The Future of Freelancing with WordPress

If you’ve paid much attention to the WordPress space in the past year, you may have noticed that it’s been a time of prolific change. Perhaps the most public of those changes was the integration of the new Gutenberg block editor. This, along with some other recent behind-the-scenes developments, has helped to usher in a turning point.

This affects the entire community. But today, I’m going to focus on a group near and dear to my own heart: Freelancers whose primary business is working with WordPress.

First, Some Background

During the past few years, we’ve heard about how JavaScript will increasingly power WordPress. Of course, WordPress core, plugins, and themes have already been utilizing it to various degrees. But Gutenberg has really brought the language to the forefront.

This, combined with concerns regarding the project’s leadership/governance, along with both acquisitions and funds raised by WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg’s company (Automattic), have piqued the interest of those of us who make a living with the open source CMS. There are questions about what all of this means to freelancers and the community at large.

It’s a very dense subject. If you want a more complete picture of what has been going on, I’d recommend this interview with WordPress entrepreneur Matt Medeiros. He and Brian Krogsgard dive into a lot of the issues at hand.

But for our purposes, let’s talk about how being a “WordPress freelancer” is evolving and the challenges that it presents.

JavaScript code on a screen.

A Time of Transition

For those who build websites with WordPress, this moment seems like one of the great possibilities mixed in with a lot of uncertainty. Gutenberg brings with it the ability to create more complex layouts than the Classic Editor. Yet, for some, this might not be quite enough.

While the block editor can be expanded via building custom blocks or third-party plugins, it still lacks the fit and finish of an established page builder. And even though custom blocks are an exciting concept, they present a major barrier to entry for those of us who are not JavaScript experts.

True, we can get around this obstacle with plugins that do some of the heavy lifting for us. But to take full advantage of Gutenberg, it will require the commitment of time and money to become educated. For a busy freelancer, this can be a challenge.

As for our clients, that’s another issue. A new editor means retraining clients to learn the nuances of Gutenberg – even as it continues to evolve. This is certainly an opportunity to increase revenue. But again, a solo entrepreneur or even a small team only has so much time for client education. Thus, there’s a real temptation to stick with the Classic Editor for a bit longer.

When it comes to building websites, it feels like we are at a crossroads. Figuring out the right path for both ourselves and our clients is both crucial and incredibly difficult. The decisions we make now are ones we will have to live with for years to come.

Where Is WordPress Headed?

Taking a look at the bigger picture, there is an existential conversation about the future of WordPress. Up until now, it felt like so much of the project’s direction was guided by a wonderfully diverse community. Dedicated volunteers, plugin and theme authors, designers, developers, and everyday users have all had (to varying degrees) a stake in the future.

But as WordPress has grown to power over 30% of the web, there is concern that a larger corporate influence might be in the works. This is not necessarily a terrible thing, as it may, in fact, improve communication, stability, and performance – things we can all benefit from.

Potential Pitfalls

That being said, it is also possible that larger investments from the corporate world takes WordPress in a direction we don’t recognize. For example, there may be pressure from an investor to sell its services through the Jetpack plugin, thus giving them an outsized influence and potentially quieting competitors.

I’m not saying this will happen. It’s just a theoretical situation. But at the heart of such conjecture is the open question of who is in charge of these decisions. Because, for instance, Automattic has received investment dollars from Company XYZ, does that tip the scales in their favor?

Again, this is not intended to vilify anyone or make accusations of bad intentions. However, it is a question that needs to be answered.

This could have a major impact on freelancers. For instance, someone who builds a plugin that integrates with a third-party service might lose revenue if a competing service is promoted via an official channel (like Jetpack).

If that plugin goes by the wayside, it affects more than just its author. It goes all the way down the line to designers who are selling clients on a particular solution to help them achieve their goals.

Not only does it mean potentially switching providers, but it also may make us think twice about using a product that doesn’t have an official level of endorsement. The market could shrink as a result.

Directional sign on a desolate road.

What Should Freelancers Do?

One certainty in web design is that things don’t stay the same for very long. The way we work, the tools we use, and the expectations of clients are always changing.

Just as we went from hacking together table-based layouts to CSS floats to CSS Grid, we’ll also need to adapt to new methods for building with our favorite CMS.

For some, this may be asking an awful lot. Not everyone has the time to learn JavaScript “deeply” – nor does everyone necessarily want to. However, I’d still like to think that there is a place for them in the WordPress community.

We’re a resourceful bunch and always seem to invent new ways to ease that burden. Tools have already come out to help us bridge the gap, and I’d expect that to continue.

As for the direction of WordPress itself, perhaps the best we can do is to be observant, open-minded and make sure our voices are heard. The hope is that, collectively, the project continues to benefit everyone from individuals all the way up to big corporations. That would seem to be in everyone’s best interest.

A microphone on a stage.

Room for Improvement

Finally, on a related note, I’d like to raise a couple of points where I think we can all get better.

First, it’s important to realize that not every decision is made part of some nefarious plot. So often, we tend to assume the worst of people. We’ve seen this in some not-so-nice things being written of those who are working (as volunteers, mind you) on various projects related to WordPress core.

Second, communication needs to drastically improve. I tend to think that so much of the misunderstanding comes from a lack of real dialogue. The WordPress project needs a more user-friendly way to get information out there.

The Make WordPress Blog and Slack channels are great for hardcore developers – but it’s not necessarily built for the everyday user or web designer. This creates a bit of a bubble that seems to fuel a divide in the community.

Beyond those resources, perhaps a new user-centric resource could be built to better facilitate conversation. This would be a place, front-and-center, where anyone could go to learn the reasons behind the big decisions.

Questions could be answered and hopefully result in a better tone and mutual understanding. No, it won’t fix everything. But it would be a step in the right direction.

And it’s much needed. If freelancers are to continue to thrive as part of the WordPress community, it will be because they have a strong belief in the project and a firm understanding of where things are headed. They will use it because it is still the best choice for them and their clients.

In the end, anything we can do to keep this segment of the community healthy and successful is worth doing. The livelihood of WordPress and those who work with it are dependent upon our actions.

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