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.
Now I’m aware of how much time I could have saved if I would have properly done my homework. Typography, hierarchy, white space, color 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.