The road to WordPress 5.6: a look behind the scenes

Published: 2021-07-26

It’s here, the release of WordPress 5.6! What a wonderful trip it was. As one of the WordPress 5.6 release mentors, I really enjoyed helping the team in any way I could. In this blog post I will tell you more about the process, the people involved and our priorities. Essentially, the path leads to WordPress 5.6.

Before I tell you how we got here, let me mention what WordPress 5.6 brings you. This release includes new block editor features including new block patterns, improved accessibility, beta compatibility with PHP 8, application passwords, and more. In addition, this version includes a brand new default theme: Twenty Twenty-One.

Let’s start at the beginning

As one of those involved, I can give you a look behind the scenes. So where do we start with a new WordPress release? How do we involve everyone? And how do we determine what features will be included in an upcoming release?

Assemble the squad

WordPress.org is an open source platform that relies on contributors from around the world. So the work on it never stops. For this reason you will also find a call for contributors for an upcoming release even before the current release is live. This was also the case with WordPress 5.6.

This time there was a big difference. For the first time in WordPress history, this release featured a squad made up entirely of people who identify as women or non-binary people. Over the years, prominent women in WordPress—Helen Hou-Sandi, Josepha Haden—have brought up the lack of diversity in the publishing process. So the goal was to increase the number of women and unrepresented Folx working towards a release. Hoping they return to WordPress as regular contributors.

When we broke the news that this would be an all-female release squad, over eighty people raised their hands to join in. After reaching out to everyone, we ended up with more than forty people committed to this release squad. Everyone has been split into smaller teams – cohorts – to ride the WordPress 5.5 release. Allow them to learn the ropes. We gave everyone the space to work on something they believed in or wanted to learn more about. All while ensuring everyone receives the mentoring they need to thrive and thrive in their role. With that, our Release Squad was born!

The roadmap to a WordPress release

Providing a standard roadmap for a WordPress release is quite difficult. Mainly because some features will be developed and decided along the way. But also because resources can sometimes become unexpectedly scarce. For example, with contributors taking a break due to work or something in their personal life.

Each release cycle begins with gathering the essential information: priorities, resources, and staff availability. The release team relies heavily on the core blog and Trac to set realistic goals for what needs to be accomplished. Team reps and component maintainers are being consulted to get an idea of ​​what will be ready by the release date.

After all the collected ideas had been brought into a structure, the fun could really begin. As mentioned before, contributing to WordPress is an ongoing process, but we have a proper kick-off for every release. Then we announce what we’re working on and with whom on WordPress.org. Many people worked on this announcement. As a representative of the WordPress Core team, I was asked to click publish on this post. This is still one of the proudest and most emotional moments of my time as an open source contributor.

As always, communication is the be-all and end-all

After the release of this announcement, the squad got to work. This is when communication ramps up across multiple places: Slack, the core blog, Trac, and GitHub. Many people use these channels to update each other or to discuss possible ideas for new features. That’s one of the wonderful things about WordPress, but it’s also why every focus needs at least one lead. So that the different teams can keep each other up to date and react quickly to changes.

This might be a good moment to elaborate on my role during this release. My role as a mentor was to make the process as smooth as possible. By helping the team leaders where I could, keeping an eye on the deadlines and coaching the people involved when needed. I mentored the release coordinator cohort led by Dee Teal. And I helped the test manager Monika Rao where I could. For example, by offering to help with a test peel.

A safe environment for everyone

When it comes to decisions or discussions about new ideas: Most of it happens in public. Anyone can comment on tickets in Trac or give their two cents in any of the other public channels. There is also a private channel that acts as a digital safety net for people new to the sharing process.

To give you context, the WordPress Slack channel has around 35,000 people. Having started contributing myself in 2019, I know it can be quite daunting to post your question there. It’s great to see that people often use the private channel in the beginning and grow into their role until they feel comfortable asking questions in the public channel.

This really shows you how the WordPress community works. You can expect constant support and help from everyone involved. Because everyone wants you and WordPress to be successful. This gives plenty of room to ask questions and learn from experienced people. From my personal experience, the learning curve can be steep. But with the help of others you will be able to learn a lot in a relatively short time.

What to expect from WordPress 5.6

With the input of everyone involved, we have been able to put together a release of which we are proud. A release that brings you automatic updates, application passwords, block pattern improvements, beta support for PHP 8, and a new default theme. Of these great features in WordPress 5.6, I would like to increase the size of the default theme.

The default theme Twenty Twenty-One

Less than two months ago, I started at Yoast as the lead of the WordPress core team. This is a new team at the company and I was actually the last person hired. You may already know that Team Yoast is always an active contributor to WordPress. Joost himself, but also many other Yoasters have been heavily involved in numerous WordPress releases. Both during working hours and in your free time. So it was obviously time for a dedicated team.

In my first week, we found that the resources available to develop the new default theme were insufficient. Joost therefore announced that our team will be involved in making this possible. Ari Stathopoulos, our resident WordPress theme expert, started working on it. We also decided to sponsor Carolina Nymark, the default theme development lead, to work on it full-time. Additionally, at Yoast we have assembled a temporary team with some experienced frontend developers to get a lot done in a short amount of time. Our main goal was to turn Mel Choyce-Dwan’s beautiful design into a well-coded reality.

I believe we achieved that while also focusing on other important things. We wanted to deliver a theme that is performance focused and as accessible out of the box as possible. Also, this theme offers a dark mode which I hope many people will use from an accessibility point of view.

Read more: Twenty Twenty-One: New default theme for WordPress 5.6 »

Looking back down the road you took

All in all, this was quite an adventure. One that showed me once again how wonderful our WordPress community is. And how much I and everyone who contributes can still learn from participating in an open source project. My conclusion is that we have achieved what we set out to do: bring a more diverse pool of contributors to WordPress. Some of whom have also expressed a desire to continue contributing. This showed me that when you give people the space to contribute, they are happy to take it and use it to grow. Both yourself and the project.

During this release, I also learned that effective communication is, and always will be, a priority. With so many people involved, you can never repeat the same thing enough times to make sure everyone has read and understood. We have to keep that in mind with every release. Both for the process and for the people involved.

A big thank you to everyone involved

Announcing this release to the world is a moment all WordPress contributors should be proud of. I’m very proud to see how people have grown into their roles throughout this release. Also people who are new to the job and have grown their confidence and skills in a very short period of time. People who have already kicked ass and now kick it even harder. So if you’re thinking about contributing to WordPress, rest assured you’ll be welcomed with open arms!

Continue reading: Five Great New Features in WordPress 5.6 »

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