Transformed by WordPress

WordPress has changed my career. It has helped me achieve financial and personal independence. It has given me confidence and notoriety. It has enabled me to travel the country. It has completely changed my home, my friendships, my romantic relationships. It has transformed my entire life.

But let me back up a minute.

Ever since I was very young, my parents always encouraged my brother and I to follow our passions, no matter what they were. We didn’t have a ton of money, but what I lacked in expensive material goods and vacations, I made up for in classes and life experience. I learned pretty quickly I sucked at sports – sorry, toddler soccer! – but was pretty good at art and writing and reading, and kinda decent at math too! And science was sorta neat! And this flute playing thing is pretty cool! I took tons of extracurricular “classes” in art, music, acting, engineering, science, you name it.

I was in middle school when I “learned to code” though I didn’t find it significant at the time. One of the kid’s magazines we subscribed to often contained some single-page BASIC programs – with the line numbers and everything! – so my dad, being the sysasdmin type that he was, set me up with my first laptop to try it out. It was bulky, with a black-and-white screen, running only a text editor and QBASIC. I had fun, learning about IF and GOTO and variables (mad libs!) I even managed to build a fairly complex text-based game centered around wandering a mall trying not to lose all of your allotted time and money before getting to the other side. But a new laptop for high school, complete with internet access and, you know, actual colors, made me forget about my coding adventures – though countless hours on AOL Instant Messenger made me a pretty fast typist.

I also took an HTML summer class right before high school. This was the era of terrible css, gratuitous use of frames – clearly I built myself a multicolor golden rectangle out of frames, wouldn’t you? – and awkward layouts with bad gifs. It was fun to build sites and see the power I had over font size, color, and position, and I even tried my hand at putting together a fan page. Eventually, though, I lost interest as my pursuits in art, music, and the rest of school overtook my free time in the years following.

I dedicated my time to being a generalist in high school, with a side of “cool, I can take this new Photoshop class three years in a row on top of art, who needs a lunch period anyway?” I adored art class but never felt like a creative artist (my skills are more “draw what you see” than “draw what you feel”). I enjoyed music but definitely didn’t want to do that for a living. I was good at math and science and english but not enough to make a career out of it. I still didn’t really know what I wanted to be when I grew up. “Ugh, why can’t I just major in ‘Learning A Bunch Of Random Stuff’” I often lamented to whomever would listen to me. What career paths were out there for a person who likes art and science and math and music and problem solving and psychology and everything at once?

Why did I share all this with you? Well, though I’m no believer in “Retrospective Fate” it’s hard not to see all the pieces falling into place looking back from here. Armed with a high ACT score, decent grades, and “I-don’t-know-what-to-major-in-I-guess-sociology” I showed up at Purdue for orientation, and happened to hear about an open informational meeting for people interested in becoming a Design major.

Whaaaa? There’s a career for doing artsy problem solving things?

I was hooked.

During college, I was aiming for a career in Package Design, but had to take classes in all design fields. My web design class… was kind of a joke. Sure, the creative part was fun, but when it came time to actually build it, well… we just exported directly from Fireworks, tables and all. This was 2006, long after tables were not a “thing” anymore. I also got a stern lecture from my professor after reading Don’t Make Me Think and trying to implement all of Steve Krug’s principles in one of my projects, being told it “wasn’t creative enough” and didn’t “push any boundaries.” And of course there was the infamous “A Website Is Like A Poster” speech.

We still haven’t hit WordPress though. It was always in the background. A friend of mine used it for her blog, and was experimenting with customizing the css to make it personalized. Oooh, I wished I could do cool stuff like that, but it sounded really hard, and way over my head. Plus, I had vowed I didn’t want to work in web design anyway. I had a love/hate relationship with interactive work at this point, and was focusing my internships on print and package design. I graduated with honors in Visual Communications, and still joke that I’m one of only 0.01% of people in the industry who actually has a relevant degree.

Life has a way of ignoring one’s carefully crafted plans, and this was no exception. After graduation, I got a job at a digital agency in downtown Chicago, spending a majority of my time going between PowerPoint presentations and web design, and gaining a pretty solid education in both. The hours were long, often late into the evening, but due to a series of circumstances I wound up in basically a “senior” role less than a year out of college. This meant I was responsible for making some pretty big design decisions for clients, including being able to attend meetings and calls directly, and speak with an authoritative voice. In my spare time, I was also freelancing for a small agency that was doing work for a major job board, creating dozens of complex, quick-turnaround web layouts and Flash animations for large, well-known brands, with almost no oversight. The responsibility was awesome, but between both jobs my nose was buried in my laptop for most of my (ever expanding) waking hours. Did I mention I was also planning my wedding, buying a house, taking more classes, and commuting over an hour in each direction from the suburbs?

It couldn’t last. Increasingly long hours with increasingly less sleep, as well as bad posture and poor nutrition, took its toll. I wound up with chronic pain (which I still have today) and strained my relationships and my mental health. After agonizing over the decision for a few months following the wedding, I quit my job in the height of the recession, November 2009, and my husband quit with me to go into business together as independent contractors.

At first, freelancing was great. I continued to do work for my old job and my prior freelance client, and money was flowing in. I got to take a few all expense paid business trips, attend high-profile meetings, furnish the house, buy a car – I was living the dream, and though I still didn’t sleep as much as I would have liked, I thought it was all pretty easy.

During this abundance, I had the opportunity to attend the CMS Expo, and thought I would check it out since I’d had some super-negative experiences with Joomla at my old job. I’d heard Drupal was pretty serious, so I spent a majority of the day in their education track feeling a bit lost, but WordPress was beckoning in the next room over. Remembering that it was supposedly “easy for designers,” and (frankly, more importantly) being seduced by the array of multi-colored pins on their swag table, I attended the “How To Theme WordPress” talk at the end of the day, and came out feeling like I should have been in that room the whole time. I started to tinker with WordPress afterward, experimenting with customizing a pre-made theme for my company site.

The thing about good times is that they never last, and ours burned out spectacularly. After too many months of client non-payment and broken promises combined with other work drying up, my previous business relationships faltered, and the financial situation spiraled out of control as we went further and further into debt trying to make everything work.

As we hit our peak of over $30,000 in credit card debt alone, my fledgling marriage strained under the financial pressure, and tensions were high. In desperation, I plunged headfirst into finding work other places – partly to pay the mounting bills, and partly (in retrospect) as a distraction. I sent out clever mailers to local design agencies advertising my services, networked in the Chamber of Commerce, and signed up with some recruitment/placement firms, hoping to get my name out there. Some were mildly successful, and I pounced on them. I took anything that came my way, never saying no if I could find a way to do it, and one of those things was a WordPress project.

It was a poorly paid, mostly volunteer project for a local political blogger I’d befriended who was skyrocketing in popularity, and it was way over my head. He had hundreds of posts and thousands of comments, and needed to migrate off WordPress.com to a self-hosted server with a rebrand and a completely new theme, so he could sell ads and attempt to monetize his newfound fame. Through sheer force of will and Google search, I managed to modify a semi-respectable free theme to fit his new brand (which I’d created), and create menu items of different categories to make it function as a useful archive (before it was standard core behavior). In the end, I felt a sense of pride at accomplishing all this, even though I knew it was all spit and duct tape and never should have been the backbone for such a high traffic site.

That WordPress experience was fresh in my mind when I started looking for design and tech conferences to attend in the Chicago area, as a way of further expanding my network. Serendipitously, a search for “Chicago Design Conference” popped up “WordCamp Chicago 2011” in the results. Unable to argue with the price, I signed up immediately, and begged my dad to come with me so I had someone to talk to.

I spent the entire conference in the back of the halls, taking notes, spellbound by the people on stage as well as the people around me. I didn’t talk to anyone, aside from my dad, nor did I attend any of the social events outside of the conference. Even still, my head was full of knowledge, and as I walked out on the final day I knew I had just experienced something awesome, and I wanted more. I vowed that next year, I would find a way to get involved.

I am grateful to Heather Acton for not ignoring the random girl who responded to her LinkedIn posting about WordCamp volunteers. She invited me to their next organizing committee meeting, which I attended with equal parts excitement and trepidation. As I walked in, it felt like that tiny office was filled with rockstars, and I suddenly felt like I had nothing to offer. I probably squeaked something out about “Design…? Or something, I don’t know…?” when asked what I wanted to contribute to the event, but mostly huddled silently in my seat. Still, everyone was nice, and I knew this was where I needed to be.

As luck would have it, WordCamp Milwaukee was coming up shortly thereafter, and being an hour’s drive away, I figured I could attend and scratch the itch once more, especially if I just got up really early and commuted each way. I was once again hooked, hearing talks from local community members that would, unbeknownst to me at the time, become some of my closest WordPress friends. Though I once again dragged my dad along and was somewhat antisocial, I knew a few more people and was empowered to speak up a bit more during Q&A.

I am grateful to Becky Davis for sticking around after one of the talks to chat with me. A fellow Chicago community member, she invited me to join them at their next meetup. Oh em gee, there are meetups too!? Thrilled and slightly scared – this seems to be a common theme – about the prospect of hanging out with WordPress people in between WordCamps, I accepted the invite, signed up on this newfangled Meetup.com thing, and commuted my way via two trains into the city for the next event I was available.

Before long, I was attending meetups and events all over the Chicago & Milwaukee region. Between WordPress meetups, local Chamber events, Web meetups, and Design meetups, I was often busy two or three nights out of the week. Spread across multiple cities and suburbs, the long commutes – often 1-2 hours each way during rush hour – were tough on my gas budget and my free time, but the camaraderie made it worthwhile. So, of course, when Aaron Holbrook mentioned he was starting a new meetup in the Northwest Suburbs, nearer to where I lived, I jumped at the chance to join in.

I am grateful to Aaron for many things, including his tendency to sit and teach people things when he is bored – thanks for the Sass and Git lessons! – but what I am most grateful for is his teasing, cajoling, and prodding me to start speaking at WordPress events.

I resisted for a while, deflecting with “What could I, a designer and relative newbie, have to teach people that know so much more than me about WordPress?” Some variation of “Design, duh” was usually the response, and when a last-minute slot opened up for WordCamp Chicago, I finally conceded.

My first WordCamp talk was… interesting? I’m not afraid of the spotlight, with my background in music performance and childhood acting, but due to a lack of preparation time I wound up leading an open Q&A, which doesn’t allow much room for control. I got through it, and thought I might even do it again sometime – though never again without a meticulously planned outline, that much was certain – but barely had time to revel in that small victory before the big bombshell dropped. Aaron would be leading the next WordCamp Chicago, and wanted to know  if I’d be his right hand.

Sure, I mean, it’s just a huge event, it couldn’t be that hard, right?

As the months went by, I started attending WordCamps in places I had never been: Grand Rapids, Detroit, Phoenix. The thrill of traveling by myself was intoxicating, the allure of virgin miles combined with a sense of empowerment as I hopped in my car or on a plane. To save money, I split rooms with fellow Chiwaukee WordPress folk, bonding with people like Gloria Antonelli and Brad Parbs, with whom I’d only spoken a few times in person. On top of that, I was enamored with the entire WordCamp experience. Here I was, getting to hang out with the very people who built the products and companies I respected, as if they were actual normal human beings just like me! (spoiler alert: they are.)

I was also a sponge at these WordCamps, taking notes and absorbing knowledge almost as fast as I could absorb Twitter followers – turns out social networks are pretty cool – and my work started to transform because of it. Soon I was confident enough to build proper child themes, first with extensive CSS, then adding new template files, and eventually working with larger frameworks and theme bases. The level of site I was able to build was growing. I was also invited to a Skype chat, affectionately codenamed WPEagles. This ragtag bunch was composed primarily of Chiwaukee WordPressers and acted as both watercoolor and helpdesk, as well as a remote social outlet for those of us who worked from home.

I am grateful for the folks who organized WordCamp Minneapolis 2013, whom I wanted to point out specifically because they took a chance on me, giving me my first opportunity to speak outside of Chicago camps and meetups. It was the first time I felt like someone actually needed to hear what I had to say… and made me terrified that I now had to live up to that expectation. I had no idea how significant the people I met on this trip would later become (Hi, Dan) nor how much this new city would resonate with me on a personal level, but I poured my heart and soul into that presentation, which is still one of the most detailed and beautiful decks I’ve ever put together.

When I wasn’t traveling, I was deeply mired in WordCamp Chicago 2013 planning with Aaron, who had become my adopted “WordPress Big Brother.” Due to his existing industry connections and lead role, he took the community facing tasks of recruitment, communications, and sponsorships, while I busied myself with the logistics of securing new venues, managing behind the scenes, and tackling a full rebrand. We conspired at meetups, online, in person, any way we could, and I helped wherever my tiny newborn pool of community clout could hold sway.

The event itself was a smashing success, with tons of awesome local, national, and international speakers lending their voices to the sold out rooms. A fortuitous series of tweets even led to Matt Mullenweg doing an open Q&A to close out the first day. I was riding high on pride and community love by the end of this camp, and was equal parts honored and unsurprised when Aaron asked me to take over as lead organizer for 2014. I felt like I was at a true turning point for my career, and everything could only go up from here.

At home though, it seemed to be just the opposite. As much as I didn’t want to see or admit it, my marriage had never really recovered from the financial turmoil a few years prior, and the relationship had become hurtful and resentful under the surface. I spent the majority of time focusing on career development and trying to drag my then-husband along with me to events, hoping he’d find the same level of passion for the business – OUR business! After all, it was 50% his, and I didn’t understand why he seemed to not care. I figured I just had to dig in harder to make it work, and doubled down on finding networking events, meetups, and WordCamps to attend to keep building the brand, finding me on the road even more. I stopped attending local community band rehearsals due to my inconsistent schedule, and rarely saw any of my non-WordPress friends because I was always busy. I thought it was for the right reasons, though: for our business – which was improving, so that’s good, right? – and for the future – if business is better then the relationship will be better, right? – and so I didn’t question myself or the state my life was in.

It came to a head in the last quarter of 2013, where a series of WordCamps actually served as the backdrop for the complete unravelling of what I thought was my perfectly planned life.

When I boarded the plane to my next adventure at WordCamp Boston, conversations from Pressnomics a couple weeks prior were still fresh in my head. A group of us had wound up in the hotel lobby, discussing not careers but relationships. I confided in my WordPress friends about the dissatisfaction, the number of times I had wished it was different, and many other conversations that probably made passerby blush. These thoughts persisted in the back of my mind as I met up with Dan Beil, my snarky WordCamp friend from Minneapolis and latest travel companion, to speak at the conference and share a small Airbnb.

I am grateful to Dan for so many things at this point, but I am most grateful that we spent this trip together. Maybe it was the parties, maybe it was the deep conversations, maybe it was just the seductiveness of the crisp fall air against the elegant Boston skyline… but what happened on that trip caused me to suddenly see just how unhappy my personal life had become, and how much I was using my WordPress travel as an escape. Shaken, I returned home to process dozens of emotions, and the already unstable foundation started to collapse.

I attended WordCamp Orlando the following month with my husband in tow, a trip we had planned months earlier due to our mutual appreciation of Disney, but which now had an air of desperation as I struggled to find worth in the relationship. My worst fears were confirmed. Even at the theme parks, all I found was more frustration and fighting. Defeated, I robotically went through the motions during sessions, resentful and regretful, finally feeling the weight of a ball and chain pulling my business and personal growth down. I hated that camp, through no fault of its own. Though all the normal elements of joy were there – socializing, friends, learning, travel – it was unable to distract me from how miserable I was.

The final blow was yet another argument, where the ultimatum was laid out: he had no interest in hearing about or being a part of any of my WordPress community events. It stung harder than I thought it would. But how could it not? Everything was so wrapped up in WordPress – my community, my friends, my career, my free time – that to reject that was to reject me, to reject who I was. And I knew that’s what was really happening.

So I took a solo trip to WordCamp Vegas as a personal mental experiment. What more perfect backdrop to test out the wings of freedom than the city of lights? With this mental transformation, it was night and day from the previous camp. I once again felt energized to see my friends, enrich my career education, and actually let loose to have a good time. I panicked a little inside, knowing I was on the edge of a huge precipice from which there was no going back, but I knew I had to do it, not only for my business but for myself.

And that was it. Soon after the holidays were over, I was on my own. Well… not really on my own. I braved the long drives and bitter winter elements to visit Dan, gave a workshop at WordCamp Phoenix, and otherwise attempted to pretend that my life was normal and I was fine. But life in Chicago was sad, full of regrets and lonely memories of all the things I had lost, and I was scared that my ability to do the work I loved would slip away as I got more and more depressed. It was in this mental state that an idea was proposed, an idea I never in my life would have otherwise entertained – after the weather got warmer, why not stay in Minneapolis permanently? Their WordPress community was wonderful, the city was charming, and compared to the oppressive emotional fog blanketing my hometown, it was like a breath of fresh air.

Still coming to terms with the idea of leaving the city I had thought was my forever home, I fortunately had a major distraction to hold my attention – I sure do love those major distractions, this is clearly totally healthy behavior. Despite spending an increasing amount of time in Minneapolis, I was still responsible for running WordCamp Chicago that year. It became the anchor to which I chained all remnants of my fading Illinois identity. I scheduled my trips to maximize the amount of meetups I could attend to promote it, spent countless hours on Twitter soliciting speakers and sponsors, and buried myself as deep as I could in conference responsibilities when I was home. Probably too deep, as I have a tendency to be basically awful at delegating anything. But this conference had become the swan song of my old life, my final mark on the Chicago community, and it had to be amazing.

And it was. Hundreds of quality speaker applications poured in, thousands of sponsor dollars, and tons of virtual interest. In the weeks leading up, I ordered swag, monitored tickets, handled communication, and carted around dozens of heavy boxes. To be honest, after all that preparation and exhaustion, the event itself was kind of a haze. My team came through with flying colors, and I even left for a while to take a nap. While there are things I wish I had done differently – aren’t there always? – I don’t think I could have asked for a better camp. I was, and still am, extremely proud of how that event came together.

Walking out of those doors on Monday morning, my anchor in Chicago was officially lifted, the chapter in my life was closed, and I was adrift in an overwhelming sea of traveling. Between summer WordCamps and moving, it felt like my life was reduced to a perpetual half-packed suitcase. My work suffered as I struggled to rediscover my sense of self and gain a foothold in my new city. Only in November of 2014, when I was reunited with the last of my possessions and officially changed my address, could I take a breath, steady myself, and truly begin my new journey.

The past year living here in Minneapolis has seen its share of major ups and downs, yet I still wouldn’t trade for anything. I’ve gotten involved in local design and development groups, found a place on the WordCamp Minneapolis Organizing Committee – which I’m apparently now running next year, guess I can’t help myself – rediscovered a love of biking on miles of gorgeous urban trails, and tried to plant roots in my first real home away from Chicago. My career is probably at its most successful point yet: I still travel and speak at WordCamps and other events, I am an active member of several smart and supportive Slack communities, and I get referrals for interesting work from notable businesses, developers, designers, and agencies. Due to the work I put into building my network, I’ve had opportunities to partner with some really talented people inside and outside the community on projects. And, I am earning enough to finally feel comfortable after years of anxiety, while slowly digging out of all the bad financial situations.

This sounds like a great place to victoriously scribble “The End” to my story, but it’s difficult to see it as an end at all. For one, I’m only 29. I still struggle with a lot of emotional turmoil that I need to process, I still suffer from severe bouts of inadequacy, creative block, and existential crises both career and personal, and I still don’t necessarily know where I am going in life. To me, it’s just the middle of a longer story, or maybe even the beginning of something new. But rising above all of that, I know that my love of design, development, and especially WordPress have afforded me an opportunity that many only dream about: being empowered to lead myself down my own path.

My entire life has truly been transformed by WordPress, and for that I am eternally grateful.

13 comments

  1. Andrea r says:

    I too want a degree in “learning all the cool things”. Also I just recalled that I had seen a couple of your videos, where you changed your hair , and even your body language was happier. I remember thinking ” there’s someone going through something” and hoped it was working out, which it did seem to be doing. 🙂

  2. Becky says:

    I remember that conversation in Milwaukee and thinking who is this tiny woman with pink hair? Who knows what will be influential in someone else’s life? I certainly had no idea. But I’m so glad that we have gotten to know each other over the years. 🙂

  3. Robert Gadon says:

    Thank you Michelle for sharing your personal journey. I attended your talk @ #WCChi14 ‘A Website Is Not A Poster’, and was so impressed then on your knowledge & confidence. Now we have the backstory on how you landed in MPS. As someone a generation older than you, may you be blessed with ample time, health, & energy to explore & fulfill your dreams.

  4. Jason Gegere says:

    As I read this I find myself noting the limited detailed you gave to the seperatation from your marriage. While it was clear the foundation was not there, why it faded is interesting since you both seem to be enjoying the same type of Internet development focus…

    • Michelle says:

      Yeah, the hardest part was communicating the parts of the story that were important to the whole “growth and development” thing without just airing a whole bunch of dirty laundry to the internet, since it’s fresh and sensitive and I have no desire to be disrespectful. But for more context, he was (is) actually in the video industry. Both creative nerds, but different.

  5. Heather Acton says:

    Michelle – you are amazing and authentic and I love all of this. I’m thankful for how honest this is and it is inspiring. I’m so glad we crossed paths. You’ve been a support for me and I completely appreciate it. Thank YOU.

  6. Kathleen Gee says:

    Wow, Michelle, you’re even cooler than I suspected. 🙂 I had the pleasure of working with Michelle on the political blog project that she mentioned, and she was nothing but professional and eager to help, despite her WordPress newbieness. I’m happy to hear that WordPress has been so good to you! It has certainly expanded my ability to market myself and serve clients.

  7. Gerry says:

    I read through this thinking, “boy this really makes you ex- sound bad; I should take it with a grain of salt because there is always another side to the story.” I’m glad you’re in a better place now, but I wonder what advice you might have now, in retrospect, for how to avoid having to choose between a marriage and a career or work-related community.

    You can just about guarantee that a relationship will break down if either person’s investment in their work exceeds whatever level of investment they need in their “together time” to avoid drifting apart. I would never expect my partner to be “in tow” as you say at my professional conferences, and I don’t really enjoy being in that position myself. With baggage from hard times in the past, this is really a path no relationship will be likely to survive.

    I’m sorry you both experienced that.

    • Michelle says:

      I think the biggest difference here between what I went through and what most people go through is that I tried to not only be marriage partners with my ex, but also business partners- he and I were equal owners of our creative business (I in design and he in video, but overlapping in project management, direction, writing, etc) and thus (hypothetically) equally invested in the growth, and each equally needing to promote ourselves and each other. There were a lot of frictions related to participation in the business (which are relevant to the context of the business and the relationship but not to WordPress) which made that part of it very significant. So it’s different than asking a normal spouse or partner to participate.

      Sure I’ve got my own issues, and there was a lot more to it than that, but that’s for therapy, not for a WordPress blog. This wasn’t me coming here to talk about why my marriage failed. I shared the parts I felt were relevant to showcase how WordPress was a backdrop, a distraction, a growth platform, as well as a transformative part of my life.

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