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#WooConf 2017 Recap

I had the opportunity to attend WooConf 2017 in Seattle last week. Thankfully, Seattle is just a stone’s throw from my backyard (a three-hour-drive stone’s throw, but a stone’s throw nonetheless). After a brief road-trip up I-5, getting settled into an Airbnb with some random stranger, and getting a good night’s rest, we were ready to rock and roll.

Day One

This year’s theme was Open eCommerce, and it really came through! From the speakers to the volunteers to the organizers, the open and collaborative motif was felt throughout the whole event, and I walked away feeling inspired and impressed by the WooCommerce community and the project as a whole.

As someone who has been involved in the open-source eCommerce space for over a decade, and WordPress eCommerce for over seven years, I walked into the conference convinced of the power of open-source eCommerce. Given my background in competing open platforms, I had more than one attendee ask what I thought of the conference, of WooCommerce in general, and the ecosystem as a whole. I hope my jaw dropping at some of the mind-melting information from Todd Wilkens’ opening keynote was a sufficient response:

The ecosystem and the project have completely taken the world by storm, and we’re so excited for the part we get to play in that. Hearing real numbers behind the monumental growth in WooCommerce straight from the Head of WooCommerce was nothing short of inspiring.

After the opening keynote, we had the privilege of hearing from Portland’s own Kandace Brigleb. She runs an outstanding design agency, Needmore Designs. I have a confession: as a developer, I sometimes check out of talks from designers. It’s not that I don’t deeply value their perspective and talent (I do), but I usually feel like I have very little to gain from someone whose craft is so different than my own. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

Kandace’s talk ended up as my favorite of the entire conference. She was funny, candid, and made the idea of design thinking open to anyone, not just designers. Her talk broadened my perspective on how important empathy is when it comes to designing and developing eCommerce sites. Even more fundamentally, understanding that our clients are oftentimes not selling just a product; they’re selling an experience.

I cannot say it loudly enough: when the video for this talk is available, do yourself a favor–go watch it! In the meantime, check out Kandace’s blog post on it.

Next up, I got to see my friend Brian present a fairly comprehensive talk on testing WooCommerce. His illustration comparing a website to a restaurant was magnificent. He covered everything from continuous integration to unit testing to integration testing to automated testing to load testing to test testing. You get the picture.

Brian’s talk is absolutely required viewing for anyone doing advanced WooCommerce development.

We wrapped up Day One with a happy hour, a wonderful dinner with friends, and some shenanigans with our friends at Prospress and SkyVerge.

Day Two

You couldn’t possibly pick a more wonderful, brilliant, and qualified person to kick off Day Two of WooConf than Beka Rice. She’s the smartest person in any room, and if her ridiculous success at SkyVerge isn’t impressive enough – she’s also incredibly kind and generous with her time. She’s one of our favorite people, and she kicked off the day with a sobering and persuasive presentation

Beka, of all the speakers I saw, really nailed the Open eCommerce theme. She presented an incredibly practical keynote on selling open source. She shared some horror stories of seven-figure-businesses tanking overnight because of being locked in to Amazon and dying at the hands of a few bad reviews. Having a platform that is scalable, flexible, and most importantly, open, is a message we are behind 100%.

Following Beka (an unenviable task, to be sure) was a man who I knew only by reputation, Zach Stepek. We know him from Mindsize, a relatively new player in the WooCommerce world. Don’t let Mindsize’s time in the agency world deceive you: they’re making a bigger impact than anyone else. The initial parts of Zach’s talk covered some really valuable basics of optimizing WooCommerce.

After Zach laid the foundation for basic optimization techniques, he kicked it into high gear! You may know Mindsize by way of one of their team members, Patrick Garman. Patrick has spent a significant amount of time over the past few years pushing WooCommerce to it’s scaling limits. He’s done some prolific work on improving the performance of the WooCommerce Orders tables, among many other things. As Zach would soon reveal, that’s only the beginning of the innovation we can expect from these guys.

If you’ve ever used WordPress’s native search, I’m sorry. It’s fine for blogs. That’s about it. Using it in any complex application quickly turns into a painful experience. For years, the best alternative available has been ElasticSearch, usually via ElasticPress. To be clear, ElasticPress is awesome. We’ve seen ElasticPress use ElasticSearch to take queries that would normally take two to three seconds down to 100 milliseconds–no problem!

But Algolia is a next-level searching beast. The same types of queries that might natively take two to three seconds, that ElasticPress might get down to 100 milliseconds. Algolia gets down to ten milliseconds. It’s unbelievable. We’re incredibly excited to work with NeuralSearch for our clients; it’s a game changer.

After the keynote, we joined some wonderful breakout sessions from Curtis McHale and Zac Gordon, as well as an interview with BobWP and Todd Wilkens.

Finally, we ended the day on one of the most captivating presentations I can recall ever witnessing. John Maeda, truth be told, needs no introduction.

I won’t possibly be able to do his talk any justice. Watch it for yourself and glean from the hard-earned wisdom he provides.

His perspective on inclusion, long-term thinking, design systems, AI, machine learning and more all came together somehow in a cohesive and inspiring way. I’ve rarely been jealous of our friends at Automattic, but having the opportunity to count John Maeda as a colleague and learn from him would be enough to entice even the most otherwise-entrenched among us.

The fact that he was somehow able to wake up at 4AM (EST) after a speaking engagement the night before in NYC, fly to Seattle, present a talk that was equal parts well-prepared and completely improvised last minute, AND take questions from the audience via text message is totally mind-blowing. Such an incredible way to end #WooConf.

Following the conference, I spent some brief time at the after-party (PayPal sponsored, which meant that it was awesome.), stopped by the Starbucks Reserve Cafe on Pike, and then made my trek home. A whirlwind of a conference, to be sure, but worth every moment.

On a personal level, connecting with old friends like Brian Richards, Beka Rice, and Curtis McHale always leaves me feeling thankful for the rich friendships with WordPress community has afforded me. The opportunity to connect with newer friends like Patrick Garman and Scott Bolinger and many others over the few days of WooConf was a gift. Can’t wait for the next one!

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