How to Become a WordPress Professional – and Tips Based on Experience

At at lot of the WordCamps and WordPress meetups I attend, I’m asked the same question: How do you go about becoming a WordPress professional?

The question is normally asked by one of two types of people: those who’ve been using WordPress in their spare time for a while and want to make a living from it, and those who’ve been making a living in a similar field (such as design or front end development) and want to cross over to working with WordPress.

Many WordPress pro work remotely on laptops.
Many WordPress pro work remotely on laptops.

Clearly, a career with WordPress isn’t just for bloggers or developers. Whether you’re a designer, marketer, educator, content creator or you like to bury yourself in code, there are WordPress opportunities that could work for you.

But how do you go about identifying and making the most of those opportunities? How do you establish yourself as a WordPress pro?

In this post I’ll attempt to answer that question, and give you some useful tips based on my experience of forging a successful career with WordPress as well as the experience of some other people I’ve spoken to. I’ll look at how you choose which WordPress niche to aim for, identifying the skills you already have, learning what you need to about WordPress, finding your preferred working environment, building a portfolio to land that first job, and finally I’ll end by looking at how once you’ve got that WordPress career you can keep on developing.

But first, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: impostor syndrome.

Banishing Impostor Syndrome

At the most recent meeting of my local WordPress group, WordPress Birmingham, one of our speakers (WPMU DEV’s very own Raelene Wilson), asked how many of us suffered from impostor syndrome. The answer was a fair few.

In case you haven’t come across impostor syndrome before, it’s a state of mind where you’re achieving success in something and gaining a reputation but at the back of your mind there’s a nagging feeling you haven’t earned it, and that at some point you’ll be unmasked as an impostor.

In a profession such as web design and development, where a lot of people are self-taught and there’s no objective criteria (such as a professional qualification) to show that you know your stuff, it’s easy to suffer from impostor syndrome.

Worried that you're an impostor and 'those meddling kids' will find you out?
Worried that you’re an impostor and ‘those meddling kids’ will find you out?

But here’s the truth: a lot of the people around you are suffering from impostor syndrome too, and they don’t let it stop them. So part of forging a career with WordPress is having the confidence to believe in your own ability (or at least in your ability to learn!).

Now we’ve got impostor syndrome out of the way, let’s start looking at the process of becoming a WordPress professional, and start by identifying what type of WordPress pro you want to be.

Identifying Your Niche

The first thing to remember here is that when identifying what specific career you want to develop with WordPress, your decision isn’t permanent. The Internet, and WordPress itself, is constantly changing, and you may find that what works for you now won’t work in a few years time. In fact, having the flexibility to keep adapting is an important part of developing a successful career with WordPress.

There are a few niches you could look at when identifying where you want to specialise. Broadly speaking these are:

  • Development, either front-end (HTML, CSS or JavaScript – a growing area) or backend (PHP).
  • Design, which may or may not include design in the browser using HTML and CSS.
  • Content creation, which could include blogging or creating content for client sites. You’d be surprised how many businesses are looking for talented writers to provide copy for their blog or online store.
  • Education: WordPress is a great tool for educators, with a variety of high quality plugins (like our  own CoursePress Pro) available to help you educate your audience in online or offline subjects.
  • Marketing, which could encompass SEO, conversion optimisation or e-commerce.

You may find that you have skills in more than one of these areas, in which case you don’t need to just focus on one. For example, my work includes design, development, education and content creation: I design and develop sites for clients and I also write articles and create screencasts which help people learn about WordPress. When I started out with WordPress I was primarily a designer but soon moved into development and through that, into creating educational resources for coders.

Brian Duffy works with clients and has found a niche as a WordPress trainer. He told me why he loves educating people about WordPress:

Brian Duffy
Brian Duffy says WordPress is a great tool for learners

“WordPress has become the standard for web publishing (especially amongst SMEs and non-profits) which has led to a sharp increase in demand for WordPress skills. If you love WordPress and like working with people and explaining stuff, then I can highly recommend ‘teaching WordPress’ as a fun and rewarding career with tons of opportunities.”

Think about where your skills and experience lie and also where you have contacts and could realistically find work. If you’ve already been developing static sites for clients (or working with another CMS), you might find that switching to creating WordPress sites for clients makes sense. Or if you’ve worked in marketing before, you could become an expert in helping clients use WordPress to market their business.

As well as identifying your niche in terms of activity, you also need to think about the niche in which you will operate. Let’s take a look at that next.

For Whom Will You Work?

Identifying who you’re going to work for goes hand in hand with identifying what you’ll do: after all, if you want to pursue a niche that there’s no market for, you’re going to struggle to make a living.

There are a few options here:

  • Employment, either by an agency, a digital employer or a non-digital employer. If you want to work for a web design agency, you’ll need to have some specialised skills, but if you want to manage your employer’s website, you’ll probably be expected to cover a much broader range of activities in less depth.
  • Contracting. Contracting for agencies as a freelancer gives you the flexibility of self-employment with the security of long-term relationships with one or more agencies. However bear in mind that you won’t have any employment rights and you’ll have to cover your costs. Agencies generally hire specialists to complement their in-house skills so you’ll need to develop your own specialism(s).
  • Client work. Working directly for clients can be more lucrative that contracting (although that isn’t guaranteed, particularly if you’re a specialist). However it does come with the downsides of added client expectations and less security. You’ll have to manage contracts and invoicing as well as client relationships, but if you’ve got good business and communication skills this can be a great way to work.
  • Selling via an intermediary. If you’ve got good theme and plugin development skills, you might choose to sell your code via a third party theme or plugin vendor. This can be very lucrative but isn’t as easy as it may seem: instead of clients, you’ll have users who expect support. The most successful theme and plugin developers provide high quality support: without it your reputation can plummet.
  • Launching a startup. If you’ve got a great idea you can implement with WordPress, this could be the way to go. Of all the options this is the riskiest but sometimes the most tempting for WordPress professionals who want to free themselves from clients and bosses. This is a tough area to crack: I launched a startup just over a year ago and instead of giving me freedom and making me handsome profits, it lost money.
  • Monetizing your website. If you’re a blogger, writer or you have a shop, you can create a site which will earn you money without having to work for clients, employers or agencies or involve a third party.  The upsides of this are obvious, but you will have customers with expectations: either people buying from you or readers making comments or asking questions.
UK startup support website
Launching a startup is tempting but you need to be aware of the risks

Again you don’t have to pick one of these, but it’s wise not to diversify too much. Identifying and focusing on your target market will be a much more successful strategy than simply doing anything that comes along.

Think about who you like working with, what degree of risk you’re prepared to accept and where you have contacts.

Transferable Skills

Now that you know what you want to do and who you want to do it for, it’s time to start looking at the skills you’ll need.

Hopefully you already have some transferable skills that you can use in your WordPress career. If you’ve been working with WordPress in your spare time, you’ll have built up experience you can sell to a potential employer or client. If you’ve been writing for years, you have skills you can use to build a successful blog. And if you’ve worked in offline marketing, you’ll have experience that you can sue to work with clients to help them use WordPress for their online marketing.

Take some time to identify all the transferable skills you have and consider how you’ll use them to hep you land a job or a client, or make money from your idea. When talking to potential clients or writing copy for your website, make sure you emphasise the relevant experience you have. When I started using WordPress for client work I couldn’t boast much experience building WordPress sites but I could tell clients about my experience content managing sites for previous employers and building static sites for clients.

Be aware that in some cases you may need to unlearn what you’re used to doing. For example if you’ve worked exclusively in offline marketing, you need to learn about what’s different in online marketing. If you’ve delivered face to face training, you need to adopt a different style if you’re launching an educational blog. Be realistic with yourself and identify your learning needs, but don’t make the mistake of telling clients or potential employers that your experience isn’t relevant!

Developing Your Skills

Even if you’ve got transferable skills, there are still things you’ll need to learn. If you’re a PHP developer, you’ll need to learn the functions, classes and hooks that are specific to WordPress. If you’ve been working with another CMS you’ll have to learn what’s different about WordPress. And if you’re a great writer but want to make money from your blog, you’ll need to learn about advertising and other ways of monetizing your site (I hate that word too!).

Identify people in the WordPress community who are successful at what you want to do, and see what skills and behaviours they use that could work for you. Consider how these apply to you and how they might be different from the way you work (don’t just copy: be yourself!). Research what’s involved in the career path you’ve chosen and the activities you’ll need to undertake that are new to you. Then identify the skills you’ll need to learn if you’re going to be good at those activities.

Places you could learn about WordPress (and related skills) include:

  • Blogs such as this one and those run by thousands of individual WordPress professionals.
  • Online courses such as those provided by lynda.com, tutsplus and BobWP.
  • Technical resources such as the WordPress codex.
  • Books such as my own for WordPress developers, WordPress: Pushing the Limits.
  • Face to face training courses and workshops (including those offered at some WordCamps such as WordCamp Birmingham and WordCamp Miami).
  • Big events such as WordCamps and other web conferences.
  • Local WordPress meetups: a great place to meet WordPress professionals and learn from them.
  • Other local groups, such as UX groups, blogging groups or business groups, which will be useful if you’re working in a relevant niche.
WordPress workshop
A workshop will help you learn WordPress skills

There’s no shortage of places where you can learn the skills you need to become a WordPress professional, but the skill is in finding the ones that will suit your learning style and learning needs best and be practical for you.

Building a Portfolio

As you develop your skill set, you need to show it off. The best way to do this is via your portfolio of work.
This could be on your own website or it may be on a third party portfolio site, but whichever way it needs to showcase the skills you want to sell to clients, customers or potential employers.

For some people, privacy can be an issue here. When I started my agency, I had a portfolio of work which had all been done for previous employers. Most of this was internal work that I couldn’t show to people outside the organisation and so it meant all I could do was describe that portfolio of work to the best of my ability.

carbonmade website
Sites like carbonnade let your upload your portfolio: or of course you could develop your own portfolio site.
If you don’t have portfolio of work, it can seem like a chicken and egg situation: you can’t get work without a portfolio, and you can’t create a portfolio if you haven’t done any work. So find opportunities to do work for friends, family or anyone who’ll take you on, so that you can build up a portfolio.

Or even better, work on some personal projects that help you develop and showcase your skills.

This gives you more control and helps you learn, and it also doesn’t encourage people to think that your skills should be made available for free.

If you’re looking for clients or you’re a contact creator or marketer, make sure you blog regularly about your areas of expertise. A good personal (or company) blog will provide answers to the questions that potential clients or empires are asking, so think about what they’re likely to search for online. Three years ago I created a social media blog to support my client work in that area: a post I wrote about social media avatars still ranks on Google even to this day, and resulted in some clients getting in touch.

Keep adding to your online portfolio and don’t just publish it on your website: use social media to tell people what you’ve done and display examples. Don’t underestimate the power of Linkedin: you might think of it as a site just for business types, but I got my first book deal because a publisher found me on Linkedin.

Creating a Network

Now that you’ve got a portfolio, you need to find some people to show it to. The great news is that WordPress has a large and vibrant community of people. Making contact with that community will help you identify opportunities and make your name known.

Go to a WordCamp. Attend your local WordPress meetup. Find other tech events near where you live. You’d be surprised how many people at these events are hiring.

At the WordPress meetup group I co-organise, we frequently get people coming along to one meeting purely to find someone who can develop their site for them. At WordCamps a significant proportion of people are agency hiring managers looking for talent.

Go to those events and talk to plenty of people, making sure they know what you can offer but avoiding the hard sell. WordPress people don’t like it when someone is pushy with a sales approach: keep it subtle, focus on making contacts and building relationships; and when someone does announce that they’re hiring or looking for a freelancer, make sure you talk to them.

Take your business cards along and make sure your website is up to date with your portfolio so that when they go away and check you out, they’ll see what you can do.

Mark Wilkinson
Mark Wilkinson has found that freelancing can be isolating.

Mark Wilkinson has been working as a WordPress freelancer for some time, but only recently took the leap to going full time. He found that isolation can be a challenge: “The biggest change I noticed was that you find yourself working on your own in isolation, maybe at home or in your office. You lose colleagues to chat to and bounce ideas off.” 

This is one reason why it’s all the more important to develop those networks.

Even if your networks don’t get you work, they will give your WordPress learning a huge boost.

Through WordCamps and WordPress meetups I’ve met people who taught me most of what I know about WordPress and about the web industry: they may not have hired me but without them, my career wouldn’t be where it is today.

Landing your First Job or Client

So you’ve started learning what you need to be a WordPress professional, you’ve got a great portfolio and you’re available for hire or you’re looking for a job. How do you go about finding and winning those opportunities?

Here are some of the channels you can use:

Networks. I’ve already looked at how being active in your WordPress community can expose you to people who are hiring staff or contractors: make sure you pursue this avenue.

Jobs boards. Jobs boards include opportunities for web professionals both employed and self-employed. Create a profile on the jobs boards if you’re able to, and make sure you set alerts up so you’re immediately aware of new opportunities. There are sites aimed at bloggers, developers, designers and marketers. Take a look at WPHired and the WPMU DEV Job Market for all kinds of WordPress-specific opportunities, ProBlogger for bloggers and writers,  and UpWork for designers and developers.

LinkedIn - Rachel McCollin's profile page
You’d be surprised how effective LinkedIn can be for finding opportunities

Social Media. Use twitter to raise your profile and LinkedIn to search for opportunities and make contacts. While you may only spot occasional jobs postings on either of these, they may be somewhere where employers or clients come to you.

Which brings me to…

Word of mouth. Tell everyone (and I mean absolutely everyone) you know that you’re looking for work. Email your friends. Post a link to your profile on Facebook. Carry your business card everywhere. Tell the people you worked with in your last job (including suppliers and contractors) what you’re looking for now and ask if they know of any opportunities. I got my very first freelance training contract when my company made me redundant and one of the contractors I’d hired for them took me on. And I got my first web design client through a friend whose company needed someone to overhaul their site. Once you get established, word of mouth will spread beyond friends and family: happy clients will tell their friends and contacts about you and the work will start finding you.

These are just some of the places you can find job opportunities: for more ideas, check out this post on places to find WordPress jobs.

Developing your WordPress Career

Once you land that dream WordPress job or start getting a regular stream of client work, the hard work isn’t over. If you’re going to stay ahead of the game, you need to constantly develop your skills and career.

Here are some tips:

  • Watch what’s happening in the industry. Sites like this one and newsletters like The WhiP will help you keep abreast of developments.
  • Identify new trends that you can make something of. For example if you’re a front end developer you really should be getting to grips with the WP REST API right now.
  • Constantly update and develop your skills and knowledge. Put aside time for personal development even when you’re busy earning a living.
  • Talk to people. Go to meetups and WordCamps and find out what people are talking about.
  • Move outside your comfort zone. If you’re a designer, try out some development. If you’re a blogger, investigate SEO. Identify opportunities to learn about aspects of WordPress you’re less familiar with so you can see the context that your own work fits in.
  • Be prepared to change. The digital world moves fast and what works for you now won’t in a few years time. Don’t be scared of moving into a new specialism if your current one starts to become less in demand or if something new excites you.
  • Read about the world of web development outside WordPress. Following sites like Smashing Magazine will help you see what’s happening outside the WordPress community and see the bigger picture.
  • Don’t be afraid to go back to formal training and learning once your career is developing: it’s not just for beginners.
Smashing Magazine website
Sites like Smashing Magazine will help you keep up to date with the industry.

If there’s one thing that I would say is the most crucial of all this, it’s keeping up to date with the industry.

Everything you do to develop, adapt and diversify your career will stem from that.

Summary

Being a WordPress professional is something I can definitely recommend. It exposes you to some great work opportunities and a community of people who will become true friends. WordPress continues to grow and people with solid WordPress skills will be in demand form employers and clients for some years to come.

But it’s not something you can achieve overnight: if you simply print yourself a business card announcing that you’re a WordPress pro without doing the hard work, you’ll quickly get found out for a fraud. Take the time to develop your skills, make contacts and keep abreast of the WordPress industry and community and you’re in with a good chance of a successful WordPress career.

What are your tips for building a career with WordPress? Let us know in the comments below.

Image credits: Wikipedia, Drew Kirkland