A Comprehensive Guide to Becoming a WordPress Developer

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WordPress Developer

Since WordPress is one of the leading content management systems out there it spurs countless people to become developers themselves. Some of the best I know in the industry emerged from these “DIY developers” – people who started looking at code as a hobby.

WordPress is a good medium to start out in because its functions are clear, the coding style is extremely transparent and easy to understand and the documentation is phenomenal (not to mention the huge community). With this article, I hope I can give you a quick primer on where to start your long but – hopefully – fun journey!

Note to developers: There are quite a few instances where what I explain is not the full story. This is what Terry Pratchett calls “Lies to children”. It is difficult to explain programming concepts to beginners by going into maximum detail. When you learn acceleration in school you are not told that this is actually integral calculus, the sum of the area under a graph. You simply learn the result (speed over time). The idea is the same here.

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What Is WordPress Made Of?

WordPress is not made of special “WordPress stuff”, it is built using the most common programming language on the web – PHP. There are three more languages used which are responsible for different facets of a WordPress site, bringing the total to four:

  • PHP
  • HTML
  • CSS
  • Javascript

Note: There are actually a couple of more languages used like XML or MySQL. You will either not need to use these languages or by the time you do, you’ll know them. Their use is either indirect (used through PHP functions) or relegated to a small, hidden facet of WordPress

In order to be an accomplished WordPress dev, you’ll need to be well versed in all three. In my opinion, HTML is the easiest to learn, followed by CSS, and then comes PHP. Do not mistake easy to learn with easy to master. While you can get going with HTML and CSS in a couple of days, CSS in particular is difficult to master.

So How Do I Get Started?

The answer to this question depends on the type of person you are. There are two basic paths you can take. You can start fiddling first and learn what you need to do along the way, or you can sit down and start by learning the languages involved first.

The Meddler

This is the path that I took when I started out 9 years ago (I think it was WordPress 1.2 at the time). I had a basic blog which was fine, I just wanted a different background color. I started digging around and managed to change it. I had no idea what I was doing but any time I wanted to change something I looked at forums, tutorials available and tried to understand what I actually did.

Eventually, this led me to actually learn programming properly by reading PHP documentation, CSS specs, and so on, but the initial boost was from actually achieving something.

This is akin to learning music. If children have to learn music theory first they may be put off. Give someone a guitar or a piano first, teach them a few chords and they’ll be much more receptive to the theory.

If you like a hands-on approach and you tend to fall on your feet and think fast, the meddler is for you.

The Student

Many people decide to sit down and learn a language first. This way is just as good and can be just as rewarding. While you don’t get the “rush” of instantly being able to change something on your website you do get it when you finally get to a website and actually know something about it.

The major downside of the meddler approach is that you learn in a less controlled environment with less structure. As a result, you are in the dark more than you’d like. If you take the time to learn things first you will have an easier time when the time comes to apply your knowledge.

If you feel ill at ease when you don’t know something if you’re not a risk-taker by nature and you don’t like unexpected things happening the student approach should be your path.

The Components Of WordPress

As I’ve mentioned before WordPress is made up of (mostly) PHP, CSS, HTML, and Javascript. Which one you start learning is up to you, in any given situation all three are used to generate what you see on the page. I have a strong feeling that disciples of the meddler learning method will want to go for CSS and HTML first while the students will want to tackle PHP.

Using an analogy from architecture:

  • PHP is the know-how, the methodology and machines used in the building of a house.
  • HTML is the structure of the house. The foundation and the walls.
  • CSS can be said to be everything which makes a house mare than a set of walls. The paint, the carpets, the little rounded arches and so on.
  • JS (Javascript) is something like the electronic bells and whistles. Home automation, automatically opening garage doors and so on.


HTML – or hypertext markup language – is the language that is responsible for giving web pages structure. It is not HTML’s job to tell a heading that it should have a purple background, but it is its job to determine what level that heading should be.

A great example that showcases this perfectly is CSS Zen Garden. If you go to the site you’ll see a list of links on the right under “Select a design”. If you browse through a couple you’ll see that the look of the website changes drastically. On each design, the HTML for the webpage is exactly the same. It is the styling of the structure which is different, bringing us neatly to our next language, CSS.


CSS – or cascading style sheet – is a way to style your webpage. If you create a heading and a paragraph in HTML it is the job of CSS to determine how these two elements are shown. The typeface, font size, font weight, color, padding, margin, etc. – all this is up to CSS.


PHP – or PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor (it’s a recursive acronym) – is a server-side scripting language and allows you to perform a number of awesome tricks. For our purposes, it is mostly used to output HTML.

When you write HTML you could display any date, but you’ll need to actually type it in. Displaying the current date to a user would be impossible. You could update it daily by hand but even then, you couldn’t account for timezone differences.

This is where PHP comes in. Instead of saying: “The date is 2013-07-02” you can say: “The date is [current date]”. This is of course not how it looks, but this is the idea and this is where the “server-side” comes in.

An HTML file is retrieved from the server and displayed as is. PHP files are not retrieved from the server. Instead, whenever you look at a PHP page the code is processed on the server and you only see the result. The “[current date]” bit in our example is replaced by the actual current date and only then is it sent to your browser.


Javascript is a versatile, multi-purpose language. For our purposes, it is used to enhance the behavior of the website. When you send a contact message through a form the page usually reloads and you get a success message. With Javascript, you could make the form slide away and a message float in, instead of reloading the page. It is a layer on top of HTML and CSS which adds functionality.

Diving Into It All

The best place to start is WordPress itself. As I mentioned, it is a very understandable system, The PHP and HTML will be especially easy to learn through it.

I suggest looking into the default twentytwelve theme. This theme (and others) can be found in the wp-content/themes folder in your WordPress installation. The “page.php” file is responsible for displaying WordPress pages. Open this file and navigate to a page on your website. You’ll notice that it is quite easy to determine what’s going on.

<article id="post-<?php the_ID(); ?>" <?php post_class(); ?>>
	<header class="entry-header">
		<h1 class="entry-title"><?php the_title(); ?></h1>

	<div class="entry-content">
		<?php the_content(); ?>
		<?php wp_link_pages( array( 'before' => '<div class="page-links">' . __( 'Pages:', 'twentytwelve' ), 'after' => '</div>' ) ); ?>
	</div><!-- .entry-content -->
	<footer class="entry-meta">
		<?php edit_post_link( __( 'Edit', 'twentytwelve' ), '<span class="edit-link">', '</span>' ); ?>
	</footer><!-- .entry-meta -->
</article><!-- #post -->

On line 3 there is something called a function, ‘the_title()’. The title of the page is added in place of this. If you would change this line to the following you would be able to display the text ‘Title:’ before the title:

<h1 class="entry-title">Title: <?php the_title(); ?></h1>

Even if it isn’t all clear it is worth looking into these files and trying to figure out what is happening. the WordPress Codex is your friend through all of this!

The WordPress Codex

The WordPress Codex is THE WordPress documentation. It has numerous getting started articles and tutorials and it also has documentation for almost every function used.

Previously you’ve seen the ‘the_title()’ function. A quick search will get you the documentation for the_title() where you can read all about this function and all the options it gives you.

Upon reading the explanation of the title function you can figure out that we can also put the text “Title:” before our title like this:

<h1 class="entry-title"><?php the_title( 'Title:' ); ?></h1>

Even though you haven’t learned about PHP functions and arguments yet you are already using them like a pro. This is why using WordPress to learn programming is so great.

Specific Tutorials

Specific tutorials are also very helpful, usually when you have a goal in mind. If you want to display the excerpt of an article instead of the full content you can look at tutorials, like one I found on Wpbeginner.

More often than not, these articles will teach you what you need to know, and then some. Quite frequently you won’t get some part of what’s being said. While this is annoying as heck, it is ok. You won’t be able to take everything in at once but you’ll get there eventually.

Tutorial Sites

There are a number of sites that offer complete courses on WordPress, and other programming languages. Some have popped up recently which are phenomenally good. Treehouse, Tutsplus Premium, and Code Academy are all great places to learn.

I wish there would have been resources like this when I started out, I am particularly fond of Treehouse. It is fun, easy to understand, and a joy to learn things. I use it in my company to train new people and I use it myself to learn new skills.

The great benefit of using these sites – even though they cost some money – is that you get an all-encompassing education. The truth is that HTML, CSS, PHP, and Js are completely useless on their own. How you use JS can depend on all three of the other languages, for example, so making sure that you get taught everything in a good system is a great way to move forward quickly.

Habitual Reading

Reading top blogs in this area is essential for any developer – beginners and pros alike. Beginners learn from all the articles and pros to stay on top of their game. Most websites in the development field carry in-depth technical articles, lighter reading, and articles aimed at beginners as well, so you’ll definitely find interesting pieces on your level, whatever that level is. Take a look at the resources section at the end of the article for some examples.


I am not a huge fan of forums as they can dispense some inaccuracies. However, while learning, sometimes it is good to fall into other peoples’ mistakes as well. The only way to become a top-notch developer is to make so many mistakes that you become really good at identifying them and sidestepping them.

Stackoverflow, Daniweb, The WordPress Forums, and other sites can be great for getting information and figuring out why something isn’t working. It can also help you find friends and contacts in the industry who is not to be sneezed at. Being able to ask a buddy via email why that darned function isn’t working is a lot easier than posting on a forum.

Taking Part In The Community

Do you think only coders work on WordPress? Think again! Documentation writers, language specialists, translators, back-end consultants, marketing people, etc. all contribute, many don’t know anything about coding. Even just sharing your thoughts and feature ideas could be a great help.

Becoming active in the community will teach you a lot about WordPress and some of the technical aspects will rub off on you as well. It will bring you closer to the experts who know all there is to know about it and they will help you out if you ask for it if you are a valuable member of the community.

There is a great article in the Codex about Contributing to WordPress. Pick your poison and help out.

There are numerous other ways to help out. Pick your favorite plugin and contact the developer. Tell him/her that you love the product and if he needs any help testing you’d be happy to lend a hand. You can do the same with themes or any other WordPress-related product. Trying to be a genuine help will take you places you never expect!


Becoming a WordPress developer is hard but rewarding work. The good news is that there are ways to further your career in this field than by coding. Taking part in the community, helping out others who know less than you do is just as effective.

By being a valuable member of the community and practicing a lot you’ll be creating your own WordPress themes in no time!

Additional Resources for Further Reading

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