Dee Teal Interview
You’re in the presence of royalty! Meet The Web Princess, a.k.a., WordCamp Melbourne organizer Dee Teal (@thewebprincess). Dee says that while you may be a solo freelancer, you’re never alone as a part of the WordPress community. Read about Dee’s journey as a freelancer and learn how receiving help from and giving back to the WordPress community has helped her hone her skills and inspired her to continue to push for the best for her clients.
Tell us the story of how you got into working with WordPress. What itch did it scratch for you and what itch does it scratch for you today?
I started blogging in 2004 (before I really knew what blogging was) with a personal journal on a community site. It was a great intro into online publishing but I transitioned away from their homemade CMS platform to self-hosted Movable Type in 2007 before I made the move to WordPress late in 2009. I guess it was the same scenario as anyone moving to self-hosted: I needed more control and was itching to make my site do what I wanted rather than be constrained by the rules of the parent site. I ended up making the shift to WordPress because a lot of people I knew in the blogging space were making that move so I thought I’d try it too…needless to say, I haven’t looked back. So at a personal level it was scratching a “need to have more control” itch…
At the same time, my professional life was in the middle of some serious upheaval with the end result being a move into a new role as a website administrator. To tell the truth, in those early days all I really was able to do confidently was to make an HTML email. So taking that limited skill into a role where I was responsible for a network of sites, built on .ASP (I know, right!?) was a bit of a challenge. That “dive in at the deep end” experience made me a little fearless about learning what tools (like WordPress) were out there and experimenting with what they could do and how easy (or not) they were to work with.
So the itch at that point was scratched by WordPress’ ubiquity. That there were so many people out there using WordPress made it easier and quicker for me to find out what I needed to know. It also made me desperately keen to move the site I was working on from its proprietary platform (built by a team member) on to open source where I could get a lot more help!! That finally happened just as I was leaving (though sadly not onto WordPress).
Finally, having finished work to take a year to go to university and do post graduate study I needed to be able to make a living to support my study habit. Because developing with WP was so (relatively) easy for me by then, I put myself through uni by building and tweaking sites for clients. There’s nothing like the itch of wondering how you’re going to pay the rent next week to motivate you to learn your craft…and I’ve been freelancing ever since.
The Web Princess is your online alter-ego, the moniker under which you run your business. Tell us about a project that you’re most proud of. What did you learn from working on it and how has that experience shaped your approach to your business?
The sites I get the most out of are the ones that have taught me the most, and at the time Butter Menthol was one that taught me an enormous amount in a short space of time.
The site incorporates custom post types, taxonomies, and custom fields to display the product catalogue. It doesn’t list the single products anywhere and a fair bit of the display by taxonomy was a stretch for me. I was developing new templates and learning how to troubleshoot them. The slider on the front page also required some customizations so I was editing the plugin we were using which was also a new experience.
Finally, while I was doing all of that I was also working in an agency setting with direct access to the designer and project manager which was a great experience in working in other people’s work flow.
In the end, the experience has changed a lot of the conversations I have at the time when I’m talking with a designer at the beginning of a site development job. I really like working with designers and agencies rather than direct with clients, especially those who are interested in, and keen to collaborate on, the functionality of the site, not just the look. I had the chance to contribute to the process rather than just drop in and code, and then drop out.
You’d mentioned that being co-located with the project manager and designer during the Butter Menthol project has changed the conversations you have at the beginning of a project. How has your approach evolved in five years of experience?
I think I’ve learned to trust myself and my skills. In the past I’d have just done what I was asked even if I disagreed that what we were doing was best-practice and while I don’t presume by any stretch to know that much at all, really, I do think I’m now confident enough of what I do know to make a meaningful contribution to the process to produce the best outcome.
I’m acutely aware of how much great stuff is happening in WordPress and web development in general, and I know there’ll never stop being a huge amount to learn but I feel like I’m surrounded by people I can continually draw from and I can bring that to the table when I’m working with clients, or agencies, or even with my trainees. I’m a lot more confident of my relationships around the traps too that I’m comfortable asking for help, and now feel like I can offer help in return, a paying it forward, as it were.
How this works out in a project context is that whereas before I might have settled for not pushing the envelope on a solution for a client (taking the path of least resistance) I’m more likely now to look for more than one solution and collaborate on making the choice of the best solution for the client rather than opting for the easy choice, or the solutions I know rather than the ones that would stretch me. I’m comfortable not knowing all the answers, and then putting the time in to find them, or get my skillz upgraded for the sake of the best result (getting my GIT and LESS chops up to speed at the moment by way of an example).
The outworking of all of this is that now I’ll take more challenging jobs, because there’s nothing out there that can’t be learned, and there are plenty of people who will happily roll up their sleeves to get involved in a project with me (for a fair price). So I guess the evolution has been that while I’m working alone for the most part, I’m part of this bigger thing, the WordPress community, and so I’m not ever going alone into a job, I’ve got this amazing network going with me. Which, when all is said and done, is why I feel like I really am “living the dream” and why I’m so committed to making this community the best it can be so other people can have the same experience.
You organized WordCamp Melbourne — what motivates you to give back to the WordPress community? What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your involvement in organizing WordCamp Melbourne? What hard-won advice can you offer to folks thinking about organizing a local WordCamp?
My first ever WordCamp was in Melbourne in 2011 and I was blown away by how generously people gave of their time and expertise to encourage me. I still remember someone sitting next to me sketching out what a child theme does while the speaker was busy talking (so rude, I know). I learned so much that weekend that I wanted to replicate the experience in my hometown (then, Sydney). At that stage I came home disappointed to find that there was no regular meetup or any kind of WP community action happening in Sydney so I threw myself into connecting on Twitter and in the virtual community.
It wasn’t long before Pete Bui (a Joomla dev!) got WP Sydney up and running with some input from some of the other guys around the WordPress Australia traps. So, to make sure that things kept rolling I got involved with the meetup group, got interested in speaking at WordCamps and put my hand up for WC Gold Coast later that year. It all snowballed really — a bunch of us got excited at that WordCamp and began to plan WordCamp Sydney 2012 (I’d wager a bunch of WordCamps start out like that). WordCamp Sydney was a big success, so, when I moved to Melbourne I was prevailed upon to get things rolling with WCMelbourne 2013 too.
The thing that motivates me is twofold. I guess it’s most accurate to say that I learned so much in the WordPress community I’m really motivated for other people to have that same kind of experience. I kind of found my “tribe” here and to be in a group of people who get excited about the same sorts of things is golden. It would be such a shame for other people not to find the same kind of experience. Seriously. There’s nothing like a WordCamp to make you feel less like a freak that you get turned on by beautiful code, code that you can read like the matrix! Finding out there are other equally mad people who actually don’t think you’re mad, and who actually “get you” is priceless…
Next year, you’ll celebrate five years as a freelancer. What do you love about it? What do you wish you had known when you started out working as a freelancer?
The thing about freelancing is you can’t really go past the “free.” I just love the flexibility. I can have a slow start to the day and work late if I choose; I can also have a day off and make up the time later on. I could be working in an agency one day, and at home the next, co-working or spending a day in the training rooms taking a class. No two weeks (heck, no two days) look the same.
It has its drawbacks of course — some days the lure of free time goes on a bit long and you end up under pressure because of a deadline that didn’t need to be quite so stressful if I’d just focused that little bit harder in the weeks before. I’ve had to learn to be quite disciplined, to put my head down and do the work, and as a consequence I often find that co-working is a great means of really getting focused, because there’s no laundry or housework, or friends popping by to drag me away from the desk.
As far as wish I knew…I wish I’d known from the outset to focus on the business side of freelancing as much as the actual technical work. Because dragging your business practice up to speed five years down the track is a lot harder than being on top of it from the get go. I always used to say… I don’t want to run a business, I want to be a freelance coder…but you can’t separate the two. You have to be both a technician and a manager, you have to do your bookkeeping, you have to set aside your tax, you have to have a plan for how to manage your jobs, you have to switch hats sometimes, so you’re not actually coding full time… I’ve found I need at least a half day a week to wear the business hat… even if to do so goes totally against the grain and makes me itchy to boot up Coda again at the end of the day.