This post turned out to be a long one. Fill your WCEU2022 Flaske bottle or favourite cup with your preferred refreshment and sit back.
To whom didn’t already know, I mentored the WordCamp Europe 2022 in Porto, Portugal which ended just a few days ago. WordCamps are informal, community-organized events that are put together by volunteer organisers that are fellow WordPress users from our community. WordCamp Europe is something that we call a flagship event; a big conference spanning 2-3 days that gather attendees who represent a broad geographical area. Currently, our community has three flagship events: Europe, US and Asia.
What is a WordCamp mentor?
Mentors are a bunch of volunteer contributors that have experience being WordCamp organisers themselves. They want to help other organisers to have a great time planning their event, and make it easier to organize and better for attendees. They try to help organizers avoid problems before those become problems. Mentors check in regularly with their WordCamp(s), share their knowledge with the organising team and advise on procedures.
How does one become a mentor?
First, you need to organise a WordCamp. Then organise a second one. And a third one. At some point, someone from the Community team, an existing mentor or a team deputy, can ask if you’d be interested in becoming a mentor. One can also apply themselves if they think they have experience and knowledge to share with others.
How did I become a mentor?
A short while after being asked to become a Community Deputy in 2018, I was also asked whether I’d like to mentor a WordCamp. Of course, I did. Note that you don’t need to be a deputy to mentor a WordCamp – it’s also possible to be only a WordCamp mentor.
Haven’t counted, but during the years I’ve helped a number of WordCamp organising teams around the world. From smaller events to bit bigger ones. From teams that are organising their first event, to teams that know their stuff.
How did I become a WCEU mentor?
A few months before WCEU 2021 Online, in late April 2021 Rocìo Valdivia, who is a fellow Community Deputy, contacted me asking if we could have a one-on-one meeting. Sure. We had worked almost on a weekly basis for so long, that I didn’t think much of it.
At that meeting, Rocìo pitched the idea of me becoming a WordCamp Europe mentor alongside her.
Before this, someone from the group of fully-sponsored Community Deputies had been a mentor each year. This would be the first time someone who isn’t fully sponsored towards Community Team work, would be helping a flagship event as a mentor.
Rocìo convinced me that I’d know enough about organising WordCamps and have been contributing to Community Team so much and in integral ways, that I’d be a good fit. And Rocìo would be on my side, working with me at all times during our fellow mentorship.
After not so long period of pondering the offer, I decided to take it. And that’s how I started over a year-long journey of being a flagship WordCamp mentor.
Flagship mentorship is different
The scale of the event can’t be even compared to normal WordCamp.
Planning and organising a flagship event takes over a year from global leads and mentors’ time. The budget is way bigger than normal WordCamp would ever have. The organising team is structured to have global leads, team leads and team members – totalling just shy of 100 organisers. The number of speakers, sponsors, volunteers, attendees… something beyond imaginable if you aren’t part of it. Number of vendors, things to think about and take into account, different cultures and personalities coming together for three days… the scale is humongous.
On the flagships scale, it’s obvious that mentors simply cannot know each team member or keep track of everything the team is planning. On the other hand, many organisers are already seasoned WordCamp organisers and have previous flagship organising experience. So mentors can trust them to know what they are doing more than with a typical WordCamp team. Of course each year there are plenty of new organisers, who usually do really well.
Flagship mentorship is hard
Not going to deny it.
Flagship WordCamp leads do face challenges and situations they haven’t faced before. In the end, they are just like everyone else in the WordPress community – volunteers coming from various backgrounds. They just happen to contribute a significant amount of their time to pull the event together.
As a flagship mentor, you’ll definitely get your share of those challenges and situations. As a mentor, you are the one that is supposed to help and support the team with those.
What I learnt a hard way is that even if you are a mentor, you just simply can’t always know the right answer or course of action. Global leads are a bunch of highly intelligent individuals on many levels, that actually do know some things better than you. Mentor’s role is to accept that, be open about it and support the teams’ decisions and back them up in tight situations.
Of course, sometimes the mentor’s role is to be the person that challenges the team. Asks questions that others didn’t think of. Ground them back to what is most important. Pinpoint things that are against the expectations and guidelines of the WordPress events program.
You will make mistakes and learn a lot
I made plenty. Some were minor. Some were bigger. Some caused extra stress and work for the organising team. Won’t go into details about what mistakes I made, because in the end that does not matter. What matters is that we worked collectively our way out of the potholes I dug and attendees had a great experience at the event.
Each mistake made was a personal growth experience for me. To list a few things that I learned from mentoring flagship WordCamp:
Always explain why something is not okay and is against the expectations or guidelines. And in-depth. Not in too long format, but in-depth in a way that your message does not come out just as a “can’t do that because we have these guidelines here.”
Always, always, try to find solutions. When you need to speak up and share that something is not okay, don’t just state it with reasoning. Always provide a path forward. Discussion starter for the team to find alternative solutions. Actively help them to find that solution.
Speak with the leads and let them relay the message. You probably have more close relationship with the leads than other organisers. That allows you to speak with the global leads and team leads more freely, as you already know each other and ways of communication. Let the leads relay the message to their team, as they speak the same language as their team.
Devil is in the details. You have, or at least should have, more time than organisers and you are looking at things from a little further than them. Try to think about what details they might have missed? what you usually missed? what hasn’t been discussed enough? anything you don’t see happening at all? Don’t be shy of asking silly questions.
Help the team out whenever you can. Even with small things that someone else could do, but haven’t yet reacted to. Need a new person added to Slack? Help with vetting a few sponsors or speakers? Tight negotiations taking place? Something that needs to be done, but no one just does not have time right now? Paper cup refill needed at some water dispenser? Crowd management at swag station? Just do it.
Create a good bond with (lead) organisers. That will help a lot, especially when going further and closer to the event when everyone’s workload is more immense. As a Finn and a personality that does not mingle that much, especially about things that aren’t tightly related to what you’re doing with the person, this probably was the hardest part for me. But mingling and creating those bonds, especially with leads, is really important.
Admit that you don’t know everything and seek help. Everyone learns new things. Everyone has been in a position where they didn’t know what to do. Don’t be afraid of admitting it and asking others, how they’ve managed similar things or having open discussions where you figure out things together.
Ask questions instead of throwing opinions around. What do you want to accomplish? How you would like me to help? How that will work? What are the next steps? How about situation X? What happened? How are you doing? Open questions will reveal more than you’d imagine, show that you care and are interested and most importantly help the organisers to stop for a while whilst drafting the answer.
There’s no need to report every detail or thing at all. Sometimes you face a challenge or situation that is so minor, that it’s easily taken care of. Unless it affects someone’s mental or physical health, changes plan that others rely on or might affect future plans – there’s the possibility that you don’t need to make everyone aware. Oversharing things do cause overhead and unnecessary stress for others, about things that they probably don’t need to worry about that much.
You will work a lot
Mentoring a “typical” WordCamp is usually far easier and not that time-consuming. With flagships the situation is different.
You’ll attend weekly global leads meetings. Have almost weekly at least some todo-items as every organising team member has. You are going to be on organising teams Slack and most certainly will receive questions and things to act on, sometimes multiple times a week.
And in case the team faces troubles, especially urgent ones like social media crisis, you’ll switch focus from whatever you’re doing to supporting the team in every way possible.
Many of the things you end up doing do happen in the background. Not always visible even to (all of) the organisers. If you are mentoring for getting the glory, then consider mentoring again. How I see mentoring, is that our role is to be the grey matter in backgrounds and help the team to do their best so they get the deserved glory after all their hard work.
I’m lucky in a way, because my time mentoring WordCamp Europe was partially sponsored by our digital agency Digitoimisto Dude. My co-owners were also extremely supportive and didn’t question the time commitment, even though it was quite much for a company of our size. Nevertheless, roughly half of my time used towards WCEU was still contributed on a volunteer basis.
Flagship mentorship is rewarding
The biggest reward for me was seeing the event coming together, attendees having a good time and organisers being proud of what they accomplished. Let me remind you, organisers were working on a voluntary basis. This year they brought together over 2300 attendees and 160 volunteers. Hosted 70 speakers and 65 sponsors. Pulled together the largest Contributor Day in history with 800 attendees.
As said, during the process of mentoring the event, I learned many new things. Things that you wouldn’t learn in typical digital agency work, but are more than valuable when dealing with clients, employees, things in NGO’s or life in general.
The warmth of the WordPress community. Everyone’s passion for creating the best possible event. All the discussions. Sharings of life changes. Seeing the personal growth of organisers who might have hesitated when they started. The creativity and ability to solve problems.
After a year of working together tightly with the team, I do consider many of the organisers as my friends. WordCamp Europe is truly one big family.
I’d like to send the warmest hugs and thank yous to every organiser that worked passionately towards making the first flagship after two years happen.
Especially global leads Bernhard, Moncho, Lesley and Taeke – I’m so grateful for everything I’ve learned from working with you. Local lead José – what a true passion and dedication whilst being so modest! Also thank you to my co-mentors Angela and Rocío – both were always there to help me help others and provided unwavering support.
Next year global leads Evangelia, José, Sjoerd and local lead Takis have started their work to prepare the yearly highlight for the European WordPress community yet again. And so have I continued to mentor the event.
One big WordCamp Europe family is always open and welcomes all new members to join the team! If you’d like to be part of the organising team – the Call for Organisers is open right now!
See you in Athens at WordCamp Europe 2023!