Hundreds of people sitting in an auditorium behind a sign that reads "#WCAsia".

WordCamp Asia’s ambition to go beyond regular WordCamps: Q&A with organizer Jon Ang

WordCamp Asia organizer Jon Ang speaks about programming for this year’s event, why organizers are marketing to non-WordPress people, and how diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging have been deeply embedded into every stage of the event.

In 2019, Jon Ang, Human Made’s Director of Sales, wrote the original proposal to get WordCamp Asia up and running. Five years and a global pandemic later, he’s gearing up for the flagship event’s second annual conference in Taipei, Taiwan, next week. More than 2000 people have bought tickets to the two-day event plus Contributor Day, which kicks off on March 7. The organizing team has locked in some big names as part of its invited speaker program, including best-selling author and blogger, Tim Ferriss, and OSS Capital founder Joseph Jacks.

We spoke with Jon about why the WordCamp organizing team is building relationships with open source organizations beyond WordPress and how the event is differentiating itself from WordCamp Europe and WordCamp US.

Question: What was the organizing team’s vision for this year’s event? And has there been pressure to top last year’s successful debut?

Jon Ang: I think there’s always pressure. There’s the Asian part of us that wants to be better every year! I think the vision hasn’t really changed. We started WordCamp Asia with the belief that we want to bring the best speakers to Asia. We want to grow the community by delivering a top-tier event. We want Asian people to see and connect with the best WordPress people in the world. Not everyone has money to fly to WordCamp US or WordCamp Europe. I have the good fortune of working with a good company and being able to travel to these flagship events. But I also know many community members who can’t. So really, what we want to do is bring those great speakers to Asia so that Asian people don’t have to feel like they have to spend a fortune to learn and network.

Q: From the outside, the event seems so organized – a well-oiled machine. How many people are on the organizing team and how many countries are represented?

JA: It’s always going to look like a well-oiled from the outside! In 2023 when we ran the event, on the backend we saw issue after issue. Whereas on the front-end, we kept getting praise, people saying, “it’s great, there are no issues at all.” I think the same way when I look at WordCamp US and WordCamp Europe. I feel like they are such well-run events.

Our team is hovering around the 40+ mark. It grows and shrinks depending on what’s happening in people’s lives. Our team is spread all across Asia and at last count represented 17 countries.

Q: Some big names have been announced as part of the invited speaker program. How did the organizing team choose who to invite? What was that process?

JA: We had a vision, and the vision was simple: If we always invite the same old WordCamp speakers, they’re going to be great but we’re not going to grow the pie. We would be working with 43% of the pie and I want to go beyond 43%. And so, the view was how can we invite people who are adjacent to WordPress? Maybe they’re in the web space, maybe they are bloggers, maybe they understand how digital marketing works, and so on. We thought, using the same openness and inclusiveness of WordPress, who in this specific space could we invite? We started plotting a few names we were interested in inviting. We also had a form allowing people to send in names they were interested in. So that was basically what we did. It was an open structure trying to invite people that we thought would be a good fit. We wanted to invite speakers who understand the open source space. We want someone that has been somewhat involved in that area and then we want that person to be talking about a topic that is not specific about what WordPress is.

Q: How many applications were received as part of the traditional call for speakers?

JA: We received 300+ applications. Some speakers submitted two applications, so around 250 people submitted applications.

We actually went through three or four rounds of deliberations. Each round we asked ourselves, why are we choosing these people? How are they going to bring about happiness or interest to our attendees? There were questions like, are we choosing this speaker because their topic is relevant to our audience? Is that topic something the speaker is an expert in? Is this topic delivered across other WordCamps or is this something that is specialized and only for WordCamp Asia? There were a lot of questions. Each time we selected a bunch, we would look through a few of these speakers and then we would ask each other questions. And if there was a strong reason for selecting a specific speaker, someone would come in and say, yes, that’s why we think that person should be in WordCamp Asia. If we landed at a space where a few of us were on a call and no one had a good reason why a person should be selected, then we understood that maybe that person is not necessarily a suitable person to be on stage in WordCamp Asia. 

There was another consideration I gave very strongly to the team: the fact that the people we were choosing had to be able to stand in front of a crowd of 2000 people.

Q: Something I’ve asked WordCamp US and WordCamp Europe organizers about is their approach to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. So I’ll put the question to you as well: What was the WordCamp Asia organizing team’s approach to DEIB and how has that been embedded in this event?

JA: Early on, we started talking about what DEIB means to us. What does it mean to WordCamp Asia? What does it mean to the individual teams that are working on the events? One of our team members, Destiny Fox Kanno (2023 WordPress Training Team rep, BlackPress co-organizer, Head of Community Education sponsored by Automattic, and WordCamp Asia organizer) brought in a brainstorming document basically asking us, what does DEIB mean to us? Then she helped us move into what does diversity mean in terms of our statement? What is equity? Is it crucial to our mission? Do we want to strive towards that regardless of our financial resources, do we want equal opportunities to participate and engage fully in the conference? So we answered a bunch of these questions and then we started matching those to our values. We with team values for running WordCamp Asia: trust, kindness, accountability, and looked at how our DEIB goals mapped with our values. And finally, we asked each organizing team member, “What does DEIB mean to you and what you’re doing?” So to give an example, the design team wrote something like, “Ensure there’s no racial, gender or Asian country bias in the symbols we use.” So there’s a lot of thinking around what DEIB means to the individual teams. It’s well-embedded in their minds.

From time to time, we come back together for meetings and ask what is being planned around making sure, say, especially with the program set up, how are we ensuring that DEIB is being respected? So when people are able to provide an answer and actually bring DEIB into what we have planned, it’s obvious that they’re running with it. And so far, at least from what I’ve seen across our meetings, DEIB is constantly on everyone’s minds, I think to the point that we don’t have to check up on it every single time now.

And I think it also plays to the fact that our organizing team is incredibly diverse in the first place. When we placed individuals into the different teams, we designed them to be smaller diverse teams within the main organizing team itself. So with that said, the fundamentals that Destiny set us up with and then the constant questions to ourselves, keeping us honest, and then making sure that, given the fact that we know Asia itself is comprised of tons of different cultures, we are deeply aware of what we need to do. So all of that comes together and has helped us build into our event this focus on DEIB.

Q: There was a lot of positive press around WordCamp Asia 2023 and none of the criticism that has plagued other flagship WordCamps, and that has continued into 2024. Last year, Taco Verdonschot from Yoast tweeted: “The #WCAsia team has everything to be proud of. The entire event felt like they’ve been looking at previous flagship events, took the best parts, threw them together and further improved the mix. It was so well done. Be proud!” With this in mind, what sets WordCamp Asia apart from the other flagship WordCamps? What has helped make it a success?

JA: We started this year’s WordCamp Asia with a single operating mantra, and that was to experiment. And the setup was basically that we are allowed to try something new and fail quickly and then we’ll figure it out. I really wanted new things to happen in WordCamp Asia, and when I say new things, we encouraged the entire team to think of this flagship WordCamp as a proper tech event, not just a WordCamp and not just celebrating WordPress. I wanted us to look to the big international tech events. So there has been a lot of learning. Each individual team had looked to other events to figure out what they are doing and to try and bring those learnings into WordCamp Asia. So if there are any differences between WordCamp Asia and other WordCamps, it’s because we are actively trying to move beyond being the same WordCamp. 

It’s actually been easy to organize WordCamp Asia after having WordCamp Europe run for 10+ years and WordCamp US, for nearly 10 years now. We’re following suit; it’s easy to grow up when you’ve got older siblings who have already figured out what to do. 

One of the questions we are also asking ourselves is, what are sponsors actually getting out of WordCamps? They’re really nice people. They sponsor, they come, they enjoy. But are they really getting leads? Are they getting customers? And then the hallway track is nice, but does that mean that attendees aren’t getting enough out of the talks? That’s another question that we are asking ourselves. We don’t want to just do things as they were, we want to push harder. One of the things we’ve talked about, but we’re not going to be able to fully implement in 2024, is helping connect attendees and businesses. I feel that we’re not doing that enough. The whole idea of networking within WordCamps is very self-driven and I think organizers could help with that. We want to learn from the successes of other tech events.

Q: What has your team learned from other flagship events but also looking at big tech events?

JA: One thing I’m very proud of about this WordCamp Asia organizing team is that we want to elevate ourselves beyond just a regular WordCamp, we want to change the flagship WordCamp formula. One of the biggest things we’ve done is the way that we are positioning ourselves. We’re calling ourselves the premier open source summit, which is true — 43% of the web, we’re pretty big in the open source world. The marketing that we’re putting out, the ads, the text that we’re writing, the news, and so on, we have grown from writing WordPress news about the speakers, calling for volunteers, and so on to now talking about what the event will bring to you, the attendees.

We are maturing in how we are marketing WordCamp Asia. That’s something that I’m very proud of this year and we’re going to keep pushing into that space. The key thing is that there are people who don’t actually know WordPress. We tend to only market to the people who know WordCamp, which is self-defeating, right? So we are actively recognizing that and through our marketing are reaching out to people who don’t know WordPress, maybe don’t know why it’s important or they’ve used it in their work, and we’re encouraging them to come to WordCamp Asia. And I think we’re doing really good on that front, it’s showing in the ticket sales.

Q: What kinds of channels outside of WordPress have you marketed to?

JA: We started by recognizing that there are a lot of open source and tech communities in Taiwan and across the regional countries. We talked to these communities in advance. We started with Women in Tech Taiwan and they introduced us to the Taipei Computer Association, TCA. And through them, their members are all the computer and digital-related companies in Taiwan. We asked them to help us advertise WordCamp Asia. We started to put out feelers and then connected to other similar associations and they marketed our event at their events. We printed pamphlets and got people to take photos and so on. I think there was a photo of Ethereum co-creator Vitalik Buterin holding a WordCamp Asia flyer. So we worked with our open source and tech brothers and sisters to really push out the information for us. We are also working with the nonprofit Open Culture Foundation in Taiwan and they’re helping us with advertising, figuring out how to pay our vendors, and so on. I think a lot of things started to make sense only because we extended beyond our WordPress network and asked people, would you help? And people were very willing to help. It was actually fun.