Happy 20th Birthday WordPress: Interview with WP Engine Founder Jason Cohen

By Robyn Foyster Robyn Foyster has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
on 14 September 2023

Renowned website builder WordPress (WP) was founded by Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little 20 years ago, and since then, it has paved the way for the internet we know and love today.

Did you know WordPress is thirteen years older than TikTok (2016), came four years before Tumblr (2007) and the first iPhone (2007), beat Facebook to market by about a year (2004), and is about five weeks older than Tesla (July 2003)?

To celebrate the impact WordPress has made on the digital era, we spoke with WP Engine Founder & Chief Innovation Officer Jason Cohen, to find out more about the inspiration behind WP Engine, his entrepreneurship journey, and more.

WordPress WP Engine
Celebrating 20 years of WordPress with Jason Cohen, Founder and chief Innovation Officer, of WP Engine 

1. You say you have a strong focus on the intersection of corporate and technology strategies. Can you please explain this in more detail?

In a software company, the distinction between corporate and technology strategies is often blurred. Corporate strategy focuses on market selection, identifying ideal customers, uniqueness, and leveraging strengths to win while the competition struggles. On the other hand, technical strategy delves into engineering aspects such as vendor selection, libraries and languages used, and architecture design – elements that primarily concern engineers.

These two strategies not only align but also can affect each other. The interplay of choices made in architectural decisions impacts strength areas or feature development ease, subsequently influencing the broader corporate strategy. In essence, these seemingly separate realms are inherently intertwined by virtue of their mutual influence on each other’s effectiveness within a successful software organisation.

2. As a serial entrepreneur, what can you tell us about the four technology startups that you’ve been involved in?

There is no obvious commonality across my four startups, as they span 23 years and my entire career. Three were bootstrapped, with two sold, and one that raised money after two years, changing its trajectory. They span multiple offerings like hardware and software and reach multiple audiences from enterprises and SMBs to software developers, website owners and IT folks with servers stuffed in closets.

The lack of a common thread is perhaps the answer: Success can be achieved in innumerable ways, not a single path or type of person who is a ‘founder’. This should encourage everyone to bring their personal style and insights to any puzzle, creating wonderful, disparate outcomes.

3. Not many founders stay on as CIO, so it’s evident that innovation matters enormously to you. What are the innovations that you are most proud of?

We solved interesting technical puzzles with new algorithms and hard work, and I am certainly proud of that. However, WP Engine’s greatest innovations come from people. We are known for our exceptional customer support team, which results from a strong culture, of treating employees well and empowering them to serve customers effectively. Our internal Learning and Development department creates educational materials for the customer service team. This enables employees to learn, grow, earn promotions, and increase their capabilities within the company. 

These innovative practices make me prouder than any software we have written.

4. What innovations can we expect to see in the future for WP Engine?

Two years ago we launched Atlas – a system for what is called Headless WordPress, which combines modern languages and stacks like React with the reliability, familiarity and ubiquity of WordPress. We are the leaders in that space today, and we have multiple teams continuing to press that leadership.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is on everyone’s mind, so we can expect things in that space as well. Everyone talks about the same sorts of things, like generating content that readers and Google searchers will find equally useful. However, WP Engine supplies all the other technology on the website, allowing customers to do even more around data, insights, and taking action.

5. WP Engine was founded in 2010. What was the inspiration behind it and what drove you to come up with the idea?

At my previous company, SmartBear, I started a blog about bootstrapping, marketing, and strategy, which I still write at https://longform.asmartbear.com. I sold SmartBear in 2007 and left the company in 2009 when my wife became pregnant. It was a great time to turn the page and start a new chapter of life, so I became a stay-at-home dad for a year. Writing on the blog allowed me to stay intellectually connected without deadlines or expectations, suiting the chaotic life of having a newborn.

While the blog gained popularity, the site crashed when it was featured on link-sharing sites. I asked other bloggers how they kept WordPress running under similar conditions, and they typically said, “I don’t know, but if you find it, tell me, because I need that!”.

From that, I decided to develop the solution to my own problem through WP Engine.

6. It’s 20 years since WordPress started and there is a seamless integration between WordPress and WP Engine. How has this been made possible?

One of the key foundations of WordPress is its dedicated community of contributors, who regularly lend their time and efforts to core development, translation, and training (among other things), with the overarching goal of making WordPress better for everyone. 

At WP Engine, we’ve long been enthusiastic supporters of the WordPress community and the WordPress open-source project itself. Since the inception of WP Engine, employees have contributed to WordPress in many important ways, including: 

  • Contributing code to WordPress Core
  • Maintaining WordPress components such as media, volunteering
  • Organising WordCamps and meetups
  • Answering tickets in WordPress support forums
  • Providing financial sponsorships for various projects
  • Publishing educational and informational content for the community with our Torque publication and PressThis podcast

And of course, we are also helping countless brands adopt WordPress for the very first time.

These insights have allowed WP Engine to fully understand the needs of WordPress users and deliver the best solutions to optimise their experience.

person wearing a WordPress tshirt WP Engine
Image Credit: Photo by Fikret tozak on Unsplash

7. Being a serial tech entrepreneur for almost 30 years, what are some of the failures and successes you’ve experienced that have changed the way you currently work?

At SmartBear, I believed corporate culture held no importance. It wasn’t in the popular zeitgeist yet, and I considered it a topic for those not focused on crucial tasks, which I defined as things like coding or sales. However, we had a culture anyway – every organisation does by definition – with both positive and (avoidable) negative aspects.

At WP Engine, we avoided this mistake by establishing a strong, intentional culture from the beginning. When our current CEO Heather Bruner joined a decade ago, she assembled twenty of us to define and solidify our values, which in turn resulted in our culture. We documented them on a large poster board, signed it, and hung it in the office. WP Engine is now renowned in Austin, Texas as an exemplar of positive culture.

8. What advice would you give to young tech entrepreneurs today that you wish someone had told your younger self when you started out?

I’m not sure young entrepreneurs listen to anyone, even including their future selves. That’s part of an entrepreneur’s personality that drives them to say “I’m going to build the 132nd version of  X product”, because they would rather do it their way than be guided by someone else.  It’s necessary to have some hubris – after all, most startups fail – but not so much that you cannot learn or pivot around what is actually happening as your ideas and products collide with customers.

That said, I would probably say: It’s less about code and more about people.

9. Women Love Tech is 11 years old and has been on WP Engine since it began. One of the benefits of WP Engine for business owners is reliability. With the increased cyber issues, how challenging has it been to ensure customers’ websites are secure and protected?

Thank you!

Security was important 11 years ago, and its importance has grown, and more people become aware of it. Many individuals mistakenly believe their websites are not targets for attacks because “why would an attacker care about me?”. However, attackers do not target specific people, they attack millions of websites worldwide to gain control of servers for malicious purposes such as click fraud, spam emails, or concealing their identities.

Everyone is vulnerable to attacks, and with attackers constantly improving their methods, defenders must also evolve. This ongoing battle ensures companies like WP Engine always have work to do but highlights a negative aspect of the internet that would be better if eliminated.

WordPress WP Engine

10. WP Engine isn’t the cheapest, but it has excellent customer service and automation. Are these the two areas you pride yourself on, and where else do you see WP Engine excelling compared to competitors?

Customer service is certainly one of our superpowers. We say WP Engine is at the intersection of technology and service.

We’re also the fastest platform, as measured by Google’s Chrome Real-User Experience Report, which is composed of real-world data from millions of real people, on both desktop and mobile, browsing the internet. This makes it the most accurate measure of speed, as opposed to other metrics such as artificial load-testing.

We also produce some of the most-beloved developer tools, like Local which is by far the most popular local WordPress development tool for people who build websites, and Advanced Custom Fields (ACF) another popular way for developers to create custom data that allows marketers to manage all sorts of creative things.

WP Engine also has award-winning support available 24/7/365 to help customers troubleshoot in minutes. I am very proud to say that we have won over 10 Stevie Awards for customer support and have a 96% customer satisfaction score.

11. The last stats we’ve seen is that 67 per cent of the C-suite at WP Engine are female, which is excellent. Has this changed, and what do you do to support women in tech?

Over the past ten years (since we’ve had a C-suite that wasn’t just me alone!), the exact percentage has fluctuated. Our latest figures show that 66 per cent of our senior leaders and 57 per cent of managers are female, and we’ve seen a 25% increase in the number of employees identifying as LGBTIQ+. The key is that diversity needs to exist throughout the organisation in addition to the C-suite. 

The first two executives who weren’t me, our CEO and first CFO, were women, and that set the tone. I think this is very important because people of all kinds are attracted to organisations where they can see that, while nothing is bias-free, this is an organisation that clearly values all people, because here they are, sitting in all sorts of seats. I want people to say, “This is where I have a chance to thrive, grow, and be promoted, on my own merits,”  even just when they are interviewing.

WP Engine also has very active Employee Resources Groups (ERGs) for different communities of people, the first ERG was Sheroes, re-named Roar in 2021. Roar’s mission is to provide a safe, open environment for all to promote, educate, and advocate for women across WP Engine to achieve their professional aspirations where opportunities have historically been limited. A lot of Roar’s activities are focused on women’s path to professional and personal success, empowered through shared knowledge, mutual support and growing together toward a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

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