WordCamp Utrecht 2017 Recap

On being a first-time WordCamp Volunteer in a foreign country and gaining new insights into the WordPress community.

Quick links:

Day 0 – Friday, November 24th 2017

5.45am. The journey starts with an alarm clock set to an awfully early time on Friday. The excitement about the upcoming weekend I expect so much from made it a sleepless night. Though the adrenaline helps to get out of the bed instantly.

Just the time to shower, grab a quick breakfast and double check my bags (what a pointless activity – everything I forgot to pack I will realize only when I’m gone) and I hop on an early bus to Luxembourg central train station.

6 hours, 3 trains, 2 delays and 1 nearly missed connection later, I finally arrive at Utrecht Centraal.

Now I’m headed to check-in at the Airbnb and drop my bags – and to suddenly figure out what I forgot to pack.

3pm. I’m left with just two short hours to wander around and discover the beautiful medieval city center of Utrecht. I’m invited to join the “speakers and volunteers diner” at 5.

5pm. I’m standing on the sidewalk opposite the restaurant we were invited to. At this point I have a confession to make: at times I may seem to thrive in social situations. I do in a sense when surrounded by the right crowd. But this is at the cost of a sizeable amount of energy, especially when meeting new people. I’m not quite the extroverted type.

Anxiety kicks in, while expecting the discomfort of having to go in and join an unknown crowd.

And the little voice in my head won’t be helpful: I barely know anyone there. I’m not that comfortable in social situations, let alone speaking English – which is not my mother tongue as you can guess. By the way, most of them are dutch, how bothering will it be for them to have to speak English?

Now what am I even doing here?

Picture that was not taken in Utrecht of a guy who is not me.

My now-friend Yvette Sonneveld – whom I found the courage to ping on Slack a few days earlier to thank her for her inspiring talk at WordCamp Nijmegen about being a WordCamp volunteer – assured me that “Dutchies love to speak English, and do so very well”. (Spoiler: she is absolutely right).

Meeting a new crowd

A handful of people come together in front of the entrance and seem to recognize and greet each others. I’m pretty sure they are part of the WordCamp crowd. Time to cross the street and take this opportunity to ease my way into this small group.

Sjoerd Blom, lead co-organizer and head of volunteers, was part of this group and seems to recognize me as I approach and gives me a warm welcome. I couldn’t expect a nicer first contact. (And by the way it certainly was a good idea to use a recent picture for my Slack profile!)

There, I made it in! As more than 20 people I don’t know yet are already seated, I quietly get to the nearest available seat. After a few awkward starts of conversation with people seating close to me, a couple of beers, and passing through the buffet – the journey was long and I barely slept or ate anything since the day before, so food was required – I’m starting to feel more comfortable with this new crowd.

Yvette was right: speaking English doesn’t seem to bother anyone, and everyone seems to have a command of English that is equal or superior to mine.

Speaking of languages and being a foreigner, I also received the best compliment ever: “You don’t sound french when you speak English”. To be honest, I’ve been working hard on this for years.

It may sound silly, but it did make me happy! (Thank you, Monique Dubbelman!)

It’s true what they say about the WordPress community. Everyone is so nice and welcoming and friendly and willing to meet new people and engage in conversation.

Did you think a WordPress meetup or a WordCamp was only a gathering of a bunch of experts who shit on everyone who isn’t? You’d be dead wrong.

There are some experts for sure, but they are here to be nice and helpful. And you don’t have to know or be anything to be more than welcome, meet great people and get so much inspiration.

I also came to realize not everyone there is an extrovert. Quite the opposite.

A guy I misjudged for a party animal confessed that he actually is an introvert and can use a few beers and all the energy he can gather to pull the wool over your eyes. Looks like I’m not the only one, far from it.

11pm. I’m heading back to the Airbnb. I had a great time, met awesome people and had a some fantastic conversations.

The WordCamp itself hasn’t begun yet, but the journey was already worth it.

Day 1 – Saturday, November 25th 2017

5:45am. Same alarm clock as the day before. Not that I forgot to disable it, but we are asked to be at the WordCamp location at 7am to setup the venue.

7am. I meet the dizzy but friendly faces of organizers and fellow volunteers, and we proceed to merrily move dozens and dozens of chairs and tables to get the venue WordCamp-ready.

We were extremely thankful to the organizers who managed to arrange a small breakfast for the team.

“Nothing fancy”, but this breakfast felt like the greatest thing! And unlimited free coffee FTW!

9am. The venue is ready, sponsors have set their stands and a continued stream of attendees has flooded the place.

The WordCamp can officially start!

Lead organizer Sjoerd Blom gave a quick introductory talk, followed by a first talk about some unexpected sides of WCUT’s amazingness by Taco Verdonschot.

WordCamp Utrecht boasted a total of 18 great talks in two tracks, you can still find the full program on WordCamp Utrecht 2017 website.

If you missed any, you can already watch all talks from track 1 on the live stream replay on Youtube:
Day 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31m5y6L8N9k
Day 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPno2rU0lic

Unfortunately there was no livestream for track 2, but all talks were recorded and will be on wordpress.tv soon enough!

I won’t go over the whole program in this already pretty long post. But if I had to pick just two, I’d say the biggest highlights to me were (in order of appearance):

  • Luc Princen’s “Imposters journey through real development“.
    A very insightful talk about being a self-taught developer and coping with imposter syndrome – which he suggests to call “imposter phenomenon” instead. A story and matters I can certainly relate to.

  • Carole Olinger’s “Aboard the WordPress Community – A Journey to Self-Discovery“.
    Definitely the most acclaimed talk of WordCamp Utrecht (judging by the number of tweets per minute about it)! Carole shared her very personal story and life-changing journey from unfulfilled civil servant to blooming WordPress community rockstar – who had no idea what WordPress was a year and a half ago!

If you asked me what kind of talks I was interested in beforehand, I would probably have said “advanced development” (I actually did, like most developers apparently, in the recent WordCamp Europe’s survey)

However, personal journeys and inspiring life and career stories would now be the first checkbox I’d check.

I’m surprised though that it was not one of the suggested topic categories in WCEU’s survey.

Another highlight of day 1 was the joke of the day by Carole Olinger, just after Marieke van de Rakt’s somewhat technical SEO talk. Lead organizer Sjoerd Blom announced upcoming “beers and borrels” during his quick wrap up for the day, and this happened:

In between and after talks, the day was filled with new meetings, more inspiring conversations and even new friendships.

It ended with another nice dinner in town with the greatest crowd in a fancy looking restaurant.

A note to introverts and anyone who find it difficult to approach people and start conversations at WordCamps

Apply to be a volunteer at the next WordCamp you’ll attend.

Seriously.

It certainly means stepping out of your comfort zone. It also does sound counter intuitive, but there are so many reasons why it’s the best of ideas:

  • You get to meet a group of extremely friendly people beforehand. It really makes it easier to ease yourself in as opposed to arriving at an already crowded WordCamp.
  • You get to be part of a team, which gives you an additional common-ground shared with your fellow volunteers.
  • It gives you something to do during the WordCamp. Having a mission is more comfortable than just standing in the middle of the crowd, wondering whether you’ll try to start a conversation or just go sit in a corner.
  • Even when you are not on duty, you have an excuse to just look busy and go to the quiet “green room” whenever you feel overwhelmed with the crowd. (The “green room” is a quiet area restricted to the team and to speakers who need to review their slides and focus for a few minutes before their talks.)
  • It may sound silly, but just wearing the volunteer t-shirt makes you instantly more approachable. I even found that for some reason it also makes it easier to approach other people yourself.
  • WordCamps also need volunteers and usually any help is welcome. This is definitely great way for anyone to contribute to the WordPress community.

Day 2 – Sunday, November 26th, 2017

6am. No alarm clock this time. No early volunteer shift this morning so we can just arrive at the location after 9.

Though I’m wide awake. I could finally catch a bit more sleep, but the adrenaline decided otherwise.

The lack of sleep came with side effects, and today’s joke of the day was me saying hi to… a statue I mistook for an attendee.

I would have just gone about my way and pretend nothing happened, but there was a couple of witnesses.

At least it made a funny story!

1.30pm. Already time for the closing remarks and to call it a wrap.

(Hey look, I’m right in the middle!)

After lunch, the contributor afternoon was unfortunately a bit short for some teams to be able to do a lot of contribution.

The core team, which I would have otherwise joined, had to limit its activity to onboarding and have new contributors install VVV on their laptops (which proved to be even longer than expected on the venue’s shared wifi – considering the first installation involves downloading an Ubuntu based virtual machine!)

Instead I joined a workshop about business growth and recurring revenue, full of insights and greatly hosted by Maik Gruppen.

The afternoon passed quickly, and very soon everything really started to feel like the end. It was almost saddening to find the venue looking almost empty, compared to the crowded place it was a few hours earlier.

Everyone said goodbye, and almost everyone went home, or to catch a train or plane. I finally had a quiet but very nice dinner with one of the last remaining volunteer who would only leave Utrecht the next day, like myself.

Afterword

After another almost sleepless night, due to processing everything that had just happened and probably what some call WordCamp withdrawal symptoms, it was time to catch a train for a 6 hours journey back home.

I said goodbye to the lovely city of Utrecht, in (apparently typical) heavy rain.

Again to everyone who was there, to the few I named in this post and to those I didn’t: thank you for being so great!

This experience definitely turned me into a WordPress community enthusiast and WordCamp advocate.

I can’t wait until the next one, and I’ll happily apply to volunteer every time I get a chance.

In the first half of 2018 we might meet in Antwerp at #WCANT, London at #WCLDN or Belgrade at #WCEU.

One of these days I might be part of the organizing team for the very first WordCamp Luxembourg. I hope I’ll see you there!

As a closing to this definitely too long post, I’d like to encourage anyone who read this far: if you haven’t yet, go ahead and join the WordPress community. Come for the software, stay for the people. (click to tweet this)

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