Matt Mecham, the creator of the Invision Power Board, was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for an Admin Zone interview. Since he's currently working very hard on the upcoming IPB 2.1 release, which is being previewed on the IPS Company Forums, this was especially gracious of him. Matt has been interviewed before, and I recommend that you read the one he did with Zain in 2002 Here and then the one he did with Olate in 2004 Here before continuing on. Rather than go over the past, which has already been well covered, my intention was to get to know Matt on a more personal level and to look at the present and future of Invision Power Services.
Can you give us a brief bio?
I’m 29 years old and live in Cambridgeshire with my fiancée. I have been involved in the forum software market since 1999 when I decided to open a discussion board on my website. I used and modified a variety of products and eventually wrote my own which I decided to release when it was complete. I’ve been the C.E.O. and C.S.A. of Invision Power Services, Inc since I co-founded it in 2002.
Your not online much at all during the weekends - what do you do to relax and unwind?
I’m a voracious reader. I love James Patterson’s work, especially his “Alex Cross” and “Women’s Murder Club” novels. I also have a fascination with World War II and the role the American Paratroopers played in it. The 101st have been immortalised many times in books and movies, “Band of Brothers” being the most popular. I also enjoy walking our Dog, Barney and cycling.
What are your favorite books? Movies? Music? Games?
My “favourites” change daily. At the moment, my favourite author is James Patterson. My favourite movie is “Leon”. My favourite bands include: Radiohead, Athlete, Muse, Coldplay and Snow Patrol. I also have a thing for Guns ‘N Roses, probably because of my misspent youth. My favourite game has to be GTA: San Andreas.
What is your educational background?
I don’t have any outstanding qualifications. I finished the UK equivalent of High School and spent two years at college. I found the college experience quite disappointing and decided against university and found full time work much more rewarding.
What would you want to do for a living if you weren't a software developer?
I always fancied being a tortured and starving artist but the pay is quite poor. If I wasn’t a software developer than I’d definitely continue my career in graphic design. I worked in the design industry for nearly seven years before moving onto IPS full time.
How has success changed you?
I don’t think I’ve reached a milestone where I can say “I’m now a success”. I work hard every day and have a hundred different problems to solve every week. Business is very good and I’m delighted at how far IPS has come in a short space of time. I’ve not bought the yacht or mansion yet! I have told Lindy (C.O.O. of IPS, Inc.) that if I do buy a yacht in the distant future, I’m calling it the “PHP Princess”.
Which online communities do you enjoy as a member?
It’s hard to participate in communities for subjects that I’m interested in as people invariably recognise my name and deduce that I have an ulterior motive for joining and posting. I have considered registering a pseudonym but that’s a bit cloak and dagger and not something I want to be involved with. I lurk on a lot of forums and get enjoyment just from reading.
How many forums do you administrate?
Technically none. I have admin access at our corporate board, but I don’t perform the daily tasks that one needs to do to qualify as a forum administrator. I don’t have the time to moderate or administrate any other boards.
How would you describe your moderation style?
I try to be easy going and fair. I also try and nip arguments in the bud by closing the topic if necessary. I don’t see the point in letting a topic get way out of hand and allow members to build grudges against each other. It’s much more pleasant all round if they are prevented from saying something they’re likely to regret.
Are the IPS Company Forums difficult to manage?
Not at all. We have a very adult and sensible core. We have the usual selection of ban-fodder that think that high school pranks and jokes are the very height of hilarity and seem unable to understand that our corporate forums aren’t the venue for their immaturity.
What are the most common mistakes you see new admins making?
The single most common mistake I see is a new admin acting like they own the place! It’s infuriating to watch someone wield their supreme executive power without care of compassion for the members they’re meant to be taking care of.
Has your decision to use PHP proven to be correct?
Absolutely! When I started to rewrite Ikonboard in 2001, PHP was still very difficult to work with and lacked some of Perl’s advanced features. I knew that PHP was the way forward but it wasn’t developed enough. When I came to write the first version of Invision Power Board I knew that PHP was the only language to consider. PHP 4 was a more powerful and flexible language and its object orientated approach allowed me to convert my perl structures to PHP without a lot of refactoring. I joked at the time that I was writing in “PHPerl”.
Several years ago you mentioned a move to a development team for IPB. AFAIK, that never materialized and you remain the sole developer. Why is that, and what would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of the solo approach compared to the development team?
We are looking at moving over to a development team. It’s something that’s always been on my mind. It’s not really been viable until now to actually do. Currently, I find it much easier to work on the code on my own. I know every line of code and can identify where a problem may be instantly. We have recently interviewed some very talented programmers and we’re setting up a development center in the US office.
IPB 2.1 is a major achievement - you must be very excited and proud! And extremely busy. Is it all that you hoped it would be, and more?
I think that IPB 2.1 is the product I’ve been trying to produce since 1999. It has the correct balance of features to a simple interface and excels in the moderation and administration areas. We pioneered the use of multi-moderation, in-line moderation and AJAX powered in-line editing. All these innovative features make using IPB a joy. I’m very proud of the feature set and pleased to have introduced new features and concepts into the “feature pool” that bulletin board developers draw from.
How is the development and integration of the other IPS products going?
Very well is the short answer. We have finalized the IPS kernel (the core modules and classes that all our products share) and our new products already use this kernel and can integrate member authentication via our APIs.
IPB 2 made significant advances over the previous version in terms of usability, and IPB 2.1 will apparently continue this trend. Can this go on indefinitely, or will the software eventually "max out" on features? And what do you say to the people who complain that IPB (and vBulletin for that matter) are already "bloated".
I don’t think we’re ever going to max out on features. It’s the same in any industry. What we have now seems perfectly useable and it’s hard to think how we can advance further until a new feature request comes in or a new technique is pioneered or a new idea develops as I code.
If we all had the mentality that nothing could be improved, we’d be watching 3 channels of black and white television and typing in games on our 64k computers. Development is inevitable.
To those who say that IPB and vBulletin are “bloated” I suggest they look at other software that has a restricted feature set. IPB and vBulletin are both highly comprehensive community building solutions with a glut of features to enable members to communicate with each other and to make administration very quick and easy. They are designed in mind for use with millions of posts and members and as such have developed into quite complex tools. If you want a simple forum for use on a small site then seek one out. There’s little point in selecting the wrong tool for the job and complaining to the manufacturer that it doesn’t do the job you want it to do.
There have been a few instances of IPB users claiming to be treated poorly by IPS, of being censored or banned from the Company Forums, for making negative comments about Invision. Clearly, this represents a small subset of your community, but nevertheless a vocal one. Do you have any comments on this issue?
There’s an adage that goes something like “You can’t please everyone all of the time” and this applies to IPS as it does to any customer facing company. The internet is a very informal medium which gives anyone the ability to ‘shout from the rooftops’. In no other industry do disgruntled customers have such a forum (the irony isn’t lost) for airing their grievances. With every tale, there are two sides and I’ve not read a single complaint about us that is one hundred percent accurate in terms of what actually happened. We’re only human and prone to both making mistakes and exaggerating the truth to make a story more passionate and interesting. Combine both of these and you have a captive audience.
Some of the most successful online businesses have their very own ‘hate’ sites campaigning to ‘take them down’ or tell everyone the ‘real truth’. I think that anyone who blindly accepts a version of events without objectively considering another point of view or seeking out proof is only interested in spreading salacious gossip. Of course, the internet is full of people who will gleefully accept a story if it appeals to them and spread it further.
We’re not perfect and we’ve made some mistakes but we’ve always tried our very best for our customers and always approach any complaint with professionalism and objectiveness. We’ve definitely learned from these mistakes and introduced new policies and training to ensure they’re not repeated. To me, the real value of a business is how they deal with their mistakes and problems not how few they make.
We do have a lot of feedback from our customers. We invite their feedback in the customer feedback forum and we also have an anonymous customer service questionnaire available from the client center. We receive thousands of useful and helpful comments a week and we’re listening intently as we redesign the client center and billing/ordering systems.
Thankfully the overwhelming majority of our customers are very satisfied with our prices and services and continue to re-new their services and purchase new products. A lot of our custom is repeat business which speaks volumes about our general level of service.
The other complaint I hear regarding Invision involves the move away from free software. Can you explain the changes that took place and the reasons behind them? Was there any ambivalence about this on your part and if so was that part of the difficulty in making the transition?
In those three years we've grown from nowhere with two people working out of their bedrooms to a registered company working from a two-storey office complex in Virginia employing nearly two dozen on-site staff and several other remote staff.
We’ve had to make a lot of tough choices. We knew that we couldn’t remain competitive without a source of income to allow me to quit my day job and to fund development. We couldn’t continue trying to please both paying customers and non-paying users. We decided that the only way forward was to remove the non-paying version.
We had always maintained that we’d keep the free version for as long as possible and made a promise that IPB 2.0 would be free, and we kept that promise.
We knew that removing the free version wouldn’t be the most popular decision we’ve ever made but it was a necessary one. Since that tumultuous time, we’ve moved to a large two-story custom fitted office complex and doubled our work force that has made dramatic improvements in customer service. With nearly two dozen staff working out of a single building we’re able to get much more done and provide much better on-the-job training. Our technical support department is now very skilled and very experienced and do a fantastic job on a daily basis. We’ve re-invested back into IPS heavily and we’ll continue to expand and improve beyond our initial expectations.
We’ve managed all this through some very tough times so I have every confidence that we’ll be around for a very long time.
How do you see the internet in general changing over the next 5 to 10 years? What about online communities in particular?
I don’t really think there are going to be any fundamental changes over the next five years. I do think that the internet really needs to be overhauled. It’s a system that’s largely built on trust and that’s unfortunately in short supply these days.
With regards to online communities, I do see a convergence of input. Text postings, galleries and live chat will largely merge and video messaging will be an alternative way of communicating with each other. 3-D messaging and snazzy silver space suits may be a little further off.
There seems to be a bit of celebrity associated with being a developer. What's that like?
I don’t think that “celebrity” is the right word. If you develop or manage a popular enough product then people tend to recognise your name if they’re in a similar field.
Tell us something about yourself that we don't already know.
I can bend the pinky finger on my right hand into painful looking shapes thanks to too much cartilage. I can also whip up a mean origami paper bird complete with flapping wings. I like to do that with restaurant receipts.
What does the future hold for Matt Mecham?
IP.Dynamic, PHP 5, marriage, children and moving house.