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Niches and Ruts: WordPress, NationBuilder and the Importance of Intelligent Risk-Taking

Finding your niche in the web development industry can be difficult. Knowing when a niche becomes a rut is even harder.

I began my career as a software engineer in 2011 working for a digital agency in Sydney, Australia. They hired me with an understanding that I would be focusing on developing websites for corporate clients, primarily on WordPress. At the time, my knowledge of WordPress was limited, but I understood its importance to the industry, and I knew that specializing in it would lead to solid employment opportunities down the track.

WordPress was my first niche.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that reliable and gainful employment alone was not the bliss I needed to follow, if you’ll indulge me in some Joseph Campbell. After only a year and a half, I was burning out. I enjoyed the work, but I couldn’t see clearly how cranking out endless WordPress sites for commercial clients would make a positive impact on society, something I’m passionate about.

My niche was becoming a rut.

This existential frustration came up in conversation at a social gathering and led to a relative stranger extending me a job. Their company was desperately seeking developers to take on learning a new platform that was gaining popularity among their client base of labor unions and NGOs: NationBuilder. The prospect of working with these clients, organizations driven by more than monetary goals, excited me. And so I took a chance; I left my rut, changing employers and my specialty as a developer.

NationBuilder bills itself as a platform where anyone could start their own social or political campaign with relative ease, complete with CMS and CRM functionality built-in. When I started working on the platform, though, it was still very much in its infancy. There was barely any documentation or community around it for developers — a far cry from what I had experienced while growing as a WordPress developer.

And in terms of its functionality at that stage, well… let’s say it was limited. As a cloud-based system, similar to Shopify, I was walled off entirely from doing significant backend coding on the platform. Outside of theme-building and some Javascript/jQuery, much of my work in those days was spent coding single-page applications (SPAs) adjacent to NationBuilder that communicated back to its API and were often embedded back in NationBuilder site pages. In spite of the challenges with NationBuilder’s limitations, I found my place, working out creative solutions to the unique challenges it presented.

Those technical challenges were regularly frustrating, but I was on to something — I had enticed the clients I wanted to work with by becoming an expert in the platform they preferred, a platform most developers didn’t want to even bother with — so I kept at it.

For 6 years I remained in this new niche, earning “social capital”, as NationBuilder would call it, with these pro-social organizations. As time progressed, though, it became clearer that NationBuilder was not developing fast enough as a platform to meet the needs of my clients. The idiosyncrasies of the platform and the cost of developing SPAs to fill in functionality gaps frustrated those clients. I watched as basic feature requests sat idle in NationBuilder’s forums for years. For instance, only recently in January of 2021 did NationBuilder enable reCaptcha support on their donation forms, and the platform had known that credit card scammers were exploiting those donation forms to test stolen credit card numbers for many years. This negligence had put their users and my former clients at prolonged and unnecessary risk for nearly a decade.

My NationBuilder niche was becoming another rut.

As NationBuilder’s popularity waned, WordPress became one of the replacements of choice, supplemented with powerful campaigning tools like CiviCRM, Action Network and the like. Promoting these options more and more to my clients sparked a return to my WordPress “roots” as a developer, and I was excited to work again within a largely uninhibited ecosystem where I rarely had to tell a client “technically, that can’t be done”.

My efforts to make the most of NationBuilder for my clients supported my professional career. Working around the limitations, I honed my front-end and Javascript skills and began to learn React. With all the API work I was doing at that time, I laid the foundation for specializing in microservice architectures and headless/decoupled CMSs. This, in particular, would come to full fruition when I later joined Culture Foundry, with headless CMS development being one of our many specialties as a company.

After my time focusing on NationBuilder, I wasn’t satisfied with a simple return to my old WordPress niche, though. I felt I still had more to learn as a developer; I wanted to do more work in React; to get into more modern and advanced features of WordPress, like Gutenberg and headless; to learn things I didn’t know I didn’t know.

So, in conjunction with a move home to the USA, I knew it was time to find employment with a company wherein I could respark the growth of my technical skills while still pursuing positive outcomes for society. Luckily, I happened upon such an opportunity working for Culture Foundry. Suddenly I was no longer a lone wolf developer; I was in the company of other like-minded professionals, all of whom I had something to learn from. And Culture Foundry itself as a company is willing to take intelligent risks, try new technologies and new approaches to doing business.

More importantly, Culture Foundry seems aware as I am how a niche can become a rut and actively works to mitigate such burnout. We regularly examine the roles that individuals serve in the company and are always looking at ways to enrich their work experiences while meeting our clients’ needs. There’s also no shortage of opportunities to branch out and experience new aspects of the business and find new ways to fit in… like a software engineer doing some creative writing for a blog post!


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