Earlier this week, influential British designer Sazzy wrote a blog post entitled The Elephant In The Room about the depressing state of freelance web design. While not directly related, her post got me thinking about the current plight of the back-end developer inside the WordPress universe.
Over the past 3 or 4 years I’ve focused my work around custom WordPress development. In that time, in spite of (or maybe because of) WordPress’ meteoric rise to popularity, I’ve found interesting backend development work in WordPress to have almost completely dried up.
I believe this is largely because WordPress is mature, stable and has little need for serious back-end developers.
Earlier this year, I took it upon myself to get a patch into WordPress core. I logged into the WordPress slack daily, watched conversations and dug around TRAC to find something I could contribute back to the community.
In doing so, I came to learn that the core contribution team seems to be a well defined clique of developer who have been there a long time. Breaking into the little club is not easy. Based on my digging around in TRAC is looks like most feature requests are met with bureaucracy and bickering, as tends to happen in nerd forums. More serious issues are already adequately handled by long-time core contributions. The slack conversations are dominated by a few voices who really know what they’re talking about.
Don’t get my wrong, the core contribution community is not unfriendly and none of the things I encountered are bad, per se. I simply got the impression that there’s little room and little need for the average developer in the core contribution team. WordPress is mature and stable, so is the development team.
Simply put, most common and many uncommon features/problems/use-cases have been solved by well-established, mature, stable plugins. Most of the more popular plugins are supported by businesses that have sprouted up around them. Not only that, but Automattic seems to be spending even more resources developing plugins — as saw just this week with their AMP plugin.
A few years ago it might have been possible to start a cottage business surrounding a custom developed plugin that solves a popular problem. Something you could implement on all your development client’s sites, while selling support or premium services to the general public.
Today, those unsolved problems are few and far between.
The theme marketplace is bananas. There… are… just… so… many… themes and a lot of them are technically quite bad. But all that clients need are pretty pictures, slick demos and a low price point. It’s very difficult to sell the average mom & pop on the merits of a custom designed theme. To be honest, a lot of the time there is little value to be gained.
At the end of the day, custom themes are a non-starter for a large portion of the potential clients-base that the average freelance developer could expect to encounter. There are certainly cases where a custom template could be part of an overall design/branding strategy or something to that affect.
WordPress as a CMS
WordPress has always been and still is a bad choice as a general purpose CMS. But that’s a post for another day.
So, what’s left?
In my experience over the past couple of years, there are two related roles being filled by professionals who make their living in the WordPress universe.
The WordPress Expert is someone who stays up-to-date with WordPress. They know about key features in the latest release; they maintain a personal list of goto plugins to solve various problems; they have preferred theme vendors and know how to spot a bad theme just by looking at it and they’re just really good at using WordPress.
The WordPress Expert can set you up with a website from start to finish, without ever touching a line of CSS or a PHP template. They act as a liaison between a clue-less client and the confusing world of websites. They can troubleshoot most issues, if not, they’ll know who to call.
The WordPress Customizer has all the skills and knowledge of The Expert and on top of they are usually a skilled front-end developer, with some basic back-end knowledge. They know what a child-theme is and aren’t afraid to use one.
When an off-the-shelf template doesn’t quite fit a client’s needs, the client will end up hiring a Customizer. The Customizer is able to wrangle the theme, bending it to meet he needs and wishes of a particular client.
At the end of the day, this type of customization can often be hard to maintain. Being a good customizer is not always an easy task. But The WordPress Customizer can be a reasonable solution to provide budget conscious clients a more customized website.
Over the years, my roll has morphed into that of a customizer. I enjoy the work, but it doesn’t really scratch my programmer itch. Calling it “web development” seems like a stretch.