This is a guest post from Andy McIlwain
I grew up in central Ontario, just outside of Toronto. From my American friends, I’ve heard that it’s a lot like the Midwest – farms and fields and factories, blue collar jobs, honest work, a 50/50 mix of country western and classic rock blasting on the radio.
I was a creative kid. I loved to draw, making up my own characters and worlds and sketching out entire maps of towns and nations on whatever paper I could get my hands on. I also loved to read, spending tons of time at the public library, and even volunteering at my school’s library.
Libraries were my (closely supervised!) introduction to computers and the web. We didn’t get our first family computer until 1998 or 1999. It was a Compaq Presario from Future Shop with a 15” monitor and a beast of a printer. I remember us bringing that thing home and hooking it up to the Internet for the first time.
Having Internet access at home was a total game changer, and it wasn’t long before I started building simple websites. At first I was using something called MaxPages. It was a super-simple web hosting service that gave you a bunch of back-end options for customizing and publishing a website. You could add features like hit counters and guestbooks and animated GIFs. (In hindsight, it was a lot like using WordPress.com.)
I gradually worked my way up to other services that you might be more familiar with: Angelfire, Tripod, GeoCities, FortuneCity. I would build sites with a WYSIWYG editor like Netscape Composer or Microsoft FrontPage, then upload the files via those hosts’ file managers.
I started to learn about HTML and CSS not long after that, and shared hosting and FTP soon after. From there, I started to play with news scripts like Coranto and CuteNews; blogging platforms like GreyMatter and Textpattern; and CMSs like Mambo and PHP Nuke.
Simultaneous to all this, I started volunteering my time to work on gaming forums and fansites.
(Lots of free time when you’re a kid, eh?)
Forums and Fansites
I found my ‘thing’ with forums and fansites. Being part of an online community helped me get through my parents’ separation, and working on fansites gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment when I saw how much traffic we were bringing in.
In hindsight, what we were doing back then was the equivalent of being a publisher today. We wrote in-depth guides and references, covered gossip & breaking news, and tended to a massive (and often volatile) community of gamers.
Despite that, I never saw what I was doing as more than just a hobby. So when I graduated from high school, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. There weren’t a lot of employment opportunities where I grew up, and I didn’t have the means or motivation to get into university.
I tried working retail full-time and I hated it. Meanwhile, I had been given an ultimatum at home to either start paying rent or move out and go to college.
I couldn’t stomach the idea of paying for the room I grew up in, so I sent out some college applications. I was accepted for most, and chose the Advertising program at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario.
My Introduction to WordPress
I had tried my hand at blogging a couple of times during high school and college, mostly because I had known some folks online who were already into it. GreyMatter was my blogging platform of choice for a long while, and by the time I had gotten into college, Textpattern was my go-to.
One of my instructors caught wind of my work with Textpattern and told me to try out WordPress. I’m paraphrasing here, but in essence, he said that WordPress was the future of blogging and all the best parts of GreyMatter and Textpattern had been adopted by WP.
I took him up on his recommendation and looked into WordPress. I saw that it had been forked from b2/Cafelog, a blogging platform that I hadn’t bothered to play with, but one that was used by some of my online friends. So I downloaded WordPress and took it for a spin.
I was hooked! The ‘WordPress way’ made sense to me. The theming was similar to GreyMatter. The template language was similar to Textpattern. Everything was well documented. The plugins were plentiful. The UI was intuitive.
I immediately became an advocate for WordPress and started recommending it to others.
Other instructors picked up on my growing interest in web development, which led to some small freelance gigs. But, as with the forums and fansites, I saw this as a hobby with some monetary upside – I still hadn’t come around to thinking of this as a ‘real job.’
Graduating Into the Recession
I graduated from college in 2009, straight into the recession. Nobody was hiring in the ad industry. The best you could hope for was an unpaid internship. And this is where I can say that WordPress was a lifesaver.
I got into websites as a kid because I liked compiling and organizing information, not because I wanted to write code. The news scripts, blogging platforms, and CMSs I had played with were just a means to an end. They were tools for working on creative projects; I wasn’t partial to what made the tools work.
But I started learning more about web development because of WordPress, because I had to dig into the code to build custom themes, and the template language for WordPress was straight up PHP.
Yep. I had inadvertently learned some PHP because I wanted to build websites about video games.
So here I was, a marketing communications grad with some working knowledge of web development. And that turned out to be far more valuable than graduating with honours from an advertising program in 2009.
Turning a Hobby Into a Career
Up until this point, I had looked at what I was doing on the web as nothing more than a hobby. Building websites, managing online communities, writing editorials and news articles, dabbling in podcasting and streaming and social media. They were just things that I was interested in, nothing more. At worst, they were a distraction from the important tasks of school and working retail.
It wasn’t until nearly a year out of college that it finally clicked for me. That everything I had been doing as a hobby since those early MaxPages days represented transferable, in-demand skills.
So in 2010, I accepted a job as an in-house web specialist in Toronto, the big city that I swore I’d never live in. I moved out here, joined our local WordPress meetup group, and started going deep into WordPress.
WordPress replaced an old proprietary CMS that my employer couldn’t manage. I took on freelance gigs building WordPress sites for others. I started co-organizing our local WordPress meetups and WordCamps in 2011. I took another job with a startup as an in-house WordPress developer, and when that startup imploded, I joined a small digital agency that built WordPress sites for small businesses.
I mentored at workshops. I joined another startup. Then I joined another agency. My skills and experience and knowledge grew with each new role and each new project. And through it all, WordPress was there, growing with me, evolving as a platform.
Finding Fulfillment in Daily Work
I didn’t get into this to be a web developer. Code isn’t my main thing; it’s a means to an end, a tool for working on creative projects. From the beginning, content and community — the fansites, the forums — have been my primary interest.
In 2015, GoDaddy reached out with an opportunity that sounded oddly specific. And looking over the job description was like looking at a list of everything I had done in the last ten years.
I couldn’t believe it then, and I couldn’t be happier now. I love my job. I love my team. I love the work that we do. And I love that we, as a company, are working to support small, indie businesses worldwide. (The same type of folks that I was helping back when I was freelancing!)
Now I get to work in WordPress every day as part of the GoDaddy blog team, whether it’s overseeing technical content or hacking away on special projects.
My hobby became my career.
WordPress Changed My Life
In 2005, I was a high school senior who worked on forums and fansites as a hobby. Employment prospects were grim. I thought that my future would be spent in retail. Ten years later, I’m working remotely from my home in Toronto as part of the GoDaddy blog team.
I fell in love with WordPress because it was a fantastic tool for working on websites. I didn’t think about where it would take me. But I’m immensely grateful to it, and by extension, the broader WordPress community that’s made it possible.
So, if there’s anything I can leave you with, it’s this:
1. Look at your hobbies for transferable skills that are in demand. I feel like I would’ve been much further ahead if I had recognized that while in high school or in college.
2. Create your own opportunities. Be helpful, and build your own platform to share from. I’m confident that so many of the big influencer in our space— and others— have succeeded because they’re consistently sharing and helping others. In turn, more opportunities come their way.
3. Keep exploring and experimenting with new tools, tech, and platforms. I jumped into WordPress on a whim from an offhand recommendation. Lord knows where I would be today if I hadn’t.
So that’s my WordPress origin story. What’s yours?
An audio option for this post.