90 Days to Live: Rediscovering My Light Within the WordPress Community

Speaker: Joe A Simpson Jr, WordCamp Chicago (Bluehost)

Two years ago on June 17th, technicians laid me out flat on a cold, hard, operating table being poked, prodded, and prepped for a surgical procedure. According to doctors, cardiac catheterization was the only sure way to find out what was wrong but the risks were really, really frightening. Counting backward, the last thought was that within the next sixty minutes, if things go sideways, death would no longer be a risk.

Keeping It One Hundred

Coming to, random phrases floated through a mental mist. The cardiologist pushed a before/after image of my heart into view gesturing, “we found two 100% blocked arteries.” What’s a stent? What does having heart disease mean? What will life be like moving forward? I drifted off…

More than five years in the making, initial symptoms were inconspicuous, general fatigue walking a short distance to the train platform. Maybe lay off the vending machine and hit the gym more. Tiredness transformed into a pain in my left arm, traveled to my right arm, finally settling in my chest. Most maddening in this mystery was that my now-skeptical doctor ran test after test after test yet couldn’t find any issues. No one believed me.

Ground Zero

Life’s reset button was pushed. A ‘heart event’ forced me to power down both physically and mentally. Initially bed-ridden, unable to walk to the restroom without possibly fainting, and to this day carry a tiny bottle of nitroglycerin in my right pocket at all times was the new normal.

After an emotional late-night discussion with my mentor, a decision was reached. “You’ve put in your time, you owe this to yourself,” he said. On September 11th, I began a three-month leave of absence from work.

You may be wondering, what the heck does that have to do with WordPress?

“If today were the last day of my life, ‘would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

Steve Jobs

What if you got a do-over? A Mulligan? Imagine being totally free, similar to being a young child, with no worries and nothing to do but play all day. At that very moment, I decided that for the next 90 days to truly live again. ONLY do things I truly loved every day – giving selflessly to others, practicing mindfulness, picking up a pencil and sketching, public speaking, and all things WordPress.

For the next ninety days, I resolved to do only the things reconnected me with things dormant in my past that brought me joy. Each morning picking up a pencil, sketch. Exercise and practice mindfulness. No day would be complete without giving back, doing something with WordPress for others. Like an Agile process, I’d loop through these tasks, reassess, then repeat, each morning stronger than the previous.

An Uphill Climb

Three days a week, at the hospital we learned how to change and rebuild a new me. Outwardly, I have no scars and to this day some still see the same Old Joe. But as I slowly regained emotional and physical fitness through hard work and tears, quiet moments outside the world I knew brought clarity and focus in the new me I had to become.

At the local park, climbing to the top of it’s highest point by leave’s end was my personal goal. For someone with heart disease, getting to the top seemed out of reach. One foot in front of the other became one hundred yards at the park then one lap, one mile, then uphills keeping my heart rate under 130, ready to clutch the tiny bottle of nitroglycerin in my right inner pocket my dedication to my daily agile process. I grew strong in both body and conviction.

First Contact

I started with WordPress over a decade ago when the lead developer and CSS goddess left our Agency for greener pastures, leaving behind a WordPress blog using the Headway theme. WordPress spoke to me — very intuitive, easy to grasp, and its open nature allowed me to express a level of creativity that sparked something within me.

Over the next month or so, I built my first child theme. Fortunately, we had the budget to host with WordPress VIP (we needed technical support and migration services) and sent me to northern California on two occasions to learn WordPress from the best – WordPress VIP Intensive Workshop (Napa) and at a Town Hall (San Francisco).

At the workshop, Automattic’s leadership and core teams (including Matt Mullenweg) were all there. What got me hooked on WordPress was that a newbie like myself with very, very little practical experience was made to feel welcome. Top-tier developers went out of their way to answer my questions and assist me. It was my first exposure to what was being referred to as the WordPress Community. Everyone gave back to the greater good of the whole to grow one another which is very rare in the tech and corporate environments I’m used to.

The WordPress Journey of 4,890 Miles Begins with One Step

Newly untethered, stepping off the lift into a coworking space in Downtown Los Angeles on a warm summer evening for a WordPress Meetup was a first. Life’s excuses had previously kept me away but this changed everything. Most memorable was how friendly and engaged everyone was. An awesome presentation on SEO and a Call for Volunteers from the organizers of WordCamp Los Angeles (WCLAX) was the icing on the cake.

From that point, I did anything and everything WordPress:

  • Volunteered for WCLAX;
  • Gifted a complete rebuild of a WordPress website for my brother’s print business;
  • Drive approximately 1,361 miles to twenty WordPress Meetups and 3 WordCamps;
  • Fly 3,529 more attending WordCamp Grand Rapids; and
  • Virtually attending WordCamp US

Seeing WordPress from the Community perspective made me want even more.

Caution: Contents Hot

But there was a problem. Although the different flavors and formats of WordPress Meetups and sharing Community were enjoyable, I often found driving north at 10:30 pm without spilling hot drive-thru java on my lap not worth the risk. On one of these trips home, it came to me – start your own official Meetup and be in bed by 10 o’clock.

I’d cherry-pick my favorite features from the Meetups and WordCamps and incorporate them into our work in Santa Clarita. Inland Empire’s energy, Orange County’s flavors (designer, business, developer), Whittier’s A/V, DTLA’s location, site reviews, and content inspired. Little did they know I was watching with a purpose.

90 More Days (and Beyond)

On January 26, 2018, at 7:30 pm, I reached the last slide of my first presentation at my first official WordPress Meetup in Santa Clarita. Sharing the last “90 Days” with attendees ended with the last two bullets of the last slide reading, “speak at a WordCamp”, “host the first annual WordCamp Santa Clarita”.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Mahatma Gandhi

Over the next year, speaking at WordCamps in Chicago, Los Angeles, Orange County, and Phoenix with the highlights participating in Contributor Days and being an emcee in the Guitar Room at WordCamp US. What a beautiful ride.

Finally, on April 5-6, 2019, WordCamp Santa Clarita debuted as Southern California’s fifth WordPress event (San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, and Riverside) to rave reviews. At the after party, tears flowed when the attendees gave me a standing ovation. My experiences in the WordPress Community helped in leading a small, but hungry group of organizers who wanted to bring a WordCamp north of Downtown LA for the first time since 2014. Designing the logo, a Wapuu, and implementing the brand on social media was an incredible creative experience.

In mid-December 2017, reaching the top of Central Park in Santa Clarita gave me wings. WordPress provided the runway for me to fly to new heights, rediscovering a light within, truly giving selflessly to an open-source Community that at its core aligns with who I strive to be every day.

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