Recap: WordCamp Houston (10-M08-2, edited)

(2010-10-31) Note: this is edited from the original version. In my original review I was generous toward the event organizers; I have since decided it was in both my personal best interests and those of my readership if I scooped off the generosity and added a few cups of brutal honesty. I will elaborate in a later post.

I began the morning of 2010 August 07 with a rather rare pre-sunrise wakeup. That day was the first ever WordCamp Houston. My alarm was set for 5:45am, and by the time 7am rolled around, I was riding down to the light rail station.

wch-metrorail-ticketBefore I get straight to the heart of the story, a bit of background. I had been waiting eagerly in anticipation of this event for the past several months. This was Houston’s first WordCamp, and it’s a special one because Houston is in fact the birthplace of WordPress (Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, is a native Houstonian). The paid tickets sold out within days of the on-sale announcement. (I’ll talk more about this later.)

Usually, run-of-the-mill technical conferences fall outside the bounds of the events I cover, but if you can’t tell by the foregoing, this was anything but run-of-the-mill. Fortunately for me and several others, volunteer signup commenced immediately afterwards, and I was able to snag one of two breakfast setup spots. Earlier in the week, there was a volunteer meeting led by the organizers and Jess, the volunteer coordinator. After a session of stuffing the remaining swag bags, it was time for the core of the meeting. One of the organizers, Monica Danna, introduced herself and started running through the list of volunteers and explaining their duties. I was instructed to be at the museum at roughly 7:45am and would be manning the breakfast table along with another volunteer, Judy King (not present at the meeting).

Fast forward back to Saturday at around 7:40am. I have barely enough time to peck out a tweet of my impending arrival; while somewhat cryptic by itself, it’s pretty obvious in the context of the previous tweet what it means. (For those not familiar with Houston, the Museum District station is the closest light rail station to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, a mere four to five blocks away.)

museum-district-station-tweet-cropped

After entering the museum, it takes a few moments to get someone’s attention. After a brief, awkward and needlessly cold stare, I’m directed to first help Katie (one of the organizers) move an ice chest holding ice and bottled water down to the breakfast table. Thankfully, it was not nearly as difficult as I had feared; it was certainly easier to manage than a beer keg, and I’ve had to handle those at least twice before in recent memory.

A couple of minutes go by, and then Judy arrives and introduces herself. We get to chatting quite a bit on various topics in between our assigned duties. Judy was as nice and friendly as I could have hoped for and it was a pleasure volunteering alongside her.

DSCN5764-cropA few minutes go by while the crowd starts trickling in as 8am (the official start time for breakfast) ticks closer. I see quite a few familiar faces among the crowd, some of whom said hi at the time, others whom I wouldn’t get to talk to much until later. I go ahead and grab my first kolache as I’m chatting with Judy.

By 8:30am I could easily tell this was a sold-out event; by 8:50am the area leading into the IMAX theater where we were set up was packed. This was emphatically not territory for easily-triggered demophobics (those with fear of crowds)! And then it was time for the keynote. I do my best Pac-Man impression on what’s left of my last kolache and file into the IMAX theater with the crowd.

This is where I derive my first real impression on the HMNS as a venue. While it is certainly understandable to present the IMAX as the first impression, this is not where we’ll be spending most of the day. It borders on deceptive event organizing to present the attendees with the IMAX theatre, then herd everyone down to tiny classrooms… but I’ll address that in more detail later on.

There were three things to note here. One, no food or drink is allowed in the theater, so this meant everyone had to finish or dump everything before going in. Two, the lectern for the speakers was far stage right, meaning certain seats were not conducive to a good view despite being on the first few rows. Finally, we were on a strict timetable for when we had to be out of the theater (9:45am), as the first IMAX film showing would start seating at around that time.

DSCN5769-cropThese combined to make the pace feel much more rushed than it should have been. The IMAX theater felt cavernous, and while it was Matt’s keynote. Video of Matt’s keynote is available for those of you who either were unable to attend, or just want to re-live it. (I ask that you suffer through Monica’s absolutely horrendous introduction in the beginning just as I did; by the time you get to Dwight Silverman’s actual introduction of Matt Mullenweg, you’ll be just as grateful as I was.)

We had a good 15 minutes to find our way around to the first breakout session of our choice. I actually got slightly lost upon my arrival in the breakout session area, having missed the signage posted in the entrance. To be fair it was not where I would normally look for such signage.

And so I found my way to the first session, the case study for Andrea White (wife of former Houston mayor and current gubernatorial candidate Bill White) and passionatesupporter.com. Also present were Monica (Andrea’s consultant for the project) and Katie, serving as moderator of the panel. Katie would also ask questions of her own to keep the discussion flowing, since relatively few questions came from the audience. This was perhaps one of the more insightful presentations I saw the whole day, as I learned from Andrea herself what it’s like to be in her shoes. Andrea revealed she’s a more private person than the average blogger and so doesn’t post a lot of things that many would not think twice about typing in and hitting the “publish” button on. And I respect that; blogging of the sort that I do is not for everyone. Andrea’s sense of humor made this a very interesting and enjoyable session, in spite of Monica’s attempts at humor which fell flat more often than not.

Next up was one of two development track sessions I would attend, Chris Olbekson’s presentation, Optimizing for Performance – Making Your WordPress Blog Faster. While the subject matter got rather technical at times, Chris did a truly spectacular job making it relatively easy to understand for those who were not as technically well-versed as I am. Of course, at the end, I learned most of this is probably not necessary until the traffic level rises far above anything I’ve ever been exposed to; Matt Mullenweg was in the room with us and remarked that out of the box, given decent hardware, WordPress has no issue serving 20 to 30 requests per second. I wish I was getting that kind of traffic; my peak is around 200 visitors in a day. (Not exactly a traffic level that induces meltdown unless one is using a computer that saw its best days during the Clinton administration.) Still, it’s something I hope to be able to put into practice soon and I feel a lot better knowing how to make a site Digg- or Slashdot-ready.

Wordcamp Houston

And then it was lunchtime. We had our choice of boxed sandwich lunches from Jason’s Deli, complete with chips, pickle, and chocolate chip cookie. Again I was joined by Judy, along with a few others whose names escape me at the moment. The lounge/lunchroom got crowded quickly; on my way out I saw several people eating in the hallway or wherever there was space. Taking that cue, after I finished my lunch well before the halfway point of the alloted time, I got up and took a stroll around the area and talked to a few people. Oh, and I got to watch someone spoof the 11 News “do the weather” setup that was in between the classrooms. A little fun never hurt anyone, but it did kind of make me appreciate who we have doing our weather forecasts on TV, as well as provide much needed comic relief. The spoofs included references to acid rain and raining Jello. I had to really try to keep my laughter restrained to keep from making a total spectacle of myself.

Then, the clock struck one, and it was time for the first post-lunch session. I chose Chris Everson’s presentation, Custom Theme Development. A little side note here: the theme (design) you see here at Quinn’s Big City is one I made from scratch, with the aid of only a less-than-adequate online tutorial that I didn’t bookmark and can’t find now. It’s the only blog of mine I’ve done a custom theme for at the time I’m writing this. I hope to change that of course, and I still feel I have things to learn in this department. I came into this session ready to learn a lot, and Chris did not disappoint. I learned a lot of useful information, some of which I can probably even extend beyond my work with WordPress. I had two problems with how this presentation went:

  1. Chris had about 10-15 minutes’ worth of slides left over to try to fast forward through at the end after we were a few minutes over the allotted time. Thankfully we were up against the 20-minute mid-afternoon break so it was less of a big deal than it could have been if this session was, say, in the 10am or 11am slot.
  2. I think this was the presentation during which we were subjected to public address announcements from the museum. And I don’t fault HMNS for making announcements that needed to be made to its patrons… I’ll address this in more detail later as well.

DSCN5772-cropDuring this break, I got to talk to a few more people. And I think someone else did another spoof of the weather at this point for our amusement as well as their own, I’m not sure if it was at this point or at the end of the day. My memory is already a little fuzzy. This break flew by, especially since I really only had about 11-12 minutes.

Next up was the only session I would attend from the business track, Leveraging WordPress for Advocacy Campaigns, presented by Celinda Provost, Dan Derozier, and Dan Joyce, representing a company called NetVictories. This was a captivating look at political and advocacy campaigns done by the company during which many clever and profound tricks were revealed on how to make WordPress do things that most people wouldn’t even think to try making it do.

The last session for me was the case study for the Houston Museum of Natural Science, our hosts, represented by Erin Flis, Ivan Perez, and Mark Belcher. The centerpiece of the presentation was the Museum’s blog, BEYONDbones, which has been in operation since 2007. The panel covered everything from how the museum’s website was in 2002, to past unsuccessful attempts to bring more interaction to the website, to the beginnings of the blog, to present-day happenings such as Lois the Corpse Flower. One of the highlights of this panel was learning that there are particular blog entries that get a whole bunch of hits because they are among the only such web pages/blog posts on their respective topics. I did notice this session was surprisingly sparse; however, as I was told during the volunteer meeting, the entire case studies track was added on once it became obvious there were capacity issues. I’ll get to that in a bit…

So it was 4pm and the only thing left was the afterparty at Caroline Collective. The proximity of HMNS to Caroline Collective is such that it’s impractical to ride the bus or train there; I think the stated public transit directions include just walking the 0.7 miles as an option. Which is exactly what I did, and I arrived at Caroline surprisingly non-sweaty. Of course it was not too long before the body heat overwhelmed the air conditioning there, so it’s not like anyone would have likely noticed even if I had.

I stayed after the stated end time of 6pm and the party was still going strong. I got to talk to a few more people, and check back in with a couple of others that I met during the previous sessions. I left with a few more business cards than I came in with, which is always a good thing.

I originally planned to attend a couple of sessions in the blogger track. I’m now kind of glad I decided at the last minute to change these plans up, because I heard that one blogger track session in particular I wanted to attend was up to standing room only. Judy wrote in her blog entry that this was the case for at least the 11am blogger track session, so I have no reason to doubt what I heard.

The list of who’s who:

  • The organizers: Monica Danna from colab, Chris Everson and Chris Valdez from Primer Grey, and Katie Laird from Schipul;
  • The volunteer coordinator: Jess Hampson;
  • The sponsors: the aforelinked Schipul, HostGator, Houston Zoo, WP101.com, Peter Moorman, Oak Interactive, TopSpot, BlogCatalog, HomeAway Real Estate, and SupplementSavingStop.com (currently not an active website)
  • The hosting venues: the aforelinked and aforementioned HMNS and Caroline Collective
  • Breakfast and lunch: Kolache Factory, Coffee Groundz, and Jason’s Deli
  • Afterparty beer: Saint Arnold’s
  • Matt Mullenweg for a keynote that will probably never be forgotten by most of the attendees (myself included)
  • Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle for the keynote introduction
  • The speakers, aforementioned and in some cases aforelinked (I may be editing this post later and adding links as I find them; I did the best I could)
  • The various other attendees and volunteers who made this event the success it was (seriously, there’s a limit to how much linking I can do before it’s considered link spam, please do not feel slighted)

My take on everthing?

I give full credit to the HMNS staff for hosting the event and doing their best to ensure it wasn’t a train wreck. I’m not going to lie and say it was a train wreck. It wasn’t, but it fell far short of the quality I was expecting.

There was plenty of time between the sell-out and the event date to try and find a better venue. Failing to do so, and placing a higher priority on the celebration of selling out a small venue, is poor event planning. This is not unlike the promoters for Britney Spears booking her at and selling out the Arena Theatre in short order. The result, as was the case here, was a bunch of people that wanted to go, and would have paid well over face value for a ticket, or who had to get in by volunteering (like I did) or entering HostGator’s ticket giveaway. The silver lining to this cloud is at least the organizers weren’t actually dealing with Britney fans here, because that would have resulted in a catastrophe.

I’m used to the warts of Caroline as an afterparty venue; PhotoCamp Houston in 2009 January was similar, but again, that was in the middle of winter when a bunch of warm bodies heating up the rooms inside add to the comfort instead of subtracting from it.

I have an unfortunately low amount of confidence in the ability of this organizing team to give us a quality event truly worthy of the name WordCamp Houston. When asked for feedback recently, I even suggested to the organizers they should consider stepping aside and letting someone else try.

I hope next year’s WordCamp Houston is better. Because Houston deserves better.

(I know the comments from the original post are missing at the moment. I’m working on moving them over to this one.)

6 comments to “Recap: WordCamp Houston (10-M08-2, edited)”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shawn K. Quinn, Quinn's Big City. Quinn's Big City said: New post: Recap: WordCamp Houston (10-M08-2) – http://bit.ly/ab0oWz [...]

  2. Judy says:

    Dude! I totally forgot the link to your site in my post. Shame on moi. Fixed it.
    My recent post A Glitch

  3. Tresha says:

    Thanks for the interesting write up. I'm signed up for the Austin WordCamp in December 2010 and I'm looking forward to it.
    My recent post All’s well that ends well maybe

  4. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shawn K. Quinn and Matthew McGarity, Quinn's Big City. Quinn's Big City said: New post: Recap: WordCamp Houston (10-M08-2, edited) – http://bit.ly/d2W9GT [...]

  5. [...] very small part of this duplicates my recap on Quinn’s Big City, but most of it is new. Specifically, there are a lot of things that have come to light since and [...]

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