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Why WordPress is a Great Bridge into Being a Web Professional

It seems that in the last ten years the whole world has decided that being a programmer, or at least doing work that somehow involves the internet, is a great thing. Every week we hear of a new initiative to help different people learn to code in a new way. Everyone says it’s both vital to our collective future, and a great career to have.

And with good reason. To be a programmer in America (I have much less expertise about this analogy’s exactness for the rest of the world) in the 20-teens is the same as being an autoworker was in the 1960s: a sweet gig that basically guarantees you a solid middle class living. I’m one, and given all the other careers I almost had or would consider, I’m very glad I’m a software developer who is comfortable finding my way around web technology.

What’s more, I’m really quite glad that my gateway into learning about web development came through WordPress. WordPress isn’t the only technology I use professionally, and nor would I want it to be, but it’s really one of the best places that you can cut your teeth as someone interested in learning about web development. My goal, today, is to tell you why I think that’s true.

WordPress Holds Content You Care About

WordPress is the world’s most popular web content management system. I’m not aware of anyone who disputes the claim with any seriousness. Whether people want to peg that popularity at 10, 20 or 30 percent of all websites doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that WordPress is a content management system, which means that it lets people quickly and easily take their words, pictures, products, whatever, and make them available to anyone with a web browser and an internet connection.

It is freaking magical the first time you have some words or pictures that you want to share with the world and with a few hours of semi-informed tinkering you have a website that the entire world could come see.

It’s easy, as a veteran WordPress user or developer, to forget about this. But it really is freaking magical the first time you have some words or pictures that you want to share with the world and with a few hours of semi-informed tinkering you have a website that the entire world could come see. (Of course, whether or not they do is an entire other problem…)

One of things that I think makes WordPress a really great place to learn about web marketing, or design, or programming is this fact. That WordPress is a system that’s about sharing content you care about makes it a great place to start to play if you have any interest in doing a little more than throw the page up online.

So many paths into programming in particular, and all the jobs of web pros more broadly defined, are oriented around just learning to do learning tasks. “Let’s make a program that will calculate the factorial of any number we give it” is a stereotypical first programmer’s task. And that’s fine, maybe good, for learning. But what it’s not so good for is making you feel a personal sense of ownership and connection with the outcome. You’re going to have to work a little harder be passionate about making your factorial calculator work well or express anything interesting or specific. It’s not common for one to feel an immediate sense of passion for a simple program which does some number manipulation.

WordPress becomes all about what you put into it.

But passion is important. Learning is possible without any real interest in the topic, but it’s hard. It’s “drag yourself through and vaguely hate it” hard. Anyone who suffered through high school English, or Math, whatever, knows what I mean. You can learn but you won’t find it easy, and you won’t enjoy it.

WordPress, on the other hard, becomes all about what you put into it. Your angry screeds for or against Ayn Rand; your poems about winter; your photos of fireworks; the site that explains your business goals to the world. A WordPress site is about what you put into it, and so it’s likely that you’ll find yourself pushing a little harder to really master the problem you’re having than you would if set about the task in a more mercenary way.

WordPress Has a Vast Community, and Takes Backwards-Compatibility Seriously

Another of the great things about starting to learn programming — or web design, or SEO — with WordPress is that a lot of people are using WordPress, and a lot of people are writing answers to Google searches like “change the way the top of page looks in WordPress.” This means that you can quickly find texts online, or videos, or people (at coffee shops, or local user groups, or among your friends) who can teach you.

WordPress’s big community makes it easy to find an article explaining how to solve most problems a beginner has. This is further improved by WordPress’s deep commitment to backwards compatibility which ensures old solutions keep working.

There being a vast community with a wealth of blog posts that explain how to solve a particular problem is easy to take for granted as a WordPresser. But eventually, you strike out to a new technology and community and are forced to grapple with just how good WordPress’s (and PHP’s) documentation is.

This is further improved by WordPress’s deep commitment to backwards compatibility. This isn’t completely clear at the outset, but the fact that a tutorial written five years ago, in the era of WordPress 3.0 is likely to still be the right way — or at least a functional way — to do many things in WordPress makes it even better.

Many technologies, frameworks, CMSes, etc lack WordPress’s thorough commitment to keeping things working which were working. Sometimes, as a WordPress veteran I look at this negatively — “look at all the dumb poor choices of the past we still have to grapple with…” — but technologies which lack backward compatibility have big costs:

  • Learners feel stymied by the fact that the current right solution isn’t really documented, only one that was right 9 months ago. This is hard for a veteran to handle. As a beginner it makes the task of learning feel almost impossible.
  • Owners of those technologies must face a bad dilemma: either keep dumping time and expertise into keeping their site working on the latest-and-greatest, or be happy with a possibly buggy, possibly insecure, possibly feature-poor version you started with because it was current when your project was new.

The cost of two things can easily be underestimated, but they’re real and I’ve seen both companies and people struggle with them all too much.

WordPress Has a Place For You, Whatever Your Talents

Being a big tent means that a beginner coming to WordPress can effortlessly end up in the place that best suits their passions and skills.

The last big victory for WordPress is that it encompasses so many different areas of interest and types of work. The community around WordPress is both very big and quite diverse.

Being a CMS, WordPress has places for people who want to really focus on server-side development. But it’s also got a big need for people who focus almost exclusively on browser-side development. It’s got a need for people who know all about accessibility, and for people who are passionate about making a site as search-engine-friendly as possible. There’s a place for people who just focus on the act of writing well on the internet, and people who are passionate about pushing online commerce forward.

Being a big tent means that a beginner coming to WordPress can think they want to focus on server-side development and end up deciding they like to just help e-commerce shops polish their plugin and theme configuration for maximum profit. Or it’s a place where someone who thinks the only technology they like at all is CSS and then come to find out that they are fascinated with SQL and server performance. This flexibility is awesome for new people! It means the choice to start doesn’t define where you end, and you can make strategic course corrections along the way.

WordPress: A Great Place to Learn

All of this is not only possible, but common in WordPress. And almost all of those skills are going to valuable for the next ten, twenty, or thirty years.

There are things that make WordPress less than great for learning, it’s true. A commitment to backwards compatibility may teach an impressionable newbie the way people solved problems in the past rather than the way that’s considered best today — the quite divergent meanings of “namespaces” are a great example we’ve covered recently.

But on the whole, WordPress is a great place to learn. If you get started with a WordPress site with content you care about, that is the ultimate platform from which to learn whatever parts of web work most intrigues you. With a massive ecosystem, a commitment to keeping things working, and the fact that you’re learning on something you probably care about, it’s the ideal place to start.

As a newbie, you tweak your WordPress theme with CSS, and you’re excited that that blue stuff is now a nice rich purple. Then you learn a little PHP to add a date to a place on the site you really think it’ll look good. Then, at the local WordCamp, someone mentions accessibility and you go deep on making sure your site is easy to navigate on screen readers. Then you learn that not enough people are coming, so you dive deep into online marketing and SEO. All of this is not only possible, but common in WordPress. And almost all of those skills are going to valuable for the next ten, twenty, or thirty years. This is why WordPress is such a great place to start your journey into being a web professional.

Happy hacking!

Yay! 🎉 You made it to the end of the article!
David Hayes

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WordPress's Conservatism: The Best Worst Thing | WPShout
February 9, 2016 5:06 pm

[…] touched on this a little in my argument that WordPress is the best possible bridge into web development (or more general web work) but this commitment to compatibility does more than merely reduce the […]

January 12, 2016 3:02 pm

I taught myself some javascript but then followed some tutorials on developing wordpress themes, AI find it to be a great way to understand how to use certain basic programing concepts.

December 15, 2015 5:32 pm

Excellent article in which it would be difficult to find anything to argue with.

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