Wordcamp Columbus – Mixed Review

I went to the first Wordcamp Columbus today, and while I thought there were some great sessions, and the organizers did a great job of putting the details together for a good day, I’m still going to give the day a mixed review.

First the plusses,

The opening keynote, by Jane Wells, was a great “here’s what’s coming up in the new WordPress 2.8 beta release” session. It was great to hear the details and I look forward to seeing some of those in action.

The next session I attended was Legal Issues for Bloggers, which was also very good. (And no, I’m not just saying that because the presenters, Alex Brown and Vladimir Belo, are attorneys at the same firm I work in!) It turned into quite an interesting discussion about copyright, and employment concerns. There were lots of questions and useful, real life, information for bloggers, whether they use WordPress or not.

The last three afternoon sessions in the main hall were also nice, brief, presentations filled with real life information and advice you could use right then and there. Cheryl Harrison on using social networking to spread the word about your blog, Noel Jackson on designing themes and some of the theory behind his design ideas, and Brian Lockrey on Internet security as it relates to blogs and podcasts. Again, they all did a good job giving you something to think about, and some advice on things you could do that maybe you didn’t know about before.

The venue was great, the wireless was a challenge, but then again, where isn’t the wireless a challenge? (For the record, I had no problem with the wireless, but I know some folks did.) The power available under each table in the main hall was well-used, the breakout rooms were actually fairly sizable, no cramming in and sitting along the walls, etc., and it was easy to get to, with plenty of available parking. Can’t complain about that!

Now, the “not so plusses“:

There was a “session” of sorts right before lunch that, frankly, was a little bizarre. A couple of folks with some ties to Automattic, the company behind WordPress, showed a video presentation called “How WordPress has Changed my Life” that was slightly over the top. From there it turned into a full-on tent revival, asking for testimonials about how WordPress has changed your life, and what you are doing to give back to WordPress and the community of WordPress. As some of you are well aware, I’m not real tolerant of fanboys, of any stripe, and this seemed even far out there on the fanboy scale of things.

Look, WordPress is a great web/CMS tool. I use it on my other site, and love some of what it can do. But it’s still just a tool. The change in my life comes through because of the Internet backbone, and the people I connect with by using the different tools at my disposal, not simply because of the tool itself. It’s ok to simply let it stand on its own.

The second disappointment to me is somewhat of a disappointment that I’ve had about the Columbus tech community in general, and this event was a good demonstration of it. It seems that the “tech” community of Columbus is less “tech” and more marketing and entrepreneurs. It’s more business than it is about actual technology work. Thus, while there were a couple of good sessions about marketing yourself and your business, I’m not exactly sure what they had to do with Wordcamp.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met a bunch of great people through the local tech community, and I have nothing against what they do for a living. We all need startup companies and marketing gurus! But, sometimes that dominance means those of us who are just geeky and want to learn about the technology, don’t always get that at conferences. (To be fair, I did not stop by any of the unconference sessions, where there may have been more hands-on tech stuff, though the themes seemed more aimed toward beginners.)

So, if I had a suggestion for the organizers for sessions, it would be less business/marketing school, more “what kinds of cool things have I not even thought about using WordPress to do yet?” Alas, I already know that I’m probably in the minority on that. There’s too many other people trying to use the tools to make their fortune. I wish them well on that.

Still it was an interesting day, I learned some things, just wish I had managed to get around to more folks!

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  1. Mike – I agree, that was my one negative about yesterday. Everything was extremely well organized and well put together but the tech content was lacking and the marketing/business side of things was a little much.

    I think a two track approach splitting tech from business would be a good approach.

  2. Interesting feedback on WordPress Fanboys, considering I am one and was one of those up there during the presentation right before lunch. No offense taken, BTW.

    While I was asked to go up merely an hour before the presentation, what would you have done differently? How would you rally an Open Source community of over 12 million people from different backgrounds and technical prowesses? Our community and its success depends on the community and support of the community, not just with people and development but also with word of mouth advertising and community building. A large part of the community “works” because of fanboys spending sleepless nights helping in the forums and out on blogs without so much as a penny of remuneration. Open Source software lives, survives and thrives because of passion for the software.

    Any suggestions you provide on rallying of the troops without the “full on tent-revival” and fanboyish nature will help us get better. My email is mark at wltc dot net

  3. Kevin, I think the two-track idea has some merit. Obviously there were a lot of people there wanting to learn about marketing their business with blogs and WordPress who maybe don’t want the same things a techie/hobbyist would want from the conference.

    Mark, no offense was meant personally. I’ll think some more about your question. I actually get the need to “rally the troops” to some extent with a project like this one, I just think there’s a way to do it without slavish devotion to the software or the community. As I said, at the end of the day it’s a great software tool. There’s no need to sell it by talking about how it will change your life, people will be friendlier to you, the sky will be bluer, etc. That’s infomercial stuff we’ve all become used to scoffing. Let the tool and the community stand on it’s own. Show people what they can do with it, how they can use the software to build community around their ideas, etc. There’s no need for the other stuff, in fact it probably turns off a number of people who might otherwise be very involved.

    Of course, that’s just my opinion. 🙂

  4. Mark: First of all, saying we couldn’t get lunch (or rather, wern’t supposed to) and then going over by 20 minutes got no good will in my book. My Schedule didn’t even have anything going on in the main ballroom during your presentation, frankly that’s why I was there. to get lunch and to take the chance to meet the people around me.
    The lady who you presented with (I can’t remember her name) was looking for testimonials, she had obviously not been there an hour before, or she wouldn’t have asked me to stand up (presumably to say “I made a new CMS, because I wasn’t crazy about wordpress”).. I declined, it would have been in poor taste.
    On the other hand, the event WAS about wordpress, so fanboydom was sure to ensue somewhere. Had it been ‘blogcamp’ this would have been really unacceptable.

    Mike: I think an event like wordcamp that relies on volunteer presenters really needs people who feel like there isn’t good technical content to step up. It’s a chicken and egg problem. The people in the Columbus tech community that seem to be passionate about it are people who A] Want to learn how the tech that they don’t understand can benefit their business or B] Have something to sell to A.

    I think it’s pretty typical for geeks to sit back when that happens; when really the opportunities for creating events, or talks at conferences around technical topics are pretty abundant. In columbus there is a users group for many programming languages, there’s a Linux Users Group, and recently `Columbus TechLife` has been promoting a few events around security (although I can’t vouch for their content as I haven’t been)

  5. I am not very techy but I could have done with WordCamp being more technical oriented. Or I may have not made the right choices of where to be for each session.

    The “full on tent revival” presentation or infomercial did kind of stand out, Lorelle, is obviously a diva. I was so hungry at that point nothing would have held my attention.

    I appreciate all the time Alvin, Jason and the volunteers put into it.

  6. I could have handled it being more tech and less marketing even though I don’t know much when it comes to technology. The “big tent revival meeting” or over the top infomercial from Lorelle about WordPress changing your life stood out. Maybe it irritated me because I was so hungry.

    Overall I enjoyed it and thank the organizers and volunteers for their efforts.

  7. I’m no techie so I agree that the novices be separated by those at intermediate and advanced. I am a marketer at heart so I love all the marketing info. All in all it was just great to learn from those who know much more than I and to meet folks I’m heard about. No wordpress has NOT changed my life!

    Julie Castell

  8. Great feedback. This was really my first bigger event I’ve taken on as an organizer. I was really happy how smoothly things seemed to run once we were underway. Hope everyone learned something. Any feed back and how we can make next years better would be appreciated. Things like name tags and video the sessions would have been nice. And my personal feedback, get a better MC. 🙂 send me to jason dot blanton at gmail dot com

  9. Issac, good point about chicken and the egg, Alvin actually said something similar to me on Twitter today. If there’s not enough tech stuff going on, we should step up and make sure more people who just work with technology, as opposed to selling something, are involved. Like you said though, hard core techies are going to sit back and see what the sessions are before deciding to go out to an event. When the schedule has SEO, marketing, branding, etc. in it, they immediately tune out. It’s not our thing. Again, as a personal blogger, I get some use out of a little bit of the marketing material (who doesn’t want more readers?), but my blog is a hobby. I’m not interested in hiring an SEO expert, or social media expert, or even a business coach. I’m interested in hearing about the latest WordPress news, some real life blogging advice, and seeing what other people are doing with WordPress that I haven’t even thought of yet. Those sessions where I got that were great, there just wasn’t enough of them.

    On the other hand, lots of people who were there were looking for those things and looking for tips on marketing their business, so obviously those are the kinds of sessions they want. Julie obviously enjoyed those sessions much more than I did, and she should have that available to her. Great for her!

    That’s why I think the two-track approach really makes some sense, but you have to make sure you get enough speakers to field two full tracks, and that may be the larger issue. Techs don’t always like to do speaking engagements. How do we get more of the hobbyist/tech bloggers who aren’t trying to sell something to do presentations at these events? I’ve done a couple of Ignite presentations myself, perhaps it’s time I thought about doing some more of the larger events as well, and starting the drive for more tech content with myself.

  10. I am enjoying the discussion here! It is great getting a glimpse of the event thru Social Media. I really appreciate Mike’s comments about Columbus Tech events in general, that they have a little more marketing and less tech slant. Cbus is a baby in the tech market. As long as we have the majority of places around town who don’t have public wifi, I think we will stay in the ‘wanna-be’ category. I was disappointed to see our rank on the ‘Tech Cities’ report: Columbus ranks low in Tech Cities = 49th; We trail #7 Austin by 1,000 firms and 30k jobs http://is.gd/Ad4a

    Also, you voiced one of my concerns. People are always asking me, ‘How do you monetize social media’? Seems like an underlying message of the event. In my opinion, you don’t make $ on the social media itself, you use the tool to provide an experience or connection that provides value and generates money. IMO, just because someone has a million followers/blog readers, does not mean they provide useful content. My goal is not to be popular, it is to be relevant. In fact, I share unpopular views reguarly @jodyNcolumbus, so I am sure I’ve lost a few followers along the way. Sometimes its fun to rock the boat. Be a SMDB as @wyliemac puts it. Thanks for opening the door on this conversation!

  11. I think you have some great points. As a person who started in the communications and technical background and have progressed into the business entrepreneurship and marketing backgrounds I understand where you are coming from. This is not a new problem, but rather a systemic problem between marketers and design/tech communities. There has always been that gap of understanding between the two. Form and Function. Above the line decision makers vs. below the line service industry.

    The problem I notice with the tech community is that they are just that and have a different personality type. You have great public speakers in the business and marketing community, but the same can not be said for the more specific tech geek sector. Not saying there isn’t great tech speakers, but most of them prefer to be a voice over and behind the camera rather than in front. I had the same problem when I worked with a bunch of automotive engineers. Very very smart guys, but because they didn’t get out much their social skills and public speaking skills lacked. They preferred to write reports rather than present them. This was noticeable when some presented on Saturday (eg- Noel Jackson, Bobby Whitman and Brian Lockrey – Brian wasn’t so bad, but no eye contact.)

    I don’t have room to talk as I don’t feel I am quite ready for prime time. Mostly because I haven’t had a chance to put a presentation together, but the there was two things I noticed. In the SEO session there was an older group of women that had no clue what was going on and I knew this because one of them used the universal sign language for “over my head.” I give huge kudos for new speakers like Cheryl Harrison who was hoping to get a panel going, on Social Media, rather than do it all by herself, but she did it! I even noticed that a friend Kelly Gingery had a tshirt on to promote her business movieloversonly.com, but she had it covered up in a jacket the whole day and others new to WordPress were questioning there ability to implement what they learned after the conference was over.

    My point in all of this has a lot to do with what Jim Kukral was talking about in his presentation. You can’t be afraid of failure, get out of your comfort zone and do something that you are passionate about that will make you money whether it is movies, scrapbooking, healthcare, education, etc. Social Media works best with niche marketing and that is what helps create content for platforms like WordPress. One doesn’t work without the other. Obviously, Jason and Alvin did an excellent job for this being the first WordCampColumbus and will take your constructive criticism and make improvements, especially if it is to be successful in the future.

    I think Social Media and events like WordCampColumbus will help bridge that gap between business/marketing types and service industry types like the ones found in the design and technology community. In today’s competitive global economy you as an individual can no longer afford to be focused on one track, but be on multiple tracks. You have to be willing to be the writer, the producer, the reporter, the editor, the CEO.

    Good stuff Mike. I am looking forward to seeing the crowd, the list of speakers, the sponsors, the venue and the amount of engagement grow in order for Columbus, OH to move away from its cowtown image and be competitive with Boston, MA and the Carolina triangle to name a few. We have a lot of great companies already here (Battelle, Limited Brands, Nationwide,Worthington Industries, etc), but most of the talent that learns here doesn’t stay here. I think the biggest reason for that is lack of community. Two things are going to hopefully change that, Social Media and tech event organizers like Ben Blanquera, Ryan Bauer, jason Blanton, and Alvin Borromeo getting together with business organizers/networkers like Mike Bowers, Mike Figliuolo, and Jim Canterucci, et al. I see a lot of great talent in Columbus, but most of them are not willing to take the leap in forming strategic partnerships that are needed to grow the community and competition.

    What does this have to do with your WordPress and WordCampColumbus? Everything. It is the bigger picture or one group not being able to live without the other.

    My only negative is that Lorelle can be a bit overbearing. The positives for me was the new media management and plugin functionality coming in 2.8/3.0 and the SEO session.

  12. I would disagree about the personality type barriers, not only that, but I feel like that attitude is what turns ‘geeks’ off, and sends them to more geek friendly locales, like Silicon Valley, NYC, Boston, etc.

    Tech-types aren’t obsessed with ‘this is how we [use/maximize] XYZ technology, they’re obsessed with how they advance it.

    Both are necessary, and very different. This is where the two-track idea comes in. They’ll quietly boycott (or occasionally publicly mock) events that only take the first track. It’s not the way to advance the tech community at all.

  13. Issac, I wouldn’t necessarily agree that tech types aren’t interested in how we use a technology, just advancing it, I’d say in many cases we’re interested in both. The difference is, as a hobbyist, I’m interested in learning to use WordPress, or Twitter, or any other technology tool, but I don’t really want to try and make a business out of it. That’s where I think the line may be, and a line that exists not just at conferences but also networking events, etc. There’s always the group that want to meet new people and learn about them, share information/knowledge, and ideas, and those that are there to sell something/make a business connection. I see the same lines being formed on Twitter, and everywhere social technology is taking hold. There are the people who live in the same area and want to swap suggestions on things going on around town, or people who work in similar industries who want to swap stories or learn from each other, and those who have something they’re trying to sell. They all have their place, they just don’t always mix very well together.

    Unfortunately, it’s those with something to sell who’ve come to dominate the Columbus Tech community, and it’s been something I’ve noticed long before Wordcamp. It goes back to the creation of the Techlife Meetup group, and all of the various events that were planned there that are only tangentially related to technology. (And Meetup’s insistence that I get an email about each and every one of the events when most had nothing to do with me, which made that situation unbearable for me.)Part of that, I suspect, is that marketing people are much more comfortable being in front of people and speaking at events, as well as planning events. Techs might love a good unconference session where we can show off different tools and tricks, but most don’t have the slightest idea how to plan an event, so the events wind up being planned by others, who find their speakers among their contacts, etc. How does the guy/girl who works in a server room 8 hours a day doing stuff behind the scenes get noticed by people planning events? I don’t have an answer to that. If I did, I’d be speaking a lot more. 🙂

  14. Well, I think that you have to figure out how to wade through some of the stuff. gmail lables are great for that. None of my meetup e-mails go to my inbox and I add a second label to things that have increased chances of me being interested. I also follow a number of people on twitter that organize the events, and they usually say stuff like “We’re looking for speakers, submit your ideas” months before the event. Podcamp, etc. They’re usually really receptive to being pitched ideas (which could be a reason why those who are used to pitching get heard!)

    You’re right about techies being interested in both, I don’t have a large tolerance for being walked through stuff I already know, but I’m really interested in stuff that I don’t yet.

  15. Mike, you read my mind. My thoughts mirror yours.

    Great effort by the organizers. Great lunch. Great value. Disappointed at the lack of technical presentations. I just wanted to learn how to create a theme. I left empty-handed. The SOLE technical, theme-related presentation was canceled.

    Also found the cult-like presentations creepy.

    I also think that the tech community in Columbus is light on tech and heavy on marketing (sorry, social media experts). Hey, have you heard about Facebook and Twitter?

    I do however want to shout from the rooftops how bad the WiFi set up was. Requiring attendees to install special software before allowing a connection is a really non-friendly way to run a conference center. Imagine if every public hotspot required your to install their own software: all laptops would be eventually festooned with bloatware. Did those who installed the big brother software get the instructions on how to uninstall it? Maybe that’s okay for students who connect everyday, but not for one day conference attendees.

    A fellow attendee did install some software and it scanned his harddrive for what he had installed. It reported that the definitions for his virus program were out of date and it would not let him in until he updated them. It blocked him merely because he didn’t have updated virus definitions, not because he had an actual virus.

    But here’s the rub for me. I thought my Linux netbook would be perfect for a conference on Linux-based software. After entering my username and password the connection was useless for me. It didn’t prompt me to install any special software and without being able to control my netbook, it wouldn’t even let me ping the router that the network had assigned to me via DHCP.

    Perhaps someone should introduce the concept of firewalls to the Columbus
    State IT department. That’s how most WiFi hotspots handle security.

  16. Ken,

    Most attendees learned about the conference through Social Media. I have programmer friends that didn’t know about it until I said something to them.

    I agree with the wireless problem. If Panera Bread, MoeJoeLounge can do it….

  17. I didn’t have to install anything to use the wireless, there was an option that said ‘continue without installing (restricted access)’ and I had no problems. I thought overall it was a much better location than some other local events I’ve been to.

  18. @Mike, great discussion. I would have chimed in earlier, but this was the first opportunity I had to be on a computer.

    I can definitely tell you that we wanted and tried to have the two tracks you described. Both Jason and I actively solicited technical speakers. I thought it was a good first effort and definitely see some room for improvement. I’ll suggest to your readers what I suggested to you on twitter, if you see an area for improvement, speak up by all means. BUT, please also help with contributing a solution by either volunteering to speak or to help in recruiting the type of speakers you want at these tech events.

    That said, I can’t wait for Wordcamp Columbus 2. It will only be better with the help of the community.

    @Ken, bummer that the theming presentation had to be canceled. The speaker was at WordCamp throughout the day but was called away on an emergency. In retrospect, I should have recruited a substitute. Live and learn. Also, regarding the wireless, Mike Bowers is aware that that’s a difficulty. He definitely wants to get away with having to go through those hoops, unfortunately it’s out of his hands. Nonetheless, the facility was awesome. Mike offered the space to me without me asking. I was just blown away by that generosity. But wifi access at tech events is ALWAYS a complaint. I believe it’s part of Murphy’s Law.

    @Christian, next time, please help me spread the word to your programmer friends. 🙂 Actually, Jason and I want to continue things by forming a WordPress Users Group. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now. With such a group, we’d have a much better chance of getting that elusive technology track.

    @Issac, thanks for coming out and also sponsoring. Sorry that I wasn’t able to meet you in person.

  19. I suppose that’s a good thing that your programmer friends didn’t attend. I read from your comments that they don’t have social or speaking skills and cannot maintain eye contact.

    Seriously, making fun of technical people is no way to promote a dialog or get them to attend and contribute to a conference like this.

    I know many socially competent programmers who would be willing share their knowledge. I am one. Unfortunately, I’m a WordPress newb.

  20. Ken,

    I am sorry you feel that way. I am in no way being critical of tech type people. My comments about that don’t translate well. I have great respect for them and know that we need them. However, this is a personal observation I have made over the years. I am in no way making the attempt to attack them.

    I just thought it odd that some people in previous posts say that rather than attend and help a conference that is about learning for all, in order to help it evolve and grow to what it should be, that they would publicly mock it. It is this holier than thou attitude that I have seen first hand in the graphic design community. The ones that want to learn and help their community grow and gain the respect of other sectors of business are the ones that become successful and are inclusive not exclusive.

    I wasn’t trying to turn this into a pissing match. I was stating things about my own observations from the conference and my own experiences over the years. Please tell your socially competent programmer friends to contact Jason and Alvin for speaking spots for WordCamp Columbus 2.

  21. Good comments. I was not sure what to expect from WordCamp when I signed up. I was pretty pumped about going though. For me, I would agree with the more technical content stuff. I am pretty new to wordpress… have used it off and on for couple years for personal blogs. I am back to using it again, and really wanted to know how to create custom themes or to be able to edit existing themes. That is the one thing that I too left empty handed with.

    My suggestion for Wordcamp Columbus 2 would be the following:
    Have three to four tracks
    1. Technical track
    2. Marketing track
    3. Blogger/ Social Networking track
    4. Newbie track

    While for me the first session was good, the SEO panel & the branding/ marketing your blog sessions where the best, surprisingly. I was kind of disappointed with the afternoon sessions. I think the unconferences could have been better advertised, thought out, something.

    As to the comments on the Columbus tech community… I would agree with Christian. Their are many here that have no interest in giving their time, unless it includes a check for them. Luckily, I have some good friends in the Columbus tech community that I can call if I run into a problem and to ask for questions. While there are some in Columbus that has tons of tech knowledge, many of them do not have the people skills to hold a crowd for a presentation. Then we would all be complaining about the speakers. So I don't have a solution for this. Here is a group that is sharing information within the tech community… http://www.digitaldisciples.net. My friend Gabe (@godsmac) runs this and they do monthly tech training as well meetup.

  22. @Ken, Yes that is problematic about the WiFi, but since we were basically accessing the same network as all the students access on a daily basis, I can understand it. That being said, the easiest solution is creating a separate “conference guest” wifi network for the building. Of course, then CSCC has to devote tech support resources to all the students who wind up connecting to the wrong network and can’t access internal school stuff. There’s no easy answer when dealing with conference WiFi in the same location that you have a running, internal, wireless network.

    @Christian yes, the conference was mostly advertised through social media, and social media is currently represented in Columbus by a lot of marketing/PR/small business people. As you said, the programmers, sys admins, DBA’s of the world, don’t spend a lot of time looking for events to attend on social networks. I’ve met some great folks through local twitter groups, but most of them are not technology workers, they are PR and Communications people.

    @Alvin A users group might be a good place to get the technical education for people who are interested in starting out with WP, or get good info on themes and plugins, etc. By it’s nature, it’s less about using WP or blogging to market and more about the details of working with it than a large conference would be.

    @malcolm, 4 tracks? That requires a lot of attendees to pull off, frankly. Though I do think a newbie mini-track is a valid idea. I’d drop the marketing track though, if you’re covering the social networking and getting your blog known and attracting more readers in a separate track, I don’t see how whatever you pull in for a marketing track is related to WordPress or blogging any more. There are plenty of other conferences about business development, where you could talk about blogging, as opposed to a blogging conference where you’d talk about marketing plans. (Think Jim’s “You’re the Expert” session, for example. While it was a great presentation, was it relevant to using WordPress, or blogging in general, or was it something that fits better in a small business/entrepreneurship conference?)

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