#38 – Paul Bearne on How Working With WordPress Allows for Different Lifestyles – WP Tavern
[00:00:00] Nathan Wrigley: Welcome to the Jukebox podcast from WP Tavern. My name is Nathan Wrigley. Jukebox is a podcast which is dedicated to all things, WordPress, the people, the events, the plugins, the blocks, the themes, and in this case how WordPress can enable you to work and live in different ways.
If you’d like to subscribe to the podcast, you can do that by searching for WP Tavern in your podcast player of choice, or by going to WPTavern dot com forward slash feed forward slash podcast. And you can copy that URL in to most podcast players. If you have a topic that you’d like us to feature on the podcast, I’m keen to hear from you, and hopefully get you all your idea featured on the show. Head over to WPTavern dot com forward slash contact forward slash jukebox. And use the form there.
So on the podcast today we have Paul Bearne. Paul is a WordPress enthusiast who loves to come up with ways to make WordPress do things it doesn’t normally do. Having engaged with WordPress almost from the start, he specializes in the creation of highly performant, scalable, accessible, and SEO friendly code.
He has contributed consistently to WordPress Core since version 3.9, as well as setting up a local meetup and speaking at WordCamps. He’s currently being sponsored by XWP to work on Core as part of their Core initiatives.
In the podcast today, Paul talks about the many ways in which it’s possible to work within the WordPress ecosystem. He’s tried many of them out over the years.
Many of the jobs in and around the WordPress space require only a few things, access to power and internet, and a computer. The geographical constraints for work are often non-existent. If you have the skills, can get online and put in the hours, then you might be good to go. The pandemic brought this distributed working model to the masses as more and more organizations realized the benefits that working in this way affords.
Paul talks through some of the different ways that you can work and draws out the benefits and drawbacks that they have. How can you find the work and what can you do to make sure that it’s a stable as it can be?
If you’re already a remote worker, much of this conversation will resonate with you. But if you’re not, but are curious about your options, this podcast will be of interest.
Typically when we record the podcast, there’s not a lot of background noise, but that’s not always the case with these WordCamp Europe interviews. We were competing against crowds and the air conditioning. In this episode both Paul and I wore face masks, which you can also detect. Whilst the podcasts are more than listenable. I hope that you understand that the vagaries of the real world were at play.
If you’re interested in finding out more, you can find all the links in the show notes by heading over to WPTavern dot com forward slash podcast, where you’ll find all the other episodes as well. And so without further delay, I bring you Paul Bearne.
I am joined on the podcast today by Paul Bearne. How are you doing?
[00:03:52] Paul Bearne: Thank you. All right. It’s been a hectic WordCamp, and feet haven’t touched the ground, but yeah, it’s good to be here.
[00:04:00] Nathan Wrigley: What have you mainly been doing over the last couple, well, I say a couple of days, maybe you weren’t here for contrib day.
[00:04:04] Paul Bearne: I was here for contrib day, because I’m a core contributor. I’ve been working on the performance plugin. I’m lucky to be sponsored by XWP to work on core projects. And we’ve been focusing on the performance enhancements. So in the last release, we got five queries out of a standard homepage load. You imagine what that’s done to a million sites. And the performance add-on, I’ve been working on the dominant color feature, which is coming in the next block.
That’s gonna be interesting to see the reaction of that in the community as that comes out. Cause that’s a visual change. And the WebP stuff. So I’ve been working, busy doing that, as well as running my own premium plugin, business. And it’s really nice to be able to work part-time for one of the big agencies.
[00:04:48] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, we’ll come onto that in a minute. You’ve got a talk here though, which kind of anchors us to what we’re gonna talk about. How did it go?
[00:04:55] Paul Bearne: I think it was well received. A lot of people said it was really good value for them. Yeah, I think it went down really well.
[00:05:03] Nathan Wrigley: Just broadly outline what the topic was that you covered.
[00:05:05] Paul Bearne: It’s a lifestyle talk. basically trying to expand and give people confidence that they can create a lifestyle, whatever lifestyle they want with WordPress. You know, whether they want to be a digital nomad whether they want to live in the countryside or live in the center of a city. There is employment available in all of those places. And you need to look at yourself, see what your strengths and weaknesses are.
Are you a city or a country person? Are you self-directed or do you need to be managed? What’s your timekeeping like? Can you do sales? Can you do administration of doing invoices and tax returns and things like that? Cause if you can’t, you can’t be freelance, or not, not easily.
I’m lucky that my wife is good at the sort of administration stuff. So I’ve been able to do more freelance work than really I should be able to. But now my life’s changed a little bit and having been able to work full time or be paid by XWP to work on core, which is like a dream job for me. It reduces the amount of administration my wife has to do, and I haven’t gotta go chasing freelance work. It’s coming to me. The work is being found for me, and it’s interesting work. You can create whatever life you want. There’s a niche in WordPress.
[00:06:29] Nathan Wrigley: Presumably, if that’s the case that you’ve been through a whole cycle of different types of work, maybe you work for an agency and a…
[00:06:37] Paul Bearne: I went through the various types of agencies. We looked at multinationals, we looked at small agencies, big agencies, government digital services, media companies, high end design agencies in the center of cities, and then the distributed agencies, and touched a little bit on what it’s like to have a plugin, a premium plugin. What it’s like to be as a freelance person, because I’ve done all of those in my career. So I was able to give some, hopefully some insight to what it’s like to do those. And what’s the pitfalls and the bonuses of working in those different environments.
Second half the talk I tried to give some career advice and some, you know, you can do this. This is gotta get noticed. How do you stand out in the crowd? How do you price yourself as a freelance person, and a few things like that. Try to set some reasonable expectations of what the market, what you need to charge to actually be viable.
[00:07:33] Nathan Wrigley: If you look back on your life was it a series of trying things out and then ultimately dissatisfaction with the way that you were working and then try something new? Eventually find that that was not satisfactory and try something else and ultimately where you are now. And it sounds like at this point in time, you’re really happy with where you’re at.
[00:07:51] Paul Bearne: Yes, of course you have to take what comes. I talked in my talk about, details are okay. The trick is to fail fast and learn. So if you get into a situation where it isn’t right, don’t hang around. There is lots and lots of good freelance or good WordPress work out there, or just development work. You don’t have to put up with bad environments, horrible bosses, stupid hours. Not unless you are getting a reward.
And if you’re, if you are in a high end design agency, it’s a young game, and the burnout is quite high but they’re gonna pay you a little bit more. You’re gonna be working on really leading edge work. So you’ll put up with the hours. And you’ll be happy to go out and socialize with the team after work, because that’s part of the culture. But if that’s not what you want then there is other choices.
Maybe that’s a young person’s game and then you mature into a slower agency, a local agency, or a distributed agency, or you go freelance. You get a few clients and you run freelance. Or maybe you do partly your own freelance or partly on the freelance platforms like Codeable, and you work that way.
[00:09:13] Nathan Wrigley: I know that you said that failing fast is a desirable way to go about it. And I can see what you’re saying there in, in the sense that you’ve got a quickly figure out that this isn’t working, because then you need to quickly find something which is working. Presumably there’s gonna be a raft of people, anybody listening to this, there might be a load of people saying, yeah, that’s okay Paul, but I’ve already got the mortgage, and I am living hand to mouth, month to month. And I guess that plays in a little bit. You’ve gotta be a bit conservative in some regard.
[00:09:40] Paul Bearne: Yes of course. Okay, so there’s a number of scenarios that are out there. So say you are working for a small agency serving the local community, which I think is the hard end of the business. Because you have to be a Jack of all trades. you have to do whatever work the agency finds, yeah. There’s no real picking, you know, they ain’t fussy about what jobs they take on, and they’re gonna be small and bitty, and not spectacular. But you want to break out from that.
So you’ve got things like, you could go freelance or semi freelance with the platforms. Codeable platforms, finding new work. But if you go freelance, you’ve gotta have enough money to pay for a laptop and have a space to work. You can’t do long term freelance from a coffee shop.
So there is a little bit of a, you know, can you actually even afford to do freelance, to start up? Because a modern Mac isn’t cheap, or even a modern good laptop isn’t cheap, PC laptop. So that’s the dilemma and I understand that dilemma, But there are choices. The amount of stuff that’s remote, you know, look at a remote agency.
If you are competent as a WordPress developer, you can be hired by a remote agency in no time. They are looking for people who are prepared to work, and they’re more interested in the attitude than your skill set. If you are, can get work done, they’ll hire you. And if you need to train up for a particular type of section of skill, to learn a bit more performance, you need to learn a bit more Gutenberg or whatever the flavor is. Yhey’ll train you. The good ones will. So you don’t need to stay where you are. There are options.
[00:11:22] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. It’s interesting that you say that, you mentioned competence. I was kind of assuming that the competence would come before the attitude, but you’re saying it’s the other way around. Looking for people with a certain approach to work, who they can then up skill.
[00:11:33] Paul Bearne: I’ve hired people. I’ve hired students for year placements. I’ve hired people to work as colleagues. And when I do interview questions, I will start going down a technical tree somewhere. Cause I’m a geek. And I’ll keep going down a rabbit hole until they don’t know the answer. And then I explain the answer to them and I want to see a light bulb go off in their head. Oh, yes that makes sense. I understand what that was. And that’s what I’m looking for.
Cause I can train that person. I can teach them. They will learn. Cause as a web developer, I will never, ever finish learning. Every time I open up a piece of code I will learn something. One of the things I do in Core is I write unit tests and so I’m looking at functions that I’ve never seen before. I learn what the Core of WordPress does, function by function. And there’s stuff in there that I, say, whoa, that’s interesting. Oh, that’s clever how they did that. So you never stop learning. And if you stop learning, especially if you stop learning in some environment, time to go.
[00:12:42] Nathan Wrigley: There must be drawbacks and there must be benefits to this whole approach. Let’s go with the good first. And that may be the time of day that you can work, the amount of money that you can earn, the location that you can put yourself in and so on. Over the course of the years that you’ve been changing things up, what have been some of the things that you’ve looked back and thought, uh, that aspect of that job was really good. And that aspect of that job was really good. Basically. What are the benefits of becoming a freelancer, I guess?
[00:13:05] Paul Bearne: You get to be your own boss and get to pick the clients and the work. You should pick the clients and the work. Don’t take everything that comes at you, because you need to pick work that you are an expertise in. Because if you are doing stuff where you are an expert, you can charge more.
The downside is you gotta find it. It tends to be feast and famine in freelance. You’ve got too much work and then there’s no work. So you’re stressed because you can’t get the work done. And then you’re stressed because you’re looking for work, because you have nothing. So that is one of the major dilemmas of freelance. But you should earn more.
In my talk, I talked about, if you expect your hourly salary to be say $60 an hour, talking universal currency of dollars, the freelance rate minimum is 120, 150 will be nice. That’s really what we’re aiming for. Because if you don’t charge enough, two things will happen. You will not be valued by your client, because, they’re cheap, they can’t be any good. And you’ll get crap work. I have a line in my slides, superstar prices get superstar contracts.
You get better work if you charge more. It’s not a case of more work, better work. Better work pays better. You can have a better lifestyle because you’re not working 14 hours a day. You’re working five hours a day to get that contract done. And you’ve got three hours to do your administration and look for your next contract.
[00:14:44] Nathan Wrigley: So the flexibility’s there. You mentioned the downside of the fact that you’ve gotta create that work or somehow have it created for you. Any other downsides that you’ve figured out over the years?
[00:14:55] Paul Bearne: Freelancing can be lonely because you are one per, one person shop, effectively. You need to work at that not being a problem. So if you are in a, a reasonable metropolitan area, look for meetups, peer groups. Come to conferences. Remember, you gotta pay for them and you gotta manage the time off for that. Your clients aren’t paying you while you’re away. Your company doesn’t earn. So you gotta budget for that.
[00:15:20] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. There may be other additional things, you know, like pension and healthcare and…
[00:15:24] Paul Bearne: You won’t have any healthcare cover. You may be able to insure yourself, but you’re taking the risk on yourself. Pensions, if you’re charging properly, you can push money into your pension, because you’ve got spare cash coming in. You’re cash rich because you’re charging properly.
[00:15:39] Nathan Wrigley: Do you need to be more self-disciplined? In other words, if you’re turning up to an agency at nine in the morning and you’re leaving at five and the work is handed out on plate and you’ve got briefings in the morning and then the briefings and blah, blah, blah. With this, you’ve gotta be a Jack of all trades a bit, but you’ve gotta be mindful that, you know, you, aren’t just sitting down having a coffee in front of the television, letting the work drift and drift and drift.
[00:16:02] Paul Bearne: Yeah, I have a friend in Canada he’s freelance business shall we say suffered? He let clients down badly. I picked a couple of clients up. He saw that I was linked to him on LinkedIn. They were chasing him and he was just got quiet on them. Awkward situation. I was able to pick some clients up because he wasn’t delivering. So you do need to have self discipline to be a freelancer.
If you’re not, then look at the other choices. If you want to be remote, look at what are the remote agencies, and they’ll do it. If you want to be in an office, are you compared to travel into the city center? Then look for one of the big design houses in city center. If you are up for the pace. If not, maybe there’s a local agency who’s servicing the local community, that feels right for you. Because they tend to be nice and friendly and family like, yeah, they’re cozy. But the work won’t be stellarly interesting.
[00:17:00] Nathan Wrigley: I guess you’ve gotta be a bit, not just disciplined, you’ve gotta be self-motivated as well. You’ve got to be the kind of person that can incentivize themselves, because if you’re working for the man, as it were…
[00:17:10] Paul Bearne: Who will drive the direction and push you forward. Being self-aware of where your strengths are, is the most important thing you can acquire. If you can get that self-awareness and be honest to yourself about where you are, what sort of personality you are. You may need to work for somebody, in order to actually get anything done, and that’s not wrong. In fact, being honest about that is a really powerful thing, and it makes your life less stressful.
When I worked for corporate in multinationals, it was a doddle. Nine to five, ate in the canteen, endless coffee supply, projects took forever. Downside is our server was IIS, yeah. But when I had to go to the US I had to fly business class, you know. There are pros and cons to all environments,
[00:18:11] Nathan Wrigley: The WordPress ecosystem, obviously you are into the code, but you only have to look at the speeches that are on this weekend, and the presentations that are on to realize that code is a tiny fraction of the WordPress ecosystem. We’ve got SEO experts, and we’ve got copywriters and so on and so forth.
Did you ever stray into a different territory or have you always been code all the time and therefore sort of increasing your portfolio and your CV, if you like, one job after the other.
[00:18:35] Paul Bearne: I actually for a while ran social media for corporation. I got there because I realized that we needed to own the brand names and I stepped ahead above the parapet and said, oy, Mr. CTO, we need to own these. Shall I go and get them? Had a fun story around corporate name changing, but, I went out and registered all the, the corporate brands. And for four years, before marketed caught up with me, I was the owner and access gatekeeper to all of their social media accounts.
We have wandered around a little bit but I am primarily a coder. That’s where my strength is. I understand by strength. That’s why I didn’t stay in social media. I’m not a writer, I’m not a content person. And so that’s part of me understanding my strengths and weaknesses.
[00:19:29] Nathan Wrigley: I kind of wonder if people who may be listening to this who figure, actually, I just wanna throw all the cards up in the air and see where they land. In other words, I just wanna try something new and everything that you’ve described so far fits that picture really nicely, you know?
[00:19:43] Paul Bearne: Yeah.
[00:19:43] Nathan Wrigley: All of this would work in, well, pretty much any industry I’m imagining.
[00:19:46] Paul Bearne: Yep, and detours are okay. Throw your ears up. You hear a sniff of something. Go knock on the door. Have a look in. Go and talk to people there. Go on interviews. I love interviews. I’d almost do it as a hobby, go on interviews. Go and see what they’re doing. And if it feels right, go and join them. If you don’t ask the question, it’s impossible for someone to say yes.
They might have to say no, but people actually like saying yes. So go look. Take a Friday afternoon off and go for an interview somewhere. If you just chalk it up as interview practice, you are not that serious. You get to look behind the curtain a little bit. You get some reference points about what an alternative life would look like. Think about moving to the countryside. Think about moving to the city moving to another country.
You can go and visit them. I emigrated from the UK to Canada in my fifties. I visited Canada a couple of times, found I liked it and then went through the immigration process. Uh, it took a couple of years to do that, but you get there.
[00:21:04] Nathan Wrigley: You mentioned earlier about, well you said the words feast and famine or something To that regard, and I’m just wondering, okay, so I’m not talking about the money where the money may go up and the money may I go down? I’m talking more about the pipeline of work. Have you ever struggled with that? Have you ever had periods where, there really is nothing on the horizon. What have I done?
[00:21:24] Paul Bearne: Oh totally and my solution in fact is to use Codeable. When I was freelancing, I was a member of Codeable from almost day one, very early joined there, and I’ve never done it as my full time gig. Now there are people who all the work comes through Codeable, but I’ve used it as my back fill. Whenever I’m a little bit short of work, I will go on a Codeable. I will bid for one of the contracts. Find a contract, get a contract and then do that project, because they’ve got so much work there.
You could go and pick a contract up really easily. And you could find one that fits your skill set and your knowledge base. Yeah, so I’m an expert in sort of job boards and things like that. So I would always go and look for something in that space, because I can provide skills and knowledge in that space, and it becomes easy for me to complete the task.
[00:22:14] Nathan Wrigley: So you are kind of running those two things, not quite in parallel, but they happen concurrently. But you’ve got your work, which is the desired outcome, the stuff that you’ve put in place for yourself.
[00:22:25] Paul Bearne: I will get more income from that.
[00:22:26] Nathan Wrigley: And then the Codeable is when the gaps appear.
[00:22:29] Paul Bearne: Yeah. When the gaps backfill. If I’m short off work, I’ve got nothing to do for the end of the week I’ve got four hours. I can find a job on Codeable. Or I’ve got two days of spare capacity. Because everybody wants it done now on Codeable, brilliant. Rock up, log in. Go and see what the current list of open jobs are. Find a job that’s in your space that you can present value to. Don’t just go and do anything. And then go and fix that problem for that client.
And I’ve had repeating clients who’ve kept, effectively become part of my freelance stable, still through Codeable, I’ve done ongoing contracts with them. So it works really well. And the Codeable guys are really, really nice. You know they have a lovely active Slack channel. They do regular meets and training. They almost feel like a distributed agency. That hybrid space. And that everybody there is competent WordPress designer, editor content, it’s not just code at Codeable. Remember that, so there’s other skills that could, people will hire you for there.
[00:23:39] Nathan Wrigley: Would you therefore suggest that’s possibly a good place for somebody to just begin? If they’re tentative and they’re you know, they could slot a bit of that into their weekend with their regular job.
[00:23:48] Paul Bearne: They’ve got a regular nine to five job and they want to start learning, doing some freelance, it’s a really good place for them to get their feet wet, a little bit. In a very safe environment. Cause the money’s being collected by Codeable. It’s in the escrow. So you know you’re gonna get paid. If there’s a problem with the client the staff will wade in, and they’ll help you out. And if you get really, really stuck you can reach out to staff and they’ll find one of the other experts to come and help you. And if you get a problem, you could ping the Slack channel, say, how do I do this? And one of the other experts will wade in and help you. Very friendly.
[00:24:29] Nathan Wrigley: Is it difficult to differentiate yourself, to make yourself stand out? It’s just you pitching for work. Presumably on Codeable you’ve got a set number of fields that you’ve gotta fill out to demonstrate how good you are at a certain thing. And, and everybody else has got those same set of fields and…
[00:24:43] Paul Bearne: Yeah, yeah it is slightly difficult. They are quite good about saying no more than five experts should reply to a client’s inquiry. So you don’t get millions of people trying to bid for piece of work. And they don’t do the lowest price wins. They average out the price bids. Someone puts a, a thousand dollars in for a project and someone else puts in 800, the client’s gonna get told 900. They take a commission off the top, or they add a commission on top of that price and they charge the client to that. And then you get your money out in USD.
[00:25:20] Nathan Wrigley: One of the things that always attracted me, but I never managed to kind of make the leap, was this idea of being a digital nomad. So everything that you’ve just talked about, all of these rungs on the ladder of how to get work and how to manage your relationship with clients and build up your portfolio and all of that, all of that’s happened. And then you just don’t live in the same place for any great length of time. You flit about. You’ve sort of done that, you’ve moved a country. Do you know any people who do that?
[00:25:45] Paul Bearne: I have a good handful of friends who do that. Within XWP, I think have probably 20 or 30 people who are digital nomads within the company. I don’t think Codeable people tend to do that as much, because the infrastructure stuff that you need to do in addition to charging and billing and things like that, becomes difficult as you flip around the countryside and do stuff. Freelance people tend to hire local freelancers a little bit, so it tends to lock you into a country. And if you suddenly move, there’s some dynamics there.
My recommendation, if you wanna do proper nomad work, go and talk to one of the distributed agencies, you know, Human Made, 10up, XWP, you know, that level of company. Especially if you are skilled as a WordPress developer. All of those are actively looking for people. I will personally recommend XWP. I do work there, but I’ve also worked at a few of the others.
They’ve got it right. They’ve learned over the years how to do remote web development and manage the culture and the team so well. And it’s art, and I think they’ve nailed it because they’re based in Australia, you know, the corporate HQ is over there. So all of the European staff they’ve got here, they’ve got 60 people at this WordCamp or something. They’re all of remote. There’s only about two or three have flown all the way over for Australia. And so, because they’ve done it, it just, they just nailed it.
[00:27:22] Nathan Wrigley: Final question, did you ever, do you ever, sort of pinch yourself and reflect on how incredibly lucky you are? I say you, you, as in, all the people who have careers in the same manner that you do.
[00:27:38] Paul Bearne: Hey, I’m a guy who started as a tea boy on a building site, my first job. I now have a house on a lake with a motor boat tied up at the bottom. I would never have dreamt of that when I was a young lad. You really now in this day and age can work from anywhere. And as you know, Starlink and things like that are coming online, you really can go out into the sticks and work from anywhere.
Anywhere you can get decent internet is now fair game as a location to do web development work and design work and other services. I’m a developer, so I tend to think developer first, but there’s PMs, there’s sales, there’s HR, there’s marketing, there’s video production, there’s design, there’s content writing. All of those can be done remote.
Unless you are physically manufacturing something, and even some of that can be done remote in small batches now. Anything in this sort of digital space can be remote and often better done that way. Unless you really doing high cycle stuff, I think remote is the way to go.
[00:28:55] Nathan Wrigley: Paul Bearne, thank you for chatting to me today.
[00:28:58] Paul Bearne: My pleasure.
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