#29 – Remkus De Vries on How WordCamp Europe Got Started – WP Tavern
[00:00:00] Nathan Wrigley: Welcome to the Jukebox podcast from WP Tavern. My name is Nathan Wrigley. Jukebox is a podcast which is dedicated to all things WordPress. The people, the events, the plugins, the themes, the blocks, and in this case WordCamp Europe.
If you’d like to subscribe to the podcast, you can do that by searching for WP Tavern in your podcast player of choice, or by going to WPTavern.com forward slash feed forward slash podcast. And you can copy that URL into most podcast players. If you have a topic that you’d like us to feature on the podcast, well I’m very keen to hear from you, and hopefully get you all your idea featured on the show. Head over to WPTavern.com forward slash contact forward slash jukebox, and use the contact form there.
So on the podcast today we have Remkus de Vries. Remkus is kicking off what might be described as a mini series on the Jukebox podcast. Last week almost 3000 wordPressers from all over the world, gathered together in Porto, Portugal for the first in-person WordCamp Europe since 2019.
Expectations were high. And the event did not disappoint. It was really excellent. I went along with some recording equipment and tried to find a quiet spot. I sat down with some of the speakers, organizers, and attendees. To talk about all manner of subjects. And that’s what this mini series is all about.
Over the next few months, I’ll be releasing those conversations as Jukebox podcast episodes. Usually when we record the podcast, there’s typically not a lot of background noise. But that’s not always the case with these interviews. We were competing against crowds and air conditioning fans. And whilst the podcasts are more than listable. I hope that you understand that the vagaries of real life were at play.
Okay, so back to Remkus. Remkus is one of the founders of WordCamp Europe, just over 10 years ago. I wanted to get him on the podcast to talk about how the community’s largest WordCamp got started. I also wanted to find out how the current event compares in terms of size and organization. What has changed over the years?
We talk about the importance of events like WordCamps for the community and how over the last few years, the lack of in-person events has altered the community. Remkus is a colorful character and full of interesting insights, which are always worth listening to.
If you’re interested in finding out more, you can find all the links in the show notes by heading over to WPTavern.com forward slash podcast. And you’ll find all the other episodes there as well. And so without further delay, I bring you, Remkus de Vries.
I am joined on the podcast today by Remkus de Vries. Hello.
[00:03:31] Remkus de Vries: Hello Hello.
[00:03:32] Nathan Wrigley: Remkus Remkus and I go back, not a really long way, but we’re going to talk about a journey which takes him back a long way. Tell us about yourself, your relationship with WordPress. Ignore all the WordCamp Europe bits. If you cannot, otherwise, we’ll have nothing left to say.
[00:03:44] Remkus de Vries: Ah, okay, okay. My relationship with WordPress. Wow, that is taking me a ways back. So I think the first time I, so I played with WordPress the first time for a couple of months before I did anything serious with it, but this is 2004. I had a bunch of clients at the time, which, we’re either on Mambo or Joomla, and the ones on Mambo, I was in the process of moving them over. Really didn’t like the process, but you do what you gotta do with the tools that you have. And at the end of 2005, if I remember correctly, WordPress introduced pages, which then made me switch every single client that I have, which was about 20. I ported their Joomla or Mambo theme over to WordPress because now we have static pages, and I haven’t looked back.
[00:04:30] Nathan Wrigley: Been going strong ever since.
[00:04:32] Remkus de Vries: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:04:33] Nathan Wrigley: We’re here to talk about WordCamp Europe because, well we’re at WordCamp Europe. Let’s talk about this one just specifically how much you’ve enjoyed it. When did you arrive?
[00:04:44] Remkus de Vries: Monday.
[00:04:45] Nathan Wrigley: So that was one, no two days before the contributor day. On none of the podcasts that we’ve recorded before have we talked about Porto the place or anything like that? So let’s do a little bit of that. I think this location is pretty spectacular. How are you enjoying Porto?
[00:04:59] Remkus de Vries: Porto is very nice. It’s a little bit like home in terms of the weather. And it’s a lot not like home because there is elevation. For us, it’s a 35 minute walk to get here and we’ve tried quite a few different routes getting here. And whatever you pick, you always end up walking uphill. Which I found interesting, but it highlights the things I like about Porto, because there is nooks and crannies and corners and things you constantly find. Sure there’s architecture, but if I’m really honest, I’ve seen so many European cities, that is roughly the same everywhere. Yeah, the play with the hills and the twisty roads and things like that. I really enjoy it. Plus we’re close to the sea, as someone who grew up around water, I like that.
[00:05:42] Nathan Wrigley: Oh, it’s absolutely brilliant. I completely share your comment about the hills. So far, I’ve only walked up.
[00:05:48] Remkus de Vries: So I’m here with my son and he keeps saying, uh, you’re getting old. And, and the last couple of days I take the Uber getting here and he’s said, I’m going to walk. I’m like, fine. I’m okay with that. I like the Uber now, cause I walked so much.
[00:06:01] Nathan Wrigley: I’ve got to ask about your son. Is he into WordPress?
[00:06:05] Remkus de Vries: Kinda, sort of. His number one passion, and that is in not just a capital P, but the whole word is in capitals is music. He is doing a Dutch version of Juilliard’s, if that rings a bell. So it’s a school that is essentially on the performance arts. I think the official name is the Academy of Pop Culture, and he does music. So that consumes his life. There have been periods where I have used him when we had client migrations. So he’s done content management mostly. So he understands WordPress. It just hasn’t built anything in it himself. So we drove up here, so it’s a father and son road trip, have fun together. and that sort of thing.
[00:06:40] Nathan Wrigley: How long did it take to get here?
[00:06:41] Remkus de Vries: We had a short break in a Bilbao. We spent the night there, so I think all in total 21 hours.
[00:06:48] Nathan Wrigley: I didn’t know you brought your son. But he’s not here in the venue?
[00:06:51] Remkus de Vries: He is.
[00:06:52] Nathan Wrigley: So he’s taking part, he’s not just enjoying Porto?
[00:06:54] Remkus de Vries: He likes to hang out with people I like to hang out with. So we were, we’re all good.
[00:06:57] Nathan Wrigley: Ah, nice. And have you’ve been enjoying, again, we haven’t discussed this so far, a large proportion of the excitement about WordPress events, WordCamps in particular is the sort of stuff that goes on around the edges. You know, the hallway track. The after parties and all that. We haven’t had the after-party yet, but there’s been lots of social events organized in the evenings. Has that side been enriching and fun?
[00:07:17] Remkus de Vries: Very much.
[00:07:18] Nathan Wrigley: You enjoy that bit as much as anybody?
[00:07:20] Remkus de Vries: Absolutely.
[00:07:21] Nathan Wrigley: Because I think one of the key components for people who want to be at these events, but maybe don’t want to be at these events if you know what I mean? You’re nervous. It’s all going to be about code. I don’t write code.
[00:07:31] Remkus de Vries: No.
[00:07:33] Nathan Wrigley: There’s a load of social stuff going on.
[00:07:34] Remkus de Vries: So, that whole chain of thought needs to stop anyway, because it is not about code. at one point I’ve I’ve been, quoted saying, I came for the software. I came home with family. So, if you keep that in mind, it means there’s a lot more going on than just this is the code we work with.
It’s a CMS we work with and the CMS allows us to do things. And there are many other people that have the similar experience. Like it facilitates them, it empowers them. It’s not just the content creators themselves democratizing publishing. It’s not just that. There’s a whole ecosystem around of people being empowered to use a particular piece of software.
And the fun thing about WordPress is, as it so happens that the large majority of people enjoying the software turn out also to like each other in real life. So the community part, and then the social component of that gets highlighted at WordCamps.
[00:08:26] Nathan Wrigley: So is it true to say that you, I know that you just said it and it sounded like a trope, but hand on heart, you’ve got real life friends, in the strictest sense of the word that you never would have known.
[00:08:37] Remkus de Vries: Absolutely.
[00:08:38] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. That’s really fascinating.
[00:08:39] Remkus de Vries: Yeah, and not a few.
[00:08:40] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. You are quite gregarious, I think. You are very good at, being out there.
[00:08:45] Remkus de Vries: I’m not necessarily an extrovert but, among friends, among like-minded it doesn’t cost me energy. So I’m, I’m a very comfortable semi introvert.
[00:08:53] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. Let’s talk to the people out there though who may be introverted. Who think, you know what? There’s no way I’m going to a WordPress event. There’s no way I’m going to a WordCamp, big one, like WordCamp Europe, or a smaller one that may be in a particular country. Just tell us a little bit about the stuff which is on hand to help them get through it. Cause I know there’s a lot of preparation and a lot of thought has been put in to make this as accessible as possible well, basically to quieten any nerves for anybody who may be just thinking, okay, this is not for me.
[00:09:20] Remkus de Vries: So the only thing overwhelming that we cannot take away is the number of people, right? So if a small WordCamp for 200 people is a trigger for you, we can’t solve that. WordCamp Europe in the 2000 plus, is not going to solve that either, but what we can do is provide an open environment.
Right? So what we do is we make sure that all the angles that we can cover, meaning if you’d like to sit aside in the corner, you can. There is space to do that, from within the rooms where the presentations are, to what you mentioned earlier, hallway tracks, right? There’s spaces, there’s hallways, there’s various places where you can hang out where you can sit where you can relax a bit, collect your thoughts if that’s needed, whatever.
So, the other thing you will find is, like I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of like-minded people. And if you are, I think suffering is too big of a word, but if you are in need of anything, you will be spotted and someone will come and, uh, ask are you okay? Is there something I can do to help? So, the whole environment we have is to facilitate the most diverse audience you can think of. That includes the accessibility type of stuff. We have captioning for the live talks. We take into account that if someone creates a presentation, color contrast is correct. So color blinds. You know, I’m just giving random examples of things that think of in order to facilitate everyone as much as possible.
So if you’re an introvert, it’s going to cost you some energy, sure, but it’s also going to give you a lot. And at the very least it’s people you somewhat maybe already know from online interactions and stuff, especially Twitter is good at that. It’s going to help you cement that sort of relationship into a more, I’m sitting across from you now, uh, Nathan, and we’ve spoken quite a few times already, but this is the first time we’re properly sitting across each other. It’s different in real life than it is when you’re, through the digital world are connecting. So the advantage of that is tremendous.
[00:11:13] Nathan Wrigley: I’m sitting across from you, as you just said, and you’ve got the lanyard around your neck and it’s got your name on it. And so if you wish to wear that, everybody can figure out what your name is. Actually, that really does prevent a lot of awkward moments because it’s totally okay to stare at that. I’ve done that so many times, hello, and you don’t have to say, what’s your name? You just go, oh, hi Remkus and so on.
But also curiously, and I think I’ve not seen this before. Well, I’ve not seen it at other events. Your lanyard yard has a green sticker. Why has it got a green sticker?
[00:11:43] Remkus de Vries: So we’ve added, we’ve had this for a few additions now. So on your lanyard, like you said, it says your name and the sticker, that we have some sticker options and one of them has to indicate I’m okay with you if you approach me..
I’m okay. if, if you want to start talking to me. And I am. But there’s also a sticker that indicates I’d rather keep my distance. And if, if I want to talk I’ll approach you instead of you me. So, you know, for those in need, it’s a great mechanism to help you be as comfortable as can be.
[00:12:11] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. It’s because there are all sorts of people here. There are some fairly gregarious people, and if you have, if you’re just wandering around, there is a chance that you may be just spoken to by random people, cause that happens quite a lot. If you’re wearing the red one, so I’m guessing there’s red, yellow, amber and green, red basically indicates look, I’m happy to be in this environment, but I would rather it that you just left me to it. I’m wandering about, to stay wandering about by myself.
[00:12:37] Remkus de Vries: Yeah. I don’t think the percentage that is using a red one is particularly that high, but it’s a mechanism that’s very easy to implement. It’s very easy if for those who actually need it to use it.
[00:12:48] Nathan Wrigley: There’s loads of other things, there’s quiet spaces, there’s places where you can go and just be quiet. There’s childcare for, from really early ages, right up 16. If you to take, take that on board, you know, so if the impediment to coming is that you’ve got children, well it need not be, I can’t speak for the other events elsewhere, but this one, that’s happening. There’s also a ton of nice food, and there’s a ton of space outside. And we’re lucky enough that in Porto, we’ve really managed to avoid the poor weather which was predicted to land.
[00:13:17] Remkus de Vries: Well, we had a bit of the rain yesterday, but you know, it’s fine.
[00:13:19] Nathan Wrigley: But there’s tons of outdoor space, so there’s lots of opportunities to just go and hang out. Yeah, there’s absolutely loads put on. Right, but the question remains is why are you here talking about this? And the reason you’re here talking about this is because you were one of the founders of the whole enterprise.
We’re at year 10 and there’s badges and posters all over the place saying happy birthday. Ten years old. You’re like the father of this along with other mothers and fathers.
[00:13:49] Remkus de Vries: Yes. Yes. So the very first WordCamp I went to was WordCamp Netherlands, and it was also the very first WordCamp I organized. So, what that did is introduced a lot of people from the European continent came to the first WordCamp Netherlands. Through that I got to meet other people that I enjoyed spending time with. One of them was uh, Zé Fontainhas from Portugal. Over the next two years, we found each other at various WordCamps in Europe.
We both quite quick landed on the idea together that, wouldn’t it be great if we would have one event in Europe uniting all of Europe as a community? Because we looked at the United States and they have, at that time they had WordPress San Francisco, which is now moving around and called WordCamp US. So we saw there is no European equivalent of it. Fast forward another year, we were in January 2012. We were with a bunch of friends, we were in what we call WP on tour. We rented an incredibly nice and a very, very interesting villa, ask me later. Yeah, so we introduced the idea to other folks there. We got a lot of excitement about it. And then as it so happens, Zé and I, and some other friends were invited for the inaugural WordPress community summit in 2012, October, where Matt and the representative of WordPress Central was also going to be. So we pitched the idea there.
We had to do some convincing and explaining like, why? Because the rule at the time was you cannot do regional WordCamps. It has to be city-based. Especially this large of a region, Europe sounds like one thing, but it most certainly is not, depending on whichever definition you look up. We eventually got the go ahead, and with, with the slight contingent if I remember correctly, like, we’ll see how it goes, if it works ,out great, and if it doesn’t, you know, we tried. that’s essentially how this whole thing started becoming a thing.
[00:15:42] Nathan Wrigley: Where was the first actual one?
[00:15:46] Remkus de Vries: In Leiden, the Netherlands.
[00:15:47] Nathan Wrigley: Let’s just draw out over those 10 years where we’ve got, but let’s just quickly paint the picture where we are today. WordCamp Europe, 2022. I think correct me if I’m wrong. 2,700 attendees. I don’t know how many volunteers, but many, many hundreds, I think because there are, yeah, there’s t-shirts everywhere. So we’re definitely I would imagine over 3000 people involved. So let’s go back 10 years. What did that look like?
[00:16:16] Remkus de Vries: I think we sold 832 tickets and we had about 780 people actually showing up. So the actual turnout percentage was extremely high, but we were already happy we were past 500. Cause we had no idea where it was going to land. Right, so at the time, we started organizing it, with selling tickets early 2013. And we had kind of an idea of how many we should be able to get in terms of attendees, we didn’t know.
So at that time countries like France had a small but upcoming WordPress community. Spain was very active. The Netherlands, I was quite active. Portugal as well. But, Italy for instance was fragmented. Serbia close to non-existent, and I think you see where I’m going with. The whole goal was for us to unite, to be in the same room, talk to each other, learn about each other and see that we are, we have a common goal.
That was the purpose of working in Europe. But we didn’t know how many people see the same purpose. See the same benefit. So we had initially said, you know, 500, we’re good, we’re good. Nice.
[00:17:24] Nathan Wrigley: So in what ways was it different? The reason I asked that question is because, I’ve only been to two WordCamp Europes. I went to the previous one in Berlin, which was actually now three years ago. Paint a picture of the difference between what it was like in the first one and what it’s like now. And the reason I’m asking that is because here it really, really feels incredibly slick and professional. They both had that feel about them. Was it always thus, or were the first ones a bit more cottage industry? Just tell us what was different.
[00:17:56] Remkus de Vries: I’d like to think that from the experience of those who were attending, it has been a good experience from the early beginning. Having said that there is a lot of room for improvement as we were doing the first one, we quickly realized there was a lot of things we could do better, should do better. All that. But I think the challenge more has been, as we grew, the amount of effort you have to put in is not, in my experience. is not a linear one. It’s more of a, what do you call that in English?
[00:18:27] Nathan Wrigley: Parabola.
[00:18:28] Remkus de Vries: Parabola, there you go. So, as you mentioned, there was a lot of volunteers here because the amount of that is just vastly increased. So Yes, there’s a lot of things that have been much smoother and better taken care of. At the end of WordCamp Europe in Leiden, all of us on the organizing team were absolutely exhausted. Like full on. I’m not saying they’re not exhausted now here, but I’m also telling you it’s quite different to the level of stress that we had that first time, because nobody knew.
Every single person there had organized WordCamps before. So we picked that. Some had less experience or maybe just a meetup type of stuff but everybody had some type of experience. So we leaned on each other mostly. But the size is the quantifier there, that determines how much more you have to do. At every single WordCamp after, I get stopped by people all the time, saying hi, some will say, how much they’ve enjoyed every single one since the first one and all that.
And uh, some will start reminding me of things happened during the first one or the second one, even. I go like, yeah, I don’t know. Cos it’s been a blur. I don’t know how many kilometers I walked that first one, but it’s been a lot just in the venue. Cause I was running back and forth constantly because there’s all these little things we need to take care of in the moment. Now, we know all those things. So we do take care of that before it actually happens. So it’s, you know, it’s most certainly has done way more professional.
Media coverage is one, but, the video recording is another. The captioning. You know, everything we can do to make it better, that has happened continuously. So yes, I think it was quite all right, the first organization. But it’s gotten way better.
[00:20:11] Nathan Wrigley: It really does feel like Google IO or something like that, you know, incredibly professional and incredibly well managed.
[00:20:17] Remkus de Vries: That’s a great compliment.
[00:20:18] Nathan Wrigley: Do you see events like this as, they’re a nice thing to do. You know, you turn up your watch speakers, you hang out and you make friends and all of that kind of stuff. Is it, is it more? Is it more the glue that binds the community together?
[00:20:32] Remkus de Vries: It’s both.
[00:20:32] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, because the reason I’m asking that is because in the last, everybody knows what happened over the last two years. I don’t need to spell it out, but we had a hiatus, a couple of years. Kind of feels to me, as if things went off the rails a bit with the community. Not like it felt a pieces, but it just had to adapt and feels like there’s this collective sigh of relief and almost every conversation that I had in the first day for the first few hours until everybody got out of their system was, oh, it’s so nice to be back.
[00:21:00] Remkus de Vries: Yeah, and it is, it is. I think the glue part is way more important than people thought that it was. You have the same thing happening. So you and I meet over, you know, when I join your podcast, you and I, we do it over a digital connection. It’s a small screen. It shows a part of your body and it has a diminished version of you. And that’s vice versa. So there’s a layer of information I’m not getting.
And I think you can say the same thing for what we’re seeing here. Yes, you can be connected. You can have great relationships online and everything, but the real deal is in real life. That’s where you make the actual connections. As you mentioned before we started the podcast, you said, I can’t believe how big you are. So that’s the thing I keep hearing, right. but you see that in real life. That’s an example of information you don’t get when you look at me, cause you have no idea what my surrounding and what. the proportions is. And that’s such a simple example, but there’s like, I look you straight in the eyes, that’s already different.
You have things you say that you then in real life have time to correct If that wasn’t the intent that you actually had. All of these little things make up what that glue actually exists of so, not having that for two years creates a like a vacuum of things that are not seen, not communicated, not spoken about, not processed.
So, there’ve been companies started from WordCamps. There have been mergers started. There have been friends made there have been marriages come from WordCamps. Everything happens when you’re together,. Uh, which is one of the prime goals that we had. So I know the theme here is the 10th edition. If I’m really honest, it’s not, it’s the eighth.
[00:22:39] Nathan Wrigley: That’s a good point. Ten years separated the first and the last.
[00:22:43] Remkus de Vries: Yeah, So online costs me energy. So I barely, barely put any time and effort into that. In real life, gives me energy. As much energy as it costs. So you’re absorbing information all day. You talk to people all day, which you normally don’t do. You go out, have drinks, have fun, whatever. That costs energy, but the net result is I have energy. I get energized. Maybe that’s the better way. Online sucks the life out of me.
[00:23:11] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, that’s really interesting. And I think, from the core team, the message, I could be misrepresenting this, but I think that the message was that contributions dropped off a bit. People seem to be.
[00:23:24] Remkus de Vries: I’m sure it has. I’m sure it has, but I think that’s, I don’t think that’s necessarily something that’s attributed to not meeting in real life per se. I think that’s more attributed to stuff going on.
[00:23:35] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. Would it be fair to say that during the last couple of years, you’ve sort of stepped away from WordPress a bit? You’ve a little bit less, less fired up about it. And, and are you back, are you back where you were a couple of, three years ago?
[00:23:47] Remkus de Vries: I’m going to quote LL Cool J. LL Cool J said don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years. So I’ve never really left, but I’ve most certainly moved to more lurking, on the side. Life and work was too busy to be as engaged as I was previously.
[00:24:03] Nathan Wrigley: If people want to get involved, they’ve got to commit a long time in advance to being a volunteer or an organizer.
[00:24:11] Remkus de Vries: Not that long.
[00:24:13] Nathan Wrigley: How do they do it? Where do they go? What kind of channels do they need to be visiting?
[00:24:16] Remkus de Vries: So, inside your WordPress dashboard, there’s a little widget and that tells you where there are meetups relative, close to your location. So that’s the first thing to check out. They don’t necessarily need volunteers yet, but it gives you, a, an idea to check out what’s going on.
What are all those people are raving about, right? Why should I even bother going? Once you find one that you like, you’ll start meeting people, and maybe you want to use a WordCamp in, I live in the Netherlands. so maybe you want to use a WordCamp in Germany as a, as a nice excuse to get out. So you go to Germany, maybe from there you go like, hmm, interesting, I kind of want to see this grow further. I want to give this my a devotion and time. Every single WordCamp that is up and coming is on central.wordcamp.org. Check them out. Find one you like and see if they are looking for volunteers.
So maybe the call for volunteers hasn’t gone out yet. Maybe you would even like to speak. Maybe even you’d like to organize. Everything is possible. It’s open. And in some cases you need experienced organizers. In some cases there’s plenty of room for new people to learn. So we always include new people to learn. and that can be you. That can even be you Nathan.
[00:25:26] Nathan Wrigley: Yes, yes. I think I’ve found my niche. Sitting on a chair talking into a microphone.
[00:25:32] Remkus de Vries: But you’re jokingly saying this, but that is actually part of what is contributing. It’s not a predefined thing, like you need to write code or you need to do translations or you need to help this or this or that. It is whatever helps the project. This is helping the project.
[00:25:44] Nathan Wrigley: There are literally hundreds of roles. I’ve been quite surprised by the different things I’ve seen people doing. Obviously there’s people standing, handing out microphones, there’s people, moving boxes. There’s people printing tickets. There’s people showing time. Yeah. You know, there’s people making sure that. Well there’s, yeah, yet, already done it?
[00:26:04] Remkus de Vries: Yeah.
[00:26:05] Nathan Wrigley: How did it go?
[00:26:05] Remkus de Vries: Yesterday morning? I think fine. I forgot a few things, but that was to be expected.
[00:26:09] Nathan Wrigley: Remkus de Vries. Thank you for joining us on the podcast today.
[00:26:12] Remkus de Vries: Happy to have been here.
[00:26:13] Nathan Wrigley: One final question just before we end. 2023, are you going to be there?
[00:26:18] Remkus de Vries: Yeah.
[00:26:19] Nathan Wrigley: Where is it?
[00:26:22] Remkus de Vries: Europe.
[00:26:22] Nathan Wrigley: You know, don’t you?
[00:26:23] Remkus de Vries: I do.
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