WordCamp Planning Best Practices – An Interview with Cami Kaos

WordCamp US

Jeff MulhollandToday’s post was written by Jeff Mulholland, the COO of Pressable. Jeff oversees all aspects of Pressable’s operations, including our community outreach programs. This year he’ll be involved in the planning and execution of San Antonio’s latest WordCamp. Jeff is always eager to learn and wants to help ensure that WordCamp San Antonio 2016 is a resounding success. So he reached out to Cami Kaos, co-organizer of this year’s WordCamp US, for advice. Cami’s feedback was so helpful, Jeff decided to share Cami’s insights and expertise will all of our readers. We hope you find the article informative and that you walk away with a greater appreciation of what it takes to pull off a successful WordCamp.

When I began working at Pressable, one of the first things I heard mentioned was the idea of a “WordPress community.” Up to that point I had spent my entire career working in corporate IT,  which is distinctly non-communal. So the WordPress community was something of a mystery to me. Then I went to my first WordCamp in Columbus. It didn’t take me long to discover what it means to be a part of a community of WordPress enthusiasts.

I returned home inspired to participate in San Antonio’s WordPress community. I’ve been hosting a monthly WordPress Meetup ever since then. It’s hosted in a local bar called Big Hops that shares the building with Pressable (I know, life can be tough sometimes). I also recently joined the planning committee for WordCamp San Antonio. I hope to make the experience of volunteering for WordCamp San Antonio a worthwhile one. To that end, I reached out to Cami Kaos to learn more about planning WordCamps. Cami co-organized WordCamp US (a great WordCamp!), and was gracious enough to spend some time with me to answer my questions. I’m sharing our conversation here in the hopes that WordCamp planners in other cities may find Cami’s advice as helpful as I have.

About Cami

Cami Kaos

As a lifelong writer, Cami Kaos has always been inquisitive and curious. It’s a quality that has left her enamored with the ever-changing world of technology and the people who build it. That’s how she found herself smack in the middle of the Portland tech scene 10 years ago, first writing blogs and then managing events and producing podcasts. Back in those days Cami was deeply focused on her work, but today she leads a much more balanced lifestyle as a mother and blogger. You can check out her WordPress blog at www.camikaos.com. It’s full of wonderful stories about her life, helpful tips and hilarious observations (My favorite post is one with helpful tips on how to remove a contact lense that you’ve lost in your eye. I’ve definitely been there and done that!) One thing that remains a passion for her both in work and in life is the joy of making order out of chaos. Perhaps this explains why she’s so good at her job today. You see, Cami works at Automattic as a community organizer for the WordPress open source project working in the WordCamp community conference program. Talk about a challenging career. Cami is considered one of the best at what she does, which is why I felt privileged to spend some time with her reaping the benefits of her hard-won experience with WordCamp organization, planning and execution. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

WordCamp Q&A with Cami Kaos

Thanks again for agreeing to speak with me Cami. For starters, I’d like to know about your experience with WordCamps. What type of roles have you played at past WordCamps, and what are you doing today?

My first experience with WordCamps was back in the wild early days. I volunteered at the first WordCamp Portland, handing out t-shirts and helping folks move their blogs from Blogger to WordPress. Helping individuals get their sites going was a revelation to me. I’m not terribly technical, but knowing there was something I could do to help others to use WordPress? That’s the moment I went from loving the software to loving the WordPress community. I continued my involvement with WordCamp Portland for a few years; volunteering, speaking, and acting as the unconference coordinator.

In 2013, I was hired by Automattic to work on the WordCamp community conference program. As a community organizer for the project I get a window into what’s happening with WordCamps all over the world. I work with my team, the community deputies, and WordCamp organizers to help the individual events and the program flourish.

Last year I was the co-lead organizer for WordCamp US 2015 and we’re gearing up for WordCamp US 2016, as we speak.

What was the best experience you ever had as a WordCamp planner, and what made this experience special?

The best experience? That’s hard. There are so many perfect moments. And on a grander scale, it’s all about knowing that I was a part of something bigger. That all the hours of work put in behind the scenes helped to create an event that touched and informed the lives of others in our community.

But if I had to pick one moment, I would say opening remarks of WordCamp US. It was overwhelming and special to stand up there with my co-organizer welcoming folks to the event we’d worked so hard with our team to produce. The energy from the crowd was positive and contagious and to stand there for a moment and bask in their glow… it was simply amazing.

Are there any pitfalls that should be avoided by a first-time WordCamp volunteer like myself?

First time organizers sometimes think they have to do everything. Be everything. But that’s not really what organizing a WordCamp is about. It’s about the community and their spirit. If they work with the organizing team and collaborate and delegate, it’s far more likely to be a successful event for the community and a way more satisfying experience for the organizers.

And don’t underestimate the importance of coffee. Make sure you have it in great quantities and all day long. Attendees will forgive almost anything that goes wrong as long as you keep the coffee flowing.

When you’re reviewing speaker applications for a WordCamp, what type of things are you looking at in order to determine if a topic is right for the WordCamp?

This is a great question! But I have no idea how to answer it.

I think that the event is sometimes more informed by the speakers who apply than the other way around. But it is important to know your attendee base. Know what your community is like. What will benefit them the most. But some general things I like to keep in mind are ways to benefit both the local WordPress community and the greater WordPress community.

  • Locals – Speakers from inside your community are the best. Seek out those bright points. Those who are doing amazing things with WordPress. Those who are inspiring storytellers. Those who have made huge mistakes and are willing to show others how to avoid them. As locals, they can be a constant source of support to your community, whereas big name speakers from out of town don’t often have the bandwidth to provide that continued support and inspiration to your attendees. It’s also a chance to amplify those local voices to the greater community when their session is uploaded to WordPress.tv
  • Diversity –  Communities are made up of, and made stronger by, a diverse set of voices. Seeing yourself in a presenter can often make a presentation much more engaging, inspiring, and valuable. When we see the same or similar people, topics, and tracks over and over again, we can lose site of the importance of individual voices in our community. Sometimes seeking out diversity means extra legwork in the speaker selection process. You can’t always wait for a diverse set of speakers to come to you, but it’s worth the work to seek them out.

I’ve been thinking about the finer details of WordCamps: the polish of the logo, the catered lunch, the social media operation, and the like. How much time should be spent on these types of finer details?

One of my very favorite things about WordCamps is that no two events are ever the same. We’ve had a WordCamp event held in old warehouses, coffee shops, libraries, universities, municipal buildings, co-working spaces, hotels, conference venues and so many places in between. There was even a WordCamp held at the base of a mountain — and one coming up at the United Nations.

Some events have meticulously designed name badges and printed materials and some have peel-and-stick badges. Some have intricate custom design, some use the theme that was installed when the site was made. There is no one size fits all answer for WordCamps. It depends on your community and its values. It depends on the size of your event. It depends on the volunteer pool from which you’re able to draw. Polish and shine can be great to give your event a little sparkle but your attendees will benefit most from a fantastic set of speakers and a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere.

And coffee. Did I mention coffee?

If you focus the majority of your time and effort on those areas and what it takes to get there, the rest is bonus.

I host a monthly WordPress Meetup, one of several monthly WordPress and WooCommerce Meetups held in San Antonio. I’ve long assumed that WordPress Meetups and other year-round community events play an important part in laying the groundwork for WordCamps. Have you found this to be true?

I’d say you’re absolutely right. The first step on the way to a successful WordCamp is having a core team of people who use WordPress, who love WordPress, and who will work tirelessly to make a WordCamp happen. We ask before an individual or team organize a WordCamp that they are a part of an active WordPress meetup group in their community. And if there isn’t one in their area we ask them if they’d like to start one.

Are there any other “off season” activities that are important for WordCamps?

Well, that last answer falls right into this one. WordCamps are typically annual, but meetups continue all year long. It’s important to keep that community active throughout the year.

What type of new features or changes are on your wishlist for future WordCamps?

Our organizer handbook is due for an overhaul. I think updating and adding to that will make the organizing experience smoother for everyone.

And I’m really excited about some updates that are coming to the WordCamp budget process. Which, upon further reflection, I realize that for some this may be the world’s most boring answer. Welcome to my world.

What’s one thing that you’d like every WordCamp volunteer to know?

That we couldn’t do this without them. WordCamps are a huge volunteer effort from the ground up. It’s easy to lose sight of that. I sometimes worry that in the hustle and bustle of the event with everyone running around getting things done we forget to say “Thank you!” or we don’t say it loud enough.

What separates the best and most successful WordCamps from the rest?

Oof. You saved the knockout for last. At first, I felt like you were asking me to pick a favorite child, but since I don’t have to pick one event or one success… There are a few things that stand out for a successful event. Whatever the size. Whatever the location. It all boils down to being thoughtful.

  • Create a welcoming and inclusive event for all who would like to attend.
  • Select or recruit a roster of diverse, knowledgeable, and engaging speakers.
  • Ensure your venue is welcoming to all and that it’s accessible. Offer special accommodation to those who may require it. Be mindful of dietary needs.
  • Listen to your community. WordCamps are local and each one should have its own local flavor and flare.
  • Work with your team. WordCamps aren’t a one man band.
  • Have fun with it and everyone else will too.
  • Don’t run out of coffee.

I’m grateful to Cami for taking time out of her very busy life to talk with me about planning WordCamps. The thing that stuck out to me the most from our conversation was that great WordCamps are welcoming to a diverse group of attendees. As I begin to help with WordCamp San Antonio 2016, I’m keeping this lesson in mind. And, of course, I’ll make sure that we have plenty of coffee!

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