I’ve been a web designer since 1996. In some ways, it’s hard for me to fathom. Those were the days of Netscape Navigator and table-based page layouts. I wrote every bit of HTML by hand on a seriously-underpowered computer and a tiny monitor. Definitely a far cry from where we are today.
I was completely self-taught and learned by doing. When I landed my first job as a full-time “webmaster” at my local newspaper, I didn’t even know what Photoshop was (I had been using Microsoft Paint for graphics – feel free to laugh).
Looking back, I know that I wasn’t a very good designer in those days – but that didn’t matter. I felt lucky to be on the ground floor of an industry that was poised to change the world.
An Early Start
As an 18-year-old, I was often the youngest person in the office. Sometimes, that led to not being taken seriously by those in charge. Still, I did have a few mentors at the paper who were more than generous with their friendship and advice. It was my first taste of the “real world” – a lesson I sorely needed.
At the same time, I realized that I wasn’t going to stay there forever. The pay wasn’t very good and the hours weren’t my cup of tea. Most of all, I just felt that I could do better. Just over a year in, I left.
From there, I spent the next couple of years in various corporate settings – none of which felt very fulfilling. My existence was very much that of a worker bee. Sure, this is what happens when you’re just starting out – but I was too dense to see it that way.
Again, I had a feeling that there was something else out there for me. But there didn’t seem to be a path to further my career, unless I took it upon myself to do so.
So, in 1999 I went all-in as a freelancer working from home. While I’ve gone through a few different places to call home in the years since, I’m still here – thanks in great part to WordPress.
But before I found both the software and community that would change my trajectory, I had to go through some ups and downs.
Hitting a Wall
Starting my own business at 21 was at once frightening and gratifying. I booked a few steady clients early on, and that provided a much-needed boost in confidence (and revenue). Yet there was also a tremendous amount of responsibility that I wasn’t prepared for. It was another real-world lesson and I had to mature in a hurry.
As for technology, I upgraded my computer, but not necessarily my approach. The first several years were still ruled by building static HTML sites. And as clients started asking for more complex features such as ecommerce, I realized something about myself: I was incredibly afraid of what I didn’t know.
This feeling would haunt me much more than I could have anticipated. It was like a massive weight on my shoulders. As long as work kept me in my comfort zone, I was fine. But anything outside of that brought out my anxiety.
Sure, I had achieved some level of success at a young age (with a hobby site even going viral). I had plenty of work, I even moved out of my parent’s house. But I also feared the unknown. I hadn’t been a very good student in high school and had zero confidence in my ability to learn something more advanced.
At the same time, that fear was joined by a great deal of frustration. I started struggling to build larger sites using those same tired methods. And maintaining them was even worse.
In all, I was stressed out and felt stuck in a dead end. The passion I once had for design and code had vanished. I was in desperate need of a new direction.
A Glimmer of Light
It’s amazing how, just when things feel their darkest, a little bit of light shows up and sparks something in you. For me, WordPress was like a tiny matchstick in a pitch-black cave.
Somewhere around 2005, I installed an early version of WordPress as a playful experiment. At the time, I saw other content management systems starting to pop up, but wasn’t really impressed. Frankly, the sites running them all looked the same.
But tearing apart a WordPress theme was different. I knew nothing about PHP, but found that the templates were pretty easy to follow. I liked that I could make design changes without too much trouble. Even if I broke something, I was (usually) able to bring things back to their previous state.
Still, I wasn’t ready or willing to abandon my old-school techniques for building sites just yet (I even jettisoned the CSS layouts from my theme and replaced them with tables). WordPress was something I used on the periphery. I created a few simple blogs for clients, but hadn’t really thought of using it for anything more.
In fact, it would be a few more years until I was finally ready to make a change.
A New Beginning
2010 was a banner year in my career. It was the year where I, inspired by my wife and newborn daughter, started to really confront my fears. I had grown completely tired of the way I had been doing things. This was the year I became convinced that WordPress was the game-changer I needed.
As the software matured, more developers started using it to run entire sites – not just traditional blogs. I was very much intrigued, even excited, about the possibility of what I could achieve in terms of both design and functionality.
So, I convinced one of my agency clients to let me try using WordPress on a project. Things went well enough that we decided to start using it more often. And, for me, it was like that little matchstick in the dark cave turned into a huge beacon.
The more I used WordPress, the more curious I became about what else it could do. I found myself not only being unafraid to learn, but actually motivated to do so.
By the next year, I had moved almost exclusively to WordPress. That led to another watershed moment: Attending my first WordCamp.
Discovering That I Wasn’t Alone
Visiting WordCamp Philadelphia 2011 was an eye-opening experience. This was not the buttoned-down, corporate atmosphere that brought me discomfort years earlier. Instead, I found a casual, welcoming vibe that made me feel like I belonged.
The crowd was diverse in just about every way imaginable. And I met people who were all over the map when it came to knowledge of WordPress. Some were complete newbies, others were experts. But regardless of their skill level or experience, they all gathered in the same place. It struck me that I was now a part of something unique.
This burgeoning community, coupled with great software, had all of the sudden put me on a path that I never imagined possible. It made me want to learn all that I could and be a part of something bigger than myself.
Before too long, I discovered a confidence I never felt before. I was not only building better websites than I ever had, I was also eager to be a part of the WordPress community. And, despite being a bit shy, I even spoke at WordCamp Baltimore in 2012.
I felt like anything was possible.
As my experience with both WordPress and its community has grown, it has opened up some amazing opportunities. For one, it gave me the courage to try and fulfill another lifelong dream: to become a writer.
I started off by submitting an article to Speckyboy Web Design Magazine, not really knowing what to expect. When it was published, I was incredibly excited. So, I kept on writing. And each time, site editor Paul Andrew kept on publishing my work.
Even more mind-boggling is that, eventually, this led to a regular role with the site. I’ve published hundreds of articles and have enjoyed every minute of it. And more writing gigs have followed. My topic of choice? WordPress, of course!
When it comes to my design business, I’m no longer afraid to push those boundaries. I’ve built and maintained hundreds of WordPress sites that run the gamut in terms of size and functionality. Yes, including the formerly fear-inducing ecommerce.
But I know that, without the confidence boost I received by working with WordPress, none of this would have been possible. I am beyond grateful, and so glad that I found it at a pivotal time in my life.
What I’ve Learned
So, what does this all mean? I’ve given it a lot of thought.
There are still days when I’m overwhelmed and stressed out. But even then, I tell myself how I lucky I am to do what I do each day. And somehow, I have maintained a passion for my work that I think is here to stay.
But the biggest lesson I’ve learned, and the thing I’d like to share with you, is to give yourself a chance to learn and grow. Sometimes, the unknown can be scary – I get it. I was so afraid of the fact that I wasn’t formally trained and that I didn’t have the knowledge I needed to go further. I was scared that if I failed to learn what I needed to know that I’d be left in the dust.
Yet, that’s the amazing thing about WordPress and web design in general. There are so many great resources out there you can learn from. And there is a community out there who is willing to help and share what they know.
Everything is right there in front of us. All it takes is a willingness to try.