I often work while sipping some coffee at Starbucks. The coffee is admittedly expensive, but pretty decent to get work done. Mainly because they give decently fast WIFI and also they get the lighting right.
Once such day, someone approached me. He was wearing a “something very nice about Open-source” t-shirt. He introduced himself and asked if I worked remotely. He handed me a card very formally, told me that his wife runs a co-working space in the same building and I could check it out.
I took the card and later visited their website. Reserved-Bit came across as a very hacky, open and friendly space to co-work in. So I signed up.
Many days months later, I have had several good discussions with them over politics, feminism, equality, education and most often on open-source culture. They revealed to me later, the reason they approached me in the cafe was because I had “WordPress” stickers on my laptop.
The stickers meant I was a fan of “WordPress” and by extension possibly a fan of open-source. Long story short, the kind of people they wanted to co-work with.
While the increasing number of meetups and WordCamps are great, the average person from lower income groups has no idea of WordPress.
It is not to say, they have no idea about the internet. They do, but they are extensively using apps, services by Google or Whatsapp (owned by Facebook). Most technology that is helping them work, give them an online identity or a gateway to the internet are walled gardens. The open web is increasingly becoming something people do not know about and as a result care about.
This lack of awareness is acute in India’s poor and lower income groups.
I was starting to write down a rant on Twitter with the following tweets.
If @WordPress needs to grow and stay relevant in India – we need to ask and answer very hard questions.
Since I live in India and I am active in the local WordPress communities as a volunteer, I have some views on our community in India. Note this is not a critique of the community, it is not a critique of WordPress either. I am not qualified to do that. I am writing this as way to write down what I comprehend about the future of WordPress in India for myself.
Some tough questions?
Why will the local cab driver, rickshaw driver, small sandwich shop owner, self-employed carpenter, electrician ever use WordPress?
How will WordPress serve people who are not looking to publish anything or blog about anything?
How could several thousands of local newspapers and journals in local languages use WordPress to go online?
Is the current WordPress community in India doing anything to be make WordPress relevant to lower income population of India that is discovering internet services?
Future of WordPress
This is a big change and it is a change that is going to be more inclusive and hence ultimately good for its sustained future.
But the other big reason for the success of WordPress so far is the community around it.
I love WordPress!
Who are we? Are we growing in depth? Do we really even matter as a community in India when it comes to technology?
Much of the community that meets at WordCamps and meetups, reside in an echo chamber. They take part in meetups, organise WordCamps and feel happy about themselves. Why do I get involved in open-source, in WordCamps, in meetups – the common and most popular answer is “I love WordPress!”
Love is a strong word but we must wait and listen to our answer to why we love WordPress.
I love WordPress – because I make money from it?
I love WordPress – because it’s easy?
I love WordPress – because it opens avenues to me?
I love WordPress – because I love Freedom.
The problems start not with loving something but why you love something.
Love involves hard work, pain, effort, patience, respect and a level of altruism. Love is a powerful emotion and it should stand for an higher ideal or a higher purpose.
The higher ideals of freedom, choice and inclusion. While freedom and choice are protected because of its open-source nature and the GPL licence, inclusion is often neglected or less thought about.
Call for inclusion and dialogue
We all have meetups, workshops and WordCamps where we discuss various WordPress related topics. Can we take some time out and have one or two outreach programs in our local communities?
Where we speak to people from lower income groups or school students from lower income groups. Can we explain to them the benefits of open-web?
Where we can talk to them and their unions and associations to negotiate and carry out dialogues with tech giants from a place of awareness rather than darkness. Can we try to atleast talk about such things in our community?
The WordPress community as a result will become more inclusive, more broader and those are good signs for the future.
Let me know in your comments what we could do as a community about inclusion, about trying to promote the open-web ideals to lower income groups, to people who do not earn their living from the internet.
Our favourite software WordPress might not benefit directly but the open-web might end up winning!
I recently visited WordCamp Nashik. Since I was on a panel discussion, I got a ID card with “SPEAKER” written on it. All this is fancy nonsense but that’s how it is at most conferences I guess.
On reaching the venue, I ran into Kapil Gonge, an old friend from where I previously worked. He was one of the co-founders of rtCamp, a place where I was introduced to WordPress. He moved along a few years ago and started his own design and branding agency called PugMarker. I too moved along and joined some friends doing WordPress stuff.
We had planned to meet in Pune a few times but that never materialised and strangely, the both of us, who are now residents of Pune ended up meeting in Nashik.
In the morning, I was feeling a bit under the weather and Kapil had some fruits in his parked scooter. We walked along talking about life, open-source and in general everything that makes a conversation fun but usually very hard to remember after they end.
Watching us was someone who I think was drinking a beverage. He walked upto us and introduced himself. He looked up my ID badge that read “Speaker” and I suspect, that led him to start a conversation with us, because he opened with “Oh, so you are speaking here!”
Now, wait – until this moment, this is exactly how you should introduce yourself at a WordCamp to strangers. Say “Hi”, shake their hands, introduce yourself with your name and ask about the other person. I have had hundreds of such conversations and many people I met in this fashion at WordCamps are now very good friends.
But the man with the beverage did not stop introducing himself. He dropped few names, he dropped hints about how much money he makes, probably desperate for us to think of him in some reverential manner. The problem was my friend Kapil and I, love open-source for it’s irreverent nature. So this one sided conversation was not going anywhere.
But the man with the beverage never stopped. He continued talking about his businesses, trying to impress two guys who were quickly regretting they had chosen to take a break in the parking area.
Kapil and I exchanged knowing glances and tried to interject into this monologue of self promotion unsuccessfully a couple of times. Then I started to just counter him for the sake of it and made some sarcastic joke or two, thinking maybe he will find us not worthy of his time and leave.
No, luck! :-/
But finally, his attention moved to Kapil. He asked him what he did and as Kapil answered, he interrupted. Kapil then added about his work, that he helps people out with marketing, branding and design but speaks a lot less. I think Kapil was LOLing inside a lot while saying that.
Beverage guy refused to take the hint and suggested Kapil would never make money! Okay, that was enough – Kapil and I just walked away, not really bothering to continue the conversation or even wishing to keep up the pretence of coming across as polite.
Both of us were chuckling about the character we had just ran into.
All day we spent avoiding him and watching with a smile when others interacted with him and walked away dazed. Most of them with that look that say “What did I get myself into?”
I am not sure who this person was or what he was trying to do! Maybe he got bad advice, maybe he was having a bad day.
But it was a classic case of how NOT to introduce yourself at a WordCamp.
Talking involves listening
A lot of self-marketing literature will focus on things like elevator pitch and selling yourself. Honestly, if you want to pitch yourself, ideally do not come to WordCamps. Such conferences have other developers and designers around not venture capitalists or angel investors. Save your pitch for people who have money to invest, not who are making money as freelancers or run small businesses around web development.
So what works at WordCamps?
Talking works. But talking also means listening or letting the other person talk. Most open-source enthusiasts I have met usually feel more confident talking about their work than about themselves.
So ask about their work.
Introduce yourself in a single sentence – a more than one sentence introduction is usually a pitch. Something simple as “Hi, I am <yourname>, I design websites, what do you do?” is perfectly fine.
Ask about their work. If someone replies I design websites or I code plugins, ask them about their products or their favourite themes.
If you are new to WordPress and talking to someone who has worked on it for many years, do ask “How do I go about being an expert at WordPress?” – trust me, you will get a lot more helpful advice and many fruitful discussions by simple asking how to go about things rather than second guessing or dropping hints.
What ever you do, never tell someone how much money you make or that you make more money than the person you are speaking with. You are almost always are going to come across as an absolute jerk!
This WordCamp was organised by students and mostly from LNCT Bhopal. It was a short one day event and I came across some very hardworking and enthusiastic students who were exploring WordPress.
Saurabh and I visited from Yapapaya. We both had a lot of useful and interesting interactions with several students.
For me, WordCamp Bhopal was special because it was the first time I stood on a stage solo and spoke. The previous time was WordCamp Pune but it was mainly as a moderator and I think I managed to be just about passable there.
The Fear, the shyness!
I suffer from extreme anxiety when it comes to speaking in public. So say there are more than two or three people in a room, I tend to clam up and not be very talkative or expressive for that matter. It takes me a long time to get comfortable and I suffer from extreme shyness which makes me simply prefer to not speak out or speak up in some cases.
I have a very strong case of anxiety and stress when I have to speak in front of people. I remember from childhood, I would dread being made to try out for elocution competitions, I would dread poetry recitations often to the point of becoming physically sick.
I would not be able to think clearly, nor collect my thoughts most times, and usually it ended up with disaster and the disinterested teacher marking me out as student not to spend too much time over.
I always loved to write and I felt more comfortable laying out my thoughts on paper or on a screen later. This fear of speaking in public is a constant companion, and pretty ironic when you think of it – because much of my career is about interacting with communities.
I thought that was how it would be all my life, and then I took a dive.
WordCamp Bhopal was announced and the organisers were looking for a speaker. Since I had spoken to the organisers a few times, I knew there would be many students attending. Students still having doubts and possibly looking for ideas about their career choices. I felt “Why Choose a career in open-source?” would be a decent topic in this scenario. I applied as a speaker and got approved.
Thanks to the WordPress community, I have learned to speak out and speak up in public bit by bit. In a moment of confidence I applied. Then I sat contemplating what I had got myself into.
WordCamp in Bhopal
On WordCamp Bhopal day, I prepared well. My fellow travellers from Yapapaya, Ganesh and Saurabh helped with expert advice, tips and design magic. My slides were minimalistic and I knew I wanted to keep things simple and easy to execute. I knew what I had to say. I prepared over and over again but I was still stuck on having a good opening.
I knew that when I was nervous and froze on stage – it was usually following a bad start. If I started well, managed to keep calm for the first few minutes, I would feel less anxious and I could breathe a bit easier and basically manage to speak without sounding like Mr. Monosyllable.
Back in Bhopal, on reaching the venue early morning, I had an auspicious sighting of the [ya] papaya tree, that was outside the guest house of the college campus.
The event began with registrations and some familiar faces to me from Mumbai and Pune squatted on some stairs waiting for things to begin. The second from left with the white t-shirt is Vachan Kudmule.
A few almost by now mandatory delays to every WordCamp the event started. Then there was a nasty technical difficulty that had cropped up. The venue’s projector was not working. I am sure the organisers were very anxious.
But the Batman in disguise, Vachan Kudmule had magically produced a backup projector from his utility belt. Jokes apart for Vachan to carry a projector when he was not even going to speak, shows he is insanely thoughtful.
Soon my session was up. I almost started to feel sick by then. I busily looked at my notes on my phone all the while, trying to tune out everything. Then I looked around and saw some in the audience a bit uninterested. I think many were hungry as things were delayed and by the time I was to talk it was lunch time.
I walked onto the stage, heart pounding. Alexander Gounder threw me a stress ball so I would keep calm. I walked up the steps to the stage and threw the ball back to Alex. All this was not planned and completely non-sensical.
I looked again at all the slightly bored and hungry faces. All those faces row after row.
I suddenly realised I was not as nervous as I had imagined. I was not feeling giddy or sick. Just my hands had gone cold and I was almost shivering. You’ll be fine I told myself and asked the crowd “Every one who is present at WordCamp Bhopal stand up”
Everyone did. I followed up with questions like “Who is still a student here?” and “Who is below the age of 25?” – I asked them to stand up each time instead of raising their hands.
Then I blurted, “Wow, I had never felt so powerful before.”
There was a bit of laughter going around the audience. For once they were not laughing at me, they were laughing at my silly introduction.
The rest flowed a lot more naturally. I asked questions during my talk, I got some applause too and at the end a few questions were posed to me. When I walked off, I thought I might have done okay.
But few people said, I had done a pretty decent job. I was suddenly feeling very bashful and confident.
The fear has been conquered. I have made a lot of progress since I have been involved with WordPress communities and this seemed about right.
I even put on hat after a while and posed like a thug. I am still walking around with a bit of swagger. And I have WordCamp Bhopal to thank for that. 🙂
My slides are pretty useless by themselves as much of the content in them are single sentences.
Here is a list of some folks who were attended WordCamp Bhopal and blogged about it.
During a WordCamp in 2015, I remember someone being praised for contributions to the community.
The person who received the compliment made the appropriate right noises but added “I do not expect anything in return, it was simply a way to give to community.”
The man wore benevolence quite splendidly and that is where I felt he was wrong.
No, if you are making a career out of WordPress or any FOSS platform/product, building a company on it, you are doing this because a lot of people before you wrote the code and contributed.
And they did not do this because they were benevolent masters of the the technology world, but because they wanted to improve and nurture something they felt was important and useful to them. In the end, almost everyone who contributes to open source projects like WordPress, ultimately does so because they have skin in the game.
Better Software = Better Society
Okay, volunteering your time for better software is not exactly comparable to volunteering time for a better society. Writing code for a FOSS project gets you a lot of credit and improves the software you use to make a living. This cannot be compared to basically volunteering time at a homeless shelter or teaching under-privileged kids at a school. Anyone who compares the two is being conceited.
That said better software can greatly facilitate a better society.
A free open internet, will help democracy in the true sense and societies will greatly benefit from the feedback loops and organisational power technology gives the users. Millions today use the web to connect, to write opinions (including what you are reading now), to interact, to collaborate, to plan and to demand rights and change policies and hold each other and also the might governments accountable.
And such an internet should support freedom (ie: open source architecture, software and in general its philosophy), it should allow you to transfer your data from one place to another and definitely should not be a walled up garden.
This is why, people who make a living from open source software, should contribute to it in anyways they can, and not smugly say they do not expect anything in return. We have received plenty already, it is time we realise we are very privileged. It is time to stop calling contributing to something that benefits ourselves as charity.
Think about a large corporate company. Such a company is structured, systematic, primed to do things that experts around the world are hired to do to perfection. People come and go through revolving doors, experts are hired and fired or retired. CEOs are hired and fired. Many get jobs that are monotonous, mere cogs in a machine. The company is a machine, it is relentless and untiring. The financial resources it controls and sits atop of are enormous.
Now think about a village or a small town. It is exactly what a company is not. It is not really as super efficient, it is very informal in terms of how it grows or develops. Inhabitants often are poor or do not have the best education but usually have a lot of involvement in their society around them. They have skin in the game. It is a bit chaotic and when it comes to financial resources, it would never really be able to compare to a large powerful multinational company.
But tiny villages do outlast companies. Large powerful multinationals do meet their end, over decades or over a century. Villages grow like the weed, almost seemingly by chance and randomly into cities at times and survive for centuries and in some cases thousands of years. They survive earthquakes, droughts, floods, economic crisis and several other disasters. They survive because they are not machines, they do not break down completely, they adapt and survive.
Now think of several hundred such villages, towns and cities. What we have, is essentially a living civilisation!
Wait what does this have to do with open source?
Well, an open-source project is a lot like that village. It is like a living organism, it survives because it engages with people, it is not a machine that can break down.
It can grow pretty relentlessly but in unpredictable ways. For example, Unix and Linux as projects which many an expert thought would not be able to survive the might of Microsoft, today powers 67.0% of the web servers.
I have been involved over the past 3 years around community building around WordPress – an open-source project in Mumbai and lately in Pune. So I am more tuned into WordPress community and news around it.
Today, the WordPress CMS is used on 26% of websites that are out there. Not bad for a CMS ridiculed of being just good for blogging. Maybe it is because it was just that, a good blogging software, not pretentious and easy to start using than others, but that can be another post someday.
This happens because the community around WordPress or Unix (mainly Linux) is alive, is a living organism and it is so very deliberately – so that it can adapt, absorb and outlast all machines out there by centuries.
So open-source is a philosophy?
Yes. In many ways it is. In technical terms, the source code of the software is made open. So you can play around with it, customise it, rewrite it – no questions asked. But it means very little, without a sense of culture around it.
A culture to share expertise, make it accessible and easier to use for others. A culture that is not just about learning something and becoming an expert to get paid gigs – but a culture that nurtures understanding and expertise in others and you.
The software would not last too long without a culture of freedom and openness around it. This is why it is called FOSS – Free and Open Source Software.
Code contributions, free plugins and themes, free tutorials, free support over forums, free volunteering of time and effort to write content, translate content for the WordPress project, free time and effort to organise local meetups and WordCamps, all are many different ways we can contribute to the culture of WordPress.
It is what will keep WordPress more like a living organism and less like a machine!
Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S Raymond – A great book that explains how this culture of community feedback and contribution works better against a more streamlined, structured style of development. The book will give you good insights into the history of FOSS movement.
Revolution OS – A documentary that starts with the GNU movement and is great for understanding early days of Linux growth and its blossoming.
The Story of WordPress – A book that is hosted on Git. Its free and open for anyone with internet to read up. It will take your through a through history of WordPress and its growth and breakthroughs.
PS: Thanks Saurabh for telling me about Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S Raymond during a conversation.
WordCamp Pune is done! I am having withdrawal symptoms. I would love to write a lot of things about WordCamp Pune but it would be fair to say, that since it took place last weekend, I am still high on #WCPune koolaid.
This is not a WordCamp critique. I am not writing about awesome sessions. I am not writing about what a WordCamp should be or not be about.
I am writing a good snapshot of my experiences at this WordCamp. So someday I can go back and read through the entire two-three days of magic that is called WordCamps.
WordCamp for me started a week before. I work remotely from Mumbai for rtCamp which is based in Pune. So I planned a full week in Pune that would end with WordCamp. Glad I did that!
A lot of the volunteers, organisers and even speakers were good friends of mine. I was a speaker at this WordCamp too. So as we came closer to the weekend, I was filled with excitement. An example of that is the tweet below.
Is it normal to stay awake out of excitement for WordCamp even if you are not the organiser?? 😀 #WCPune
I had been talking to Mahangu Weerasinghe from Automattic for a while on Twitter and at times exchanged emails about work culture, FOSS culture and culture of South Asia in general.
He was part of the Automattic team who flew down (should I say up since he flew northwards into India?) to Pune for the WordCamp. Mahangu along with Jeremy Herve and Aminul Sajib(Aminul is shy and quite, but writes really well at this blog) visited our office on Friday.
While they visited rtCamp, I think Jeremy might have been most amused with the local culture and customs. He was game enough to try out new food and ended up eating Pithla- Bhakari for lunch.
After somemore chat about work culture and ISPs in India, Automatticians left rtCamp (hopefully with fond memories) to co-work at their hotel.
Foundation Day (Saturday)
I left on time, well I could have left earlier but I thought maybe being a Saturday there would not be too much traffic. Was I right?
I was thinking the traffic would let off today! Of course I am an idiot to think so! Foundation day #wcpune
I reached ThoughtWorks office where the Foundation Day for WordCamp Pune was being conducted! These were mainly workshops for people new to WordPress but people not new to WordPress would also enjoy.
I must say the ThoughtWorks guys are really cool. I found their entire staff polite, thoughtful and friendly. This I encountered with everyone from their security guards to the folks who were co-ordinating with WordCamp organisers.
Here is tweet by Praveen (from Woo and now Automattic) at ThoughtWorks office.
After a few sessions of WordPress fun in the morning, Mahangu asked where we could see some interesting places around. I recommended Aga Khan Palace. Actually, I recommended the palace for two reasons.
One. Mahatma Gandhi was under house arrest at Aga Khan Palace and his wife died while they were held at the palace. His secretary too died in Pune.
It would be easy for anyone to relate to Gandhi’s history as just about everyone in the world knows about Mahatma Gandhi.
Two. Because I too wanted to visit this place for a long time. I had gone there as a kid but did not really remember much.
Luckily, the place was nearby and Mahangu and Jeremy were hopefully happy to have visited Aga Khan Palace along with me. I added some historical context to some things for Mahangu and Jeremy.
One funny yet slightly embarrassing incident at Aga Khan Palace was that the tickets are priced differently for Indians and non-Indians. I knew this was an Indian tradition for sorts at tourist places. Mahangu hinted that it is often the same in Sri Lanka. I joked to them that they charge more to non-Indians as part a colonisation tax.
That said, it was very humbling to visit this place and walk the same hallways through which Mahatma Gandhi and many other luminaries of the freedom struggle did. Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba died at the Aga Khan Palace and it has her Samadhi. Samadhi is a sort of a memorial. It was simple, peaceful and sober just like it should have been.
The trip to Aga Khan palace was something I was happy to do. I am not sure how much it added to the experience of Pune for Mahangu and Jeremy, but I hope it did a little bit atleast.
Hidden Place found!
After the history tour of sorts, we made our way back to the Hotel where Mahangu and Jeremy were staying. Aminul and Rahul joined us at the Hotel and we made our way to a nearby pub. It was happy hours (I think!) and the five of us had Brun-Kheema and Beer! This pub is called the “Hidden Place”. Aminul has some interesting things to say about finding the Hidden place.
After some beer and some more – Rahul and I headed back to rtCamp office and did some work. Actually he worked, I caught up with some emails. Then in the evening we went shopping with Topher DeRossia.
He is of HeroPress fame. Topher was extremely humble about the fact that the HeroPress community had sent him all the way to Pune. I think he as bit shy and a little overwhelmed with his first trip to India. Actually later I found out that it was his first trip outside North America.
Topher was wonderful and very accessible to every single person who approached him and asked him about WordPress. He is deeply respectful of the community he represents and is perfect as the curator of HeroPress (he did tell me that he never edits or curates an essay!)
I was invited for the speaker dinner as I was part of a panel discussion that was planned. I met far too many cool people at the dinner to list them down here one by one.
A lot of us were actually very tired by the end of it. I met Saurabh Shukla who was clearly tired and devoid of sleep. He mentioned he was very nervous and excited about the next day (actually something in Hindi which I cannot re-print here). I could relate very well to what he exactly meant. 🙂
Sunday arrived and I quickly travelled around 8 am to Modern College which was the venue for WordCamp Pune. As rtCamp were sponsors, I got busy with some colleagues setting up our sponsor table.
The sponsor tables outside the auditorium were an awesome hit. Many walked upto these sponsors and started discussions, conversations which were a great deal of fun.
It is always a great privilege to talk to people about your work, about open-source and WordPress by extension (something I will write more about towards the end of this post).
I met familiar faces from Mumbai. Alex who has been lead organiser of WordCamp Mumbai for two years, Sanat who is now the lead organiser for 2016, Vachan, Sahil, Raj, Thomson, Ajay and others. All of us should really have posed for a photo but I guess we did not take one. 🙁
Though at the selfie booth Alex and I got ourselves some new headgear.
The organisers were fantastic. Some of them were my colleagues and ex-colleagues. Some I did not know as well before WordCamp. Organisers like Sheeba, Premanshu, Ganesh and countless other volunteers were simply awesome. The numbers overwhelmed them a bit but they kept slogging at it with a smile and always making everyone feel very welcomed.
Remember these are people whose jobs are NOT to organise events, they are doing this often for the first time in their lives and often it’s thankless work.
I am glad that some of us who volunteered in Mumbai saw some stress points and joined in moving stuff and microphones around at times without being asked or waiting to be asked.
This is how it should be at a WordCamps. When you see a hassled organiser (belive me all of them are ) ask them if you can help out with something, direct traffic in certain directions, or just help move stuff from one place to another.
So thanks again all of you guys who made WordCamp Pune possible.
I am incredibly shy as a person. I am very inward looking and don’t really like standing on a soapbox except when I am blogging I guess. But thanks to Saurabh Shukla, who suggested I moderate a panel discussion, I ended up speaking with a microphone in front of thousands of people. No, in reality there were just over over 150 but it felt like thousands :-D.
I overcame my fear of public speaking a big deal. That was enough of a personal takeaway for me. Thank you for this Saurabh!
I am privileged to work with a company like rtCamp and work in the WordPress ecosystem. I am not really the best geek around or the best mind around for that matter at these places. I have been lucky at times to be in the right place at the right time and with the right people. Much of it is just plain dumb luck.
So really talking about how products are built, services function, talking about career options to students and just out of college kids is really nothing short of a great privilege. Also every conversation has the potential to teach you something new if you really open yourself to it.
After party and back home!
I had a great time catching up with the organisers again at the after-party. There was drinking and merriment and posing for photos all over. Early on Monday morning, I travelled back to Mumbai with Sanat and Sahil.
Now I am having WordCamp withdrawal symptoms. This happens every time there is a WordCamp but I am happy in the knowledge that I will be part of another one soon in Mumbai.