WordPress: It’s Still More Than Code

WordPress: It's Still More Than Code

I first installed WordPress around 10 years ago as a solution to build sites quickly and securely for the university I was working for at the time. In the years since I’ve built (and sold) one of the largest plugins on WordPress.org, I’ve built sites as an engineer for a premier WordPress agency as well as being a part of an enterprise WordPress team at a large university. I’ve worked for plugins shops and, now, a WordPress-centric web host. In other words, I’ve seen a lot of the WordPress world and there’s one thing that never ceases to disappoint me when I talk to people who want to get involved…

But I don’t know how to code

– Just about anyone I’ve ever talked to who is getting into WordPress

I’ve heard it from students and veterans in the space, some new to WordPress and others who had been in similar roles already as everything from marketers to engineers and beyond. Yes, I’ve had self-proclaimed (and sometimes employed) engineers tell me they don’t know how to code. For the record, that one worries me but it is a story for another post.

More than fifteen years after the WordPress project began the perception still exists that one can’t be involved unless they know how to code. Sure, some of them want to become developers and engineers and that’s great. I’ve spent a lot of time personally mentoring those folks. If WordPress, however, was only developers and engineers there would be no WordPress as we know it today and all to many people still don’t understand this. That’s a problem, and one all of us in WordPress need to be a little more careful of.

I couldn’t do other jobs

At this point, I should point out that I am an engineer. I have a Masters degree in computer science and have pursued WordPress from this background since I first started building “quick” sites on it for our faculty and staff at Southern Illinois University (SIU). The sites I made there were great because they were simple. I wasn’t concerned with managing a team of developers, I had little in the way of content strategy and, as if you haven’t been able to tell from this site, I really wasn’t very good at writing.

After SIU I moved on to bigger and better jobs while working on the Better WP Security plugin. This went great for another two years until I learned a very important lesson. My coding skills alone were not enough to take the plugin to its full potential. I had a choice, I could hire those with the skills I lacked or I could sell it to a company that had those skills already on staff. Here again my own experience as an engineer was a big part of the deciding factor. I’m not a businessman and I didn’t want to become one so I sold the plugin to iThemes where it lives on today, looking a lot better than it did the day I left it, as iThemes Security. It took a team to get it to the state it is in today. A developer was not enough.

Even in the developer world I think back to my tenure as an engineer at two separate agencies. My expertise isn’t in the flashy Javascript sites most people see on the web. I can’t create the designs themselves and, while I can write Javascript and CSS, my heart isn’t in the work that goes into those two languages leaving me doing the work much more slowly than a dedicated front-end developer.

What I can do, and do better than most, is to write the code that lives behind the scenes. I can take the WordPress install itself and reduce page load times by multiple factors while ensuring that they won’t be a weak point in the organization’s security. I can build data structures to complement the most complex of sites and the developer tools to make sure a team can make the most efficient use of them.

I’m what the WordPress world calls a backend developer or devops engineer proving that even in the world of code there is room for specialization and that is not a bad thing.

Guide new users to what suits them best

What’s the point of all this? As web and WordPress professionals we need to look past the code we write and help newcomers find the places they fit best while getting over the “but I can’t code hump.”

We don’t all need to make the next Gutenberg block or contribute code to WordPress core to be successful.

I’ve mentored people in roles ranging from support to project management, teaching and others and there are many more of those roles out there yet to be filled. If you’re new to WordPress it is really important to look beyond the code, whether you’re a developer or not, as it is those who don’t code who really keep the giant ship we know as WordPress afloat.

On another level, it is also important to step out of your comfort zone and don’t expect the next great manager to be a developer just because they were a great developer. Meritocracy and the “I can do it all” mentality can kill a job, project, team or even company all too quickly. For those of us who have been in the community for a while we need to step up as mentors for a wide-range of folks whether they share our skillset or not.

Where should we point new users?

So what do we tell a budding WordPress professional that things he or she is a failure for not knowing code? That depends. The biggest difference here is we need to listen to who they are an where they want to go. To encourage the individual based on their experiences and goals, not our own. It is all too easy to get caught up in the rush of Gutenberg or whatever else is in the WordPress news at the moment and assume everyone else cares about the same thing. Don’t assume, listen and guide each individual for them, not for you.

This is how we’ll all ensure a successful future for WordPress and the WordPress community.