Doing What I Want

48. After 25 years in the working world as a showroom manager, office manager and doing IT helpdesk and purchasing work, I was at a crossroads. I’d stopped taking care of a husband years earlier, my kids were grown and almost out of the house. For the first time in 25 years of working and taking care of other people, at the age of 48 I finally stood up and asked myself – “What do you want to do?”

It was a revelatory, scary as hell question and I had no idea how to answer it. All I really knew was that going on another job interview for another contract IT job was going to make me kill somebody and I didn’t want to do that.

So I took the unemployment money and instead of looking for work, I looked for a different way.

While out on my bike a few weeks later, I found myself in front of my local city college and decided to stop and see what they had to offer. What I found was a series of classes in Photoshop, Illustrator & HTML/CSS – a web design certificate.

My B.A. is in theater design, not a great way to make a living above the poverty line, but a good foundation in design, technical things like carpentry and electrics and what’s served me best these past few years: how to create something with a group. Anyone who’s had to pull content out of a site owner, or transform a design from Photoshop (or something worse), into a working site; gets this.

So, web design – design+tech seemed like a good fit and a nice combination of needed skills. What do I want? I want to work for myself and do web design! I sign up for the classes and proceed to jump off the cliff.

I am a very rare thing, a magical unicorn with wings, a woman over 50 who develops websites. (When I worked in IT, I was even rarer.) I couldn’t find the WordPress survey results, but from what I could find in web development, less than 6% of developers are women, less than 2% are over 50. That makes my demographic 0.0012% of this industry. ( I know that the numbers are better in the WordPress community, attendance at WordCamps , my meetup ( and my own personal experience show me that. Still, I feel overwhelmed and excluded by this at times. Even as I write for HeroPress, I see several inspiring stories by young men who got started in this world before they were even teenagers. They, like my kids have always had a screen and keyboard in front of them. I didn’t have a computer until I was in my late 20’s.

As I was diving off that cliff and taking my first HTML class, I remember asking how site owners could edit their own sites without having this skill. My instructor shrugged, but the question remained in my mind. I don’t know how I first found out about WordPress, but as I was first starting out in this new freelance world, it came into my vision. My Dad at the time was a retired teacher and poet, and I thought he would enjoy a forum where he could rant to his heart’s content, so I asked a friend to help me get a WordPress site up. I chose a horrible theme, because I didn’t know any better and proceeded to transpose an entire book of his poetry into the editor. It was a pretty painful dealing with all the poetry formatting, but it was an eye-opener as to how this could work.

As more and more clients started asking for the ability to edit, I got more and more involved with WordPress. I found out about WordCamp Chicago 2010 about 2 weeks before it happened and as many WordCamps that I’ve been to since, nothing is as inspiring as your first. There was a talk on Child themes – OH, I can start doing themes myself and not be hamstrung by ready-made ones. There was a talk on being respectful when asking for help in the forums and buying plugin developers a cup of coffee. OH – it’s not just software, it’s a community. Unlike the IT dept. I worked for and other tech conferences I’d been to, there were other women there, I wasn’t the only girl in the room. OH. I got really inspired and excited. I started doing more and more of my projects in WordPress.

Pull Quote: This one simple attitude adjustment, changing “no” to “let me look into that”, opened up more doors and possibilities than I ever thought possible.

Clients kept asking for more. They wanted to do ecommerce, or something else that I had no idea how to accomplish. My knee jerk reaction was always – No, WordPress can’t do that. Popularity, the plugin repository, articles and tutorials were all growing at an exponential rate during this time. At some point I stopped saying no. This one simple attitude adjustment, changing “no” to “let me look into that”, opened up more doors and possibilities than I ever thought possible.

I still have a long way to go, there’s always so much more to learn. I still struggle with not being considered a “real” developer. With not having my client and project management skills considered very valuable. (Even though it’s those skills that have kept my rent paid these past 8 years.) I can always learn more, find help or a new chunk of code to break/fix/make my own.

Working with WordPress has allowed me to grow my business, skills and become part of a community and for that I’m eternally grateful. While this particular segment of the Web and IT community at large is more diverse than the whole, we still have a way to go. I am always happy to see girl specific coding initiatives, but I don’t want to be part of a separate tribe. I want to be part of the whole. A whole where boys assign more value to communication and people skills and where girls don’t feel like they have to be an expert before they can raise and share their voice. I’d love to see the word “developer” attached to a woman’s picture on an agency roster more often. I’d love to see more people of a certain age talking at WordCamps. I’d love to see the women in my meetup step up and volunteer to share their wisdom. Let’s do this.