WordCamp Professionalism

NOTE: I posted this before I talked to the speaker in question, and I’ve done so since — I want to apologize here for posting in the heat of the moment when I should have raised my concerns in person first. The points still stand, not only for WordCamps but for conference presentations in general, and I’d love to turn this in a more productive direction in future posts with speaker tips, resources, organizer tips, and things I’ve learned the hard way myself. Finally, speaker, thanks for taking this as decently as you did. I hope I’ll see you at the next camp.

I’m sitting here in the break between sessions at WordCamp Raleigh, and I had to dash of a quick post about the session I just saw. Not because it was so awesome, sadly.

  • First problem: the presenter did a live coding demo. Now, it’s possible to do a good live demo, and if you can pull it off, they’re amazing. But that requires a very well-rehearsed and very carefully controlled demo, where you’re building toward some specific effect that can only play live. Good examples: Lea Verou’s CSS demos, where she’ll build a single very cutting-edge element (and, let’s note, using a visually simplified environment she built just for live demos!). The amazing JavaScript WAT talk (which gets huge points for building to a punchline while also digging into some thorny points of the language). Don’t just switch to an editor to say “and here’s how to use this plugin in your theme files”. A few well-chosen one-liners will do much better.
  • Much more of an issue, for me: “This is one of the sites I built. It looks terrible because the client didn’t want to pay up for responsive.” Do I even need to mention what horrible client relations this is? We’ve all built sites that look dated a few years later; the web is a fast-moving medium as we all know. But if you really think it looks “awful”, pick another site to show off. If it’s passable, don’t mention it. WHATEVER you do, you don’t blame your client for being cheap.
  • “I don’t know” is a perfectly valid answer. There was an audience question about the GPL and its relationship to paid plugins, and the speaker just plain got it wrong by telling the questioner that GPL is incompatible with charging money — now, I get that it’s a tricky question even for people with a lot of experience in the field. And it wasn’t what he came prepared to talk about. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the earlier issues, I’d correct the facts and give the guy a pass. But that’s where the magic “I don’t know” comes in. Nobody speaking at any WordCamp (yes, even Matt!) knows absolutely everything. And if “how does the legal issue work” isn’t in your wheelhouse, nobody will ever fault you for saying “hey, I don’t have the expertise for that, is there anyone else in the room who can help out with that?”

WordCamps are informal, fun, community events, but they’re also the first introduction many people have to the community, and even to going beyond their first steps with the software. When we took a raise-your-hands poll at the opening session this morning, something like 3/4 of the attendees were at their first WordCamp. And WordCamps are the first conference speaking gigs for a lot of people too (including me!) — so it’s understandable that they may not be the most polished presentations out there. But any speaking gig, and any audience, deserves preparation, attention, thoughtfulness, and a dose of Wheaton’s law.

(I didn’t put this on the official hashtag because I didn’t want to call the guy out in short form. But there are some points that seemed worth saying at more length because they might help future speakers.)