First, let’s set a few things straight: becoming a top WordPress [
developer professional] is hard work — very hard work. It’s going to take a lot of time, energy and determination. If you’re looking for an easy checklist or some “fast pass” to the top, you’re going to waste your time. Being one of the best is hard, and statistically speaking, the odds are stacked against you.”
If you’re a regular reader of Smashing Magazine, that will no doubt sound familiar to you. A few weeks back, Jonathan Wold wrote a post on how to be a top WordPress developer1. But development isn’t the only way to get ahead in WordPress, because one of the great things about it is that you don’t need to be a developer or an expert. You just need a passion for WordPress, for open-source software and for being part of a community.
In this article, I’m going to take a look at how you can be a top WordPress professional — this advice could apply to developers, but equally to bloggers, support reps, designers and everyone in between.
But why bother with WordPress in the first place? Cory Miller4 is the co-founder of iThemes5, which offers professional WordPress themes, plugins and Web design training. He’s also the co-author of the latest edition of WordPress for Dummies. Miller started a blog with WordPress in 2006, as a total newbie with no WordPress experience, who started to learn by releasing free themes to the community. I asked him why people should get involved with WordPress.
“With WordPress you’re not sleeping on someone else’s couch. It’s open-source software that you control. You can do whatever you want with it, whenever you want. You’re not reliant on someone else’s stupid terms of services changes, or that you can’t touch the code because it’s locked away on someone else’s servers. I think we take for granted that freedom too often, or maybe forget it when the next [insert hot social media platform] rises up.
But the biggest reason for being involved with WordPress is it just makes Web publishing easy. Virtually anyone can have a blog or website on the Web with WordPress. And that opens up some amazing opportunities for everyone involved.”
WordPress makes it easy for people to publish a blog or website; it democratizes Web publishing. And its ease of use also makes it possible for people who aren’t PHP geniuses to make it to the top.
Why Be A Top WordPress Professional?
Being average and normal is underrated. You can’t be the best at everything, and if you spend your life trying to be, you could end up with a horrible neurosis. Besides, it can be nice to be just okay at something and accept that you’re okay at it — those things tend to have less stress associated with them. That said, it can be satisfying to strive to be better at the things that you’re passionate about, and whether that’s WordPress itself or the idea of taking control of your own destiny and running your own business, aiming for the top has a bunch of fringe benefits. For instance, the top WordPress professionals:
- Make the most money
If you want to make the most money, you need to be the best at what you do, whether that’s writing, training, supporting, launching startups or project management. If you’re good, your reputation will grow and you’ll be able to get higher rates. Check out this eBook from Code Poet8 with advice from top WordPress professionals on getting your pricing right.
- Get the best clients
As Wold pointed out in his article, once you get to the top you have a lot more freedom about what you say “yes” to. I’d like to add that as your rates start increasing, you’ll find that clients are increasingly easy to deal with. Charging more = better clients.
- Have the most influence
If you’re passionate about open-source software and WordPress itself, building your reputation means more opportunity to have influence.
- Be part of a community
The WordPress community is huge and growing. By taking part in that community and building a reputation for what you do, you’ll make connections with other people who are passionate about WordPress and who are at the top of their game. You don’t need to be the best developer to make it in WordPress, but it helps to make connections with them.
- Make the right connections
If you build your reputation in the WordPress community by contributing back, going to WordCamps and Meetups and generally getting involved, people will start to take notice of who you are. Once you’re on a person’s radar, work will be sent your way.
I’m Not A Developer! What Can I Do?
You do not need to know how to write code to get ahead in WordPress. If the only people involved in WordPress were developers, then WordPress wouldn’t be the software that it is today. Here are some of the things you can do:
- Project Manager
- Support Pro
- Documentation Writer
- Teaching & Training
A great example of this is Mika Epstein10 (more commonly known as Ipstenu). For her, WordPress started out as a hobby but it quickly became more rewarding than her IT job at a bank where she did everything from application installs on desktops to deployment automation and monitoring for servers. Recently, though, she’s started a job as a support specialist for DreamHost.
Epstein is also the support representative for WordPress, leading up the support and documentation teams on WordPress.org. This has involved talking to hosting companies and theme/plugin shops about what is expected from them on the support forums. She’s responsible for the Supporting Everything WordPress11 blog, wrangling people into editing, helping out and supporting other supporters.
Epstein is just one of the people who I’ll be talking to who are at the top of the WordPress game but who wouldn’t be simply categorized as a developer.
To be a top WordPress professional, you don’t need to be able to write PHP, know how to query a MySQL database or know how to schedule a cron job. The WordPress ecosystem is vast, and there is room for lots of different specialties. However, if you are going to be a top WordPress professional, you should at least know how WordPress works, have a good imagination and become an expert in some area of it.
It may seem self-evident, but using WordPress for yourself is a great place to start. This could be publishing your own personal blog or building a website for a friend or family member. Find a way to use WordPress. It’s a little crazy to start out deciding you want to get to the top of something when you’ve never experienced that product from perspective of the user.
“You’re involved with WordPress the minute you use it for yourself. That’s the beauty of open-source software and community. Your initiation into it is your ‘Hello World!’ or your first website and blog post with it.
So just start blogging and fall in love with it like I did 7 years ago.”
– Cory Miller
Install WordPress Locally
Use MAMP to install WordPress on your computer.
You don’t need to be a developer to set up a development environment on your computer. It may seem daunting. I remember that the first time I set up Xampp with WordPress, I was totally confused and had no idea what I was doing. I muddled through it eventually and was amazed that it was something I could do. Now I have more local WordPress installations than I can keep track of. Installing WordPress on your computer means you can do whatever you want with it, without having to worry about a live server. You can break it, hack themes and plugins, install whatever you want and you don’t need to worry about domain names, production websites, etc. I run local installations for specific plugins such as bbPress and BuddyPress, which allows me to explore working on websites in different contexts. Once you’ve installed WordPress a few times on your computer, you’ll realize how remarkably simple it is. Tutorials: install WordPress using Xampp13 (Windows) or MAMP14 (Mac)
Follow the Blogs
There are a plethora of WordPress blogs out there that you can learn from. Add them to your RSS reader and stay up-to-date. With so many blogs that have “WP” as a prefix, it may seem like they all have the same thing to offer, but the best are distinctive and each offers something unique. Here are some of my favorites:
- Smashing Magazine (WordPress Category)15
Long form articles, tutorials and editorials
- WP Realm16
International WordPress news, opinion and articles from experts across the community (and edited by me!)
WordPress news and podcasts. There’s also a Pros section which you can sign up for once you’re a Pro!
WordPress tutorials, how-tos, videos and reviews, along with a nice coupon section for getting discounts on WordPress-related products and services.
Daily tips, tutorials and WordPress news.
Regular round-ups of WordPress plugins and themes, as well as the occasional tutorial.
- Code Poet21
Interviews with prominent WordPress experts, short and useful eBooks and links to useful resources.
A little bit of enthusiasm goes a long way. Mason James started out applying for a job as a WordPress developer at WPMU DEV, but he did a terrible job at the plugin modification task they gave him, and he was turned down for the job. However, they so appreciated his communication skills and positive attitude that they took him on as a supporter.
“Regardless of the industry, people want to work with someone they enjoy being around. Having a positive attitude and being willing to tackle challenges are both qualities any company is going to be looking for. I’m also passionate about supporting websites and seeing any problems resolved. I’m a natural problems solver — it’s like a game to me, so that fits in quite nicely.”
It’s approaching 10 years since WordPress was born. That means that there are a lot of people in the WordPress community with lots of experience. There are people with experience running startups, managing support forums, building plugins or theme shops or contributing to WordPress itself. Find these people and listen to what they have to say. Dougal Campbell24 curates a Twitter list called WPLeaders25, which is a great place to find people with WordPress experience.
Don’t just rush in with your awesome idea, making yourself look a little dumb in the process26 (though even that can be a good learning experience). Take the time to learn how the community works and functions, along with the etiquette, before you dive in.
Now that you have learned the basics of WordPress, it’s time to start getting involved. Of course, you could go it alone, and there are plenty of people running successful WordPress businesses who have nothing to do with the community. But there are so many reasons to get involved that you should jump straight in. Here’s why.
- The community provides a free training ground where experts will give you feedback and help you to make WordPress better.
- If you’re freelancing or running your own business, the WordPress community can provide support and human connections in what can be an isolating situation.
- By getting involved with WordPress, you’re helping to create a better product which everyone can benefit from.
Follow Make WordPress.org
Make WordPress.org is where you can find blogs for all the contributor groups.
Where there used to be mailing lists, now there are blogs. All of the different contributor groups are gathered together at Make WordPress.org30. You can follow all of them or check out the ones that are relevant to you. The Make WordPress.org blogs are:
- Support (including support forums and docs)
There is something for everyone, and each blog has a vibrant community working in their area to make WordPress better. Each group has its own lead who is responsible for shepherding, wrangling and leading the team.
The WordPress support forums are an excellent resource for WordPress users, but they’re also a great place for you to hone your WordPress skills. We learn best by teaching things to other people. I have learned 95% of what I know about WordPress from writing articles about it. Equally, answering questions in the support forums will help to clarify your own knowledge of WordPress. When you an explain a concept clearly to someone else, you know that you’ve got it — answering support questions is a great tool for that.
And not only will it help to clarify your own thinking, but it introduces you to different perspectives. Here’s Epstein:
“If you want to learn about WordPress, there is no faster way to figure out the nitty gritty than to try to help people. You can only imagine what you can dream up, but the millions of users out there come to this from a totally different place, and they have myriad different ideas. Bar none, I learned more about WordPress by helping than I did by ‘researching.’ Being asked a question and not knowing the answer means you have a goal you never would have given yourself, and it’s inspiring.”
Check out Epstein at the recent WordCamp San Francisco talking about getting involved in the WordPress support forums.
Write About WordPress
You could start off writing about WordPress by heading to the WordPress Codex, finding a random page that needs to be edited and editing it. The Codex is run on MediaWiki, and anyone with a WordPress.org username can edit it. The Codex is always in need of updating and editing, and contributing your own articles will help to hone your WordPress skills. You could also help out with the WordPress user handbook31, which is currently in the process of being edited at the Supporting Everything WordPress blog.
WordPress.org isn’t the only place to write about WordPress. If you find a solution to a WordPress problem, write it up on your personal blog. People will find it via Google, and it’ll help them with their own problems. You could also submit a post to a WordPress blog. Many blogs are often looking for guest posts, and some of them are even paid writing gigs! Like providing support, the process of writing things up will make processes and solutions even clearer in your own mind.
Around 40% of WordPress downloads are not in the English language — that is a whole lot of non-English language copies of WordPress in the wild. Translating WordPress is a great way to help out and make connections in your local community. Here’s what Zé Fontainhas32, the WordPress Polyglots33 lead, had to say about it:
“Translating WordPress has loads of benefits for you as a WordPress Professional: not only do you increase your karma in both the global and your local community, but in the process you get to look at the code more closely than most. You may pick up bugs or improvements that no one else sees, and this unique perspective will teach you far more about WordPress than the average WordPress user will ever pick up.”
Meet the Community
Working online is great, but there’s nothing like meeting your peers face-to-face to create stronger and deeper relationships. The WordPress Foundation supports two types of WordPress events: WordCamps34 and Meetups35. WordCamps are large annual conferences, usually two days long, at which WordPress experts and enthusiasts gather to share their experience of WordPress. Meetups are more regular, often once a month, and are short informal gatherings that might involve hacking or presentations. Attend events, and, once you feel confident enough, speak at them. Don’t feel that you have to be a WordPress genius to give a presentation. If you’ve done something useful that is worth sharing, then share it. Having been to three WordCamps this year already, I can’t stress how important they are in terms of building relationships, friendships and your profile. You can check out my write-up of WordCamp Netherlands36 to learn more about them.
Collaboration, not competition. This is the WordPress way.
There are times in the WordPress community when arguments erupt between personalities, and people are yelling at each other on Twitter or flaming in comment threads. But this is the exception, not the norm. While that is going on, there are hundreds of people working on WordPress itself, and thousands of people all over the world building WordPress businesses, who are working at improving WordPress.
From my own experience, I wouldn’t have built my own business if I didn’t have developers to ask dumb questions of, designers to make things look good for me, other WordPress experts to offer advice and help me to improve. At the same time, I offer advice on writing, proofreading and editing where I can. The diverse group of people whom I consider to be my closest WordPress peers have been invaluable in getting me to where I am today, and will no doubt take a role in shaping my future. These relationships are important. Seek out people you can work with and hold on to them.
Know Who to Ask
By forming relationships with the right people, you’re on the first step to getting ahead. These don’t need to be the most prominent people, but rather people with knowledge and expertise, people who you can trust. You don’t need to be the best developer to make it in WordPress, sometimes it’s just a matter of knowing the right people to answer your questions. This does not mean (and this is important) that you find out who the best people are and bug them on Twitter, nor should you call people at 4 a.m. to ask them for help finding WordPress themes (true story). By building relationships and interacting with the community, you’ll have a whole collection of people who can help you with issues whether it’s caching or media queries or finding a good developer or finding the right hosting company. Getting ahead isn’t always about being the best at something yourself; it’s just knowing the right people and asking the right questions.
Know What’s Happening
If you want to get ahead, you need to know more than just WordPress as it is in the current release. You should stay up-to-date with what will be appearing in WordPress, and not just in Core but in the wider community. If you’re working with clients in any capacity, you should know what’s in store for them in upcoming WordPress releases. There are plenty of ways to do this.
- Run the nightly builds
Keep the nightly builds40 installed on a local WordPress installation. This will keep you up-to-date with any changes as they happen.
- Keep up with Core development
You can follow what’s going on in Core in a number of ways: following Make WordPress Core41, keeping up with the recent development chats42 and following WordPress Trac43. You can also follow @wordpresstrac44 on Twitter for live updates in your feed.
- Follow user interface (UI) changes
Major changes to the UI can be confusing for unprepared WordPress users. Keep your clients and customers informed of any updates by watching the Make WordPress UI45 blog.
Call Things Out (Without Trolling)
Once you’ve gotten to know WordPress well, are engaged with the community and are aware of all of the nuances around it, you’ve gotten yourself into a great position for calling things out when you see a problem. Some problems don’t warrant a public airing, others do. Here are some great examples of criticisms of WordPress or the community that have led to extensive debate and discussion in the comments:
- Brian Krogsgard takes a look at why it’s so hard to love JetPack46
- Tony Perez comments on the level of sponsorship for WordCamp San Francisco47
- Shane Pearlman talks plugin usability48
- Rarst has a rant about the GNU General Public License (GPL)49
- Justin Tadlock on the
Know When to Take a Break
Don’t get rid of your TV, and definitely don’t throw away your computer games, or your books or any of the other things you love to do. For the first few years I worked on WordPress, I was working all day and all night. Even now, I regularly clock off after midnight. Working with WordPress, running your own business and getting involved with the community can be intense. There are a lot of personalities; there are clashes and arguments and upsets that will get to you. This could be anything from a rude person on a support forum, to a flashpoint on Twitter, to just feeling overworked and tired. You need to have things that you can do to switch off and take a break.
“I have my sewing table set up right next to my desk. I can swivel from one to the other. Quilting gives my brain something else to work on, whatever problem I may be focused on. It’s hard to be distracted when there is a sharp needle running up & down at top speeds right next to your fingers. It also gets me up and moving, out of my chair. Selecting fabric, cutting the pieces and especially the basting process give me another reason to not sit for yet another hour.”
Whether it’s quilting, opening a bakery, doing yoga, driving fast cars or whatever, it is essential to step back from the WordPress world, switch off your brain and get a little perspective from time to time.
Once you’ve got to the top, you still need to listen. Other people continue to have different perspectives from you and no matter how right you think you are, there are cases where you are going to be wrong. It may be that you’re so wrapped in WordPress that it takes an absolute beginner to point out something that you’re missing, or you’re lacking the knowledge in a specific area. Getting to the top doesn’t mean you know all things about everything, just that you’re really good about something. Keep listening to those who are also really good, and even those who aren’t.
Miller highlights another great reason to keep listening.
“Look for people’s pain points and frustrations. Those are opportunities to serve people AND make money doing it. The best products and services fill gaps in where WordPress can’t or stops short. Innovate and make something better, which often means saving people time, energy, headaches and money.”
In his article, Wold suggests that the top 20% of developers earn more than $50 an hour. That’s not entirely true. The WordPress survey didn’t only gather info from developers, but from people like me, other WordPress professionals who have built businesses around writing, project management, design, support, blogging, training, consulting or any of the myriad things that you can do with WordPress. And there are plenty of WordPress professionals who are earning far in excess of $50 per hour.
There are other rewards too, beyond the financial. Our world is increasingly fragmentary, especially for those of us who make our livelihoods online. Being part of a community means having people to communicate with, to share ideas and collaborate, to form business partnerships and friendships. If you want to take the easiest route to the top, and have fun while you’re doing it, then it’s by listening, learning, sharing, collaborating and contributing.
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