It Was Actually Quite Sunny in Philadelphia – WordCamp US Wrapup

Our Philly adventures seem like forever ago now, because so much has happened since then – Meetabout Australia (Prospress company meetup in the land downunder), the wonderful madness of Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. But, it has only been a few short weeks and now that the excitement of December is done, perhaps it’s not too late to recap some of the highlights of WordCamp US.

Earlier in December, WordCamp US 2016 collected over 1800 WordPress enthusiasts in the Convention Centre in downtown Philly; all eager for scheduled tracks, hallway tracks, afterparties, and after-after parties. If you weren’t able to make it along this year, fix yourself a cheesesteak sandwich and grab a craft beer, because I took a lot of notes to help you recreate the experience in the comfort of your own home. Unfortunately you’ll have to miss out on the sweet, sweet swag.

But if you see anything that particularly piques your interest, a lot of the talks are already up on WordPress TV, and some people were faster with their recaps, such as Mika Epstein, and Web Dev Studios.

It’s WordCamp US!

Our Friday forecast was for an early and sunny morning with 100% chance of coffee! We weren’t entirely sure what to expect, as it was the first time any of us had attended WCUS in its current incarnation. Brent and I had both been to WordCamp in San Francisco, but never to the official WordCamp US. The three members of Prospress in attendance brought very different levels of experience with WordCamps overall: it was Lauren’s first WordCamp, my sixth, and Brent’s thousandth (or thereabouts).

After being registered by the marvellous volunteers, we made our way straight to our chosen sessions. As the developer sessions were more in Lauren’s wheelhouse, and the general talks were more in mine, we separated to the appropriate sessions.

Creativity, Open Source, Improv, Science

First up was Sara Cannon, whose talk covered the way in which creativity comes from positivity, the value of using positivity in science, how open source is employed in data and in science, and the risks of vulnerability in open source.

https://twitter.com/Prospress/status/804711870871506948

Sarah’s talk was one of the highlights of WordCamp for me – such that when I unexpectedly had the chance to meet her the next day I may have fangirled a little bit (sorry Sarah).

I loved Sarah’s assertion that creative confidence is not something you are born with, but that you can shape your mindset towards creativity (by saying yes and, a technique employed in improv). This positive, creative response means you can then think about the solution rather than focusing on the problem.

Collaboration

We are all continually building on the shoulders of others through both passive and active collaboration. Passive collaboration is always happening, as we are always incorporating each other’s ideas, and taking inspiration from each other’s work. While passive collaboration is always happening, active collaboration is usually the most obvious: this is when we are actively working together, and putting our creative heads together. One relevant example for this community is the way contributions are made to WordPress core.

Creativity and Open Source

Sarah believes that creativity and open source go hand in hand: e.g. contribution to WordPress core is the result of many people coming together to make a project better. But even when you put code on GitHub, it’s not because you are saying it’s perfect. It’s up there for comment and review and improvement. Open source should be thought of as the long game, and as a symphony. It’s not just about discrete projects and code.

A lot of companies are starting to share their design process and are even sharing their internal processes. One example is Facebook, with a trend of transparency through more open dialogue about projects. For me, this linked back to the discussion between Tom Willmott and Scott Basgaard at Publish the day before. They questioned how we can do better as a community to open source our processes, especially for hiring and training of junior staff.

How Can I Get Started?

And for everyone wondering how they can contribute, Sarah had some clear and practical advice. Start just by writing about what you are thinking and what you are working on. You can start by sharing your design process or your creative process.

You can open source your thought by writing, blogging, putting code snippets up and saying why you did it that way. Document your code properly so people can see why you made certain decisions. Then others can use those assets and that methodology, and will know what you did and why you did what you did in building something new.

In conclusion: it’s important to collaborate, put yourself into the mix, say yes, and to ideas, and open up to problems.

Five newsroom tips for better content

The second session I attended on Friday was with Andrea Zoellner, who offered us five newsroom tips for better content.

But first, she shocked us with some startling stats: in a survey by Ipsos only 18% of respondents think journalists are trustworthy, so why should we listen to them and take tips on how to improve our content?

Well, Andrea dropped the news that bloggers have a 6% trust rating. So we clearly have something to learn in order to reach the lofty heights of 18% trust in journalism!

Andrea’s five tips were as follows:

1. Know your audience

  • This means using the language appropriate to the audience
  • The objective of communicating is only complete if the receiver perceives the message the way you intended

2. Don’t bury the lede (the lede is the key information of the article)

  • Put that information up front, in the first sentence or at least in the first part of the article. Don’t push the good information to the second paragraph, as there is a risk that readers will bounce off the page
  • Remember the concept of “below the fold” (originates in newspapers), which means that anything below the fold is less important information, and the readers might not click on or engage with it
  • If you are able to hold the attention of a visitor to your website for 3 minutes, they are twice as likely to buy as if you hold attention for 1 minute. The problem is that 55% of visitors spend less than 15 seconds on a page
  • Know your audience – what are the most popular browsers, from where are they accessing your content, and at what time. It will help you target your copy more directly

3. Observe the style guide

  • Your organisation or industry will have a guide establishing rules of tone and layout of web content (and if your organisation does not have one, it’s time to get one!)
  • Observe the nitty gritty details such as: photo captions to be in 10 point, whether or not to use the Oxford comma, and so on
  • Some compelling reasons to have a style guide include: it ensures your organisation is consistent, professional, intentional (something that helps with onboarding), and always on-brand

4. Ask the copy editor to re-read your article or work.

  • It is important to get a second pair of eyes on whatever you do
  • Traditionally, a journalist would have the editor read their story in order to check it was true, then the copy editor would trim the fat, then the line editor would check for accuracy
  • Most of us do not have a staff of three different editors to review our work. In this case, it’s perfectly fine to get a friend to re-read, or to ask a colleague or a partner
  • You could also invest in good grammar checker like WhiteSmoke or Grammarly. It can mean the difference between whether messages are understood or whether they are lost

5. Regret the error (or avoid the error)

  • There are two sides to this: 1. in practical terms, you will regret the error if you don’t catch it, and 2. it’s important to publish an apology if you make an error
  • It’s embarrassing to publish broken links, and inaccuracies
  • Not to mention, we’ve all seen kind of destruction that happens when someone publishes one bad tweet

Helping FBI to photoblog

This talk by Karl Kevilus was really fascinating. Karl is the founder of Bandit Tracker, which has fostered many offshoot local sites focusing on specific cities, for example St Louis.

Karl can get images of bank robbers/bandits onto his blog faster than the FBI can get them up on their own site, as everything in the FBI is centralised and has to be approved before it can be published on the local sites. Being able to publish photos quickly means a greater likelihood of catching the bandit as the images get out to the public while the trail is still hot.

With his unexpected success has come issues of scalability; as Karl said quite bluntly: “Any idiot can build a website: I’m proof of that”. But after the FBI produced a press release directing readers to Bandit Tracker, Karl received a phone call from his host because the website was frying the hosting server. The sudden spike in traffic shut down the website. That was when he knew it was time to find a good host!

In addition, Karl has set up a Roku channel called Suspect TV, which now has 35000 subscribers. That’s 35K people subscribed to a channel that streams images of bank robbers.

Bandits have also been caught by their own vanity: fake websites about a particular robbery were set up, and the robber visited the website several times, and the FBI was able to track his location. There is also now a BuddyPress site for robbery investigators.

So, basically, WordPress is helping the FBI to catch bank robbers. NBD.

The back end is dead

The room was packed for Courtney Wilburn’s talk, possibly with a lot of back end or full stack developers interested to find out how their field of expertise was dead!

https://twitter.com/Prospress/status/804766549596848128

During the hiring process, a lot of companies are not asking for knowledge of a specific language, they are asking for front end, back end, or full stack developers. Courtney says this distinction can be limiting. She prefers to see the skillset as a set of layers: a data layer, business logic layer, presentation layer, and operations layer.

Data layer

  • Could alternatively be called the managing data layer
  • Making API
  • Analysing and optimising relationships with data

Business logic layer

  • How a site works
  • Traditionally this is how we think about how the back end works, including data transformation
  • Some of the stuff that sits on the server side
  • As APIs become more available some of this logic will move to the client side – but if a developer is using Angular or React, are they still a back end developer. This raises the question of whether that distinction even makes sense anymore

Presentation layer

  • In the past, this was all lumped into the front end
  • It is now more complicated than it used to be
  • This layer includes how you interact with the stuff you see. It also includes the actual stuff you’re interacting with, as well as the stuff that’s bringing to life what you’re seeing

Operations layer

  • This layer is not often thought of as part of the stack
  • Companies often hire support and devops separately to those doing backend, but there is now an opportunity to cross-train people to do that
  • Just because it can be hard to figure out, it doesn’t mean a position like that should go unfilled

The big question for developers: “Where do I fit?”

Developers might ask, am I a business logics/operations developer or a full stack developer? You will most likely be a mix of layers.

The big question for human resources: “Who do I hire?”

The key is to hire several people who can cover each layer, as you are not likely hire someone who can cover all layers. It’s important to take a closer look at resumes because who you hire is not necessarily who you were initially thinking of, and the team can end up better off because of that.

WordPress as a CMS for museums

Courtney O’Callaghan explored the potential for WordPress as a CMS for museums. Patrons and museums have a two-way relationship – museums share collections with us but we can also share what museum means for us.

There are huge opportunities for digitisation of museum collections. For example, there are 156 million objects in the Smithsonian, with 146 million of those in natural history alone. Only 2% of the collection is on display at any time. That’s an incredible opportunity to digitise the collection and make it more freely available.

Another example of the scale of the opportunities available: the Met attracted 6.28 million visitors in person, but another 29 million visited the website and viewed the collections online. It is far more affordable for most people go onto the website and visit the collections, which increases accessibility to these important social, cultural, and historical artefacts. It struck me that this holds significant equity implications, something that the WordPress community is concerned with and addresses in real life and at WordCamps.

Why Should Museums Use WordPress?

So why did Courtney’s talk matter so much? WordPress is for blogs right? Well, in an informal study of 100 museums, it was found that Drupal and Joomla etc are running the front end of the sites, and WordPress is for their blog. This is important and unfortunate, because WordPress is free, and more cost effective, and with little training could be maintained by someone with minimal technical knowledge.

If museums don’t know they have more choices they won’t know they are in a position to what we actually want them to do and free the information. Museums are always operating on restricted budgets, trying to do what they can with hard earned money from grants and from donations from the public.

Museums are told that WordPress is for blogs and Drupal is more powerful for their actual site. This doesn’t promote the creation of a good network of resources or assets for museums to pull from. As an example, 6% of the Smithsonian collection is digitised. If we leave aside natural history, that figure comes up to 22% digitised. The ability to see that much of a collection is amazing.

However, most museums don’t have the budget of the Smithsonian: 64% of museums have less than 30 full time staff.

WordPress Activists, Unite (Like a Real-Life Wapuu Army)

Courtney issued a clear request, asking the WordPress community to reach into their activist hearts and see how they can help. Because the thing is, museums don’t have many resources and are risk averse.

Museums have very low levels of funding and they certainly don’t have a lot of money for something they can’t manage themselves.

She has talked to people both in the website world and museum world: it’s very hard to be brave when you don’t have a lot of resources. It’s not because museums don’t want to try, it’s because all their current resources are in one proprietary egg they’ve paid for, and they don’t want to break it.

The WordPress community needs to go to museums and tell them that there is a cheap, easy way to digitise.

It’s Time to Democratise Museums

Given that we are at a tech conference, there is a number of theme companies, and plugin developers who could offer eCommerce opportunities for museums. This would range from managing their ticketing, to subscriptions to the digital library, to offering virtual tours of the museum, to collecting funds from supporters.

The problem is that museums have proprietary systems that don’t fit together, and the museums themselves don’t have the tools to get them to fit together.

Timing is everything, and now is the time to help to build tools, to crack the authoritarian model that controls what people see, who sees it, and how they see it: in essence, democratising museums.

The museums that need the most help are the ones in small communities that are funded by 10 people. Courtney is currently working with Automattic to create a theme and a plugin to help with the art museum where she works. This theme and plugin might not work for everyone, but it will be a start from which other museums can build and customise to suit their needs.

Finding Your Voice by Blogging

Our second dose of Chris Lema in 72 hours saw him bring the late afternoon crowd to life.

Chris started out by telling us he has never had any problem with being a leader, and a public speaker.

Do you know what silenced me?, he asked the crowd, pausing dramatically: it was website.com/wp-admin and new post. Chris said he lost his voice in seconds, and it took weeks, even months to find it again.

And what did it take to get over the hump? For 3 years, he wrote a blog post almost every day.

So what are the steps you need to take in order to find your voice? Here are some things you need to stop, and some things you need to start doing.

STOP filtering your inner voice.

  • The part of your brain that writes and the part that shuts you down are different
  • It will help you to write the way you speak as it will come across as relational and will connect with your audience. But at the same time, try to sound smart and try to get all the punctuation right, because without a doubt, there is someone out there who will have a comment if you get it wrong
  • Chris reminded the audience that it’s your blog, it’s your website: you have control over the comments on your work. He said: I let people come into my house, I let them eat food out of my fridge, but if they spray paint on my walls I kick them out. So if people comment something you don’t like on your post, you can just press “delete”. And then undelete it just so you can delete it again.

START writing. A lot.

  • Don’t think about publishing, just write.
  • Get the words out. The process of getting the words out of your head is the journey
  • Write and write again
  • Try to develop the cognitive pathways between your thinking and your fingers and try to get the words on the page

STOP stressing. Press publish

  • Of course we are all scared that people who are smarter could come back and say it was wrong. When we publish opinions it’s possible we might get criticised
  • In that case, remember that “delete” button

START by copying from others

  • You might wonder: what kind of BS is that? We can’t plagiarise!
  • In this context, it means just imitate your heroes until you find your own way

STOP blending in

  • Chris told us the world is like a puzzle and each piece is unique, and for some reason, some people have taken their puzzle piece and have put it in their pocket
  • This means your voice is missing from the world
  • Stop blending in, and stop trying to be like everyone else – you are unique
  • Of course you don’t want to add to the crap in the world, but you are unique and your story is unique and that voice needs to be heard

START looking back: what motivates you?

  • What are the 5 best moments in your life?
  • What are the 5 moments where you were on a high, when you were thinking: I can’t believe this is happening to me, I can’t believe I get paid to do this – write those times down and find out what connects them. In those connections, you’ll find the threads of what is important to you

STOP tracking all the things

  • The objective is not to get 100 links in a day
  • The objective is to find your voice, because you can use it, in your blog and in real life

START collecting frames (shortcuts)

  • Most books, and movies work off frames or templates. I know personally most academic research articles work off basic templates
  • Chris gave us one of his frames:
  • tell a story about the problem,
  • recap some of the attempts to solve it,
  • highlight a new discovery I didn’t know was part of the problem,
  • then wrap it up
  • Movies work off frames/structures such that many people (including Chris’ wife) can work out the whole plot and the ending after the first 20 minutes of the movie
  • When writing, try to figure out “What are my structures I can use to write faster”
  • Chris wrote 1200 posts, across 6-9 months, using 4 frames, and discovered 1 voice (I guess he didn’t say it would be fast or easy)

Finally, Chris advised us that:
The small nag of insecurity in your head is silent for a reason.
Your voice is vocal because it is meant to be heard.

WordPress Reflections

I was hesitant to go along to the talk by Andrew Nacin, knowing that he was a WordPress lead developer, core contributor, release lead, and having heard his name spoken in reverent tones both at previous WordCamps and generally in the Twitterverse. I thought this would possibly be a technical session that I wouldn’t understand, but my assumptions couldn’t have been more wrong.

Andrew gave us a truly inspirational talk, linking the WordPress open source project to the importance of contributing to public service. He recalled that while he was not allowed to be postal worker like his father, he realised there is this thing that runs deep in my family, which is to help people move information. It just so happens that Andrew does it digitally via packets and not old-school via envelopes.

WordPress strives to serve the public good by democratising publishing. Public service and serving are not just about working in government. Working in WordPress allowed Andrew to make changes that affect 25% of the world. Publishing is important for governments, for dissidents, and for people around the world who need a voice. WordPress breaks news for journalists who need a place to publish.

Ethics and Values in Software Development

Andrew believes our industry is at a crossroads – with the rise of chatbots, self driving cars, and machine learning. There are serious opportunities to effect change through technology. Silicon Valley is in a literal bubble (not just financial bubble) – there are hundreds and thousands of startups competing for everyone’s attention.

It’s not just the fact that these startups are focused on developing products for the rich (e.g. there is a service in Silicon Valley that will send you quarters for your laundry).

There are ill-conceived notions of what it means to have ethics in software development. The fact is, that decisions made as software developers have an impact on the world around us.

Andrew presented the example of a self driving car – if it’s about to have a collision with another car, it has an imperative to avoid the car, but at the same time it has to decide several things. In avoiding the other car, it might endanger the driver, the passenger, a jaywalker, or someone at the sidewalk cafe.

While a computer will make a decision in a split second with a speed that the human brain simply cannot match, we need to ask ourselves whether we will like the decision it makes.

Where Developers Got it Wrong

After offering a laundry list of awful mistakes made with facial recognition, Andrew recalled how Google voice recognition software has a male voice bias. We all remember Microsoft’s chatbot, within hours it had developed hardline stances on immigration and concluded that Hitler was right. Another error was made by HP, when their software didn’t recognise dark skinned people. Facebook’s facial recognition is said to be significantly better than the FBI’s – but he can’t comment on that.

There are so many ethical questions we need to consider. For example, with respect to chatbots: do we need filters, and what are the ethics of teaching it not to say bad things? Who decided that code shouldn’t be written so the bot would not say hardline things? Who decides what is wrong to say?

What sort of diversity do the development teams have? Were there people on the teams who would have even been affected by software that generates negative racial stereotypes?

Inputs and Outputs

Software in itself is not exclusionary – software is not making these decisions – it is a reflection of the input it gets, which is a reflection of the team responsible for those inputs.

The idea of democratising publishing is ethereal. Andrew wrapped up by asking us to consider a public service career, giving voice to the voiceless both through WordPress and in government.

Page Builders – They Aren’t All Bad

I went to this session by Michelle Mizejewski with no idea that there was an intermediate layer between a simple WordPress install using themes out of the box, and coding a website from scratch. I learned that page builders are a plugin that allows drag and drop customisation of websites! Sounds great, I thought! I can’t wait to try one!

But it seems page builders have had a bad rap in the past, as they tend to insert shortcodes in the content. This is a problem if the plugin is discontinued, as the content is full of gobbledegook. The three main page builders Michelle looked at were

Each of these have their advantages and disadvantages. The key when choosing a page builder is to keep in mind: who is the audience, and who is the page builder for?

The notion of best is always subjective. It’s necessary to assess the requirements of the client, and the skills of the team. As always, retaining more control in your design and development process will mean a more complicated building process.

How to overcome fear and start sharing knowledge

Nicole Kohler bravely shared her story of overcoming anxiety and depression and turning herself into a public speaker capable of standing up at WordCamps and sharing her knowledge.

Her four key tips to overcoming your fear are:

1. Find the thing and own the thing

  • Everyone is an expert on something and can share that thing.
  • It may be specific WordPress tasks or parts, maybe how YOU did something like starting a store.
  • Even though other people might be talking about similar things they don’t have the same unique knowledge and experience

2. Know you won’t be great, and roll with it

  • Nicole quoted Jake (the dog from Adventure Time): “Sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something”
  • Don’t expect to be good at the start, and be ok with that

3. Find your support network

  • Find the people who will watch dry runs, will show up to support you at talks, who will give feedback and criticism
  • These people don’t need to have WordPress knowledge, it came be anyone in your network that you trust

4. Practice over and over and over.

  • Nicole promised us it gets better.
  • Find local WordPress meetups, offer to speak at your coworking space, try to find volunteer opportunities where you can speak
  • If routine helps, give the same talk a few times in small venues until you feel comfortable giving it at a larger camp
  • Give the talk to the mirror, to your dog, to whoever and whatever you can

Nicole concluded by offering some resources, which you can grab from her website.

And finally, remember: you are awesome

State of the Word

I took so many notes at the State of the Word, then later read Brian Krogsgard’s wrap-up and realised I didn’t need to take notes at all! I’ll leave you to read Brian’s superior reporting of that talk.

Afterparty at the Natural History Museum

On Saturday night, WCUS packed a whole bunch of internet peeps into the Natural History Museum. I even went along despite the fact that earlier in the evening I had already changed into my comfy pants back at the apartment. Honestly, the only thing that would get me out of my comfy pants on a Saturday night was the chance to run all over a museum, so the venue was on point for WordCamp nerds.

There was a butterfly room, robotic dinosaurs, an ice-cream cart, karaoke, open bar, snacks, and lots and lots and lots of conversation. It was a great event and we stayed far later than anticipated but it was wonderful to catch up with everyone, particularly Mindy Postoff, Troy Dean, Dion Hulse, and Patrick Rauland.

Conclusion

Lauren is going to write her own post about her first experience at a WordCamp so I’ll just cover my impressions.

For my money, the highlights of the scheduled program were definitely Sarah Cannon’s talk and Andrew Nacin’s talk. The highlight of the entire weekend was having a discussion with Bryce Adams, Joey Kudish, Brent, and Lauren about simulation theory, the singularity, and AI. This all took place in a colonial restaurant where our servers were dressed from the 1700s, the food was “colonial themed”, and an old bearded man in period costume was rocking out on the harp (not the harmonica, the actual big-old-stand-up-harp-with-strings).

It was kind of surreal, almost like the simulation had a glitch for a couple of hours and ran some very random code.

My key takeaways from WordCamp US are centred around the need for humanity in technology, remembering the values of what we do, and choosing carefully our ethics behind the so-called advances we make. I also came away with a refreshed vision of the broader view of WordPress as a public service, as an open source project of the commons.

It’s all very big picture, but it’s that vision and belief in the grand scheme that inspires us to carry out our day-to-day work.

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