If you only worked 20 hours a month, what would you do with your spare time?
Would you take more trips to the beach? Learn to juggle?
Or would you spend hundreds of hours planning and delivering presentations about DevOps and WordPress?
Not many of us would have the selflessness to devote our time to teaching the community. Fortunately for us all, Carl Alexander has that level of dedication.
“I live on about 20 hours of billable work a month,” says Carl. “Most of the time I’m working on articles or planning for an upcoming talk.” Over the past few years, Carl has given dozens of presentations all over the world, from his native Montreal to the United States, Columbia, Panama, and more (check out the slide decks on his LinkedIn profile).
Carl’s dedication to teaching and learning made him a natural fit for the Pantheon Heroes Program. We sat down with him recently to talk about the WordPress community, the non-technical challenges of technical writing, and more.
How did you get started with the WordPress community?
Well, you know, WordCamp Montreal is one of the oldest WordCamps at 11 years; we’re as old as Miami.
I attended the first WordCamp Montreal. Then I spoke at the second one, and after that I talked to the people running it about having more frequent meetups—they were very irregular at that time. So I offered to take over the technical ones, and eventually I started doing the social meetups too, and just ran the whole thing.
When the next WordCamp came along, they asked if I wanted to be an organizer, and I started organizing, too.
And then you started looking at other WordCamps, right? Montreal could not contain you!
Well, my first US WordCamp was in 2015. And then I just started being more involved with the US community and going to more camps. And that's how I ramped up my international presence.
I fell in love with the SoCal community because it’s very similar to ours; all the WordCamps kind of know each other. People go to all the different ones for all the different cities. So it's kind of the same thing with the three Eastern Canada WordCamps: Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, even Halifax.
I spoke at the first WordCamp Halifax. I knew the lead organizer, and she was great and just so supportive. It was a very tight-meshed group. I was well really well-known there but outside of that, you know, didn't have much of a presence until I decided to invest more into my personal branding, and just get more involved in a community.
What’s the preparation process like for one of these presentations?
I'm speaking at WordCamp Panama City; I’m going to give a talk in Spanish there. And most of my talks take roughly 100 hours to prepare. Because the way I do them is that I write an article first, then I take the essence of the article and use it to make the slides I’ll present.
It’s a process I always find more useful than trying to write a presentation from scratch. Also, if your goal is to build any kind of personal brand, the article does a lot more work than giving a talk does. Unless you already have a really, really strong brand and are giving TED talks or something, your article has more legs. So, I invest a lot of time in writing the article that then becomes the presentation.
Your WordCamp US talk is something new, isn’t it? A little less on the technical side?
Yes, this one is on technical writers’ block. Or, I guess you could say writers’ block in general, but the solutions are aimed at people who write technical articles. So it's how to find ways to write consistently.
It’s solutions to problems like, “Okay, I opened the editor and I have a blank page and what do I do? What do I talk about?” It’s about how to get over that hurdle, because it can be really intimidating for new writers, and experienced ones, too.
You can doubt yourself, doubt your ability to find good ideas and publish material, so it’s talking about sources of inspiration. It’s also about establishing a writing process. A lot of the ways to beat writer's block come down to rethinking your process. If you have been writing every night, for example, and you’re feeling that block, try writing at another time of day.
So, I’ll be discussing all of that.
Basically, you’re aiming at helping developers share their knowledge with the community?
Right. I find that the biggest objection when people are wondering whether they should write, is they feel like they don’t know what to write about. But we often have a lot more to share than we think. Like, if you’re Googling stuff to solve a problem and you can’t find any help, and then you solve the problem—that’s a big indicator you should write about it.
For me, my first article was because of a question in Stack Overflow. I wanted to write more about it, so I wrote a longer answer to the question and made it a blog post. It’s important to be willing to think outside the box of how you want to write.
What advice do you have for a programmer or developer who wants to get into writing/presenting?
Don’t be scared to say, “I don’t know about this part.” Programmers like to have a clean, single way of doing things, a really prescriptive approach. But it’s okay to say, “This is one way of doing it. It may not be the ‘ONE WAY’ to do it, but it worked for me.” If you think that you have to be an infallible authority on everything you write, you’ll be too scared to write anything. Just be intellectually honest and put your ideas out there.
Do you have what it takes to be a Pantheon Hero? Or, do you know someone who does? Check out our announcement post for details.
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