Beyond 101: Attend WordCamp

(Warning: This is a LONG post.  Like, seriously long.  If you don’t have a lot of interest in WordPress, you may not enjoy reading much of this post.  And that’s totally cool – feel free to skip over this one.  You won’t hurt my feelings.  However, if you do want to know more about what a WordPress conference is like, keep on scrolling down.  Either way, thanks for stopping by, and for reading this far – I truly appreciate it.  Okay, on with the post…) 

I have been writing and publishing content in online formats (i.e., blogging) since 2003.  I created my first blogs using a very basic service called Blogger.  The templates Blogger provided were incredibly easy to use, and I was able to transition from zero knowledge of blogging to getting an online space up and running in literally 30 minutes.  (Talk about immediate gratification – it was terrific!)  I spent a few years with Blogger, but after a while I wanted an online space that was more customizable.  I did a bit of poking around, and learned that WordPress was a fairly easy-to-use service, yet provided significant opportunities for customization to their ever-growing menu of templates.  After some thought, I decided to make the move from Blogger to WordPress – and I honestly haven’t looked back.

The promise that lured me to WordPress has held true: I have been able to apply ready-made templates to an online space carved out just for me, then easily tweak each template to give the space my own feel and flair.  Had that been all WordPress delivered to me, I would have been quite happy.  However, after engaging in the space for a few months, I realized that WordPress has a very strong community of professional designers and support staff, as well as everyday end-user bloggers who contribute to the space “for fun and for free”.  I found myself slowly being supported in ways that were truly unthinkable when using Blogger; indeed, the staff and volunteers at WordPress provide opportunities for all users to develop the craft of writing, to learn new technical skills, and to interact with people all over the world.

So far, all of my WordPress education and networking has been done virtually/online.  But. Last year I read about WordCamps, which are conferences that focus on a variety of WordPress-related topics, and which take place in cities all over the world.  I immediately looked at the schedule of upcoming WordCamps, but was disappointed to learn that no gatherings were even remotely close to me.  I left a comment on the blog post that described this event, expressing my desire to attend a WordCamp conference should it ever find its way to the Twin Cities.  Then I went on with my life, fairly confident that the odds of me getting to attend a WordCamp were very slim.

When the list of 2013 WordCamp sites was published, I perused the list mostly out of curiosity; but when my eyes landed on a line that read “Minneapolis”, I was thrilled!  I immediately went to the site-specific details, and learned that not only was WordCamp coming to my own back yard, but that the cost of a day-long pass was a mere $20.  Double goodie!  Without hesitation, I signed up for the conference.  I didn’t know exactly what would occur during the day-long session, but I figured if it was about WordPress and designed by WordPress, it was probably going to be good.  And even if the experience was less-than-stellar, I was only out a few hours and $20.  It was a gamble I was willing to take.

After weeks of waiting, WordCamp finally arrived.  I learned that the experience was segmented into three distinct tracks: Continuing Education, School of Business, and School of Design & Technology.  Furthermore, each track offered two Beginner, two Intermediate, and two Advanced sessions.  I read through a 3-4 sentence summary of every offering, then chose the ones that appealed the most to me.  With my decisions in hand, I was ready to experience WordCamp – and experience it I did.  Here’s the recap of how my day went down:

8 am: Registration

  • WordCamp was held at a local community college – and finding the right segment of conference rooms amid the many options spread out across a large campus was more of a challenge than I had expected.  Somewhere in the middle of my stumbling I met G, a young-ish professional working for a non-profit who had just been handed the job title of “webmaster”.  Her organization uses WordPress as the basis of their website – so she was attending the session to learn information that would hopefully help her at her job.
  • Together G and I found the conference registration tables, where we each collected our name bade and schedule card.  After settling in, G and I chatted for 20 minutes or so, then made our way to a lecture hall to hear the Opening Remarks.

8:30 am: Opening Remarks

Attendee Demographics:

  • The conference hall probably sat 200 people or so; and every seat was taken.  Attendees who had arrived later than G and I stood along the walls, and/or leaned in through open doors from the hallway.
  • Of the 225 (or so) people seated in the lecture hall, 100% of us were white.  Try as I might, I did not see one black face in the crowd.  Interesting.
  • The gender mix of us was around 70% men, 30% women – which surprised me.  I imaged there to be more female bloggers than male ones.  Again, interesting.
  • The average age range of the group was somewhere in the mid 30s to late 50s.
  • As I looked at the faces around me, I saw lots of glasses, scruffy beards, and stern faces.
  • Curious by the composition of the audience, I started casually chatting with some individuals and asking them about their motivation for coming to WordCamp – and learned that most people in attendance were here for work (either for a company, a non profit, or as a freelancer) – not for fun.  Interesting…
  • Roughly half of the participants were first-time WordCamp attendees.  (There was a show of hands.)

Content Shared (highlights):

  • Recognition of sponsors (whose generosity allowed us all to attend WordCamp for only $20 – and so to whom I am truly grateful).
  • Recognition of volunteers (whose time and effort allowed us all to attend a well-organized and expertly designed conference experience – and so to whom I am also very grateful).
  • Of the eight primary volunteers formally recognized, only one was a woman.  Hmm…
  • Run down of the day: three hour-long sessions, then lunch (provided by the community college – very strategic), three more hour-long sessions, then swag pick-up followed by post-conference party.
  • Swag: A pint glass.  Post-conference party: a kegger at the office building of a local software development company.  Yeah, given the faces I’m seeing in this crowd, that seems about right…
  • Instructions on where the first sessions were occurring, then a wish that we all have a great time.  I was really looking forward to it!  I left for my first session excited and happy.

9 am: Session #1: Quickly and Easily Measure WordPress Performance

Session Description: “Come learn how to quickly and easily identify issues with your WordPress site. We’re going to apply some very simple principles to find performance leaks in your plugins and themes and patch them. You will leave this session with the knowledge and tools to improve WordPress plugin and theme performance and by proxy, increase your SEO.” (School of Design & Technology, Intermediate)

Why I decided to attend: The desire to make my blog site even better than it is, and the promise of being able to do so in “simple” ways.

 How the session went:

  • Probably 100 people in the room.
  • The speaker was from California, and was very amusing (at times, even outright funny).  Just one example: He started his session with a mic test – but instead of choosing to be boring and simply say “Test, test”, he began beatboxing.  Sweet.   
  • Within the first five minutes of his talk, he shared an info graphic that had some pretty crazy statistics.
  • After another five minutes, though, the session got pretty technical.  However, the speaker did a great job of checking-in periodically throughout his presentation to make sure the audience was still with him; interestingly, nearly everyone in the room was keeping up.  It seemed that I was in the minority of people slowly getting left behind.
  • While the presentation was over my head for a good portion of the time, I thought it was good for me to sit through and at least get familiar with some more technical language, if nothing else…
  • I left the session a tiny bit less enthusiastic than when I arrived, but still pretty happy.

10 am: Session #2: Planning For Failure – Basic Security Practices

Session Description: “WordPress has grown in popularity since it was first launched in 2003 as a blogging platform. Today is accounts for 22% of all new websites created. It has a growing community; it has also become a popular playground for hackers to wreak havoc on sites that aren’t properly secured.  WordPress has few security systems in place and presents multiple opportunities for hackers. This presentation will highlight 5 basic tips to secure your WordPress web site and keep hackers out.” (Continuing Education, Beginner)

Why I decided to attend: The idea of someone hacking my account and wiping away years of work I have done literally makes my stomach tighten with anxiety.  If I can learn just five simple things to do to help prevent that, I definitely want to.

 How the session went:

  • This speaker was pretty much the exact opposite of the previous session’s speaker.  A single mom for 9 years, this self-made WordPress expert is a self-employed home-based freelancer living in rural Wisconsin.
  • The positive side of the presentation is that the speaker shared 5 main security vulnerabilities, and gave information on how to take action regarding each one to help ensure one’s site is as secure as possible
  • Presentation downside #1: Nearly all of the actions the speaker suggested we take were directed at website admins, not every day bloggers.  Indeed, unless I move my blog to a self-hosted domain, I can’t take nearly all of the actions she recommended.  So most of the content shared during this session simply didn’t apply to me.
  • Presentation downside #2: The speaker spoke at lightening speed, and literally read her incredibly text-dense slides to us.  I could barely keep up (and I type fast).  She finished her presentation in 15 minutes (and it should have taken at least 45 minutes, if not the full hour).
  • Presentation downside #3: Instead of leaving this session feeling more calm and confident, I exited the room feeling fearful – and very frustrated.  (My exact thoughts were along the lines of, “Oh my god, some crazy hacker can probably tear down my site in three clicks, and there won’t be a damn thing I can do about it [either preventatively, or post-attack].”) Not exactly the experience I was hoping for from this session.  Sad.  😦

Feeling more discouraged, I took a deep breath, and made my way to Session #3.  I was hoping for a change in the direction this day was headed – but I wasn’t confident that my wish would be granted…

11 am: Session #3: The Power Of Custom Types

Session Description: “Custom post types (CPTs), and custom taxonomies are very powerful features WordPress has had since version 2.9. However, many people are still doing things in a convoluted and unmaintainable manner. This presentation aims to inspire members of the audience to use CPTs in their next project. Topics covered include: CPT and taxonomy basics, CPT related tips and tricks, and a showcase of select plugins that utilize CTPs.” (Continuing Education, Intermediate)

Why I decided to attend: The keyword “taxonomy” caught my attention; I thought this session might help me understand how to better leverage the ‘categories’ and ‘tags’ feature in WordPress to add more organizational power to my blogs.

 How the session went:

  • This speaker was a hybrid of the guy from Session #1 and the woman from Session #2: He was a bit ‘geeky’ (i.e., somewhat awkward presenting in front of large groups of non-technical folk, but completely at home when the conversation focused on computer code and functions) and spoke semi-fast, but did make a conscious effort to be personable, and to keep his pace in check.  And he even told a few jokes, too.  (They were computer jokes that only a programmer could love, but hey, at least he tried…)
  • Slide 8 of the presentation displayed a page of code that I didn’t understand.
  • Slide 9 of the Power Point deck showed another full page of code that I didn’t understand.
  • Slide 13 (?) continued with more code that made no sense to me.
  • At this point in the lecture, I mentally checked out.  So I took this opportunity to explore out the speaker’s website – and I didn’t understand most of the content there, either.  Ten minutes into Session #3, I thought that I was in over my head with these sessions… and I felt full-on frustrated and misled.  I expected a fun, interesting, helpful blogging conference, but instead I was in the midst of a computer coding event, amid people I couldn’t relate to, hearing information I couldn’t take any action on.  I felt like an idiot.

Noon: Lunch.

  • During the hour we had for lunch, I reflected on my experience with the conference thus far.  I had started the morning so hopeful and excited; but at this point in the day, I was feeling pretty deflated – and trending towards defeated…
  • I strongly considered leaving the conference at this point (as I certainly had so many other things I could have been doing with the precious few hours left in my day), but I decided to stick with it because:
  1. I was curious about some of the afternoon sessions (even though I realized that I probably wouldn’t be able to take any action about the content shared at each lecture),
  2. I wanted to give the day a fair shot (and to leave halfway through the day felt like I might be ‘cheating’ the experience),
  3. I wanted to see what helpful items might be raffled at the closing remarks. (Maybe I could score a cool sweatshirt or nice laptop protector or something…)
  • While I imagined that the afternoon wouldn’t be exactly outstanding, I hoped for at least one or two decent experiences post-lunch….
  • One upside from the morning: I received confirmation that I am not an overly technical gal, and that I prefer ‘softer skills’ types of activities (writing, communicating, connecting) to ‘harder skills’ types of tasks (computer programming, math, analyzing).  So if I ever have delusions that I could give up my day job and do some WordPress back-end work as a new career option, let me remember this day, and not jump from a frying pan into a fire.  🙂

With some food in my belly (and some caffeine in my blood stream), I headed to the 1 pm session more balanced, if not overly excited…

1 pm: Session #4: Rocking The Responsive Web

Session Description: “Up until the last few years, it was completely acceptable to design/develop a new website for one size of monitor. But by the end of this year, over 50% of Americans will use their phone or tablet as their primary web browsing device. Are the sites that you are creating ready? In this talk, I discuss reasons why responsive is the best way to develop new websites, as well as the best techniques I’ve discovered after two years of full-time development of responsive websites.” (School of Design & Technology, Advanced)

Why I decided to attend: I don’t design websites, but the other two sessions offered during this time slot (a freelancer panel discussion, and an exploration of how to use WordPress as a newspaper platform) were less relevant and less interesting to me than this one.  Instead of just sitting around for an hour waiting for the 2 pm session, I decided to check out this topic.

How the session went:

  • This topic was a very popular one; approximately 125 people came to this session.
  • The speaker was a very funny guy (in a geeky humor kind of way).   He was incredibly animated, yet also clearly very smart, but still also incredibly personable, and was genuinely generous and kind… his demeanor was similar to a terrific TED presenter.  When he spoke, I felt super-engaged in everything he was saying – even the very technical jargon I didn’t understand at all.  Just goes to show that content is only half the story; packaging is the other half.  A good life lesson…
  • The first five minutes of the presentation was a line-by-line demo of HTML code (which I do understand) and the resulting actions.  The speaker displayed a humorous set of on-screen actions, each becoming more silly and obnoxious than the preceding one; it was quite a clever stand-up act (for a geek conference).  Which we were all at. So it was cool.
  • While some of the technical how-tos during this session were above my head, I actually learned a lot of good info from this hour.  For example, I learned that a “responsive” site is one that is designed on a flexible, grid-based layout, with flexible images and media – so that the site can be scaled to fit any size screen (desktop, iPad, mobile phone, etc.).  Media queries (sent from the device that is pinging the site) are used to determine the page layout/configuration that displays.  Responsive sites also address factors like bandwidth constraints, interaction type (touch, keyboard), accessibility…
  • The speaker shared lots of stats about how people access the internet; here are a few that kinda blew me away:
    • 1.03 billion smart phones are in use today.
    • 55% of people access the internet primarily using a mobile device.
    • 61% of people leave a website if it isn’t easy to access on their mobile device.
  • A key point the speaker stressed is that responsive design doesn’t improve the user experience only for people using a mobile device; responsive design actually improves the experience for ALL users, using ALL methods of computing (phones, laptops, desk computers…).
  • Two quick tips for responsive sites that I found interesting:
    • Use flexible grids: Pixel size is out. Percents are in.
    • Use media queries: They provide different layouts for different screens (orientation, size, whether touch exists [or not], whether retina display exists [or not]), and are device agnostic.
  • During the Q&A part of the session, someone asked a question about how to begin designing a responsive site.  (Specifically, he start with the desktop experience, then work ‘backwards’ into mobile; or does he start with the mobile experience, then work into desktop?)  The speaker responded that he designs mobile first, because he wants to start with the most constrained area first.  When he does that (i.e., work with the most limiting factors first), everything that follows is more likely to be good, too.  (I think this is sound advice not only for web design, but for life in general.  Another good lesson extracted from this conference.)
  • For a session I wasn’t super-excited to attend, this hour turned out to be the best one in my day so far….

2 pm: Session #5: Advanced Technical SEO For WordPress

Session Description: “You’ve got keywords, titles and great content already. But there’s really a lot more to SEO. In this session, we’ll dig into advanced technical tactics to kick your WordPress SEO into high gear.  We’ll discuss duplicate content challenges in WordPress and the technical tweaks to control them, advanced content markup using Schema specifications, authorship, and how to update your permalink structure without bolluxing your existing traffic/rankings. We’ll also suggest tools
and plug-ins every master of WordPress SEO should have at their command.” (Continuing Education, Advanced)

Why I decided to attend: SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is the ‘holy grail’ of many websites.  If there are settings that can be adjusted and actions that can be taken to help increase website visibility (or help a site stay under the Google radar, depending on one’s preferences), I’d like to learn about them.

How the session went:

  • The speaker for this session was a classic female geek.  In fact, I think she might have been autistic. (Her demeanor, language, and mannerisms all reminded me of Temple Grandin [a female autistic scientist who is well-known for many incredible inventions].)  {Please note that my assessment of this speaker isn’t intended to be derogatory, just factual.}
  • The speaker began her talk by stating that basic site maintenance has to come before advanced features (like SEO), and that a site needs to have its own domain for advanced SEO to work well.
  • She further stated that a user should start with a solid SEO plug-in before pursuing advanced SEO, and that plug-ins are required for advanced SEO usage.

I left the session at this point.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to use/do any of the things that were about to be presented in the remaining time, so after just five minutes of listening to the speaker I stood up, walked across the room, and made my way to the back door.  Reviewing the descriptions of the two remaining sessions, I made my way to….

Using Pressbooks To Become Your Own Digital Publisher

  • PressBooks.com is to book publishing what WordPress.com is to blogging – namely a free, easy-to-use, generously supported way to convert a Word document into an online published book (and to get it distributed to all the major online literary retailers).
  • The free version of PressBooks limits a user to 4 books; if a person wants to publish 5 or more different titles, they need to pay for the service and use PressBooks.org.
  • Everything an author would ever want or need to specify for a book is included in the PressBooks configuration settings – so this is a great resource for me to look through as I create my own book (even if I never publish it online).
  • When exported, PressBooks auto generates all of the features and settings that typically trip-up less technically-minded authors (things like the Table of Contents, typeset formatting, hyperlinks within the text that allows a reader to move between chapters, etc.) – so cool!
  • An author can also use PressBooks to have people edit his/her book – which eliminates the burden of exchanging paper files or huge online files.  (A PressBook site can be made private if the author doesn’t want anyone to see the work before he/she is “ready”.)
  • The open source version of PressBooks can also support code in the book.  This means that an author can actually program a book!  (I.e., an author can create a dynamic book that changes based on date, or a triggering event, or allowing reader comments to be integrated into the text…)  So, so cool!
  • Even though I arrived to this session 10 minutes late, I got a TON out of it.  In fact, I think I got more out of this 25 minute session than out of most of the other sessions combined.  This session is what I had hoped the entire day would be like!  I’m really, really glad I stayed for the afternoon portion of this conference.

3 pm: Session #6: Stop Making Things Pretty And Start Designing

Session Description: “Design is not just about themes, graphics, or the look-and-feel of a website. We will discuss ‘design thinking’ as a problem solving strategy, including why the most beautiful sites are not always the most successful. We will end with some ways for you to start applying ‘design thinking’ principles to all of your projects.” (School of Design & Technology, Beginner)

Why I decided to attend: I have had exposure to ‘design thinking’ in the past, and appreciate both the beauty and value of this way of viewing the world.  I try to take advantage of any opportunities I have to further develop (or refine) my design skills/ sensibilities.

How the session went:

  • Of all the PowerPoint presentations I saw during the day, the deck for this session was the most skillfully done.  It combined relevant information with simplicity and beauty; it was design thinking in action.  🙂
  • The ‘levers’ that impact design include: Line, color, shape, texture, space, hierarchy, scale, contrast, unity, Gestalt (sum is greater than parts), typography, balance, pattern.
  • Design is multidisciplinary: aesthetics, usability, structure, strategy…
  • The FOUNDATION of design: Be. Deliberate.  Consider:
  1. What is most important?
  2. Why is the ‘most important’ stuff really the most important?
  • To design well, start with feelings.  Then translate those feelings into goals.  Then transform those goals into executable strategies.
  • To create something that is designed well, separate the content from the visuals.  Iterate on the content by itself, and iterate on the visuals by themselves.
  • How does a person start to begin thinking like a designer?
    • See the Big Picture and the Details
    • Question, Understand, and Interpret
    • Be Deliberate and Always Ask Why
    • Solve the Problem (it’s not about you)
    • Be Agile: communicate, collaborate, iterate
    • Always continue learning…

Amen.

4 pm: Closing Remarks

  • Just like the beginning of the day, all 225 of us conference attendees gathered into the main hall, and heard a few brief parting remarks.  (The speaker recognized that most of us were quite tired and rather overheated, so he wisely kept his comments short.  He reminded us of the after-party, made a plug for the mini-conference occurring the next day, and conducted the raffle drawing.)
  • I didn’t win anything from the raffle; but that’s okay.  I did acquire a lot of new knowledge today – and that is much more valuable to me than a sweatshirt or a coffee mug.
  • When the conference officially closed, I collected my swag, then made my way to my car.  I considered attending the after party, but once I started driving, I headed for the freeway home.  I was pooped.  The thought of spending even an hour mingling with strangers was exhausting to me; the thought of spending the evening with my sweetie and the puppies was energizing to me.  My choice was clear.  I went home.

Final thoughts on the day:

  • After being at the conference for a while, I learned that generally speaking, WordCamp is more about sharing ideas and less about teaching specific how-tos.  Once I understood that, I enjoyed the various sessions a lot more.
  • I am really proud of myself for sticking with it and staying the entire day.  The hunch I had during the lunch hour was correct: If I had left at noon, I would have had a much different perception of the WordCamp experience than the one I carried out with me at 4:15 pm.
  • Lots of seeds have been planted in my brain – and I wonder when, where, and how they might crop up in the coming weeks, months, and maybe even years….

I’m glad that I attended and learned what WordCamp was about first-hand; but now that I’ve experienced it, I don’t know that I need to do it again. I don’t know if all WordCamps are designed to be more for power-users of the WordPress.org platform and features, or if some WordCamps are geared more for everyday let’s-write-for-fun bloggers like me.  But I now know the focus of the Minneapolis group – and it’s cool, but just not my bag.  For now.  But who knows, one day I might become a WordPress.org user – in which case my perspective and needs might change.  For now, though, I think I’m good.

Stef

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About Stef

A "serious" gal who is trying to remember to lighten up and smile.
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2 Responses to Beyond 101: Attend WordCamp

  1. I’ve been wanting to take my blog to the next level and I quickly realized that I needed to learn more about the workings of WordPress. I appreciate the insights you’ve provided about the conference. Wondering if I need to hit B & N for a WordPress For Dummies!

    Like

    • Stef says:

      I’m glad you found the insights helpful! Depending on the level of help you need and the info you want to learn, you may be able to find out a lot from the online forums. But a “Dummies” type book might be faster (or at least more streamlined). 🙂 Good luck!

      Like

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