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. “[pullquote]Clients don’t browse or GitHub portfolios, they are just looking for beautiful designs.[/pullquote] 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? [pullquote]Contributors don’t help each other and products stay small and simple[/pullquote],” 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 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.


25 responses to “How Public Perception of WordPress Influences Developer Contracts”

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

    Hahaha, it makes perfect sense. “This MP3 player costs $25 so I estimate open it up, changing some pieces and bits and make it as I wish would probably cost around $15.” Sure.

    • Well, if you put it like that… But what about the answer: “Sure I can open up your $25 MP3 player and customise it to play video too but it will cost you $1500.” Suddenly it’s no surprise they’re not going to hire you. Unless you can sell them a DVD player for $150 maybe… ;-)

  2. It is unfortunate, but as a consumer of WP developer hours (i,e, small business owner who uses WP for our website) i would agree with the misconception. However, I would say that it is 100% worth paying the extra for the services. I recently invested >$1,500 in a gallery modification. The original plugin was provided free by the developer, and the modifications aren’t overly complex (being able to select taxonomies of pictures to see). However, the result is a gallery that is unlike anything else on the market and we have customer come to use with print-screens of our filtered gallery saying “I want this and that”.

    This is definitely worth the development money we paid, and I think WP needs more good level developers doing professional level work for small business facilitated through the WP framework.

    You can see the gallery here:

    • This segment of WP development is going through a similar phase that video post-production went through in the early ’00s: A combination of environmental scanning about costs combined with a misconception by clients about the skills needed to make things work culminates in a sense that the developer is a commodity.

      For example, prior to the DV digital revolution (FW, DV cameras, FCP, etc.), NYC advertising clients believed that everything we did was voodoo. Once the clients themselves were able to do some of the rudimentary tasks that the pros did, their perception of the what pros did was diminished to their frame of reference – which was partly true but for the most part false. It’s like watching a DJ play music and thinking “Oh, being a DJ is EASY!” not knowing how much time goes into technical knowledge, music research, audience perception, etc.

      What we have here is a failure in how our work is perceived by clients because there is no organization to represent the value we bring to the problems our clients encounter. We are a freely associating, self-forming group of professionals, but we have no advocacy. This is what destroyed the post-production industry in NYC between 1999-2008.

      Until there is such a voice, don’t expect things to change much. The undercurrents described here are what destroyed my prior career and forced me to move to something else far less lucrative. Start saving your chips!

  3. Great piece Sarah, the length does the issue justice. The ability to change code easily, using well documented functions has led to WordPress’s success – and could just as easily lead to its downfall, as the Plugin repository fills with lots of plugins all doing the same thing, written by people who want to show off how clever their College project is rather than actually wanting to contribute to the wider development on WordPress (or even answer support queries for their own plugin).

    That said, any sort of quality control / quality threshold (“what does this plugin do that is *different* to the rest?”) would put potentially great authors off – so either way, we’re doomed. Dooomed!

  4. Great, important article, well done. Although I disagree with this:

    “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.”

    Any serious (non-stupid) person over the age of 10 should know the difference between buying a product and creating a product. “I went to see a movie the other day for $12, so can you make me a 20-minute short film for $2?”

  5. Good points, sarah, but I don’t think many developers do much to help themselves.

    I have commissioned several developers to develop plugins with features that are based on, but go well beyond, free plugins that are available in the repository. Some of the customizations have cost $100s, and one over $2,000. All have been well worth the money.

    In each case, though, the developer explained clearly (a) what the original, free plugin could do, (b) that they were available for hire to do related work, and (c) provided a link to where users could see what other work they had done. (They had also been very responsive in their plugin’s forum.)

    Most developers just don’t do these things well. Plugin instructions are often poor, so users find that they have to fiddle with the plugin for a long time, and ask lots of questions, to make it work. This makes users feel short-changed, even though the financial cost to them was zero.

    Second, most developers do a very poor job of explaining what custom jobs they do. Just saying that you’re available to do WordPress stuff is too vague to be of any use. No-one is good at everything!

    Third, most developers’ sites are actually garbage. Even if they do bother to provide a link to their own space, it is usually so badly put together that I’d never commission any paid work from them.

    Alternatively, even if the site isn’t garbage, it’s filled with totally unrelated stuff. Honestly, if you want to get me to pay for your services, I don’t care about your views on God, or pictures of fluffy bunnies!

    If you want me to trust you with my money (which I’m quite happy to do for the right work) you’ve got to show me that you really know what you’re doing. The developers whose work I’ve paid for have done precisely that.

    • There are a few valid points in this comment for sure – most developers can’t market themselves very well. Clients can’t find them and are not aware whether they’re available for hire (and what type of work do they take on).

      Also, some contributors don’t make a distinct separation between the business presence and the personal one which doesn’t strike other people as impressive rockstar-oriented profile when they click for the first time.

      Even though my observation is that clients like you are a tiny percentage – but I’d love for Sarah or Jeffro to interview potential clients and outsourcing agencies and review their perspective (might become a priceless article) :)

  6. The comparison with the worlds of CakePHP or CodeIgniter is unfair. Those aren’t client-facing technologies. If you’re looking for a CakePHP person, you’re probably a CakePHP person yourself. And someone else is funding your project.

    WordPress is the first open-source CMS to break into the mainstream. A survey in April 2014 showed that a third of the US general internet population knew the WordPress name. And if they’ve been curious enough to Google it, they’ll have found plenty of good things being said about WordPress.

    A CakePHP-style sales pitch isn’t going to work on these people. They wouldn’t know where to find the list of contributors. They’ve never heard of Github. If they somehow found themselves looking at a Subversion repo, they’d assume the website had crashed.

    Open source contributions will not, in and of themselves, lead to more work or better contracts. But they can form the basis of a good old-fashioned marketing message, which certainly can.

    Clients won’t hire you simply because your name is on the WordPress credits page. But they will hire you if you tell them your code has been reviewed by the smartest brains in the WordPress world, and was considered good enough to be incorporated within the core product, the same core product which powers tens of millions of sites worldwide, including (blah blah blah). They want proof? Look, there’s your name on the credits page.

    The public perception of WordPress is not a negative. Every other CMS platform is jealous of the overwhelmingly positive perception of WordPress among those who use it day in, day out, long after the developers have moved on.

    If anyone’s perception should change here, it’s that of coders who think their code can or should sell itself.

    • Thanks Simon, some food for thought as well, although it covers another aspect of the problem.

      Whilst you are right that code can’t or shouldn’t sell itself, we are talking about technical skills and final product here. Every decent software engineer could easily switch to any other technical web platform out there and produce a final web application. Most of the time the technical stack doesn’t matter (or at least there are numerous proper ways to build a product), so WordPress is one of those toolkits, too.

      Unlike all the other platforms though WordPress is the only place where developers should pay so much attention and spend a significant amount of their time on marketing and sales. Soft skills and advertisement don’t come natural to most technical people and there is a gap if you are just a technical ninja in our community.

      I’m also covering the same thing above by saying that the customers in WordPress are a completely different group of people, but essentially they need the very same end result as with any other technology. The question is that other communities support their contributors by rewarding them without further advertisement which helps for the global progress of said platform. The other gap is for growing a company due to the range of very small 5-page websites or a few VIP solutions usually handled by you guys on the VIP page :)

  7. I think most people can understand decent analogies.

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

    “Thanks, the coffee maker costs $25 so I estimate the customized retrofitted coffeemaker would probably cost around $15.”

    If they can’t … you really don’t want them as clients anyway.

    They’ll learn eventually.

  8. Again, a very insightful article :-) Bringing a better level of contibution (notably from enterprises) and elevate WordPress as a valuable technology for the more global technical community are great challenges we’re facing.

    While I agree on many things with Simon, I must say that for the clients I’m faced to, they don’t care or even know what to be a core contributor is. When choosing a solution, they search for references that prove that WordPress will fullfill their needs and environment. Signs are: do other enterprises use WordPress, does my tech team trust it, will it support it, is there enough entrerprise oriented dev… This new class of clients bring more projects and more well funded projects.

    That’s where Drupal is very efficient for example.

    WordPress is obviously mainstream (and that’s a great victory). When someone chooses WordPress, he or she often refers to its simplicity, and often thinks that it’s an out of the box product or at least that it can be bent to our needs for a cheap price.

    It’s a strength and a weakness at the same time.

    The reality is that even it is very user-friendly, WordPress is a complex technical platform. This is also why you can achieve brilliant things with it.

    This is why I chose it few years ago to develop enterprise oriented projects.

    However, this choice has its difficulties. If WordPress is mainstream from a user point of view, it’s not on the technical side (technical PM, developpers…).

    From my experience, this is one of the main difference with technologies such as Drupal or CodeIgniter. They’re more considered in the technical community and are more promoted and rewarded.

    It leads among other things to have a lot less WordPress technical resources which are enterprise oriented. This is a daily problem for me.

    I think that WordPress is facing the same issues that PHP has faced few years ago. PHP has also emerged as a maintream technology and its Drupal has been Java for years. It’s now ancient history and PHP is obviously maintsream for both the users and the technical world.

    I believe WordPress is still an emerging technology that has to prove itself in the more classic IT world while retaining its uniqueness as a revolutionary tool, a vibrant and humanist community.

    On the contribution field, there’s very few classic enterprises that consider it. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do that in one of those (a big B2B media company). And I confirm It has been a hard fight to achieve that. It would be wonderful to have WordPress bringing enterprises to contribute to the open source solutions they’re using.

  9. I completely agree! We have stopped taking on the sort of project where the client has set up the website themselves and “just” needs a few theme or plugin tweaks, because (a) their expectations are usually unrealistic and they expect it to be a small task, (b) themes and plugins are often very brittle and not designed to be customised, and (c) it’s very difficult to keep roles and responsibilities clear in this sort of project and the client somehow thinks that because we tweaked their theme, we’re responsible for anything that goes wrong with the whole website.

    However, this is only one of many types of enquiries we receive about WordPress. Barn2 Media only work with WordPress and we have more than enough work without needing to take on this sort of project. We have plenty of enquiries from well-informed clients with realistic expectations who want complete websites, custom systems built on WordPress etc.

    It’s all about learning how to recognise the warning bells – If someone contacts us saying: “Hi, I have set up a WordPress site using a real estate theme from ThemeForest – the site is 99% complete and I just need you make some tweaks to the property listings and advanced search…..” then this is not a good sign!

  10. It is the responsibility of the professional to educate the customer on the value he will receive. Unfortunately, in many tech communities (not just WordPress), developers think that demonstrating technical expertise is the way to market. While it can help, you need to speak to the needs of your ideal customer in language he uses. Do not tell him you can write good code. Tell him what business results he will be able to achieve by hiring you. In the end, what the customer really cares about is the result, not the hours it took to write the code.

    • Well put, Kirk. As Mario mentioned previously, it is difficult for most developers to market themselves well. They see that their peers respect technical prowess, so those are the things that they highlight on their website. Clients do not speak this language, and it sounds like white noise to them.

      Thanks to the efforts of many people like yourself, more developers are beginning to understand you need technical, marketing, and business skills (all three!) to truly succeed in this type of ecosystem. Focusing on understanding the business objectives of the client and adding more value back to them is a big step towards finding increasingly better clients to work with.

  11. Hello,

    I have realized this article during a conversation about WordPress jobs. That conversation started very natural way since I do own a WordPress job site.

    So, I can say that I am very into valuation and pricing of developers, programmers, designers and engineers.

    Plus, me myself is a technical person in my thirties that I have seen a lot of systems with a lot of different valuation schemes and pricing.

    Plus to plus, I do become customer time to time to shape up my WordPress sites, so I pay for WordPress work.

    Before writing this comment I have checked out IT Jobs Watch UK site to check out Cobol.

    From site, I have got Programming Languages list and ordered the list by “Average Salary”.
    (Descending order)

    I was looking for Cobol and PHP to compare them. To compare them NOT in terms of their ability and NOT in terms of their ecosystem and purpose.

    To compare them to see how much these languages’ programmers earn.

    Cobol is about £50K. PHP is about £38K.

    Let me explain first why I do point out especially;
    It is because I knew that Cobol was going to beat PHP in terms of programmers’ salary/valuation.

    The list that I take is 4 page list and PHP is in even the 4th page, which is last page. Quite informative to give an idea about my point.

    You will see where Cobol is used if you check out the financial applications, especially legacy financial applications.

    You can do same thing for PHP as well.

    Yet another, JAVA is about £49K that is closer to Cobol.

    These are the numbers.

    And my point is; people value things more if they really need it and if there is no many alternatives.

    Say for example I am a manager in a finance company like bank, I wouldn’t/couldn’t negotiate much if I really need a competent Cobol developer to migrate/port loads loads Cobol applications to JAVA.
    Or debug a very problematic place in the code base. Or whatsoever work that sort of.

    You can have a five page web site even with MS Front Page. So, in this environment and situation, valuation and pricing mix up.

    And, the needing people is pretty much innocent since they are in same shoes as we do that they do their best to feed their families.




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