Remembering Alex King

Alex speaking at WordCamp SF 2009
One of the original WordPress developers, Alex King, has passed from cancer at far too young an age. Alex actually got involved with b2 in 2002 and was active in the forums and the “hacks” community there.

Alex had a background as a designer before he learned development, and I think that really came through as he was one of those rare people who thought about the design and usability of his code, the opposite of most development that drifts toward entropy and complexity. One of my favorite things about Alex was how darn tasteful he was. He would think about every aspect of something he built, every place someone could click, every path they could go down, and gave a thoughtfulness to these paths that I still admire and envy today.

As an example look at his project page (essentially a category archive) for the Post Formats Admin UI, isn’t that clever and intuitive how the posts connect together, and when more time passes in the thread it’s shown as a break. It’s classic Alex: something simple and thoughtful that in hindsight is so gobsmackingly obvious you wonder why everything doesn’t work that way, but you never would have imagined it beforehand. And Alex wouldn’t just imagine it and do it for himself, he released his best work as open source, as a gift to the community and the world, over and over and over again.

Back when WordPress was getting started Alex was a celebrity of the b2 world, his hacks (plugins before plugins) were some of the coolest ones around. We had a ton of overlapping interests in web standards, photography, development, and gadgets so we frequently read and commented on each other’s blogs. I would never miss a post on his site, and that’s back when we were both doing one or more posts a day. To get a sense of Alex it’s worth exploring his blog — he was a clear thinker and therefore a clear writer. The straightforward nature Alex wrote with was something I always admired about him.

We discussed WordPress early on, Alex signed up to help with what later became the plugin directory, and his CSS competition (look at those prizes! and notice it’s all GPL) was hugely influential on the path to themes, and he officially became a contributing developer in August of 2003.

The list of what Alex was one of the first to do in the WordPress community is long, and in hindsight seems gobsmackingly obvious, which is the sign of innovation. I smile when I think of how he moved from the Bay area to Denver before it was cool, or his love of scare quotes. Once there was something going on in WordPress and he called me to talk about it, I was so surprised, he said the number was right on my contact page (and it was) but even though it had been there for years no one had ever called it before, but that was just the type of person Alex was, always reaching out and connecting.

Adam Tow, myself, Barry Abrahamson, Alex King; Photo from Adam Tow’s post.

I’m not sure how to include this next part: I couldn’t write last night — I was too tired. After falling asleep I had one of those super vivid dreams that you can’t tell are dreams. There had been some sort of mix-up on Twitter and Alex was still alive, I visited Colorado with my sister and saw him surrounded by family at a picnic table, all the rooms were taken so they put me on a floor mattress where I slept. Tons of his friends were around and we took pictures together, he was excited about the better front camera on the 6s+. (Alex understood mobile all the way back to the Treo days.) It was all very ordinary and in a group setting, until we decided to walk alongside a small highway, past some grain silos, to meet the group at a bar. The walk was just the two of us and we talked and laughed about the big mix-up and he asked about this post, what was going to be in it. He got most excited and emphatic with the part about him being a developer with great taste, and a clear writer William Zinsser would be proud of, so I like to think that those were two things he was proud of. The overwhelming emotion I remember was joy. Waking up was disconcerting, part of me wants to believe part of Alex’s spirit was there, where another more logical part thinks my mind was just going through the denial stage of grief. Regardless I know that Alex will stay in the minds of people who knew him for many years to come.

Code that Alex wrote still runs billions of times a day across millions of websites, and long after that code evolves or gets refactored the ideas and philosophy he embedded in WordPress will continue to be part of who we are. Alex believed so deeply in open source, and was one of the few people from a design background who did. (Every time you see the share icon on the web or in Android you should think of him.) I like the idea that part of his work will continue in software for decades to come, but I’d rather have him here, thinking outside the box and challenging us to do better, to be more obvious, and work harder for our users. He never gave up.

“The reality is that more and more decisions, including decisions about life and death, are being made by software,” Thomas Dullien, a well-known security researcher and reverse engineer who goes by the Twitter handle Halvar Flake, said in an email. “But for the vast majority of software you interact with, you are not allowed to examine how it functions,” he said.

The Times has a great look at hacker and car manufacturer mishaps and makes the case over and over again for Open Source. It’s great to see more of the world waking up to the importance of open source.

Interview, and Complementing Slack

I had a conversation with Tony Conrad at the StrictlyVC event in San Francisco last week, following a dizzyingly talented line-up of Chamath Palihapitiya and Steve Jurvetson.

Techcrunch has a good write-up with a number of the relevant quotes from the event. The only thing I’d like to respond to, because it wasn’t a direct quote, is the headline “Move Over Slack? Automattic Mulls Commercializing Its Own Internal Messaging Product.”

The first problem is the headline missed the obvious alliteration of “Mullenweg Mulls,” 😀but more importantly… Slack has become a really key tool for both Automattic and and anything we do with the evolution of P2 (some of which we already have running internally) will be complementary to Slack, not competitive with it.