The road to WordPress 5.6: a look behind the scenes

It’s here, the release of WordPress 5.6! What a wonderful journey it has been. As one of the release mentors of WordPress 5.6, I thoroughly enjoyed helping the team in any way I could. In this blog post, I’ll tell you more about the process, the people involved, and what we focused on. Essentially, the road leading up to WordPress 5.6.

Before I tell you about how we got here, let me mention what WordPress 5.6 brings you. This release comes with new block editor features, including new block patterns, improved accessibility, beta-compatibility with PHP 8, application passwords and more. In addition, this release comes with a brand new default theme: Twenty Twenty-One.

Let’s start at the beginning

As one of the people involved, I’m able to give you a look behind the scenes. So, where do we start with a new WordPress release? How do we get all everyone involved? And how do we determine which features will be included in an upcoming release?

Getting the squad together

WordPress.org is an open-source platform that relies on contributors from all over the world. So, the work on it never stops. That’s also why you’ll find a call for contributors for an upcoming release even before the current release is live. This was also the case with WordPress 5.6.

There was one big difference this time. For the first time in WordPress history, this release featured a squad consisting entirely of people that identify as women or non-binary people. Over the years, prominent women in WordPress – Helen Hou-Sandi, Josepha Haden – have brought up the lack of diversity in the release process. So the goal was to increase the number of women and unrepresented folx who work on a release. With the hope of seeing them return as regular contributors to WordPress.

When we put the news out there that this would be an all-women release squad, over eighty people raised their hands to join in. Which is an incredible, unprecedented number. After reaching out to everyone, we ended up with more than forty people committed to this release squad. Everyone was divided into smaller teams – cohorts – to ride-along the release of WordPress 5.5. Allowing them to learn the ropes. We gave everyone the room to work on something they were confident in or something they wanted to learn more about. While making sure that everyone got the mentorship they needed to thrive and bloom into their role. With that, our release squad was born!

The roadmap to a WordPress release

Providing a standard roadmap of a WordPress release is quite difficult. Mainly because some features get developed and decided on along the way. But also because resources can sometimes become unexpectedly scarce. For example, with contributors taking a break due to work or something in their personal life.

Every release cycle starts with collecting the essential information: focuses, resources, and people’s availability. To set realistic goals of what needs to be achieved, the release team relies on the core blog and Trac a lot. Team representatives and component maintainers are consulted to get an idea of what is going to be ready on the release date.

After putting all of the collected ideas into a structure, the fun could really start. As I mentioned, contributions to WordPress are a continuous process, but we do have a proper kick-off for every release. This is when we announce on WordPress.org what we will work on and with whom. Lots of people worked on this announcement. As the WordPress Core team representative, I was asked to hit “Publish” on this post. This is still one of the proudest and most emotional moments in my time as an open-source contributor.

As always, communication is key

After publishing that announcement the squad got to work. This is when communication ramps up in different places: Slack, the core blog, Trac, and GitHub. Lots of people use these channels to keep each other updated or discuss possible feature ideas. Which is one of the wonderful things about WordPress, but also the reason why each focus needs at least one lead. To help the different teams keep each other informed and to make it possible to quickly respond to changes.

This might be a good moment to elaborate on my role during this release. My role as a mentor was to make the process run as smoothly as possible. By helping the team leads where I could, keeping an eye on the deadlines, and coaching the people involved whenever this was needed. I was a mentor for the release coordinator cohort, led by Dee Teal. And I helped the test lead, Monika Rao, where I could. For example, by offering assistance with test scrub.

A safe environment for everyone

When it comes to decision-making or discussing new ideas: the bulk of this happens in public. Everyone is able to comment on tickets in Trac, or give their two cents in one of the other public channels. There is also a private channel, that functions as a digital safety net for people that are new to the release process.

To give you some context, the WordPress Slack channel has about thirty-five thousand people in it. As I started contributing in 2019 myself, I know it can be quite daunting to ask your question there. It’s great to see that people often use the private channel when they start out and grow into their role to the point that they feel comfortable enough to ask questions in the public channel.

This really shows you how the WordPress community works. You can expect constant support and help from everyone involved. Because everyone wants to see you and WordPress succeed. This gives lots of room to ask questions and learn from more experienced people. From my personal experience, the learning curve can be steep. But with the help of others, you will be able to learn a lot in a relatively short period of time.

What you can expect from WordPress 5.6

With the contributions of everyone involved, we were able to put together a release that we’re proud of. A release that brings you automatic updates, application passwords, enhancements to the block patterns, beta support for PHP 8 and a new default theme. Of these awesome features in WordPress 5.6, I would like to zoom in on the default theme.

The default theme Twenty Twenty-One

Less than two months ago, I started at Yoast as the lead of the WordPress core team. This is a new team in the company, and I was actually the last person hired. You may already know that team Yoast is always actively contributing to WordPress. Joost himself, but also lots of other Yoasters have been heavily involved in numerous WordPress releases. Both during working hours and in their free time. So it was obviously time for a dedicated team.

In my first week, we realized that the resources available to develop the new default theme weren’t enough. So Joost announced that our team would be involved in making this happen. Ari Stathopoulos, our resident WordPress theme expert, started working on it. We also decided to sponsor Carolina Nymark, the default theme development lead, to work on it full time. In addition, we put together a temporary team with some expert front-end developers at Yoast to get a lot done in a short period of time. Our primary goal was to make the beautiful design, made by Mel Choyce-Dwan, a well-coded reality.

I believe we achieved that while also focusing on other important things. We wanted to deliver a theme that focuses on performance and is as accessible as possible ‘out of the box’. Also, this theme offers a dark mode which I hope lots of people will use from an accessibility point of view.

Read more: Twenty Twenty-One: New default theme for WordPress 5.6 »

Looking back down the road taken

All in all, this was quite an adventure. One that has shown me once again how wonderful our WordPress community is. And how much I, and everyone who contributes, can still learn from being involved in an open-source project. My takeaway is that we achieved what we set out to do: bring a more diverse pool of contributors to WordPress. Of which some have also expressed the wish to continue contributing. This has shown me that if you give people the space to contribute, they will gladly take it and use it to grow. Both themselves, as the project.

Something I’ve also learned during this release is that effective communication is, and will always be, a priority. With so many people involved, you can never repeat the same thing often enough to make sure that everyone has read and understood it. This is something we’ll have to keep an eye on with every release. Both for the process and the people involved.

A big thank you to everyone involved

Announcing this release to the world is a moment that all WordPress contributors should be proud of. I’m very proud to see how people grew into their roles during this release. Even people that are new to contributing, who grew their confidence and skills in a very short time span. People that already kicked ass, and now kick it even harder. So if you’re thinking about contributing to WordPress, please know that you will be welcomed with open arms!

Keep reading: Five awesome new features in WordPress 5.6 »


2 Responses to The road to WordPress 5.6: a look behind the scenes

  1. Tunde Sanusi
    Tunde Sanusi  • 4 months ago

    This is amazing to see the work that goes on behind WordPress core release. Thanks for publishing this

    • Camille Cunningham
      Camille Cunningham  • 4 months ago

      You’re welcome, Tunde!