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The Lonely Presser Guide to WordCamps

Have you ever used one of those Lonely Planet guidebooks? Yeah, me neither. But I’m told they’re pretty fantastic for getting the skinny about a particular place you might want to go. Like, really detailed, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-level detail, so that you know almost as much as an actual local. Actually, I lied; I actually have used a Lonely Planet guide–the Lonely Planet British Phrasebook, which did actually have a surprising amount of valuable information when I went for a semester abroad in Norwich, England.

This post will hopefully offer the same amount of information, except for WordCamps, whether you know what a WordCamp is or you’re organizing (or volunteering for) your first WordCamp.

WordCamps are about Community

You may have noticed that at WebDevStudios, we’re kinda big on WordCamps. Many of us have spoken at them and some of us have organized or co-organized them. If you’ve never been to a WordCamp, you might have the preconception that it’s just a conference about WordPress. It’s true that WordCamps generally have a focus on the WordPress software we all know and love, but, really, WordCamps are about bringing the community around WordPress together to hang out and share ideas and information about WordPress as well as stuff in the broader scope.

My first WordCamp was in 2010. I had been using WordPress pretty heavily for about 3 years and thought I was pretty knowledgeable on the subject. I had co-founded my own design studio and we were launching a theme shop that summer. It happened to be the year that Matt Mullenweg came and held a town hall-style question and answer session about the state of WordPress. Besides being blown away (and a little fan-boy-ish) by Matt’s guest appearance, I met so many other people who had built entire businesses around WordPress that it made my accomplishments seem tiny in comparison.

I met Josh Strebel, CEO of managed WordPress hosting service, Pagely. I met John Hawkins, co-founder of WordPress development studio 9Seeds. I met Jake Spurlock, who, this year, was part of the team that built the new Wired.com site on WordPress using the WP-API. Meeting and talking to these people (and going to their presentations) taught me so much about what else was going on around WordPress outside of my own little bubble and inspired me to go outside my comfort zone and learn more.

Each year since, I’ve always learned something new that I could apply directly to what I was doing at the time. Each time, I come away inspired to do more, to get involved in the community, to contribute, to write plugins or themes. In short, I probably wouldn’t be here, writing this post on the WDS blog, if it wasn’t for WordCamps. It has nothing (or, very little) to do with the actual presentations, although those are worthwhile, too. Instead, it’s meeting, reconnecting with, and being a part of the community around WordPress that keeps bringing me back.

What to expect at your first WordCamp

magenta-columbia-riff-raff-dance

Attending your first WordCamp is a little like attending your first showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show…except with less costumes and makeup and you probably won’t have rice or toilet paper thrown at you or get squirted with a water gun. However, the WordPress community is just as passionate about WordPress and open source as the folks you’d meet at a Saturday night showing of Rocky Horror are about Richard O’Brien’s cult classic.

Expect hallway and lunch conversations with people you’ve never met. At WordCamp SLC, we have a rule: before you leave at the end of the day, talk to three people you don’t know. You’ll be surprised how much you can take away from a WordCamp by simply following that rule. Those introductions can lead to real connections and networking later on. And the best part is, since one of the points of WordCamps is to be local, most of those connections are close to you.

Maybe in six months, that plugin developer you met realizes he needs to hire a support team or add an extra developer or designer, and you’ve got yourself a real job opportunity to build something with WordPress. Speaking from personal experience, stuff like this happens all the time. So, seriously, meet people.

Most importantly, go into a WordCamp with an open mind and free from expectations. Maybe no one is presenting about the one topic you really want to learn more about. Use this time to leave your comfort zone and learn something new or introduce yourself to someone in the hallway.

When I went to my first WordCamp, I considered myself a web designer, not a developer. I’d never written a plugin (save for a Hello Dolly clone that uses lyrics to “Ziggy Stardust” that was mostly copy pasta from the original), and could never see myself writing a plugin. I built themes and that was what I did.

Nevertheless, I went to a presentation on writing your first WordPress plugin mostly because I had met the presenter in the hallway and had a conversation with him and he encouraged me to go. I came away from that presentation with the realization that a plugin really isn’t much different from a functions.php file in a theme which I’d already been using to build in lots of custom functionality. And so I started writing my first plugin.

Volunteering

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There are many ways of getting involved in a WordCamp. WordCamp organizers have no shortage of tasks ranging from small things, like room monitor or runners, to larger tasks like designing the logo or the site or maintaining the blog. There are day-of-the-event tasks that need to happen, like setup and tear down and registration, and there’s lots of pre-event organizational stuff.

Many WordCamps have a “Happiness Bar” where all you need to do is sit down at a table and answer people’s questions about WordPress. This is what I did at my first WordCamp and I highly recommend it. I met some really smart people and learned some ways of doing things that I didn’t know before, but I was also able to help a bunch of people with specific questions they had with their sites. You don’t need to be a WordPress “expert” to volunteer at a Happiness Bar or support room, you just need to know how to find the information you need. Usually, it’s as easy as looking it up on the Codex or finding the right plugin.

If you volunteer at a WordCamp, you’ll usually get a WordCamp t-shirt (sometimes an alternate design or color will be reserved for volunteers to wear the day of the event) and free entry to the WordCamp, which is great if you just can’t afford the ticket price (although, most WordCamps are pretty inexpensive, usually around ~$20, and well worth the cost).

Speaking

A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of presenting at a WordCamp (or in front of any audience, really). Once again, you don’t need to be some kind of “expert” to speak at a WordCamp–you just need to have a story. Everyone has a story. Everyone has that one thing that they didn’t know how to do, and they searched on support forums and blog posts and finally, finally figured out some solution that worked just right. There’s a reason you’re using WordPress and many of the best presentations are just a matter of sharing that reason and the things you learned along the way.

When I gave my first WordCamp presentation, I’d never given a presentation before. I’d hardly even opened presenting tools like PowerPoint before. I’d done theatre in high school, so I was fairly comfortable in front of an audience, but I’d never tried to teach a room full of people. I hadn’t ever been to any other type of conference, either. I only had a single WordCamp to draw on for examples.  But I had something I could talk about–in this case, using WordPress child themes as a way to break into theme development–and so I dove in feet first.

The best presenters are human. Look at any State of the Word, what makes Matt a great speaker is that he talks to a room with hundreds of people in it as if he’s just talking to half a dozen. He engages his audience, he’s charming, he laughs, he asks questions. The first rule of any kind of presentation is that you don’t need to be perfect, and it’s often the imperfections that make your talk more memorable. No one wants to hear a robot talk. They want to see what you’ve done and know that they can get there, too.

Now, there’s a somewhat dark underbelly of WordCamp speaking, which is that, since the barrier to entry for becoming a speaker at a WordCamp is often so low, you might get more self-serving speakers who just want you to buy their new thingamajig or use their WordCamp speaking to be some sort of launchpad to becoming an internet superstar. I’ll be honest, when I first presented at a WordCamp, I was at least partially motivated by not-entirely-altruistic reasons–I wanted to get my design studio’s name out there; I wanted to get business.

Did it work? No. Not in the slightest.

But it did help me develop a taste for what speaking at a WordCamp is really about, and that’s sharing those things that helped make me more successful at whatever it is that I was doing or working on at the time with people who were eager to learn. And that led to other opportunities to speak and teach in other capacities. Which then led to more opportunities to learn more as I discovered things I didn’t know much about that I wanted to learn. Which then cycled back around to more teaching and presenting. The best presenters are those who know they are not experts in anything, but, instead, are open minded and always eager to learn more.

If you want to present at a WordCamp because you want to be one of the elite WordPress rock stars that everyone recognizes (you know, the kind of folks that get invited to host the DradCast), you’ll be disappointed. However, if you want to present because you’ve got something cool to share and you’re also eager to learn and meet interesting people who might know more than you in stuff you’re interested in, then WordCamps are for you.

Organizing

Your life as a WordCamp organizer. Just kidding. Sort of.

Being a WordCamp organizer is simultaneously a lot of work, and less work than you’d think. On one hand, there’s a lot of organizational stuff that is sort of worked out for you: the WordCamp planning site, maintained by WordCamp central, has everything literally laid out for you, and the WordCamp team has templates and things when you do become an organizer to help make your life easier.

There are four main things that you need to worry about:

  • Venue
  • Speakers
  • Food
  • Sponsors

Before I break these things down, let me make it extremely plain right now: you do not need to organize the entire WordCamp yourself. So stop it. I know, it’s hard. If you want something done right, do it yourself. I’m with you. But this is something you should not try to do without at least a couple people supporting you and helping to make it happen with you. If you have a local meetup group, that’s a great place to recruit co-organizers. And if not? Grab a couple friends. You don’t need to know anything about WordPress to help organize a WordCamp.

Venue

By far the trickiest part because it’s the one thing that there’s no boilerplate or template for. However, this often isn’t a huge problem–you just need to ask. For WordCamp SLC, we’ve held it at the University of Utah campus, an office building that had a couple large presentation rooms, and the City & County Building where the Salt Lake City Council holds its meetings.

In many cases, since WordCamps are not-for-profit, the host will give you the space for free, as was the case for us with the City & County Building. Other times, there will be a cost involved, which can usually be covered by WordCamp sponsorships. The most important things to keep in mind for venues are:

  • Reliable WiFi
  • Parking
  • Room capacity
  • Some area for lunch/mingling

Other things to look for are whether the venue is easy to get to via public transportation, are there hotels within walking distance, are the rooms available for presenting close to each other (or across a campus quad, for example). When looking at venues, you’ll also want to think about how many attendees you are expecting. WordCamp SLC has traditionally been pretty small and low-key, usually between 140 – 200 attendees, and this becomes important when we’re looking at room capacity for possible venues.

Once you have a venue, if you are planning on doing the WordCamp again next year, you probably want to stick to it, if you can. So, when considering venues, think not only about “is this the right fit for us this year” but also “would this be the right fit for us for years to come.” College campuses are usually good because often they will have state of the art conference rooms and ubiquitous WiFi, so that’s a good place to start. Co-working spaces are increasingly common and might also be a great option. If all else fails, ask around. WordCamp SLC 2013 was in the basement of an office building for a large realtor because one of our meetup regulars at the time knew a guy.

Speakers

An easy tactic for getting speakers for your WordCamp is taking the “if you build it, they will come” approach, e.g. you put up a call for speakers, and then sort through the responses and that becomes your speaker lineup. When we’ve done this for WordCamp SLC, we’ve had great local representation, but pretty much who applied is who presented, we didn’t have a whole lot of choosing to do. That can be both good and bad. If nothing else, you have much less control over the type of content that is being presented since you’re at the mercy of whoever filled out an application.

Having been a part of a couple of the WordCamp discussions that happened at the WordPress Community Summit at WordCamp SF last year, one thing I learned was that a lot of the really good, successful WordCamps don’t just rely on speaker submissions. Especially as we’re entering an era when gender representation in technology is an important topic on everyone’s mind, simply going off of who submitted a speaker application is not necessarily the best way to get speakers–particularly not if you are hoping for a more balanced speaker lineup.

What’s the solution? Ask!

Think of those people (in your area, or not) that you would like to hear speak. Then go ask them if they’d like to present at your WordCamp. You might be surprised by how many “yes” responses you get. If they’ve never presented before or don’t know what to talk about? No problem! Tell them you can help them work out a topic, and often there are local meetup groups that help people practice presenting that you could suggest.

And remember, speakers don’t need to be WordPress experts to speak at a WordCamp. Maybe you’ve got a really great Drupal user group in your area–there are tons of things WordPressers can learn from Drupal. Popular bloggers are great to invite to help share their blogging tips. Javascript is platform-agnostic and increasingly in demand for WordPress developers and agencies. For WordCamp SLC 2012, we had Tom Dickson from Blendtec come and talk about his viral marketing campaign, Will it Blend?  (it was awesome).

 Food

If you expect people to show up at your event and spend seven to eight hours there, you’re gonna have to feed them. Speaking from the perspective of a gluten-free vegan, I know exactly how difficult it can be to plan for all dietary needs, not to mention allergies. The best approach is to ask. When I had committed to attending the contributor days and community summit at WordCamp SF 2014, Jen emailed me, personally, to say “Here’s what we’re thinking about doing for lunch; would this work for you?” I felt flattered and delighted that the WordCamp organizers cared enough about my dietary restrictions (and anyone in the same boat as me) to check with me, personally.

Planning food in advance is complicated. There are vegetarians and there are vegans. There are other dietary restrictions like allergies or intolerances. There might be some crossover between some of these, but it’s not a guarantee. Providing a vegetarian option might not be good enough for serious vegans who need to avoid cheese and dairy. Make sure your registration form includes different food options so you can get an idea of how many attendees you can expect with different dietary needs and enlist the help of someone with some amount of experience if you’re lost in a sea of lacto-ovo-pescatarians and other strangely-named hybrid diets. Plan to have at least one vegetarian/vegan option in addition to your meat-tastic option, and plan to get enough of the veggie option to cover people who fill out “meat-eater” (or whatever your registration form lists for lunch choices) and then decide that the veggie option looks good, too.

Food is also something to be thinking about when planning your speaker dinner. Make sure that wherever you choose for your speaker dinner has at least one (and ideally more than one) vegetarian or vegan option. And ask your speakers if they have any special dietary considerations so you can take that into consideration–maybe you don’t need to worry about it because all your speakers are meat-eaters.

 Sponsors

Sponsors are the one thing you probably need to worry about least. Unless you don’t get any. There are some sponsors who will sponsor all WordCamps and you can find out who those sponsors are in your area on WordCamp Central. WordCamp budgets are typically lean–you aren’t in it to make money, speakers are unpaid, and any profit goes back to the WordPress Foundation, so you don’t need a huge amount of sponsors to cover your expenses. Moreover, WordCamps are backed by the WordPress Foundation, which can help financially if need be, but typically a WordCamp will cover its own baseline expenses through a combination of ticket prices and sponsorships.

The planning site has some fantastic information about how to approach potential sponsors and what types of businesses to approach. You might even end up with an overabundance of sponsor requests. If this is the case–you’re fully funded and don’t need any more sponsorships–ask these potential sponsors if they’d be willing to provide some kind of in-kind service or giveaway.

Finances are always intimidating, and possibly even more so if you’re dealing with money that’s not your own. The WordCamp planning site makes this easier by providing some budget spreadsheet templates and a bunch of example budgets from different WordCamps. If you’re still intimidated, delegate all the accounting stuff to someone more comfortable with it or find a volunteer who can be your WordCamp’s treasurer.

Other stuff

There are loads of other things to consider when organizing a WordCamp, but they’re all detailed and explained on the planning site. The stuff that most people will remember from your WordCamp, though, (besides the presentations, the socializing, the fantastic venue and the amazing food, of course) is the swag. So plan ahead, make sure you have at least one designer on board or who you can reach out to for a logo or an overall design for the WordCamp, and come up with some creative items to give speakers and attendees as WordCamp swag.

T-shirts and stickers are always easy to have printed–find some local businesses that can take care of this rather than doing something online (remember, WordCamps are hyper-local events and should spotlight as many local businesses as possible, even outside the WordPress community). These days, WordCamps often have far more swag than just t-shirts and stickers, of course, so be creative and see what else you can find. Maybe some potential sponsors make a product that can be customized and given away as speaker gifts or swag.

Another thing to think about is video. Most WordCamps have videos of each session posted on WordPress.tv after the event, but this doesn’t happen magically. The WordPress Foundation will donate video equipment, but some WordCamp organizers might want to reach out to local video production companies to take care of recording and editing the presentations. If you aren’t having someone take care of the whole recording and editing process, you’ll want to assign some volunteers to be room monitors to man the video equipment for each session.

After the WordCamp, make sure to get slides from all your speakers so those can be used in the presentation videos. If you  have a volunteer willing to donate (a pretty significant amount of) time and experience to edit the videos, that’s great. You can submit completed videos through the submit video form on WordPress.tv. If not, don’t worry, you can hit up the WordPress.tv team in the #wptv Slack channel. Introduce yourself as one of the organizers of your WordCamp and ask if they would be willing to help you with processing the videos from your event.

At least at the time of this writing, it’s often the case that they’ll have a minimal moderation queue and the time and resources to actually edit the videos for you. If that’s the case, you might be invited to upload your files to a WordCamp-specific file dump and they’ll take care of editing and posting the videos to WordPress.tv. This is by far the easiest solution for organizers because video editing generally requires at least some amount of specialized training and experience and takes time. We’re super-lucky to have a WPTV team willing to take care of this stuff for us, so if the resources are there, by all means use them! I owe a lot to Michael Wiginton who took care of most of the videos from WCSLC last year.

Have fun!

Whether you are attending, speaking or organizing your first WordCamp, don’t forget to have fun. The WordPress community is full of smart, interesting people, and WordCamps are one of the few opportunities many of us have to be around each other, so make the most of it. Besides all the learning during the actual camp, there will often be afterparties where you can hang out and the “hallway track” is often the thing that habitual WordCamp attendees and speakers look forward to most. Even if you aren’t planning on attending the afterparty, you can still enjoy yourself and make new friends or reunite with old ones.

Keep a look out on the WDS blog for WordCamps or other events where you might spot WDSers and don’t forget to say “hi!” if you’re planning on going to one of those events!

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