How Public Perception of WordPress Influences Developer Contracts

photo credit: Tax Credits - cc
photo credit: Tax Creditscc

If the WordPress community is your only barometer of knowing how an open source community works together, then you might want to explore outside a bit further to gain a broader outlook on other cultures. Some of the differences are worth examining.

A few days ago I noticed an interesting observation regarding the relationship between plugin development and project offers in CakePHP vs. WordPress.

Mario Peshev is a WordPress contributor who owns DevriX, a high-end agency specializing in SaaS development and platform architecture. He is also a co-organizer of WordCamp Sofia and WordCamp Europe 2014.

It seems curious that Peshev would regularly receive more offers for CakePHP work, originating from older code he’d written, versus requests for WordPress, which powers more than 23% of the web. In his experience, it’s not just related to CakePHP but many other technologies as well.

“It’s not only CakePHP really. CakePHP, CodeIgniter, Java, Django, Drupal, Android even – all sorts of small extensions, plugins or apps I’ve built and released publicly get larger attention than my WordPress contributions,” Peshev told the Tavern.

“Not only do I get 2-3x more projects with any other platform (even though I haven’t contributed there for 3+ years), but the proposed rates and budgets are few times higher.”

His experience seems to suggest that there’s a disconnect somewhere in how potential customers value the skills of WordPress developers.

Client Perception of WordPress

WordPress is heralded the world over as being the most user friendly publishing software on the web. Unfortunately, this can also contribute to unrealistic client expectations when it comes to custom development.

“The majority of the WordPress users that get in touch with us are: bloggers, small company owners, marketing consultants, sales agents, small and medium-sized businesses,” Peshev said. “They are not technical people and don’t have realistic (according to the market standards) expectations for the type of work they ask for.”

He outlined a typical scenario that plagues many development agencies. Because users can piece most of their sites together without help, they figure the rest should be easy:

A common scenario is: “We’ve built our WordPress website ourselves with a premium theme and a few plugins, so we just need those tiny changes applied here and there.” Their infrastructure is not ready for the types of changes they need, and the fact that 90%+ of their requirements cost $100 or so (for a premium theme + a plugin) doesn’t justify paying ten times more for the other 10% if that would be 10-20 hours of high-end development. The math just doesn’t add up for them.

These misconceptions play out in various ways, including users feeling entitled when it comes to free plugin and theme features, core updates, and other improvements that seem to arrive magically from the sky. Very few plugin and theme developers can report anything more than meager donations when it comes to contributing free extensions.

For Peshev, creating open source extensions for platforms outside the WordPress ecosystem has been far more rewarding in terms of referrals for work. He detailed a recent request he received in a post titled The $15 WordPress Gig:

“Hello, I’m looking for someone who could customize a WordPress plugin we bought. It’s a car reservation system, we need to change the pricing model and add a few extra SQL tables that would operate with the plugin.”

After requesting a project description and budget, Peshev received the following reply:

“Thanks, the plugin costs $25 so I estimate the change would probably cost around $15.”

While that response may seem shocking to a developer, it makes perfect sense to someone who only has the price tag of the original product as a gauge for judging the value of work related to it.

Reshaping Client Expectations

The WordPress community has a unique challenge when it comes to communicating the costs of custom development, given that thousands of free and/or dirt cheap themes and plugins are available. How can a seemingly simple modification be 10x the price of the original plugin?

Some of these issues stem from the way most development agencies attract customers. “WordPress is more design and marketing oriented than other communities. Portfolios reveal beautiful and stylish websites and agencies focus on frontend work,” Peshev said.

“Building CRMs, eRPs, eCommerce platforms or other backend-oriented platforms and services is still not a common thing in the WordPress ecosystem, even if it’s completely possible and some of us build these sorts of projects for larger clients.”

Peshev believes that since most clients lack technical knowledge, they judge agencies and developers by what they can see. “Clients don’t browse WordPress.org or GitHub portfolios, they are just looking for beautiful designs. Code quality doesn’t matter unless you deal with eCommerce, and scalability and security are overlooked until it’s too late.”

If you sell WordPress development services, you will undoubtedly have to become skilled at reshaping client expectations. When it comes to custom development, experienced developers often recommend giving the potential customer a more familiar frame of reference:

There are many different pre-internet era professions that are easier for clients to understand:

What is difficult for customers to grasp, is that development expertise is most similar to the work of a traditional engineer in that it requires applying years of knowledge and experience to devise a technical solution that will hold up in the long run.

A client may see his request as a “simple tweak to a plugin or theme” but is unaware of the many obstacles that can make it complicated. Peshev details a few examples in his recent piece on The Slippery Slope of WordPress Customizations:

  • The theme is not written according to the WordPress guidelines
  • The plugins are not compatible
  • There have been various manual changes in those plugins
  • The hosting provider has some limitations
  • There are PHP/MySQL version issues
  • The site uses some 3rd party API/service/database that needs special attention
  • The fixes could cause a regression in another area of the site
  • A simple functionality has been built with a complex plugin and the change needs to be applied there, which requires hacking the plugin itself

For many small to mid-sized development agencies, the majority of incoming requests are directly related to customization work. Developers have to be prepared to educate clients on the realities of building quality WordPress solutions. While client perceptions are a major factor in the size of contracts developers are able to win, Peshev believes that the WordPress community has deeper cultural issues to resolve before the public will change its mind on the value of WordPress development.

Changing Public Perception by Building a Culture of Contributing

Because the open source WordPress project is primarily a volunteer-driven effort, a culture of contribution is vital to its continued ability to innovate. It’s also vital for extension developers if they want to work together to build more elegant solutions. According to Peshev, very few companies and agencies see the value of contributing to the project.

While traveling around Europe I’ve met developers and devops at WordCamps from companies with 400+ employees, where the WordPress department is only 5-10 people strong. Those projects are large online magazines, or platforms for digital and high-tech companies that heavily rely on the WordPress platform, and they rarely invest in WordPress advocates or full-time contributors.

Apart from a small number of corporately-funded contributors, the rest are individuals who donate time in the evening after the kids go to bed, over the weekend, or in between their freelance/agency duties.

Yet, many contributions go unrecognized and are often wrongly attributed entirely to Automattic by every major tech news outlet. These are honest mistakes, but, when left uncorrected, they contribute to the public perception that the project is the work of a handful of people who work for an elite agency, marginalizing the efforts of hundreds of unpaid volunteers.

“‘WordPress themes’ is the most popular subject in Google searches if you check with the Keyword planner,” Peshev notes. “Yet until a week ago there were no paid contributors to the WordPress Theme Review Team. Lots of people haven’t been noticed at all there, despite the facts that millions of websites run the themes they have reviewed and polished in order to reach to the point that they actually work.”

He contends that when contributions are undervalued or unrecognized, WordPress developers have little motivation to work together. This applies to product development as well, which spills over into custom development work.

“Have you noticed how many Lightbox, Gallery or Slider plugins we have out there? Contributors don’t help each other and products stay small and simple,” Peshev siad. “I have 25+ plugins on GitHub and I’ve only ever gotten three or four pull requests for any changes, and keep seeing similar plugins popping up every few weeks.

Our culture outside of the core isn’t contributing, but building everything from scratch or using ‘builder’ plugins, which is somewhat justified by the low budgets that prevent us from any research activities which could slow us down (and burn our profits).”

As a result, many developers opt to go it alone, building custom solutions as quickly as possible on small budgets. Unfortunately, this practice restricts the growth of development agencies.

“I see a huge gap between the types of WordPress development/design requests,” Peshev said.

“The types of WordPress experts that I see out there are either freelancers and small studios with up to 3-4 people, or agencies like Human Made, 10up, WebDevStudios (and Automattic, of course). On one hand, there are the small $500 customization gigs or $3K eCommerce projects. On the other end we have the WordPress.com VIP type of clients and requests that are at least 50 times more expensive than the others.”

WordPress clients who cannot afford VIP level service turn to smaller companies like Peshev’s to accommodate their budgets. However, Peshev is frequently approached by clients looking for high-end consultants for other platforms, based on past open source contributions. Unfortunately, when it comes to WordPress work, contributions have done little for bringing in larger projects.

“I find it challenging to grow from a consultant to a larger and sustainable agency solely with WordPress – and I see numerous small agencies getting stuck at 4-5 people tops,” he said.

Promoting Collaboration and Contribution

For many dedicated WordPress contributors like Peshev, open source contributions have not led to more work or better contracts, despite the fact that these types of contributions should verify these developers as high-end experts. A little bit of skill and free time are all that are required to contribute to open source software, but time comes at a cost when you’re struggling to pay the bills.

Peshev’s observations raise some important questions that are worth considering. In an ecosystem where developers are often in competition with each other to create the same simple extensions for fast cash, it doesn’t pay to collaborate on more elegant solutions. This contributes to a market flooded with cheap solutions and customers who don’t value the skills required for WordPress development.

Highly skilled developers, who might otherwise be driven away to other more lucrative platforms, often choose to stick with WordPress because of its unique community. If we can find a way to change the culture to value and reward contributors, they will be better positioned to make a living with WordPress. This allows them to create more stable, secure solutions that raise the quality expectations of users across the web.

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