WordCamp Europe takeaways

After a whirlwind WordCamp Europe, I've had some time to sit back and consider some of the common conversational threads. When a big group of people gets together in the WordPress space, you can start to identify what folks are concerned, excited, or otherwise feeling, from the conversations that sprout up.

There was definitely an overarching big picture theme in conversations at this event, which brought so many people together from all over the world. The timing of the event was right alongside the Brexit vote. You are probably aware, but the vote was a nationwide referendum, where all citizens voted whether they would remain in the European Union, or leave it; hence the nickname, “Brexit.” We all discovered the morning of the first day that the vote swung toward the United Kingdom leaving the EU.

Considering a huge UK contingent at WCEU, and the impact on the broader European community and world in general, you couldn't go ten steps without hearing the word, “Brexit.” And while it may seem unrelated to WordPress, it really isn't, especially, I think, for my audience of mostly WordPress professionals and business owners.

One amazing thing about web based business is that you can do business with anyone in the world, any time. One of the immediate effects of the leave vote was an unprecedented drop in the value of the British Pound (always a very strong currency), to thirty year lows nearly overnight. Such a change immediately impacts our community. The buying power of UK citizens was instantly reduced, and the uncertainty caused by the vote caused markets all over the world to tank. I even saw some UK based business owners note how their payroll had just increased by more than 10% because of the currency change. Such are the types of changes that can have dramatic impact on small businesses. And that was just the first couple of days following the vote, making nearly everyone at the conference extremely uncertain.

It reminded me of the financial crisis in 2008. I remember being in college and watching the stock market tank in a single afternoon, and hearing about bank after bank being insolvent without government help. When you see news like that happening, it makes you wonder, “Will I be okay? Will I be able to get work? Will I be let go? Are we going into a recession?” In 2008, we did go into a recession, people started buying much less stuff, and jobs were hard to come by.

It's too early to tell exactly how the vote will affect the UK, the EU, and the world — but the initial reactions are worrisome, to say the least. Many web purchases are the first to go in a time of economic uncertainty, and for WordPress consulting and product businesses, time will tell how they'll be impacted.

But one thing is for sure: Brexit was top of mind for most of us. Matt Mullenweg, Siobhan McKeown, and especially Heather Burns even discussed Brexit during their sessions.

WordPress topics du jour

The WordPress topics du jour were not too dissimilar from what have been so here lately: the REST API, the hosting ecosystem, leadership and empowerment within WordPress core, feature projects, empathy, and community.

The REST API

The REST API was benefited from WordCamp Europe. Three of four leads for the API were at the event, and all six lead developers were there too. There were numerous productive conversations, between the conference talks, backchannels, and contributor day.

Joe's REST API double session was particularly exciting to me, because he came out with a surprise WordPress mobile app built with React Native, aptly named Vienna. His talk adeptly covered the current state of the API, challenges, and road to this point. There were other great talks that discussed the API as well, which was nice to see, and they were all well attended.

I'm confident there's a path forward for the endpoints to be in core, and WCEU was a good step to help make it happen.

Hosting ecosystem

Hosting is always a big topic of conversation, because there's a lot of money in it. I was constantly asked about the WordPress.org recommended hosting page, and asked whether I was going to talk to Matt about it. I didn't talk to Matt about it, but I did talk to some hosts.

Many of you may know, but Bluehost and SiteGround were taken off the page for a few days. I tweeted it at the time, and I got a bit of a cryptic comment from Matt on why it happened:

Temporary issues may cause recommended hosts to change at any time, but given the long track record of both I expect they'll be back. We might also try out different presentations and layouts there in the future.

It turns out, that was about all the hosts heard as well. And then a few days later they were back and that was that.

The page continues to be a bit of a mystery, even to the hosts that are represented. But those on the page aren't complaining, and we at least now know that the page is up to Matt's complete and utter personal discretion. I will say that at least one of the new entrants to the page confirmed to me that they are definitely not paying to be there (Matt said none of them are, so this shouldn't be surprising, but it's good to have a second source) and that they were as surprised as anyone else when they saw their name go up.

Many of the major hosts were at WordCamp Europe as sponsors and attendees as well. I think that page is going to finally fade from attention a bit. I think we have about as much information about it that we'll get for a while, and that's the biggest reason I didn't discuss it with Matt in the interview, as well as because I just didn't have enough time for everything.

Leadership and WordPress core

I did discuss core leadership with Matt, as well as with other leads, committers, and former release leads. Amongst folks that pay close attention to core WordPress development, some (including myself) have been concerned for a while now that there are too few voices at the top that are equipped to make the bigger, more difficult core decisions surrounding long running projects and overall WordPress-as-a-product vision.

Don't get me wrong, there are dozens of highly capable and awesome leaders amongst the component maintainers, committers, and lead developers, but somewhere along the way, there seems to be a decision gap that isn't good for WordPress long term. John Blackbourn expressed similar sentiment:

WordPress needs some longer term goals — goals which will drive the individual decisions around features — and WordPress needs to allow input on its goals from its community. But more importantly, it needs some leadership that it's not really had the last few years; that's how WordPress will move forward and maintain relevance.

I think John fairly stated this critique, and it's powerful coming from him — a former release lead and a core committer. While his feelings are not universal, they are prevalent amongst a number of leaders in the WordPress community.

I think it's worth stating the difference between goals and vision. Matt Mullenweg has been the primary driver of vision for WordPress, but it's a lofty and high level vision, and he rarely brings that vision down into specific, actionable goals for the other leaders within core to enact.

This was the reason I talked to Matt about his direct reports, first off, because I think he is spread so thin, and the need for WordPress product direction is so great, that it would help if there was someone other than him slated to guide WordPress from a product and vision perspective. He argued that the release leads are equipped to be such people, but as John's sentiment expresses, they don't always feel equipped to be that level of decision makers, and the timeframe for making such decisions is short with three to four month release cycles.

There is, based on my conversations with people, some considerable support for the concept of a product lead — whether a team, a group, or just more officially empowering current contributors. But some within core definitely feel that core would benefit greatly if someone(s) could take Matt's big vision and break it into more actionable steps and goals for WordPress as a product.

Feature projects

There were definitely conversations at WordCamp Europe around how to move feature projects forward — whether the REST API, the Fields API, customizer enhancements, new user experience, and more.

Everyone has their favorite parts of WordPress that they want to see improved, and both within the core development team and the broader WordPress community, the topics I list above were high in mind. Overall, the move from “feature plugin” to “feature project” seems to have been received well, and the removal of a plugin limitation is likely good for better long term iteration on ideas.

But at some point, decisions will need to be made on which way to go with feature projects that have lingered. I hope that WordCamp Europe was a helpful environment to help move those conversations forward. Even though there wasn't an official community summit at the event, it felt a little bit like an unofficial one, considering the shear number of influencers that were there, from many diverse backgrounds and locales.

Empathy and community

Empathy is another word that I think well describes the tone of WordCamp Europe. Morten Rand-Hendriksen did a great job expressing the importance of empathy in design and community. That was probably the most recommended talk I saw of the event, from those that attended.

Empathy, as Morten expresses, is about getting to know and appreciating experiences that are not your own. It's easy for me to be non-empathetic: I'm a white, english speaking, young, male from the United States with no physical boundaries to the web. It's therefore even more important for me to better understand and empathize with people that have different background and perspectives.

I used language as an example with a few friends of mine at home. Several friends of mine in the WordPress community speak English as a second language. Some speak it flawlessly, others very well, and others just enough for bare bones communication. I travelled to Paris before WCEU, then obviously WordCamp was in Vienna. So I was in two cities where English was not the primary language. Yet it was amazing, despite my complete inability to speak French or German, how empathetic people in each city were to me, and made a great effort to make me comfortable — speaking my language after I made it clear I had no idea what they were saying.

I rolled into these cities not knowing hardly a word of the native language, and they accommodated me graciously. I wasn't scorned or lectured, I was accepted.

In the WordPress space, it's easy to write off those people who need our empathy because it's too burdensome to deal with their perceived limitations. And it's wrong. As Morten and others expressed, our openness, willingness to help, and effort to support all people's efforts to use WordPress websites and participate in our community are important. It makes us a better community when we embrace everyone.

I felt like WordCamp Europe, this melting pot of people and culture, was a great example of empathy at work. It was so well organized, with consideration given to so many different types of people and interests. For example, the closed captioning of all talks was absolutely amazing to watch. And the number of activities before WordCamp that were non-alcohol related were awesome. And on contributor day, all were welcome, whether they'd ever touched WordPress core code or not.

The whole event was a joy to experience, and I'm really thrilled I experienced my first WordCamp Europe. It's not the same as the US-centric community I'm accustomed to, but it's a beautiful community, and I had a wonderful time.

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