenge, both in your work environment and maybe in tackling those goals that we talked about with your scads of paper? Is that among your biggest challenges? What is your biggest challenge and have you or are you overcoming it?

Mark: I think the biggest challenge for me is workload. Having more things to do than I necessarily can or should be trying to accomplish. Again, we’re a small agency so our workload really ebbs and flows a lot so there are times where we’re a little less busy and there are times when we’re super busy and it’s really overwhelming. And that’s challenging, so a lot of what I’ve talked about so far probably speaks to ways of trying to deal with that. I’m also just inclined to probably bite off more than I can chew. That’s me, I think. I try to measure with that. Beyond what I’ve already said, what are things we have to deal with– one is going to bed. I am really a night owl, I’ve always been one. Once I get going in the evening, I don’t really want to stop. What I figured out is that going to bed is really helpful because it keeps me healthy, it keeps me energized the next day. It also sets this limited scope for the resources and time that I have. If I say I’m going to bed at a certain time, I can only make effort up until that time. I’m not great at it, I still fail to meet my deadlines to go to bed. But yeah, getting rest is one of those really simple things that’s really hard to do that makes such a huge difference.

Tara: Yeah, when you’re on a roll, it’s hard to stop. That’s hard for your family life, too, though.

Mark: Absolutely.

Tara: You’re up late keeping people up.

Liam: Mark, where do or how do woodworking and cidermaking feed into that balance that you were talking about?

Mark: I was in a project, and that probably speaks to me biting off more than I can chew sometimes. Woodworking, that’s sort of something that I was introduced to early in life. My grandfather made clocks, my father did work around the house and I sort of learned some things and found it interesting and fun. I just like to build things in general. Wood is something that’s readily available. I’ve done lots of different projects, shells and little bit of furniture here and there. But if you recall, was it 2010, snowpocalypse? Before we were really calling things ‘pocalypse and everything, it was that first big one. We were really here in the D.C. area really off for a week, at home for a week. And I went down to the basement and I had– I grew up in Western New York and we had cider all over the place growing up. I had been thinking about making my own cider and so I built a cider grinder and a cider press that week.

Liam: That is awesome.

Mark: Just sort of a prototype. Then from there, it’s just sort of grown. We started hosting an apple fest each fall where we’ll bring lots of apples, all different kinds of apples, and we press a whole bunch and people take a bunch home, and then we make some hard cider from what’s left over. That’s a hobby and it is really fun and it’s something that I spend a good deal of time learning about and doing.

Tara: That’s impressive. You don’t live far from me so maybe I’ll have to come to your apple cider party, sounds like fun.

Mark: Yeah. Next September, it will be year number nine this year.

Tara: That may be one of the best things that came out of that snowpocalypse, I think. [laughter] That you did that and you actually had the materials to do it. What a great memory that you have in time of what that meant to you, that’s excellent. Mark, tell us for a minute about your interaction with the WordPress community because I know, I’ve seen you at some WordPress things, what’s your involvement there?

Mark: Yeah. We started using WordPress 2009 or 2010. Back at Georgetown, one of my first projects was building a CMS, very small, very limited in scope but nevertheless a CMS based in ColdFusion and Microsoft Access, which was a great way to learn. Over the years, I’ve built light CMSs for various purposes for some clients. But we were growing and at that time, it seemed like we needed a more scalable solution. We considered some things and WordPress seemed a great route to go on account of it being open source, free to get started with, and based in PHP which I and others on the team were familiar with. We started working with it then and then we had someone come on board, Leeland, who, Tara, you know, who said, “Hey, you guys want to sponsor a WordPress D.C. meeting?” Because back then we needed sponsors for every event every month. We did and since then, I’ve just sort of been coming. I really enjoyed getting involved with the community, meeting a lot of people, working on similar things, or working on things that I had never really imagined. That’s been fun and I’ve gotten into presenting here and there, presented at WordCamp D.C. last year, and would like to do more of that. I enjoyed that because it stretches my mind and helps build some of those relationships as well.

Tara: Great. Well, I enjoyed meeting you at our local meetup and it’s nice to have a representative from an agency because in D.C. there aren’t that many. It’s good for your company to support the meetup as well. We’re getting close to the end of our time but I really want to ask you another one of our signature questions, Mark, which is about advice. If you think back to what’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received that stuck with you and that you implement in your life?

Mark: I’m lucky I’ve gotten a lot of good advice over the years and I am appreciative to all those who offered good advice at the right time. I thought a lot about this but the one that I would say is I have an uncle who likes to provide a lot of advice, as many people do. And sometimes you’re just looking, especially as a younger person, you’re just looking to move on and play with your cousins or something else. But he gave me advice that’s really stuck with me which was, in life to find things that you can be passionate about them and then pursue them and become an expert in them. And the passion thing has really stuck with me in particular because there’s a lot to do in life and a lot to choose from. And finding things that you can be excited about even when you’re overwhelmed or things are hard, or you don’t understand, or you encounter failure. Having something that you can be passionate about allows you to get through those times and really invest yourself in those.The expertise thing is interesting because what does that exactly mean to become an expert, and when I look at him, the person who gave me that advice, his expertise is medicine. What always impressed me over the years, and I realized what he meant by becoming an expert, was not so much to reach and ends of becoming an expert but to always pursue growth in that area. I remember him when we would visit going upstairs and studying books about a surgery, or reading articles, or being involved in events where he was growing even as this person to me who seemed like the expert in his field. But he was always growing, is always growing, and so I’ve taken that to heart as trying to do things that I’m passionate about and always growing and always developing more and more expertise in those things.

Liam: That’s a great combination of then land on something that you really love and think about and think about even when you’re not doing and enjoy doing it. And if you could figure out a way to work that into your work, well, it makes going to the office, or working from home, or whatever the appropriate place of employment is, all the more enjoyable and fulfilling. It almost sounds like that becoming an expert, you’ve interpreted more along the lines of don’t become complacent, always keep learning. And that which is true today about it may not be true tomorrow, especially, I suppose, in medicine, right? The way they did surgery in 1920 is not how they do surgery on the border of 2020. That’s a great bit of advice. On that inspiring note, if I can, Mark, we’re going to have to wrap it up. We can’t believe it’s already been 30 some odd minutes with you. Thank you very much for joining us today.

Mark: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed talking to you guys.

Tara: Thanks, Mark. Can you tell us where people can find you online?

Mark: Sure. My company site is Jakegroup.com. I am on Twitter although I’m not a frequent user. I’m frequently there but not tweeting. My Twitter is @markawahl and I’m also on LinkedIn.

Tara: Great. Thank you again for joining us and see you soon.

Mark: Thank you.

Liam: Thank you, Mark. Bye.

Tara: Bye-bye.

Mark: Bye.

Tara: If you like what we’re doing here – meeting new people in our WordPress community – we invite you to tell others about it. We’re on iTunes and at hallwaychats.com.

Liam: Better yet, ask your WordPress friends and colleagues to join us on the show. Encourage them to complete the “Be on the show” form on our site, to tell us about themselves.

Tara: If you like what we’re doing here – meeting new people in our WordPress community – we invite you to tell others about it. We’re on iTunes and at hallwaychats.com.

Liam: Better yet, ask your WordPress friends and colleagues to join us on the show. Encourage them to complete the “Be on the show” form on our site, to tell us about themselves.

The post Episode 41: Mark Wahl appeared first on Hallway Chats.

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