Introducing Birgit Olzem
Birgit Olzem says WordPress is her passion. She is the mother of five, granny of one, a coach and a trainer. She loves to connect people in the WordPress ecosystem and she advocates for mental health awareness and inclusiveness.
Tara: This is Hallway Chats, where we meet people who use WordPress.
Liam: We ask questions, and our guests share their stories, ideas and perspectives.
Liam: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Liam Dempsey.
Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is episode 82.
Tara: Welcome to Hallway Chats, I’m Tara Claeys.
Liam: And I’m Liam Dempsey. Today we are joined by Birgit Olzem. Birgit says WordPress is her passion. She is the mother of five. Granny of one, a coach and a trainer. She loves to connect people in the WordPress ecosystem and she advocates for mental health awareness and inclusiveness. Birgit has been playing with WordPress since its first release. Welcome Birgit!
Birgit: Hi Liam. Hi Tara!
Tara: Hi! We’re so excited to have you here today Birgit. Thanks for joining us. Can you tell us more about your story?
Birgit: Oh yeah. My signature story is the story of the year 2018. When I started using WordPress I didn’t expect that it went this way. So yeah. I am a mom of five as you introduced me, right? I am a Grandma one awesome grandchild. My oldest daughter gave birth in April this year. Over the years I taught myself developing and building websites. I’m an explorer. I’m always curious about how those things are working. That’s what led me to this point today. I have grown up in the countryside in Germany near the border of Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and France. So when I sit in my car, I am one hour away and in a different country. So it’s pretty awesome.
Tara: That is pretty awesome! So you have been working with WordPress for a long time. How did you discover it? What were you doing before you discovered it?
Birgit: I was originally more of a mother so I couldn’t finish my school education. I finished, but not really higher education. I wanted to do it but I got pregnant when I was 17. So I was in the early stages and so I changed my life into being a mom and a wife. I was a waitress but I was always curious about computers. I have played around with building websites and it was my hobby when my kids were sleeping, or at playtime with others. I used to sit on the computer and teach myself building websites and designing something like that.
Tara: Wow! What did you find to be the resources that were most helpful when your were learning? What were you relying on? Videos or books?
Birgit: Yeah. There were some websites in the early stages. There was a German website, telfhtml.de. It was most researchly and user groups, mail user groups and some firms where I learned a lot about php. I learned about that, About b2b, coffee lark, Joomla, Drupal over the years. I also learned about the user groups and about WordPress when it was released. I played with one of the first release versions.
Tara: Great! Can you talk to us a little bit about a talk that you have given about WordPress? What WordPress has meant in your life?
Birgit: Yes. I shared my story on how WordPress literary saved my life this year at several WordCamps. Through some strong connections within the WordPress community I was able to make my living but also to overcome a really really hard time in my life through the friendships I made in the WordPress community. In 2018, I had the chance and also the courage to talk about that hard topic in public. I learned that I can give more inspiration about that because I got so much feedback about how much courage I had to share the story. Yeah! Through these connections with the people I met in the WordPress Community, it helped me to stay alive (or to choose to stay alive) because of some hard life struggles in the past seven years with a lot of downs and some bright ups. But it was like ping-pong. When I had an up, I also had a direct down afterwards. So it was a hard time, but it made me stronger and now I choose to take this signature story to help other women or at least other people who struggle some days with their passion or something like that. Also with life to say hey! Even if you have a bad time you will get any solution somewhere just by asking.
Liam: Birgit – Thank you for sharing that. I have not had the pleasure of seeing your talk. I imagine that a number of the people listening to this conversation won’t either. Would you be comfortable maybe sharing a little bit of it with us here to maybe give us some insight into what those ping-pongs were for you?
Birgit: Yeah. For sure. Unfortunately is not published in English yet. Only my talk in German is published on WordPress TV. It was mostly about how I decided to leave my husband, the father of my five children, in 2011. In 2009, my mom died suddenly from cancer. We didn’t know. So in 2011, I decided to leave my husband because the situation wasn’t good. He was a truck driver and never really at home. I was mostly the mom who raised the children alone. And in late 2011, my best friend died also with cancer. I really did not have a lot of money because my husband or ex-husband decided not to pay any money to me. I only had the federal for children care money (around €500 or €600) so that was the only money I had to buy furniture for the new flat, to fill the fridge and to pay my bills. So at that point, I was as self-employed but as a side-job only. Always over the years I did it as a side-job.
Liam: Grocery money and not rent money kind of thing.
Birgit: Yeah. So I was not only trying to survive financially but also emotionally because I had to be strong for my children because my four youngest children were living with me. The struggle with their father and where they should live etc., was worse. Yeah, divorce times are always the worst times. Then at my friend died, and I really had no support from my local friends. Some friends, yes but not that big community behind me to help me. But thankfully through connections within the local community of WordPress (the WordPress community in Germany) I had some good connections to get employment in 2012 which brought me into the active community of WordPress. I translated WordPress into German. I maintained and released the packages for the German version of WordPress over several years. I was a trainer for WordPress. I specialized as a trainer because it made a lot of fun. Always today it makes me happy to teach people something they don’t know, but afterwards they are happy to do that. So it was always a roller coaster to find a job and take some money, but then I got seriously ill through these struggles with the divorce, with the childcare, and not having enough money. So I burned out. That’s what cost me my employment. It really wasn’t successful so I struggled with finding jobs. I let them know and had only a one year contract. Afterwards it stopped because of some kind of thing. Yeah, it was not the best fit for both types for long-term unfortunately. It was mostly because I was looking for something that I can put into my value. My value was not really credited so I got frustrated. With a mental issue and behind, it’s not that easy to stay strong with a job part.
Birgit: I had one situation when I was really ill. I had a virus infection which caught me where I could not stand up out of my bed. On top of that, I was really tired. The muscles were painful and every step was painful. I was in the situation where I thought okay. I have an option to sit in a wheelchair, or you quit your life, or something like that. I had some conversations with friends in the community. Always when I had chance to visit a local WordCamp I got enlightened afterwards because a strong connection with like-minded people was so helpful for that moment. The biggest moment for me in that situation was going to WordCamp Europe in Paris in 2015. I was on too many WordCamp Europes, so…
Tara: I think 2016.
Liam: I think 2016, yeah.
Birgit: I guess 2016 yeah. I couldn’t afford to go to Paris at that moment. So, it was really hard for me not to go. I tweeted a lot about that. If there is a miracle happening that I can go to WordCamp in Europe in Paris, it would be awesome. On the same day I got a message from a good friend of mine in the German WordPress community who had a spare room because he overbooked a hotel room in Paris and couldn’t cancel it. He offered me this room for free. He also offered me to take the long distance by car, so we joined in the house of my hometown (100 km or so). He came from the south of Germany, so on the rest we traveled together. This generous action was so delighting for me. I thought okay, that’s really great stuff – it’s worth it to stay alive, and come back into the light, and don’t suffer anymore, and in the grief and in the feeling of not being worthy (or something like that). That’s why I always try to to stay connected within the WordPress community. The WordPress community helped me, contributing to WordPress but also do training. It’s something that helps me to fulfill my purpose in life in someway. That’s a long story, short.
Liam: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that.
Tara: It’s a wonderful story.
Liam: It was clear to me because we were streaming video as we were talking with together, it was clear from your face, your eyes, and your emotion that I could see through the video that as you watch yourself through the story, this is very real for you. The hard times are still very much in your head and in your heart. When you talk about the happier times and the connections through WordPress, your smile comes and your eyes light up. This is real stuff right here. So thank you so much for sharing that with us.
Birgit: Than you also for taking the chance and sharing my story.
Tara: Yeah. I think we started this podcast to get to know people who have maybe not as dramatic of the story as you have, Birgit. But who have felt the impact of the WordPress community and WordPress as a way to make a living. For me also, I found the community to be the best part of it. The work is interesting and I love what I do. I think hearing your story is a really extreme example (extreme example is the wrong word but I don’t know the right word.) It’s an excellent example of what the WordPress community means. I don’t know how it happens that this group of people who are like you said, sort of like-minded and support each other is really exceptional. I love hearing how this has changed your outlook on your life and helped you get through hard times and that has inspired you to help other people too. That’s just wonderful. I really appreciate that. I am going to ask you a question that we ask everyone that may be significant for you after that story. How do you define success? What does that mean to you?
Birgit: At first it means staying alive. I am not kidding. I really celebrate every day that I am alive, to be honest. Then, success for me is to have the flexibility to manage my family, and to take care of my family, but also to work in a section to bring value and to relieve stress for other people. I define success when I can see the sparkling in the eyes of others in the face to face action. I am struggling to find the words. English is not my first language.
Liam: We know what you mean. We know where you’re going. When working with and the family you are supporting. Their eyes are smiling. We get it.
Birgit: Yeah. I’m always looking for a smile on another’s face. That for me is success. On the financial part to say okay, I have enough money to pay my bills and have something to save a little bit for some bigger things I want to buy or achieve or travel (something like that). I’m pretty low in my goals of being successful. It’s mostly the small parts. It’s not having a big car, a big house. A nice car is not how I have defined success. The small things like having time, drinking a coffee or reading a book.
Tara: Yeah. Being grateful for those moments and just for being alive. That’s actually a big thing. I think success is a word that a lot of people associate with financial rewards and we’ve yet to meet someone on this show who defines it that way.
Liam: Financial awards aren’t going to help you when you’re sick. They might get you medical treatment but if the medical treatment doesn’t bring the health (especially the mental health, right?) It’s hard enough when our back is in pain or a knee twisted, or our arm is broken or something like that. Even if our child is physically sick or impaired in some way. But to see the light at the tunnel growing darker and the light around us getting darker all the time is very, very hard. To see successes… just being alive…that alone just as a goal is fantastic. It’s just wonderfully simplistic – in a positive way – wonderfully simplistic version of success. Life itself is valuable. Full stop end of sentence. Then to tie your definition of a wider success of the smiles and the happiness on the faces of those with whom you’re interacting with is in my view very reflective of the value put on life itself. Life is not overly well-valued in this day and age. So thank you for sharing that with us and for holding that belief.
Tara: It’s welcoming having the perspective that you have. I think definitely impacts your definition of success. Birgit, I got to meet you in person in Nashville at WordCamp US. Was that your first time at WordCamp US, or in the US? Have you been here before that?
Birgit: This is my second time in the US. I attended WordCamp San Francisco in 2014. The last WordCamp San Francisco that way. I had a scholarship to join the community summit. So it was really good for me to attend. This was my first WordCamp US.
Tara: Okay. You actually were able to get to the microphone during the State of the Word and ask a question. Can you tell us a little about what that was like? Can you tell us about that?
Birgit: It’s kind of a running gag between Matt sometimes. I try to find a way at every Q&A he gives to raise some questions. I think it’s important to discuss in public. This time I asked the question because it affects my life also. I am a long-term contributor to WordPress. Since 2012, I have been really active. I have a big interest into the five for the future idea that Matt shared some years ago. We have so many people in the WordPress community who are giving more than 5% of their time and money to contribute to WordPress in several various ways. A lot of them are not supported by an employer or a sponsor. I was asking about what can the WordPress community or an entity like the WordPress Foundation do to support such people who invest so much time contributing to WordPress more than the 5%. Unfortunately, the answer Matt gave on stage wasn’t really clear. I guess he wasn’t really aware about the impact that question had. Afterwards we had a chance to discuss it and he apologized to me because his answer wasn’t really good. There was one part when he said when you’re not getting hired by a company for your contributions you are not worthy like that content. That wasn’t what he meant. He only said okay. I think his impression was to to say okay, show your value. Find companies who are interested to support you, But that’s pretty difficult when you go to a company and say hey okay! I’m translating WordPress in German. Are you interested to sponsor my working time in that? Or I am currently leading the Marketing Team for the WordPress community in Germany. I can tell you I contribute over 15 hours a week at least only for WordPress. So it’s my working hour as a freelancer that’s not supported by any big company or something like that. There are so many people who are investing more time. My intention was to have an entity where a high volume contributor gets support in someway, financially or something like that. So we have some kind of diversity sponsorships like Yoast does, or like Ines van Essen with the Donate WC Campaign, where some hosting companies who are supporting people but there’s so many people under the radar. They don’t get seen because they are working hard and not working on marketing themselves. So that’s the issue I saw. I would like to raise more awareness also for that. That’s why I was asking that question.
Tara: That’s an interesting and complicated question because WordPress is open source. Typically people are not hired to volunteer, and it’s their choice to do so. But I wonder if the conversation with Morten and Rachel Cherry are starting will encompass any of that? This a global…
Liam: WordPress Governance Project.
Tara: Thank you!
Birgit: I hope that it will helpful for that. I know we have some kind of foundation like the Mozilla project in the Drupal community. In Joomla there are entities who are supportive for such people. I guess there are existing models. I think if they are not an existing model yet, the WordPress community is so big and so strong. Why not create a new role model for that? WordPress runs over 32% of all websites so we have with our community a big voice, a strong voice, and a big impact. I think we should create something helpful for such high-volume contributors.
Liam: It’s a really interesting area of thought exploration because you noted that WordPress powers over 32+ and change percent of the Internet. Often times we can focus on the numbers of that, right? How many websites and that kind of thing. We tend to get focused, or risk getting focused on what is the website functionality delivering. In my mind and certainly hearing your story and from the other stories we’ve heard here, it’s the community around it (the people around it) are of greater value really than the software itself. It is very difficult to quantify that. So I’m very interested to see where this goes and to see how we can as a community create the systems that you are talking about. But Birgit, I want to ask you something a little bit different now. It’s one of our more regular questions here. It’s about advice. It’s about advice that you’ve received or have been given, or discovered or shared and worked successfully into your life. What advice have you been given or received or read and worked successfully into your life?
Birgit: Um… I will try to translate it into English.
Liam: You can say in German. I am sure we have some German listeners.
Birgit: It’s in every situation you face has a good or a bad side. You can always choose to stick in the bad experience or you can choose to make the most of that experience and move forward. Never stand. Always keep moving. That is the advice I got a lot from my own mom several years ago. Yeah, it’s my inner motivator to move forward.
Tara: Yeah. I’ve been and listening to some podcasts and doing some reading about different thought models and the idea that your thoughts control your feelings so you can look at the day and say it’s raining outside. That’s a fact. Then you can say your feeling about that or your thought about that is that it is going to be a bad day because it’s raining. Then you feel bad. Then you behave in a way that reflects your feelings, which is that you’re sad. Or you can look at the rainy day which is the fact and have the thought that this is a good day because I can snuggle up under a blanket and watch a movie or some other thing that’s good. So it really is good that you can look at it good or bad and you can choose that. That will affect how you feel. That’s great advice.
Birgit: Exactly. It’s practicing mindfulness. It has helped me a lot also to overcome that situation. Being thankful and practicing a thankful behavior on daily basis is really helpful to survive.
Tara: Thank you for sharing that. We are going to have to wrap up this podcast. We appreciate so much you being with us and wrapping up the year. It sounds like it was a good year for you. I am hoping that all the good is what is emphasized for you next year. Would you share with us where people can find you on line?
Birgit: Yeah. You’ll find me always as coach Birgit. CoachBirgit.com. Twitter as CoachBirgit.
Tara: Great. Thank you again for joining us.
Birgit: Thank you for having me.
Liam: Thank you again for sharing your story yet again. It is never easy. Even though you’ve chosen to do so, I appreciate that it’s never easy. It may still bring value, but it’s still a walk through painful territory. Thank you for taking the time to do that for us today.
Birgit: Thank you.
Tara: Thank you so much. Bye.
Tara: If you like what we’re doing here – meeting new people in our WordPress community – we invite you to tell others about it. We’re on iTunes and at hallwaychats.com.
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