12 Steps That Will Take Your WordPress Skills from Good to Rockstar

How many of you took WPMU DEV’s Implementer vs. Developer quiz last year? If you haven’t done so already, I’d suggest you go right on and test your skills with these 20 questions. If you have time, I’d also encourage you to keep reading as there’s valuable information there on the distinction between a WordPress developer and implementer.

Now, for those of you implementers or developers-in-training, what is your goal for this year? How about the next five years? If one of your goals is to become better at WordPress, it’s important that you figure out how to work past the limitations of your current skillset. There are a number of reasons why it would be beneficial to do this:

  • Create higher quality designs that aren’t limited solely by what a theme or plugins can do.
  • Have the capacity to be more creative and push the boundaries of what is possible with your web designs.
  • Spend less money outsourcing coding work to someone else.
  • Speak more authoritatively about web design and improve your brand’s reputation by always being on the cutting edge.
  • Be more confident in everything you do and attract a better quality of client and higher paying gigs.
  • Continue to challenge yourself so you don’t become complacent or bored in your work.

Before moving on, I’d like to say that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with working as a WordPress implementer. For some clients, that’s really all they need. This means you spend less time working on each individual project while churning out a higher volume. If that’s what you enjoy and it’s working for you, then embrace it.

However, if your aspirations are to become a fully-fledged programmer or you simply want to learn more coding so you can take your designs to the next level, then you’ll need to work past your current limitations. While it’ll take some work to up your WordPress programming skill level, it’s nothing you can’t accomplish while continuing to work as an implementer.

From WordPress Implementer to Developer: The Journey Starts Now

In this journey from WordPress implementer to next-level developer, there are certain actions you’ll want to take in order to acquire the skills you seek. Remember: this transition isn’t just about learning how to code with CSS or JavaScript. It’s much more than that. The entire way you approach a web development project and your business in general must change.

So, whether you’re still mulling this decision over or you’re looking for solid advice on how to get started, I’ve laid out 12 steps to help you kick off your journey from WordPress implementer to rockstar developer.

Step #1: Get Organized

I know this first step seems tedious and perhaps unnecessary, but I assure you it’s not. Whenever you’re about to make a big change to how you work, everything you currently have going on needs to be as trim and neat as possible. In the case of WordPress developers, the more structure and organization you can bring to your workspace and process (both inside and outside of WordPress), the more time you’ll have to focus on acquiring and improving your skills.

Take the time now to do a little spring cleaning, get your current workflows under control, and then you can tackle this exciting new change.

Step #2: Define the Goal

Again, here’s another one of those nitpicky steps that no one really wants to take the time to do, but it’s necessary if you want to maximize the effort you commit to this. Take some time to really think about what you want to get out of this:

  • Do you want to give your WordPress skills a small boost?
  • Do you want to give your WordPress skills a major overhaul?
  • Do you want to become a developer? If so, would you prefer to be a frontend or backend developer?
  • Are you planning to revamp your WordPress business once this is all over or do you want to leave it as is while simply tacking on additional premium services?

There are a number of ways you can go with this once you’ve worked past your current WordPress limitations. But before you take any steps, you need to know what the goal is so you can pick the proper action items.

Step #3: Learn the Target Skills

Steps 2 and 3 should go hand-in-hand. Once you know what you’re trying to get out of this and where you want to go, you’ll want to acquire the skills that will help you achieve that. Here are some of your options:

  • HTML and CSS are a must for anyone working in WordPress development (at any level). Even if you’re not planning for a major career transition, you should at least have these under your belt.
  • For those of you who want to take your coding skills to the next level, look at PHP, Ruby, JavaScript, and jQuery. The programming languages you choose should be dictated by the type of developer you want to be.
  • Once you’ve started the process of learning your target languages, the next step is to tackle additional languages, libraries, and frameworks that streamline the process of working with your base set.
  • For image-heavy websites, Photoshop would also be nice, but is not a must.

Create a plan to acquire each skill and then take it slow and steady. There are free resources online that will help you tackle each one and give you time to practice before moving on. You can also look into these WordPress development courses.

Step #4: Work in WordPress

WP Comfort
It’s important to get comfortable within all aspects of WordPress.

If you want to work past your limitations in WordPress, the best thing to do is spend as much time in WordPress as you can. In addition to learning programming languages that will help you build better, stronger websites for your clients, you need to be fluent in the platform, both inside as well as outside.

Step #5: Work Outside WordPress

Website development doesn’t just take place inside of WordPress. I’d suggest that once you’ve got your bearings within the CMS, turn your attention to your preferred web hosting platform and control panel tools.

Your main goal here should be to improve your comfort within these platforms. The greater your comfort, the more time you’ll save once you start using them regularly.

Step #6: Get Familiar with WordPress Tools

WordPress Membership
The signup experience for new WPMU DEV members.

Now, just because you’re trying to pull yourself away from your reliance on WordPress themes and plugins doesn’t mean that they’re not still helpful tools. In fact, there are many of these that will remain essential to your process.

What I would suggest is that you establish a collection of go-to WordPress themes and plugins. You should know how to work within each of them by heart. In so doing, it’ll ensure that you’re working with a higher quality set of tools that will save you time and consistently produce top results each time. You can either get a WordPress membership that covers all your needs or you can take time to collate your own preferred set of tools from the WordPress directory.

Step #7: Create a Child Theme

Once you’ve got a set of go-to WordPress themes, pick one and try your hand at developing a child theme from it. Don’t know what a child theme is or why you’d need one? Check this out.

What it basically boils down to is this: WordPress themes are great, but the developers of those themes set the parameters for what can or cannot be updated within them. While you could use your newly acquired coding skills to go into the backend of the theme and customize it there, you’ll lose all of those changes each time the theme receives an update (and, if it’s a well-maintained one, this’ll happen often). Child themes spare you that trouble.

Step #8: Use a Local Dev Environment

MAMP
Use MAMP to create a local development environment for WordPress.

If you’ve never heard of MAMP before, it’s probably time you did. MAMP is what is known as a local development environment. Basically, it enables developers to build and test a website on a local server without affecting the live URL. It’s also a great place for you to practice your new skills offline without having to alter live websites to do it.

Learn more about how to develop WordPress locally now.

Step #9: Challenge Yourself

You know what they say about idle hands. Complacency, boredom, and getting stuck in a comfort zone can all be creativity and motivation killers for a web developer, so don’t let that happen. Continue to find ways to challenge yourself throughout this journey. Take a class. Join an open source project. Offer up free work. Do whatever you can to keep moving and keep learning.

Step #10: Broaden Your Horizons

Dribbble
Dribbble is a great place to find inspiration.

Becoming a high-quality developer isn’t just about understanding a few different programming languages that allow you to work more efficiently in the backend. Part of what makes a good developer is his or her knowledge of what makes for good design, too.

That’s why you should always seek out new avenues for inspiration:

  • Stop looking at the same type of website or even those within your specific niche. You might be limiting your own designs if you aren’t aware of the creative lengths others are going to.
  • Peruse development and design portfolio sites to see what others are doing for both desktop and mobile. Design trends change fast and this is a good way to stay in-tune with what’s happening.
  • Also, don’t forget to look outside the web for inspiration. Sometimes that means reading more, taking an art class, going for a walk in a new city; anything to get the creative juices flowing.

Step #11: Keep Learning

You should never get to a point where you feel as though you’ve learned everything you can. There will always be a better, faster, and funkier way to develop for the web, so find new ways to educate yourself on this whenever you can. Take a few WordPress tutorials. Subscribe to WordPress blogs and podcasts, and set aside time for them each day.

The more you know, the more motivated you’ll be to grow in your role and do better work.

Step #12: Stay Positive

My last piece of advice is to remain positive. Don’t let seeing work that you believe to be better than yours get you down. Chances are good those developers have been doing this for a very long time and have enough advanced coding skills under their belt that allow them to create high-performance and cutting-edge web designs.

If you feel frustrated that your work doesn’t meet the bar they set or that you’re not learning these things fast enough, don’t give up. You’ll only hurt your business and ego even more if you quit now.

Wrapping Up

In any line of work, the more skills you acquire, the more valuable of an asset you become to those you work for. It’s no different with WordPress development. Regardless of why you want to bolster your WordPress skillset and how far you plan to take it, you’re sure to reap the benefits of all this professional development work in the long-run.

Brenda Barron
Over to you: What’s your go-to resource for when you don’t know how to do something in WordPress or are looking for a more efficient way to execute it?