People were paying me to write code two years before I had wifi in my house. Home wifi would have cost $45 a month. The cable company wanted a $100 deposit to create my account. It wasn’t going to happen, I could get wifi with a cup of coffee for $3 (including the tip) at a coffee shop a few blocks away from my place that meant I got some semblance of being social. I couldn’t imagine giving up 15 days a month at coffee shops just so it was easier to work from home, not when I could get away with sitting on my porch poaching wifi from my neighbors when I got stuck and had to google regular expressions for the 400th time. Or, my favorite, sit in a park down the street where there were three unprotected wifi networks and a strong tree to lean against.
My path to becoming a web developer started when I packed up my beat up Chevy Prizm and drove to Portland, Oregon. I had graduated college with degrees in Economics and Political Science. While there, I become a Linux user when I discovered that it used less space meaning I had more space for music. I had never written code, but when my friends and I decided we wanted to create our version of The Onion, I started searching. After a little bit of trial ( blogger ) and error ( blogger ), I found WordPress and it’s “Famous Five Minute Install”. I purchased a domain and hosting from a place that advertised heavily and set about creating our site.
The public library was my initial source of information. After all, having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card. I picked up books on CSS, PHP, Java, Database design, and anything I could get my hands on. I was working evenings as an usher for the Portland Trailblazers and would head over to a 24 hour coffee shop to cowboy code under fluorescent lights until I was ready to crash.
I can think of three big breaks that really helped move me along. Each of these ended up being “Flash Forward” moments where I was able to grow.
My First Client
I was scouring craigslist looking for anything I could get my hands on when I found someone offering $25 to move their WordPress site from one domain to another. Having just done that, I sent an email and crossed my fingers. Somehow, my eagerness (and likely willingness to work for peanuts) got my their trust. I had my first client. It took me way longer than I would have hoped as I learned about things like DNS Propagation, but I completed the task. And did such a good job that I was asked if I could build a website for one of their friends who was a standup comic. I was honest that I had never built a real site from scratch, but they liked how I had communicated, so I got the gig.
My First Core Experience
Before the first time I contributed to WordPress, I went to the Portland WordPress User Group to ask if something I was seeing was possibly an issue that warranted emailing the wp-hackers mailing list. I was so scared of being wrong that I felt like I needed to ask permission. I assumed that I was going to make a fool of myself and be laughed at. I ended up emailing the list and it turned out, I had found a spot where WordPress could be better! In the grand scheme of WordPress, passing a parameter to three `do_action` calls didn’t help WordPress gain 1% of market share, but it did help me with the plugin I was working on. And I was exposed to the process. I learned about trac, and the weekly devchat, and patches and svn. While I didn’t get props, I still consider this my first contribution to WordPress Core.
My first WordCamp
WordCamps are cheap compared to most tech conferences, but when you are playing the game of “How do I eat on $10 a week” for months on end, $40 for a conference whose value is unknown is a hard sell. Luckily, the Portland WordPress User Group did a raffle for a ticket and I won. All I had to pay for was the $2 in bus fare each way and I had the chance to learn. The 2009 WordCamp Portland ended up being where Matt Mullenweg announced that WPMU was going to be merged into core in WordPress 3.0 and it’s where I saw a talk entitled “How Not to Build a WordPress Plugin” by Will Norris. Will’s talk exposed me to WordPress development in a way that I would never have imagined on my own. It helped me level up from someone who mostly was copy and pasting PHP to someone who was writing code.
Additionally, I was able to network for the first time. It no longer was the same 15 people who went to the meetup, it was now about 200 WordPress fanatics, many who wanted to hire someone like me to work on their website!
Looking back, these flash forward moments contributed almost as much to luck to my success. In many ways, a lot of my success can be attributed to the luck of being born as someone who is essentially a white cis-male into a family where I was exposed to computers and had a chance to gain a solid liberal arts education.
But it’s not just that luck that helped me. I had to provide good customer service to turn a $25 task into a contract to build my first website. I had to be willing to embarrass myself by asking what I thought was a dumb question. I had to show up and become a part of my local community to get a ticket for a conference where I learned and networked.
Soon after WordCamp Portland 2009, I had enough client work coming in that it made sense to have wifi. Home wifi meant I could start being connected to the WordPress community more than once a month in person or a few hours here and there at coffee shops. It meant I could read dev chat every week and eventually it meant I could earn props. Networking at meetups, WordCamps and conferences led to full time jobs. Taking risks and being willing to look like a fool in front of the WordPress community have enabled me to become a WordPress Core committer (and sometimes continue to look like a fool). In addition to volunteering on WordPress Core, I’m now the Director of Editorial Technology for Penske Media Corporation where I help brands like Rolling Stone and Variety run on WordPress, but I’ll never forget when if I needed to code, I was going to sit under trees in parks or the fluorescent lights of a 24 hour coffee shop.