Top Ten Tips for Web Developers from WordCamp Boston 2012

I recently attended my first WordCamp and had a great time meeting new people and learning from the WordPress masters.  From all of the talks I heard, here are the top ten tips that every web developer who uses WordPress should think about:

    1. Update to the latest WordPress version! (3.41 as of this writing)
      This is an easy no-brainer which takes two minutes.  Andrew Nacin, lead developer at WordPress, gave a passionate talk about how he optimized the get_themes() function, which was a ridiculous memory hog and speed vampire, using up as much as 30% of the total memory used by WordPress.  (Basically, it looped through all themes, including deactivated ones, even if you requested info on one theme).  I’m not sure how many WordPress functions call this routine, if it speeds up WordPress in any way, hey, I’m on board!
    2. Simplify and customize the Admin area for your clients
      Sean Butze gave a talk entitled, “Don’t Make them Think: Improving Usability in the WordPress Admin Interface”.  This topic didn’t sound too exciting to me, but I went anyway, and wow – it out to be one of the best talks at WordCamp!  In addition to being a WordPress developer and programmer, Sean handles WordPress customer support for his company.  He stated that while we think of WordPress as a very easy-to-use CMS, it’s still beyond the scope of many non-technical users.  Plus, it’s very blog-centric, which may be confusing to clients who are using WordPress as a corporate site, for example, that has no blog or postings!  Sean explained how to first limit access to unnecessary menu items in the Admin area by setting up users as “Editor” instead of “Admin”.  Then, he went into how to customize and simplify the Admin area using either PHP or a plug-in like Adminimizer.  The results were amazing.  After his talk, I realized how cluttered and complicated the WordPress admin area must seem to our non-techy clients.  If you want to cut down on phone calls from frustrated clients, follow Sean’s advice!
    3. Check out free tools
      There’s nothing like using the same tools that the masters of your craft use.  Here are some tools that the WordCamp speakers either suggested or actually used during their demos, many of which are free including GIMP (free Photoshop-like photo editor), Ink Scape (free Illustrator-like program), XAMPP (Apache server), E Text Editor (like Textmate, but for Windows), TextWrangler (code editor for Mac), Sublime Text editor (Mac and PC), and the Coda text editor (not free, but still cool.. Mac only).
    4. Create child themes instead of editing the theme itself
      I already knew this from attending WordPress meetups, but I learned how to create child themes at WordCamp.  It’s quite easy.  The codex actually has a good explanation, as does this blog.  Editing the theme itself, while quick and tempting, will leave you out of luck when it comes time to update the theme.  All of your changes will be blown away by the update.

    1. Don’t be afraid to create your own themes
      This is different from the item above.  Here, I’m talking about making a completely different looking theme, not just making small edits.  There were some great talks about modifying and creating your own themes using simple themes as a starting point.  The best talk I saw on this was by Derek Christiansen.
    2. Use Git
      I’ve been meaning to do this for a while.  There were several talks about setting up your local development environment and the common denominator was Git, which seems to be the de-facto standard version control system.  I think it takes one disaster where you lose hours of work to convince many people about the need for Git.  Thankfully, that hasn’t happened to me, so I need to get Git before it does.
    3. Set up a local development environment using XAMPP (or MAMP for Mac folks)
      As a developer just starting out, many of my sites have fairly low traffic, so I tend to make my changes live, on the fly.  In other words, I make a change, and upload it to the live site to see what happens (unless it’s a big change, where I create an alternate version of the file until its ready, then swap it in for the real one).  Needless to say, this isn’t ideal, so I need to get off my butt and finally start using WAMP, which I installed a while ago (or XAMPP), so that I can develop on my local computer before uploading to the live site.
    4. Check out LESS or SCSS
      I have been hearing a lot about these CSS “pre-processors” which give you cool CSS features like variables, functions, nested rules, etc.  These are all things that I wished CSS had at some point in my work.  Again, I just need to get over the laziness and finally set this up.  Anyone out there have a preference for LESS or SCSS?  Which one integrates better with Dreamweaver?
    5. Use a caching plug-in if WordPress is slow
      Ben Metcalfe from WP Engine gave a great talk on Optimizing WordPress for Speed and Scale.  I thought this topic was going to be about as exciting as watching paint dry, but again, it turned out to be one of the best.  Ben gave many great tips, but the one I’m going to list here is to use a caching plugin such as W3 Total Cache to speed up WordPress.  Basically, when you bring up a WordPress page, it has to run a bunch of PHP code, JavaScript, and database queries.  Caching eliminates that and turns the WordPress page into a static page that can load much faster.
    6. Learn JavaScript
      Luke Gedeon gave a unique talk about JavaScript code he wrote to implement functionality similar to a shortcode.  I, like so many developers, use JavaScript and jQuery so often that I sometimes fool myself into thinking that I “know” JavaScript.  But in reality, I’m a glorified cut-and-paster, with some ability to modify other people’s code.  I’ve already bought a couple of 800-page JavaScript books to read..  I just need to find the time..

So, these are the ten things on my “to-do” list after having attended my first WordCamp.  Have you attended WordCamp?  What things did you take away from it? – Brian

2 thoughts on “Top Ten Tips for Web Developers from WordCamp Boston 2012

  1. Brian, nice Top Ten list… As is common to most developers wearing multiple hats, finding that free time to learn Java Script, SCSS, and custom theming is the hardest part of the job. I know I’ve listened to various podcasts and youtube lectures while in the shower or while driving (but not both at once) just because there aren’t quite enough hours in any given day. Have a great one, and keep on WordPressing!

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