If vB, IPB, and XF are the 3 biggest players in the paid forum software scene than WBB (WoltLabs Burning Board) is Number 4. It's full featured and popular, especially in Germany, and it's got designs on a spot in the "Big 3".
This is an interview with Alexander Ebert (AKA dtdesign), a TAZ regular and the senior developer of WBB.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Alexander Ebert and I’m currently 26 years old, born in Düsseldorf and moved to Berlin in 2010 to join WoltLab.
What is your educational background?
I took my high-school diploma (Abitur) in 2008 and started studying computer science at the RWTH Aachen and later at the Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf, but eventually I quit it to join WoltLab.
What does your username, dtdesign, represent?
I used to create designs for websites before I switched to software development and nicknames are these kinds of things that usually stick with you over the years. Oh, and it’s short for “deltateam design”, but where that originates from is another story.
What are your accomplishments up to this point?
School isn’t exactly teaching the stuff one needs to know to develop software, over the years I gathered all the knowledge from books, tutorials and a huge pile of trial-and-error attempts. It all started with a simple ‘Hello World’ in PHP and as of today I’m working almost 5 years as developer at WoltLab. Building all this up on my own is a rather big achievement for me.
Any failures you'd care to tell us about?
Studying. It is a bit hard to explain, but when it comes to software development, studying computer science is just a waste of time. You actually want to learn how to do it, not how development and computers theoretically worked two decades ago. Maybe it has changed meanwhile, but looking back at it every other decision would have been better.
What is your fulltime job?
I’m Senior Developer at WoltLab, the company behind Burning Board.
What is your ultimate professional goal, your dream job?
Working on our software is more like a passion than for me; I spend a lot of time working on it, even off-hours. That might sound stupid, but what I’m currently doing is exactly everything I ever wanted and my father taught me that “turning your hobby into a profession is the best you can do”. Today I well understand what he meant.
How did you get involved in coding?
Actually it was my father who granted me an initial insight into software development, even though trying to convince me with Visual Basic wasn't the best choice. Actually it was so weird, that I instead focused on webdesign before I finally moved back to programming, but this time with PHP.
Describe your typical workday schedule.
There isn't much to say, I’m primarily sitting in the office and working on the software, trying to avoid pretty much anything that prevents me from writing code. In between things I’m reading through our forums to see if I can help somewhere or participate on other websites, including TAZ. Usually after some time I focus back on my editor, that code isn't going to write itself!
There seems to be quite of excitement about WBB 4.1. Can you tell us about it in some detail?
Most notably we ditched CKEditor and replaced it with Redactor; it is so much more fun to work with, especially on mobile devices. Besides that we put in a lot of smart features that were suggested since Burning Board 4.0 and polished the already existing ones.
What is the basic architecture?
Burning Board is one of our 5 products based upon our very own MVC-Framework called “Community Framework”, completely object-oriented with a high level of abstraction. The framework itself is centered on user-generated content and provides a lot of common features which can be easily implemented by applications without the need of writing the same code over and over again, saving us a lot of time and makes it super easy and fast to apply fixes.
On top of this we have our own package system, allowing one-click installs and updates. Users can either manually upload the package file or use the package update servers to directly fetch the required data from our servers (e.g. run a full system update) without the need of manually picking up all the files or uploading dozens of dozens of files via FTP.
What is the current featureset?
That’s a pretty general question and it’s a bit difficult to decide which features are most remarkable. After all Burning Board provides a huge repertoire of features, most of them are useful for everyone and some are more specialized towards specific use-cases. It is important to recognize that every forum has (slightly) different needs and where one features makes sense to forum A, it might be less useful for forum B.
Our product suite (forum, blog, calendar, gallery and filebase) covers pretty much all needs and making it easy to pick the ones that matter for one’s community. And in case there is something missing, people can head over to our Plugin-Store and grab whatever they need to fill the gap.
In case someone is still curious, they can head over to woltlab.com and request themselves a demo, it contains all our products pre-installed, ready for testing.
What's planned for the future?
Joke aside, our primary goal is progressive enhancing, which simply means we look at the existing features which might need polishing and consider adding features requested by our customers. As I’ve said earlier, the community is a really important part in this process, allowing us to keep in touch with the needs and demands to make the product match our customers’ expectations as best as possible. In other words (warning: marketing blah-blah ahead): You ask, we deliver.
Is there any language issue for English speakers when it comes to the software or support?
There is none.
Everyone at WoltLab speaks English, all resources are available equally in English, we provide full English support at all times and the entire source code is written in English only. Additionally all 3rd party products offered in our Plugin-Store are required to provide a full English translation and product details, leaving no one behind.
Even though the majority of our community consists of native German speakers, most of them speak English too and always offer a helping hand for those in need.
How do you feel when you publicly release your software?
We've put thousands of hours of work into the software and releasing the software is a bit like watching a child taking its first steps.
Tell us about the WBB Community.
I guess it is pretty safe to say that a community is the backbone of any forum software; a healthy community is the key to initial and ongoing success. One should consider the community to be a part of the company and take care of them as much as possible, both those who already became some sort of fixture and those who are new. Keeping in touch with your community means you’ll know if something in the software is heading for the wrong direction and can act accordingly. This isn’t always an easy thing because new and existing customers may have different (and sometimes opposing) expectations and needs.
Our community is not much different to others, there were and will always be some quirks, but overall it has been a significant part of our success. A lot of members voluntarily provide support for many years and offer new users a helping hand, allowing them to make the best out of our software.
Besides direct support, there are dozens of dozens of developers providing both free and paid additions for our software, filling the gap for those who need specialized features or want things to work different.
Overall I can say that working with our community is a pleasure and we strongly appreciate the enormous amounts of feedback we have received from them over the years; they’re like a hidden but visible engine supporting our motivation every single day.
When you develop forum software are you designing it for yourself or for the endusers?
It is basically all about the enduser, after all they’re the ones who use the software and it is important to make it as comfortable for them as possible.
Yet every single one of us is active in various communities in their private time and every once in a while we stumble across small things that annoy us. A short example: Burning Board 3 already allowed quoting parts of a message by selecting the text and clicking on a button to trigger a dropdown which offered the option to quote only the selected message fragment. When it came to Burning Board 4 we’ve looked into this and asked us why one has to move the mouse away from the selection to quote it. Now the software offers you to quote the selection right next to your selection. Sometimes the little things can make a huge difference.
What future changes do you expect in forum software development?
Forums have been through a lot of changes, mostly because more people are using the internet compared to a decade ago and the devices they’re using evolved. I consider forums to be a viable niche that stands it grounds against competing platforms like Facebook, they do share similarities (and we've seen quite a lot of adoption in the last years), but they’re not equal and possibly never will.
While one can probably predict how things may be turn out in a year from now, I seriously doubt anyone can make strong predictions what is going to happen in the following years. The internet itself grows rapidly and I guess it is time to think of the internet as some kind of living organism which does no longer follow the initial design specs.
What advice can you give people just getting into programming?
There are dozens of dozens of programming languages out there which aim for different problems, there is nothing like the “one and only” language to solve your problems. If you want to work on desktop applications, don’t waste your time on unrelated languages like PHP just because you spotted that one nice tutorial.
Then find a book which provides you with the basic knowledge for your target language and work your way up and head for realistic goals. If you have no experience with development, you should start with something small and simple; everything else will just lead to frustration.
What are the most common technical mistakes you see new admins making?
Trying to accomplish something based upon a tutorial snippet that was written ages ago and was wrong even back then. Some people are just used to forum software which requires one to manually edit the source files and throw arbitrary queries at the database and it seems to be rather challenging to drop these bad habits.
What are the most common administrative mistakes you see new admins making?
Setting up the forums and almost instantly turn it into a plugin galore. Some forums just look and feel like the admin browsed the list of available plugins and picked every plugin that (remotely) sounded fancy. Sometimes less is more.
Or to express it with one of my favorite sayings: Too much of a good thing.
Do you own/administrate any forums aside apart from the official WBB forums?
I used to run a community with someone else, but for numerous reasons it does not exists anymore. After all, building forum software is much more fun for me; I kind of love it to write lines of lines of code and then fire up my browser to see how it turned out.
Which online communities do you enjoy as a member?
They’re primarily related to either games or technical stuff (TAZ somehow fits into this category for me), mostly these are rather smaller communities where one more or less knows each other.
What are your favorite books? Movies? TV shows? Music? Games? Foods? Beverages?
Digital Fortress by Dan Brown is an awesome book, I enjoyed it so much and it was the first English book I read (putting books read in school aside). When it comes to movies, I’m sort of into these kind of movies you won’t let your children watch (no, not the naughty ones, talking about stuff like Event Horizon).
I’m listening most times a day and it’s usually a mixture of classical music, epic music (Two Steps From Hell, Immediate) or techno/dubstep. Yep, it’s weird.
What do you do for fun and relaxation?
Jigsaw puzzles are awesome; I can do them for hours straight without getting bored. Besides that I like strategy games and ego shooters, they all let me relax and turn my brain into sleep mode.
Let’s face it, in general I simply fire up my IDE and write some lines of codes, I sort of love doing that and it even after the years I still enjoy it.
What do you know now that you wish you'd known 10 years ago?
We all make mistakes, but in the end all my decisions lead to this very moment answering this question. Surely some things could have gotten better, but looking at where I am now, I’m pretty much satisfied.
Tell us something about yourself that we don't already know.
I’m rather good at dancing (Standard and Latin dance) and enjoyed it with my past girlfriend for many years, but somehow we lost focus on it.
What does the future hold for Alexander Ebert?
I’m having a job which satisfies me, an awesome relationship for 4 years right now and earn enough money to pay my bills. I guess the only thing that is yet outstanding is an Audi RS6 Avant. Yep, others want a house, plant a tree and all this fancy stuff, but I want that masterpiece of a car. Challenge accepted.