Things I Was Unprepared for When I First Started Out with WordPress

Everyone has their own tale to tell about how they came to WordPress. For some, it wasn’t their choice, for others it was a happy accident, and for yet others it was as a result of meticulous research and weighing up the options.

Personally, I chose WordPress because the barriers to entry as a developer (or an implementer, as I was back then, to be honest) were lower than for the other big CMSes. I’d been creating static sites using HTML and CSS for a while – I once worked on a site where we used content generated in a database to create static HTML pages, which didn’t communicate with that database at all – madness! But increasingly, clients were starting to ask me if they could edit their sites themselves. They didn’t want the delays and expense involved in getting me to code the smallest change and, to be honest, I didn’t much enjoy having to edit HTML in order to change a phone number.

So I did some work investigating the alternatives and came across WordPress. At the time, it wasn’t the world’s biggest CMS and as a newbie I could never have predicted how big it would become. But I’m incredibly glad I plumped for WordPress because now I’m part of a massive community of users and developers and have access to all that support (not to mention the huge body of clients looking for WordPress developers).

It’s been quite a learning journey for me and is still ongoing. Any WordPress professional worth their salt will be continuously developing their skills and understanding of the platform, and I’m no exception.

But if I had a TARDIS and could travel back to 2010 when I wrote my first WordPress theme, or if I could advise someone starting with WordPress right now, there are few things it would be great to have known about.

1. Just How Amazing the WordPress Community Is

The community is what makes WordPress awesome. All the amazing, talented people who give up their time for free to develop the codebase, help others out on the WordPress.org support forum and pass on their knowledge and experience.

I went to my first WordCamp in July 2010 when I’d been working with WordPress for just a few months and I was blown away by the openness and generosity of the people I met. No one was trying to keep their work secret. No one was trying to sell to me. It was just a group of people who were eager to share their love of WordPress and learn from each other.

The community continues to grow, and while I’d argue that as it gets bigger it does get a little less friendly (#wpdrama, anyone?), it would still be impossible to be a WordPress professional without taking advantage of everything the community has to offer.

Even if you can’t physically engage with the WordPress community through WordCamps or meetup groups, those people will come to your rescue so many times. Need to learn how to use an aspect of the WordPress API you’ve never worked with before? Someone in the community will have created a blog post or a Codex page telling you how. Need a plugin for your site? Someone’s probably created a free one that you can download for free from the WordPress Plugin Repository. Stuck with any aspect of WordPress? The lovely people on the support forums can help you out.

I think that the community is WordPress’s single greatest asset, and long may it remain so.

2. The Naysayers

But, of course, there is a flip side. There are people out there who hate WordPress, or if they don’t hate it, deride it.

I spoke at a web standards event a couple of years back about the interplay between WordPress and responsive design and was greeted by a cool, even hostile response. While I was speaking, there was a Twitter conversation going on in the room that consisted of people mocking me and dismissing WordPress itself. It was a shock to my system, having been immersed in the positivity of the WordPress community. I had no idea how much some people (even people in the audience who I know were using WordPress) disliked WordPress.

“While I was speaking, there was a Twitter conversation going on in the room that consisted of people mocking me and dismissing WordPress itself.”

There are still people out there who hate WordPress, but my guess is that it’s for very different reasons. Anyone in possession of the facts can no longer argue that WordPress isn’t a serious tool for web development, that it’s not a CMS or even an application platform. But now that it’s so huge, there are people who resent it for that reason.

You can’t win. I say ignore them and just get on with creating great sites and applications using WordPress.

3. Where to Find Up-to-Date and Accurate Tutorials and Resources

When you start with any software, it’s difficult to know where to start. When I started, I made plenty of use of Google. If I got stuck coding a theme, I searched for an answer to my problem. I didn’t have the patience to raise a support ticket every time (if you’re up against a client deadline, you can’t wait), so I went online.

In many cases, the Codex came to the rescue. But when you’re starting out with WordPress, the Codex can be daunting. It’s huge and often difficult to understand, and some (just some, mind) of the content on it isn’t even up to date.

I spent years identifying the most reliable sources of information and guidance on WordPress, often through trial and error and sometimes via recommendation. There are some major sites out there that you can trust for accurate information, including this one, WP Beginner and tuts+. There are also a few experts and developers who can always rely on for accurate and high quality information, advice and tutorials, like Tom McFarlin, Daniel Pataki and Chris Lema.

I still think this is a problem, especially if you’re coming to WordPress for the first time.

There are plenty of high quality resources available, but it’s difficult to sort through them and create a programme you can work through as your WordPress skills develop.

I’ve been discussing this with other members of the community and hope to develop such a resource over time on my own website. But meanwhile I recommend the resources in our post on the top 200+ resources for learning WordPress.

4. The Sources of the Best Plugins and Themes

Like most WordPress users, I started out by working exclusively with free themes and plugins. I took the default theme and hacked it to create my own theme framework, and I installed a variety of free plugins from the WordPress plugin directory. And if you’re starting out this is a great way to go. The plugin directory is reliable as plugins undergo rigorous testing, and you always know if a plugin is compatible with the latest version of WordPress (you are using the latest version of WordPress, aren’t you?).

But over time I started to come across limitations. Free plugins aren’t always updated all that frequently, some of them stop being developed at all, and you can’t expect prompt support as you aren’t paying for it.

I think the first premium plugin I bought was Gravity Forms. I quickly realised that its UX and extendability put it head and shoulders ahead of the free forms plugins I’d been using and moved all of my client sites over to it.

I then came across WPMU DEV, starting by buying the Support System plugin to provide support to my clients whose sites I host via WordPress Multisite. This led me to checking out other plugins and quickly realizing that they were more robust (and with more features) than many of the free alternatives I’d been using previously and that they could be relied upon not to conflict with each other.

Where you get your plugins and themes from will depend on the needs of your site or your clients and on your budget: but as WordPress becomes more powerful, extendable and popular, I’d argue that if you’re a WordPress professional, you should be moving to premium plugins.

5. Just How Flexible WordPress Is

The first few WordPress sites I created were modest affairs. I don’t even think they included a blog: they were “brochure-ware” sites for small clients who needed something small with a few pages that they could update themselves. Even if this is all you use WordPress for, I still think there’s a benefit to it compared to building with static HTML.

But as I started to take on bigger clients and more ambitious projects, I started to discover just how flexible WordPress is. It wasn’t long before I was using posts in client sites. Not necessarily for a blog, but sometimes to list services or products.

And then I started working with custom post types and custom taxonomies, which was when the scales fell away from my eyes.

Suddenly WordPress could do just about anything I needed it to! With the flexibility of custom content types, I could create large, complex sites and there was practically nothing a client asked for that I couldn’t say “yes” to.

This became even more apparent when I started coding custom queries into my themes. I’m a big fan of the WP_Query class (I’ve co-authored a huge series on it recently) and that combined with other functions such as get_terms() alongside custom post types and taxonomies means I can create a variety of exciting and flexible sites.

Another thing that makes WordPress incredibly flexible is the way you can use to to power sites that don’t look anything like a traditional WordPress blog. We’re used to seeing plenty of WordPress sites with a header at the top, content on the left, a sidebar on the right and a footer at the bottom, but there’s absolutely no reason why your WordPress site need look like this. WordPress is used to power some innovative sites with very different designs and layouts: just because you’re using the WordPress template hierarchy doesn’t mean your CSS has to make your site look “standard.”

6. It’s Worth Learning the Code…

When I started out with WordPress I was little more than an implementer. I could code my own themes, but I was reliant on CSS and some basic PHP to achieve my designs and wasn’t making full use of WordPress’s APIs.

It’s certainly possible to use WordPress and never touch a line of code, especially if you’re a site owner using quality themes and plugins. With resources like our Upfront theme builder and the best plugins, there’s nothing to stop you creating a professional site without touching the code.

But if you’re creating multiple sites or are working for clients, I’d argue that it’s well worth learning to code your own.

For example, when I started out I would use the (now unsupported) Query Posts plugin to add custom queries to my widget areas. I’ve since learned that using the WP_Query class in my theme’s code is far more efficient and reduces the load on the database. It also helps me understand exactly what’s going on under the hood.

I would also use the Widget Logic plugin to place certain widgets in specific areas of the site; now I use conditional tags in my theme files instead to give myself more control. It’s more efficient and it will help you understand better how your theme is working.

And finally, I no longer use a plugin to create custom post types, but code them myself.

7. … Though PHP Isn’t the Be-All and End-All

I’ve already mentioned the importance of CSS in your themes and how you can use CSS to make a theme look however you want it to. I’ve also talked about the importance of coding your own PHP to get the most from WordPress and be more efficient.

But in future to be a WordPress developer you may not even need to code PHP. With the rise of the WP REST API, Javascript will become increasingly important as a means of querying the database as well as coding interactions and effects.

For those of us used to PHP, this is quite a daunting prospect, but for front-end developers previously put off WordPress because they don’t have experience with PHP, this is a real opportunity. The WordPress community will open up to a new group of people with new skills, and the rest of us will need to develop our skills to incorporate Javascript and the WP REST API.

Learn From My Mistakes

If you’ve found this post because you’re considering making a start with WordPress, I thoroughly recommend going for it. If you’ve already been working with WordPress for a while, I’m sure there are a lot of points you’ll agree with me on. WordPress is an amazing resource and sometimes it’s hard to believe that we get it for free.

But without the community of users around it, it wouldn’t be free and it wouldn’t be as good as it is. I’ve learned along the way that there are some key things about WordPress that I would have benefitted from knowing about right from the start. Hopefully you can learn from my experiences so you don’t fall into the same traps.

What do you wish you’d known when you started working with WordPress? Share your ups and down in the comments below.