Jen Swisher is a Happiness Engineer on the Jetpack plugin at Automattic and is organizing WordCamp US 2021 online.
Event Date: October 1
Event Website: https://us.wordcamp.org/2021/
Twitter | @JenSwish
Topher: Hey everyone! My name is Topher.
Cate: And my name is Cate.
Topher: And this is Hallway Chats. We’d like to take a moment to thank our sponsor Nexcess, a Liquid Web brand. Be sure to check out their new product WP Quickstart. WP Quickstart is a fast and affordable way to build membership sites on WordPress with packages beginning at just $49. Visit Nexcess.net to get started.
Our guest today is Jen Swisher. Welcome.
Cate: Hi, Jen.
Jen: It’s great to be here.
Cate: So Jen, we’re really glad to have you here. We’re excited to hear a little bit more about you. We want to talk about what keeps you volunteering in the WordPress space and to tell us a little bit more about being a part of the lead organizing team for WordCamp US and the upcoming WordCamp US 2021 which is right around the corner, October 1.
Jen: Yeah, it’s sneaking up closer and closer every day.
Cate: I know it’s crazy. I’m like, “I am not ready for October yet.” But October is coming whether I like it or not.
Jen: Yeah, barreling towards us.
Topher: Tell us about where you’re from and how you got into WordPress.
Jen: I’m from a teeny tiny little town in Michigan—it’s actually not too far from y’all—called Sunfield. So I lived there, went to school there… was basically born there. I left there when I was 19. I moved to St. Louis, Missouri, which is where I live now. I came here for college. They gave me a very, very generous scholarship. And it’s the only reason I have a degree honestly.
So I graduated in 2012 with a degree in Interactive Media and Web Design. But my WordPress story actually starts about halfway through my time there where I started working for a website company. They asked me, “Do you think you could use this WordPress thing to build websites for us?” I literally never heard of it before in my entire life. I was like, “Sure, why not? Let’s do this thing.”
I started, you know, just kind of trying to dig into everything I could possibly find about the software. And the Codecs, as it was called at the time, it’s big. It was very, very big and very hard to understand if you’re just starting to get your feet wet.
So I started looking for other online resources and found out about these meetups that they were doing in our area. So I started going to the meetup started meeting other WordPress people and asking questions and learning things like… I think one of the first things I learned was how to build child themes. And that’s basically what I did the rest of the time I worked there was I used… I think it was either 2010 or 2011 at the time to build child themes for local businesses and nonprofits that the company I was working for had contracts with. So that was where I got started with WordPress really.
Cate: That’s really cool.
Jen: Yeah. And then it would have been 2014 for WordCamp San Francisco. So during WordCamp San Francisco that year, that was the last one before it actually flipped to WordCamp US. That one, there was a fire drill in the middle of one of the sessions in the morning.
Topher: I was there. I remember it.
Jen: My community-
Topher: I could not do it.
Jen: Right. No. Apparently, it was some sort of scheduled thing and they just didn’t tell anyone. But our local meetup was having a watch party during WordCamp San Francisco when we were watching and hanging out and eating chili and all kinds of stuff like that, and the fire drill happened.
And so we’re all just kind of standing around like, “What do we do now?” We don’t know if this means the event’s over or if they’re coming back. So we just kind of were hanging around and I got to talking to some of the meetup organizers at the time, and they’re like, “Oh, well, we’re recruiting folks to join the organizing team for WordCamp St. Louis for 2015.” That’s when I was like, “Well, I have all of this event planning experience from college. I helped plan homecoming and stuff there and big concerts that we have, like the plain white T’s and stuff like that.
Cate: Oh, wow.
Jen: I know a thing or two about a thing or two. So I was like, “I can help.” So 2015 was the first year that I was on an organizing team for WordCamp. And so I did 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018 was St. Louis. And then 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 with WordCamp US.
Cate: Wow, that’s exhausting. We were actually at your first WordCamp, WordCamp St. Louis 2015.
Jen: Topher was a speaker.
Topher: Can you remember?
Jen: I think so. It sticks to my mind.
Cate: If there’s a microphone, then Topher is usually a speaker.
Jen: It’s on mind for some reason. I look at those sites all the time for various reasons.
Cate: Yeah, it was a really great WordCamp. I really enjoyed being there.
Topher: Yeah, I liked it.
Jen: We did City Museum for the after-party. I planned the after-party that year. That was a great after-party. I love the City Museum. I was so glad we were able to bring WordCamp US in 2019 to there.
Topher: You know, I’ve been to a number of WordCamps where the after-party was at a museum, and it has always been amazing.
Cate: There’s a funny story where I was in the City Museum for the 2019 after-party, and never left like a 10-meter section of the lobby. Because I ended up in so many conversations in that space. The girls are telling me all these stories about all the cool things. You know, the slide that they had gotten down in the dinosaur they crawled through and whatever, you know, all of the stuff. And I was like, “Wow, that sounds really nice. We’ll have to come back sometime.”
Jen: You definitely should. I mean, it’s built into this old shoe factory. So it’s like just a big flat warehouse space on every floor. This artist bought it, he’s actually now passed away, but this artist bought it and basically used all of these reclaimed and recycled materials to build that… the best way I know to describe it as a grownup playground.
Cate: That is an excellent way from what I’ve heard.
Topher: Yeah, it really is.
Jen: You can climb on everything. There’s a 10 story slide, paves like… it’s wild. There’s so much to look at. I mean, I’ve been multiple times and you can go back a million times, and you’ll find something different every time.
Topher: I really enjoyed the antique arcade, the pinball games, and stuff like that.
Jen: They’re so fun too.
Topher: When you say arcade, you think Pac-Man, but this was like 1930s.
Jen: Oh, yeah.
Topher: Yeah. It’s really good stuff.
Cate: Well, I thought the lobby was lovely. Nice access to the bathroom, good ventilation. It was charming.
Jen: Yeah. Close to the fire exits.
Jen: Yeah. Yeah.
Cate: So you were from a local WordCamp to… which as someone who has organized a local WordCamp, that’s a big feat unto itself into doing a national WordCamp, which really is an international WordCamp. Do you want to tell us a little bit more about WordCamp US and maybe what makes it different from a normal WordCamp that somebody may have gone to like their local WordCamp?
Jen: Sure. I think the biggest and most noticeable difference is the budget really. Your average local WordCamp budget is going to be right around $10,000. The WordCamp US budget is usually somewhere around a million dollars, a little over a million dollars. And that’s, I mean, the sheer size of it, the venue that we have to go with. And then there’s all of these little fix… I say little and I mean not so little, fixed costs, like catering. The venues we go with generally have their own exclusive caterer. Catering is actually like a third of that budget.
Cate: Oh, yeah.
Jen: So there’s going to be almost 2,000 people on site. We’re going to make sure you’re fed. So that’s-
Cate: You don’t want 2,000 hungry people on site.
Cate: Nothing good comes with that.
Jen: That’s like lunches, that’s all of the coffee. Oh, gosh, I think we were in the hundreds of gallons of coffee for 2019. That’s one of the biggest stick line items on our budget is coffee and drinks. Lunch is pretty close. But we as a community consume quite a little bit of coffee.
Cate: Generally, for the best. Again, we don’t want an uncaffeinated crowd that just leads to riots.
Jen: No. No. Crying babies. Nobody wants that. Yeah, nobody wants an uncaffeinated WordCamp.
Cate: Like you said, until you’re someone who’s organizing the events, you don’t understand the restrictions that come with having a venue. Like you look at the venue, “Yeah, oh, it’s really great, let’s get a big space.” And the space often doesn’t cost as much. But everything that you have to put into the space is exponentially more expensive.
Jen: The actual space rent for our WordCamp in St. Louis was a little over $30,000.
Cate: And it’s a massive space. It really is.
Jen: Yeah. We had tens of thousands, maybe even over 100,000 square feet of space at our disposal. It is a very small, small component of it is the actual space. It’s all of the restrictions we have around which vendors we can use. Because every event center or conference center like that is going to have, at least here in the United States, exclusive vendors that you can use for certain things.
Jen: And then there’s also rules around like… there’s unions that operate out of the convention centers and there are rules that we have to follow to stay in line with the union contracts. We can only use two-wheel dollies is a great example of that. Anything that needs to be brought in with three or more wheels has to be wheeled in by a union member-
Cate: Oh, wow.
Jen: …of the staff to wherever it needs to go. There are things that you learn to work with. But we also have exclusive vendors for things like providing internet service to everyone, which is extremely important, and electricity and… I already mentioned catering, audiovisual production-
Jen: Yeah, food, food. But audiovisual production, we have to do that all in a certain way to make sure that the live stream can happen still while also running an in-person event. We also have a production company, and we use real human captioners to caption our events. So we have to pay for all of the service there on the ground, but we also have to pay to bring those people in. So there’s travel costs associated with that as well. So what seems, you know, oh, yeah, it’s like a little WordCamp except bigger, so it really shouldn’t cost that much more. No.
Jen: No. Once you add a convention center, the prices go up exponentially.
Cate: And so that had to play some into the decision to cancel WordCamp US 2020.
Jen: It definitely did. You have to kind of understand how will that played into that, you have to understand how the WordCamp US planning cycle works. It works pretty similarly for Europe and Asia, but I don’t know enough about how their process works to speak to it. This is my fifth WordCamp US and I mean, first online-only, but I did three in person before this.
So WordCamp US usually happens in the last quarter of the year. It was originally in December, we moved it to October in 2019. So we have basically from January to October. And the reason we only have from January to October is because November and December those are kind of wrap-up months for closing down our budget. Since we have such a big budget, there’s a little bit more involved process of getting everything consolidated and accounted for.
Cate: For sure.
Jen: Plus the holidays are in November and December. So there’s no way we can get any planning done during those months anyway. So we don’t start till January.
Cate: I’m sorry, Jen. Are you saying that you’d like to have an actual life outside of WordCamp?
Jen: Maybe. Maybe. We started up again in January. Well, January 2020 as we know is when the Coronavirus have officially made its way to the United States. There’s enough evidence now, we know, to suggest that it was here before that. Just not as widespread as it became or started to become in January. So we already kind of had that uncertainty playing against us.
Cate: Oh, yeah.
Jen: And then in February, WordCamp Asia, as we know, move through online because things got very serious very quickly. And then we started to see it get very, very serious very, very quickly here as well. Here in Missouri, where the 2020 event was supposed to happen, we also had a really unfortunate situation where our state government wouldn’t require masks statewide or any kind of quarantine period, or any other basic public health protection type orders.
Here in St. Louis County, and St. Louis city where the convention center is we did have a mask mandate and we did have specific quarantine periods that you had to follow and lockdowns at several points throughout 2020. But the people that we’re bringing Coronavirus into the city and county don’t live here because they live in St. Charles County and other surrounding counties, and then come into St. Louis to work and bring it with them. So things got very bad here very quickly.
And so by the time April came around, we made the decision at that point this is not going to get better soon. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of it. At that point, we were having 2,000 to 3,000 new cases a day. And it only escalated from there. So we made the decision at that point to go online.
Before that, though, we had been planning essentially two events at once. We’ve been planning both to be in person and to be online at the same time. So we were trying to be excited for being in person and also grieving not being in person at the same time, which those two things don’t really mesh well. You know, there’s this kind of cognitive dissonance that comes with that, that you will feel excited and sad at the same time. And it’s hard to continue forward on to that.
Cate: It’s a lot to ask of your volunteers too.
Cate: I mean, I was on the team and really happy to give my time to do it. But planning either an online event or an in-person event is a big task for a small group of organizers.
Cate: Asking them to try to do both and be excited about it while also dealing with family and their own health and their own circumstances, that’s a lot to start asking of yourself as an organizer and the people that you’re trying to work with as well.
Jen: Like we’re all experiencing this collective trauma of the pandemic while at the same time trying to keep the lights on at home by going to work and keeping our houses in some sort of semblance of order and taking care of our family members, dealing with the possibility of family member coming down with the Coronavirus and the possibility of them not making it was very real then.
Cate: Very, yeah.
Jen: My own dad came down with it. Thankfully, his case was very mild and he was fine. He hasn’t had any lasting effects. But I consider myself really lucky. He is immune-compromised, it could have been a lot worse.
So there was that kind of stuff going on. But add on top of this that uncertainty isn’t something that we’re okay with asking our valued sponsor partners to take on. Like WordCamp Europe and WordCamp Asia, they had started their planning processes before the pandemic had happened or had really taken hold. And so they already had commitments from their sponsors and speakers, and all of this stuff had already been planned.
It didn’t hit the United States until January. So we were literally starting at square one as it’s starting to barrel towards us. So, trying to balance all of these life things, the work, the living through this really difficult time in our lives and all of the other responsibilities outside of WordCamp US, and then asking folks to continue working on this when they’re already feeling so, so much overwhelm and burnout because of everything else, it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair to them.
At the end of the day, I don’t feel like if we’d kept moving forward with an in-person event that it would have been an event that the community would have enjoyed either.
Cate: Yeah, I agree completely.
Jen: If we’re trying to drag a coffin across the finish line with a piece of fish line it’s just not going to work.
Cate: Right, exactly. There are too many other factors that went into it. It would be too costly for people to have to come in and quarantine for two weeks if you’re coming from out of state. And then kind of by that time, I don’t know that anybody had the emotional energy for another online event.
Cate: As great as it is to move online, you’re already spending all day and now you’re having more Zoom meetings than you ever before. I know personally the last thing I’d want to do is sit at my computer and watch one more online event at that point.
Jen: There was an immense opportunity that was presented by moving online. Absolutely. But we also had to look at this from the “is this helpful to our organizers or is this harming them?” And at the end of the day, it was doing more harm than help.
Since I became a member of the leadership team for WordCamp US is that we focus our organizers’ efforts towards things that both benefit the community, but also don’t harm them. That’s something that’s really near and dear to my heart is making sure that people are prioritizing themselves over a volunteer opportunity.
Yes, WordPress is a 100% volunteer-driven project and we can’t keep the lights on without them, but it’s also really important to make sure that we aren’t burning out our volunteers because if they get burnout, and they don’t come back, who’s going to take their place? Keeping the torch burning and keeping it sustainable are equally important goals.
Cate: And it’s a difficult world to just step into-
Jen: Oh, yeah.
Cate: …even if you’re… Like me just on the comms team, you know, just helping with a tiny little piece of it, you need to have some background and some understanding to be able to… You can’t just pull somebody off the street and ask them to help out. It’s complicated.
Jen: You have to understand where this event started. This event wasn’t WordCamp US forever ago. It started out is WordCamp San Francisco when Matt had this idea, “Let’s have this conference to talk about WordPress for a day or two or three.” And now we’re here.
I feel like a lot of the other folks on the organizing team felt that in a year like 2020, where everything feels like it’s broken, that we needed to prioritize the people actually doing the work of putting this together. That meant unfortunately canceling the event.
Cate: I felt totally supported by the team, really valued. I felt like in the process you all were transparent about it. You really welcomed feedback and input. Somebody’s always got to make the decision, but I felt like you all, you as a group were really upfront about it.
Jen: My least favorite decision that I’ve ever had to be involved with.
Jen: I got on this organizing team for WordCamp US out of a purely selfish mission to learn how the big events we’re doing is so that I could bring it back to St. Louis. And then I met the people on organizing team and I got just absolutely hooked and fell in love with the event. And for all of the growing pains, and for all of the missing shipments and things getting sent to the wrong booths and just the crazy last minute “where did the coffee go?” situations. I would do it over again a million times.
Cate: Speaking of you are doing it over again.
Jen: I am.
Cate: Here you are. WordCamp US 2021 is just next Friday.
Jen: Just next Friday.
Cate: We were planning this on a Friday.
Jen: No big deal.
Cate: Just next Friday. You have loads of time.
Cate: But you guys went with kind of a similar event this time around. I think it was a great idea. Kind of like a firework a bit. Like short and sweet. So you want to tell us a little bit about the upcoming WordCamp US?
Jen: Sure. Like Cate said, it is next Friday, October 1. We went with a single day event this year. It’s a single day event but we also only have two tracks. WordCamp US when we’re in person has traditionally been four-plus track event with multiple days of content and a contributor day. I mean, this online event format thing is very foreign to me.
Personally, this is my first time actually planning an online event. But also the LT, the lead trio, we call ourselves the LT, we’re the three lead organizer folk, I guess you could say, we share that role equally. We all have teams that are kind of like the teams that we work with more closely. But we share that role equally so that if, you know, Kathy got struck by lightning tomorrow, for instance, there would be two other people that could step in and jump in and keep the lights on and keep the ship going in the right direction.
Cate: Yeah, absolutely.
Jen: So we started meeting in March, which is quite a bit actually before we brought in everyone else to talk about kind of a vision forward for this event, because the three of us knew that we really didn’t want to have a giant behemoth of an event. But we also didn’t want to try and replicate the in-person experience that we all know and love from WordCamp US.
For the three of us, it was very much a decision made out of still being really kind of heartbroken about the previous year’s event and not being able to have in-person events. You can’t replicate that. You could try a million different iterations but you can’t replicate what it’s like to walk up to somebody you haven’t seen in a year and give them a hug. And that is sad.
I’m so excited to bring this event back to the community. But I am also so sad that we’re still… sorry, that we’re doing this online. I’m happy we’re doing this and also really sad that this means two years apart.
Jen: It’s hard.
Cate: Topher was mentioning… I’m used to doing some interviews around HeroPress and he realized that two of his interviews today were with people that he hasn’t seen or talked to in nearly two years.
Topher: Yeah. We talk on Slack but this was the first time we did a Zoom and I saw their faces. It’s just weird.
Jen: I saw my sister for the first time in two years last week.
Topher: Oh, wow.
Jen: She flew in last Wednesday and stayed over the weekend. We were those stereotypical people you see in the airport hugging and sobbing all over each other. That was us. Just because we’re both immune-compromised and she still was like KN95 mask with one of the disposable regular masks over the top of it all the way through the airport and onto the plane.
Cate: Oh yeah.
Jen: I feel that so deeply just about the community too. There’s equal parts. I’m really, really glad to be having this event because I’ve gotten to have those weekly meetings with all of the team leads, regular chats with all of my friends online who I do WordCamp organizing with. So my heart feels full just being able to have those times together, but I am really sad that it doesn’t end at some random location with all of the organizers in a big room together eating dinner and celebrating the months and months of work that has gone into the event.
Cate: I think you guys made a really wise choice to not try to replicate an in-person event, you know, to try to just let it be what was best to be this time around. It still kind of moves things into a more normal realm. It kind of moves us closer to normal which I think we all need more of right now. And I love that it’s happening on October 1. So that kind of kicks off the holiday season here in the US. It’s kind of like coming together with your friends to go for a hayride and then-
Cate: It’s been really impressive how you guys have pulled it together so quickly too. I mean, you talked about how long an in-person event takes. And if you just started in March that gives you about six months. And I know I came on the team in August so it’s been a whirlwind.
Jen: We didn’t officially kick off with the full organizing team until just over two months ago.
Cate: But it’s been great. It’s gone really well. At least you’re making it look like it’s going great and really well.
Jen: Yeah. This year we have 22 organizers to share. Our last organizing team had 47 people. And to say that I’m impressed with the amount of work that has happened in the last two months would be a gross understatement. I am shocked and awed and impressed and so incredibly grateful that this thing that Kimberly and Kathy and I were just throwing around ideas around start back in March is like it’s happening in a week.
That I think despite being away from each other, despite everything that’s happened this and last year, we’re still living that. I think despite all of that, the fact that this is happening and that we kind of picked up and it felt to me like nobody had ever really left.
Cate: I agree completely.
Jen: It very much felt like coming back to the organizing team this year, very much felt like coming home in really just be super cheesy. It was really great to start having those weekly conversations again and…
Cate: It makes a big difference to be interacting with people in a more normal sort of way, to be doing fun projects that aren’t just work and aren’t just the everyday tasks. Is there anything else about WordCamp US that you want to share with the group, to share with the community?
Jen: To come.
Cate: All our work will be wasted, all the coffee we’ll just get cold if you don’t show up.
Jen: The virtual coffee.
Cate: Wait, you’re not having coffee delivered to every attendee’s house?
Jen: I wish we could. That’d be fun.
Topher: That’s a budget.
Jen: That would be so cool. Oh, gosh. Like I said we have two tracks. I think we have a really great lineup. The schedule is already online so you can go check that out on our website by going to us.wordCamp.org and going to schedule page.
Cate: I have nothing to do with it, but the website is so cute. I love the design of the website.
Jen: I love our website so much. Mel Choyce did the design on the site. I think they did an amazing job.
Topher: So good.
Jen: In our most recent post about the Wapuu, we actually have a quote from Mel about the inspiration behind the design. Let me go see if I can find it. It was… oh, gosh. She… excuse me, they-
Cate: I saw the Wapuu just the other day. It’s adorable. It’s so perfect.
Jen: Thank you. I’m super excited about it. It goes really well with the kind of site theme. So the theme is kind of based around this concept of travel and exploration. That’s why the actual WordCamp US logo is a map. But one of the first things that Mel did after getting fully vaccinated was go on a short road trip to some of the National Parks here in the US.
Jen: So the theme of the site and all of our marketing materials and stuff is kind of based around that travel, nature kind of vibe. I really love it. It’s so different than anything we’ve ever done. And I just love how it turned out.
Cate: Yeah, it fits so perfectly.
Cate: As much as I would love to talk with you for the rest of the afternoon, you have a little bit of life to get back to. You got one weekend left to WordCamp. I’m sure you have nothing to do-
Jen: No big deal
Cate: …this weekend. So that’s-
Jen: Nothing at all.
Cate: Nothing at all. So thank you so much for giving us all of the inside scoop on what’s going on, what has gone on, you know, talking a little bit about the hard choices that come with being an organizer. And thank you for your willingness to do it anyway. Without people like you being willing to help organize events like this, and I know Kathy and Kimberly are a big part of it as well, there’s a huge team of 22 people-
Cate: But without people being willing to step up and help organize events like this, it wouldn’t happen. This isn’t paid. There isn’t a line of people waiting to jump in to do it. So just really appreciate your willingness to take the time and put so much energy so much of yourself and to the events that you’ve been a part of. It really shows in a good way.
Jen: I really, really love WordCamp and community organizing in general. But yeah, WordCamp US is hands down one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on.
Topher: That’s great.
Cate: I’m so glad. I’m so glad to have you be a part of it.
Topher: All right, I have a thing to read here and then we’ll be done.
Cate: All right.
Topher: This has an episode of Hallway Chats, a part of the HeroPress Network. Your hosts were Cate and Topher DeRosia. We’d like to thank Sophia DeRosia for the music and Nexcess for hosting our network. If you liked the episode, please subscribe and mention us on social media.