With fall right around the corner here in North America (I know it feels way too soon), it seems that WordCamp season kicks into high gear. This year is no exception—with over 20 WordCamps currently scheduled to happen between the end of August and the beginning of December. And with all those WordCamps, comes lots of knowledge, confusion, and sometimes frustration for a first time attendee.
That alone could cause people to miss out on a great opportunity to learn, network, meet new people, and even build new business relationships. But I am in a unique position to give you a sort of behind the scenes look at what to expect from your first WordCamps, as I have been in the pretty unique position to be a sponsor, speaker, organizer, and attendee at various WordCamps over the last few years.
So I’d like to offer some tips for you, the first time WordCamp attendees. We will look at how to prepare, what to expect when you get there, and how to get the most out of your first WordCamp experience.
So What Is a WordCamp?
The best definition I could come up with come directly from the WordCamp site itself:
WordCamp is a conference that focuses on everything WordPress. WordCamps are informal, community-organized events that are put together by WordPress users like you. Everyone from casual users to core developers participate, share ideas, and get to know each other.
WordCamps are open to everyone with an interest in WordPress regardless of ability, and that’s an important piece to remember. WordCamps are attended by many different people: from those who’ve just discovered the software, to those who make a significant living working with it. They all gather together under the same roof with a common goal in mind: to learn and to help others learn.
Before the Actual WordCamp Date
Chances are you’ve decided to attend your local WordCamp because you were part of your local Meetup group and they announced it, and you RSVP’d that you would attend. And that all looks good but there is something missing. You haven’t actually bought a ticket for the event yet.
You need to go to the event site and actually purchase a ticket for the event. You can’t show up the day of the event and buy a ticket at the door. WordCamps just aren’t set up to accept ticket sales at the door. So make sure you have purchased your ticket and have received your confirmation email prior to the event.
The Day Before the Event
A little bit of pre-planning the day before the event goes a long way. Have a look at the schedule, which is available on the event website, and see what time the registration opens, where parking is located, (perhaps transit is a better option?). Planning out how you’ll get to the venue and how much time you’ll need to get there will save you a bit of easily avoided morning stress.
Lots of Information, Lots of Notes
One of the things you’ll understand from the very first session you attend is that WordCamps provide lots of information. Now it’s almost impossible to take down all the information as fast as it comes, which is why they video all the presentations and then later post them on wordcamp.tv.
However, you’re going to want to take some notes of your own while you’re there. It’s no secret you will see an abundance of Macbook laptops, but don’t feel like you have to have the latest Apple gear and a hoodie. Bring what you are comfortable with when it comes to taking notes—I have seen people use laptops and tablets. I’ve even seen one elderly gentlemen who decided he was going to fit in by taking a large stack of paper, putting a cardboard cover on it, holding it together with a couple of bulldog clips and in black marker wrote on the cardboard cover “ My iPad.” It was brilliant and it worked for him.
You will find when you go through the registration desk that you will typically receive a swag bag that contains all sorts of goodies from sponsors as well as information for the event, the most important of which is your copy of the schedule.
You should take a moment here to have a look at the schedule. Many times, but not always, a WordCamp schedule is broken into track based on user level, typically the levels represent something like beginner, intermediate, and developer levels. But you shouldn’t feel obligated to stay in a single track of sessions. In fact, make sure you go through the descriptions for all the tracks and choose which sessions interest you the most. Don’t worry if you cross over tracks, your attendance allows you to attend and learn from any sessions you want.
In fact, I met a woman a couple of years ago who after sitting through a session that involved a lot of code, said, as the sessions ended “I didn’t really understand much of that but if my web designer starts talking about it, maybe I’ll understand him better.” What a great attitude.
One thing I’d like to add to this point is that if you do find yourself in a session where you aren’t comfortable, and you’re looking to head to another session, please be considerate of both the speaker and the other people attending the session. The speaker is probably already nervous enough (we’ll talk about them in a bit) and the people in the session are looking to absorb as much information as possible. So please make sure you’re as non-interruptive as possible when exiting the session.
WordCamps don’t exist without two things: volunteers and speakers. Speakers also happen to be volunteers as they are not paid in any way, they even cover their own travel expenses.
So when you are sitting in a session listening to a speaker, remember this could be the first time the person has spoken in public or it could be the 100th time. Regardless, they deserve the same amount of respect from you.
Typically the speaker will try and answer questions during their presentation but sometimes they will ask that questions be held to the end. Either way respect the way the speaker has set up their presentation. But with that in mind, make sure you get your questions answered.
On several occasions, when I have spoken at a WordCamp, I’ve answered questions on my session right after it ended for a solid half hour or even the occasional question the next day from someone who was passing me by in a hallway and wanted to clarify something I said.
And that’s the best thing about the speakers. They are there to help you learn about WordPress and are typically very happy to answer your question about WordPress. And of course there is always the Happiness Bar.
The Happiness Bar
This is probably one of the best things that happens at a WordCamp. There is usually an area set aside where people can take their individual questions and get help from people with lots of experience. In fact, quite often you’ll find that the people manning the happiness bar are in fact Automatticans — employees of the company that brings us WordPress.
They typically spend a great deal of time at the Happiness Bar answering all sorts of questions from individual users. So if you have a specific question regarding WordPress or your individual site, make sure you head to the Happiness Bar to get the answers you need.
The Organizing Team and Volunteers
WordCamps require lots of work by volunteers. First up, the organizing team spends months planning the event. Then, on the day of the event, there is an entire team of event day volunteers, all dedicated to make sure your day is enjoyable and as smooth as possible.
I’m sure you can ask every organizer of any WordCamp and they will have a ton of stories about things that went wrong behind the scenes, whether it be speakers who didn’t show up and required last minute fill ins or the ever present ”Room Guy,” who likes to take over every session he attends.
In wrapping this up, hopefully you are going to walk away from this article wanting to attend your local WordCamp, and in turn learn about our favorite software, WordPress, and make new friends and relationships that will benefit you for years to come.
Any important expectations I didn’t cover? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
When not at his day job in the hosting industry, Al teaches WordPress at a Toronto, Ontario college and also does corporate WordPress training. As a freelance web developer, he is always busy building sites on the WordPress platform. All this leaves him very little time to ride his Harley and watch NFL football.