This week I’m talking with Heather Acton, who built herself a freelance WordPress business while at home raising a couple of kiddos. It was her version of having it all. Heather is an organizer of WordCamp Chicago, and the local meetup group. Heather is also passionate about craft beer and Dave Matthews Band. ED: I like Dave too!
In Heather’s Own Words
I’m an ex corporate mechanical engineer turned anal and friendly independent WordPress developer. I take pride in the fact that I’ve built a successful consultancy while home with two little kids, even though the path has been messy at times (literally and figuratively). WordCamp Chicago and my WordPress meetup group are my ways to give back to the community, though also my excuse to get out with other ‘PressHeads and have a beer and talk “geek”.
When was the first time that you really got excited about WordPress and at what point did you decide to make it your career?
After having my second child and finally leaving my corporate career behind (2009), I started to look into building a family website to share photos with my family. I stumbled on WordPress, built my first site http://chicagoactons.com – it was my FIRST site, and is mostly unchanged), and was in love. When several friends approached me to build their sites and they were actually happy with the results, I had a feeling this may be my new career path.
Where do you go first to get your WP news, insights, and updates?
WordPress.org/news/ – it compiles a few blogs, including Matt’s, so is efficient for me personally. I also check in with Joost de Valk’s, Otto’s, and Nacin’s blogs and WP Candy on occasion.
What WP consultants deserve more love than they get? Who should we be paying attention to?
I may be biased, but the Chicago and Milwaukee WordPress communities are filled with lots of great folks looking to do great stuff with WordPress, and give back. Rachel Baker has been an amazing mentor for me, stressing the importance of good practices and constant improvement. Aaron Holbrook, like me, has built his business as an at-home parent, and still finds time to give back by helping organize WordCamp, speaking at WordCamps, and starting his own meetup group. I could go on and on, but those are a couple superstars.
What performance tips would you give to other pros (as related to speed, scalability, security, plugins, backup, etc.)?
Beware of cheap and/or easy solutions, like full frameworks, shared hosting, and the like. Learning to code WELL and paying for solid hosting can get you most of the way to a fast and secure site. Avoid plugins for simple things like feed redirects, Google Analytics – save them for big chunks of functionality like advanced SEO control (WordPress SEO), scheduled backups (Backup Buddy), and super-functional forms (Gravity Forms).
Confess to us your biggest moment of WP fail?
I used prefabbed themes and full frameworks for way too long. Instead of spending all that time learning to be a better coder, I wasted it learning all the nuances of various frameworks.
If you were going to spend this weekend creating a plugin that doesn’t exist, what would it be?
A simple client portal plugin. I’ve had a few clients request it and have “a” solution using S2 Member, but I could keep the programming much leaner by building just the functionality I need for the client portal, and not include all of the other features within S2 Member.
Do you use Themes & Child Themes, Roll your own, or both?
After a lot of time using frameworks and child themes, I’ve now teamed up with a few developers and am mostly building themes starting with starter themes like Toolbox.
What’s your favorite theme or theme framework? Why?
I’ve really enjoyed using Toolbox as a starting point for my custom themes. It’s super lean because it includes the basics of a theme only, with no bloat.
Least favorite plugin?
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done with Custom Post Types?
I built a pretty sweet custom business directory, if I do say so myself!
What do you think is the biggest challenge that WP consultants will face in 2012?
Meeting the demand for high quality development and client services. I think a lot of people are on the “I’m a WordPress developer” bandwagon now, but not all have high standards for the final quality of the sites they build, nor for client support and project management. We all need to step it up and make sure we are providing a high quality final product and great service along the way.
If you could change one thing today about WP, what would it be?
The visual editor. Personally, I’d get rid of it and make learning basic HTML a prerequisite for folks wanting to manage their site on their own =/
Where do you see WordPress going in the next 2-3 years?
I actually think it’ll become less “hot” than it is now (at least I hope so). WordPress is often mislabeled as “easy” and that it “can do anything”. Well, to use WordPress right is not easy, and it isn’t the right tool for everything. It is a wonderful platform for many different types of sites, but it is not a one size fits all solution.
Tell us a story where you saved the WP day for yourself or on a client project. What made the difference for you?
Recently I picked up the pieces from an MIA developer on 3 of his projects. One involved rebuilding a site with a custom from scratch in 2 days. Another involved significant time commitment over a holiday weekend. No, there weren’t any developer superpowers needed at all, but I bent over backwards and sacrificed time with my family and sleep to meet the needs of a few clients. I’d like to think those qualities, as much as knowing some fancy jquery tricks, make a great WordPress consultant.
What’s the biggest misconception you encounter about WordPress, and how do you clear it up for your clients?
That it’s “so easy”. It’s easy if you don’t care how your site looks, if it’s not secure/fast, or if it’s not search engine friendly. But to do WordPress RIGHT, it’s not easy. I show clients how to use some simple HTML to format posts in the visual editor. I show them how to include the appropriate additional information in every post and image so that they have a fighting chance in search rankings. And I show them how to update their site in a safe way. After that training, not many would say WordPress is so easy.
If you were interviewing another WordPress developer for a job, what is the first question you would ask and why?
I’m not sure of the exact first question, but I’d do a lot of sensing during the interview to make sure they’re the right type of developer. Someone who’s yearning to learn, who strives to build things better/faster/smarter, and someone who is willing to go the extra mile for their clients.
What did I miss? Here’s your chance to fill in the blanks and add something you want people to know about you!
Your questions covered the gamut, Austin – great job! The only other thing I’d want anyone reading this to know is that I’m always open to teach or help someone else be a stronger member of the WordPress community. Feel free to call or email if you want to know how to contribute, get my opinion on something, or for training.
You guys can get over to see Heather’s Work and the services she offers at heatheracton.com. She’s great at what she does.