Episode #3: Loud Ideas – WordPress Communities & WCEU with Milan Ivanović

Episode 3 of the Loud Ideas podcast

The Loud Ideas podcast is where all ideas are allowed, so we make them loud. In this episode, Tess Coughlan-Allen chats to Milan Ivanović.

Milan lives and breathes WordPress: he’s the WordPress.org global translation editor, WordPress Serbia lead and was one of WordCamp Europe’s lead organisers. Milan was one of the lecturers of the WordPress Academy in Serbia, giving talks and free WordPress Workshops. WordCamp volunteer, speaker, and organiser. Milan is a member of the Theme Review and Community Get Involved Teams. In his spare time, Milan holds WordPress lectures and collects WordCamp T-shirts. He works as a WordPress Developer at Valet.io and you can look him up online with his username: @lanche86.



Tess: Welcome to the Loud Ideas podcast by Mind Doodle. This is the podcast where all ideas are allowed, so we make them loud. This week I’m interviewing Milan Ivanović about WordCamp Europe and growing WordPress communities. 

Tess: Hey and welcome to the Loud Ideas podcast by Mind Doodle. Today I’m joined by Milan, and if you’re in the WordPress space I’m sure you’ll recognise him. He was Global Lead for WordCamp Europe 2019 and then Local Lead the year before that, and has been involved in loads of WordPress related projects for the community. So Milan, would you like to introduce yourself, the company you work for and your role in WordPress?

Milan: Yes, thanks Tess. Milan, I live in Serbia, based in Serbia and I work for Valet, we are a company that cares about your website. I think we just released the speed assessment project, and if you have any questions you can DM me but yeah, I’ve been involved in the community for I think six or seven years now. I’m heavily involved in WordPress, even my phone is, you know, can’t escape it. That’s pretty much it. 

Tess: You’re on brand with the phone. And I am on brand with the water bottle. 

Milan: The things we do for this community right? 

Tess: So you said six or seven years you’ve been in the WordPress community, how did you enter? How did you get brought in? 

Milan: My first WordCamp was actually the first WordCamp Europe. I was living in Norway at the time and Mark and Ryan were telling me about the WordPress community. We didn’t have the community is Serbia at that time, so I moved to Norway a month after they first set up the first WordPress Meetup here in my city, in Belgrade. 

Tess: After you left?

Milan: Yeah after I left. So yeah I was reading about the first Meetup happening in Serbia but living in Norway. I attended the first WordCamp Europe in Leiden, and I was amazed and I was like, “How can I help?” That was the first thing, “How can I help?” and it was like: “Yeah well, now it’s too late for you to volunteer but maybe next year,” and I applied. My first volunteering experience for WordCamp Europe was in 2014 in Sofia. I was registration letters A and B. 

Tess: I love that, that you remember the fine details. 

Milan: Yes that was me, the letters A and B and then on the second day I think they needed some help with the room management. I had no idea what the room management was, but I did track B. Actually Rocio was MC-ing that room and said, “Let me help you, let me give you some details,” you know, “You can help out with the mic,” and a couple of stuff, so I was like, “Oh wow, I actually like this job!” So yeah, I continued volunteering. At the same time I moved back to Serbia in 2014 and continued the work the guys started here with the community. And later we applied and hosted our first WordCamp Belgrade in 2015.

Tess: Yes and we’ll definitely get onto that. Actually for the benefit of some of the listeners who might not be used to the idea of WordCamps, or maybe even WordPress, could you introduce what WordPress is and then the WordPress community and WordCamps as well?

Milan: Well WordPress is much more than just a platform. We use it for building websites, really simple sites people are even using them for one-pagers, to really complicated websites. As a platform it’s heavily used, I think something like 33.4% of the top 10,000 sites run on WordPress. The platform, the community, and it’s easy to start using WordPress. I think that’s the hook that got me back in 2007 when I was just changing a couple of small things and I was like, “Well yeah I could get used to this platform.” Then we have WordCamps which are WordPress-specific conferences and we have official WordPress official Meetups where we just basically just go there and chat. Not necessarily on WordPress but on a lot of stuff. The thing that I like about those meet-ups is that you can ask any questions you have and everyone’s super happy to be there. Like every time I go to some Meetup or conference, if I have something going on with a project, there is always someone who can help. 

Tess: Yeah I’ve noticed this, like you said with local Meetups. I see it at lot at the local Bristol group here in the UK, if someone has a problem with something and they can’t quite break through or if they’re a beginner and they need some kind of intro into some part of WordPress, they just post in the chat before the Meetup. In the intro in the Meetup we say so-and-so “asked about this,” or “wants to talk about this,” and people are just so happy to share their insights and their knowledge and I think that’s a core value of WordPress is this big sharing culture. Whether it’s sharing skills, or helping each other organise these events, or the very core of it which is open source. I totally agree that it’s this open culture and like you say everyone’s happy to chat about any topic which is what makes the WordPress community a bit different. I don’t know if you go to many tech events because you go to a lot of WordCamps you probably don’t have time. 

Milan: I’m running out of weekends!

Tess: Haha, yeah. Well, I used to go to a lot of tech events before I got more involved in the WordPress community and it is a different vibe. There’s a definite sense in a WordCamp that organisers are actively trying to be inviting and welcoming and that’s really special I think. 

Milan: I think in Belgrade, when we started with the Meetups, to bring and organise a WordCamp in your city you have to have regular Meetups which I think makes sense on so many levels. You can test out the crowd, you can test out speakers because I think for a lot of people it’s their first time public speaking experience. So we started organising two or three talks, regularly and making small conferences and Meetups but then we talked and we asked the people, “What do you want? Is this format working for you?” Someone actually suggested that maybe we just want to chat and we realised that, I think my favourite Meetup was one without any speakers where we just chatted and asked people, “What do you do, how do you use WordPress?” People just asked questions, because they weren’t aware of the person sitting next to them, they were afraid to ask questions because they were worried that their questions were too basic or not on that level. Yeah, that’s definitely my favourite Meetup and we do that from time to time, I think every three or four months we just have discussions. I think that’s the power of WordPress and that’s the power of Open Source and that’s the power of sharing.

Tess: Yeah, I’ve been to Meetups a bit like that where it’s been more of a Q&A format, but not quite as chatty as you said which would be interesting, because it’s not networking because networking is for a different purpose but it’s connecting. It’s a bit like WordCamp Europe 2019 which we’ve just co-organised where we introduced the WP Cafe concept which is a casual environment where people could go and chat about a specific topic for an hour or so. And that was really well received and it sounds a lot like what you just said, it’s just an informal chance to have a conversation, and it didn’t matter what sort of question you asked. There was a topic starter who was probably the discussion lead but then after that everyone was just chatting and connecting around that topic in whatever way they want. 

Milan: Yes and it’s always amazing to see where that conversation will go. When we announce a Meetup, we always tell people to ask all the questions and we have a pool of questions but then it kind of goes on from that where one person asks a question and it leads on form there. We can sometimes do that for two hours until we’re like okay no now we need to go. 

Tess: So you mentioned already that in order to move forward to have a WordCamp in Serbia, you need to have regular Meetups. So were you already thinking about WordCamp Europe in the very beginning?

Milan: Actually, when we started with the regular Meetups in 2014, we only had one in 2013. In April in 2014 I got back to Serbia and I had no idea what I was doing at all. Just rent and found a space and the guy I was doing it with said he could bring, I think, 100 people to attend this Meetup, and you can offer them coffee and stuff but we actually had zero budget. So I think we scheduled it for 6pm and 15 minutes before that there was only three of us. Me, my brother and my best friend who I asked to take some photos. And in 10 minutes between 80 and 100 people showed up.

Tess: Wow! Were you nervous?

Milan: Yes! It was probably the first and only time I’ve been nervous organising something, because I had no idea what to expect. So we organised three consecutive after that, April, May and then June. And then Sofia happened and we were just thinking about WordCamp in Belgrade which was in 2015 in April. After that they changed the format because I think WordCamp Europe used to be in Autumn, then they pushed it because it was in Seville in June and we had an amazing meeting about 10 or 15 of us, all of us gathered to see what we needed to do to bring WordCamp Europe to our cities. That was when I saw, I attended that conversation, it was actually Jenny who was thinking about Paris and I was thinking about Belgrade and that was the first time I really thought, you know, what if? But to really hold such a big conference in Serbia we really needed to expand the community, not just in Belgrade but across Serbia. Now we are on 14 or 15 cities with WordPress Meetups. WordCamp Europe and the application definitely helped but you know, I know when another guy from Serbia was there in Seville and I said to him, “You know, I’m really thinking of bringing this to Serbia.” He said, “Buddy you’re crazy. The whole organisation, the city, the crowd, you need so much preparation.” So, officially the application and the preparation started in 2015. Yeah we decided that we want to apply once, but once we are all ready so working about that happened in 2016 and 2017 and WordCamp Europe, we applied and we got it.

Tess: Yeah so you had a lot of responsibility bringing WordCamp Europe to your city, Belgrade. And you were Local Lead, so for anyone that doesn’t know, at least at the moment there’s a Local Lead, then a Global Lead, then a bunch of Team Leads, which could be anything from content to sponsors or communications, then there’s a bunch of organisers that go into each of those teams. So as Local Lead, you are ultimately responsible for everything that happened in terms of being in Belgrade but you were leading a team over there.

Milan: Yeah thinking about it, it seems like a lot of work, right? And it was, it was. I remember when we were working on the application and just explaining to our venue, I went there on a first meeting and said, “Hey, we’re working on this application and we want to hold a 2- or 3 thousand people conference and we’re all volunteers.” They were like, “Wait, wait, hold up. You’re all volunteers?” I said yes and pretty much explained what you just did, explained about the size of the organising team and the volunteer team and the speakers are also volunteering and the guy was like, “Yeah but… why?” So I had to spend the first part explaining why we are doing that and why I want to put in so much time to organise a conference like this. In the end he still didn’t get it but he said that I would explain and he would see as we went along. So yeah, when he actually saw us and the first conference organised by volunteers and it was funny we all had those red shirts on that said Belgrade, all the volunteers, and yeah, they were amazed. It’s a lot of work but it definitely pays off. I mean for 95% of people that were there it was there first time in Serbia, which was amazing. 

Tess: Yeah, that’s another benefit of WordPress, you go to your local Meetup in your local city but there’s opportunities to go to other cities and other countries and see the culture there and what brings you together is WordPress and that community. So yeah, WordCamp Europe is hosted in a different city every year, but if you want, you can pretty much go anywhere and go to a WordCamp. In fact where’s the best or most unexpected place you’ve been to a WordCamp? 

Milan: Off the top of my head it would be Kiev. Yeah I went to Kiev in 2016, I think I was actually a speaker there. When I’m thinking about it, WordCamp Netherlands also happened. But thinking about Kiev, I was there at 8am and everyone was already there, they were just the best crowd asking all the questions, on both days. I think they are applying again and I will definitely go there again. I remember in 2016, you know how people are starting slow in the morning or the second day they’re partying too hard I don’t know, but for 220-240 filled the room both days, for every session with a lot of questions. 

Tess: They were switched on then? 

Milan: Yeah they were very engaged. Sometimes I do that, I will say to not wait for the questions just put your hand up and ask, and they were actually doing that and I was like, “This is amazing this works!” Thinking about it though, the organisers put in a lot of effort, with a tour of Kiev and you know, so I wasn’t surprised, but yes I really enjoyed Kiev. 

Tess: Yeah I think it really makes a difference when the organisers take the time to bring you into their city and make that little bit of effort out of the normal conference context and help you experience the city. And that’s actually what you and your team did a lot with the WordCamp in Belgrade. There was a lot of help for people to understand the city, Belgrade and make the most of it and find the pockets of the city, the trendy parts, and what you can get in each area. That I think helps you enjoy the experience, I think because everyone’s very different. Some people are lone travellers, and some people haven’t travelled much and some people have travelled a lot so giving people that helping hand can do a long way. 

Milan: Oh exactly. I think with WordCamp Europe we’re doing an amazing job. Preparing the content and sharing the information before the event. We had to do that a lot for Belgrade because it was a bigger unknown, you know. I mean this year it was Berlin, I mean it’s Berlin everyone’s heard something about it but for Belgrade we had to do a lot of preparation. One amazing story was in 2016 I was in charge of volunteers and two guys from Nepal flew all the way and that was their first trip in Europe and when we communicated before, they were like, “Hey, this is our first time and if you could help us, just point us in the right direction.” I was their Team Lead so I organised the volunteers and them specifically so I made sure I organised them how they wanted, so I put them both together. So this year I went on a trip to Nepal and they were there just like, “You know you treated us like guests in Vienna, so you know,” they were super welcoming hosting me and Ryan. They took us on amazing trips, took us to their holy land and amazing monuments and lots of local cuisine, you know. That’s a thing that we’re doing, but you know we are changing lives. And then when you see things for a couple of months or years then it pays off. Yeah I’m happy we could share a couple of things and some stuff about Belgrade, was amazing. 

Tess: I’m a very firm believer in whatever you give, eventually you’ll get back, and that’s not a reason to give but it’s a nice benefit and I definitely think the nature of the WordPress community, it’s very open and welcoming and that’s going to benefit us all. Like that example where you hosted people, in Vienna at least, you helped them and they’ve been ready to repay you and you’ve had this amazing experience in Nepal. I think that’s so cool!

Milan: Yeah I think we’re doing this in every conference and in every Meetup, these small things specifically for Belgrade and IT in Serbia where IT is a great way for people to work and escape abroad and just sharing the experience and showing there’s a lot more than this if you’re into WordPress or open source, I’ve had a couple of people attend Meetups and tell me that it’s changed the way they are thinking especially cities outside and people approaching after a couple of Meetups and now they’re taking over and they’re getting involved and going now it’s out turn to give back so yeah I think those small things are really important. 

Tess: So as you mentioned you went from Local Lead in Belgrade to Global Lead for WordPress Europe 2019, which has just happened this year in Berlin in Germany, so what was that transition like going from Local to Global Lead? And how was the experience of Global Lead?

Milan: So that switch makes a lot of sense for someone who was involved in application and having all that work behind the local team organising and bringing everything, there’s just that shared knowledge. But when we talk about Global Lead 2019 and Jenny asked me what my thoughts my first thing was yes I want to do it so let’s just take a second and think about it. It’s a big commitment, financially of course, you’re dedicating a full year of your life emotionally it’s a long process, you are dealing with a lot of stuff starting with the from small things to really big ones like the organising team the number of tracks, the content, the budget, all the logistics and because it’s a long process it takes a lot of courage and a lot of dedication. Why I accepted it? It was totally out of my comfort zone, I was like yes, I want to do this because it’s a little out of my comfort zone and I want to work with remote teams and people and yeah, just that switch to Global Team Lead just happened and when Jenny posted on P2 saying she was nominating me and the responses saying, “yeah,” “yeah,” “yeah,” I was like, “Yeah, so… this is going to be a big thing!” Joking aside, it was an amazing experience I had the pleasure to work with amazing people and yeah I loved it. I enjoyed every second of organising the conference. 

Tess: What would you say were the biggest lessons you learnt and some of the biggest challenges as Global Lead? 

Milan: I think that I learned a lot over the year, just like dealing with stress because this year we had a couple of stressful situations so I learned how to handle that and control it. I also learnt how to control my excitement as well, because in the beginning someone would like, “Oh let’s do this!” and I would be like “Yeah! Let’s do it!” But actually we couldn’t afford it or it wasn’t something I planned or something I wanted, or what other people on the team want. So those are a couple of things and I think the biggest thing I keep repeating is that it’s a long process. So I started as Global Lead in March or April 2018 and there’s still a couple of things I’m handling now, so we’re closing and dealing with the budget and the last bits because the impact that WordCamp Europe as a flagship event is bringing to people can be a little stressful, just a little bit. 

Tess: Absolutely. And for 2020 we’ll learn from some of that as well so we’re having 3 Global Leads which is myself, Bernhard and Jonas. And we’re splitting some of the responsibility so it’s less on one person, so it’s split into pillars that will be communication, budget and logistics. I think that’s probably a lot healthier especially as it’s growing, because we’re not really trying to make it grow as much, as it’s growing organically, because as you said it changes people’s lives and they tell other people they have to go to the event and with more than 3,000 tickets sold you can’t have all that on one Global Lead. Even if it’s shared with the Local Lead and other Team Leads, ultimately that person is the person everyone feels is responsible for all the decisions, even though it doesn’t work that way. So I think, yeah, much healthier for next year to share the responsibility, but yeah, we have big boots to fill for sure! 

Milan: Yeah I think it makes sense because we keep adding things, just like, small things. Like this year there was the WP Cafe, Charity Drop, a third track, all these things keep adding but as you say we’re not forcing it, we’re just growing in attendance and tickets sold. But yeah, it’s a big role and a lot of responsibilities and it doesn’t have to be this way. WordCamp US, they’re also doing the 3 leads, they have a little bit of a different structure, but with 3 leads, when I spoke to Angela in Helsinki it made total sense for Europe to switch to 3 Global Leads because as you said it’s a lot of decisions that you need to make daily and keeping and having all the stuff even though the local team is putting so much and they’re organising all the catering and the big items, there’s only one to hold it, at least until this year. But yeah, you guys will do a great job and I’ve seen you all work together and you’re all different and all amazing as a team, you know, you did an amazing job this year and it’s something that if we want WordCamp Europe to grow we need strong leads and a strong team and a vision and that’s something I see if all you. So Jonas being super strict with all the sponsors and Bernhard holding a lot of things together, you guys will be great this one it will be amazing. I’m not sure it’ll be that big boots to fill but you know. 

Tess: They will be! One thing you haven’t mentioned about being Global Lead actually, and maybe it’s just something that comes naturally to you, but you’ve mentioned the logistics, the budget and overseeing all those sub teams as well, but you are also support system for loads and loads of people, especially the ten Team Leads. So how did that feel to you, being that person that people would come to if they were worried or needed some help? 

Milan: Well I knew it was going to be decisions that are tough to make, especially since all of us are volunteers and we are all friends and I know everyone, maybe I haven’t met them in person but I know everyone on the teams for 2019. I knew there’d be a couple of decisions but I never expected this much. We started officially in August, a bit of a bumpy ride with the organising team, but setting the expectations was the first thing that I did but then overseeing how every team was working, that was the first challenge that I had to deal with, a couple of decisions I had to make in the beginning and overseeing the team and making sure the base of the team. WordCamp Europe we started on September 1st officially, even though we started with the core organising team just after Belgrade. But the good thing is that not all the teams have the same load throughout the year, so you’re team had quite a big load throughout and sponsor had a little setting the floor plans and the design, but community team and volunteers they could easily start working later in the year with calls and stuff. It was a challenging thing but the one thing that I wanted but couldn’t do it because of time commitments was to chat with everyone all the time you know, but our bi-weekly and weekly meetings really helped, just to show out there just to see if they need anything from me then fade to black. I never expected this much but I had the chance to work with an amazing team and you could see that everyone was pretty much happy in Berlin. 

Tess: Oh absolutely. 

Milan: We put a lot of hours but it paid off. 

Tess: Yeah so in 2019 we were really enthusiastic and we came up with loads of new tools and activities, so for example the Contributor Orientation Tool where people could find out how they could best contribute to WordPress using their skills, Wellness and WCEU which was a series of yoga, meditation and mindfulness sessions during the conference, which was a chance to reconnect with yourself away from the event. We mentioned WP Cafe and loads of others. Which one was the one you were most proud to see through to completion with the help of the organising team?

Milan: Well when we started when the Local Team brought up the idea for zero waste for the conference and they were like, “We would really like it,” and the venue is willing to, and zero waste, and we can change things especially with a lot of print outs and stuff. We did that with Belgrade with recycling and recycling stations but then we had some cups and we had some things that we would improve but we didn’t so when they brought in the idea of zero waste we were like, “Yes, let’s do it,” and I think we had a couple of things we could not predict, we spoke about the coffee, we changed the things that were missing in Belgrade like coffee cups and the glasses and we removed a lot of a plastic but there were things we could not remove like the plastic cups on the first day. 

Tess: Yeah so that was for hygiene purposes, it’s tricky. 

Milan: It is tricky. We had some different expectations but still I’m proud of that one. I’m proud of Wellness actually, because I was part of it with you guys in the Comms Team, Abha said, “Do you want to see how it goes and I could see the back rooms?” We all can be proud and the extra content this year, workshops. In Belgrade we had sign ups for Belgrade for workshops that didn’t work. This year, although it’s been challenging for some to wait in a queue and wait for a registration, we thought that was the best thing to do and we will do a survey and we will see what people think of it. Actually a lot of stuff but zero waste is probably on top. And third track, content, maybe.

Tess: On the topic of zero waste and sustainability, one of my favourite things from the conference was in closing remarks you announced that all the banners and signage which were beautiful by the way because the theme was street art and graffiti which is very special to Berlin because of the East side gallery and the Berlin Wall, so all of the art work around the venue and all the printed material, we’re working with another organisation to turn that material into bags so basically it’s all going to be reused, recycled basically, so then people will have the chance to get these beautiful street art WordCamp 2019 bags, which is awesome.

Milan: Yes this year I think we printed 166m so yeah go and see what Nikolai and the local team think about this distributing, but yes it is amazing and it’s introduced this year and we got a big applause so people seemed pretty happy with the idea. 

Tess: Yeah I was watching the crowd to see what they all thought of this idea, and honestly you could see the faces light up and everyone was really really happy and it’s really nice because obviously we had other related ideas like the charity drops where people could bring old t-shirts that they got from old WordCamps to the venue and drop them off and they’d be donated to a charity in Berlin, so there were all these ways related to reusing and recycling even just related to WordCamp specifically, so that’s a really nice way for people to still be involved and get a t-shirt or having banners at a WordCamp but being happy in the knowledge that there can be some more sustainable outcomes. 

Milan: Just these small details and small changes every year that we are introducing, and we are testing and experimenting but we are relying on feedback and other members of the organising team, so yeah, we’ll see.

Tess: Big thank you to Milan for such an interesting interview. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you did you can like, subscribe and listen again next week. This is the Loud Ideas podcast by Mind Doodle.

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