How PHP will continue to be the most popular language on the web – and why community is the key to its success

An an interview with Ciarán Rooney and Dave Nattriss - co-organisers of PHP UK Conference, we're told how PHP's very low barrier to entry makes it a very compelling choice for most developers - and why adoption is PHP is set to rise with the release of PHP 5.4. The organisers also gave us an insight in to how PHP UK Conference came about, and what makes it so special

PHP Conference

Ciarán Rooney is the chairperson of the PHP UK committee, and also the President of PHP London. Speaking to PostDesk at PHP UK Conference 2012, told us that he’s “…been involved with coming to PHP London events for about three years now, and I’ve been involved with running them for the last seven or eight months. This is my first year involved with the conference. I got involved because I’ve been to it for a number of years, and always thought it was one of the best conferences I’ve been to every year. So I really wanted to get involved and help make it better and bigger.  I’m the CTO of a company called Skimlinks, we run mostly PHP there. We’re probably one of the highest trafficked PHP installations in the UK, doing about sixteen billion request to our PHP APIs every month.”

Dave Nattriss, a freelance developer, told us that he’s “…been working with PHP for twelve years…” “…I started attending PHP London five or six years ago, and pretty quickly after going to the monthly meetings, the founder, Marcus Baker, was too busy to keep running it himself, so he decided to delegate his duties to a committee of people. Nobody really wanted to do it, so I kind of felt that I could at least help with the website for the group, so I offered to get involved, and I’ve been on the PHP London committee for almost five years now. The first conference they held when I was involved was all organised by someone else. But since then I’ve been helping organise the PHP UK conferences, so this is the fourth time I’ve been organising it.”

PHP UK Conference 2012

PHP UK Conference 2012

We put a number of questions to Ciarán and Dave – here are their responses in their entirety.

What you get here at PHP UK Conference is the serendipitous interactions that would never happen online

What do you feel is special about bringing developers, members of the PHP community together at a physical event, and what’s important about bringing people together in a physical environment?

Ciarán Rooney: What you get here is the serendipitous interactions that would never happen online. People meeting people, interacting with them in the real world can never be recreated online. What we try to do, we bring some of the best speakers from all over the world. We fly people in from California, from all over Europe. To create this inspiring content that results in these conversations that are happening in the corridors, in the hallways, in the socials in the evening. To make new connections between people, and solve problems and do really interesting things off the back of that.

Dave Nattiss: There’s also a social side to it, in a way. These kinds of conferences take place all over the world, every month or two. Some of the same people go to the same events and see each other, and obviously they bond over that as well. It’s always quite nice as an organiser, actually, when some of your regulars turn up, and you’re like: ‘Haven’t seen you since last year.’ And have a good catch up.

There was a big ‘ruby on rails’ movement for a while that was very much the fashion, whereas PHP has always been steadily growing – 70% of the Internet is run on PHP

What would you say is unique and special about the PHP community, compared to perhaps the communities that have built up around other programming languages, and in other areas of web development?

Cieron Rooney: The PHP community has always been very close. They’re a tight-knit group. I think it’s quite different to a lot of other communities have been ‘in-vogue’. There was a big ‘ruby on rails’ movement for a while that was very much the fashion, almost. Whereas PHP has always been a steady growth that’s always there, 70% of the Internet is run on PHP. So what you have is a huge community, but also one that is very well interconnected, through events like ours, through the monthly meetups that we do – there’s four or five of them up and down across the UK, and the same all across Europe and the US – so what you get unique about the PHP community is the massive base, but still quite a community feel to it.

Dave Nattriss: It’s pretty easy, I think, if you’re new to web development PHP is a language that you’re likely to try out first. We have, essentially, this network across the world of groups. It’s quite embracing, I guess, and quite easy to get involved with.

A respected, object-orientated language

What do you think the key is to PHP’s continues success, its continued, popularity, and its continued evolution?

Ciarán Rooney: Being an open-source language is always going to be one of its main strengths. It’s come a very long way from its early roots, to now being a respected, object-orientated language. Some of the stuff coming in 5.4 is really going to take it to another level – and that combined with its very low barrier to entry makes it a very compelling choice for most developers, and that is why you see such a high uptake of it.

Dave Nattriss: If you come from a general programming background, and you know C, which is kind of the basic of the last couple of decades – basic itself isn’t around but C is – and PHP is very close in syntax. If you want to build something in the web and you know C, PHP is just the natural choice.

Continuing on from that; to the young up-an-coming, aspiring developer, why should they learn PHP over other languages? Or should they learn PHP over languages? And would you recommend PHP as the first port of call for an aspiring developer?

Ciarán Rooney: I would never recommend a developer learn just one language. PHP is definitely a great starting point; there’s a very low barrier to entry, a massive set of documentation, the site itself is a massive resource, and almost every problem you’ll run in to, you’ll find ten other people who’ve solved it on there. The ‘hello world’ is one line, you can get up and running. There’s very easily standard support for it on all Linux servers, and even installing it on Windows is five minutes with packages like Xampp and Wamp, and these kind of things. You can get in very quickly. On the other side, it’s very easy to pick up bad habits if you haven’t got a traditional programming background, if you haven’t been taught ways of programming. But a lot of that can be combated again by some of the many, many frameworks that are available. Using the Zend framework, Cake PHP and CodeIgniter, which almost force you into good programming habits. So if you were going to learn PHP, probably start with a framework so you can pick up these good habits, and you’ll then find yourself very easily able to move between languages, and progress yourself as a developer.

Dave Nattriss: There’s also the advantage of a number of well-used and loved contact management systems, namely WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla. If you are really pressed for time, and you just need to build a site quickly for someone, you can very easily install one of these packages, and then if you need to tweak something or adjust something, all the code is open and you can just go and do that.

We use CodeIgniter, the lightest weight framework

Speaking of frameworks, what is your personal favourite framework? Have you got a recommendation, or a specific framework that you have an allegiance to in any way?

Ciarán Rooney: We use CodeIgniter, we find it’s the lightest weight framework. So it doesn’t get in your way, and lets you program what you want to program. But still provides a good enough of a support structure, that you actually get some use out of it. One of the biggest challenges with frameworks can often be when they get in the way of you just trying to do something. So, CodeIgniter for us, it doesn’t present that challenge.

Dave Nattriss: As a freelance developer, I don’t really tend to use frameworks, because a lot of the work I get is very small scales; easy sites, that it’s really not necessary. But when I do have a bigger site to manage, I’m a big Drupal advocate. Drupal is a contact management system, but it is also a kind of a form of a framework. It has APIs, you can write modules for it, you can extend it exactly how you want. So that’s the kind of thing I would recommend.

Freelancing: “I rarely get up early in the morning, I rarely have the need to”

Dave, as a freelancer, what words of advice would you give to developers who aspire to work for themselves, they would rather become freelance? What are the benefits of going freelance as opposed to working as part of an agency?

Dave Nattriss: The benefits, is just like a better quality of life, I would say. I work from home, I rarely get up early in the morning, I rarely have the need to. I can kind of live by my own hours as long as there isn’t a pressing deadline with a client. We’re lucky in this industry that there’s an ever-growing amount of work available. In other industries it might be a bit scary to go freelance, and give up your day job and your salary. But I think with the world of the internet and web development, if you’re good at least, there’s going to be loads of work there for you. And even if something goes wrong, there’s a lot of contract work as well. I’m being contacted by recruiters three to five times a week, trying to tempt me into a regular contract or even permanent roles. I’m batting them away a lot because I’m not really interested in that kind of thing. But I know, for peace of mind, that if things did get bad, there seems to be a lot of options out there.

Is it reasonable to become highly proficient in PHP in the hope of actually going into a startup environment, like yourself, or is it advisable to learn something other than PHP? Some commentators are saying that the web industry has grown out of PHP, and that Python and Ruby, with their respective frameworks, fit better with the way it’s headed. They are more progressive. What it PHP’s place in the modern web?

Ciarán Rooney: PHP still has a big place in the modern web. We use a lot of Python as well as a lot of PHP in our application stack. What we find great about PHP is that there is a great talent pool to draw from there, and hire developers from. So we do all of our front-end applications, and reporting, and consumer-facing things in PHP.

Dave Nattriss: If you were to favour Ruby or Python, as those examples, over PHP and go down that road, you are going to risk limiting, because there is basically one major framework for each. As far as I know, any way. You have so much more variety and choice with PHP, and you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket.

Facebook still codes to this day in PHP

Ciarán Rooney: PHP is still obviously at the very heart of the industry. The biggest websites in the world: Wikipedia, WordPress, Facebook, all run on PHP. And the reason that they use it is because of that flexibility. Facebook still codes to this day in PHP. They have done a lot of work in Hip Hop, and it’s great that they released that to the community, and that’s a lot more about serving the code, and the actual server that you use. The language itself is very robust and able to deal with all the challenges that companies like that have. And it’s exactly the same as we’re seeing in our environment, that PHP is 100% able to cope with the demands we place on it. Some work may need to be done on the compiling side, and the serving side. We’re working on some interesting solutions for that as well. But it’s still very much going to be around for a very long time.

Having run the conference for a number of years, or having been involved in the conference for a number of years, what are the biggest changes you have seen within the UK PHP community? And how has that evolved over the time that you’ve been running the conference?

Dave Nattriss: For me, I guess, this is the fifth of our conferences I’ve been at, and I’ve been involved in running four of them, we’ve over doubled in size over that period of time, which is pretty good growth. I guess what’s also happened, as we mentioned before, is that other PHP groups have sprung up. One of the guys that runs the PHP Northwest user group came to our event and thought: ‘We should have one in Manchester’. So they have their own conference every year now. They were inspired by what we were doing. It’s probably just a matter of time until another one pops up, really.

Which would you say are the most influential and notable local, or regional, PHP communities? And what’s important about that geographical aspect of PHP community? There’s a lot, there’s like the West Midlands one, you’ve got the North West, the North East. What is special about these? Which are the most influential?

Dave Nattriss: I’m coming from a bias here, because obviously I help run PHP London, and as far as I know we’re the bigger one, but that’s as you’d expect in London, I suppose. These other ones are all two, three years old at the most. I think word spreads and people come to these conferences and see what we’ve done, and figured: ‘Our town should have this. Our city should have this.’ There’s a bit of helping each other out, we’re very happy at this conference to give them all tables to exhibit, and let them have some representatives. And we do that for free, it’s part of our overhead. We hope that they’ll invite us back to their events in the future.

Ciarán Rooney: The other great thing that we have here in London is that we have some really well-known speakers at our monthly events. You’ve got people like Derick Rethans, who commits to the PHP core, and is very well known speaker on the PHP circuit, and several other speakers like him at our monthly events. Which are pretty well-known for having in-depth content as opposed to the more introduction pieces, they almost all always feature some sort of live coding, and a pretty robust question and answer session afterwards.

Dave Nattriss: Derick will normally know all the answers. More than the speaker.

PHP Conference

What makes a great conference is having your own stamp on it. Don’t try and be another conference.

What makes a good conference? What’s the key to making a good conference? What’s the key to making a good meetup? What advice would you have for someone who wants to create and set up his or her own local PHP group?

Ciarán Rooney: Every conference is different. What we do here in London is very much a conference, it’s a lot about the speakers and the talks, and that kind of thing. Whereas the PHPBenelux conference, for instance, is more of an event. It’s not in the middle of a city, it’s a little bit further out, and there’s a bit more of a community feel to it.

What makes a great conference is having your own stamp on it. Don’t try and be another conference. Great speakers are obviously required. Not only should the talks be talks interesting, but they should inspire people to have the other conversations, and to really get along.

Dave Nattriss: I mean this year, for the first time, we’re having an un-conference as well, so people can just rock-up, sign up on a Post-It note, and just talk. I think if people see how easy it is not only to organise that, but also to speak themselves, it will hopefully inspire them. Maybe they come here and do a talk in front of 20 people, they can go: ‘Well I can do that back in my town, at a pub on a Monday evening in front of 10 people.’ and build it from there. I think it helps people realise that it’s achievable and doable.

The conference is all run by volunteers, the meetup group is all run by volunteers. So get involved.

What other events would you recommend to those interested in getting more involved in the PHP scene in the UK, and elsewhere? Abroad, worldwide?

Ciarán Rooney: For getting among the PHP scene obviously your local PHP user group is the best place to start there. If you don’t have one, just start one. The best advice to anyone looking to get involved in the scene where there isn’t one is to start something. You will find there is loads of people around you. And maybe try and work it in with some of the meetup groups that are in the area. Groups like Bar Camp are a great place to start, especially if you’ve never spoke before, it gives you a really good opportunity to speak. And then maybe from there you can take it on and make it into a monthly event. Or if you’ve got other web meetups, see if you can send an email out to their member list, and go: ‘Hi, I’m starting a PHP group.’ If you’re lucky enough to be in an area where there is a group, get involved, volunteer. These things don’t run themselves. The conference is all run by volunteers, the meetup group is all run by volunteers. So get involved.

What’s on the agenda this year for PHP? What are the most topical issues that are going to come out of this conference? In broader terms across the whole PHP community, what are the most topical issues?

Ciarán Rooney: The big thing at the moment is the impending release of 5.4 and the new features. That’s really taking PHP to being a full object-orientated language, able to compete with the likes of Java and this kind of thing. So there is a lot of talk about that coming up this year. Also we have the move to GitHub happening, which is hopefully going to see a lot more patches, we’re going to see a lot more contributions to the core of PHP, and that’s hopefully going to make it grow a lot more and a lot faster. On the back of that, the community is therefore growing as a whole, and I think the move to GitHub is really going to see the community around actually developing PHP grow a lot. They’ve moved to GitHub, and they’re seeing a lot of activity now around the new version of the website coming out. There’s a lot more people getting involved, and it’s going to be an exciting year ahead.

Dave Nattriss: With the panel sessions we’ve got at our conference, which Ciarán has curated, one today, the first day, is using PHP at scale, and that’s not really a hot topic, but it’s something every developer will get to at some time when they need to know that kind of information, so it’s kind of relevant. And tomorrow we have a panel session on SQL vs no SQL, and PHP has traditionally been very well coupled and used with MySQL. So it’s interesting that there a now quite a few different options, and there’s a good debate there in picking the right one for the right job. If you’re tied in with PHP, that’s great, but you do have choice of databases as well.

We’re definitely going to see Just-in-time (JIT) compilation

Where is PHP heading? What’s the future for PHP, not just months, but years down the line?

Ciarán Rooney: That’s an interesting question. PHP is still going to continue to be one of the most popular languages on the web. Especially through the support of the big companies that have invested huge amounts of time in it, like WordPress, Wikipedia, and Facebook. I think down the line we’re definitely going to see a JIT compiler, that is going to make a massive difference to PHP, and if anything, adoption will going to go up based on that.