Andrea Zoellner

A Leap Of Faith Into WordPress

I can talk myself out of anything: going to the gym, leaving town for the weekend, even putting down my phone. In fact, I almost talked myself out of the career move that would change my life. Good thing I didn’t.

My Story

I studied journalism in Montréal, Canada, where I currently live. After working in the nonprofit sector for a few years, I transitioned into a very corporate communications job. My role was challenging, I had amazing coworkers, and friends from my graduating class assumed I “had it figured out”. But the truth was I couldn’t picture myself climbing the corporate ladder for the next 40 years. Within a few months, I was already antsy.

In my late teens, as Facebook grew and Twitter was born, I idealized tech startups and romanticized the idea of a career in Silicon Valley. I quickly dismissed the idea because I didn’t know how to code and all the other Silicon Valley jobs were a mystery to me: “what is growth hacking and why are there so many wranglers, ninjas, and concierges in tech?”

When I thought about someone making a living with WordPress, I thought of star bloggers or people who published sites full of revenue-generating ads.

I had a billion preconceived ideas about what it meant to work in tech — many of which were lies that were keeping me from exploring jobs in the field.

An unexpected series of events led me to apply for a communications internship at Automattic, where I now work as a marketing copywriter. In the year between my internship and joining the marketing team, I developed my tech skills and paid the bills by working as a freelancer, a webmaster, and teaching WordPress to beginners.

In hindsight, my career path seems natural — maybe even boring, but it didn’t at the time. I overcame the gap in technical skill with a giant leap of faith, hard work, and the support of the WordPress community.

Tech needs writers

One of the lies preventing me from pursuing a job in tech was that web development was only about code. You can’t remove it from the equation, but I realized that good website and software design isn’t exclusively about good code. You need a lot of different sensitivities and skills to achieve the best result.

Front-end and back-end developers are key, but big projects can require graphic designers, UX specialists, project managers, photographers, and copywriters.

As a writer, I look at it this way: code is awesome, code is poetry, but what people read on the website is not code, it’s English, French, Spanish, German. When you read support documentation, release notes, or plugin documentation, it’s clear tech needs technical writers, content specialists, copywriters, and translators. That could be you!

Job hunting will be unorthodox

Not that long ago, I was a Senior Analyst in my communications job. I left that job to become an intern, something that puzzled my boss and colleagues. I knew any position at Automattic was a huge opportunity, so I wasn’t concerned with the unglamourous job title. Had I been, I might not have veered from the path I was on. The internship was amazing, but it didn’t lead to a job. When I found myself unemployed for the first time in four years, I didn’t really know what my next move would be. I wasn’t qualified for the tech jobs advertised and nothing seemed like the right fit for my unique mix of skills.

I was working my way up from the bottom in a brand new industry. At this point, it could have been easy to give up and go back to the less-than-exciting communications jobs that fit my profile. But I didn’t want to do that — I knew that wouldn’t make me happy long term.

Instead of throwing in the towel, I turned to what I was taught to do in journalism school: I freelanced. I took every contract that came my way and worked on my skills in the process. Instead of applying for jobs, I contacted people and pitched my services as a consultant.

This is where my local WordPress community was pivotal.

They helped me acquire the skills and connections I needed and made me feel like I belonged — even when I felt like an imposter. Eventually, I was hired to help a school migrate their website to a new WordPress theme and teach the staff to use WordPress and I loved every second.

Embrace the learning curve

When I turned my hobby of tinkering with websites into my full-time job, I felt the need to be really fast and efficient — right away. I had unrealistic performance expectations that could have led to frustration and discouragement.

If I was struggling with a task, I took work home, figured out the problems, and sped up my workflow the next day. In hindsight, I made the mistake of not asking enough questions, especially about process. It’s great to know how to do something, but even better to know the best way to do it. There’s no shame in asking a more experienced colleague about their workflow or strategy to tackle a task. It might not occur to them that their way of working, developed over the years, is actually rich with best practices for newcomers and could help you be more efficient, reduce errors, and improve teamwork.

Teamwork turned out to be a big part of gaining experience in web development. In the months of freelancing before I returned to Automattic, I teamed up with a developer friend to build websites. They handled the database, set up my local development environment, and helped me with more complex CSS while I handled design and content. This was a great symbiotic business partnership, because I could really shine where I was the most skilled and had someone complimentary doing the same. It was also a small enough operation that I could learn from what they were working on. We’d have co-working evenings and I could see up close how to use Varying Vagrant Vagrants, how to child-theme, or create a custom post type. They were also extremely patient. Make friends with developers, they are the nicest people.

Dive in, the water is fine

The more I work with WordPress, the more I understand the code behind it and how to bring my ideas to life. The best thing about being a non-technical person in a tech environment is that you’re constantly learning. Maybe even better than that is knowing that everyone wants you to succeed. There are countless resources out there for beginners who want to learn to code, both online and through community initiatives.

The WordPress community is incredibly generous and without it, I wouldn’t have considered it possible to get into tech.

Now that I’ve overcome the initial hurdles of my career change, it’s very natural to want to give back to the community that made it all happen. You don’t have to be a seasoned core contributor to make a difference. If you love WordPress, have a heart for the community that uses it, and have something to share, you can help someone too. In the last year, I’ve spoken at WordCamps, WordPress meetups, attended a contributor day, co-founded a resource to help increase the number of women speakers at tech conferences, and am now on the organizing committee for WordCamp Montréal.

If you’re at a point in your career where you have a major decision to make, don’t let fear, misconceptions, and lies keep you from acting. Remember that you already have a valuable set of skills, and everything else can be learned. What are you waiting for?


  1. Love hearing your story — and love seeing you put it out there, to help inspire others.

    In hindsight, I made the mistake of not asking enough questions, especially about process.

    Here’s something to remember if there’s ever a “next time” — tech people generally love sharing their processes. We can go on and on and on about the best code editor or the best way to accomplish some task. And since there are often many different ways to do things, hearing different people’s processes can help you pick and choose the way that works best. So I hope you no longer hesitate to ask about processes… I’m sure a ton of us would be happy to chime in and try to convince you that our way is best. ;-)

    1. Thanks Kathryn! You’re so right and asking for advice and insight is definitely something I’ve made a habit. I hope others feel inspired to as well! 

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