Interview with WCA2 Lead Organizer, Kyle Maurer

A behind-the-scenes look at what goes in to planning WordCamp Ann Arbor.

Kyle Maurer was last year’s WCA2 Lead Organizer, but it wasn’t his first time working behind the scenes with WordCamp. Kyle also volunteered on Ross Johnson’s organizing team for the previous two years, and he’s been particularly active in the Midwest region. He describes himself as “a true aficionado, if there ever was one, of WordCamps,” and brought his experience to bear with last year’s event. Here’s how he plans to raise the bar for WCA2 2017.

What’s it like organizing WordCamp?

Well, I’ve attended a lot of WordCamps—probably more than almost anyone else involved in our event. And over that time, I’ve gotten to be particularly engaged in the Midwest region, which has given me an opportunity to learn a lot and form opinions about what makes a quality WordCamp. There’s a lot overlap between WordCamps, because some things are known to work well. But I like looking for interesting changes, even little things, that help to make the WordCamp a better experience, or that reimagine a way to do something that’s not just a copy of what everyone has done before.

When I approach a WordCamp, I like to think about how to raise the bar and improve the experience, even in the details. I think we’ve done that pretty well at WordCamp Ann Arbor, striving to achieve consistent levels of quality with every event. A lot of the status quo isn’t that way because it needs to be, but because that’s what everyone does. So, we try to break the mold a little, particularly in Ann Arbor.

I think some of my top priorities are informed by my experience at other events, by feedback from surveys over the last few years, and personal feedback. From this, we’ve made sessions our number one priority, because we know a lot of attendees look at them very carefully to inform their decision about whether to attend. We’ve gone out of our way to extend offer to speakers who we know will bring great presentations to the event, and we provide opportunities for speakers to practice their presentations ahead of time. We also preview presentations and set deadlines for speakers to send us their slides for review. And we try to make the event run smoothly by assigning speaker helpers to every room, and generally doing everything we can do to make the best quality experience for both the speakers and attendees.

Ann Arbor is particularly unique. I personally know a lot of WordCamp organizers, and I do go to quite a few every single year, and can say with a lot of confidence that Ann Arbor is special, primarily because we have a great organizing team, year after year, who take on strong rolls and just crush it. As a lead organizer, that means I can be hands-off in a lot of key responsibilities. I have to give my team a lot of credit, because I believe we have one of the best organizing teams in the country.

What was the best part about WordCamp Ann Arbor last year?

It would be hard to narrow it down to just one, so maybe I’ll give more of a top 5. We tried to raise the bar in a lot of areas last year, and it was the first of the three years where we all agreed we found what we were looking for. We think that a lot of what we did last year are going to be traditions moving forward.

I was ecstatic for our speaker lineup. I did a lot of outreach talking to people I wanted to come speak, and it was great to see the response we got. We got great feedback from Cory Miller doing keynote, and the rest of the speaker lineup was pretty impressive. It might be something that the average attendee may not fully appreciate if they didn’t know who everyone was, but I was excited to see our lineup.

The venue worked out really well. We will probably continue to use the Rackham Building for future WordCamps. And our coffee guy was well received, so we’re going to bring him back.

The lunch groups for restaurants have been a big success, and are something we’re uniquely equipped to do. We’re privileged to be right in the heart of Downtown Ann Arbor, so we can walk out and have our pick of dozens of restaurants. We’ve been stunned in some ways that a few things we’ve tried, like the lunch groups, have been imitated by other WordCamps. We consistently get a lot of great feedback for that, and not paying for lunch saves a lot of money that we can put toward other aspects of the event.

We also had a WordCamp Warm-up organized by Rebecca Gill, and that went well. We did some ice-breaker stuff and had a lot of conversations with new people who were kind of introverted, or wanted to meet with people and didn’t know how. We value that as an organizing team. We want newcomers to feel welcome, but we know they often feel dumb asking questions, or they feel like other people know more than they do, and that detracts from the experience. The warm-up event was a great way to help people not feel that way.

Our activities on Friday were also well received. We did a scavenger hunt, and I was blown away by how much people really went for it. And it gave sponsors more of a chance to engage attendees, because they were the ones handing out the prizes. The tour of the Big House was exciting for me because I’ve been a Wolverines fan my whole life and that was my first time going there. We know that not everyone was able to attend, but we found that those who participated appreciated them. It was a great time for people to get out and explore the city and meet people outside of a noisy bar environment.

Do you have anything new planned for this year’s WordCamp?

We’re a little early in the process, so I don’t have many specifics yet. But we’re having some initial discussions about ideas. In 2016, we felt as a group that a lot of what we did worked. We’re going with the venue because we loved it, and we’re going with the coffee guy because we loved him, and the activities—a lot of what we just talked about. We’re going to do a lot of the same things this year, but try to do them better, like moving the sponsors into a bigger room to give them more space. I’m excited about getting to that point with this group because I think we’ve found our groove. We may continue to do the WordCamp warmup, and Friday afternoon activities, and cider and donuts, because these things are unique to Ann Arbor, and we’re excited to see them become our traditions.

What would you most want to tell someone who was attending WCA2 for the first time?

We say this a lot, but it’s worth repeating: there really is something for people at all levels. A lot of people may feel that they are at a very high level and won’t learn much, or that there may not be content specific for their applications. Or, more commonly, they may feel they are at a beginner level and everything will be over their heads. Maybe they just got a job and this is now their responsibility, or someone has heard about freelancing and is trying this for the first time. All these kinds of people are profiles I have encountered over and over again, and I want to express to people in these situations that there’s a lot you will get out of an event like this. Rest assured, this is for every person who interacts with WordPress in some way.

What would you want veteran WordCamp attendees to know?

You don’t have to necessarily take it from me, but I feel confident that if you were going to ask other attendees who’ve been to WordCamp Ann Arbor, they have made it clear that Ann Arbor stands out in a number of ways. It raises the bar in some areas, and steps out of the box in others. We hold our speakers and sponsors and volunteers for high standards, we polish the event in areas that you wouldn’t expect, especially if you’re a veteran WordCamp attendee, like myself. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to other organizers about what they do, and that’s made us serious about doing something special here.

Anything else?

We say it a lot, but we should probably be constantly expressing that the value you get out of WordCamp makes attending a no-brainer. The ticket cost is incredibly affordable. In fact, I think we even still have an early-bird special going on for a few weeks. Just consider that the food we provide will cost more than your ticket price—and that doesn’t even account for the shirt, and the coffee, and the extremely valuable experts who are just there, waiting to help you solve your problems for free! The value of attending and bringing your problems to WordCamp is mind-boggling. If you were hiring someone who volunteers at a Happiness Bar, you would pay hundreds of dollars for that expertise. So there’s no question the value is incredible, and that’s something I think we need to consistently express to those curious about the event.