This week I had the privilege of speaking twice at HighEdWeb 2017 in Hartford, CT. This Was my first time at the conference since 2013 where, on the way home, I helped secure the sale of Better WP Security to iThemes which effectively removed me, at the time, from my roots in education.
My HighEdWeb Background
HighEdWeb has a unique place in my heart. My first trip to it was in 2011 when they were in Austin and I left with a job offer at St. Edward’s University that moved us to Texas a few months later. Fast forward to last year and it was a dear friend I met back at my first HighEdWeb that pulled me into my dream job, and current job, at UF Health. Taken together and sprinkled with a few successes and failures along the way and I can truly say that HighEdWeb has been the single most beneficial event I have ever attended professionally, even if my path hasn’t necessarily been in the same fashion as that walked by so many of my colleagues and friends.
Returning to HighEdWeb this year has been no less spectacular even if I’m not leaving with the prospect of a new job or a new state (it would take an awful lot for that to happen as, after a full year at UF, I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else). This year, instead of new contacts and opportunities, I was able to focus on giving back where I could as well as attending the most sessions I have at any conference in years all in an environment that felt more like a family reunion than a work conference. To say it was a positive experience is a bit of an understatement and to choose the highlights is akin to picking a favorite child however here are a few of the things that stood out most for me.
First and foremost, regardless of the community, HighEdWeb is a professional conference so I think the best place to start is with the professional content. Four years ago, at my last HighEdWeb, I spent a lot of time in the hallway track networking. The content for me as a developer just didn’t seem all that deep to be honest and the value I found was in the networking I was doing along with the other intangibles that happened outside of the core sessions.
This year was a bit different. For the first time in years (and literally dozens of conferences) I spent more time in sessions than I did networking and was really able to walk away with a few solid takeaways. The most important of these was a talk by my friend Mitch Cantor on local WordPress development environments using Docker. As Primary Vagrant has matured and needs to find a direction for the next iteration Mitch (who’s talk also won “best in track” for the conference). Watching his talk has given me the spark I need to move forward which I’ve been searching for months. That is a very good thing.
As for the rest of the talks, I took bits and pieces from each but it was the Keynote by Felicia Day that really stuck out. Historically I typically skip keynotes as so many become either sales pitches or a bunch of feel-good crap that couldn’t apply less to the audience if it tried. Felicia’s talk however seemed to really hit home for so much of the audience, me included, both in its sincerity as well as it’s connection to the work many of us do as professional “geeks.” It struck enough of a nerve with me in fact that I was one of the first in line for the meet-n-greet afterwards which I can honestly say I’ve never done anywhere before. It was that good.
As much as I saw however I can’t finish without talking about the one area I was able to give back, in content itself. Originally I had pitched three talks and had one picked to present, which is an honor in itself. A few weeks before the conference another track chair then reached out with an invite to present a second time on a second topic. This was pretty awesome as the practice is normally forbidden at the conference and, although I could have done better on the talks (I will win best-of-track one of these years) I think they went pretty good in general and I got to talk about both development workflow using WP-CLI as well as practical encryption that will hopefully be useful to many of the users who attended.
Beyond content is, of course, the thing that originally brought me on to the HighEdWeb bandwagon in the first place, the people. From the moment I stepped off the plane Saturday morning until now (I’m writing this from the lounge at my hotel while I wait for my ride to the airport) I’ve been around people that made the week feel more like a family reunion than a work event. From evenings at dinner with friends to after-parties, lunches and even exploring downtown Hartford, CT (one of the oldest towns in the USA I’m told) a friend to hang out with is always around and always looking to hang out. As a remote employee this, I must admit, is something that I often miss. The fact that these people are more like family (there were even quite a few tears from some this morning at breakfast as folks said their goodbyes until next year) makes it all that much special. There’s nothing like getting hugs from people you haven’t seen in four years and are genuinely glad you’re here again. I’ve never been to another event with that level of community.
HighEdWeb, which frankly I hadn’t considered on my list of “must go” conferences until after I got here this year, is one of the more interesting and incredible conferences out there for folks in technology, particularly, in higher education. From top-notch content to a community that goes well beyond professional acquaintances it is an event with no equal and for the first time in a while I can say “I can’t wait until next year” about a work conference.