For those of you who are involved in working with building things for WordPress- specifically, premium plugins and themes – then you’re likely plugged closely into what many refer to as “the WordPress community.”

Granted, I’m not saying it’s not a community – it is – but it’s just part of the community, right? I mean, the word encompasses people who use WordPress to blog, people who are fans of the software, those who have contributed to it, those who build things with it, and so on.

All that to say, the community has a variety of facets.

And the challenge to this is that when we spend so much time with our subset of the community, it’s easy to accidentally develop a degree of tunnel vision such that we become at least partially focused on writing things, designing things, or buildings things with our part of the community in mind rather than our customers.

WordPress Developers, Community, & Products

This week, I officially released the latest version of Mayer For WordPress.com. I detailed the features and fixes in another post, but throughout the time I was working on the theme, I spent some time thinking about how we – as developers (or designers or bloggers or so on) – spend our time hanging around with fellow developers (or designers – ah, you get the point by now) and how that has the ability to find its way into product development.

The WordPress Developer Community

I think that most people who are in the business of building things for WordPress, especially things such as premium plugins and/or themes, end up dividing themselves between two different groups of people:

  1. The community of developers and designers with whom they interact daily via Twitter, IRC, chat rooms, and so on.
  2. The customer base with whom they interact with via email, support channels, and however else they stay in contact with their customers.

And when we do this, I think that we end up dividing our thought process – consciously or not – such that part of us is thinking about how our peers may respond to the work that we’re doing (after all, everyone wants to be building something cool, right?), and thinking about how we can continue to support customers such that we’re making a living and extending the life of our product.

With that said, it’s easy to spout off advice from others who are successful in the software field, who have high reputation on various online forums, who are bloggers with a large following, and genuinely those who are considered to be high profile “thought leaders” (a term that I’m not particular fond of, for whatever that’s worth) on how we should handle our customers.

Pro Developer

But what will my peers think?

But the proof of how we do so isn’t based on the comments and quotes we can share, but the actions we take in how we approach building our products, interacting with our peers, and interacting with our customers.

In short, I think some feel a conflict between what our professional peers think, and what our customers think, and if you let the former overtake the latter, then you’re going to be headed into dangerous territory as it relates to product development.

On Product Development

If it’s true that the reason we build solutions for other people (or for ourselves) is to solve problems in order to make their lives easier or to enhance their experience in doing something, then it would make sense that our focus should be on our customers, right?

But instead, it’s far too common to see people complaining about their customers and doing so in a public forum.

Pro Customer Support

Pro Customer Support

To me, this raises the question of who or what is actually driving the product build? Is it the part of the community with which you exchange ideas, or is it the people who you’re attempting to help?

Or perhaps another way of looking at it is if you’re valuing your reputation among your peers and perhaps the drive to make money over your base of customers and the potential you have to reach more people and to improve other people’s experiences online, then you’re motivation for building products is backwards.

Don’t Read Into This

To be clear, there’s nothing to read between the lines here: I know that people love drama and love to politicize things online in order to generate further discussion, drama, or whatever. This post has no ulterior motive nor is it referencing about anyone one person, people, or organization.

We're coming at us.

We’re coming at us.

It’s talking about all of us who are part of the WordPress Development Community, who care deeply about the project, the work that goes into it, the products we build, the work that goes into them, and about the feedback we get from both our peers and our customers.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that those of us who are making a living by building things for others to use need to make sure that our primary focus and concern is on their needs or what they can get out of our product because they are the ones who’s lives we are impacting as they are also, in turn, making it possible for us to earn a living.

Peers, Customers, and Me

None of this is saying that I don’t respect the opinions of my peers – I do. Very much so. After all, I try to be open and share when others challenge my habits in order to help make me a better programmer. But I – along with everyone else – must remember that, at the end of the day, the people for whom we are providing a solution are not always the same people who have a strong opinion on the matter.

After all, it’s far easier to have an opinion on any given topic than it is to take action and attempt to make a living while solving someone else’s problem, right?

Besides, opinions are going to vary and if we try to appease all of them, we won’t make any progress.  Cliché, I know, but ideally, it’d be nice if we could step away from trying to dramatize so many things that go on within our part of the community, and aim to help one another and/or urge one another on to further success (which, in and of itself, is a weird idea giving that many of us are in a competing space, but I digress).

Admittedly, there’s a lot of really, really smart people doing incredible things. Why focus on the downside of something when we can focus on so much more of the fun stuff going on?

Anyway, as we continue to work on whatever it is we’re working on, let’s remember to prioritize things as much as possible. That is, let’s keep in mind the people who are finding value in our work and those who want us to continue iterating and making it better.

Let’s try to turn up the signal, turn down the noise, and try contribute more to the former rather than the latter.

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Join the conversation! 10 Comments

  1. Thank you Tom for sharing your thoughts…you are so right.
    No matter if your everyday job is development or something else, the ability to think about your customers (or your shareholders) is something that should be part of your ongoing business.
    Understanding your customers pain is crucial for developing the right solution for them…
    You cannot expect understanding it by sitting and talking to your peers all day long – you must take uncomfortable actions such as visiting your customer and do his job for few hours…

    • you must take uncomfortable actions such as visiting your customer and do his job for few hours…

      Agreed.

      Even if you don’t go that far, doing things such as usability tests or observations on how users try to complete a certain set of tasks using your project can go a long way in being enlightening as to how they see it.

      We’re so mired in the middle of everything that we forget what it’s like not to be able to see it.

  2. Good stuff Tom, as always :-) I’ve been in customer support and development for a long, long time and yes we have our jokes about the Joe-schmoes that ask “where is the ‘any’ key, i can’t find it my keyboard?” But at the end of the day, the Joe-Schmoes are the ones buying our products and services. I’ve recently come to WordPress via the Genesis Framework community and what is so exciting from a development and support angle is the products. Unlike buggy products I have supported, WordPress and the community that goes with it is a wonderful change. Since it has a large global user base, this can breed excellence IMO. The exposure means more eyes on it to catch something out of whack. This is encouraging even if everyone’s favorite feature request can’t make it into the core (nor should it) you can feel the passion around it and that means it will always be moving forward. That makes for a much more enjoyable support and development experience.

    • I’ve recently come to WordPress via the Genesis Framework community

      Ah, that’s neat! Normally, I see it the other way around :).

      Since it has a large global user base, this can breed excellence IMO.

      Agreed! There’s a lot of conversation and debate that goes into certain things, but I think – like you mentioned, as the global level – it ultimately benefits everyone involved.

      This is encouraging even if everyone’s favorite feature request can’t make it into the core (nor should it) you can feel the passion around it and that means it will always be moving forward. That makes for a much more enjoyable support and development experience.

      Agreed – it’s nice to know that for the things that aren’t built directly into the core application can always be added or extended by a plugin or some other form of development even if that work will only benefit, say, a single project we’re working on.

  3. It’s easy to sense your inner conflict, even in the context of the writing and tone of this post. You have an idea to express to the public at large, but also have to be careful about how the people in “the community” are going to interpret your message and respond, so the writing has to be, let’s just say, politically-motivated, as well as genuine. You have 2 audiences to please.

    You are very right in that if you don’t take a market-driven approach in your business, whether that’s building themes, plugins, service, whatever, versus what a LOT of developers attempt to do, which is a product-driven approach, you aren’t going to be very successful. At least for the long-term. I run around preaching that to “the community” all the time, with very mixed responses, because I just see it SO often. That’s not an indictment of all developers of course, it’s just that most developers, even the very best, don’t have much, if any, of a business background, so they tend to do what they do best (develop, and get input from other developers, instead of their target market) and worry about the rest afterwards. I’ve personally noticed that developers and quite a few personalities in the WP community — a smart bunch and many whose identities rest heavily and intimately on those development and WP skills — don’t particularly like being told they don’t know everything about everything, which can cause some “drama” when they’ve built a nice product that can be celebrated by other developers, only to discover there was never really a market for it, or they don’t know what to do with it once built, except follow other developer’s marketing templates: build a website, tell everyone on social media, go on a few podcasts(which really only other developers and people in “the community” listen to or watch) and sit back and wait, or just move on to the next thing.

    As far as the 2 audiences that have to be managed — others within the community, and your client base — I think it boils down to what your real goals are and what’s most important to your business. At the end of the day, what’s going to make the difference: Pleasing your peers, some who have fragile egos and/or chips on their shoulders or other issues that are out of your control, or the people that pay your bills and actually can grow your business? While it’s nice to get pats on the back and hurrahs on Twitter for shipping a cool new plugin, to me it makes more sense to focus on the market, customers and what they think and are saying with their money (if what’s being run is an actual business). There’s certainly a tightrope to be walked, but if we fall, the business will catch you if managed properly, the “community” may not, and even if they do, it’s not going to matter much to the sustainability of your business.

    • That’s not an indictment of all developers of course, it’s just that most developers, even the very best, don’t have much, if any, of a business background, so they tend to do what they do best (develop, and get input from other developers, instead of their target market) and worry about the rest afterwards.

      Of course – but it’s still an interesting observation. But there are more than polar opposites, right?

      By that, I mean it’s clear you’ve met those with a business background, those without, and then what about a third breed where those have an intuition about it? I only ask because I’ve met a few myself and it’s always fun to pick their brains and chat with them.

      Balancing the line between engineering and/or programming and/or computer science and business makes for a good chat.

      Just curious about your personal experience :).

      Pleasing your peers, some who have fragile egos and/or chips on their shoulders or other issues that are out of your control, or the people that pay your bills and actually can grow your business?

      Exactly :).

      Despite the fact that I have very little to respond to (because I agree with so much of it), thanks for this comment – it made for a great read and I always enjoy you sharing your perspective on things that I write about it. You always bring a neat perspective to the comments and it’s not unappreciated :).

      • I appreciate the appreciation :-).

        By that, I mean it’s clear you’ve met those with a business background, those without, and then what about a third breed where those have an intuition about it?

        Of course there aren’t just two extremes–everyone has their own life experiences, skills and knowledge that gets them to where they are, but the middle ground with those third breeds is vast and contains more than those with just intuition. More often than not it’s “entrepreneurs” (or barf “devpreneurs”) learning by trial and error- a dangerous and inefficient way to handle business(or anything really). I started, managed and sold a few businesses that way. Knowing what I know now, it was a pretty reckless way to approach things. I had several other things going for me fortunately, but being able to talk high finance wasn’t one. And I had some very expensive, unnecessary mistakes to learn from as a result, believe me.

        Sometimes I hear some people chalking up luck, good timing, or simply personal charisma/salesmanship to what they’d like to present as what I think you mean by business intuition. I can think of several people in the space that you and I often see who are making a good living from evangelizing their past successes and teaching others they way they did it in 2006. The big disclaimer in finance, and all business really, is that past results don’t guarantee future success, and trying to copy a template of how someone else did it is very risky, to the point I would even call it foolhardy. There’s a lot of copycatism, if that’s a word, with nearly any online business model I can think of, with some widely-varying results. Unless you’re starting a franchise, your business must be unique, and so does your strategy.

        Those types of successes that exist, such as the obligatory Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, et al. and especially that are highly sustainable, are extremely rare indeed, in any field, and are often the ones that are storied and we, as humans, and the media, like to focus on. But the web is littered with the bones of those that play in that middle ground. And that middle ground is also where the boys are separated from the men, sometimes painfully. In a fashion I suspect similar to many developers and designers, it’s the place that many people ask “is this just a hobby, or a real business I’m working on here?”

        If the answer is an actual business, then the goals change accordingly, and usually the primary objective is to become sustainably profitable(unless you have a “one and done” strategy, which does exist), and as profitable as possible. That’s going to require some business skills and knowledge far outside of qualitative intuition. While you may not need to know how to conduct serious marketing research and run multivariate regression on the statistics you derive and apply them to complex financial models you built, your competitor certainly may, at least at some point, and then you’re on track to start losing market share, revenue, etc… and all that you need to compete. Business has become a lot more than negotiating a deal on the golf course and a handshake, even for the smallest of businesses. You need to know operations management, logistics, business intelligence, statistics, finance, accounting, marketing, project management, and so on. Fortunately, we can hire people smarter or more capable than we to focus on those things if needed and the budget allows.

        I constantly see opportunities for developers and designers and their products and services that appear overlooked because of my background, just as I know you could look at my code and probably spend a week pointing out areas that can be improved with one eye closed. And similarly, there’s no way anyone could ever know everything about the two fields. It really comes down to not knowing what you don’t know until you know it. And most devs I pay attention to don’t have the time or wherewithal to devote to getting out of that middle ground where the ones relying on intuition hang out. It may be similar, I suppose, to saying someone has great programming intuition. That’s all well and good, but unless you learn it to a degree where you can discuss it philosophically, quantitatively and with nuance, as I would argue you have, it’s going to be hard to ever position oneself as a top programmer, or top businessperson. At least for any considerable length of time. And think about how you’re gathering your skills and experience.

        I guess it comes down to there always being outliers, but it making success much more probable with some fundamental(at least) business skillz, just like being able to go further faster with more elaborate programming experience, just above intuition.

  4. so, about that niche community …

    great thoughts.

  5. Well said Tom, and finding that balance between what we want to build for ourselves and what we want to build for others is something, as a team, we have regular discussions about.

    It’s sometimes difficult to keep your pulse on the end users when you’re so ingrained in the community as our core team is. Because of this, we try our best to listen closely to various channels to determine what our existing customers want, what the Analytics tell us we should be focusing on, and then balancing that with our own passions for the products we create.

    In fact, our Solutions Manager Matt just made an interesting post on our site that lays out just how important it is for him to handle support part time and continue his freelance WordPress development.

    Great post Tom, and well said as always:)

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