Open Source HEro: Elaine Shannon

Elaine Shannon discusses her passion for, open source software. This is part of a series with inspirational leaders from the Higher Education sector.
Elaine Shannon

Elaine Shannon is the Director of Web Development at St. Mary’s University, Texas, USA. She has worked there since 2015 and met Nathan through WPcampus. They’ve since given a talk together at WPCampus 2019 in Portland, Oregon. She’s been using WordPress since 2007. Her first exposure was when she took an online SEO class and the teacher said, “Hey, I’m trying this new thing for my blog” (WordPress). Elaine tried it out and it just kept going from there.

Elaine keeps a blog where she posts WordPress tutorials and code snippets, and she is a very talented public speaker. Her SlideShare is full of interesting slide decks.

WordPress is an open source software project because it’s licensed under the GPL v2.

Nathan: How did you get into Higher Ed?

Elaine Shannon: My husband actually was looking at jobs and happened across this job description that was just me, and it happened to be for St. Mary’s. It’s just I’ve never seen anything so perfect before to do design and development and analytics and just kind of old fashioned webmaster, all around user experience, everything. Most jobs are much more compartmentalised than that.

Nathan Monk: Do you think that’s unique or semi-unique to the HE sector?

Elaine Shannon: I feel like it is, yeah, even in Higher Ed. I get jealous when I go to conferences like WPcampus and they’re talking about “oh, we brought our team” and I go, “Oh, well, I brought my team too… here I am!”

It’s not that I don’t have awesome co workers: I do, and they help a lot with content and things, but I’m the only one who knows anything about our code base, which kind of scares me sometimes.

Nathan Monk: Why do you think that is a common trend in the HE sector?

Elaine Shannon: Budget. We do have a lot of very generous donors, but everything’s always tight. Especially now in San Antonio, they have just recently opened it up to where the community colleges are going to give free tuition based on income limits.

St Louis Hall

And I think this is linked to competitiveness. And there’s an imbalance to some extent in the competitive nature of the University sector: we’re competing with other institutions, and yet on the other end of the scale, we have open-source – which is about sharing, anti-competitive-ness.

Nathan Monk: So how do you reconcile that? How do you put that balance back in place when you’ve got your competitive hat on with your open source sharing hat?

Elaine Shannon: Well I see the similarities, but they’re separate pools. So any business is going to have different offerings and different strengths and weaknesses. So I feel like even if we’re not Harvard, we’re using the same code base using something like WordPress. We’ve still got our niches, there are still very separate demographics that we’re reaching for, different types of programmes. And so I think as long as we keep that focus on what is our best user base and what they need, I think each institution can still serve a niche of people quite well and still be very competitive. We can do this even if we’re sharing a lot of that knowledge openly. I feel like Higher Ed seems like an industry that should be at the forefront of technology, but then you actually get knee deep in it and find out we’re way behind the times because of those constrained budgets.

Nathan Monk: I hear that. I do believe that Higher Ed is the perfect sector for an open source relationship. The philosophies seem aligned: sharing knowledge, improving access and overcoming barriers.

So, what’s your relationship with the open source community and/or any open source projects?

Elaine Shannon: I feel like a member of the WordPress community, and more so the WPcampus community, talking on Slack and sharing code and asking questions; but I’ve always wanted to contribute to core and felt like there are so many barriers that I just don’t even know what to do.

I feel like I’m probably missing some skills. Things like pull requests. So I feel like there are a lot of gaps and I wish that communities would make it much clearer. Step one, step two, step three: just walk you through it as if you were a fifth grader, right? You have some knowledge, you have enough vocabulary to understand things, but you haven’t done a lot of technical stuff yet.

Nathan Monk: I think that’s such an interesting point. Because I totally feel the same about core contribution. And I guess, you know, we’re both technical people, right, you know?

Elaine Shannon: I can get around a computer basically, I can do some crazy stuff. But at the same time, I don’t know what I don’t know a lot of the time and I’m largely self taught. I have a commercial graphics degree. I came into this profession via the web design angle, but it was very much design oriented, not development. So all this PHP, and now, React… craziness!

Nathan Monk: You’re pretty well ingrained in WPcampus. You’re ingrained in a wider WordPress community, but there are definitely some barriers that you’ve talked about there in terms of the WordPress core project. And it sounds like you would like to do more contributions towards it but those barriers kind of prevent you from doing that.

Are there any other kind of links to open source communities that you have or are those the main ones?

Elaine Shannon: That’s it really. I looked into Drupal and Joomla way back in the day when I was first doing WordPress commercially. And the learning curve seemed higher for those so I didn’t really pursue it.

Nathan Monk: Would it be fair to say that you believe that there is more than enough within that single project (WordPress) for you to spend, basically all of your time being involved with.

Elaine Shannon: Absolutely.

Nathan Monk: That’s awesome, isn’t it?

Elaine Shannon: Right! It’s just phenomenal the amount of hours that must go into these projects.

Nathan Monk: How do you feel open source is viewed by people like line managers or technical people within your institution? Do people even understand what open source is?

Elaine Shannon: I think a lot of them don’t. I feel like IT people tend to be more suspicious of open source and wary that there may be a lot of security vulnerabilities. This always makes me laugh because those are always the same people who are not able to update to the proprietary systems to the latest version. So they know for sure they have gaping holes, whereas if they were just going to set up a WordPress site and let me manage it, we’d be up to date, at least.

Nathan Monk: I was listening to the Wordfence podcast just this morning who said exactly the same thing. You know, that the amount of eyes that are on an open source project and the speed at which things can be patched is so much faster than proprietary projects.

What advice would you give to others, considering open source projects?

Elaine Shannon: Hmmm. That could be taken a number of ways.

I really think you need to consider first and foremost what your goals are with a project and where you may go with that 10 years down the line. So I don’t think open source should be discounted. In any IT project there’s going to be goals that you have. There’s going to be pros and cons of any type of system. And I think I would mostly say, as I mentioned, a lot of the things I’ve heard when I hear open source thrown out is “we can’t rely on that, that’s not as stable”. Don’t assume that there’s going to be security risks, but look more into how are you going to set it up? Is it going to work for you in the short term, and how is it going to work for you in the long term?

Nathan Monk: Have you come across any good ways to make that assessment?

Elaine Shannon: I think just again, getting back down to the real goals and also figuring out this staffing structure because – especially in higher ed – all these proprietary systems tend to typically come with development support from the vendor. And so if you’re suddenly comparing WordPress against another proprietary system, it’s not apples to apples: it’s very much apples to broccoli! You just have to really look at the wider picture of things.

Nathan Monk: I recently asked in an online group myself why people have chosen WordPress. I think you were one of those people to respond to me. And somebody said, “You know, five years ago, WordPress was 20% of the web. Now, it’s 35%. That’s not people making mistakes.”

And that that really resonated with me because if you see so many people saying the same thing, they can’t all be wrong.

Elaine Shannon: Absolutely, I like the spirit of open source where people can freely share their ideas and their code and not always be reinventing the wheel or trying to convert things between proprietary systems, which I know can be such a nightmare.

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Nathan Monk
I'm proud to work for some of the world’s most influential brands that shape cities and define lives: Universities and colleges. I provide advice to forward-thinking senior leaders on how to exceed their organisational targets by creating user-focused, digital-first strategies.