This past weekend, I presented my very first talk at WordCamp Montreal. The title of my talk was How I Made a Career Using WordPress Without Knowing a Line of Code.
When I asked the people attending my talk if it was their first time at a WordCamp, almost half the room shot up their hand. I felt like we were an intimate collection of beginners eager to increase our knowledge, grow our network and encourage eachother in our careers.
To set the stage, I began by showing a photo from WordCamp Montreal 2013.
See the lady in red on the left?
That’s my mother. She’s an art teacher. So when she told me she went to WordCamp two years ago to hear this young entrepreneur named Matt Mullenweg speak, my reaction was to think: “that’s cute, but you don’t belong there”.
Which is so sad, right? Because if there’s one place that’s really welcoming to beginners, it’s the Montreal WordPress Community – the very community that would be instrumental in my foray into tech.
I’m a communications professional now working in information and technology, but when I made the leap into the tech world, I was relying on a humble amount of HTML and no CSS. I was working in communications just last year, and after an internship at Automattic – the company behind WordPress.com, I made the move to working in tech full-time, doing freelance web design, web content consultation and most recently working on the relaunch of the Dawson College website, a multi-site where I trained more than 80 people to use WordPress.
But back to the photo of my mother at WordCamp, where I thought she didn’t belong.
Mostly, I was projecting: I thought I didn’t belong. I didn’t know how to code, and all the other Silicon Valley jobs were a mystery to me: “What is growth hacking? No one knows! And why are there so many wranglers, ninjas and concierges in tech?”
When I thought about someone “making a living with WordPress”, I thought of star bloggers, or people who put up sites loaded with revenue-generating ads.
I had a billion preconceived ideas about what it meant to work in tech, and a lot of those ideas were lies I was telling myself. Lies that were keeping me from exploring jobs in the field.
1. Web Design = Coding
Let’s tackle the first lie. You can’t remove code from web development, but after working on a few projects and speaking with people who worked in technology, I realized that good website and software design isn’t JUST about good code. You need a lot of different sensitivities and skills to achieve the best result. Front-end and back-end developers are necessary, but big projects can make use of graphic designers, UX designers, project managers, photographers and editors.
Writers, this is for you: Code is awesome, code is poetry. But what people read on the website is not code, it’s English, or French, Spanish, German…When I started playing around with plugins, I would look up a plugin and land on their page. Oh the typos! Tech needs writers, content specialists, copy-editors and translators. Don’t rule out tech because you don’t know coding languages. If you know a human language, for lack of a better term, you can contribute your much-needed skills.
2. If I can’t do it quickly and I can’t do it alone, I shouldn’t do it at all.
This one was hard for me because when I turned my hobby into a job in tech, I felt like I had to be fast and super efficient with technology that was still new to me. I had unrealistic performance expectations that, left unchecked, would probably have lead to frustration and discouragement.
When working on a team, I won’t lie and say that you can just play the newbie card all the time. In fact, if I was struggling with something, I would put in the extra hours in the evening to get comfortable with it so I could speed up my workflow the next time around. Sometimes I made the mistake of not asking enough questions about process. It’s great to know how to do something, but even better to know the best way to do it. There’s no shame in asking a more experienced colleague about their workflow or strategy to tackle a task. It might not occur to them that their way of working, developed over the years, is actually rich with best practices for newcomers and could help you be more efficient, reduce errors and improve teamwork.
When I was freelancing in communications, I was doing translations, infographics and copy-editing and it was pretty solo work. But I couldn’t do things alone in web design and I had to give up that independence. I teamed up with a developer friend who would handle the database, set up my local dev environment and help me with more complex CSS while I would handle project management, content, information design and page layout. This was a great symbiotic business partnership, because I could really shine where I was the most skilled and had someone doing the same on their end. We were also a small enough operation that I could actually learn from what he was working on. We’d have co-working evenings and I could see up close how to use Vagrant, how to child-theme or create a custom post type. He was also extremely patient. Make friends with developers, they are the nicest people.
3. I’m a fraud.
Impostor syndrome is real and widespread. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s when you feel inadequate, unqualified, like a fake, or out of place in a professional context. I was a recent graduate, who had also made a recent career shift, so I was of course going to feel like a poser.
Everyone has different methods to tackle these feelings. My advice is to identify where you bring value and celebrate that. I believe everyone brings something to the table, even if it’s questions. Sometimes, you may feel like you don’t know much, but asking just the right questions on a project, or pinpointing a weakness in a user experience can get the designers to rethink, refine and improve their design. If you manage to do that, even your lack of experience had value.
On the flip side, sometimes you need to embrace the discomfort of the impostor syndrome. When I was first interested in jobs in tech, I enjoyed reading WIRED magazine and eventually subscribed. Because I was on the fringe of their target reader, some of the jokes, or perhaps a lot of the jokes, I don’t know, went over my head. I felt left out, but was also dying to be in the club. So I would underline the jokes or references I didn’t get and look up the product, event or CTO they referenced just so I could get up to speed on the industry conversations. Sometimes feeling out of place is just the thing to keep you on your toes!
Ok, so now that I’ve laid out some of the misconceptions that were bringing me down, here are a few things I realized that actually gave me more confidence in my transition into working in tech.
1. You know more about website design than you think.
As a consumer of web technologies, whatever your field and understanding of the code behind it, you probably have opinions on what works and what doesn’t. Some of those opinions may be incredibly valuable. That’s why focus groups exist.
If you are a super blogger, you’re very comfortable with using WordPress as an editor and can turn that knowledge into paid work, because chances are, somebody like a small business owner that needs a blog, is less experienced than you and could use your help.
WordPress.com makes it so easy to create sites, with simple theme installation, a bit of colour pairing and the customizer, you’d be surprised how easily you can bring your ideas to life. Want to do something you don’t know how to do? Check out forums. Even advanced coders use forums.
Whether you’re on WordPress.com or a custom install, for non-coders, shortcodes are amazing. They’re WordPress-specific codes that allow you to do things like embed or create objects – without actually doing any coding at all! You can end up with a really wonderful, feature-rich site.
2. Job hunting will be unorthodox, and that’s ok.
Last year, I was a Senior Analyst in my communications job and I gave that up to become an intern for a tech company. I hadn’t been an intern since I was 18. Working at Automattic was a huge opportunity and a really amazing job, so I have no regrets. But had I been concerned with the job title and my so-called career path, I might not have taken the risk. After that internship, I knew I wasn’t experienced enough to apply for a lot of the tech job-postings I saw, so I freelanced and invested time in developing my computer skills. Instead of applying for jobs, I had conversations with people to identify how I could bring value to their company through my unique mix of skills. My communications background actually played a large role in securing my last contract.
However, you do need perseverance. It would have been easy enough to fall back into communications jobs that I was more or less excited about instead of working my way up from the bottom again in a new industry. Luckily, I had a former colleague warn me against having a passive career. She was 4 years older than me and said that she had never really seen herself doing corporate internal communications. But over time, that’s what she became good, soon those were the only jobs she felt qualified for and now it was too late to make a big change. I didn’t want that to happen to me.
3. Learning to code is the next achievable step.
The more you work with WordPress, the easier it will be to learn the code behind it and the code you need to do the things you want. When developers show me how they coded a shortcode I use every day, the foundation is already there to understand how they make it happen. And that can be true for many of the features in WordPress, until the functions.php and style.css files are no longer a mystery.
The best part of it all? Everyone wants you to join the club and learn to code. There are countless resources out there for beginners, both online and through community initiatives. I took a CSS workshop and a Ruby workshop with Ladies Learning Code and the amount of support is incredible. A lot of the mentors were at WordCamp, because that’s just how they roll. Attending events, sharing their knowledge and helping each other out.
Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
If you’re at a point in your career where you have a major decision to make, don’t let fear and lies keep you from acting. Remember you have clean water, access to food and healthcare, what is stopping you?
I want to say a huge thanks to the WordCamp Montreal 2015 organizing committee for giving me the opportunity to present my talk. Thanks to Kathryn Presner (@zoonini) for encouraging me to apply and Luca Sartoni (@lucasartoni) for helping me prep and for everyone who attended and asked great questions to add to the conversation and learning. You can download the entire slide deck here.