WordPress 6.4 Release Leads: Charting a Path for Diversity and Innovation

WordPress 6.4 Release Leads: Charting a Path for Diversity and Innovation

Released in early November 2023, WordPress 6.4 marks the final major release of the year. It’s a noteworthy one at that – it’s an underrepresented gender-led release.

Codenamed “Shirley”, this version pays homage to the legendary American jazz artist Shirley Horn, known for her unique voice and intuitive piano-playing style.

This spirit of versatility echoes in WordPress 6.4’s new default theme, Twenty Twenty-Four. On top of that, this version includes over 100 performance improvements to bring a more dynamic and intuitive content creation experience.

For this story, we chatted with Anne McCarthy from the Core Triage team and Maggie Cabrera from the Default Theme team. Our conversation sheds light on WordPress 6.4’s release process and underscores the importance of diversity, equality, inclusivity, and belonging (DEIB) in the tech world.

We have previously reported behind-the-scenes stories on WordPress releases, including WordPress 6.3. This time, let’s delve deeper into WordPress 6.4!

How It Started

Leading a part of the 6.4 release represents a fresh and exciting chapter in Maggie Cabrera’s WordPress journey.

“I’ve contributed code to some WordPress releases, but I’ve never led any part of them,” Maggie says. Her experience collaborating with people who worked on the default theme further fueled her aspiration to lead the task.

“I always like to work on things that are the closest as possible to the user,” she explains. Maggie’s passion for block themes and user-centric solutions encouraged her to apply for WordPress 6.4’s open call for volunteers.

On the other hand, Anne McCarthy has been an integral part of the WordPress release squads from versions 5.9 through 6.4, primarily as a Core Triage lead.

Anne had been a Test lead and a release coordinator before, where she gained valuable insights into the intricate flow of information and the bug resolution process during a release cycle.

Her experience was further enriched by her work with the Full Site Editing (FSE) Outreach Program. In that program, her tasks included identifying and flagging issues.

After the release of WordPress 6.0 – where Anne was the release coordinator – her knack for problem-solving led her to return to the triage role.

“I was keen to return to that scale of work and type of responsibilities. It closely aligns with my general work the most,” Anne says. Her homecoming to the Core Triage lead role underscores her detail-oriented approach to improving WordPress.

Working on a WordPress Release

Anne and Maggie contributed to different aspects of the release. Anne focused on triaging the core software while Maggie worked on the default theme. With their expertise, Anne and Maggie shaped the release’s development process and set a new benchmark for future versions.

Anne McCarthy and Maggie Cabrera with a fellow WordPress contributor at a WordCamp

When asked to explain her working process in this release, Anne says that she worked on a broad scope of tasks due to her role in the FSE Outreach Program and her ad hoc effort to do the source of truth for the releases.

“I found myself spread across a wide range of tasks. To sum it up, get the right information to those who need it. This included everything from bug reports to tiny feature details,” she explains.

A significant part of her work involved reviewing content and identifying which documentation needed to be updated. For the 6.4 release, Anne prioritized releasing the source of truth two weeks earlier – a strategic move to empower the wider release squad.

Her focus also extended to initiating release assets, such as a tracking issue for the 6.4 highlight grid. Anne also dedicated her time to testing and triaging, ensuring the release’s smooth progression.

Meanwhile, Maggie’s role centered on managing the default theme’s GitHub repository, organizing issues, reviewing and creating pull requests, and coding parts of the theme.

When it came to decision-making, she shared her responsibilities with fellow Default Theme team co-lead Jessica Lyschik. Together, they navigated choices that shaped the theme’s direction.

To accommodate different time zones, they set up weekly meetings on a Slack channel. These meetings updated the community on the theme’s development, discussed challenges, aligned on what needs to be done, and encouraged contributors’ involvement in crucial discussions. Then, the team would work on the action items by responding to each other’s pull requests and issues asynchronously.

While the previous default themes were more suitable for text-oriented websites like blogs, Twenty Twenty-Four was designed to be multipurpose. It’s packed with 35 patterns that can accommodate business and image-heavy websites like photography sites.

a demo page of Twenty Twenty Four using portfolio site homepage pattern

“When Twenty Twenty-Four designer Beatriz Fialho, Jessica, and I had our first call, we discussed our vision for the theme. Jessica said it would be nice to have a more business-oriented yet flexible theme. Meanwhile, Bea had this idea for a theme that works for multiple purposes,” Maggie reminisces. “I think this is going to be a very nice thing for theme creators who want a Swiss knife of a theme with multiple options. So, everyone can find a way to make the theme work for them.”

Clearly, this focus on flexibility and ready-made elements reflects an evolution in the design of block themes.

The Challenge

The development of WordPress 6.4 posed some challenges for Anne and Maggie. Their decision-making and collaboration skills were tested under tight deadlines. “Some hard decisions had to be made, including removing the Font Library from this release,” Anne says.

Font Library was set to be WordPress’s new font management feature, which enables users to manage fonts across the site. This way, fonts can be as easily managed as visual assets in the Media Library.

The feature went past 6.4’s Beta 1, but the release squad decided that it still needs more feedback and testing. Font Library is now postponed to WordPress 6.5, the next major release.

“Delaying a feature release is always hard, but it’s important to ensure its stability so users can have the best possible experience,” Anne explains.

For Maggie, the primary challenge was coordinating with many people within a short timeframe. She notes that 6.4 is one of the releases with the shortest development period – approximately less than two months.

The development started in late August during WordCamp US 2023. With a public release date in early November 2023, most of the work needed to be done before that. That way, there was time for everyone to test, fix, and improve the release.

“Sometimes making decisions is not easy, especially when there’s no clear solution,” Maggie says. “But at the same time, the biggest challenge can also be your best tool. When you don’t really know which way to go, there will be many people discussing which way is better and why.”

The team’s diverse perspectives and expertise transformed decision-making into a rich, collaborative process. Maggie emphasized that she was never alone in such a dynamic environment, and the team’s collective wisdom guided her toward the best solutions.

A notable concern during this release was performance, particularly due to Twenty Twenty-Four’s many complex patterns. Amazingly, the development team turned this challenge into an opportunity to enhance the performance of all block themes with numerous patterns.

Maggie feels very proud of this collaborative effort that brought a significant advancement for WordPress themes overall.

The Fun Stuff

The process of developing WordPress 6.4 was not just about overcoming challenges. It also brought joy and satisfaction to Anne and Maggie.

For Anne, the most exhilarating part of working on a release was the opportunity to collaborate with other underrepresented genders in technology. “Working in technology for 12 years, it’s an extremely rare experience and one that I hope becomes less so,” she says.

Maggie finds it delightful that so many people will use and benefit from the new default theme. It’s even more meaningful as default themes become the culmination point of the year’s advancements, as it usually coincides with the final major WordPress release.

Working with a vast community of contributors was also a profoundly rewarding experience for Maggie. Announcing the default theme at WordCamp US’ Contributor Day was a highlight. Many people came together to take part in the theme’s development. Maggie found the collaborative spirit productive, humbling, and inspiring – a reflection of WordPress’ vibrant and dedicated community.

In terms of features, Anne is particularly thrilled about the new default theme, Twenty Twenty-Four. She believes it can amplify users’ creativity across WordPress sites.

“There are various pieces in this release that are directly related to feedback from the FSE Outreach Program, which always excites me. I’m most excited about Patterns and how we can apply layouts and alignments to synced patterns in the editor. This resolves a longstanding issue that started with reusable blocks,” Anne says.

Twenty Twenty Four theme's full page pattern designs

On the other hand, Maggie’s favorite improvement in WordPress 6.4 is the template-swapping feature.

“Before 6.4, you had to remove a built-in template from a theme or empty its content to paste a new pattern into it. Now, users can easily switch between templates and patterns by default,” Maggie explains. “It’s a very simple change, but it offers so much more flexibility for theme developers.”

Empowering Inclusivity

WordPress 6.4 is the second WordPress release led by folks of underrepresented gender groups, which include – but are not limited to – women and non-binary people. This represents the platform’s effort to promote diversity, equality, inclusivity, and belonging within the WordPress community and the wider tech world.

“I think it’s a powerful way to give real-world experience and center folks who might otherwise have a hard time getting the same opportunities,” Anne says.

She believes this initiative contributes positively to the individuals involved and brings up new feedback so that contributors can benefit from future improvements. She also added that an underrepresented gender-led release should help improve transparency, collaboration, and clarity for everyone involved.

However, Anne also expresses concern about the long-term inclusion of diverse individuals. “It’s one thing to bring diverse folks to a project and another to keep them. We need to work on the latter,” she says.

Maggie agrees with advocating for more involvement of underrepresented genders in leadership roles, aiming for a future where it becomes the norm. She envisions a WordPress community where diverse leadership melts into the fabric of the release process.

To ensure that no one is left behind, Anne suggested the term “underrepresented gender-led release” instead of “all women-led release”. This is because the latter excludes transgender and non-binary people who are also actively involved in this initiative.

Using the language of “women and non-binary people” is also problematic. It perpetuates the misconception that all non-binary people identify with aspects of femininity, while there are trans men who equally need support.

“I think this term strikes a balance between comprehensive and concise. While we could go with something more uplifting, like “trailblazer-led release”, I find using more specific terms helps folks know that it’s for them,” Anne explains.

Onwards and Upwards

Addressing potential contributors, Anne encourages everyone interested in triage to start their journey now.

She highlights a tutorial she created on Learn WordPress, which guides newcomers through triaging on the Gutenberg repo. This resource is a practical starting point for those who want to understand triage and contribute meaningfully to the project. “It will help you get a feel for the experience, the hard calls, and the breadth of issues impacting the project,” Anne says.

Maggie offers insights for those aspiring to lead a Default Theme team. She emphasizes that design expertise is not a requirement. The primary responsibilities are management, support, and organization. The role actually resembles a project manager, where coordination and communication are key.

“A designer will do the design. A Default Theme lead will have a say on how the theme is built and some of its functionality, but you’re never going to work alone. You’re leading the work. What’s essential is GitHub proficiency,” she explains.

Maggie emphasizes the collaborative nature of the role. Team members are always surrounded by experts and mentors, facilitating contributions and making the process less daunting.

Through WordPress 6.4, Anne and Maggie did not only contribute to a technologically advanced release. They also helped foster a culture of inclusivity and collaboration, paving the way for future innovations in the WordPress ecosystem.

The author

Nadia Maya Ardiani

Maya is a Content Writer and WordPress Contributor. With years of journalistic experience under her belt, her main goals are to help people understand complex processes in a simpler way, and tell the stories of people who thrive thanks to technology. When she’s not writing, you can find her watching sci-fi movies while eating ramen. Follow her on LinkedIn.