How WordPress Shaped My Path as a Developer

development

After six years of craft­ing Word­Press themes with­in the Pix­el­grade crew, I feel the need to share some of the take­aways I gath­ered dur­ing this jour­ney. Today, I’m still excit­ed about what I do as a pro­fes­sion­al and hap­py I have the chance to pay it for­ward.


How it all began

Here’s the thing — I can­not say I chose Word­Press over oth­er sim­i­lar tools. There were a few pret­ty pop­u­lar CMS plat­forms includ­ing Word­Press and Dru­pal when I got into web design, but real­ly the most famous one, at least across the small num­ber of pro­gram­mers I knew back then, seemed to be Joom­la.

I am pret­ty con­fi­dent that if it weren’t for Word­Press my career path would have been way dif­fer­ent than it is today.

How­ev­er, I was drawn in the Word­Press ecosys­tem for two main rea­sons: first of all, I was impressed by how easy it was to man­age con­tent in the back­end, and sec­ond of all, I loved how con­ve­nient it was to cre­ate a cus­tom theme to high­light the con­tent.

I had very lit­tle knowl­edge of PHP at the time, but the Word­Press doc­u­men­ta­tion and its great plu­g­in direc­to­ry gave me the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cre­ate cus­tom types of dynam­ic con­tent and dis­play it on the client side with no effort. I was hooked.

This may also be the cen­tral thing that got me into web devel­op­ment in the first place. Even though today the soft­ware devel­op­ment field is wide and a lot of tech­nolo­gies are bring­ing real val­ue to our lives, I am pret­ty con­fi­dent that if it weren’t for Word­Press my career path would have been way dif­fer­ent than it is today.

How I got my first-hand experience

The real adven­ture in the Word­Press ter­ri­to­ry turned to be short­ly after I joined the Pix­el­grade team in the spring of 2012. At the time we didn’t have the great­est under­stand­ing of what a theme should or could be. We were actu­al­ly cre­at­ing sta­t­ic web­sites and mere­ly tap­ping into the Word­Press func­tion­al­i­ty. It was the free­dom that gave us the enthu­si­asm and the focus to keep the wheels spin­ning.

Even though we slight­ly changed our focus and the over­all approach on how we work as time went by, that’s because we learned a bunch of things along the way and we’ve evolved with the ecosys­tem. There­fore, I would like to share with you some of the key lessons I gath­ered so far in this epic adven­ture that still keeps me enthu­si­as­tic after more than six years.


Cre­at­ing tools that brought real val­ue to our cus­tomers gave me a great sense of accom­plish­ment.

The product you create isn’t really used the way you think it would be

After one year or so, we’ve decid­ed that we’d like to try to enter the Enva­to mar­ket­place. The busi­ness mod­el of a theme’s author and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of reach­ing such a huge num­ber of poten­tial cus­tomers was very appeal­ing to us. So we jumped and it didn’t take long for our very first cus­tomers to show up.

Being part of a much small­er team at that moment also meant that I had to do Cus­tomer Sup­port in the ear­ly days (as every­one else). In fact, set­ting up the sup­port forum and inter­act­ing with our very first buy­ers was actu­al­ly a great expe­ri­ence. Cre­at­ing tools that brought real val­ue to our cus­tomers gave me a great sense of accom­plish­ment.

Our port­fo­lio also con­tained some HTML tem­plates and Word­Press plu­g­ins, but the cus­tomers who bought our prod­ucts were the ones who gave me the pos­i­tive feed­back that fuelled my enthu­si­asm and made me become a bet­ter play­er. They also gave me first-hand infor­ma­tion on how Word­Press themes are being used at large scale, which was price­less.

Often, this infor­ma­tion came as a sur­prise for us, blew up many of our assump­tions and sent us back to the draw­ing board. I’ve learned to embrace this kind of feed­back and tried to inte­grate it into my work­flows.

We still do Cus­tomer Sup­port from time to time even though we have an excel­lent super­hero sup­port team. Get­ting in touch with our com­mu­ni­ty has an awe­some and quite unique feel­ing attached to it.

Take­away: We all have our bias­es and blind spots. Take the time to lis­ten to your users (your cus­tomers or your audi­ence) for a broad­er per­spec­tive.


I was just too blind or igno­rant, like any oth­er young and fool­ish teenag­er would be with so much “pow­er” in his hands.

You need to understand and master the current state of the art in order to make real progress

Web Devel­op­ment is an amaz­ing field to work in. Once you get to grips with it you feel like hav­ing a mag­ic wand with incred­i­ble pow­ers in your hands. I guess that HTML and CSS con­tin­ue to be the flavours of web devel­op­ment: many get a taste of it, only a few can mas­ter it, but almost every­one enjoys it.

Per­son­al­ly, there are moments where I like to play with dirty CSS and spaghet­ti code in JavaScript. On the oth­er hand, I also care about the crafts­man­ship and I active­ly fol­low some peo­ple in the indus­try who mas­ter the art of writ­ing code.

Now I’m aware of how much time I could have saved if I would have prop­er­ly done my home­work. Typog­ra­phy, hier­ar­chy, white spacecol­or the­o­ry, grids, etc. are terms that I had to learn and under­stand from top to toe. There are def­i­nite­ly enough secrets out there that I’m eager to unveil in the future.

The truth is that these were key­words which exist­ed in the design vocab­u­lary way before I got into the so-called web design indus­try. I was just too blind or igno­rant, like any oth­er young and fool­ish teenag­er would be with so much “pow­er” in his hands. Study­ing and under­stand­ing these basic con­cepts helped me bring more clar­i­ty and focus into my work by avoid­ing over­think­ing, overkilling or need­less­ly com­pli­cat­ing things which could have made my life mis­er­able.

Take­away: There are things you need to expe­ri­ence on your own, but learn­ing from the ones that came before you can give you a head start.


But some­times I real­ly felt that the impact I made gave our prod­ucts and edge over the com­pe­ti­tion.

You need to constantly test your boundaries to be able to improve your skills

We all know the say­ing that when you hold a ham­mer every­thing else looks like a nail. I often found myself in that sit­u­a­tion and there were many times when I was try­ing to rein­vent the wheel in some sense.

But some wheels can spin faster than oth­ers and I enjoyed try­ing to make mine the fastest. I spent count­less hours improv­ing the per­for­mance of cer­tain com­po­nents or try­ing to obtain the per­fect ver­ti­cal rhythm. At times it felt that the extra effort I put in my work was in vain. But some­times I real­ly felt that the impact I made gave our prod­ucts and edge over the com­pe­ti­tion.

Also George and Ilin­ca, our design­ers, made sure that I was kept busy with excit­ing chal­lenges that made my algo­rithms sharp either on the fron­tend or back­end sides of the prod­ucts they envi­sioned.

I accept­ed every adven­ture and nev­er thought of mak­ing com­pro­mis­es before­hand. Only after try­ing my best I could have had a sol­id case about what could be done and what were the costs of choos­ing a cer­tain path.

Take­away: Don’t be afraid to explore unblem­ished ter­ri­to­ries. You won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly become a pio­neer but you will cer­tain­ly learn a lot about your­self.


Most if not all times the theme I used stood up to the chal­lenge. But there were con­texts where I felt the frus­tra­tion of some of our cus­tomers.

You can’t understand the customer’s pains without using the product yourself

A les­son that took some time for me to learn was that we weren’t cre­at­ing a web­site for an imag­i­nary client. What we were actu­al­ly doing was to enhance a tool that had the pri­ma­ry goal of pub­lish­ing con­tent on the web. What we had to do as design­ers and devel­op­ers was to solve actu­al prob­lems that groups of con­tent cre­ators had in com­mon and to lever­age the effort that they had to deal with in order to make their web­site their own.

The best insights of how well our prod­ucts per­formed in the real world was actu­al­ly when I used the themes I worked on. There were quite a few times when I took the customer’s seat and cre­at­ed web­sites for friends or per­son­al clients using the prod­ucts I helped devel­oped. And was it dif­fer­ent than what I expect­ed? Yes it was. It was a very effec­tive way of actu­al­ly test­ing the prod­uct in the real world for real projects.

Most if not all times the theme I used stood up to the chal­lenge. But there were con­texts where I felt the frus­tra­tion of some of our cus­tomers. Of course I was able to find workarounds faster than most of our users could, but that wasn’t the point.

Take­away: Do not stick to con­ven­tion­al test­ing. Take your prod­uct out in the real world and use it for an actu­al project you have.


There are cer­tain­ly many oth­er things I learned about my work, the peo­ple who ben­e­fit from it and also about myself in the last cou­ple of years. I also under­stood that tak­ing the time to look back and reflect on the progress and the achieve­ments I made so far is some­thing I should do more often.

Razvan Onofrei

Thorough craftsman of web interfaces defined by great care for performance and attention to details.