WordCamp Colombo 2017 – My Lessons as a First Time Organizer

Sri Lanka’s first WordCamp took place on September 23rd, 2017, and I was privileged to be an organizer. Many thanks to Lead Organizer Dasun Edirisinghe for bringing me on board!

This post is about my takeaways from the vigorous behind-the-scenes activity as an organizer, plus as a participant at the event.

“Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up.” — Winnie the Pooh

The Colombo WordPress Meetup group has been meeting since September 2015, and two years later, we have reached this milestone. I am immensely grateful to fellow organizers Dasun, Mahangu, Prasath, Musannif, Kasun and Asith, and the entire team of volunteers. Pretty cool teamwork!

But we can’t rest on our laurels, because the journey ahead won’t be easy. More on that, in a little while.

Wait, what exactly is a WordCamp?

A WordCamp is supposed to be an informal, locally organized, educational event with talks and workshops focused on WordPress. There is a no shortage of tutorials or information, online and offline, so this event is not about getting on to stage and dishing out instructions. This is why the depth of interaction is crucial.

And being a community organized, not-for-profit and educational event, the main WordCamp stage or workshop venue is certainly NOT a marketing opportunity. The event sponsors have the opportunity to pitch their products and services at designated tables only.

This is also a great chance to become lifelong friends with promising WordPress users, developers and businesspersons both living in your town, and those flying in from abroad.

WordCamp Colombo 2017

As for WordCamp Colombo 2017, I and fellow organizers put in many months of planning and preparation. Many attendees I spoke to after the event said they totally loved it, so I’m satisfied at the way we pulled it off.

But, did everything happen like clockwork precision? Certainly not! We now have attendee feedback and our own gift of hindsight to help future editions of WordCamp Colombo emerge even better.

What did I learn?

A lot.

Many things are now a part of me, and I may not even have realized it.

From behind the scenes…

Start preparing early, and give yourself time to steer the ship

For our September event,  we opened our Call for Sponsors in March, and ticket sales in August. The initial response was frighteningly slow for both, and being a first time organizer wrangling out both tasks, it called for a lot of patience.

Looking back, I believe we may have begun just on time for these tasks. Plus, wrangling means a dedicated hour or so has to be spent each day to ensure the entire team doesn’t go off track.

Communicate well, and quickly

People love quick communication, and that makes them think you really care for them. I could sense this whenever I received email replies fast, and sent out my own replies equally fast.

This applies to potential sponsors, attendees, speakers, fellow organizers and volunteers. But of course, you need to take a call to ignore anything unreasonable.

Furthermore, I was assigned to look after the social media and blogging campaign, both in the run-up to the event and during the event itself. This forced me to think deeply before tweeting. There is little appetite for inconsequential updates when people expect to learn something.

“The key thing was to learn the value of economy with words and to never insult the viewer by telling them what they can already see” — Richie Benaud, on cricket commentary.

Get accustomed to remote work

It won’t always be possible for your team to meet under the same roof every few days or weeks, so this is important. This also means you have to use a great deal of text chats and screenshots.

Using Slack and weekly Google Hangouts video calls with organizers helped with this aspect.

State your viewpoint, but follow the leader

It is important to have a good measure of independence assigned to you by the Lead Organizer, and Dasun accorded that really well.

I was able to put across my viewpoint and was respected for it, but had to also accept the Lead’s veto powers in cases of disagreements. This is important for a team to function as one unit.

At times, low-tech solutions are faster

I learnt this from WordCamp Pune 2017 Lead Organizer Saurabh Shukla in the context of speedy check-ins for attendees, and was keen to implement it here.

The night before the event, I pre-packed the swag and the attendee badges with my colleagues’ help, and at the actual event, used an alphabetical list to check in attendees instead of the officially available Camptix interface. No worries about dropping connectivity or laptop issues — low tech wins!

While at the scene…

We had some really interesting talks, and I was fortunate to tweet out a few memorable lines being said by our speakers:

I did a lot. Am I now a celebrity?

Nope.

Organizing a WordCamp or contributing to the betterment of WordPress is not about fame and power. In fact, no open source initiative would succeed with such an attitude. Hence, I and my fellow organizers are now making a conscious effort to swallow our egos and actively working to pass on the baton to new, promising WordCamp organizers.

This will prevent a concentration of power forming around each of us. Each participant has a fair stake in the growth of the WordPress community in Colombo, and WordPress’ long established spirit of inclusivity can never take that away.

I said the journey ahead won’t be easy, right?

It won’t.

In the coming months, the immediate priority of our active WordPress community members is to help ourselves grow through a bottom up approach. This means more meetups in newer locations, more presentations,  more Q & A sessions, and perhaps even a mini-WordCamp!

Now that news is out on WordCamp Colombo 2017 having concluded well, I am optimistic.

If you are in Colombo and would love to be a part of this effort,  please join our Colombo WordPress meetup group.  There is a lot to learn, and many friends to be made.

Do you want to read something more on this?

Sure, here are some links you might find interesting:

  1. Aditya Kane, talking about his experiences as an organizer at WordCamp Mumbai 2014.
  2. My colleague and volunteer Muhammad Muhsin, on experiencing WordCamp Colombo 2017 from the front row.
  3. WordCamp Pune 2017 Lead Organizer Saurabh Shukla, talking about how the WordPress community has been tirelessly focused on building bridges and any conversations around building walls and gates get no traction.
  4. The WordCamp Organizer Handbook.

 

WordCamp Pune 2015 – My Experiences

The single-day-long WordCamp Pune 2015 was held on the 6th of September, and here is my ‘Dear Diary’ account of the power-packed event.

The Chaos Theory

Just a couple of weeks earlier, WordCamp Deputy Aditya Kane, the guy in charge of approving WordCamps in this region, had this to say about Twitter chats on WordPress:

I had an inkling some chaos would show up in this event too, and it sure did!

First, finding the exact location of the venue within the large college campus was disorienting in the absence of signboards at the gates. And when I did discover the slow registration queue, I joined scores of other attendees basking in the sun.

wordcamp
Attendees queuing up for registration. Source: http://pune.wordcamp.org/2015

You could be forgiven for thinking our nerves were frayed and the attendees’ enthusiasm dampened, but you’d be completely mistaken.

We waited outside the venue on a sunny morning, but that would melt none of our enthusiasm.
We had to wait outside the venue at Modern College, Pune on a sunny morning, but that melted none of our enthusiasm.

The first-time organizers lead by Saurabh Shukla had painstakingly detailed what you must expect from this event, and how they were preparing for it — we all gave our full backing to them! From making this a fully eco-friendly event, to carrying out speaker workshops to donating tickets to the underprivileged, the highly positive buzz was on for months.

Once we managed to get into the main auditorium of the venue, Saurabh maintained everyone’s high spirits with his razor sharp wit during the intro talk, which concluded with a felicitation of the key speakers: Topher DeRosia, Mahangu Weerasinghe, Raghavendra Peri and Harish Iyer.

Designing Useful Websites

It was tough to decide which session to attend, with ongoing parallel tracks. I chose my first session with Jitesh Patil, who took us on a back-to-basics exercise reminding us to create useful and helpful sites, and not just glitzy user interfaces.

An example he mentioned was Craiglist, which is wildly popular in the US due to its helpfulness, in spite of having the worst of user interfaces.

Some more key points of this talk were:

  1. Get your customers to know, like and trust you.
  2. Provide price comparisons, details on processes, maintenance, legal matters and best practices.
  3. On your About page, do not talk about how awesome  YOU are, instead talk about your customers and how you’ve helped them succeed.
  4. On your Contact Info page, do not write just your address or place a contact form. Instead, give precise directions on how you can be reached.  Provide lots of pictures of your location too.

Contributing to WordPress

The next talk I attended was by Andy Christian.

He explained how WordPress enthusiasts can contribute code for the core software, help with design enhancements, provide translations and documentation for WordPress, among many other things, using the relevant links at make.wordpress.org.

Andy further talked about the need for photography and videography skills that would be useful for events on WordPress. Also, contributors can prepare transcripts of talks published on WordPress.tv.

Before contributing, we must ensure our work is 100% GPL compliant and honors WordPress and related trademarks.

Inspiring People through the HeroPress platform

After a wonderful lunch of sandwiches and modaks (here’s how to make them) the next session I attended was a touching speech by Topher DeRosia about his quest to build HeroPress as a means to spread inspiring stories about how WordPress has changed lives of people around the world.

Topher says you need to think smaller when it comes to dealing with problem. Often, the person with a problem can be helped by someone with the solution not far away from him.

At the core of HeroPress is the belief: “Everyone can be a hero to someone and everyone should be a hero to themselves.”

Backed by this thought, people have contributed essays about how WordPress came to be a turning point in their lives. The latest inspiring story on HeroPress was that of Sheeba, one of the organizers of WordCamp Pune 2015. There’s much more to read, including Samer Bechara’s rocky journey to becoming a reputable WordPress developer.

On Disrupting an Old, Colonial-style Education System

Mahangu Weerasinghe’s talk was the next one for me. He belongs to the club of advocates calling for a sea change in the education system in South Asia, which is a remnant of the colonial era which sought to create subservient clerks instead of out-of-the-box thinkers.

Mahangu believes in democratizing education just like WordPress has democratized publishing. Very soon into his speech, he reminded us we are living in era where information is abundant, and the several-centuries-old style of pushing instructions down school students’ throats is no longer relevant anymore.

Grade 1 to 12, he says, are marked by upwards of 30 students per classroom, overworked teachers and excessive exam focus. Finally, after a student’s university education, he is labelled “unemployable” and considering lacking in confidence.

As a measure to bring about change, Mahangu calls for:

  1. Targeting teachers with your product ideas, rather than schools’ administrative bosses
  2. Scaling both ways — this includes ensuring your tools work in a webless environment.
  3. Focusing on localization — speakers of English in India  make up just 12% of the population.

The complete slideshow is here.

Running a Multi-Author Blog

Irrepressible technology blogger and owner of Trak.in, Arun Prabhudesai, spoke about managing multi-author blogs, referring back to his experience of getting millions of hits every month on his flagship blog.

Here’s a list of helpful plugins Arun mentioned to help run multi-author blogs:

  1. EditFLow
  2. Capability Manager Enhanced
  3. Revisionary
  4. Co-author Plus
  5. Post forking
  6. Adminimize
  7. Multi-author AdSense
  8. WP User Frontend
  9. Scheduling Calendar

Arun advised looking for the best motivating factors to retain authors.

Panel Discussions

A panel comprising of Pune’s leading WordPress businessmen and programmers arrived on stage to discuss the ups and downs associated with WordPress careers and businesses.

Another panel which included the lead organizer and Andy Christian discussed about how to organize a WordCamp in your city.

Conclusion

WordCamps are supposed to be a great benefit for anyone using WordPress in their lives, from coders to social workers, and WordCamp Pune 2015 has successfully preserved that reputation.

I haven’t been able to (and can’t) capture everything that was said at the event, but fortunately, all videos are going to be up on YouTube after processing. Some of them will make it to WordPress.TV as well. I’ll share those links as soon as they’re published.

The organizers did a great job setting the right trend by steering India’s WordCamps from the more gimmicky to events of real substance. Many thanks to the team for pulling this off!

Further Reading:

  1. Topher’s account of his experiences at WordCamp Pune 2015.
  2. Aditya Kane writes about his feelings at the event.
  3. A perspective on the WordPress community in India, by Saurabh Shukla.

Web design questions: Here’s what to ask before starting out

A lot of web designing is routine for millions of companies and freelancers. But not all tasks are easy; many warrant long spells spent in battling complex problems.

As a web designer, a checklist of questions to ask your clients can pre-empt many hassles along the way.

With the right answers, you can create a documented set of requirements to guide yourself through a web design project.

Detailed here are five key questions web designers need to ask their clients:

Q 1. What exactly is your profession or business interest?

Knowing the answer to this question will help designers finalize the right combination of shapes, colors and typography on the site.

A dentist may want to infuse a refreshing mint feel in the minds of visitors. A gift shop will want to instantly ignite the joy of giving. A lawyer will want a distraction-free interface to bring his clients straight to the services they need.

You as a designer will need to study a little about your client’s work and stretch your imagination.

Q 2. Who are your competitors?

Your client is very likely to have competitors. Insist on knowing who they are, and create something better and simpler than them.

Competition is a healthy thing – it forces us to raise the bar and evolve.

Q 3. Have you identified example web designs?

Emulating other successful players in your arena is a great idea. A photographer might find appeal in a Pinterest-like design. Someone else may love the soft, tiled design brought about by the metro-style UI.

You might want to give your own recommendations based on this response. For instance, your client’s example site has a slider, but you could convince him that a short video to welcome visitors will be far more pleasant.

Q 4. Are you going to provide text, images and the logo?

If your client’s answer is yes, make sure you are addressing copyright concerns where appropriate. Also, insist on high quality images.

If you are asked to create a logo, ponder over your client’s response to Q1 and work towards creating a memorable icon.

Q 5. What is your budget?

Ask for a ballpark range for the budget to help yourself or your team figure out the right approach.

What if the desired web design requires you to mobilise rare and expensive JavaScript ninjas? Your client’s budget will help you decide.

Bonus!

Are you looking for more checklists and questionnaires to streamline your efforts? Take a look at this diligently compiled article by Cameron Chapman on Smashing Magazine, which is among the web’s most widely-respected authorities on web design.

In Conclusion…

Websites can be designed using innumerable approaches. Some people might consider using pre-cast building blocks delivered through software, while others may use a more powerful and flexible strategy that involves delving deep into code and making changes at will.

Whatever the case, this is a truly exciting exercise. But just like professional sport, you cannot win alone – ample answers and clear communication from clients will pave the way for success.

WordCamp Pune 2013: ‘The best WordCamp so far in India’

If I’m asked to choose one word to describe the recently concluded WordCamp Pune 2013, I’d pick ‘enriching’.

It was the second time I’d been to a WordCamp, the first one being Cuttack last year, where I spoke about my blogging journey.

A couple of key speakers at the event aptly dubbed this the ‘best ever so far’ in India. Majority of the speeches had more substance than platitudes.

In this article, I’m going to try and capture the most significant happenings of the 2-day event.

Day 1

The first day’s sessions were aimed at developers. It began with King Sidharth talking about the need for responsive designs.

This is his slideshow:
Savita Soni talked about the power of WP_Query. Below is the complete slideshow: I found Saurabh Shukla’s talk the most inspiring. He described his journey towards building plugins for WordPress. Saurabh later pointed out that there are few WordPress plugin developers in India, and that he hoped to motivate his listeners to take up the practice. Here’s the complete slideshow titled Developing open source WordPress plugins: The art, science and Zen (fonts are bit messed up):   Gaurav Singh spoke about WordPress security, a subject which was dealt with again the next day by Rohit Srivastwa. This is his slideshow:   Aniket Pant talked about Metaboxes:

Thinking of getting your theme into the WordPress theme respository? Take a look at Nisha Singh’s presentation:

Vireendra Tikhe presented his views with a presentation titled “Responsive and Responsible Themes” :

Day 2:

The second day was aimed at bloggers and marketers.

It began with Arun Prabhudesai, owner of Trak.in showering praise on WordPress, while presenting key use cases for the platform. One of the top highlights was the advice that one can “start selling within 24 hours of installing an e-commerce plugin”. Arun, by the way, is a person I respect as one of my top blogging mentors.

The next session by Ronak Thakkar had a similar theme, with the title ‘Leveraging Your Business with WordPress’. Ronak did a fine job by getting the audience to participate early on.

His own accounts of the session and day are a must-read.

Further in the day, cyber security expert Rohit Srivastwa of ClubHack presented vital tips on securing a WordPress site.

These were the highlights of his talk:

  1. It is better to use shared hosting with features to handle security.
  2. Most security tips and plugins related to WordPress deal with automated attackers.
  3. Make a list of bad user agents from hacking tools or bots and block them using your site’s .htaccess file.
  4. Consider using service providers that stop bad traffic, that includes botnets.
  5. Keep an eye on the log files on your server to alert yourself when there’s an attack.
  6. Use free scanning tools like the one provided by sucuri.net. There’s a WordPress plugin based on the scan provided by sitecheck.sucuri.net
  7. The free service of CloudFare is excellent in blocking malicious traffic, even though some users claim that it blocks legitimate traffic as well.
  8. A tool called websitedefender helps monitor changes in the front page.
  9. In the event of an attack, rename the old infected WordPress installation and freshly re-install everything.
  10. Use is.gd/cleanup to fix your site after it has been attacked.
  11. Never look for free versions of premium themes. They may have a catch; they could be infected, which means you’ve hacked yourself!
  12. A string of characters known as a password won’t be enough to keep you secure. Even the simplest of passwords is enough, if you use a plugin for 2 factor authentication.
  13. It is important to use SSL to prevent an attacker from breaking in with the use of sniffers.

On the subject of content marketing, I found Adarsh Thampy’s talk very interesting. Here’s the complete slideshow:

In Conclusion….

The biggest benefit derived from conferences such as WordCamp Pune 2013 is the real life networking.

I was fortunate to interact with Saurabh Shukla, Gaurav Singh, Ronak Thakkar, Arun Prabhudesai, Rohit Srivastwa, Nikhil Narkhede and Saket Jajodia.

Some of the proceedings have been captured on Twitter with the hashtag #WCPune2013. Keep an eye on tweets by @saurabhyapapaya for more substance.

And if you want to know the recipe for a successful WordCamp, don’t forget to contact Amit Kumar Singh of AmiWorks!