It all starts with an idea. As always. Imagine yourself going to an EMWCon. And now ask yourself, what is stopping you from actually going there. “Why should I?” you might ask yourself. I will tell you. I a minute (TL;DR).
For me it started with a mail from Cindy Cicalese, inviting me to EMWCon 2017 in Washington DC. Not having the money myself and lacking the funds from my university, I took a long shot and applied for a TPS grant. The WMF was kind enough to step in, for which I am immensely grateful. Which is also the reason, you are reading this.
Having been to a few Cons myself it was also time to do a talk. So instead of just going there and getting input I wanted to share some of my experience with the community. I already toyed with that idea for SMWCon Fall 2016 but chickened out. “This idea is too specialized”, “No one is going to use it, anyway.” Where some of my excuses. Which may have some truth in it. It turned out, that that does not matter.
Nevertheless, now was the time. Since I got my grant from the WMF, I had to hold a talk at the conference (turned out to be two, actually). Unfortunately, I had only two weeks preparation time to arrange for travel, find a hotel, and prepare my presentation and also tend to my daily work. Luckily, I have a great boss who supported me in my endeavors. For my presentations I tried a simplistic approach (see Conclusion for some links). I failed in some regards, in the end that did not matter so much. See Day 2 for details about that.
The day before
As suggested by the travel learning pattern I arrived a day early. Which was a good thing. Having been “on the road” for the better part of 20 hours and battling a time difference of +6, I was notably unmotivated when I arrived at my hotel at 10pm (for me it was 2am). The first night was expectantly unrefreshing so I started “the day before” slowly. I like to get to know the neighborhood, so I got out and started to explore – by foot. Being a European (and having no car at hand) this idea came naturally to me. It did not take long for me to feel totally out of place. I walked for almost 20 min and the people I encountered by foot I could have counted with one hand. Admittedly, it was a Tuesday morning but I sure felt better when I reached my first destination: Tysons Corner Center. Here I got my first real American lunch, did some shopping, and also got my SmarTrip Card (which was the reason I went there in the first place). Normally, I would have used it to get to the location of the conference, to get to know the way there and accustom myself to it. However, Cindy arranged a pre-conference dinner, which was going to be near MITRE, so I decided this had to do. Also, it was starting to rain.
We met up for dinner at the Lost Dog Café in McLean. Cindy was kind enough to take me there (still raining) by car (so much for my plan of learning how to go there by metro). After hauling in a few more dinner attendees (actually, two of the conference chairs: Yaron and Mark) we met up with Chris and got us a cozy little place at the Lost Dog. So there I was, still a little under the weather from jet lag and the many new impressions I got over the day, sitting with the conference chairs and having dinner. Just like that. And it was awesome. We were later joined by “the NASA guys” and we all had a great time talking about MediaWiki, Metric and English Units of Measurements, tin-foil-hat-theories, and current US politics. A great opportunity to get to know some of the attendees. One of my fondest memories of my visit to the US.
Conference Day 1
Still a bit influenced by jet lag I got to the conference an hour early. Cindy offered to take my there, since her hotel was “around the corner” (not for European standards, but who am I to complain). Again, we picked up Mark and Yaron on the way and arrived at MITRE in time to help with the preparations. Here again it showed, that the people coming to these conferences are not just attendees but part of a community. Even much was prepared beforehand (great organization team!), of course, there were things that had be done last minute. And of course, people were ready to lend a helping hand. Be it to pack the giveaways, put up some posters, or distribute the Wi-Fi password. This kind of mental attitude I value the most with the community. Not “I paid money for this, I expect everything to be ready and perfect!” but more like a “We are here to have a great time, where can I help to make this come true?”-thinking. When all was set and done, I finally found the time to register and enjoyed that, what all attendees experienced first: a heartily and warm welcome from the wonderful Bernadette.
A few words about the actual location: This was my fourth conference I was attending (I have been to SMWCon Fall 2013, SMWCon Fall 2014 and SMWCon Fall 2016) and MITRE offered the most professional background for a conference by far. The room had all the technical gadgets one could think of, video streaming was on point and the catering superb. It also offered a little bit of excitement in the person of the ever present security guard, making sure we did not venture into sections of the building, that were forbidden to us. Only sad thing was, that the admittance tags had to be returned at the end of the event, making this my first conference, I could not bring a badge home. Luckily, I have my MITRE smartphone holder and of course the thingy.
Now concerning the tracks on day 1. I have to admit, after a time it becomes hard to actually differentiate them. You hear so many things, learn so much about ideas, techniques, motivations and working environments that it is hard, to keep this all in mind. Or to summarize here. Inevitably, you are going to forget some things, cut corners or misinterpret presented ideas. I decided not to summarize or comment each talk but instead give some general impressions and ideas for you on listening to talks:
- First of all: keep in mind the presenters are – like yourself – attendees. They are not paid for their effort
- The title, even the talk summary can be misleading. Keep an open mind about every talk
- You can learn things in unexpected moments. Be alert
- Keep a notepad (traditional as in paper or modern as in program) at hand to take notes
- Ask questions
- Do not hesitate to talk to the speaker afterwards to discuss ideas or to go into detail
What I specifically like to mention here (despite what I said earlier) is the wonderful welcome speech from Cindy and the first “talk” of the day held by Chris: he let us introduce ourselves guided by a couple of questions. That was a wonderful opportunity to get an impression of the people in attendance and their motivation of coming to the conference.
The first conference day ended with a community learning night. Something I wholeheartedly recommend. Unless you feel the urge of polishing your presentation for the upcoming day – like I did. So unfortunately, no firsthand experience of the edit-a-thon from me, but the people I talked to were all very excited about the work they accomplished. Also, there was free pizza.
Conference Day 2
Day 2 started much the same as day 1 for me. Still jetlagged I again enjoyed the ride to MITRE with Cindy very much. This time there was nothing to help prepare, so on to grab some breakfast and engage in meaningful conversation. Or at least as meaningful as one can be when one waits for the coffee to kick in. The conference then started with a very special keynote speaker: Victoria Coleman, CTO of the Wikimedia Foundation wonderfully introduced by Cindy. Victoria gave us very interesting insight into technical operations, tools and processes, together with some strategies and plans for the near future. She also pointed out the WMF’s search for a product manager (application here) and asked us to create a document for her concerning the needs and benefits of the third party community. Which was put together admirably by Cindy after the con.
Well, what was true for the talks on the first day, also is true for the talks in the second day (ergo, I will not comment on a talk specifically). But of course, this was to be my great day and therefore let me give you some thoughts on holding talks:
- First of all: the hardest part is getting up there. Fortunately, you are the only one making this hard, so there is really no reason to not go up there
- There are always people in attendance that are interested in what you have to say
- Present your wiki, your solution, your concepts, an extension you are working on, or moderate a discussion about a certain topic
- Know your message and stick to it
- Know your audience and prepare for it
As I mentioned above, I failed in a few regards. First, I was my own worst enemy: I skipped half the things I wanted to say, forgot some punchlines and omitted anecdotes I wanted to use to lighten up the rather dry talk. Second, I based my talks on an extension of which I assumed more attendees were familiar with. Therefore, I also failed the part of “know your audience”. Now you have to know, that I am the kind of person who is overly self-critical and self-conscious. Nevertheless (and here is my most important message) no one gave me any reason to be. All I got was positive feedback, thanks and encouragement. And for this I am most grateful. I never hear an unkind word, blaming or unjust critique. Which is my most important message for you potential presenters out there. If you ever wanted to get up the stage and present, these conferences are to place to go. No excuses.
The normal way to continue this text would be “the rest was just a blur”. It was not. There were more, very interesting talks that day – especially concerning some problems, I have with my wikis. And of course there was the conference dinner at Barrel and Bushel (did I mention, that I enjoy these events?). I was very lucky to be engaged in an evening-long discussion that spanned from maker spaces over amazon’s Alexa and home automation to Cuban Cigars and working in the Middle East. During all of this, there was insight into living in the US and living in Canada and how certain things compare to each other and to living in Germany (where I come from). I am very grateful to Bob (not my uncle) and Tina (a Canadian-by-choice, born in Germany not 30km from my hometown; this world can be small, indeed) for this incredible and unforgettable evening. Which ended too soon.
Conference Day 3
The last day of the conference began slowly. Partly because for some attendees the conference dinner ended “too late” rather than “too soon” (looking at you Lex) and partly because the schedule was rather relaxed. There were some lightning talks scheduled (and some improvised) and then we split up into groups for create camp. For that, Mark had some ideas prepared but also managed to get a good feeling of what people were interested. Everybody had the chance of finding a topic, she or he was most interested in. The challenge was, to decide which one to pick. I took the liberty of watching the room from time to time and never did I see somebody being bored, doing nothing or looking for engagement. This create camp came so naturally to everybody, it almost felt rehearsed. And like the evening before, it ended too soon. A last sum up and the conference was over. One after another, people began tickling away. The good-byes mostly heartily, like one would expect on a family event (not the one, where you are forced to visit your mother-in-law or the unwanted aunt, but more like an “I miss these guys already, can’t wait to visit again”). There was no cleaning up to do and the last people to leave decided to go on a final after-event dinner (the contents of which remain undisclosed). And just like that, it was over.
Since a flight back to Germany on Sunday was cheaper than on Saturday, I stayed a day longer in DC. Little did it help me in being the dutiful tourist, since I packed for warm weather (it was 20°C, 70°F on Monday) and was utterly unprepared for the sudden winter that grasped the east coast on the weekend. Thankfully Bernadette lent (actually gifted) me a sweater and putting everything on, I brought with me, I braved the cold weather and went on a 10 mile hike around The Mall to see as many of the monuments I could. There was still some cherry-blossom, unfortunately mostly in retreat and thanks to cold weather not too many tourist on the way. I really enjoyed my journey up and down The Mall and a last real Lunch on American soil. The cold I could have done without, though.
The flight back was rather bumpy (luckily, I did not stay another day since most flights were canceled due to weather conditions). I was admittedly was glad when I arrived home but also sad, that this wonderful event was over. I brought with me valuable new experience, some great ideas seeded by the talks, and a very bad cold.
Why you should go there:
- The people you meet are all interesting, nice and so much worth your time
- Great talks
- You learn something new. I guarantee it!
- No question is too silly. If you ever wanted to know something about (your) wiki, here is the place to ask
- Asides the technical part, you also have the chance to meet people from other cultural backgrounds
- You may have the chance to see other places if you have to time for some sightseeing
- The overall experience from your participation is invaluable
What to keep in mind
- Go there a day early
- Participate on the day-before informal dinner. If there is none, organize one yourself
- Get an idea how to travel on location
- Insert yourself, be part of the community
- Get to know the people coming there
- Be alert, follow all the talks; you never know, when something interesting is about to be noted
- Have a great time. No matter what
For your presentation