John Henry Donovan - The Harry Potter of Web development
The first meeting
At the end of September 2018, Dot All took place in Berlin. It was the first web developer conference I attended. For the first time, I would meet many people from the Craft community, some of whom I have followed virtually since the ExpressionEngine days. But a few Twitter replies or emails are still a bit different than facing each other, and accordingly, I was nervous. The night before the conference, a group met in a much too small Berlin pub. I felt lost and didn't dare approach anyone when someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked me in an Irish accent if I wanted to join them and have a few beers. I looked into the friendly face - adorned by a mighty full beard - of John Henry Donovan and gladly agreed. He was my icebreaker, and we all had a fun evening.
Four years later, John Henry was a guest on my podcast, and I wanted to know all about his career. A career on the web didn't emerge early, though. He worked as a bank porter, a barman, a waiter in a French restaurant, and a chef. All the things you do when you start working at the age of 15.
As a web developer and someone who works remotely, I have felt entirely blessed in the past five years, and I can do what I do. I see friends and families struggling with money and housing. We are so lucky to do this job from anywhere and make money from our couch. - John Henry Donovan
Initially, the Internet was just a place for him to download Monty Python scripts. Then he went to college in Ireland for three years, where he studied Industrial Design and Product Design, respectively. Additionally, he spent another year in England during college, only to find no job offers after successfully graduating. He then spent a year in Australia to clear his head, which was no problem, thanks to the Irish visa system.
Back in Ireland, the precarious job situation had stayed the same, so Donovan bought a computer and tried his hand at graphic design, such as designing business cards, for a few years using Paintshop Pro. This was also the time when he dabbled a bit in web design.
At that time, I was still living with my parents, and I would get job offers from newspapers at the breakfast table and get the hint that I needed to move on. - John Henry Donovan
He applied to Aardvark - one of Ireland's oldest Internet companies - got the job, and became a web designer there. Aardvark used its own CMS, written in PHP, and that was John Henry's first point of contact with this technology. Fortunately, the programmer of the CMS was also employed there and, from then on, served as a mentor for PHP for Donovan. It began a period of experimentation for him, so he used Macromedia Flash, wrote ActionScript, and tried Adobe After Effects. At that point, there was still a need for more focus, which would only follow after a few years at his next employer, when he worked exclusively as a web developer.
The world of CMS opened up
In the early 2000s, John Henry Donovan used EllisLab's pMachine CMS for a local school website. Intrigued by the system, an opportunity arose to work part-time at EllisLab, where he was employed as a Technical Support Specialist. During normal office hours, he worked his regular job, while EllisLab support work was done between 5am and 9am. Support was challenging, as it had to be done even while he was on vacation, and eventually, John Henry accumulated over 20,000 posts on the official ExpressionEngine forum. The successor to pMachine was ExpressionEngine, and Donovan stayed with EllisLab until ExpressionEngine 2. Even after that time, during which he worked as a freelancer, among other things, ExpressionEngine remained his CMS of choice.
I was always promoting ExpressionEngine. ExpressionEngine is the one CMS to use; you never have to say no to anything you can do. I was a complete Evangelist of ExpressionEngine. - John Henry Donovan
His passion for ExpressionEngine was so great that he started Meetups in Ireland. But it wasn't to stay regional. He caught wind that Lodewijk Schutte and others were meeting in a bar in Amsterdam and hosting an ExpressionEngine Meetup. As a single man without children, John Henry decided to hop on a plane to attend the meetup. Which was then kindly held in English, and he returned to Ireland the next day. It was fulfilling to meet people with similar views and use this niche CMS, and good years followed with ExpressionEngine and the community.
In 2012/2013, Donovan started using Blocks, the first version of the CMS that would later become known as Craft. During that time, he worked on a large ExpressionEngine project for a dental implant company based in Switzerland, where members, videos, and complicated sign-ups were used. This project served as a benchmark for him, and if he could implement such a project with Craft, he would switch. This was the case in 2014 with the release of Craft 2.
Good and bad times as a speaker
When someone is so involved in the ExpressionEngine and Craft CMS communities, it is only a short way to becoming a speaker. For ExpressionEngine, that included conferences in Portland (Oregon, USA), Manchester (UK), and Detroit (Michigan, USA). For Craft, the Dot All 2022 in New York, USA. But being a speaker is not all fun and games, as Donovan experienced when he was booked by Brad Parscale for two talks at a conference.
On the morning of the conference, I lost my voice, and I was more or less contractional obliged to give the talks. So I was drinking scotch and using the excellent pharmacy products in America because they are a lot stronger than ours. And the only way I could talk was by lowering my voice, and it sounded like I would burst into tears every time I spoke. - John Henry Donovan
The fear of being stuck with the hotel costs and disappointing the conference participants ensured that John Henry exceeded the physical pain threshold. After the conference, when he was back home, the mental breakdown followed in the form of severe depression. Fears of failure and the experiences of the Talks circled in his head, eventually leading to the decision never to give Talks again. But years later, when a door opened again in Detroit, Michigan, at the ExpressionEngine Conference 2016, he wanted to face his demons for the last time and give a final talk to finally put the past behind him. This talk about Image Workflow & Management for ExpressionEngine was a great success; after that, the speaker time should be over.
But never say never, because in 2022 Pixel & Tonic was looking for speakers for Dot All 2022 in New York. And John Henry wanted to visit New York and see all his friends from the community again after the pandemic and talk about Craft CMS.
I drank a bottle of wine. And I filled out the talk proposal form. In the proposal, I said, "I am sorry, but I drank a bottle of wine, and this could be an excellent talk. I did it years ago for ExpressionEngine, but I wanted to do a similar or even better job of doing this for Craft." - John Henry Donovan
Ultimately, his proposal was accepted, and he flew to New York and gave a good lecture, which you can now watch on YouTube. But the self-doubt remained.
Again, all the apprehension, all the nerves. Will I do well? I did okay, but I spoke way too fast. I forgot many things to say and kept saying the words like "ahem" all the time. I can't pronounce the th+s. So all of those things are coming through your head. Mentally it was stressful. - John Henry Donovan
The honesty with which John Henry talks about these topics is impressive and meaningful. In times of Instagram and TikTok, we often only get presented with someone's good times. Yet even experienced speakers and web developers struggle with mental issues - as all humans do.
It's important to understand that your self-image doesn't always match the image of others on you. In fact, the talk at Dot All 2022 ended up being so well received that since Craft CMS 4.4, there are built-in features that John Henry suggested during his speech. Since then, it has been possible to permanently dismiss Tool Tips and Instructions.
Surviving a web development career
The topic of health is, again, one that should be talked about more in the industry. Be it physical health or even mental health. Too often, work is not recognized as it because it is fun, and one has nevertheless made its hobby the profession. And this attitude often leads to overtime or working on weekends, often as a side project. In the long run, that can't be good, as John Henry also reported.
I was working all the time, and I got two blood clots. One in each leg, from working for an agency way past the hours. Two days nonstop, I only get up to pee, I think. And then, I woke up with a pain in my chest the day after the project was due. - John Henry Donovan
Anyone who has worked for agencies or clients will be familiar with this sense of responsibility that you absolutely want to meet the deadline, no matter the cost. But no one should jeopardize their health because of it. John Henry got these two blood clots that traveled to his lungs and caused embolisms. In the end, he was only hours away from death and had mild heart attacks even in the hospital when someone from the agency visited him and gave him a Notepad to write down everything he knew about this project. Because they have to deliver for the deadline.
Unfortunately, John Henry then had a whole page written all over him. Fortunately, he survived this illness and was prescribed blood thinners for several years. When these were discontinued, Donovan was again working on a project for a very long time when blood clots formed again. This time he already knew the feeling behind his knee and went straight to the hospital, and fortunately, it was not as bad as the first time. As a result, however, he will have to take blood thinners for the rest of his life.
I warn everyone I talk to and tell my story about the blood clots. It can happen to all these young developers doing sleepless nights. It's not badge; it's not a Medal of Honor to be working these late nights. It will affect you when you settle down and have families and kids. Because it will be a desperate routine to get out of. And I missed many nights I could have spent with my kids, my baby, and my wife. - John Henry Donovan
The conversation with John Henry was frank, and I was impressed by the topics we discussed far from normal web development. The clarity with which he spoke about mental and physical health is enormously important. In doing so, I experienced a man who had found his way. He consciously spends time with his family but also takes time for himself, for example, when he brews beer, bakes bread, or makes pottery.
He can no longer imagine a regular 9-to-5 job because that model is no longer compatible with his thinking. As a problem solver, it's not always possible to force yourself to do something. Instead, the solution may occur to one in the shower or during a walk. And if he's still working late at night today, it's not because he went through it again but because he didn't work or worked less earlier in the day. It's all a question of finding the right balance, and he seems to have found it.
Even if it currently means living with four children and his wife in a house that is too small, with no office for him. So he works under the stairs as the Harry Potter of web development.