TextExpander Story: How the Stewards of WordPress Adopted TextExpander, Part 1

This is part one of a three-part series by our friend Danny Santoro of Automattic, stewards of WordPress and the popular WooCommerce plugin. We invited Danny to share his company’s adventures of working smarter with TextExpander.

The year was 2014 – early March, and I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new employee at WooThemes. As a hugely respected WordPress-centric company, WooThemes provided a variety of quality themes to use on your WordPress.org site. In addition to themes, they were the developers of the now-famous WooCommerce—a commerce platform almost synonymous with retail in the WordPress environment.

The products were fantastic and the people were the top in their field. Overall, I was very much outmatched—surrounded by brilliant developers, business executives, and support agents, I had no idea where my piece was in the puzzle. Certainly, it was overwhelming, and just a little bittersweet. We were “WooCommerce Ninjas,” but hadn’t been issued swords (I’m still holding my breath that one day this will happen).

One thing I knew I had excelled in since childhood was project planning, organization, and ultimately workflow optimization (I went outside, I promise). I had always been on the hunt in college to find the best way to accomplish something, be it as complex as pulling off three consecutive all-nighters to finish my thesis film, or just managing hundreds of rows of data at my internship. If the others could thrive in development, I would simply have to thrive in my own way – by making things faster, easier, and better for everyone involved.

It was in the early days of my time at WooThemes that I was first introduced to the concept of text expansion programs and snippets—pieces of text that magically appear in a document after typing a couple of trigger characters.

While most of the company was on Macs, I was a Windows holdout (on a rigged up Hackintosh machine. I didn’t have the money for a MacBook) and thus an outlier. Many skilled members of the WooThemes team had actually already been using TextExpander for some time, but I was stuck with (less effective) Windows equivalents.

At the time, we were using a shared Dropbox folder for all of our snippets. While this worked, it was messy at best. Any updates to that Dropbox file would go out to everyone, which meant many of us constantly lost custom snippets, modifications, and a lot of functionality. Even back in Spring of 2014, we realized the need for shared text expansion snippets, but simply didn’t have the tools. Unfortunately, it was put on the back burner, with the Dropbox file more or less abandoned or used by a very few.

WooMattic – Breaking the Internet

The next few months saw a monumental growth in WooCommerce adoption rates across the internet. Leaping from 25% to 30% of all eCommerce sites on the internet, we had proven ourselves as a legitimate CMS and sales platform for businesses of all types. Our freemium extension model allowed for store owners to customize their installs and buy only what they wanted. It was a refreshing alternative to bundled, monthly-fee based competitors.

In our meteoric rise we grabbed some attention. During our WooTrip to San Francisco in Autumn of 2014 (immediately following our first and hugely successful WooConf), top-secret discussions began to take place for the next logical step.

In a surprising Summer 2015 announcement, it was revealed that Automattic, the developers of WordPress and owners of WordPress.com, had acquired WooThemes, its products, and its people. It was certainly a confusing time, but something great came out of it. The Windows holdouts were able to switch back to Macbooks, which fit the Automattic workflow much more easily. Finally, we were all on the same platform. Finally, I got my hands dirty with TextExpander 5.

This breathed new life into the idea of shared snippets. We had more resources, more minds, and more time to try to find the solution. Now that I could directly export and manipulate the same files as my coworkers (instead of using a convoluted CSV process), we tried a variety of methods to create shared snippets. We resuscitated Dropbox first, then tried GitHub.

While both had varying levels of success, neither was realistically manageable. Our modified snippets would still get overridden during updates, and managing snippets through a GitHub file was less than ideal. Once again, the optimization dream was shelved, and we had to press on by hand, sharing snippets or hoping that new hires would pick up on the process. The thought and idea had never left my mind, though, and it became a minor obsession. I needed to find a way to pull this off. I’d just have to wait and see what the future held.

This series contains opinions of the author and is not representative of Automattic Inc., WooThemes, WooCommerce, or any of their holdings or subsidiaries. Any questions or comments should be directed to Danny’s site or to his Twitter.