Helping Others to Help Myself

Last month I undertook an ambitious help-desk tour with the WordPress Orlando community. The goal was to meet with local WordPress users in a casual coffeehouse environment and help them with any questions that they had about their websites. Each meetup occurred over four hours at a different coffeehouse each day, with the goal of getting more businesses to each shop, as all of them are local shops with owners that are community involved.

While I didn’t keep exact count, there were about 25-30 people who came by over the course of the week, both to help and to be helped. I learned plenty of things myself, and a few things that I felt were worth sharing.

First impressions of projects or people may not always be correct.

It’s easy to get an idea of people, companies or tools stuck in your head. First impressions are huge, but can sometimes be way off the mark. I learned that people are more nuanced than I sometimes give them credit for, and that tools that I originally wrote off can serve my business and clients well. Reminding myself of how I might give off a bad first impression at times, I am trying to be more forgiving.

Empowerment is more than just handing off tools.

I love to talk about WordPress Empowerment a fair amount, since I truly believe that it’s a powerful tool to try new things and to get your idea out without a great deal of work to start. I have to remind myself that my skillset is unique, and that most of the people that I work with do not know how to use these tools as intuitively as I do.

There are countless ways to look at and solve problems.

Working with one of our attendees during one of the meetups, I tried to come up with a solution for a problem that they were having. We ended up talking it out, defining the scope of the work that she was trying to do, and applied just a bit of thinking outside the box. It turns out that a plugin that was built for an entirely different niche/industry had all of the features that she needed after stripping away the ones that she did not. Countless development hours saved by looking at the problem differently.

Sometimes you have to grin and bear it.

You’re not always going to like what you do. I love my work, but know that there are days that I don’t want to stare at a screen. When those days come, I have to remind myself of why I love what I do, and why I keep on keeping on. I agree with Steve Jobs on changing course when you wake up too many days in a row disliking what you are about to do. Redefine what it means to be in control of what you’re doing.

That’s it from me. If anyone who was there happens to read this, let me know what you learned in the comments.

Orlando Startup Weekend Education

I’ve known of Startup Weekend for a few years, but have always been unable to devote a full weekend to attending one. 54 straight hours is pretty intense to jump into creating a new business from scratch, but I can see it being a great motivator and idea generator. I finally planned in advance to keep the weekend open for one, and it happened to be focused on the education vertical, which I thought was fitting considering it was being held at the college where I am an adjunct.

The first night was an introduction to the weekend, as well as pitch night. I was impressed with the fact that about half of the attendees had pitches for company and product ideas. After ideas were pitched (with a strict 60 second limit), attendees were sent to talk to the pitchers and vote on their ideas. After the final votes were counted, finalists were presented, pitched one more time, then we went another round of talking, this time to form teams based on our skillsets. The only real complaint that I had about the process is that more time was spent on “housekeeping” discussion, and less time was given to talking to team leaders before joining teams.

The fact that almost everybody returned for days two and three was surprising to me. I expected (and was forewarned) of a potential drop-off, where people who pitched and weren’t accepted would leave the event.

The one issue that I do see is project investment. It’s easy to get people excited about an idea, harder to get them to care for three straight days, and even harder to get them to care after judging is over. If your idea doesn’t make it and you end up joining someone else’s team, I can see it being harder to devote your full attention to it. The possibility exists for a group of people who’ve never met before to come together and make a business, but the time investment that generally comes beforehand is lacking. The two local “success stories” that presented to us both had people who had worked together before on their teams. This might not be a requirement, but definitely seems to be helpful. Just in case, bring a friend with you :)

Check out upcoming Startup Weekend events, and attend one in your area!

11 Years of WordPress

Today marks the 11th Anniversary of WordPress being unleashed upon the world. I’ve personally been working with it for about six years, since the summer of 2008. While my first sites are not online anymore, I remember that they weren’t that great. The struggle to get started with using WordPress was great for me in the beginning.

There wasn’t as large of a community built around WordPress in 2008. I didn’t even know that there was much of one until 2011. I attended the first WordPress Roundtable (now WordPress Orlando) in the fall of 2011, and by the third meeting I was organizing speakers, setting up events, and doing a few talks of my own. I’ve got an awesome team around me, including James Tryon, Jean Perpillant and Carol Gann, as well as some newer faces that are stepping into leadership roles. The community has grown since then to include a website and Facebook group, as well as two or three events per month. As of writing, we’re about a month off from hitting 1000 members, making us the second largest tech meetup in Central Florida!

In January of 2009 I began to leverage the web design training I’d been practicing since early high school, and started my own freelance business, Orange Blossom Media. I started out with static websites and basic dynamic design, but it took a while before I made WordPress the tool of choice, after learning some PHP to go along with the HTML and CSS. In December of 2012 I quit my current job of the time, incorporated the company and haven’t looked back. I’ve now got a team that I work with, and we’re looking to add a few people over the coming months.

In 2012 I also started working on organizing WordCamp Orlando. The event was a huge success in my mind, considering it was my first go-round with this type of event. Since then I’ve attended a dozen camps around the country, and love using them as work vacations. WordCamp Orlando 2013 was even bigger, adding 100 attendees, an extra day and about twenty more speakers. I’m already excited for 2014, which is going to be a year of slower growth due to venue choice, but is still going to be a huge step forward.

WordPress has helped me to make a life around doing the things that I like to do, namely teaching, consulting and building for the web. The community is amazing and helpful, and they all deserve support and respect for helping to foster something larger than any one individual. The fact that we can throw events for a piece of software, as well as have a highly attended party just celebrating it’s existence is a sign that it’s something that many of us are passionate about. I thank you WordPress, and all that you have given me through the past few years. I look forward to helping you celebrate many more birthdays in the future.

Joaquin Phoenix and the World of ‘Her’

If you’ve not seen the movie ‘Her’ yet, you may just know it as that movie where the guy falls in love with his computer. That’s a pretty simplistic overview of the plot, which revolves more around a vision of the near future as it’s likely coming, and what it means to be human. Joaquin Phoenix portrays Theodore, a man separated from his wife, who forms a relationship with an artificial OS, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

The view of the future in this movie is quiet, almost comforting. Long gone are the large displays and acrobatic gestures of ‘Minority Report’, replaced instead with design that melds into the background, as I could easily imagine technology moving. The main point of control for devices isn’t touchscreens, but is instead vocal commands, removing a layer of mediation, making it easier for him to comfortably interact with Samantha. Over time, they learn more about one another, and Samantha moves from being a digital assistant to a digital paramour.

We may consider it odd or disconcerting now that someone could fall in love with a voice alone, knowing that it is not attached to a “real” person, but the point is more that reality is what you make of it, and that meaningful relationships can be different for different people. It has to be noted that Theodore is not alone in this world; it’s mentioned that other people, such as one of his close friends also going through a breakup, have begun relationships with their OS. His friends generally take it in stride, and several are even encouraging of the relationship. This frees us from the focus of “this guy is weird”, making the film more of a straightforward – albeit quirky – love story.

As I’d previously mentioned, the HyperPersonal Model of interaction allows for feedback loops through digitally mediated interaction which allows the highs and lows of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship to be clearly on display, allowing them to know each other more intimately than most people ever will.

‘Her’ is an overall excellent film, with writing, direction and performances that are all first-rate. The score to the film is soothing in this digital age, with mixtures of transformers humming and the like to keep the mood. I highly recommend it, and look forward to most of the advancements and changes that are suggested in the film to come to real life in the near future.

Digitally Mediated Interaction: Internet Dating

I met both my current boyfriend and my ex through online dating. This used to be fairly taboo to admit to, but it seems that the standards have shifted to apps like Tinder being cultural phenomena unto themselves. It seems that more people have tried internet mediated dating than not, making it a more “acceptable” method to meeting a mate, even if a lingering stigma can still be felt. Even though I can fall back upon the basis of pre-existing mutual friends and interests, a true connection was still forged first via the internet.

Statistic Brain, culling data from Reuters, Herald News, PC World and Washington Post has noted that online courtships before marriage are much shorter than offline, an average of 18 and a half months versus the more substantial 42 month average of those less technologically inclined. Impression Management is often stated to be an important task for online daters, similar to how self-censoring and selection drives the Hyperpersonal Model of digital communication. I would hypothesize that the shorter courtship is indicative of this sense of deeper understanding that many people describe the people that they connect with via online dating.

In one way that online dating does differ from this more hyperpersonal communication is through the casualty with which many users can approach it. Often described as a fear of missing out, many users admitted to pursuing relationships with multiple people at once online, testing the boundaries of what they can commit to while keeping options open. Choice of who to converse with is also artificially limited, by filters set by users on who they want to interact with (white straight women between 22-30, for instance), or by the apps themselves like Tinder that attempt to determine the most desirable profiles to display for each user. It seems that while relationships begun online tend to move faster and last longer/happier than those started solely offline, a self-selection bias can in this case be a benefit, rather than a detriment.