WordCamp US 2023 was this past weekend, just outside of DC in National Harbor, Maryland. It was a star-studded affair (from a WordPress nerd’s perspective), which included dozens of informative talks and workshops, a delicious daily lunch, and fantastic networking opportunities before, during, and after each day of the event. I (Rob) was lucky enough to attend, representing Astute!

The setting was the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, with a breathtaking view of the Potomac River, separating Maryland from Virginia. Below is a recap of the highlights, though it isn’t possible to do justice to what was a marathon three-day experience.

I’ll be touching on select talks that piqued my interest, but the full schedule is available here, and the links to the YouTube livestreams are/will be available below —

Contributor Day

The experience began on Thursday, for Contributor Day. Attendees, sponsors, organizers, and volunteers each had the opportunity to work on their choice of more than twenty teams across all of WordPress. While there were a number of attractive options, I split my time between the Community team in the morning, and the Accessibility team in the afternoon —

  • On the Community side, we brainstormed how best to shift how WordCamps have been traditionally set up in order to (a) best meet would-be attendees where they’re at in terms of WordPress experience and interests, (b) while also factoring in how WordCamp and Meetup attendance has changed since COVID, and (c) how the cost of paying for a WordCamp has changed in the last few years. There are many local WordPress communities that are still making their way back since COVID shut everything down, and some of these proposed changes are meant to be sensitive to that fact;
    • My particular interest comes from my role as an organizer of a Meetup group local to me, but I had never attended a WordCamp before, so I lacked context on how they could be improved;
  • For Accessibility, we had the privilege of serving as bug-catchers for the newly-unveiled Twenty Twenty Four theme, which will ship alongside WordPress 6.4 later this year. I made my first-ever contribution to the WordPress codebase, with a little fix for image file path, which I am pretty excited about. I also met great folks associated with the Accessibility community, and got leads on how we at Astute can continue to up our game when it comes to ensuring we’re building high-concept websites with Accessibility in mind from the outset;

Exhausted from a brutal day of travel beginning at 3a, I stayed in to rest up for what the next few days would hold.

Day 1 (Friday) Talks

  • The day was kicked off by Abby Bowman and J.J. Toothman from NASA, showing off their new WordPress-powered website. This was followed by a hands-on workshop running through the entire website;
  • Instead of the tempting workshop, I opted to join a talk related to WordPress Security in an enterprise setting, which is a topic always at the forefront of WordPress development;
  • I followed that up by attending an amusing talk about the state of Core Web Vitals in 2023;
  • My favorite talk was, as a government nerd, All the President’s Websites, chronicling the six week process of setting up the new whitehouse.gov on WordPress;
  • However, most people I spoke to after Day 1 raved about the closing talk of the day, Making Large Language Models work for you, which focused on how AI chat bots work, and how to run one locally on your computer!

One of the talks discussed the role of AI in Accessibility, and how AI-driven automatic video captions might not be quite where they need to be to be truly useful just yet.

Funny, unless you rely on the captions.

Day 2 (Saturday) Talks

  • The day started with one of Matt Mullenweg’s (the founder of WordPress) favorite authors, Ken Liu, with a keynote talk titled Tell the Story You Want To Tell;
  • Much of the rest of the morning’s talks focused on Accessibility, using AI in content creation, and modern theme development and information architecture. I spent all morning bouncing from talk to talk;
  • I began the afternoon in a talk about WordPress Playground, one of my favorite new sandbox tools for getting teammates experienced with the Gutenberg editor;
    • This talk was the first to be moved from Cherry Blossom to Potomac, as there was a flooding problem in Cherry Blossom due to a hotel guest overflowing their tub!;
  • The two closing talks focused on what’s “next” for WordPress —
    • Josepha Haden Chomphosy, the Executive Director of WordPress, gave a talk about the future of WordPress, which centers on community, events, and the WordPress software itself;
    • Matt Mullenweg closed the event with a wide-ranging talk on the future Gutenberg, including —
      • The Phase 3 revamp of the entire Admin Interface;
      • Announcing the WordPress LMS project, looking to standardize how third-party LMS tools structure data, allowing site administrators to switch between tools without losing their data;
      • Unveiling the 100-year hosting project for WordPress.com, which provides hosting and domain registration for a century for $38k;
    • An extended Q&A with Josepha and Matt formally closed the event.

Sponsor Booths & Swag

If the talks were not enough, there were about 30-or-so sponsor booths in a special area of the event. There was countless swag, as well as contests, giveaways, raffles, and other fun. Most of the vendors were web hosts of some kind. My favorite booths/swag belonged to WP Engine and Equalize Digital. The event itself, as well as the socials mentioned below, also included some cool swag.

Perhaps the overall highlight was an art installation about spam. See below, and I refuse to provide any additional context.

Spam has never been so elegant.

Social Events

As valuable as the talks were and are, they are available online for free. This is a great benefit to all users, and it is how I consumed the talks in WordCamp Europe and WordCamp Asia earlier this year. However, the real irreplaceable experiences of WCUS came in the form of the social events, which were great places to laugh, network, drink, eat, and be merry.

On Friday, I attended two (of the numerous) social events put on by WordCamp sponsors —

First, I traveled to Topgolf for a social event put on by WP Engine, our host of choice here at Astute. I’m no golfer, but thankfully I met some awesome colleagues from the event who also did not seem to be golfers. Even still, I finished in the bottom half of each game we played, as we opted for an Angry Birds-themed variation on the traditional driving range activities. Food and drink were provided, which is always a way for someone to endear themselves to me. It was also an excellent opportunity to meet my WPE Agency Partner Program contact in person.

Turns out, Rob sucks at golf.

After that, I commuted back to the Gaylord Hotel with my new friends and attended the WCUS Pride Party. We arrived late as it started at the same time as our prior event. It was vibrant and energetic, and the music was LOUD. Even still, I had a great time and brought home some cool, unique swag.

WCUS Pride Party

Saturday was the main event when it came to socials — as the closing event of WCUS 2023’s setting was the freaking Smithsonian Museum of Natural History! The only thing I’m more passionate about than building websites is history, so this was a dream come true. As this took place on federal property, alcoholic drinks could not be provided — as I continually heard this griped-about by folks who’ve attended presumably-more-raucous WCUS socials in the past.

Overlooking the main hall at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Even still, I got to explore the halls — essentially by myself before others arrived. I reconnected with the folks I met at Topgolf, who I managed to not encounter at all on Saturday, as WCUS was attended by over 2000 folks! The real true highlight of the experience had to be a photo op with the man himself, Matt Mullenweg. I didn’t talk to him for long — he was in pretty high demand — but he was just as chill, humble, and thoughtful as he appears to be if you’ve ever seen him speak, or be interviewed.

Rob with Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress.
Rob paying his respects.

I wouldn’t have a career without his efforts 20 years ago, so it was great to have a short moment with him!

The Takeaway

WordCamp US was incredible. The talks, the workshops, the location, the food, the drink, the socials, the networking, the swag, the fellowship — all of it. While nothing was announced either way, I’m of the impression that WCUS 2024 will most likely not return to the DC area — bucking a trend set pre-COVID where WCUS would go back-to-back years in a city. So I don’t know where it will be, but suspect it won’t be DC again, or any of the other past cities — Philadelphia, Nashville, San Diego, St. Louis. Whatever the location, I’m eager to attend again.

And I had the impression DC would be one-and-done BEFORE the tub overflowed, causing an unexpected venue change for one of the talk tracks. 😂

I’ve already begun my efforts to rope in some colleagues from Astute to join me next year, as I found the biggest challenge of the experience was being a loner for most of it. Had I not been adopted by some folks at Topgolf, I wouldn’t have had anyone to split any of the Lyft rides with to-and-from the socials. I often found I wanted to be in multiple talks at the same time. While I could always (and certainly intend to) circle back to talks in the livestream, I also noted multiple talks that would’ve been relevant to multiple team members at Astute, even if they don’t work in a strictly WordPress-focused of development-adjacent capacity.

Needless to say, Astute intends to be back, and perhaps in greater numbers!