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Sixteen years into a 23 year career as a United States Air Force communications and information officer, Stacy Clements decided to take on the challenge of building a website. This led to a career as a freelance developer with a specialization in WordPress, and ultimately to owning her own web development and digital maintenance business. She told her story to Scott Morris.
I spent 23 years in the Air Force as a communications and information officer before switching gears to work as a full-time freelance web developer. Thanks to hard work and strong time management skills, I was able to gradually pick up the tech skills I needed to make this jump. I began doing freelance web development as a side gig about 16 years into my time with the Air Force, and like many freelancers who find their way into tech, my career happened somewhat organically once I had spent time collecting the tools and knowledge I needed. One day I was chatting with a store manager who wanted to pay someone to build a website, and out of the blue he asked if I’d be interested in figuring out how to do it. Voila—a freelancer was born! I started out small in the early 2000’s, taking on that first project and then helping friends who needed their own websites. In the beginning I built sites mostly with HTML and CSS, but I started working with WordPress in 2010. My client base was growing and I was looking for a way to make it possible for clients to apply some of their own updates to the sites I’d built. WordPress fit that bill and had the bonus effect of making it easier for me to build those sites in the first place.
WordPress (specifically the self-hosted version you can download from WordPress.org) is incredibly flexible and easy to get started with. While WordPress began as a blogging platform, the ecosystem that’s evolved since makes it possible to do just about anything with a WordPress site. Whether you’re building an information site, landing pages, or an e-commerce platform, WordPress can handle it all.
WordPress is a Content Management System (CMS), which means it’s a software application that lets you create digital content and publish it online. One of the main differences between using a CMS like WordPress instead of sticking with HTML and CSS is that you avoid the need to individually edit and then reupload each page of a website any time you want to add content. Instead, you can manage your site’s pages through the WordPress user interface and simply press “Publish” to apply your changes. Of course, more complicated and customized tasks require a deeper level of coding knowledge, but it’s the ability to make simples changes without coding that allows clients to do basic site updates on their own after their site is built.
What Does a WordPress Developer Do?
Today I’ve gone from freelancer to small business owner. I typically do projects for other small business owners who have grown past the DIY website stage and need a professionally built WordPress site that’s integrated with other services likes email marketing systems, appointment systems, or shipping and accounting platforms for e-commerce.
The first thing I do each day is check my help desk ticketing system in case there are any “emergency issues” I need to work on—broken sites, hacked sites, white screens of death, etc. If there are, those issues become my priority. Any crises aside, I’ll then check my email (which I try to only check three times a day, otherwise it can become distracting and turn into an all day time sink), handle any small housekeeping tasks I need to do, and then move on to my main work.
At least once a week (though sometimes more depending on the current security landscape) I’ll test backups for all the WordPress sites I manage and ensure that the software those sites are using is up to date. I also do weekly security scans of the sites as well as performance monitoring. After I finish that kind of maintenance, or on days when it isn’t necessary, it’s then on to the development part of my job. Depending on how many site projects I have going, I’ll spend several hours working on them. This includes things like site planning, developing custom themes, installing or modifying plugins, building pages, and populating content. In addition to site maintenance, management, and building, I also set aside an hour or two each day for professional development. It’s easy to get lost in the immediacy of the projects you’re working on, but it’s critical to stay current with both the technology you’re using and the overall ins and outs of either freelancing or running your own business. I personally stay up to date using a few services that provide training on WordPress specific topics, coding in general, and business management.
WordPress Developers Use Tech Skills and Soft Skills
For anyone looking to get into WordPress development it’s important to stress that—while learning as much as you can about the WordPress platform and developing a strong general foundation in coding and tech skills are all crucial parts of working in the industry—you’re going to need to cultivate your “non-tech” skills as well. Take some time to learn about project management in between coding classes—whether you work for yourself or someone else, the ability to scope a project, define requirements, and forecast and schedule work is invaluable. Always work on improving your communication skills, too—more projects fail due to poor communication that any other reason. Finally, schedule everything! I’ve found both in my military career and my business that if it’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t get done—but don’t forget to schedule some time to take care of yourself! The beauty of working with WordPress and web development in general is that more often than not you’re in a position to make your own schedule or at least have some flexibility with your time, but it’s up to you to take advantage of that flexibility to get the best results.
Scott Morris is Skillcrush's staff writer and content producer. Like all the members of Skillcrush's team, he works remotely (in his case from Napa, CA). He believes that content that's worth reading (and that your audience can find!) creates brands that people follow. He's experienced writing on topics including jobs and technology, digital marketing, career pivots, gender equity, parenting, and popular culture. Before starting his career as a writer and content marketer, he spent 10 years as a full-time parent to his daughters Veronica and Athena.