Press This: WordPress Horror Stories

Welcome to Press This, the WordPress community podcast from WMR. Each episode features guests from around the community and discussions of the largest issues facing WordPress developers. The following is a transcription of the original recording.

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Doc Pop: You’re listening to Press This, a WordPress community podcast on WMR. Each week we spotlight members of the WordPress community. I’m your host, Doc Pop. I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine and my contributions over on TorqueMag. io. You can subscribe to Press This on RedCircle, iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcasting app. You can also download episodes directly from WMR. fm

So, dear listeners, it is time for Spine Tingling Tales. It is the Halloween Horror Stories edition of Press This, where we dive into the deepest and darkest corners of web development to get interesting stories to share with you and put some chills on your bones.

In the spirit of Halloween, we’re delving deep into the web developer’s crypt to unearth tales of terror that will chill your code and make your plugins shiver. Gather around the virtual campfire as we summon our first brave storytellers, Amber Sawaya and Steve Sawaya. Amber is the captain at Anchor and Alpine and Steve is the wizard at Anchor and Alpine, a UX and web firm. Y’all, I’m so excited to have you on. Amber, you have a scary story for us today.

Amber Sawaya: I do. I do. Thank you for having us. This one still makes me scream. It makes my hair rise. I still wake up at night over this. 

So, we had a great project, like absolutely stellar. Everything you want. We had a VC firm brought us in, they introduced us to the client, really loved their marketing team. It was a six-month website. A six-figure project, right? Great project. Everything’s wonderful. We have a great launch. Everybody’s super happy, right? Everything’s great. And then like a week later, we noticed that people are starting to post on LinkedIn that they’ve been let go from this company. And as we watch, everybody we’ve just spent our last six months with is gone, a couple of weeks after launch. 

And then as we watch this website, and this thing was beautiful when we started, it had this amazing leaf graphic in it that was animated, and the client wanted their logo hidden in the animation. So it was all this bespoke, you know, pieces here and there. We had Photoshopped this leaf into all of their people and it kind of wrapped around them, and it was just this very engaging, just really exciting site. Really our heart and souls were into it. And so, you know, seeing our friends that we’ve grown to really enjoy working with all sort of looking for jobs all of a sudden, we’re like, what is happening, right? 

So we’re on the site and we start to notice our beautiful pages start to disappear. One by one, body snatched. So this gorgeous maze with the leaf, that’s got the logo and, you know, all this stuff is moving through it and it’s animated and it’s all these great things. Suddenly it’s gone one day and there’s like, I don’t know, kind of a crappy page that’s in its place and we dive in, you know, because what in the WordPress has happened? And it’s a HubSpot page that somebody’s replaced the WordPress page with. And we’re like, okay. And over the course of a couple of weeks, these pages just start replacing everything until at one point, the entire site’s gone.

All of this effort, all of this time, all of this work is gone and we were able to ferret out somebody who’s still working there. And we were like, what happened? You know, this was, we had great results. The conversions were through the roof. It was a demand gen site, like amazing. We’re like, what happened? Well, the CEO decided one day that WordPress was too hard, and that was the end of his story. So, you know, we, we have tutorials, we have documentation, right? We’re always willing to jump in and help. And as everybody listening to your podcast knows, no, it’s not! Take a second. You can do this. But he decided WordPress was too hard and he liked HubSpot. And so I think maybe in the night he just was going through and tinkering and replacing it. So the site now, we won’t talk about what it is or where it is or any of those things because it definitely, you know, is not the long-lasting beautiful thing we built. But the site of the Body Snatchers for sure, for Halloween.

DP: I love it. So you made this bespoke website that you were super proud of and as you’re kind of watching it, it slowly turns into something else like a, I don’t know if this is a body snatch story or swamp monster kind of story like some tale of something turning into a creature and it turned into a HubSpot page, you said. Just because the CEO, well, I mean, there was layoffs and stuff too. Was that possibly part of it? Like, because the people who you worked with weren’t able to use the site, the CEO was just like, I’m not going to learn this. I’m just going to do something else. It was partially due to the layoffs, right?

AS: I mean, that could be the case, but none of the layoffs or anything made sense. They had just built up this entire marketing division and taken some funding, had this marketing division, and they were only there for the six months of this project.

DP: Yeah.

AS: So… It was all a very strange situation.

DP: That’s, that’s eerie. And Steve, I know that this happened a while ago, but this still haunts you. I know. Is there anything to learn from this that you have applied to how you work with businesses in the future?

Steve Sawaya: You know, it really still does haunt us. You know, one thing I learned is that VCs are going to do what they’re going to do. And there’s not a lot to stop them—and that’s scary in itself.

DP: Hmm. That’s true. But as far as all this goes, at least, I mean, it’s heartbreaking that y’all were really proud of the site and then it morphed into something different. But I guess on the upside, you were able to cash a check, right? Like that didn’t fall through.

AS: Right, yes, we cashed the check, so that part’s all good. But, you know, I think like so many people, yes, we do it because we need the money, but we do it because we love it, and this was such a labor of love for our team. So we have about 10 people on our team, designers and developers all in-house, and, you know, WordPress was such a big deal and such a big part of this project, which is what made this all so interesting. The CEO signed off on it. He was happy with it. We pitched the WordPress solution. Like, We were so far into the WordPress world that, you know, sort of backing it out was, was strange.

And I almost feel like when I looked at the site too, because it looked so different, it was almost like, you know, the gorgeous bespoke costume that maybe somebody’s mom made them, versus the one that’s just the plastic mask and the kind of sad plastic sheet we had in the 80s. So, yeah.

DP: I can totally understand that. Some friends of mine went to a website for CC Mom, the children’s clothing store, and all the images were gorgeous. And in retrospect, clearly, AI-generated, but at the time, everything just seemed like a hell of a bargain and what they got versus what the, uh, the image was. It was just very disappointing for them. They still had a functioning bit of wardrobe, but yeah, it just wasn’t the same as how it looked before. So I guess my final question here is because we did get to introduce y’all as a captain and wizard. Steve, can you explain those titles to us?

SS: So I became the wizard, it was kind of bestowed upon me by the team. I have this superpower where I can kind of look at a problem and just know what’s wrong with it and fix it. Oftentimes it’s called the Steve effect and I’ll walk up and they’ll try and show me the problem and it will be working for them at that point. So that’s how I became the wizard, and I’ll let Amber talk about why she’s the captain.

AS: We just love everything about—so our company’s named Anchor and Alpine, and we love the sea, we love the mountains, and so we tell a lot of kind of corny jokes around that like our general manager is called the Wrangler, and she keeps all of our stuff kind of flowing along smoothly. So the captain just came about because I am the head of the agency, but I think a lot about just being a captain on a ship.

I can’t go anywhere without anybody else, but I do generally get to pick the direction, and I try to pick a good one when we head somewhere.

DP: I love it. Well, Amber and Steve, thank you so much for telling your Halloween story today. And we are going to take a short break. When we come back, we’re going to have more scary web developers slash WordPress horror stories for you, dear listener. So stay tuned after the short break.

DP: Welcome back to a Halloween edition of Press This, a WordPress community podcast. On this episode, we’re telling frightful tales of plugins gone wrong and other WordPress horror stories. I’m your host Doc Pop and right now I’m talking to Derek Ashauer, a web designer and developer who also makes WordPress plugins. Derek, I hear that you have a spooky tale for us. Can you set the scene?

Derek Ashauer: Yeah, so this is really early in my career, a long time ago. I was still working full time at a normal company making and building websites but I was doing some freelance work on the side. I had helped a small concert venue build a custom ticketing system because they really hated Ticketmaster. They were an indie kind of venue so they wanted to do anything to avoid those big corporate companies. But I built this pretty good ticket system, I thought at least. And they were going to have a huge concert back in the day when Blink-182 was really popular. They were going to have them at their venue and they were going to sell tickets for $1 a-piece. So this thing’s gonna get absolutely slammed overnight when they release the tickets. 

So we set it up, did all kinds of testing and thought it was working great. And then come the morning that we’re supposed to release it. I think it was like a Monday at 10:00 in the morning. There were some rules, some basic things that we had in place, like you couldn’t buy more than eight tickets to try and give as many people the opportunity to get tickets and stuff like that. Again, early in my career, so I didn’t do the best at checking on things. But the venue itself could hold about 1,000 people. So we had a limit that once it hits 1,000 tickets to basically stop selling. 

We released at 10 o’clock, and I’m at my normal day job just doing my thing. I kind of checked it, to make sure the site was at least loading and stuff like that but not really too concerned. A few minutes go by and everything seems to be going great, going on. And then, suddenly I started getting text messages. And then I get a phone call. And then I get another text message and I’m in the middle of my job just doing my normal thing so I couldn’t really just easily take these.

It turns out that I forgot to do the little query check to check the max tickets sold. And suddenly it was going to 1,000, 1,050, 1,100, 1,200. I think it got upwards of about 1,600 tickets sold before I finally was able to log into the server and just basically pull the plug. And so obviously, the owners of the venue were panicking and completely freaked out that they had a thousand-seat venue and had sold about 1,600 tickets, and so they were just obviously panicked. And I’m in the middle of my workday panicked. How am I gonna solve this? How am I gonna do this? I gotta do my normal work stuff, and deal with this freelance thing. It was a total disaster at that moment. 

Thankfully, things did end up working out perfectly fine. What was interesting is that another unfortunate thing that I didn’t check was, one way people got around the max tickets was they would just buy multiple times but use the same email address. Again, this was very early in my career. I wasn’t very good at figuring out how to handle possible situations that people would try to work around. So they went through and they checked all the orders, and realized one person with the same email address ordered 24 tickets, so they reached out to them, refunded them, and did that as much as they could. And they got it down to about 11-1,200 tickets. This is so long ago, I don’t remember the exact numbers. But they got it down to that about that many.

And then the day of the event happens and they’re still a little worried about being able to fit everybody. I think about only 600 people ended up showing up. The reason being it was just $1, so a lot of people bought the tickets just in case and then a lot of people couldn’t show up. And so they never ended up having a capacity issue. It all ended up working out well. 

But it was some stressful times when all those tickets were processing and getting paid and doing all that kind of stuff. And thankfully, the client was very happy and understandable in the end, they weren’t angry at me. They ended up using that exact ticket system once I patched that little thing. And they ended up using that ticket system that I had made for about 10 to 12 years. And so yeah, they were pretty happy and we got it all sorted out. And even for me, the client did all the legwork of reaching out to all those purchases and doing all that kind of stuff. So I just kind of had to turn the server off and then fix the little patch didn’t have to deal with too many of the consequences, thankfully. But it was a very stressful couple of hours while we were trying to figure out what happened and what was going on there.

DP: That was a roller coaster, Derek. You were setting up this scenario and I’m kind of getting little hints of when it happened. You know, Blink-182 are kind of popular. I’m assuming you needed a custom plugin because there weren’t very good options like there are now. 

DA: It was 2005. A long, long time ago. Somewhere around there, yeah. 

DP: You were building a custom plugin. So okay, so the height of Blink-182’s popularity, and tickets are $1. That’s insane. So obviously there’s gonna be a lot of demand. This whole roller coaster of like, “Oh no, we sold too many.” I thought you were going to tell me you sold by tens of thousands  more. I feel very lucky you only oversold by 600 tickets because this could have been much worse. And then the scalpers, boy it worked out. Especially because the client could have put all of this on you to like reach out, and do tech support, and cancel these tickets. Man this was a roller coaster. 

DA: Yeah it was. This was my first real large development thing, the biggest thing I’ve ever developed was this. So I just had no idea of how things could go wrong, how badly things go wrong, what to even check and it was just a very good learning experience, that’s for sure. I had a good relationship with the client, so they were pretty happy, because honestly, it was early in my thing, I was charging next to nothing. So it wasn’t like I charged them $50,000 for this thing, and then all of a sudden it didn’t work. I was getting paid honestly, on a per-ticket basis. I got 10 cents a ticket at the time, that they sold through their thing, and me being in my early 20s and making a couple extra thousands dollars a month. That was phenomenal. It was wonderful. So it was a great situation. But yeah, like I said, they kept using it for over a decade, the exact same system.

DP: So you built this ticket system for a pretty big event. And that event, as we said, kind of spiraled out of control. But it sounds like the two issues were having some way to prevent scalpers from at least using the same email.

DA: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t even do that, because there were no user accounts in the system. It was pretty straightforward. It’s just a one time guest checkout. So it didn’t even check email addresses or anything. And it did keep track every time a ticket sold. It kept track of a total. It’s just when people went to the page, it forgot to check how many tickets have been sold and have we passed that number, and to stop it from selling more. 

DP: So those two things got fixed and this worked for 10 years pretty much kind of running itself?

DA: Yeah, I never touched it really ever after that. It just kind of kept cruising along until they finally got big enough to where they kind of had to do some business merger, like one of those other music companies, I forgot what it is. They kind of got bought up basically, and so then they were like, no, we have to use Ticketmaster or some other thing like and so they eventually were forced to abandon it for business reasons. 

DP: They probably got acquired by Clear Channel or something. 

DA: Yes, that’s what it is, Clear Channel. Yeah, it was something along those lines.

DP: So just kind of looking back. What is the one bit of advice you’d give to someone tackling a project similar to this, based on your experience. What is the one thing you’d warn them about?

DA: I mean, it’s obviously testing. That’s a big deal, is just testing your thing as much as possible and in as many scenarios. I mean, I still do my own plugins now and I actually just got a request for one, just this morning, actually, where I responded back, “I never even considered someone doing that. Ever.” 

I have a confetti plugin, and he was like, “I put my confetti twice on the page. Once the page loads and as the user scrolls down, then it’ll go again.” And I never considered anyone doing confetti twice on one page. And so you know, you can test as much as you want, but sometimes you’ll run into those scenarios that you don’t think of, but you still have to do as much testing as possible.

DP: Derek Ashauer, I really appreciate your time. You’re listening to Press This. We’re going to take a quick break and when we come back we’ll have one final Halloween story to give you chills. So stay tuned. 

DP: Welcome back to Press This the WordPress community podcast on WMR. This is a special Halloween story. Earlier we heard from Chris Weigman and I thought I’d have Chris come back and listen to the only WordPress horror story I have. 

Chris, are you familiar with Midjourney and text-to-text image generators? 

CW: Like Dall-e and things? Open AI and stuff like that? 

DP: Yeah Dall-e. I was using them and kind of experimenting with different things and as someone who yo-yos a lot, the very first thing I tried was the yo-yo emoji. And the yo-yo emoji just really didn’t get any great results in there. It didn’t get anything that looked like a yo-yo for instance and the word yo-yo also didn’t get me stuff in text-to-image generators. But it really got me interested because I kept getting very consistent results. Whenever I used the yo-yo emoji,I would get this really cool-looking pink and blue scene with three mountain peaks in the background and a figure in the foreground. And this is supposed to be kind of random, and I kept getting very different images that had pink and blue pastel colors and figures and foreground and things like that. So I really started diving into why is this emoji giving me this and I spent hours going through different combinations of emojis. What does this emoji do? What happens when I do two yo-yo emojis? 

And I wrote this massive blog post. This was gonna crack the case wide open on like weird stuff that happens in, you know, Dall-e and Midjourney around why does this emoji give me this image? And why do other emojis actually give me, you know, a pretzel will give me things that look like baked goods or coffee will give me things that look like a coffee shop. But the yo-yo emoji keeps giving me this strange scene. 

And so after I wrote this massive blog post, I mean it was hours of research and documenting and taking notes. And then the writing, and I hate writing, it’s like pulling teeth, and I hit publish and go to sleep. It’s Sunday night and I spent all Sunday working on researching this post. 

Monday morning people are just like, “All I see are squares when I go to your site, Doc. I see you say the square emoji gives me this result but the square emoji gives me this result.” I went and I checked it. You know the dashboard looked great on the backend, like on my side and the Gutenberg editor. It looked beautiful. On the frontend it was all squares. And all of that work was just absolutely shot. You know why, Chris?

CW: Why would that be? Ghosts in the machine? Gremlins?

DP: My WordPress site is so old, the database did not support emoji. Like at all. It was like 15 years old. If I would have installed something in the last eight years, it would have still been old but it would have supported emoji at some level. 

My database from my WordPress website did not—and if you don’t really know what you’re doing, the one thing you don’t want to do is poke around in your WordPress database. That’s what I needed,  to update my WordPress database, so Chris, that’s my horror story. I went looking for a plugin to just easily convert to something that supports emoji. Any of the databases that could do it. And now I’m going to have to hire someone just to update the database so that I can get this post that I spent 10 hours on to actually show up on my site in a logical way.

CW: That’ll do it. Old technology is a zombie waiting around to cause your problems, right?

DP: Yeah, you know, and it just, it taught me a lot too. Like, I can go into my portal on my hosting and I can, with a click, update my PHP. I can do all this other stuff. But yeah, that database, nope, you gotta know what you need. There’s no easy fix for that. And I think there maybe might have been, as those were rolling out, but I kind of missed the wave, like even those things that fixed the database, you know, to kind of update them are at this point, they’re even old technology, so that’s my WordPress horror story. And Chris it didn’t bring down 20,000 websites, but to be honest, it was a bummer and it still gives me shivers to see that blog post and think of what it could have been. 

But that’s it for our Halloween episode of Press This, the WordPress community podcast on WMR. I want to thank all my guests for joining me today. Chris, thank you so much for joining me. You can follow my adventures with Torque magazine over on @thetorquemag. You can subscribe to Press This on Red Circle, iTunes, Spotify, or download it directly from wmr.fm. 

We’re a weekly podcast, next week we’re going to have Fran Agulto, telling us how to overcome your fear of going headless with WordPress. We’re going to talk about the pros and cons of headless and if you’re worried about making that jump into headless, you’re worried about learning JavaScript, or whatever you need to do to kind of make that jump, Fran’s gonna have some great advice for you, so stay tuned for that episode.

I’m your host, Doctor Popular. I support the WordPress community through my role here at WP Engine and Torque Magazine and  I love to spotlight members of that community every week on Press This.

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