My Journey in the WordPress World

It all started with an iPod Touch

When I was about 13 years old, I made my first tech purchase, an iPod Touch. This was essentially my first “computer”. I know what you’re thinking, that an iPod Touch is nothing like a computer. But to my 13 year-old mind, this was not the case.

I didn’t like restrictions on my tech (which we will get to later), so jailbreaking was a must. It wasn’t long before I had terminal running on my iPod, followed by setting up SSH, and then emulating a full OSX. I became the “jailbreak guy” at school, and even found some ways to monetize!

The next thing I remember is wanting to set up a website for jailbreaking tips and tricks. I was still only 13, so my budget was about zero to non-existent. With some Google searches, I found Wix, Weebly, and Webs. All of which I tinkered around with, but then left them all shortly after creating a website. Why? Because I don’t like like restrictions on my tech! All of the above website builder’s forced me into choosing from a small number of templates, the customization options were very limited, and I ran into a paywall every time I turned around.

Enqueue WordPress

During this period of tinkering with different web building options, Andrew Wikel, a friend of mine and now a coworker, introduced me to WordPress – and I haven’t looked back since! I found a free hosting solution (you definitely get what you pay for), and started the famous 5-minute install. Shortly after I was looking through themes, playing with plugins, and basically head deep in the water. I instantly became a lover of WordPress, and my journey had started.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m now doing some freelance WordPress work. Mostly using templates from Themeforest, I found myself in the same boat as before with restrictions in how much I could customize the themes. Oh, and have I mentioned that I really don’t like like restrictions on my tech?

So the next logical step was to learn how to code myself. I started learning HTML and CSS, and even took a few college courses while still in High School on those two, plus PHP. The college classes were helpful to get me jump started, but I am definitely most indebted to online learning. I did pick up some bad practices though while taking the college courses. I learned how to custom code websites using Dreamweaver. I built a few freelance sites using this practice, and for a short period, I ended up ditching WordPress because I was unsure as to how to use my custom coding skills in the WordPress architecture. But WordCamp Chicago helped get me back on track!

The impact of WordCamps

WordCamp Chicago 2014 was my first WordCamp, and I am hugely grateful for it. I learned the proper way to make custom themes, saw how awesome the WordPress community was, and finally found what I’m good at! Before, I was labeling myself as a Web Designer and Developer, and I didn’t truly understand the meaning of either. I thought Web Designers had to be able to design and code, and Developers were the super advanced coding beasts who built WordPress. I surely didn’t fit in the latter category, but I am terrible at designing, so I felt as if I didn’t fit it. WordCamp Chicago taught me the real meaning of a WordPress developer, and I was able to leave the conference 100% confident that I was truly a developer.

Directly after the WordCamp ended, I went on a learning spree. I learned how to apply my coding skills into WordPress and work with it, rather than against. I signed up for the next WordCamp right away (Milwaukee), and I’ve been on a WordCamp splurge ever since.

I recently charted out my career as a WordPress Developer alongside the WordCamps I’ve attended, and I found it quite interesting. You can find the chart below (Disclaimer: My terrible design skills have already been mentioned. You have been warned.).

Caleb Burks WordPress infographic

Looking at this chart, statistically speaking, I think its clear that there is a direct correlation between WordCamps and my personal growth. But it’s not the WordCamps per se…it’s the community.

Get involved!

If I had a time machine there isn’t too much I would change, but I would definitely go back and tell myself to get involved in the community sooner. It was admittedly a bit overwhelming at first, but the community is very open, even for someone who looked like they were still 14! I knew right away that I wanted to work with WordPress and in the community. WooThemes was my first full-time WordPress job, and allowed me to do just that. And now at Automattic I get to work right inside that same community, and I love every day of it.

My advice is to get involved in any way, shape, or form. Follow some awesome WordPressers on Twitter, definitely attend a WordCamp, join the WordPress Slack channel, or even contribute straight to core or through other various ways like the Theme Review Team. If you have a question, ask it. I’ve never been turned down, or made fun of for asking a stupid question. In fact, I’d like to return that by answering any questions you might have. If you are on the fence about jumping into the WordPress community, feel free to message me on Twitter or Slack, and I’d be more than happy to help.

And lastly, I do have a charge to the community as a whole. As I’m sure you have seen, there has been quite a bit of #wpdrama going around recently. It’s a little saddening to see, as this is the same community that I fell in love with at my first WordCamp. I know disagreements are inevitable, but it’s how they are being handled that seems off to me. My charge to you is to take a step back, and think about your own journey in the WordPress world. Go back to that first WordCamp, and back to when you first found the community. Think about what you loved about it, and why you chose to be a WordPresser.

Now that you are jogging your memory, picture your first perception of the WordPress community, and then compare it to that state at which it is at now. Are there some things that have changed in how people are treated? Do you wish it was like it used to be in your earliest memories? If so, help change it! Thinking about it and talking about it isn’t going to change anything, but putting action behind the words will. You are a vital part of the community, and you can help steer the ship. Keep the community awesome, and never let it lose the awesomeness that you fell in love with once upon a time at the beginning of your WordPress journey.

4 comments

  1. Leo Gopal says:

    Hey Caleb,

    This is an awesome and inspiring article, thank you for sharing. I also mention how important reaching out and learning is in my HeroPress Essay. I fully concur with your sentiments about the #wpdrama. Its why the WordPress philosophy specifically mentions the verbal minority is not the active majority.

    Keep well Caleb 🙂 stay awesome,
    Eternal Smiles,
    Leo Gopal

    • Caleb Burks says:

      Hey Leo,

      Thanks, I enjoyed your article as well! (And I’m super jealous that you’re near the WooThemes HQ, and get to hang out w/ all those awesome guys!)

  2. Jeffro says:

    Another fantastic essay. This young man shares a lot of great tips and advice, especially in the last paragraph. We need more people with this type of attitude to help with the next generation of WordPress development.

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