I was interviewing a potential client. He needed a hybrid Rails/WordPress developer. Lamenting how difficult it is to find someone skilled in both, he said “I’ll probably end up hiring a Rails dev and outsource the WordPress work”.
I smiled and said:
“Yeah, WordPress developers are so much cheaper than Rails developers!”
Wait a second. Did that just come out of my mouth?
I’m a WordPress developer.
Shortage of WordPress Developers?
“He’s a super high level WP developer… Do you know of any open positions?” Yes, maybe a couple. Hundred.
— Brian Krogsgard (@Krogsgard) February 12, 2015
WordPress companies seem to be having a hard time finding qualified developers; at least that’s the impression I get as an outsider looking in.
I’d like to propose that the shortage of developers might actually be a pricing problem. Specifically, WordPress salaries and rates are not high enough to draw talent.
I live in the freelance world. My experience is with hourly rates and contracting work – not salaries. I don’t know what WordPress companies are paying in salaries.
However, I think it’s reasonable to assume that WordPress salaries are correlated with WordPress hourly rates. I’ll be working off that assumption for this article.
Why Should I Do WordPress?
For the past 2 years I’ve been doing both WordPress and Ruby on Rails work.
I’m at a decision point in my business:
Do I continue with both WordPress and Rails development, or do I specialize in one?
I lean towards specialization in WordPress, because I’m more experienced and more comfortable with the community. Developers I respect (like Tom McFarlin) made the leap to specialize in WordPress over Rails.
But I keep hitting a wall. WordPress developers get paid less than Rails developers. On average, significantly less.
I’ve never heard of a professional Ruby on Rails developer with rates under $100/hour.
In contrast, when I hear of a WordPress developer over $100/hour, it’s notable.
Is this just a perception problem? I don’t think so. I only have anecdotes, but I apply to enough freelance jobs to have a good sense of “market” rates.
When I apply to subcontractor positions (meaning I’d be working for an agency, rather than directly with the client) for Rails development agencies, they don’t blink at rates over $100/hour. No push back at all.
When I work directly with clients for WordPress development (which should be higher paying, since I’m not using a middleman), they often balk at paying more than $50/hour.
Even some high-end agencies in the WordPress space only offer $50-70 / hour for freelance subcontractors.
What’s the deal?
Nobody is Capping WordPress Rates
There has been a small flurry of discussion bout WordPress pricing recently. I enjoyed Brian Krogsgard’s article on how much a WordPress site should cost and this article from WPML about Drupal vs. WordPress developers.
Nothing says WordPress development has to be cheap.
There are people charging premium rates for WordPress work. Read Getting Pricing Right on CodePoet to see some big numbers in WordPress development pricing.
Nothing is inherently easier/cheaper about WordPress work. Some of it can be just as challenging as Rails development – even harder sometimes, if you consider that WordPress carries far more legacy code (for backwards-compatibility reasons) than Rails. Complex WordPress work requires an understanding of WordPress’s quirks and nuances.
Why, then, do WP developers price themselves below other developers? I’d like to explore a few possible explanations of why, with the disclaimer that I don’t have hard data to back my claims up – I’m simply working off perception.
Then, I’d like to look at a couple of ways WP developers can combat the race to the bottom, both collectively and individually.
Much of this will be a comparison of WordPress and Rails work, simply because that’s where I specialize.
WordPress is Too Easy…Isn’t It?
Writing a WordPress plugin or making a tweak to a WordPress site is easy enough for almost any developer to do. This is why you see 300 zillion WordPress “experts” on freelancing marketplaces.
So-called WordPress “experts” are not necessarily trying to deceive. For example, I recently worked with an agency who claimed they were quite comfortable in WordPress.
As the project went on, it became clear that they were expert PHP developers, and they assumed that would translate into WordPress with ease. This particular project was dealing with all sorts of WordPress-specific things, like WP-Cron, tons of filters, complicated queries and template hierarchy issues that absolutely perplexed them.
They humbly admitted they had underestimated how complex WordPress could be.
The perception of “easy” brings prices down. Projects get underestimated. Unqualified developers make low-ball bids.
WordPress Projects Can Be Tiny
WordPress projects span from “change a setting on the dashboard and it’s fixed” to “full-blown application development on top of WordPress”. They can be simple blogs or complex pieces of software.
This isn’t true in the Rails world. Every Rails project is a custom (often complex) piece of software.
The complexity sets a sort of “floor” on Rails projects. Prices will never drop below several hundred dollars, even for a tiny Rails fix.
No such floor exists for WP work. Heck, I’ve done projects for under $100.
This is great for WordPress end users, but stagnates WordPress developer rates.
WordPress Plugins and Themes Are Cheap
There has also been a bit of discussion about WordPress product pricing recently. Plugin authors are worried that we’re in a race to the bottom – and I think that race has already begun in themes.
For better or worse, people buy these cheap plugins and themes. I’m sure I’m not the only WP developer who has started a project and seen the horribly hacked-together paid plugins and themes people are using to build client sites. I didn’t think anyone bought some of the things I’ve seen running on WP sites.
Cheap plugins and themes drag down developer prices prices. If someone paid $29 for a theme, how can I begin to tell them that a stylistic tweak will cost $100?
This problem doesn’t exist in the Rails world. There are very few off-the-shelf Rails extensions, and those that do exist are expensive and built for developers (not end users).
Why Shouldn’t Developers Go Elsewhere?
WordPress developers aren’t in a silo.
The market rates for quality programmers are very high right now. I regularly see salaried remote positions for Rails and/or front-end developers with salaries over $100,000 and excellent benefits.
I’m not the best of developers, but I’m qualified to possibly land one of those jobs.
I’m faced with a tough call: do I abandon WordPress because the market is pulling me elsewhere?
I’m probably not alone in my dilemma. If WordPress developers remain below the market rate for developers in general, they will eventually start leaving and moving to more lucrative areas.
What Do We Do About It?
Is it even a good thing to try to “raise” prices for WP developers? What if the market is telling us that developers need to be cheaper? Isn’t that good for everyone?
That’s a bigger question that I can’t possibly answer. I can only speak for WP developers like me who are interested in continuing their trade and making a living.
What follows are a couple ideas for stabilizing/raising WP developer salaries & rates, none of which I’m certain will solve the problems stated above.
In the Ruby/Rails world, it’s unusual to find a project or RubyGem without tests. This is because of the Ruby community’s unrelenting obsession with testing.
In the WordPress world, it’s the exact opposite. Unit test suites are hand-built, if they exist at all.
Testing drives quality up. Quality raises value. Value drives prices. Testing can move the needle in the right direction.
If there were some sort of universal standard that WP enforced when developing plugins or themes, it might help. Admittedly, this would be a big change to the DNA of WordPress – something that might be too late to change on a large scale.
Being Selective About Your Projects
Unlike Rails, WP projects can be extremely tiny. Budgets can be tiny to match.
For example: If someone told me they have a $500 budget for a Rails project, I’d tell them it’s not possible.
If they told me they have a $500 budget for a WordPress project, I’d have to think about it.
If you’re looking to level up professionally, you might need to start saying no to small, on-the-margins projects.
A quick story:
I once thought I needed a lawyer to research a potential trademark issue. I had a budget of $250. The lawyer gently told me that she could do research for $250/hour, meaning the total cost would be somewhere between $250 and $2,000. She knew I couldn’t afford it, and she suggested that I look to other options (in this case, changing the name of my product).
I couldn’t afford her services. At the most I could afford an hour or two, which would have meant a rush job for her. I simply went elsewhere. No biggie.
Some clients don’t need custom work, or their budgets are simply too small to do a good job. It’s tempting to try to “knock out” small jobs, but I think in the long run it benefits you professionally to pass on many of these types of jobs.
Just Raise Your Prices
If you’re a WordPress developer who could potentially get a (higher-paying) job doing something else, just raise your prices to a salary or rate that makes sense. Need help figuring out how much you can charge? Here’s a start.
Starting a Discussion
I definitely don’t have all the answers. I’d really appreciate different perspectives:
- Do you run a WordPress company?
- Am I wrong about your salaries?
- Have I overlooked some other reason why WordPress developers are in shortage?
I hope you’ll share your thoughts.