Hallam developer Alex Walker reports on the dev team's life-changing experience at the 2018 WordCamp Europe conference in Belgrade, Serbia.
Even if you’re a developer, designer, content strategist or marketer who works with WordPress on a daily basis, you’d be forgiven for thinking a two-day conference on the CMS might possibly be – evening beers aside – a little dry.
You definitely wouldn’t expect it to be a life-changing experience, let alone one that would move some attendees to tears.
But when Hallam’s development team headed out to Serbia for this year’s WordCamp Europe event, that’s exactly what it was.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t quite up there with spending a year studying with Tibetan monks or meditating in a Hindu Ashram. But I for one came back with a different perspective on WordPress, my career and life in general.
Before this turns into Eat, Pray, Code, let’s back up a moment.
‘WordCamp’ is the name given to major gatherings of people who use WordPress in a creative way. The first of these took place in San Francisco in 2006 and was organised by WordPress co-creator Matt Mullenweg, but since then several hundred independent, community-run events around the world have followed the same model on a variety of scales.
The key word in the last sentence is ‘community’. WordPress is a community-driven piece of software, relying on developers and designers – often working for no financial reward – to build not only the range of plugins and themes most are familiar with, but also the core code itself. When you work with WordPress day-to-day at a commercial agency or as a freelancer (as I have for ten years), it’s easy to forget this. You start thinking of WordPress as another tool of the trade alongside Slack, BitBucket, Basecamp or whatever platforms your office utilises.
The opening day of WordCamp Europe is dubbed ‘Contributor Day’ and involves attendees working individually and in groups to produce code that could very well end up in a future version of WordPress. We missed Contributor Day, but when I heard people talking about it, I had to reflect on it for some time: imagine going to a Microsoft conference where the first thing you are asked to do is fire up your laptop and do some free work for them…
This idea of ‘free work’ is essential to WordPress’ success, as both a CMS and the focal point of an international community. Without voluntary contributions from thousands of designers, coders and testers, WordPress – 15 years old this year – would not exist as it does today. And without WordPress, we wouldn’t have a content management system of almost unlimited possibility to use in our projects and offer to our clients, let alone one available completely free with no catches.
The symbiotic relationship between the ‘owners’ (the WordPress Foundation) and the WordPress community is the headline message of WordCamp events. The event we attended in Belgrade took place at the Sava Centre, a huge conference and cultural centre with two vast lecture halls and numerous spaces for workshops, networking and social gatherings. There was free food and drink all day, and free gifts doled out to all attendees. Of course, all of this was paid for by the sponsors (primarily WooCommerce, Jetpack and Google, no less) who naturally had a commercial interest in being there. But even without generous sponsors, WordCamps would still be taking place, funded by the attendees if necessary. Indeed, many of the groups who travelled from across Europe to be there had come together at much smaller – and predominantly self-sustaining – local meet-ups. The sponsors made the whole thing more comfortable, but it is the community that made the event happen, just as they make WordPress happen.
We arrived at Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport – named in 2006 in honour of Serbia’s most famous scientist – late on Thursday night, so it was already pretty dark as our minibus taxi took the ten Hallam representatives into the city. The stark Soviet-era tower blocks that loomed over the roads were in dramatic contrast to the Western decadence of our hotel.
The Hyatt Regency is a futuristic wedge of glass from the outside and an opulent palace of marble within. The young and beautiful of Belgrade were celebrating at an end-of-term bash in the hotel ballroom when we arrived around 1am local time, but though we were tempted to gatecrash, a few quiet drinks in the bar were all we had the energy for, after our budget airline flight.
‘Go hard or go home’ might well be the Serbian national motto – the local beer Julio ordered for everyone turned out to be 9% ABV, as we discovered midway through the third round.
Despite the resulting bleary eyes the following morning, we all made it to the feast of a breakfast buffet, our first experience of the Serbian approach to cuisine – good quality, lots of choice and far more of it than you can possibly eat.
Somewhat recharged, we set off to the conference venue, a ten minute walk from our hotel. The Sava Centre is situated on the edge of the New Belgrade commercial area, west of the Sava River that dissects the city before joining the Danube. In daylight, the contrast between brutalist housing and shiny office buildings on opposites sides of the road was even more apparent.
Serbia is one of several former Soviet states to invest in tech sectors to rebuild their economy. Microsoft, Dell and Intel are among the firms who have made Belgrade their regional base, and the city is home to more than 7,000 IT-based companies. The strength of the local development talent was no doubt one of the reasons the city was chosen to follow Paris in hosting the roaming WordCamp Europe this year (in 2019 it will be in Berlin). The event was well attended by Serbians, though you could identify attendees and delegates of most nationalities over the course of the weekend.
The conference is presented in English, which most Belgradians speak fluently. There is also an emphasis on inclusivity, with disabled access taken very seriously and live captioning (in English) displayed on the big screens behind every speaker. This was apt because accessibility – the principle of making websites and applications useful for people of all abilities – was a main theme throughout the conference. WordPress, as one of the web’s few remaining open-source and truly collaborative entities, should resist the utilitarian urge to focus on the majority and instead strive to accommodate minorities, several speakers argued.
Another common theme was mental health. I attended a workshop led by American psychologist Dr Sherry Walling who has created a specialist wellbeing consultancy for modern businesses. Dr Walling has previously helped veterans deal with the traumas of war, but now advocates for those working in the tech sector who are at risk because of damaging lifestyles. Nobody claims web devs suffer the same stresses as frontline soldiers, but we should nevertheless take our mental and physical health seriously, avoid burnout and acknowledge the particular emotional challenges of our industry.
Similarly, citizen of the world Paolo Belcastro (Automattic Inc.) shared his experience of coordinating distributed teams (i.e. teams who are collaborating from remote locations) with specific reference to combatting isolation and overcoming communication barriers. His first example of people-management insight came not from his professional work, but the role-playing game World of Warcraft in which players from around the globe must pool skills and resources to defeat dragons, trolls and relentless armies of the undead – not much different from dealing with a difficult client, then!
Paolo wasn’t the only one experienced with trolls. His boss, Matt Mullenweg, drew the biggest crowd of the weekend for his keynote address. Relaxed and enthusiastic, the WordPress creator talked about his latest baby, the Gutenberg content editor (soon to be part of WordPress core and no doubt the subject of several more blogs on this website) before taking questions from the audience.
No sooner was the floor opened than Matt was asked to comment on rumours that WordPress was going to be taken over by Google (rumours that apparently only the chap asking the question was aware of).
Despite growing laughter from the rest of the audience, Matt listened patiently as the aggrieved party outlined his concerns in an increasingly fraught voice, climaxing with “I trusted you, GitHub!” (in reference to the version-control giant’s recent acquisition by Microsoft). How, he demanded to know, could Matt reassure him WordPress wasn’t soon going to be in the claws of an evil corporation?
“That’s a nice way to thank our sponsors,” began Matt, before explaining that even if Google – or anyone else – did buy out the WordPress Foundation or Automattic Inc. (the company behind WordPress.com), WordPress itself is already installed on millions of computers and servers worldwide along with a license doc stating anyone is free to copy, distribute or modify it. The horse has already bolted. Even in the worst-case scenario, if you didn’t like Google-owned WordPress there was nothing to stop you creating your own version. “You could call it NotEvilPress,” suggested Matt.
It seemed strange that someone obviously very passionate about WordPress development could so badly misunderstand the concept of open-source software (which GitHub certainly isn’t, just a repository for such code) and WordPress’s place in the web’s political landscape. But as he went on, it became clear that behind the troubled man’s diatribe was the fact that a pull request (a suggested update to the core code) he recently submitted to WordPress had been rejected. We later spotted him ranting on the same subject at a couple of unfortunate representatives from Google.
I relate these incidents not to mock the person in question, but to emphasise the deep connection many of the attendees of WordCamps have with WordPress and the surrounding community, even if that manifests in wild conspiracy theories for some. Not everyone believes Google is out to get them, but most would be devastated if WordPress became just another piece of subscription-model software with updates rolled out periodically by a faceless multinational.
Another key innovator in the WordPress global community, Morten Rand-Hendriksen (WordPress guru for Lynda.com, and at WordCamp Europe promoting his open-source WP Rig project) gave arguably the most impactful talk of the weekend – and it wasn’t even really about WordPress.
In fact, the gist of his ‘Ethics of Web Design’ talk could really apply to any field or walk of life. In a presentation that was emotionally and intellectually irresistible, he urged everyone involved in design of any sort to make ethical choices by thinking through the consequences of what is produced. Just because something is innovative, cool or clever, does that make it good? Will our work have a negative impact on anyone, whether we intend it to or not? And if so, what does that say about us if we carry on regardless?
“With every design decision, we build the future for our users and ourselves,” Morten (pictured above) told us. This may sound like hyperbole at first, but when you place WordPress in the context of start-up businesses (providing them with a powerful piece of publishing or ecommerce software at no cost), disabled users (allowing them to find crucial information and products through accessible and intuitive websites), disenfranchised groups (giving them a platform to speak from and build supportive communities) and numerous other socially worthwhile uses, you can’t help but accept Morten’s argument that those of us who contribute to or use WordPress should do so with the intention of making the world a slightly better place.
With well-chosen examples of technology being developed without thought to the consequences (such as an AI that can supposedly tell someone’s sexual orientation from a photograph) and an erudite sample of philosophical views on ethics, Morten outlined a methodology with which designers and software engineers can question the moral implications of their work, not just the usual considerations of budget, timescale, specification and a steady supply of caffeinated drinks.
It’s very easy as a software developer to become cynical and dismissive: it’s only coding, what does it really matter? But aside from all the technical knowledge gained during our two days in Belgrade, WordCamp Europe served as a vital reminder that what we do is important, worthwhile, and meaningful.
That was epitomised by the first audience member who approached the microphone after Morten’s powerful talk. “I don’t have a question,” he said, “I just wanted to say thank you.” And that was all he could manage before he broke down in tears.
It could have been a comical scene – a nerd gets weepy over a talk about software. But nobody in the auditorium laughed. We were all feeling the same to some extent. After a few moments, the man composed himself and explained that many years ago he had studied psychology before becoming a programmer. Until now he had never been quite able to reconcile the two things – how do you equate the desire to help people lead happier, more fulfilling lives with the seemingly trivial practice of writing code to make things appear on a screen?
That evening, as the Hallam team convened again in the hotel bar for more Serbian-strength beer, the three of us who had attended Morten’s speech were somewhat evangelical as we related it to our colleagues. The others may have thought we had joined a cult. I’ve jokingly made WWMD – ‘What Would Morten Do?’ – my office motto.
But I’m only partly joking. There’s no point going all the way to Serbia to listen to lectures about web development if you’re not planning on taking away what you’ve heard and putting it into practical use, be that systems of ethics, web accessibility techniques or the basics of Gutenberg blocks.
So I’m not exaggerating when I say the conference was life-changing. Maybe the changes are not as profound as that loaded phrase implies, but if WordCamp and the WordPress community teach us one thing, it is this: small changes add up to big differences.