On being (or not being) a “dev”

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.




  1. Remkus says:

    There are very few people who can rant as eloquently as you do – and for that I take a bow – but perhaps what’s really going on here is not profiling yourself accordingly to your vast vast set of skills?

    Quite an impressive site you built / helped building there btw. Rock on.

    • says:

      Very true, and also the whole point. Most devs (and many non-devs) are terrible at “profiling” themselves as whatever. We should all be looking for basic social interaction skills, flexibility and willingness to learn, which are much harder to assess.

      • Remkus says:

        Very true indeed. Someone should come up with a Dunked version for developers that’s less code orientated than Github for instance.

        • says:

          I’m not sure that the answer lies in the tools, rather than on the basic mindset.

          • Remkus says:

            The answer will always lie in a different mindset. However, if a tool as Dunked is for digital creatives, I’m sure such a thing could exist – and help at that – for developers.

  2. US culture (which has its affect on the world), is obsessed with labels.

    You are very right that people are less interested in really getting to know or understand one-another than to quickly label, compartmentalize, discard, chastise, minimalize people as this, that or the other and to put people in a box of rules and guidelines or social constructs.

    The WordPress community as a whole could take a step back from this idea that WordPress is the be-all-to-end-all of all web design and programming related importance and discussion.

    I’m a person first, not just a web designer and certainly not a “WordPress” web designer, that’s a pretty limited label. I design websites from scratch (before ever even using WordPress), on other platforms and when I do use WordPress, it is just a tool (among many) that I use, not a way of life.

    I contribute to the WordPress community, a few free themes, a few reviews here and there, but I hate this idea of my works being “WordPress-derivative”. Well then, doesn’t that just make WordPress PHP/MySQL-derivative and PHP/MySQL programmer-derivative and programmers human-derivative and being alive as a human air/water/sun-derivative?

    I grow tired of having to be defined (and usually completely misunderstood) and to define everything.

    When I hire people, a common social construct I like to break down is this idea that having a degree somehow makes you smarter or more capable than those that didn’t go to college (which I’ve seen that theory fall apart often). I don’t care about your education, your resume, I don’t care where you live in the world, whether you’re male or female, your age, beliefs etc., I don’t care if you have a high rank on Stack Overflow. None of that matters, none of that tells me whether you will be enjoyable to work with or whether you have a strong work ethic and good communication skills.

    Like you said, it’s about common sense and taking the time instead of overtly or inadvertently choosing to be dismissive of further communication and understanding and simply make assumptions, be rude, condescending or arrogant as the easier path.

    Manners aren’t even an afterthought for most people who communicate on the internet, while the same may not be true of their in-person communications. I’ve personally experienced some pretty overtly unbecoming and rude behavior on the internet that I can’t even imagine someone displaying in real life (for the embarrassment that it would cause THEM, but is somehow praised on the internet). There’s a disconnect.

    However, with that said, I’m misunderstood myself as having a rude tone towards others in text communications as well. No matter how far the internet has come, there will always still be that divide. But, you cannot control how others interpret you, only how you interpret them and your perception of how they see you.

    We all make mistakes and we all have misunderstandings. That’s a good thing, making mistakes is the best way to learn. And learning is a neverending process. The only real dangerous people in this world, are the ones that think they already know it all and are better than others. Nothing could be more ignorant.

  3. I strongly agree with Bryan, “when I do use WordPress, it is just a tool (among many) that I use, not a way of life” .

    Gurinder Singh
    Zanetine Web

    • says:

      Maybe I’ve not made the point very well, sorry about that. The post is hardly about WordPress, or any other tool, for that matter; it is much rather a condemnation of assumptions that lead you to decide what makes, or does not make, a bone-fide developer. Technology is the least important part in all this.

      • I don’t think that anyone’s missed your points, sometimes a simple idea or anecdote can open up a deeper discussion. It’s all connected and relevant, although you can certainly agree, agree with some parts or not agree at all with what your commenters might have to say or where they might expand on a discussion you’ve started.

        My comment is largely on-topic to your specific point about assumptions, which naturally leads to prejudice and labels, and from there, there is a thought or two to be had about community mentality as a whole (though yes, not necessarily relevant to everyone). If only that small interjection of the bulk of my comment spoke loudest to Gurinder, so be it, that’s the beautiful thing about open discussion on the internet.

        But, I don’t think anyone (anyone intelligent enough at least) would confuse my comment and someone else agreeing with that comment as representing your own exact opinion and I certainly don’t think your original point has in any way been lost.

        Your article is very clear and concise, no worries :). But, that’s the wonderful thing about digital media, nothing has gone permanently into print. If you want to update with clarifications, it’s always possible.

        Ironically enough, this is a perfect example of trying not to make assumptions and to instead keep an open dialogue for better understanding.

        Thank you.

  4. Ben Lobaugh says:

    This is an interesting article but I think your approach is a bit off. Often positions receive dozens or hundreds of applicants. Can you imagine sitting down with each of them to learn who they are as a person aside from their skillset? That just simply is not feasible. So they first look at what you can do. You could be a brilliant PHP coder and have built some truly amazing systems but if there is no outlet for the world to know that there is no showing of your skill. Why would a hiring manager spend time on you for a PHP job if they do not see you showing any ability? This is why I like services such as Github. It is a free and highly visible place where you can show off. Services like LinkedIn are also great at showing off your projects and achievements. A couple years ago I wrote an article on the methodology I use when helping others find jobs. So far it has been 100% successful. Its main focus? Showing off you skills. Simple steps to the job you want.

    • says:

      Fair enough, I may have skipped a few details in my eagerness to make the point about assumptions.

      You are correct about anonymous employer/employee relationships, and about the very valid ways for a a candidate to put his best side forward, i.e. exerting, at least as much as possible, some kind of control over the assumptions he is going to face.

      That said, that was not what I was trying to address, or at least it wasn’t written that way; it is much more a consideration of a particular dynamic within a community where people actually know each other, and either consciously, or unconsciously, label each other. I don’t know why that happens; the only suggestion I have (and running the risk of sounding like an old fart) is that it may have to do with age. But even then, I’m not certain.

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