Tess Coughlan-Allen –WProfessional of the Month

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Welcome back to our interview section! This month, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is proving to be a complex and uncertain month, with many of us working in confinement. WordCamp Europe was to be held this year in Porto, but in the end it won’t be until 2021 when we’ll be going to Portugal. Even so, this year 2020 we will have the first virtual WCEU. We thought that in this exceptional situation we should interview someone who is working on the front line so that next month we can enjoy this unique WCEU. Without further ado, I would like to welcome Tess Coughlan-Allen.

Thanks for the interview, Tess. It is a pleasure to have you here! For those who don’t know you, tell us a little about yourself and your professional career.

I was always a great daydreamer, a people person and a meticulous planner, and it turns out that my imagination, social nature and organisation have been the three most important skills in my professional career so far. 

When I graduated from the University of Exeter, I had no idea what a marketing or a communications role might entail and I had never heard of copywriting. 

Moving back to Cardiff in Wales after graduating, I was fortunate enough to be placed on some internships and get on the career ladder through an EU-funded scheme called Go Wales. It gave me exposure to marketing, research and advertising, and it was through this scheme that I landed my first communications role. In that job, I used my first WordPress site! 

Then, five years ago, I moved to Bristol in the UK and worked for a startup. During this time, I was first introduced to the WordPress community and in the following years, I organised WordCamps, Meetups and a hackathon.

The year 2020 was all set to be my best year yet. Having gained experience working in tech, for agencies and in the third sector, I set up my freelance copywriting brand, Forwords, at the end of 2019. I’ve been working with some amazing clients on projects that bring me both purpose and pride ever since, in January 2020, I also started working as Communications Officer for the University of Bristol. 

Tess Coughlan-Allen from Forwords
Tess Coughlan-Allen from Forwords.

In my free time, I was leading wonderfully bright and skilled volunteers to make WordCamp Europe 2020 a reality and I was gearing up to welcoming thousands of attendees to Porto in June. Of course, with the global health crisis, not everything has gone to plan and we’ll have to wait a little longer for that last one.

I am incredibly fortunate to continue my work for the University and my freelance writing projects, collaborating exclusively with organisations that are socially responsible, sustainably and ethically minded. Keeping my mind active and focused on work that feels important and reflects the good in the world has been really valuable for me.

Throughout your career, you’ve always sought to help socially and environmentally responsible brands grow. You also co-organised the first do_action hackathon to take place in Europe, which was a one-day event where volunteers created new websites for local charities and non-profits in a single day. How did this great idea come about? Could you give us more details about the experience?

A friend of mine in my local WordPress community came to me with the idea. He told me that there was a WordPress initiative where you could create new websites for charitable organisations in a single day, and that these were called do_action events. He said: “I can’t believe this has never been done in Europe before, let’s do it.”

I was pretty oversubscribed at the time, working full time at a startup, volunteering as an organiser for WordCamp Europe for the first time and helping run monthly Meetups in Bristol too. Plus my partner and I had just homed our two gorgeous, lively dogs! 

Despite all that, I couldn’t say no to this. I knew I had the energy and the skills to make it happen and, having worked at two non-profits previously, I felt passionate about helping charities however I could.

It turned out to be more work than expected, but it was so worth it. You can watch my WordCamp US talk about the process of organising a do_action day if you are interested in learning more or setting up your own. 

Something very special about the WordPress Community is the personal and professional diversity of its people. You have a BA in English and Film and have specialized in content creation. What was your first experience on a WordCamp? Did you ever have difficulty in feeling integrated into this community?

My first WordCamp was in London and I had no trouble feeling integrated. It was entirely the opposite, I found that people were incredibly friendly and welcoming. This came as a relief, actually, because I’ve attended other tech conferences and corporate events that have felt much less open.

Whilst I was welcomed by the WordPress community, it did take me a little longer to find my place. I felt more comfortable as a non-developer after I’d learnt how to contribute to the community using my communication, organisation and content creation skills and once I’d recognised that those were equally as valuable as coding. 

As such an active member of the WordPress community and the current Global Lead for WordCamp Europe 2020, what do you see as the main benefits of being part of this community? How would you encourage someone to step up and get involved too?

This is a lovely community to be a part of. It’s encouraging, supportive, and sprinkled with growth opportunities that will make you proud of yourself. It’s a chance to be a part of something big and important. Whilst I’m always very enthusiastic about this community, now more than ever, I encourage you to only do what you can.

This community relies on volunteers, yes, but we need to keep ourselves alive and well. It’s easy to burn out at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic where many countries around the world are locked down, many parents are homeschooling for the first time, and there’s an understandable anxiety about our health, families, and communities, as well as our livelihoods.

My top tip is to make one rule for this period, and that applies to your part in the community as well as outside of it. That rule is to do what makes you feel good. 

If connecting with a global community of like-minded people will make you feel good, get involved. If developing your skills by contributing to WordPress or attending a virtual talk at a Meetup or WordCamp makes you feel good, do it. If taking some time away from your screen, away from volunteering and away from extra responsibilities is what you need, then do it. 

Put yourself first and focus on what makes you feel good. 

The year 2020 is becoming a very difficult year and WordCamps are not exempt from this complexity. WordCamp Europe 2020 has been postponed to 2021. As the Global Lead for WordCamp Europe 2020, what are the most important difficulties and challenges you’re facing right now? 

The most challenging period was just before we made the decision to postpone the in-person event to 2021. We are all volunteers who put our time and energy into WordCamp Europe and I was worried that it had been a waste. I was saddened that all of our voluntary organisers, myself included, could have put that time and energy into other areas of their lives. 

However, by the time we made the decision to postpone it was easy and unanimous. The strength and care that was ruminating out of all of our screens as we made that decision collectively from dozens of countries via video call was completely re-energising. The response from the global community was so warm, supportive and understanding too. 

Our next challenge is putting on the first-ever virtual WordCamp Europe for June 2020! We are organising this with a smaller team, giving many of us some well deserved time off. It also offers some of our organisers the chance to try Team Lead roles and I’m excited to see how they grow. 

I’m really proud of the organisers from WordCamp Europe for all their hard work so that the planning for this huge event can be picked up again from where we left off, and we can enjoy our time in Porto in 2021!

We’ll see you in Porto for sure! Now it’s time for our most-acclaimed question: sharing an epic fail of your past 😉 So please confess: where and how did you screw up?

I cycle around Bristol and absolutely love getting around by bike. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for my health and it’s good for my mind too. Before I moved here, though, I had barely cycled since I was a teen riding my BMX around my local skate park (but never actually doing any tricks). 

That was until I went to Indonesia and visited the Gili Islands, where there is no motor transport and everyone makes their way around the island by bicycle, horse and carriage or walking. The accommodation we booked came with bikes and mine was a little rusty but it had a basket, so I thought it was perfect! 

We set off to explore. It was amazing cycling around such a beautiful island, but I was struggling quite a bit on the bike. We had piled our bags and water bottles into my basket, making it heavier and more difficult to use the handlebars and I wasn’t feeling confident. 

A horse trotted past me with a carriage of tourists and I got startled, wobbled and started to lose control of my handlebars. Queue the slow motion fall from the bike… into the only muddy puddle on the heavenly island.

Sitting in a puddle of mud definitely stands out to me as an epic fail, but at least I got to experience that failure in otherwise idyllic scenery!

And finally, who else should we interview? Tell us what 3 WProfessionals you’d like to see in the next interviews and why.

I nominate Lesley Molecke, Helen Odia and Sabrina Zeidan, three lovely women I met through WordPress and am fortunate enough to have contributed alongside for WordCamp Europe 2020 who I think are amazingly talented and would definitely have interesting stories to tell.

Thank you very much for your time, Tess. Now, let’s go to make sure that you receive my presentation for the WordCamp Europe 2020 on time! 😉 I’m sure that with all your effort, it will be a success!

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