[Edit, Friday 2012-08-17: I am in the process of writing a followup apologizing for most of this post, which should be posted later today or tomorrow (Saturday 2012-08-18). As I will further elaborate on in that followup post, most of the value in this post, as originally written, are the examples of what not to do when writing a post of this type, and there are portions of it that I am not apologizing for.]
This is one of the more difficult posts I’ve written for any of my blogs. The circumstances leading up to this blog post are unfortunate, and I acknowledge there are people in the community who would prefer I not post this. However, I believe sunlight is the best disinfectant and given what I think might be going on here, I believe the more people know about it, the better it will be for our community as a whole. Yes, there are parts of this I hope I’m wrong about, but the “ostrich defense” is not going to fix any of it.
A very small part of this duplicates my recap on Quinn’s Big City, but most of it is new. Specifically, there are a lot of things that have come to light since and which are much more relevant in the light of WordCamp Houston 2012 being on the horizon. I have a lot to cover which simply cannot be done in a short post.
It is my hope that those of you who read this do not simply dismiss it due to length alone. Originally, I wasn’t going to do this, but if you really want your “TL;DR”, the most serious problem is in regards to a scholarship fund which still has yet to be awarded. You can skip ahead to that if you want.
(Theoretically, I could do this in a video, but I’d still be reading from a script and would have to type out all of this for it to be indexed by the search engines anyway.)
In late 2009 I applied to WordCamp Central to be the lead organizer for Houston’s first WordCamp. Weeks went by without a response and I discovered to my horror that the WordCamp had been awarded to others in the community: Monica Danna, Chris Valdez, Chris Everson, and Katie Laird. Now, I would have much less of an issue with this if we, the community, got out of it an event of equal or higher quality than what the original organizers (that’s me and my team) could have put together. The issue is much, much more complex than that, however.
I would later learn that the venue chosen for WordCamp Houston was the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and as far as I am aware this was the first choice offered to the organizers which they accepted without looking at other alternatives.
As soon as tickets went on sale on a Monday and were completely sold out by Friday of the same week, I knew there were problems. I’ll address these in more detail later.
I believe a competent and situation-aware event organizer would have recognized the pent-up demand for a WordCamp in Houston and would have tried harder to find a venue to match. Based on this, the conclusion of this is that Ms. Danna was neither competent nor situation-aware. Am I grateful to HMNS’s offer to host WordCamp Houston? Yes. Was pouncing on the first offer of a venue like a wound-up kitten the best thing for the organizers to do, without looking for better alternatives? Not necessarily.
In the interim, I was blocked from following the Twitter account for WordCamp Houston for no reason related to the event itself. My first inquiry about this was fake-bounced from the two email addresses of Chris Valdez that I sent the inquiry to (I confirmed these were fake bounces by emailing known non-existent addresses at both domains). This in and of itself is conduct unbecoming of a community leader. Later messages were met with no response for over two months, after which Mr. Valdez (the contact given to me by Maya Desai at WordCamp Central) told me to quit asking and that my emails would be filtered to his spam folder. I suspect it was Ms. Danna who was operating the Twitter account, who as a public relations professional should know better than to make such arbitrary decisions on blocking Twitter followers and Facebook fans. In absence of evidence to the contrary, I condemn Ms. Danna for poor public relations and social media practice especially given she has held herself out as a professional public relations and social media consultant.
I had nearly written off any hope of being allowed to attend until I heard from Jessica Hampson who had joined the team as volunteer coordinator. By this point I was really starting to suspect the worst of the organizers, so I made it a point to check the volunteer list multiple times per week (not always daily, but at least every other day) for any changes; outside of being signed up for two shifts and being scratched from one, there were none. (The lack of clarity that each volunteer should only sign up for one shift was Jessica’s only real mistake, and it’s a minor one, a far cry from the blunders I’ve mentioned above and below. Overall, Jessica did a great job as volunteer coordinator.)
There was a volunteer meeting for WordCamp Houston 2010 on Wednesday, 2010 August 4, where we were informed by lead organizer Monica Danna that “we are actually over capacity.” (If I screwed up the exact quote here I apologize, but I specifically remember Ms. Danna saying words to this effect.) Now, even those without specific knowledge of event planning should know that events and venues don’t magically overticket or oversell themselves. It is the responsibility of an event organizer–in this case, Ms. Danna–to know the event’s capacity limit before one starts issuing tickets, and then not go over that limit when issuing tickets. Capacity planning (at least for ticketed and RSVP-required events) is not much more than basic grade school math, something you really don’t even need an event planning background to get right.
The four classrooms in the museum basement that were used for the breakout sessions had a combined nominal capacity in the 150 to 170 range for this type of event (only the keynote was in the IMAX theatre, the breakout sessions were in the basement). Considering that some tracks would be much more popular than others (from what I remember, the blogger track sessions easily overflowed even a classroom with 50-60 capacity), the actual number of tickets should have been more like, say, 125 to 140. (Strangely I remember overhearing something like “over 200” or “around 200” tickets were sold, but I don’t remember from who or where.)
I do remember that WordCamp Houston 2010 was originally planned as a three-track event, and the fourth track was only added later due to capacity issues.
An aggravating circumstance is that Ms. Danna had prior event planning experience and held herself out as a professional event planner for at least a year or so prior to WordCamp Houston 2010. A rookie event planner, I can understand doing this, but I still would not excuse it. Ms. Danna is quite emphatically not a rookie event planner, and so had absolutely no excuse for gross negligence such as overselling the venue. This was something that could have potentially gotten the entire event shut down early and a huge fine from the fire marshal had someone been upset enough. At the very least, overselling/overticketing was a poor way to thank the HMNS staff for stepping up to host the event, as to a certain extent it makes the museum look bad as well.
Fast forward to Saturday, 2010 August 7; if there is any doubt as to whether or not the event really was over capacity, I point you to Judy King’s blog entry (emphasis added):
After that I wanted to sit in on one of the “Blogger Track” sessions, but the room was overflowing with people, so I thought if I was going to have to spend an hour on my feet, I would go see the Archaeopteryx fossil that was on exhibit only for another month (and was the other reason for me to be there in the first place).
Add to this, a picture at the top of HMNS’s own blog entry in which several people standing up during a session are clearly visible. (Standing people means not enough seats, thus over capacity.)
And then there was Ms. Danna’s introduction speech prior to the keynote. At this point I will add that at the time of this event, Ms. Danna had on her portfolio references to public speaking on a professional level. However, this speech was anything but professional. For instance, take the count of “um” and “uh” utterances. Ms. Danna spoke for five minutes, fifty-five seconds (5:55) prior to Dwight Silverman’s introduction speech, and my verbatim transcript of that speech reveals 52 “um” and “uh” utterances, for an average of nearly nine such utterances per minute. Keep in mind this is a speech being broadcast live over the Internet, which is representing the entire Houston WordPress community to those watching from outside the area. Also, nobody knew it at the time, but it would be the only video from WordCamp Houston 2010 made available (a point which I will address later).
By contrast, Dwight’s speech, which ran four minutes twelve seconds (4:12), contained only 26 such utterances, which comes out to an average of a little over six per minute. I will admit, at first blush this may not seem like it’s a whole lot better, but Dwight is primarily a print journalist and to my knowledge has never held himself out to be a professional public speaker (the weekly Technology Bytes show on KPFT, the only radio work of his that I’m aware of, is widely known to be a volunteer effort), so it’s only fair to cut him a bit more slack.
(I have not yet fully transcribed Matt’s speech, however, from what I remember there were far fewer “um” and “uh” utterances from Matt. The time I would have spent finishing my transcription went instead to doing research related to other organizer mistakes; read on.)
If you want to watch the keynote to verify some of this for yourself, you can do so at the recording on the Ustream channel for WordCamp Houston. In the event the video goes missing it’s also available for download via BitTorrent (magnet link or torrent file, 250.4 MiB).
Shortly before the lunch break, I changed my mind regarding the breakout sessions I was going to attend based on the assumption I would be able to catch the ones I missed later from video being taken. I made this decision due in part to some breakout session rooms being more crowded than others. I would later find out this was a mistake. (I’ll get back to this later.)
After the lunch break, I attended a breakout session presented by Chris Everson, one of the organizers. Mr. Everson should have been well aware of how long he had to make his presentation. To make a long story short, he went almost 10 minutes over the end of the session, cheating us out of part of what was supposed to be a 20-minute break. It appeared that Mr. Everson had enough material to go on for at least another 10 minutes after he cut it short. Another gaffe by the organizing team. (This was previously mentioned in the Quinn’s Big City recap.)
As mentioned in the aforelinked recap on Quinn’s Big City, the choice of Caroline Collective for the afterparty was also dubious, but probably made necessary by the lack of choices near HMNS. The air conditioning there simply isn’t enough to handle that quantity of people (not sure if we ever got a count, but I remember there being about 70-80 people at least). During the fall, winter, or spring months (October through April, give or take a couple weeks) this wouldn’t be a big deal. But in August in the afternoon? It’s hot enough already, and going outside for relief from the heat inside is a doomed strategy when it’s no cooler outside than inside.
One more thing I’m going to mention before I get into post-event handling of the scholarship fund. Katie Laird was one of the organizers of this event as mentioned above. Note that WordCamp is a WordPress-related event. At the time of the event, however, Ms. Laird had this on her own personal blog, happykatie.com:
(Cropped; full frame available on request.)
In case the text is a bit hard to make out:
Blog powered by Typepad – Member since 07/2003
Yes, an advertisement of seven years of loyalty to TypePad (at the time of WordCamp Houston 2010), one of the main competitors to WordPress. Ms. Laird’s site continued to show this for months after WordCamp Houston 2010, and though I have no pictures of this from closer to the time of the event, it was like this in the months before and leading up to the day of the event as well as after. I can only imagine what people outside of Houston, looking up background info on organizers representing our community, thought to themselves when they saw this. However, I imagine a WordCamp Houston organizer prominently advertising loyalty to a competing blog platform certainly did not make Houston, Texas, USA, look very good to the rest of the international WordPress community.
(There may have been other WordPress sites that Ms. Laird was in charge of either in whole or in part, however, I believe the site most associated with her would be happykatie.com. Today, of course, happykatie.com is running WordPress, but the picture shows this was not always the case.)
Can I receive or nominate my favorite college student for a scholarship?
Totally! Stay tuned to the WordCamp Houston blog (which you are looking at right now, you smart thing you) and we’ll be announcing how to submit your favorite student WordPress user and lover.
So I kept checking back over the months, waiting for news. And checking back, and waiting, and checking back, and waiting. And on 2011 October 22, instead of seeing the WordCamp Houston website, I was instead greeted with this:
For those that cannot read the text:
Reported Attack Page!
This web page at www.wordcamphouston.com has been reported as an attack page and has been blocked based on your security preferences.
(This is the standard Mozilla Firefox attack page warning, for those who have never seen it before. Or, at least it was as of the version of Firefox I was using at the time.)
Previous to this, I had noted that forums set up on wordcamphouston.com had been overrun with all kinds of spam, installed and simply forgotten by Mr. Valdez, the maintainer of the website. The security breach issue existed at least as far back as 2011 October, but were not corrected until 2012 February.
(Why so long? Two reasons: February was the first opportunity I had to talk to a third party about bring the security issues to the attention of Mr. Valdez, and I had been told some months prior that Mr. Valdez would be spam filtering my emails. Note to the community: when you tell me you don’t want to talk to me, my response is “as you wish.” That’s “as you wish” even if I know your website has been hacked and you–and possibly your friends who helped run a community event with you–now look like a real dummy (or bunch of real dummies, as the case may be). Also, breaking off contact with me usually means I will typically no longer act to protect your interests (exceptions would include if I am either required to do so by law, or the damage to my own interests would be too great otherwise) even if it would not require corresponding with you directly. I had absolutely no reason to go out of my way to mitigate the damage to the reputation of the WordCamp Houston 2010 organizers, given I was still blocked from the Twitter account and I should have been given the chance to organize the event, not be just a quickly-forgotten and possibly underappreciated volunteer.)
So, after the exorcism of whatever security issues there were, another month goes by before the announcement of WordCamp Houston 2012. Three more months go by and not a peep has been said about the scholarship fund. I sent an email on 2012 March 15, then another on 2012 June 11 (yes, in hindsight I regret taking this long to follow up), and then finally another on 2012 June 24 which was replied to as follows, from an email account labeled simply email@example.com with “Admin @ WordCamp Houston” in the name field:
Thanks for your inquiry, please look for information to be announced regarding the scholarship later this year.
The webcast video is the only video that has been made available due to technical issues the day of the event.
That’s it. No real name was signed to this message. I asked for the actual name of who wrote this message, and have received no reply to date. However, looking at the IP address in the header and doing some simple research combined with other things I know leads me to believe it was almost certainly Mr. Valdez.
I want to make this clear, right here, and right now:
In the absence of another organizer claiming responsibility for sending the email reply I quoted above, I condemn Mr. Valdez for the poor public relations judgment he exhibited in sending this message and not signing it with his real name.
Also, to the organizing team as a group:
After leaving us waiting for nearly two years, an email not signed with a real name, firmly committing to starting the scholarship award process no earlier than the last week of 2012 December (the last dates that qualify as “later this year”), is laughable. The complete disregard for the excessive time that has already passed, and the lack of concern for the dwindling value of the money in the scholarship fund, is egregious, despicable, horrendous, and absolutely, positively unacceptable. You (Chris Valdez, Monica Danna, Katie Laird, and Chris Everson) accepted responsibility for awarding the scholarship money in a timely fashion and respecting its time value by collecting that money. If you did not want this responsibility, you should not have collected money for a scholarship, and quite possibly, should also not have organized WordCamp Houston 2010 at all.
The missing video is another example of the manner in which this event was organized and executed. Remember how I said I was hoping to catch some of the sessions I missed on video after the conference was over? I trusted the organizers to at least operate a video camera correctly. The video I am speaking of came from four Flip video cameras on loan to the organizers (I forget who loaned them). These are the video cameras designed specifically for non-technical people, the ones that see electronic gadgets (like computers and video cameras) just like other appliances like a TV or refrigerator. These are the rather infamous video cameras that you cannot just swap SD cards when you run out of space because there is no SD slot, they only have internal memory. These are sold as, forgive the term, idiot-proof video cameras, designed for idiots who just want to take vacation movies. I have the feeling these “technical problems” were the video camera equivalent of “PEBKAC” (“problem exists between keyboard and chair”, i.e., human error). [Update 2013-03-12: Please see part 1 of the follow-up/wrap-up post for the details behind this partial retraction.]
To say that I’m concerned is an understatement. Almost two years after WordCamp Houston 2010, the only response I’ve gotten from the organizers on when the scholarship will be awarded took three emails. This is not something that I should have had to practically go on a wild goose chase to find out, only to get a reply which indicates on its face that whichever organizer saw my email is taking almost no responsibility for the as-yet-unawarded scholarship money, and would just as soon I go away and forget that “over $3,000” was “raised … for a local area high school student to apply to a college and a computer science program.” (as quoted from Ms. Danna’s speech in the video)
So, what’s this about the dwindling value of the money in the scholarship fund? Inflation; college tuition rates increase yearly, and rarely decrease if ever, even at the community college level.
For the moment I’m going to assume exactly $3,500 is in the fund, in the absence of an actual total. According to this article on finaid.org college tuition inflation has been averaging about twice that of the consumer price index (CPI). So, taking $3,500 in 2010 September and adjusting it for the inflation of college tuition (because this is a college scholarship) it would be worth only $3,190.57 in college tuition today, for a loss of $309.43 in value if no interest has been accruing on the money. As an example, that’s almost two credit hours of tuition at Houston Community College System’s current out of state rate ($155.80), or around 4½ credit hours of tuition at their current in-district rate ($67.30). To bring the $3,500 in the fund up to the same value it would have had if it had been awarded in a timely value in 2010, an additional $337.68 (new total of $3,837.68) would need to be deposited into the fund to adjust for the increasing cost of college tuition. Once I learn the exact amount I can redo the calculation and get the actual numbers but I don’t expect the numbers to change by that much. My numbers may be off a bit here, but I estimate the total loss in value of the scholarship fund to likely be in the $250 to $400 range due to the delay.
Another burning question: Who actually has control of the scholarship money? Of the organizing team, who is the treasurer? (Note I’m saying “is”, not “was”, because there’s still money to be accounted for until the scholarship is actually awarded.) An email requesting an answer to this question has so far gone ignored; in this same email also asked how much interest has been earned on the money in the scholarship fund, and the date by which the organizers intend to award the scholarship.
I really would like to see (actually, would like to see made available to the community) a full paper trail of where the scholarship money has been, going back to 2010 August. I believe if Mr. Valdez, Ms. Danna, Ms. Laird, and Mr. Everson are honest people, they should have no issue with this. However, everything I have seen gives me no confidence this is the case.
Anyway, since the organizers so far even refuse to accept responsibility for letting the community know what is going on with the scholarship, I’m doing that part for them. It’s bad enough that the student that should have gotten that scholarship is probably already in his/her sophomore year of college (or worse, may not even have taken any college classes to date for financial reasons).
My proposal for some of the things that need to be done to make this right going forward:
- The immediate dismissal of Chris Valdez as Houston WordPress Meetup co-organizer;
- The immediate dismissal and disqualification of Chris Valdez, Monica Danna, Katie Laird, and Chris Everson from any and all organizer and leadership positions in either the Houston WordPress Meetup or WordCamp Houston indefinitely, to be reviewed by the community no sooner than 2014 August 1;
- A public apology to the community by Mr. Valdez, Ms. Danna, Ms. Laird, and Mr. Everson for the poor handling of the scholarship fund and the security issues regarding the wordcamphouston.com website in 2011 October through 2012 February, and a commitment from the aforementioned organizers to be honest, transparent, and ethical for the remainder of the discharge of their remaining duty as WordCamp Houston 2010 Organizers, awarding the scholarship in a timely fashion;
- An announcement to the community by the treasurer of the exact current total of the scholarship fund, the total of the scholarship fund as of 2010 August, the amount of interest earned on the scholarship fund during the delay, and the name of the treasurer in charge of the scholarship fund;
- Adherence to the following deadlines regarding the scholarship:
- Call for nominations of scholarship recipient candidate(s) no later than Friday, 2012 August 10 at 17:00 (5 pm) Central Daylight Time;
- Close of the nomination period no later than Sunday, 2012 October 21 at 23:00 (11 pm) Central Daylight Time;
- Selection of the scholarship recipient(s) no later than Friday, 2012 November 2 at 23:00 (11 pm) Central Standard time and announced no later than Saturday, 2012 November 3 at 18:00 (6 pm) Central Standard Time;
- Actual receipt of the scholarship money by the chosen recipient(s) (i.e. “check in hand”) on or before the earliest of Monday, 2012 November 12; fifteen (15) business days before the 2013 Spring semester registration deadline of Houston Community College System; fifteen (15) business days before the 2013 Spring semester registration deadline of Lone Star College System, at 12:00 (noon) Central Standard Time;
- Restitution of the loss of value of the scholarship fund due to college tuition inflation from 2010 September 1 through 2012 September 1 to be made prior to the awarding of the scholarship, in the amount of 10% (ten percent) of the total of the scholarship fund as of 2010 September 1, plus percentages to be determined of any deposits made to the scholarship fund since 2010 September 1, minus interest accrued between 2010 September 1 and 2012 September 1; and
- Periodic, but no less often than monthly, reports to the community on the status of the scholarship fund, until the award is made.
Also, it would be nice if we as a community could agree going forward that funds raised for a scholarship or charitable endeavor be forwarded to the recipient without excessive and undue delay.
In closing, I think I should recognize and thank (in some cases, re-recognize and re-thank) some of the people involved with WordCamp Houston 2010. First off, thanks to Matt Mullenweg, not just for coming back to Houston and giving a great keynote, but for forking WordPress from b2/cafelog back in 2003 May and making it into the “gold standard” by which other blogging software is judged. I have no clue how I made the blockhead move of not thanking Matt in as many words in my original recap on Quinn’s Big City, but I did. Thanks to Judy King, not only for being one of the friendliest people I have met at an event of this type in recent memory, but for a great blog recap of your experience. Thanks to Jessica Hampson for doing overall a great job as a volunteer coordinator, and dare I say it, Jessica was the only member of the 2010 organizing team who I can confidently say “had her act together” for the event. Thanks to the rest of the volunteers (I don’t have a complete list, or I’d name them all), you deserved better than what you got for being willing to step up. Thanks to the HMNS staff, Erin Blatzer, Mark Belcher, Ivan Perez, and anyone else I don’t know the names of that was working on Saturday 2010 August 7 who helped with the event in any way. Thanks to everyone who contributed to the scholarship fund which is (hopefully) sitting in a bank account somewhere earning some interest to offset inflation of college tuition; your heart was in the right place even if the organizers have shown in the nearly two years since they don’t know what the hell they are doing or how to award a scholarship in a timely fashion, and you deserve better than to have your contribution unappreciated by the actions of those responsible for the scholarship fund.
Finally, thanks to everyone else who showed up, who by their presence wanted WordCamp Houston 2010 to be a success. Hopefully, one of the organizers of the next WordCamp Houston (2012 or maybe 2013) will be yours truly, who believes Houston deserves better and is willing to help make sure Houston gets better. I do want to help organize the next WordCamp Houston, just like I originally wanted to organize WordCamp Houston 2010. I want to fix as much of this as can be fixed going forward. In the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I don’t want the mistakes of 2010 to be repeated, so I am documenting what I know of them here so they are hopefully not repeated.
I will possibly be making another post about this suggesting further how some of these gaffes, particularly regarding the scholarship fund and the capacity issues, should have been handled. That follow-up post will be made in about a week.