The Value of WordPress Designers and Developers in the Gutenberg Era

Gutenberg is coming. In the 2017 State of the Word talk at WordCamp US, Matt Mullenweg said that the Gutenberg editor would definitely become the default editor for WordPress in 2018 with the release of version 5.0. That announcement kind of has the WP community in an tizzy — specifically the developers and designers who are afraid that having a page builder included in Core will negatively affect their business.

The fear is not unfounded. Anytime a new tool that changes the landscape of an established ecosystem like WordPress appears, questions about job security and viability crop up. Gutenberg will make WP more accessible to people who may have otherwise bypassed it in lieu of DIY builders like Squarespace or Wix.

So where does that put web developers and designers when clients can install WP and have immediate access to a complete set of page-building tools? Honestly, I think the introduction of Gutenberg leaves us in a very good place. And I’ll tell you why.

But First: A Story

I started teaching college English when I was just 25 years old. Can you imagine walking into a classroom only to see an instructor that was barely (if at all) older than you were? No?

Well, neither could a lot of my students. And because I always looked younger than I was, even when I was approaching and passing 30, there was still a lot of not-taking-me-seriously going on.

So what did I do?

Well, at the beginning of every semester, I asked them a simple question: Do you trust me?

Keep in mind, this was in a classroom full of students who didn’t know me (mostly), and who might have never been in a college classroom before. The answer I got was pretty much always a resounding no.

Afterward, I would follow up with the obvious why not? to which they generally answered the expected I don’t know you and so on.

I also took this opportunity to tell them that I didn’t have an attendance policy and that I didn’t care if they were there or not. It was the truth. I told them that they could read every text on their own and to study and prep for every exam and paper (all the details were in my syllabus, and I gave them my PowerPoint slides). They’d be just fine, I said.

I told them that I was no smarter than they were. That they could totally do everything in the class on their own, without me. I was hired, I told them, because I had a piece of paper that said I’d read and understood these texts well enough to teach them.

I said that, technically, they didn’t need me at all to pass my own course. And they didn’t.

But…what does this have to do with WordPress?

Everything, my friends. Everything.

Your Clients Don’t Need You, Either

Just like my students didn’t need me to read The Epic of Gilgamesh or Hamlet, your clients don’t need you to build websites for them.

CliffsNotes and Spark Notes get college students through literature classes every day. Squarespace, Wix, and Divi get new DIY websites online in the same way. The tools are out there and readily available. Anyone who wants to succeed can succeed.

Gutenberg’s inclusion in Core will not change this.

However, it didn’t take long for the students who took me up on my I-don’t-care-if-you-are-here policy to come back in. Especially after their first exam’s grade wasn’t quite what they expected. They hadn’t realized how hard it would be on their own.

That’s when they started to trust me. They knew that I wasn’t just some teacher going through the motions — I was being candid with them, and I built a solid relationship with most of them that went far beyond their freshman and sophomore years.

In that same vein, it also doesn’t take long for your DIYer clients to come back to you. Just because they have the tools and capability to build their own website, they don’t necessarily have the experience and ability to do so.

So while they don’t need you, they still need you.

Your candor is what is going to set you apart from other web developers and designers in a world of page and site builders.

Just What is Your Role and Your Value?

See, your clients and my students aren’t experts. You and I are. That doesn’t mean that we’re smarter than them or better or even more talented. It just means that you and I bring two things to the table they can’t.

  • Years of specific training and professional development
  • And (more importantly) years of failing and messing up projects

It’s a cliche, sure, but it’s the foundation of why we each have a career ahead of us. We just have to make sure that we know how to pivot our perspectives and business models. And to know how to explain why these things are important.

Your Current Role and Value

Okay, right now, even though page builders are everywhere, they’re not the standard. People see the default WordPress theme or even join Elegant Themes and install Divi. They may toy around with it for a little while, and then quickly realize they need a professional designer.

They contact you, and your role is to do some mock-ups, have some meetings, finally decide on a direction, and you go to work. You design the site in Photoshop or Sketch (or straight in your theme of choice–like Divi!), build the site on WordPress, and maybe write a custom plugin or simple script.

You hand give them the keys to the kingdom (or the username and password, whichever), and your job is done. They might need you to do a hand-off training, showing them how it all works.

Considering all of that, you bring a ton of value to your clients. You plan and sketch. You build, and you train. You’re a one-person design machine, and you rock at it.

And that’s partly because you have amazing tools like Divi to use. But it’s primarily because you’ve spent years and years and years figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Think back at the first site you ever built (mine was a Star Wars fan site on Angelfire written in HTML). Then think about the second. What about the first site you ever got paid for?

Are you embarrassed yet? Goodness knows I am, looking back.

And what about the first project you had to scrap and start over? What about the first project you phoned in and your clients were simply unsatisfied with? Those failures taught you how not to fail like that again, right?

Your clients haven’t had to learn those lessons.

Now think about this: those examples are just on the front-end side of things. Not only can you do that, but you also have an intimate, working knowledge of WordPress. For me, that goes all the way back to WP 2.7, and I know a lot of you go even further back than that.

Over all those updates and point-releases, you have gained a vast breadth of knowledge that a DIYer just doesn’t have. You know how to enqueue posts, what hooks even are, the whys and hows of child themes, and even small things like the difference in .single-post, .single-page, and .single.

Your technical expertise puts you in a position of fantastic job security.

Plus, to a lot of people, diddling about on the internet is scary and intimidating. You may get some clients because they haven’t been given those WordPress-y internet super powers like you have.

What looks like internet superpowers is really just experience and hard work. The fear folks are feeling right now is that when Gutenberg launches, everyone will have the same superpowers that you worked so hard for, making yours more common and therefore less valuable (and less viable to make a living).

I really don’t think that is going to happen.

Your Future Role and Value

I’ll venture that questions come up even today about why people should pay you when they can do it themselves with Divi or another, existing builder.

The answer, of course, is what we outlined above. You bring verifiable experience and skills that they can trust. You have a portfolio behind you that shows your learning process and evolution as a professional..

The anxiety and uncertainty comes in because when Gutenberg launches, some people believe that those technical skills might not seem so special. They still will be. Nothing about your skill set will change.

However, page and site builders becoming the default have the potential make other people think your job is simply playing Lego with digital blocks. Those folks will be in the minority, just like they are today.

Here’s the rub: no matter how sophisticated the DIY tools get, there will always be a need for your experience. The general WP user base will soon have access to a much greater set of tools and features than they have now. Those tools have far more raw power than the existing editor and customizer.

However, you have had years of experience with that raw power, so you understand how to focus it and use it effectively. They don’t.

And looking forward, those people having that power means that the experience that you bring to the projects will be much more important.

Why? Because with their newfound internet superpowers, people are going to be doing way more on their own than before. They will also be running into more problems than they were previously, too.

All WordPress professionals will need to pivot what that designation means, but it doesn’t indicate that you are out of a job.

In my mind, you will probably be doing less building on your own. Instead, your job will likely shift into that of a consultant. Your clients will hit a roadblock, either with WordPress or their homebrew design, and they’ll call you. You will either teach them how to fix it or go in and complete the project they were unable to.

Remember, you’ve done this before. They haven’t. You aren’t necessarily smarter or more capable than they are. Just more experienced with the tools in front of you. So when DIYers run into trouble, they will still come to you. Much like my students still came to me after they bombed an exam.

Keep in Mind That Gutenberg is a Gateway Builder

Gutenberg itself can do quite a bit. But it can’t do everything. Honestly, by being a part of Core, it’s limited because of its need to cater to the general population with polished fundamental features instead of advanced ones.

Gutenberg will only open up job opportunities for WordPress professionals rather than remove them. Developers and coders are going to be in constant demand. Those DIYers are going to hit a brick wall with the limitations of Gutenberg. At that point, when they need a feature that just isn’t there, who do you think they’re going to turn to for a fix?

Hint: It’s you.

There’s a huge market for Divi add-on modules and plugins, for instance, and it is the most robust page builder out there. Tons of developers make plugins and modules that add features that users want, but aren’t included in the core product. Gutenberg will create that same need for its users.

As Gutenberg is adopted by more and more new users, they may not want to move directly to another, more-advanced builder like Divi. Instead, they may opt for a single, third-party Gutenblock that does what they want, not a license for a whole new builder.

Because builders are inherently extendable, WP pros should not fear about their own value decreasing. If anything, demand for page-builder-specific services will only increase.

Someone made the comment at WordCamp US about the official plugin repository being too full. The joke was something like how many different Contact Form plugins can we actually fit in the repo?, I think.

To avoid being lost in the crowd and trying to fight for a way to the top, many devs may eschew creating general WordPress plugins and move to supporting the page or site builder of their choice, whether that’s Gutenberg, Divi, or something else entirely.

In the End, We’re Here to Help

Our entire job as WordPress professionals is to help people. Whether that means making the site from top to bottom, fixing eye-killing color palettes, or putting together the perfect feature set to increase their profits.

Gutenberg not going to change the core of what we do.

As more people grow comfortable using Gutenberg, experimenting with it, and trying new things, your value as a WP pro skyrockets. Your experience opens up the avenue of teaching, tutoring, and mentoring the folks who Gutenberg attracts.

You are in little to no danger of losing your livelihood because of this update — or because of page builders in general.

For the same reason English teachers still have jobs despite students being able to read and understand books on their own, web designers and developers will still have jobs even when every new WP install comes with its own, built-in page builder. They just might be slightly different than they were pre-Gutenberg.

What are your plans to adapt your business to the Gutenberg-era of WordPress?

Article Featured Image by Mario Breda / shutterstock.com

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