The way to learn WordPress is not by contributing

Yesterday, Matt Mullenweg gave his annual State of the Word speech, where he covered everything that has happened in WordPress this year, and what we can expect moving forward.

He mentioned the incredible growth of WordPress over other platforms, and even mentioned learn.wordpress.org and the learning resource it’s budding into.

As always, he extolled the virtues of open source and the importance of contributing. He spent several minutes on Five for the Future, a program encouraging companies who make money with WordPress to give 5% of their time to the open source project.

He also talked about how creators could now contribute by adding their work to the Openverse.

As I’ve stated many times, if you find value in something, you should absolutely ensure it continues to exist, either by paying for it, or in this case, contributing. WordPress has provided me immeasurable value over the years, and I’ve tried to contribute where I could.

But when he was asked by Allie Nimmons and Michelle Frechette what new/young people can do to learn WordPress, he said that it’s easier than ever to contribute. Matt was basically saying if you want to learn WordPress, contribute to WordPress. While I encourage people to contribute, I don’t think the best way to learn WordPress is by contributing.

Care of the Entire Person

During the speech, Matt talked about an economic and philosophical idea called the tragedy of the commons. According to a post on Harvard Business School:

[This] refers to a situation in which individuals with access to a shared resource (also called a common) act in their own interest and, in doing so, ultimately deplete the resource.

I’d like to bring up a different philosophical idea.

When I was in college, I learned about Saint Ignatius and the idea of Cura personalis, or care of the entire person. I’d like to think of contributing more like this.

See, the idea behind Ignatius’ teachings of Cura Personalis is that we can’t take care of others if we neglect to take care of ourselves. Matt talks about how important it is for us to give our time and creative energies to the open source project in order to help others. He believes that’s how WordPress – and even the internet – can be the best it can be.

And if we can, we should. But it’s irresponsible to position contributing for free as the highest virtue of being involved.

We first must use our time and creative energies to get ourselves (or our company) into a financially stable state where we actually have the time and resources to give back. Then, and only then, should we contribute. Not a moment sooner.

Helping People Contribute

Matt has certainly modeled his own company off of this philosophy…again, likely with some good intentions to improve WordPress.

Half of the WordPress 5.9 release team is made up of Automattic employees, with Matt as the release lead. In fact, Matt has been the lead on every major 5.X release – except for 5.6 where Josepha Hayden led an all-woman release team. That means Matt has been the release lead nearly exclusively for 3 straight years.

Because of that, contributing to WordPress doesn’t really feel like “the commons.” It feels like something that Automattic lets people generously donate their resources to. And it has since WordPress 5.0 was released.

If we really want to get as many people as possible to contribute to WordPress, Matt should do 3 things:

  1. Step down as release lead and set up a better governance program; one where more companies and individuals have a bigger say of what happens in the open source project.
  2. Help create a mechanism for people to finance their work better. Remember: giving 5% of your resources back to the community is a good idea. So let’s help people get to a place where it’s easy for them to do it.
  3. Help people (and companies) understand the value of contributing.

Matt mentioned logj4. I bet if more companies knew just how much their infrastructure relied on that library, they’d work to ensure we didn’t have this situation.

We’ve seen companies in the WordPress space do that with WP-CLI. Positioning contributions as making the software your business relies on works best when people feel like they have a voice. Let’s amplify the number of voices.

How Do You Actually Learn WordPress?

So…how do you learn WordPress? It really depends on what you want to do with it. I’m a big fan of learning by doing. But some guidance is likely necessary. There are a lot of great resources.

Of-course, I’ll recommend my own project, WP Learning Paths, which sorts learning resources by “track” or path.

Matt also mentioned learn.wordpress.org. This is a fantastic initiative (and one way to contribute).

He and Josepha also mentioned mentorship. Do you know someone using WordPress? Talk to them!

Go to meetup.com and look for WordPress events. Talk to people in the WordPress space. Sign up for a WordPress.com account and bang around in the admin for a bit before making the leap to your own install.

Contribute When You’re Ready, but not a Moment Sooner.

I’ve never contributed a line of code to the Core. I have written many plugins, created courses, and have given numerous talks. I do that because I want to contribute as much as I can.

But I have been using WordPress since 2004. I owe a lot to WordPress, and I’m able to contribute.

When you’re just learning WordPress, remember Cura Personalis: take care of yourself; when you’re ready, you can take care of others.

Thanks to Matt Medeiros and Brian Richards for reviewing an earlier draft of this article.


  1. When I hear “contribute to WordPress”, I think about people that contribute to core, which is certainly a different skill set from most users.

    A step down to an easier level is to contribute to learn.wp or other places, or to create content related to WordPress (courses, etc).

    However, there is one more step that I think most can contribute to, and that’s just sharing their journey. By blogging about their struggles, asking questions, and joining local Meetup groups, you’re still contributing greatly to the community and I think everyone can do that.

    When it comes to contributing to WordPress core, though, your three suggestions are spot on and hope that they’re considered.

  2. I agree on many point’s. I was also a bit lost on the whole topic and the points of view in your article makes a lot of sense. Contributing demands a funding. Either being financed directly by companies with a vested interest or by profiting from the ecosystem itself . Then there are private people or self employed people having a protected family background or situation in their life’s to enable them to contribute. Other than that, there is also the argument of quality. Contributions also need to be vetted and qualified to make the cut. If you ever had to support a trainee onboarding you know what I mean.

    Looking at the contribution chart in the State of the Word was somewhat like looking at a shareholder graph. Wishing for Matt to step aside on releases and allowing more influence for others would be, in that analogy, like asking a Founder to give up his hold on his company. Even if Matt would get his wish of an more diverse ecosystem of contributors would emerge, he made all the extra bubbles on the chart about the same size. Maybe that is the part that is wishful thinking. What happens if a company like Elementor suddenly employees the most developers getting a huge stack in the project. Even though still Open Source they could steer the project into a direction Matt wouldn’t like. I am not sure how well all that could and would work.

    Circling back to support, asking people to build up a lifeline first is a probably the most sane approach. Although, I am still not entirely sure and clear on how Open Source and “Pro” versions of plugins and themes coexist under the GPL (paid updates, Source availability etc.). Don’t get me wrong I bought over the years and am still buying plenty of licenses to support developers and products I like (and sometimes even use regularly). It’s more on the notion of having a secure and transparent business model not in a legal grey area of being “only” tolerated.

  3. Have to agree, especially in the context of core contribution. No good will come of total beginners there, IMO. Beginners will get frustrated right away and that does no good either.

    While I also thing core contribution I was happy to hear Matt mention helping with a WordCamp or even a Meetup as contributing. I never even thought of myself as a contributor. . . but what the heck, I’ll take it. 😉

  4. “Step down as release lead and set up a better governance program; one where more companies and individuals have a bigger say of what happens in the open source project.”

    It’s curious how Automattic had just helped form the PHP Foundation with other companies yet Matt refuses to give up his dictatorial hold over the ” democratizing” WordPress project.

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