My peculiar trajectory as a PHP developer

“Step into the confessional,” my physical therapist always used to say before asking me how well I’d cared for myself since my last visit.

I didn’t talk to many new people at WordCamp US last year, but there’s one conversation that stands out in my mind: I spoke for a while with Alain Schlesser about development topics. He told me about his novel approach to an enterprise WordPress project, and, among other things, he encouraged me to get outside of the WordPress bubble as a developer, and get in touch with the larger PHP developer world.

His talk describing that very project just posted to today and that reminded me of our hallway discussion.

Here’s my confession: the truth is that as a PHP developer, I’ve always been very isolated, and despite years of working with PHP, I’ve never been in touch with the larger PHP community. I didn’t even realize I was isolated until my team got serious about WordPress a couple of years ago. It’s kind of shameful, but it didn’t occur to me that there might be PHP conferences, online discussions, or other ways of being in touch with PHP developers. Since I’ve been actively developing in PHP since 1999, this is really kind of ridiculous, especially now that I can see what a large world there is for PHP.

There are several reasons for this. First, I was more interested in developing as a UI/UX/front end designer and developer for a long time. PHP was a means to an end, and I really didn’t think I was a very good PHP developer, nor did I think I was capable of being a very good PHP developer. If I ever did think about the larger PHP world it probably seemed scarily over my head or not relevant to my tiny little projects.

The other PHP developer on my team and I were also quite isolated within the larger organization of the company. Not only were we the only PHP developers at our company (at that time SAS employed probably ~10,000 people of whom ~3,000 were developers), but in our immediate work group there were just a small handful of other developers, all working in Java. Since we never adopted OO PHP and barely knew it existed, it felt that there was next to nothing we could talk about the Java folks with – and I really always got the feeling they looked down on us, anyway, and saw us as mere script writers, not “real developers”.

We were also – if I’m really entering the confessional here – pretty resistant to change. This was a cultural problem in our department at the time, and one that our current manager has worked to break down since we’ve started to report to her. New ideas and technologies were generally greeted with skepticism at best, or more often out right dismissal. As the more junior of the two of us PHP devs in terms of overall experience as a developer, any enthusiasm that I had for new things was usually argued away by my co-worker.

Something that I can see clearly now is that very little was expected of us. This helped to create a rather sad cycle where little was asked of us, we delivered only small-scale projects, I got loaned out to other projects for my front-end skills, and we were never motivated to learn anything new in the PHP world.

I started trying to learn Java because it seemed like a way to finally grow and do something more exciting and powerful.

When we were abruptly reorganized into the MIS department a few years ago, much of this started to change. We landed in a world of other developers, working in a variety of different languages. I joined a developer’s discussion group which was eye opening. I was pretty nervous my first time attending because I knew it might be very heavy into specific Java frameworks and concerns.  I was surprised to discover that all of those new-to-me Java folks didn’t automatically look down on me. They were curious about my world, and very respectful of it. I was… not used to that.

I had been trying to get a large (by our standards) project off the ground for a while before the re-org. With the support of our new manager, I was made tech lead and planned it as an OO PHP project. There was some resistance and skepticism, but the project has actually been very successful. My skeptical co-worker loves working with it and tells me so on a regular basis.

Let’s go back to the confessional, though. I don’t think we have a super happy ending to this blog post because after my fledgling OO PHP effort we wound up in WordPress land. And y’all already know that’s not a model of modern development and delivery practices.

I haven’t done much to see how modern PHP applications are architected, or what ideas are out there that we could apply to our work. Listening to Alain’s talk at WordCamp London reminds me that I’ve been remiss, or simply distracted with other areas of research in the seemingly endless pantheon of things to learn.