Why I've resigned from WPUK

WPUK adieu
Last night I resigned from WPUK, the coordinating body which emerged from the organisation of the first few UK WordCamps.
In 2008, I felt genuine excitement at the thought that the UK WordPress community had grown big enough to justify its own WordCamp; and I think it was right to focus the community’s collective efforts on a single national event through those first few years.
I put my money where my mouth was, too: initially as Puffbox Ltd, then as Code For The People, I have been a corporate sponsor of every WordCamp UK.
However, things move on. A number of city-based meetup groups were formed, and began to flourish: Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Brighton, London, Scotland, my own Whitehall-centric affair even. Any one of them could easily have ‘graduated’ to operating a WordCamp. (None did, for whatever reason, until this autumn.)
I continued to defend the ‘one national WordCamp’ position, in the face of opposition from some of my best friends in this business. It was the right thing to do, I argued, until somebody proved it was wrong – by successfully organising another UK event.
In November 2013, I was one of the group which proved it was wrong, by successfully organising WordCamp London.
It came as quite a surprise last week when, out of the blue, I received an email notification of a vote being called among the members of the WPUK ‘core group’ – a 10-strong, effectively self-selected bunch. We were asked:

Do you agree that WPUK continues as a naturally evolving organisation, and that WPUK instigates as soon as possible the organisation of the follow up to WordCamp Lancaster UK 2013, to take place on 12-13 July 2014 at a venue to be decided?

For a year or more, I’d been trying to get the group to reconsider its purpose. Numerous times I’d tried – and failed – to start a constructive debate about the group’s purpose. More often than not, the debate turned startlingly hostile and viciously personal. I couldn’t wait to get out; but I hoped the successful running of a London WordCamp would prove that WPUK had run its course.
The calling of this vote forced my hand somewhat. It wasn’t especially well worded – but it did get to the heart of the matter. Did WPUK exist to designate a single event as being the one officially sanctioned WP event for the UK in 2014? To run an Olympic-style bidding process among candidate cities, as it had done in previous years (with, to be blunt, variable levels of success)?
Calling the vote came as a surprise. The fact that the group voted 6-4 in favour, even after the success of WordCamp London, was a genuine shock.
The group has decided that a bidding process, in which one event ‘wins’ and the others – no matter how viable in their own right – ‘lose’, is still the right way to go. I could not disagree more strongly.
I believe that it’s now actively harmful to the development of sustainable ecosystems around the country. And I believe that it flies in the face of all available evidence.
So I did the only honourable thing, and resigned my position immediately.
Screen Shot 2013-12-19 at 18.49.59
And as I’ve been writing this post, Siobhan McKeown has followed suit. I believe at least one other will be doing likewise, if he hasn’t already done so. Those with the closest ties to the WordPress project are leaving the group. Make of that what you will.
I really hope things don’t now turn nasty. Past evidence suggests they might.

WordCamp 2012: sleeper service to Scotland, anyone?

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

This year’s big UK WordCamp will be in Edinburgh; tickets are due to go on sale in the next few days. It’s a beautiful city, and the venue looks magnificent. But obviously, it poses a few logistical problems for those of us based in south-east England.
So I was thinking… does anyone fancy taking the Caledonian Sleeper service overnight from London Euston? Tickets for that weekend are now on sale; at the time of writing, it’ll come to £100 return. However, if we can get a group of 10 together, we can probably get a decent discount… not to mention the benefit of each other’s fine company. (And the prospect of being the world’s first Mobile WordCamp!)
If you’re interested, add a comment to this blog post (or send me an email via the contact form). Obviously, we can’t do anything about it until tickets actually go on sale, but it would be a good idea to get a feel for possible numbers.

WordCamp UK tickets now on sale

Tickets have just gone on sale for this summer’s UK WordCamp, to be hosted by the University of Portsmouth in mid-July. If you fancy coming along for two jam-packed days of chat, code and creativity, and you fancy saving yourself a few quid, head over to the site and buy your tickets before 3 June – the price goes up by a tenner after that.
We’re delighted to confirm that Puffbox is continuing its sponsorship of the event; we’re the only sponsor to have been there since the very beginning.

WordCamp UK: the camaraderie, the controversy

I spent the weekend in Manchester at the annual WordCamp UK, which Puffbox was again proud to have sponsored. It brought together 150 people from all over the country – plus a few from further afield, much further afield in one or two cases. Not everything went well, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
It was immediately noticeable that the attendees were much more serious than in previous years. Year one, in Birmingham was amateur – in the positive sense of the word. There were signs of things getting more serious in Cardiff last year. This time, it was noticeable how many more people had come to talk about code – although having said that, we still had a good number of curious newbies.
It’s always tricky to attempt a summary of a multi-track event like this: you don’t know what was said in the sessions you didn’t attend. But from what I saw, a few topics stood out: custom post types, BuddyPress, and cash.
There’s no doubt that the community is excited by the potential opened up by Custom Post Types – which aren’t actually new in WordPress 3.0, but have now reached a point where they’re properly usable. (Well, almost – I’m using them for a forthcoming project, and have already spotted a few weaknesses.) People were starting to demo some examples, and it’s clear there’s plenty of fun to be had with them.
BuddyPress was causing similar excitement last year, but there’s definitely a bit more perspective being applied now. Although I like what I’ve seen of it, I haven’t yet done anything with it myself: I’ve just found it a bit overwhelming. I picked up a few hints that others have had similar experiences.
Beneath the surface of several sessions was the sometimes tricky issue of cash. Growing numbers of people, myself included of course, are making their livings on top of WordPress – via a combination of custom programming, design and support. I’ve never been one to buy ‘premium themes’, but it seems like the big players in that field are making serious money. And although nobody dared to tackle it head-on, there were many nods towards an argument which kicked off last week in WordPress World about premium themes and licensing terms. (Mark Jaquith’s post sums it all up beautifully.)
And then came The Controversy. The final wrap-up session descended into chaos, leading to a lot of people saying things they hopefully now regret – at least in terms of how they said it.
It boils down to this. A few people around the UK have, apparently, been keen to hold WordCamps of their own; but have felt unable to, due to the existence of a nationally-branded WordCamp UK. To some, this statement came across as an accusation that the UK-level event was deliberately preventing the growth of smaller groups. They saw it as an attempt to force an unsuitable US-style city-based model on the UK. The language got very emotional very quickly. It was genuinely horrific to watch.
Here’s the conclusion I’ve reached. If – and I stress, ‘if’ – the UK can support more than one WordCamp now, then I’d be very happy for that to happen. In which case, it may no longer be appropriate to have a UK-branded event. But the most important thing is that we have at least one such event in this country in the next 12 months – whatever it gets called.

WordCamp UK 2009: seriously good

My session at WordCamp UK 2009
I can’t underline enough how enjoyable, educational and thought-provoking this weekend’s second WordCampUK was: over 100 people, including a large local contingent, gathering in Cardiff Bay for two packed days of WordPress talk, a bit of food, quite a lot to drink, and nowhere near enough sleep.
Last year in Birmingham, it felt amateur – and I mean that in both the positive and negative senses of the word. It was a bit like a first date. Fun and exciting, with some unforgettable moments, and clearly the start of something special – but acutely embarrassing in places. (Oh, and an incredibly vicious Twitter backchannel.)
All so different this year. Bigger and better presenters with bigger and better stories to tell, and a definite sense that we’re shifting up the gears, really quite quickly. And the Twitter chat was much nicer too.
The highlight, inevitably, was the appearance of Mr WordPress himself, Matt Mullenweg. Charming, charismatic, cool and – I’m not ashamed to admit this – cute. Rather than give his almost traditional ‘State of the Word’ lecture, he took questions from the floor… and it was inspirational stuff.
I’ll take away a few specific things from what he said. His description of WordPress as a platform comparable to Windows or MacOS, given the number of plugin ‘programs’ written for it. His perfect ease at calling WordPress a CMS. His unexpectedly complimentary tone regarding Drupal. But most of all, the purity of his philosophy, and the strength of his commitment to it. I expected to detect a sharp business edge to his remarks (cf Zuckerberg); in the end, I was relieved not to.
We had many references, particularly through day one, to government use – and indeed, Matt confirmed that the UK and Brazil are the two countries where government buy-in is highest. So no pressure on me, then, for my Sunday lunchtime slot on the government picture – lessons learned from the number10.gov.uk launch, and the many ripples spreading out from that (which I’ll write up separately). I was my usual bouncy, passionate self, and it seemed to go down well: somebody described me as the WordPress community’s Jamie Oliver, which I’ll take as a compliment. Pukka!
Whereas last year saw a lot of people presenting their hobby sites, this year seemed to be entirely professional examples. But it didn’t stop speaker after speaker handing over their tips and advice – to put it another way, their trade secrets. So whilst WordPress is unquestionably becoming a serious product, and a serious business, it remains a supportive community. It’s Us versus Them – with Them being different things or people at different times. (I should have made a list.)
I’ll admit, I went to WordCamp looking for an answer to a difficult question. I’m making my living from WordPress, and I can see a proper industry starting to take shape around it: so what should I be doing about it?
One answer was Matt Mullenweg’s hippy philosophy, without which we wouldn’t be here in the first place, of course. Betfair’s Nick Garner, meanwhile, framed it all as a commercial opportunity, with the proposal for a ‘WordCon’ spinoff event pitching WordPress (and us as WordPress experts) to corporate clients. It led to some, ahem, heated debate.
Maybe Matt needs to grow up. Maybe Nick totally misses the point. Maybe they’re both right in different ways. My question remains unanswered, but I’m all the more convinced that it’s the right question to be asking, and the right moment to be asking it.
Pic by Mark, @cMadMan: that’s me at the front, waving a can of Red Bull Cola at the good people of WordCamp.

Matt Mullenweg to attend UK WordCamp

wordcampuk-2009-graphicTickets have just gone on sale for this year’s second WordCamp UK. And if the promise of hearing me banging on about WordPress isn’t quite enough to tempt you to spend a July weekend in Cardiff, here’s some news that might swing it: Matt Mullenweg, basically ‘Mr WordPress’, is coming too.
I’m also proud to confirm that, although we haven’t finalised the details yet, Puffbox will again be sponsoring the event… and for the very same reasons as I described last year. Many good contacts were made in Birmingham: in my own case, some of this year’s more exciting and ambitious projects simply wouldn’t have happened, had I not met certain people last July. I’m better at what I do, as a direct result, and the company proposition is  lot stronger too. It’s a chance to say thank you… and to make sure that the event definitely happens, for my own potential benefit… and others’ too.
I’ll almost certainly be leading a session on the progress of WordPress in central government: I’ve got one or two interesting projects to talk about, and I’m sure I’ll touch on these, but it’s probably more interesting for more people if I give a cross-government overview. And I think I might have volunteered to take the opening ‘icebreaker’ session.
Tickets for the event are £25 until the end of May – and with Matt Mullenweg confirmed as attending, it might be wise to snap yours up swiftly. For those who want to give a little something back to the community, there’s also a ‘microsponsor’ option where you can choose to pay nearly three times face value, to attend exactly the same event. (It’s proving quite a popular option, for the record.)

My show-stopping session at WordCamp

A week since the inaugural WordCamp UK, and I haven’t got round to writing up my session on ‘WordPress in large organisations’ – specifically, government. Then again, with Chris Garrett and Dave Briggs doing it on my behalf, why should I? 🙂
My key message was that in many large organisations, there’s often open warfare between marketing/PR, the IT department, and Procurement. But with WordPress (price: zero) designed to be used by solo bloggers with no IT support, it effectively allowed the marketing people to sneak past the other two, and get feature-rich sites up in no time. Its ‘straight to content authoring’ interface suited the comms person mentality, and RSS would allow for seamless integration if the ‘main website’ people got annoyed.
I then talked about a few other things I could see WordPress doing in large organisations, which may not be immediately obvious. For once, if you don’t mind, I’m going to keep quiet on those; the ideas aren’t yet fully developed, and I don’t want people stealing them just yet. I’ve got a mortgage to pay.
I closed on four things I thought WordPress needed to become a stronger force in the corporate world:

  • Drag-and-drop page ordering, on the admin interface. We’ve got it for other elements, but pages would have been my priority.
  • A slightly slicker workflow. WordPress has all the ‘draft awaiting approval’ functionality it needs, but the presentation is lacking. Plugins may help, but it’s an extra layer of risk, due to…
  • The need for a new ‘Long Term Support’ version. I’ve mentioned this before. At the moment, there’s no guarantee that plugins working in the current WP version will work in any subsequent version. The official policy on security is to upgrade as soon as a new version becomes available… but that’s a risk many corporate clients won’t like. There is a ‘legacy branch’ (horrible name), but it’s based on the dated v2.0. We need a newer one, based on the v2.5+ dashboard, with a commitment to update it with security patches.
  • A proper WordPress ‘ecosystem’. There’s a lot of interest in the platform, and plenty of work to go round. But I’ve learned recently that it takes a certain expertise to get the most from WP; you can’t just give it to any PHP programmer. We need people to identify themselves as WP experts, and help each other build businesses out of this.

The highlight of my session, inevitably, was the news that 10 Downing Street would be launching shortly on WordPress. I’ve written countless times about the persuasiveness of precedents; is that a big enough precedent for you? I got a round of applause for it, too. 🙂
The scary part was when I sat down. Throughout the weekend, there was a constant stream of chatter on Twitter. It was no-holds-barred stuff at times. And as I hit ‘refresh’, I was genuinely terrified to see what would come up. Thankfully, the few comments there were, were positive, even complimentary.
And some of the participants have been really nice about me in their reports: attention-grabbing, rousing, showstopper. ‘The only session that really had everyone buzzing‘. ‘A pity that it isn’t Simon that’s running the country!’ Thank you all. (Not sure about that last one, by the way.)
Which reminds me. I haven’t had any speaking engagements in ages. If anybody in the central government world wants me to come in, and talk to staff / management about all this stuff, I’d be glad to. Just ask.
Picture credit: Richard Williams, RKW Internet.

Puffbox sponsors WordCamp UK

I’m proud to announce that Puffbox is sponsoring the inaugural WordCamp UK, bringing about 100 devotees of WordPress to Birmingham for a weekend of code and conversation.
The event takes place on 19-20 July, at the (apparently very classy) Studio conference centre in the centre of Britain’s nominally second city. The programme covers everything from a beginner’s guide to a hardcore code surgery. We’ll also be joined by Sam from Automattic Inc, the company behind WordPress.
I’m down to lead a session called ‘WordPress is not a blog’, where I’ll talk about my work, and how I’ve managed to take WordPress right to the heart of government. It’ll be one of the less technical sessions of the weekend; I’ll be looking at how the bloggers’ approach can translate to the stuffiest corporate environments, and how I think we’re entering a post-blogging world. None of which will come as the slightest surprise to regular readers.
It’s maybe unusual for a one-man company to sponsor a fairly large conference like this. But virtually everything Puffbox does at the moment is WordPress-based. It’s the content management platform I always dreamed of… and it’s free of charge. It’s time I gave something back.
Besides, it’s in Puffbox’s interests for this gathering to take place. It’ll be an enjoyable weekend of unashamed geekery. I’m hoping to meet some interesting people, learn some interesting things, and help create a support infrastructure for WordPress in the UK. A T-shirt with a big W on the front would be a bonus.
I’m also really excited at being back in central Birmingham for the first time since I graduated 14 years ago. Gulp.

@WordPress Happy Birthday!

Five years ago today, a new blogging platform was released to the world for the first time. WordPress was the successor to b2/cafelog, itself launched in June 2001 – and indeed, it’s amusing to review Cafelog’s readme from 2002, which describes many of the very same functions I’m using on a regular basis. WordPress launched with a redesigned admin interface made ‘as simple as possible, and no more’; and streamlined presentation templates ‘with the latest in simple, easy-to-understand standard XHTML and CSS’.
Five years on, it’s these very same qualities which make it – in my view – such an important piece of code today.
I can’t stress enough how much WordPress means to me. I started just over Puffbox just over a year ago, with the intention of doing mainly advisory work, and rarely getting my hands dirty. But it soon became obvious that WordPress was a platform I could work with. It took care of the ugly, complicated stuff I knew I didn’t understand, letting me get on with the top-layer stuff I knew so well. And it offered users a front-end which allowed them to do virtually everything they (really) needed, without bugging their chums in IT.
The Puffbox proposition changed overnight. Now I’m now just preaching a gospel of open source-led, low-cost, high-speed site development, I’m able to actually deliver it myself.
People come to Puffbox looking for two things. One: rapid development of small-scale websites, which can be managed without an IT department. Two: larger websites with ‘blog-esque’ or ‘2.0’ features as standard – community, comments, inbound and outbound feeds, etc. And invariably, WordPress is equal to the task.
I often reflect on the line from psychologist Abraham Maslow: ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, you will see every problem as a nail.’ Maybe there are better or neater ways to do what I do. Maybe smarter or more experienced people would do it differently. All I know is, people like what I’m delivering. It’s fast, it’s cheap and it works – often better than the million-quid solution they hate dealing with. And it’s all because of WordPress (plus a basic knowledge of PHP).
To Matt Mullenweg and the gang: thank you.
PS: I’ve finally got round to signing up for the forthcoming UK Wordcamp to be held in Birmingham in mid-July. I’ll probably offer to lead a session on what I do, including details of one h-u-g-e project currently in the works.