On being (or not being) a “dev”

Posted by in Freelancing, Projects

I’ve recently heard two remarks that have puzzled me to no end.

The first one was a few months ago, and the other one right after having launched this. It’s a very large and complex WordPress installation for an online media company, which intends to compete at the very top, with the very best of what exists in Portugal in this segment, right now. I can’t possibly explain it in one paragraph, nor is it the point of this aside; I’ll post a more detailed case-study in the next few days. Suffice to say that I was hired as the senior WordPress developer of a team of 7, with the mission of not only writing kilometers of code, of course, but also to coordinate the team, oversee the build process (including development, staging and production workflows) and the quality of the code, and making sure that both readers and users were not only happy, but absolutely ecstatic with the features and performance of the website. I think we did a pretty good job (and before you say it, yes, I am fully aware of how obnoxiously I am banging my own drum right now, thank you).

The more recent remark went along the lines of

When did you become a dev? super cool.

Which is odd, but not unexpected. After all, my loudest contribution to WordPress over the years has been either on the Polyglot, or else on the WordCamp side of things; there wasn’t much public code to show, despite the fact that I’ve developed lots in client work (and it made no sense to publicly release the vast majority of it, since the features it tried to implement were very specific).

The very first remark, however, was even more confusing. A few months ago, after seeing a post by a well-known WordPress development shop looking for developers, and in anticipation of my perhaps not so clear visibility as one, I decided to first ask if it made sense to apply, before actually applying. The reply felt a little patronising:

…probably not as it’s quite PHP/backend focused, so we’re looking for someone with a real knack for that stuff.

No questions, no request for clarification, no nothing. Just assumptions. And since this was a conversation with someone I know, I assume it was the most diplomatic form of “oh, hell no” that he could come up with.

Let’s be absolutely clear, virtually all of my client work is backend. My client list is thankfully short and faithful and there are normally no doubts about my competence. What’s puzzling is hearing both remarks above, from notable members of the community, both of which have zero involvement or concept of the code I write or do not write, even more so when I think that when my very first lines of code were written, they weren’t even born. Oh sure, I’ve acquired skills along the way. I’ve built cathedrals in forgotten languages, and taught and helped develop what these days would be considered nearly cabalistic tools, systems and methodologies.

What is really, really annoying are the assumptions, a disease I see rampant in the WordPress community at large. A disease that fosters the calcification of perceived skills on the one side, and which cements a false sense of authority on the other. It encourages people to say of you “he’s a (this or that)”, and, even worse, it encourages you to describe yourself as the “master of (this or that)”.

I’m not sure that’s how it should work (but then again I’m older, and there’s always the possibility that I may be out of sync with what the cool kids do these days). Considering the characteristics of the project linked in the opening paragraph, what truly made it successful wasn’t a superior knowledge of this or that hook logic, or this or that caching strategy, (or even knowing minute details, such as why wp_get_attachment_image_src() defecates all over the CDN logic, sometimes).

Not at all.

Success is, first of all, a factor of skills prior to WordPress, really: a commitment from the board, an adult planning and follow-up, and a competent team that doesn’t shy away from asking and learning, among many others. It goes without saying that all other skills, prior to those, are a given: manners, grace, humour and patience. And, of course, the least common of skills: common-sense.

I, for one, strive to be the master of those. To the extent that I give a damn, and depending on the day, I might even strive to be seen as such.

Just don’t jump top conclusions; there is an incredible amount of talent out there, and it’s very possible that you’re looking for the wrong kind of qualifications.