What Are The Key Skills You Need To Know To Become A WordPress Developer In 2021?

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Jonathan Denwood: Welcome back folks to the WP-Tonic Show, it’s episode 577. This week folks, we don’t have a guest, but it’s going to be an internal discussion between me and my great hosts, Steven, from ZipFish. And we’re going to be discussing Steven’s long and windy road to become a WordPress developer, and also we’re going to be talking about when is it the right time to use a plugin or you’d be better off getting something hand-coded.

We’re going to be discussing those two topics, and it should be a great show, so before we get into the meat and potatoes, Steven, would you like to quickly introduce yourself to the new listeners and viewers?

Steven Sauder: Yeah, my name is Steven Sauder from zipfish.io; we make WordPress fast by optimizing the code that runs on your site, and also the servers behind your site.

Jonathan Denwood: Sounds great to me, and before we go into the main part of the discussion, I was just about to say interview there, is that we have to talk about one of our great sponsors and that’s Kinsta Hosting. Kinsta is a WordPress hosting provider, it only specializes in WordPress, if you have a site for yourself or for clients that’s WooCommerce, a large membership site, a learning management system, anything that really needs performance and reliability, you should look at Kinsta.

I personally feel that they’re one of the better or best hosting providers at the present moment, go over and have a look at their plans, I’m sure you’re going to be delighted with them, and I suggest that you go and buy one. If you do that please tell them that you heard about them on the WP-Tonic Show, it helps Kinsta, and it really does support the show, your support is much appreciated. Right, Steven. So, first of all, when did you start getting into coding? Was it web development or did you start somewhere else?

Steven Sauder: I started in WordPress actually. So, probably when I was in early high school or something, one-on-one had this deal where you could get a free website and you could have WordPress installed on it, and you could have it for a year or something. And so, I got super excited about that, of course, it was a terrible website that ran super slow, but everybody’s internet was slow back then. So, I kind of started playing around on that kind of, started coding some stuff up and seeing, what could I do and what could I break?

And it was a lot of fun and it kind of is what got me hooked on the web. I then kind of left web stuff and went to college, did marketing, and started my first marketing job at a startup company that was really young, there’s about four employees total, and we didn’t have a bunch of money. We all wore a bunch of hats and part of marketing is the web of course, and so I started getting back into programming and started building some WordPress websites for them, and I kind of just really based it around different marketing initiatives, like landing pages, product pages, all of that stuff.

And then from there, I was like, hey, I like this better than the marketing side of stuff, so I’m going to get into development full-time. And so, really just started diving really deep into PHP and JavaScript and got into Meteor, which is still around these days, not as cool and hyped up as it used to be. But moved out to LA for a little while for about four years and did the whole startup scene and worked on various different projects, building things with React and Vue.js and Meteor which was a fun ride.

But the crazy thing is that there is so much money that gets poured into startups that end up not working, and you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars building some subscription platform or some ordering system, that’s super complex and evolved and then come to find out the business model doesn’t work at all. And that’s kind of where I started thinking back to how I used to build projects, and WordPress just offers you a lot out of the box, you could have a whole e-commerce platform, you can have a whole subscription system, you can have complex marketing funnels and channels and advertisement campaigns.

And you can link that all together with WordPress, and if you get into someplace that is a little sticky, like somebody hasn’t quite built out the right thing, a lot of times you can just add a hook or add a filter, add a little custom PHP and customize whatever’s happening on the page or on the backend, and you can get a lot farther, a lot faster. And so, it was kind of going through all those different startups and that whole burnout sort of phase where you invested all this time and resources into something that eventually just folds it’s like, you know what?

We could have built an MVP on WordPress and taken that to market and seen if something worked and then maybe gone back and rebuilt the whole thing. Because honestly, any of the startups that got any traction were rebuilding everything from the ground up several times over because the model changes, the company pivots, what you thought you need, you don’t need. And so, building something as fast and cheap, getting it as you can, getting it to market, and then going from there, I think is a key element to business.

How much value can you derive out of one hour’s worth of work or 10 hours’ worth of work? If you’re custom coding everything that value isn’t seen until a long time later, you have to have a lot of customers, you have to have a lot of users, you have to have a lot of revenue that’s being generated to justify hours of a developer’s time. Whereas with WordPress, it’s a lot cheaper, it’s a lot quicker; you could do a lot more.

Jonathan Denwood: So, you’re a bit of a unicorn, really, I haven’t heard, have I heard that particular path that you described in your WordPress journey. No, I haven’t actually, it’s unusual somebody that kind of starts in the technical migrates into the marketing, and then goes back to the technical side, kind of oscillates. But on the other hand, if you’re running a small agency the reality is you have to wear a lot of hats, so that is the reality of small agency life, isn’t it?

So, when you started with WordPress you went into marketing and then you went back, what were some of the resources that helped you learn WordPress and PHB then? Was it just trial and error or was it a mixture of online resources and books?

Steven Sauder: Yeah, lots of trial and error, lots of YouTube videos, lots of random courses here or there, I feel like when you’re teaching yourself a new skill, there is a lot of this, well, how should I say it? Jumping too far ahead, you want to do something and it’s fairly complex, and so you’re trying to do it and you’re hitting a brick wall and then you realize, oh, wait, I need to go back. I needed to learn some of these basic things, and so you go back, you learn those basic things and then you can go and hit that next mile marker.

And then you find out at another point that, oh wait, I don’t really understand JavaScript in-depth, I don’t really understand why everything is a function in JavaScript. I don’t get that, and what that means and understanding that helps you debug your code and helps you figure out exactly what’s going on and how to really build sophisticated platforms. But if you’re missing these core elements and functionality, it’s very difficult and hard to move fast.

And so, I feel like my whole coding learning career was a lot of going too far down the road, trying to build something too complex, realizing you have to go back and learn some of this stuff. And then kind of just oscillating between those two things to get where I am today. So, my course was definitely like windy and weaving, it wasn’t like, oh, I signed up for some course and did the whole thing, I usually learn best by doing so it was just me trying to do all of this stuff and banging my head against the wall.

Jonathan Denwood: So, what would you advise somebody starting off? Because I hear a lot of people say, well, you have to start off with HTML and CSS. The only problem with CSS is, A, it’s not a true programming language and, B, it’s a bit of a hybrid, isn’t it? I’ve known a lot of hardcore programmer types from traditional languages, like C, C+, and they’ve tried to learn CSS, and literally, they’ve ended up almost pulling their hair out of their own head.

Because they’ve just found it’s not tremendously logical if you understand what I mean, but I suppose you do have to start with CSS and HTML. What are your thoughts about that?

Steven Sauder: Yeah, that’s a great question. Really the building blocks of the web are HTML then followed by CSS and then followed by backend stuff.

Jonathan Denwood: Yeah. Well, I was going to ask you the backend, it’s got more complicated. Would you, after learning some basic HTML and CSS, so you become reasonably dangerous, I think now you have a big choice coming up. Do you delve into WordPress and PHP or do you really aim at JavaScript and a library? Which direction would you go if you were in that person’s starting position in 2021?

Steven Sauder: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think it really depends on what you’re trying to build at the end of the day. My path to learning how to build websites and development was very much function-based there was a need; we didn’t have the money to pay a developer to do it. So, I just figured it out myself at nights and weekends and built the company’s first website. That’s a very functional way of approaching programming, I want to do this and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there.

I think if you’re saying I want to get into development as a career path and there’s not like an actual project or an actual tangible goal that you’re trying to achieve, you just want to learn how to build something. I think going and finding a course and going through a course and then just looking around trying to find a job and whoever will hire you and then just start learning from there, and see where things take you.

I think the development world is a very windy road, especially today with all the different build scripts that are out there, the advent of Node.js, where you have Webpack now, or like people used to use Grunt or Gulp. This whole side of things, just setting things up is way more complex than it used to be.

Jonathan Denwood: Well, that is part of the pain but also we do have a sizeable decision because I’m not saying there’s an easy answer or if there is an answer. I actually probably think that there probably is an answer, but you do have this fundamental do I? And the easy cop-out would be to say, you have to learn both, and that’s a sizeable thing to do. Do you learn WordPress, the basic functions, hooks, and then you go into PHB because let’s be frank about it, PHP isn’t going anywhere, and with some of the modern PHP libraries, it’s improved quite a lot as a language, hasn’t it?

But then you have this enormous monster, this other JavaScript and react and some of the other libraries. And I just wondered, if you were in somebody else’s shoes, would you still go down that WordPress PHB road? Do you think that’s an easier thing to get really reasoning well to then look at JavaScript or would you start with JavaScript and then look at PHB?

Steven Sauder: Yeah, I think that’s something that you could debate for as long as you want to, like, what’s the easiest route, what’s the best route? What’s the right order to watch the Star Wars movies in, you should watch them all, you should learn a little bit about everything but I think when it comes to programming, find a project and start working on that project and see where it takes you. Maybe it takes you down the JavaScript and PHP or PHP route. Maybe it takes you down Java or C Sharp or Swift or who knows what route, but just start doing something.

And here’s the thing is that people on the outside look at programming languages and think of them as, languages that we speak, like Italian versus English or English versus Japanese where the crossover isn’t as strong. But if you look at the fundamentals of most languages, they are based on a lot of the same logic patterns, they might look a little bit different, but if you understand how object-oriented programming works in one language, a lot of that knowledge transfers over into another language, how you structure functions, how you structure loops, there’re subtle differences..

Jonathan Denwood: The problem with JavaScript, I was active in flash action script, and in the days when I was an active programmer, Steven, it was in the days of the different dorms. We didn’t have a library, we didn’t have jQuery, and that’s why JavaScript died a little bit because at my time to actually get it to work consistently on different browsers was practically impossible. The amount of code that you had to write, and then my only criticism of JavaScript is it’s still a bit of a messy code, isn’t it?

When you look at what you could write in Python, or you could write in PHP, and then you look at the similar things, the amount of code, you have to churn out, that’s why the libraries probably, because they help with that, don’t they?

Steven Sauder: Yeah. Libraries help with that, but you’re using libraries regardless if you’re using Python or PHP, they all have their own library managers, trying to reuse code is like your best friend. I think that a language is as messy as you don’t understand it, the less you understand the language, the less you understand programming, the messier it gets, the more you understand it, the more organized and structured it becomes.

Jonathan Denwood: And I think the other thing is, we have to stress before we go for the break is learning best practices and not be a messy coder if you know. As you get experience, when you look at other people’s code and it’s visually a mess, they just haven’t formatted it nicely; you learn after you’ve had to delve into a number of projects and take them over and looked at really messy code, you start to appreciate tidiness, don’t you?

Steven Sauder: Yeah, for sure. But don’t let that stop, I’ve written some pretty messy [Cross-Talking 17:04].

Jonathan Denwood: Well, are you messy, Steven?

Steven Sauder: Here’s the thing, a code that works is better than a really clean code that doesn’t work. Coding is something that you learn as you go along, the longer you code, the cleaner your code is going to be, the longer you code the more structured it is, the easier it is going to be for somebody else to read. And that’s something that you can always get better at just like with handwriting, you can always work on making your S’s and your O’s and your U’s, a lot more tidy and neat.

You can always progress in that area, but that shouldn’t stop you from writing, and that shouldn’t stop you from coding just because you don’t know how to do something or the best way to do it, just do it. And then as you learn and you get more information, you’ll figure out there’re better ways of doing it, you can go back and rewrite it, or you can say, hey, the next project I do, I’m going to write this better and it’s going to be better than the last one.

And I think that’s the cool thing about coding is that a lot of it is you competing against yourself, just like the next thing I write is going to be better than the last thing I did.

Jonathan Denwood: Right. We’re going to go for our break; hopefully, Steven’s been impressed with my coding knowledge. We’ll be back in a few moments, folks.

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Jonathan Denwood: We’re coming back. It’s been a feast about Steven’s background as a developer plus the world of modern coding around WordPress. As we were saying in the first half, but the one thing I think, if you choose PHB or JavaScript, and you probably do have to mix both, I think that stack of technology is still going to be pretty safe and relevant.

Where when I was in the kitchen close to the end of my active, I still develop a bit Steven but I hire people like you when it got real projects, is that I was pretty heavy in Ruby On Rails and it’s still there, but it’s dying partly because of JavaScript, I would say. But still, I always liked Ruby On Rails for the code, the power, and just that it came from the creator of Basecamp, how cooler can you get than that? But there’re still jobs out there, but it’s not driving forward, one of the others that’s growing that surprised me.

And I think it’s mostly because a lot of it is driven because it’s used by Google extensively, is Python, isn’t it? But I don’t know anything about that really, nor do I, so I think staying with PHP and JavaScript, they would be the areas where I would be inclined to learn really, where I think your effort’s still going to be safe, isn’t it?

Steven Sauder: Yeah. But let’s say you want to get into AI type stuff for visual image processing, it’s going to be a lot harder to make that work from a PHP side, but Python, there’re tons of libraries out there and there’re tons of stuff that’s been already built around that because that language does really good in processing that kind of information. And that’s what I was thinking, what do you want to build and go follow those routes, because if you’re going to try to build, let’s say a web scraper or something, it’s probably easier to build that in Python too.

Jonathan Denwood: Well so, you all really right, because I was looking at some of the most, see Java is still, I never touched it with a barge pole, it was too much for me, but it’s still really quite popular, isn’t it, Java? And I think that’s because of Android.

Steven Sauder: Especially, when you get to the enterprise level type of work. If you’re dealing with really large corporations that have crazy databases, crazy structures, and have to work across a lot of teams, everything has to be really documented. It means that you need a language that lends itself to that, where people aren’t just going to quickly throw in slapstick code around and stuff like that, and Java does a much nicer job of that then let’s say, Python, which is much more, kind of roll up your sleeves, get dirty and start hacking things together.

So, at least that’s my perception, but from the work that I’ve done in it, but every language has its own group of people that are building things for it. And so, depending on whatever project you’re building, you’ll probably find people talking about one language more than another type of language or a software system or some sort of framework, and just go with that and see where that takes you.

And then you can hop on the next thing, but I can guarantee you that the things that you learn from coding in Python will help you become a better PHP coder and will help you become a better JavaScript coder. It’s not like you learn one language and all it is, is silent in that language, you learn things about how computers think, how computers to process, how information works, and that can be very valuable as you go into other languages. The more well-rounded you are as a programmer, I think the better code that you can produce.

Jonathan Denwood: When it comes to the JavaScript libraries, which three would you say dominate at the present moment?

Steven Sauder: Yeah, that’s a good question. It kind of depends on what you call libraries and what you call frameworks and the difference between those definitions.

Jonathan Denwood: I suppose you could still say jQuery is quite relevant, but it’s not seen in the same breath as something like React, is it?

Steven Sauder: Yeah. I would say that if you’re looking for front-end frameworks, React is killing it right now; Vue.js is also really popular, those are probably the two biggest ones. And I think it’s interesting too because let’s say you are building a web application and you want to use React, but you also want to use PHP on the backend, there’re a lot of people doing some really cool stuff with Laravel right now. And if you are in a WordPress system, let’s say, and you’re thinking about trying to use something else because it’s just restricting you too much, you need to do more highly customized stuff.

I’ve seen a lot of people turn WordPress stuff into Laravel stuff, and Laravel is a really cool framework for building some pretty complex and pretty awesome web apps that I’ve seen out there. So, that’s something that I would like to dive a little bit more into, I’ve gone into Laravel just a little bit more out of just curiosity, and I’ve been really impressed.

Jonathan Denwood: Sorry to talk over you. That’s what I’ve heard, really, a lot of people are saying about Laravel. They’ve been really impressed with, go on.

Steven Sauder: They also have a fantastic training system for Laravel, if you ever want to learn Laravel go into Laracasts they have probably one of the best courses that you can take that will take you through Laravel and they keep it updated with the latest versions. And we’ll hear it as phase one, phase two, and phase three, beginner, intermediate and advanced, and then all these kinds of add-on courses that you can take around that.

And just the amount of time and effort that they’ve put into documenting and creating training material, I think has really lettered itself to the next success because if you can train people to use something, they’ll use that. And it’s pretty impressive what you can create with it.

Jonathan Denwood: I think that’s the other thing, I think the actual training resource there’re some great free coding academies that you can join totally free, there’s the resource that you’ve just mentioned. There’s a lot of, it’s called LinkedIn training formerly lynda.com, now my friend Morton is one of the chief educators and trainers on that particular platform. So, there’re a lot more resources, but there’s a lot more to learn as well, isn’t there?

Steven Sauder: Yeah, there’s always more to learn for sure. I think one of the interesting things about WordPress is kind of understanding the constraints of it and the opportunities with it.

Jonathan Denwood: That’s a great subject, please explain some more.

Steven Sauder: There are a lot of things that you can tack onto WordPress and out-of-the-box stuff that you can do. You can have e-commerce, you can have on top of the e-commerce you can put a whole learning management system, on top of a whole learning management system you can put a whole CRM system and run that all from WordPress. And your marketing campaigns are coming from the same place that your e-commerce happening in the same place that you’re learning management system is happening, in the same place that your affiliate system is happening.

And there’s a lot of beauty in that, but there’s also a lot of headaches in that and a lot of frustration in that because once you get a lot of code that has to work together, all of a sudden, if one thing kind of goes a little bit sideways, everything goes a little bit sideways.

Jonathan Denwood: Oh, you need a good support company, don’t you?

Steven Sauder: Yeah. You need a good support company, like Jonathan’s.

Jonathan Denwood: That’s why we preach that we provide all the tools, but we also provide the support.

Steven Sauder: So, that’s an important thing to note. And then the ability for you to fix the problem is sometimes limited because if that problem is something deeply ingrained in that plugin, then it’s really the plugin author that has to fix it. Or you have to fork the plugin and know how to code and figure out what’s going wrong and dissect the whole plug-in and change it yourself, and that can be a very frustrating and time-intensive experiment.

And I’ve kind of developed this theory for how to think through whether you should code it yourself or whether you should just get plugins. So, I’m going to float this out and I’d love to get your reaction.

Jonathan Denwood: Well, actually shall we leave this for our bonus content; I think that would be a good cut-off. We’re getting around about 27, 28 minutes into this, so I think we’re cut off and if you want to hear Steven’s views about when it’s a good idea to hand-code or use a plugin, go to the WP-Tonic YouTube channel and watch this whole discussion, I’ve really enjoyed it.

Steven Sauder: I’ve never said this publicly before, so this is the first time on-air that Steven Sauder’s ever made this statement.

Jonathan Denwood: Well, roll the drum beats. So Steven, what’s the best way for people to find out more about you and ZipFish?

Steven Sauder: Yeah. Head over to zipfish.io run a speed test, see how much faster you can make your WordPress site.

Jonathan Denwood: And they’ve helped with the WP-Tonic website, it’s on Kinsta, but they’re also a lot of legacy codes, different plugins, it’s a bit of a monster, the WP-Tonic website, I don’t know how many pages or posts, it’s been going since late 2014. So, as a site grows, it just becomes a bit of a heap of different database injuries and that, so Steven and his team came in and they helped out and gave it a bit of a rejuvenation, a bit of a speed push, just a bit of a speed push, it really helped, thanks, Steven.

We’ll be back next week, hopefully with another great guest, I have a webinar this Friday but you probably will hear this show after that, but we’re going to have a webinar in April, or we’re going to rename it, webinars a little bit old fashioned now. So, Spencer and I are going to rename our live event on a new platform as well, I’ll give you more information about that as it comes around. As I said, if you want to hear Steven’s views about hand-coding or a plugin, go to the WP-Tonic YouTube channel, we’ll see you next week, folks. Bye.

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