WordPress is open source software, maintained by a global network of contributors. There are many examples of how WordPress has changed people’s lives for the better. In this monthly series, we share some of the amazing stories that are lesser-known.
From a natural interest in computers and fixing things as a young woman, Olga Gleckler from St Petersburg, Russia, found WordPress took her on a journey to becoming a successful female tech entrepreneur. On International Women’s Day, we share her story.
Finding your path can take longer than you expect
From the age of 15, Olga found herself under pressure to find a free place for her professional studies. She said: “I didn’t know how high or low my chances were even if I had very good marks. I could have been just the biggest fish in a small pond. But anyway, I made up my mind to go to technical school.”
On leaving school in St Petersburg with her certificate, Olga felt her knowledge of opportunities was very narrow. She had pictured being an ecologist or guide translator based on the subjects she had been taught at school. There was also an advertising boom in Russia and she began to explore this as a career avenue. She had developed her computer skills and found opportunities to practise by helping her teachers with administrative work.
Though she did not have access to any formal career advice, her journey led her into programming. She said: “The range of technical schools was not wide. I spent four years studying transistor markings, soldering and drawing PCB layouts. Programming courses using Pascal didn’t do anything useful with it.”
A lack of suitable access to English-language courses made things harder for Olga. She was determined that she would master the language later in her life. In the meantime, she left technical school with an honors degree and improved typing skills.
“I faced it was a wild, unfriendly market. I didn’t know how to recognize a genuine job offer or how to avoid the bad ones. It was difficult and I don’t know how long I would’ve looked for work without help.”
Think differently to find where you belong
Olga’s father worked in an IT company and was able to give her some advice and help with potential introductions. When she was still studying, he suggested her strong technical skills might be useful as a substitute typist. When she finished her studies, he helped her apply for a job updating a legal system on clients’ computers.
Six months later, she got a full-time job in the same service department. She liked her position and her clients. However, she was given friendly advice that without a university degree she would not be able to have any further promotions.
At this time, Olga was trying to study PHP from a book. She found it very exciting at first, but a lot of their functions did not give her explanations on how to build something useful. She found when she tried to build practical items from book reading, it did not always make sense and the solutions would often fail.
She said: “It was hard to admit a failure even to myself and it was nagging me for a long time. I had to choose something I could handle, that I was interested in and could afford. It turned out to be advertising.”
She spent most of the family’s holidays on learning sessions during the next six years. Olga recalled: “It was tricky for my husband to make me leave a computer, once I was glued to it, so he bought me my first laptop. English was still hard for me, I got high marks through just memorizing all the words in a textbook and how they should sound.”
Doubting your professional skills can happen when you are at home isolated looking after children. Keeping up your interests is important.
Olga’s life took a change after having a new baby and she spent three years doubting her professional skills and her chances of getting a good job. She tried to get back into other interests through studying, baking and drawing, but found ‘the pram was pulling me back’. She found she became very isolated and felt less able to contribute as the family was relying on her husband’s income as she tried to focus on looking forward.
She said: “I was convinced (and saw) that not too many companies wanted a woman in the office, who with a small baby might need lots of leave.”
She finished her education when she returned to work after three years caring for her son. She secured a promotion but with changes in the company’s staffing, things were tense. She found the difficulties there had become more heightened and felt that young female colleagues were treated as ‘pieces of furniture’ by one manager. She did not want to stay in this environment and in a few months time decided to leave.
Your next chapter may be nearby
Determined to not repeat this type of experience, Olga looked at the brighter side. She said: “I wanted to be a marketer. Knowing how tricky it is to sell intangibles, I wanted a solid product to work with.”
It turned out to be more difficult to find a job outside traditional IT as a young mother. Some human resource officers advised her to remain within the technology arena.
Olga remained hopeful and continued to study hard. She had many learning experiences along the way, which she hopes others can learn from too. One was setting a low bar to employers. She said: “Companies I worked in wanted to get all publicity and sales increases achieved through deductions from my salary.” This happened once and the next time she was in this situation she asked specifically about the budget before signing up. “I was assured this would not be the case, but again I found the budget for publicity came out of my wages. It was a tough period of disappointments. So when I was offered a part-time administrative job with basic sick leave, I took it gladly as a reprieve.”
The job was far from home and involved a lot of travelling. Olga spent two to three hours a day on buses with Harry Potter audio books for company. “In these traffic jams, I started to feel English at last and loved it. It gave me a freedom no money can buy. Life was getting better.”
Though the job did not pay highly, it gave her something valuable – a working website. After her boss and the developer parted company, she was asked to maintain the site. Through some studying and reverse engineering, she discovered how it worked and it gave her an insight into how to write simple websites from scratch.
Quickly she started to get small tasks from friends and relatives, usually to solve some urgent problems and started to meet popular content management systems. One of the first she met with was WordPress. There was an issue in a website theme used by a website which had been changed and not maintained. It took a whole weekend to solve, but she was determined to work it out. Back then, WordPress was ‘just a system’. She didn’t know then how much it was to become part of her life.
Olga spent the next two years in this role. As time went on, she started to feel worried and less satisfied with the work. The last straw for her was a negative statement from her boss, who was not a programmer and who hadn’t seen any of the work done on the website. She felt the approach was unfair as she had done extensive work on the site. She recalls: “I became angry, but it was exactly what I needed to move jobs.”
When Olga was job hunting, she didn’t feel she had the courage to apply for a developer’s role, despite the learning and work she had already done. So instead she started working on projects where she felt she was more like a ‘seller of box-ready websites’. It was another tough half a year for her with a lot of work, low payment and plans not turning out as she had hoped. On top of long hours, she ended up with pneumonia. She said: “I see now that I was doing a disservice to customers, websites are not a microwave meal – quick, cheap and dummy. There was no life in the sites without a lot of work which no one was willing to buy. Most of the sites I sold back then died after the first year and they never were truly alive and useful.”
You need to be brave and have courage
Olga really wanted a developer job but seeking jobs of this type was very frustrating. From the job adverts she found, it felt like most IT companies were asking for geniuses who already knew a lot of technologies and frameworks. She found this very demotivating.
She then found a job offer on a website outside the most popular job portals and it seemed like a perfect fit. They wanted someone with experience to write from scratch, understand someone else’s code and maintain it, with an ability to translate technical documentation and articles, and make simple designs for printing products. After completing a trial task, she was taken on, and enjoyed a better salary, in a calm environment with good colleagues and without the requirement for a lot of extra hours.
The advert turned out to be a direct ad from one of the sales departments in a technology company. By succeeding in the task set, Olga had bypassed the Human Resources team which she felt would not normally have considered her.
Her boss agreed to her working remotely most of the time. It solved any potential leave problems which Olga had thought may be an obstacle.
For Olga it had been 14 years since the original decision to become a programmer and it was only the beginning.
After a few years at what she describes as an ‘amazing experience’ in this workplace, Olga felt able to move on to her next challenge as a developer.
Decision-making can benefit from wider knowledge
After working with different systems Olga became sure that WordPress is the best CMS for developers and clients. But she was disappointed to find that the ease of use meant that good code was not always a priority for some of the sites she looked at.
“The biggest flaw of WordPress – it’s so easy to make things work that some may feel they don’t need to bother to do things right, but this becomes a problem later.”
In custom themes for a site, she also saw sites being made and clients left without any further support, or items hard coded when clients actually needed more control to change regularly.
Olga used to rely on examples she could easily find, documentation and search engines to improve her understanding in using WordPress. She discovered that just by searching for a specific feature or a solution, you can miss the whole picture.
She turned to online courses to get more comprehensive knowledge and then started to attend WordPress events, firstly online and then by foot, trains and planes! She discovered a worldwide community that was very much alive. She didn’t know when she started studying online materials and attending discussions that she would end up contributing herself to the Learn WordPress platform a few years later.
WordCamps and contributor days became a big part of her life. From her early days attending events and starting out contributing to WordPress, she is an active member of the WordPress.org Global Marketing and Polyglots Teams, and supported the recent WordPress release. She is just beginning her first WordCamp organiser experience, joining WordCamp Europe 2021 on the Contribute Team.
Olga said: “Through the wider WordPress community, I knew not only where to look but also whom to ask. Most importantly, I found allies who don’t think I’m going crazy by speaking with delight about work, and with whom I share a passion and fondness for WordPress. This is what matters.
“Now, after more than seven years of full time development, I am still enjoying endless learning, frequent discoveries, mistakes and an impassioned wish to do better.”
This and a desire to help others use WordPress.org is part of Olga’s continued contribution to its Support and Marketing Teams, and led her to be involved in the Release Marketing questions and answers in 2020.
There is no chequered flag on the way
The road to freedom and becoming her own boss has not been easy for Olga. It is the path that got her where she is today, and she continues to find joy in it. She retains the lessons she’s learned and is always hungry to learn more.
“I travelled through a very uneven path, with a lot of obstacles and noise, but for me it’s like a kaleidoscope where a little turn presents a new picture, a new “ah-ha” moment, new excitement after seemingly pointless efforts.”
She added: “When in doubt I remind myself about David Ogilvy (generally considered the Founding Father of the modern advertising industry) who tried a lot of things before he struck gold with advertising, and maybe that’s why he did.”
Finally, she learned not only to keep a good spirit and try different things, but also to dare as you move forward.
Share the stories
Help share these stories of open source contributors and continue to grow the community. Meet more WordPressers in the People of WordPress series.
Thank you to Olga Gleckler (@oglekler) for sharing her #ContributorStory.
Thanks to Abha Thakor (@webcommsat), Nalini Thakor (@nalininonstopnewsuk), Larissa Murillo (@lmurillom), Meher Bala (@meher), and Chloé Bringmann (@cbringmann). Thanks to Josepha Haden (@chanthaboune) and to Topher DeRosia (@topher1kenobe) for their support of the series.
Photo credits: 2nd and 4th Pablo Gigena, Berlin, 2019
This People of WordPress feature is inspired by an essay originally published on HeroPress.com, a community initiative created by Topher DeRosia. It highlights people in the WordPress community who have overcome barriers and whose stories might otherwise go unheard. #HeroPress