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WordPress Developers: Labels Don’t Matter, Results Do

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

Ever since Tom McFarlin wrote his mini-series on WordPress developers vs implementers, and what distinguishes the two, this has been a hot topic inside the WordPress community.

Ultimately, this is an internal issue inside the WordPress ecosystem. Clients are often the ones who suffer, because they aren’t aware of what they should be looking for in a developer, or what the differences are. More on that in a minute.

For a minute, let’s consider why people use labels to describe things in the first place. Labels and names are meant to show collective agreement as to what those words mean. But on the internet, it’s easy to misrepresent what you really are. There’s a reason why there’s a firestorm around people calling themselves WordPress developers, when they might only have started installing WordPress a couple of days ago.

There’s three sides to this equation. Side one are the people in WordPress who understand what their skills are and represent them accordingly. Side two are the people who over-represent their WordPress skills and do damage to the community and clients. Side three are the clients who need some WordPress work done, and have no clue what makes one developer worth $20 and hour and another worth $150 an hour. More often than not, the first-time web development client will make their decisions based on price alone, which in the end, does more damage to their business than it does good.

What Does A Competent WordPress Developer Look Like?

Mario Peshev has written some of the most sensible material on this subject. Because we are often dealing with folks who are not technically inclined, any amount of knowledge above theirs looks like expertise — but that is not always accurate. In my circle, we call false expertise “knowing enough to be dangerous”.

Tom McFarlin states that:

Programmers often have the ability to make things happen beyond what implementers are capable of, and have a different process for doing so.

What this correctly implies is that there are levels of expertise. While anyone can Google how to do certain tasks, a more experienced developer will know when to use one function instead of another, and why one way of doing something is more efficient than another. The experienced developer understands how to do more than simply copy and paste — they can create solutions that haven’t been documented. They have a deeper understanding of how the different parts work together. They have a battle-tested methodology to their work.

The seasoned developer is a craftsperson, who has dedicated themselves to learning their trade. They are not fly-by-night. They deliver results. Their word means something — they are honest about their skills, and partner with other digital tradespeople whose talents complement their own.

What The Heck Is A WordPress Implementer?

First off, clients don’t look for “implementers”. They may look for web designers or web developers, but no one is searching for a WordPress implementer. The term “implementer” is going to take a long time to catch on with regular people.

What the term implementer means to me (and probably others) is: a person calling themselves a developer is basically someone who only knows how to install themes and plugins, and maybe tweak them a little. They will not be able to create custom theme files, custom plugins, or anything else involving code. The implementer is competent enough to take a set of existing tools, and put them together to provide solutions for their clients.

What bothers established developers are the people who cannot even pass this definition of a WordPress implementer. WordPress programmers bristle at the thought of novices passing themselves off as WordPress experts, just because there is money to made. Many implementers just installed WordPress for the first time last week.

The pretenders are not always found on freelance exchange sites. Sometimes they are established IT people, who found out that WordPress isn’t as easy to master as they thought it would be. Other times, the pretend implementer might be part of one-stop team, where web development is treated as an afterthought.

Despite popular belief, WordPress is not something where you “just push buttons and things pop out”.

Yes, I actually had a “consultant” say that to me before. Sorry, bro. You are thinking of somebody else.

A professional WordPress developer has to know at least some of each of the following:

  • HTML
  • CSS/Sass
  • PHP/MySQL
  • JavaScript/jQuery
  • Front end design/UI
  • User experience
  • Version control
  • How servers work
  • Performance optimization
  • XML
  • SEO
  • On top of that, the most important thing — how the project supports the actual business goals of the project!

To most clients, this looks like alphabet soup. To most novices trying to climb on the money train that is the WordPress ecosystem, it also looks like alphabet soup.

Let me be clear, I’m not out to rip on people trying to make a living. I was in the same place not that very long ago. Just please be honest about what you can and cannot do.

Clients: please keep in mind that just because the college intern says they can do something doesn’t make it true. Do your homework and don’t be afraid to spend a little extra for quality workmanship and actual results.

For those prospects that see all web professionals as equivalent regardless of experience or skill: I’m sure you can find someone on Craigslist to “push buttons” for $12 an hour, and something will “just come out” — we just won’t say what.

Professional Web Development Is Not An Afterthought

The implementers that don’t know (or don’t care) that they are implementers, and label themselves as expert developers are changing the perception of what WordPress development is actually worth. This false perception of cost vs fluency is changing most drastically in the market where small and mid-sized businesses exist.

Don’t believe me? Just last week, my accountant told me I’m in a difficult business. Never mind that the need for that part of the web design market is still going up, his perception is that people can get web design for little money. (Anecdotally, nearly every small businessperson I’ve run into in the last year is willing to invest in marketing, but hesitant to invest in web design, so something to think about there.)

So what most WordPress developers are getting out of the conversation is if you call yourself a WordPress developer, and you’re not that good at what you do, and not charging a fair living wage, you are damaging the market for everyone else.

The Client’s Perspective

Unless you’re a client who is part of an enterprise or startup organization, it’s unlikely you are tech-industry-savvy enough to understand differences in what we call ourselves, or why. Most local clients are just looking for someone to help them with WordPress. They don’t know the connotative differences between engineers, programmers, developers, or implementers. Honestly, that burden shouldn’t be on them anyway. Those labels are for the people inside of the web development ecosystem. Those labels are there so the people on the inside can all agree on who can do certain things, and who can’t do certain things. Yes, it’s a little navel-gazing, so clients generally don’t care about the distinctions.

The client doesn’t care whether you know fifteen programming languages or none. The only thing your clients care about is whether you can make them money or not.

What About Value Add As A Quality Signal?

Value add has been suggested as a metric for defining who is a developer and who is an implementer. There are many well-known faces in the WordPress community who would be considered implementers — if you were going by their coding abilities alone. They would even tell you to your face that they are not developers.

But their business acumen is on-point. These people are well-known to you and I because they take care of business concerns first and foremost, and surround themselves with people who have the technical know-how to fill in their gap. The smartest people surround themselves with folks who have specialty knowledge that they lack. Does anyone question whether these leaders add value to projects or balk at the fees they ask for?

There are tons on competent WordPress coders who are completely underpaid, no doubt. No one would call them implementers, as defined by their skill level alone. But if you’re just a cog in the machine, you have to add value by understanding the business goals of the client, and using your skills to align your work with those project goals.

High Value Consultants Aren’t Worried

High-value WordPress consultants shouldn’t be worried about $800 websites or $60 themes from Envato. The clients they target are smarter than that. Their target clients wouldn’t dare risk saving a few dollars on a $800 website. These clients are hesitant to spend too little on their website because they know they are risking poor website security, terrible website performance, and having a website that doesn’t support their business objectives.

The real villain in this story isn’t implementers claiming to be WordPress gurus or $5 an hour WordPress coders on oDesk, it’s the commodification of the market.

Clients who simply want to check a box that says “Have website?” are not going to invest any more than they have to. Websites by themselves, without a defined target audience, helpful content or social outreach are going to fall short of their potential. Business owners need an all-encompassing plan to take full advantage of having a website.

No one offers this kind of consultation for dollar store prices. But if WordPress consultants of all coding levels don’t focus their energy on solving business problems, then clients will have no other way to differentiate providers but by price.

The Bottom Line

The burden isn’t on implementers to charge more (though that’s not a bad idea). The burden isn’t on the WordPress pretenders to call themselves implementers or customizers (they won’t, and you can’t make them). The burden is on WordPress developers to prove that they are worth the fees they are asking for. The burden is on the WordPress consultant to show how they will reduce project risk, to outline their process for ensuring project success, and to give their clients wise counsel. The burden is also on the client to research the web developers they plan to do business with, and make sure they can deliver.

Value isn’t always about technical prowess (though sometimes, it really is). It is always about understanding the client’s business goals, helping them achieve those goals, saving them money, or generating them more revenue.

A Final Thought

What we call ourselves doesn’t matter nearly as much as whether we can deliver on our promises or not.

Can you do what you say you can do? Or are you simply blowing smoke?

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown Design & SEO.

4 comments on “WordPress Developers: Labels Don’t Matter, Results Do

  1. Great post, John.

    I like how you’ve examined the different perspectives of this discussion.

    Just like you mentioned in your post, the site-owner/client is generally not aware of these titles, and they couldn’t care less. They just want a website that’s cheaper, more efficient, faster, and delivered on time. The rest is icing to them.

    The way I see it, the role of any website service provider is to help site-owners achieve their objectives in any way that they can. Sometimes this includes handing them on to more skilled tradesmen, if the client requires a complex solution.

    The problem arises when a provider either “wants it all” or is too proud to admit that the required solution falls outside the scope of their knowledge, because they can’t possibly know everything about everything, all the time.

    That’s when they set themselves up as something they are not, and inevitably set the client up for failure, and disappointment.

    Most misplaced “labelling” comes down to greed and pride.

    The internet makes it easy for anyone to claim to be “anything” they say they are, and if marketing is loud enough, the client believes.

    There is also this recent trend where everyone is an “expert”, and its all perfect, and skills that used to take years to develop are now being marketed as something one can acquire in 5 mins, with time to spare for tea.

    Not quite the case.

    Any site-owner who’s had the misfortune of acquiring poorly manufactured website software/services, will attest.

    Perhaps it would help the situation if WordPress development and implementation was treated more like a “skilled trade” (which it is), rather than a “free for all”.

    Just my two pence.

    Great article.

    1. Well-articulated response CJ.

      You may have something there with a sort of formal certification for WordPress development, though I don’t see it on the horizon yet. I think the challenge is the ecosystem is so vast, with great variations of skill and expertise throughout. There are people who are great engineers, but less than stellar businesspeople. You need both. That’s why folks form teams, I suppose.

      There seem to be a ton of veterans of IT or graphic design that see the money in WordPress and half-heartedly “try” to learn it. I know, because I’ve been approached by a few of them who want someone to teach them WordPress, which is great — except they underestimate the time or cost involved in learning something like that.

      It feels like these very common archetypes have heard that WordPress is nothing more than drag-and-drop — like Weebly or Wix — and that a day should be sufficient to learn everything there is to know about WordPress. We know that nothing is farther from the truth.

      But here’s the thing. They have to care enough to make the effort to learn, or no one can help them. I think they get discouraged when they realize how much there is to really know, because the rabbit hole is deeper than they realized.

      Truth be told, most of the drag and drop stuff like Visual Composer can be confusing as well. I never touched it until helping out a couple of clients this year. It’s all about what you can adapt to, I suppose.

      Now, I know there are thousands of people that can straight-up smoke me when it comes to engineering skills, and I have no illusions about that. But I also realize I know more than perhaps tens of thousands. And the same goes for you.

      Anything I’ve ever learned I had to work hard at — web development is no different. But I show up every day, trying to learn more about development, as well as other things that tie into business. I’m not perfect, but I’m miles ahead of where I was when I first began.

      Anything worthwhile takes a time investment to keep leveling up. There are folks that stopped growing professionally a long time ago, and that’s not where I want to be. I want to stay aware of what’s changing in web development overall and be ahead the masses. I’d like to think we (the people active in the WP community) are just getting warm when it comes to taking the world by storm.

      Everyone brings a different skill-set to the table, and people who go far play to their strengths and find allies who complement their weaknesses. That’s basically my plan for the future.

      1. Thanks for the extremely thoughtful response, John.

        That comment is an entire post with additional food for thought, all by itself. And I agree with every word of it.

        Most genuinely appreciated.

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