Hindsight 20/18: WAC
Mar 21, 2018 • No Longer Sleep Deprived Matt Wang • ~ 34 minute read • 4124 words
Note: since I wrote this post (and after I left WAC), the organization lost the “world.ac” domain. As such, I’ve removed those links from the original post. You can find everything this post talks about on GitHub, if you don’t mind searching around a bit.
I’ve almost come to terms with the fact that my high school “career” is over. The things that I did, whether I loved them or not, are almost done - and I have no control over their future. During this March Break, I’ve spent a lot of time doing stuff for me: working on personal projects, catching up with old friends, and playing a helluva lot of video games. So while I’m free from the shackles that normally constrain me during the school year, I want to take a moment and look into them, deeply. That’s what this series (“Hindsight 20/18”, which I think is some clever wordplay) is about.
I wouldn’t describe most of my extracurriculars as “soul-crushing” or “shackles” or “the worst thing I have to do at UCC”, but the World Affairs Conference (or WAC) is one of them. Why then, did I spend hundreds of hours doing it over the last five years? Let’s find out.
A Long History of Me and WAC
Let me provide some context, though this is going to be long.
The World Affairs Conference (WAC) is Canada’s oldest annual student-run current affairs conference. Annually held at Upper Canada College in Toronto, Canada, the World Affairs Conference connects over 1000 students, with a common interest in current affairs, from across North America.
I wrote that, so I think it’s fine for me to quote that here. Very simplistically, it’s true - it’s an event that two high schools (Upper Canada College + Branksome Hall) run every year, where many smart people come to speak to us students about important things happening in the world.
WAC requires an insane amount of work to set up - after working there, I have a profound respect for anybody, especially any student, that has to coordinate a big event. As with most student organisations, the job descriptions don’t matter much, and in reality a very small subsect of the staff end up doing the wide majority of the work. As we’ll explore, WAC was a wake-up call for me - but also a testament to what I could do as an individual.
I joined WAC in my first year at “Upper School” (Grade 8), but in a very limited role. I was a graphic design and registration assistant, which wasn’t too hard - I just handed out some pamphlets and helped fix some small design flaws. The year after, I had the same technical role, but I was a lot more involved in each of the processes. I worked under two guys (Nick Elder and Derek Lam) who were awesome mentors, and I learned a lot about what they did and how they did it.
Oh, also, we got Edward Snowden to speak at WAC. That was fucking awesome.
During that time, I really enjoyed my role at WAC. I had awesome bosses, I was really interested in the topics they discussed at WAC, and the stuff I helped out with (using Photoshop/Illustrator to make posters and other marketing materials, as well as minor website design) was right up my alley! In those two years, I had a really positive impression of WAC, and when I was asked to take on a larger role the year after, I was ready to do it full-force.
Looking back, I absolutely despise the person I was in Grade 8/9 (and a little bit of 10). But, I feel bad for the kid - there was a lot of rough stuff going on, and it was a whole new world. And, at the end of the day, I don’t think I hurt anyone - so I was alright.
But, there was one big misconception I had during that time that would quickly be corrected with my larger role in WAC. Previously, I really was amazed at how organized WAC was - how good the bosses were, and how dedicated each student was. I thought that every student organization was just like my time under Nick and Derek.
I thought very, very wrong. Nick and Derek were wonderful people, but not every student was like Nick and Derek - many didn’t care enough to teach a younger kid the ropes, or cared at all about the conference. Not everyone was as organized as Nick or Derek, or as skilled, or as passionate. It was a rude awakening.
I was given the arbitrary title of the “Head of Registration and Media”. Technically, that meant that I would just need to manage the website and make the conference materials. That in itself is a lot of tough work: previously, the job was handled by two awesome people and entire department, and now, it was me and someone who lied on their résumé about their design and coding skills. Essentially, it was just me. Did I do a good job? Not really, though I’ll talk about that more as I break down all the tasks I do (which happens later).
Furthermore, I didn’t only do what was technically assigned to me - I had to cover for everybody else who did it only for the community service hours or for the résumé. That meant doing room assignments, operations work, and covering for the designers that were supposed to be independent of my work.
Part of the problems that arose from that year of WAC were individual malicious actors, but most of the time, it was a combination of unluckiness and earnest miscommunication. We had a brand-new faculty advisor, some people overestimated how good they were at certain tasks, and we had lots of people bail. Part of it was my fault: I was hot-headed, inexperienced, and had never needed to use good leadership or organization skills. Facing the tough barrier of a disorganized WAC was a barrier that I wasn’t able to overcome, and I place most of the blame squarely on myself.
At the end of the day, I almost single-handedly completed most of the work in my department (with a few people who helped out). The conference ran on time, and while it didn’t top Snowden, I thought it was an alright job. In that year (Grade 10), I really thought that I had worked the hardest that I ever had on anything. WAC messed up my sleep schedule, intruded into other activities, and destroyed some of my marks. But, I was optimistic - I had this under my belt, I did an alright job, and I wouldn’t have any problems next year. Right?
Absolutely. Fucking. Wrong.
This is where things go from “could be better” to “soul-crushing”. I went into WAC 2017 with high hopes - I was a seasoned leader and knew how things went on here, so I should be able to make everything work. The ideas that I had worked in principle - but the circumstances of the practical were a giant slap to the face.
I’ll promise to get into more of the technical nerdy stuff later, but there’s one technical reason that my life was a living hell. The technology-related things were all scooped onto me (I was the “Head of Technology”) - this meant I received lots of files and tasks. Unfortunately, most of those files and tasks didn’t come with instructions or guides, which meant I either had to patch together some short-term solution, or completely rework it from the ground up. I opted to use both of these strategies - I completely reworked the website using a different set of web technologies, and I essentially put band-aid solutions on most of our design materials.
This came to bite me in the ass. Rebuilding the entire website was a lot of work. Initially, I did it all by myself, but as I’ll discuss later, I was (and still am) a bad coder - it wasn’t a one man job. Unfortunately, not many people at UCC are interested in web design, and even less so are interested in web design AND world affairs, so the person I chose to work with me (will remain unnamed) wasn’t the pick of the litter. In fact, they made my life a lot worse - and the conflicts that we had during WAC development bled into my personal life. Essentially, rebuilding the website took way too much time, and way too much of my energy.
But, things weren’t greener on the other side of the fence: band-aid graphic design is as equally problematic. I’ll explain the minute details later, but essentially, it became a pile of shit. Obviously, managing a pile of shit is hard, and I feel bad for the other designers who had to work with the pile of shit that I created.
It didn’t help that it was hard to rely on others. Granted, it’s a lot of work, but many of the staff members in my department just didn’t follow up. They didn’t meet deadlines, they didn’t respond to emails, they didn’t care. And this was a problem across the board - people who were supposed to be my “peers”, who were “executives”, did no work - and shoved it all onto me.
Combine that with me being “ambitious” to solve the problems I faced last year (creating an online registration system) and swallowing up more and more roles and tasks (like writing copy for the website or doing all of the registration micro-managing or literally doing the job of the treasurer) and WAC ate into more and more of my time, and more and more of my personal life.
This became so bad that it was one of the causes of my depression in my Grade 11 year. Literally all the things I did to enjoy life (listening to music, hanging out with friends, and playing video games) was engulfed by “WAC time” - there was always a website feature I had to add, or a registration error that a teacher DEMANDED me to fix. Eventually, it all became too much. I dreaded every day to come, and I genuinely wanted to kill myself - for my irrational mind, that was a better idea than talking to someone about it, or just straight up quitting WAC.
That year, we ran a good conference: while it looked like a nuclear wasteland from within, we still made sure that we provided a great experience for the thousand-ish people that came. At the end of the day, that’s what drove me to keep on going. I made a commitment to make WAC great, and I couldn’t disappoint the people that I promised that to. It was both my strength, and my ultimate weakness.
A Happy… Ending?
For some crazy reason, I agreed to do WAC again this year, my last year at UCC. I had a little more faith - our team was more experienced, our conference chair was insanely qualified and one of the best people I knew, and I had a wealth of knowledge of the mistakes that I made in the past.
Did it work? I’m not sure. WAC for me this year was tough, but I tried to be the “Nick” or the “Derek” of my year and I mentored some younger kids to take over for me next year. I talked more openly about the problems that I faced, especially with the conference chair (who I’m close with) and the faculty advisor, and it was easier to accomodate for the problems that I faced. Things weren’t perfect - we ran into just as many problems as last year - but things were a lot better.
I think we did a good job this year. I certainly felt a lot better about doing it, but furthermore, with a more connected team, and a healthier me, we got more done. The website is now a perfected art - all the work I put in paid off. Design, while still a Frankenstein’s monster of files, is looking more like a well-oiled machine and less like something I found in a dumpster. And all the other things I managed ran relatively well - not stress-free, but well.
Oh, and we got Geoffrey Hinton. That was fucking awesome.
But, it’s not all peachy. There were issues with WAC this year, and there are going to be tons of issues with WAC next year. I’ll delve into the subject at the end of this rant/long essay, but the battle isn’t over yet.
The Tech-y, Nerdy Stuff
I want to talk more specifically of what I did for WAC, from a technical aspect. I’ve grown a lot as a person throughout my five years here, but I’ve also grown a lot as a coder, as a designer, as a leader. If you’re not interested in this part, just skip all the way to the end - find the juicy gossip about the future of WAC and whether or not I’d do this all again.
Making websites has, for better or for worse, been “the thing” that Matt Wang does. My first real start at a complex website was the WAC website. In the three years that I’ve worked in-depth on it, it has taught me more than I ever thought I’d know about creating and deploying websites.
For some context, Derek and Nick handled the previous WAC website. It looked like this:
I actually love this design - the feel of the website is one that I was never able to replicate.
When I was passed down the control of the WAC website, I was given a .zip file of all the files, which contained some code and some comments, neither of which was particularly well-written. However, it is hard to write documentation, and I don’t fault Nick and Derek with that.
As I talked about earlier, I felt as if I’d need to rework the website. There were a few reasons why:
- The website was coded in PHP. PHP has its own problems, but furthermore, this wasn’t the right toolkit for the job - the WAC website was only a static site, and PHP didn’t fit that mold well.
- The website was not mobile-responsive. While the website looks sick, it didn’t work on any phone, which was more than 50% of the web traffic we received in the following year.
- The website is not accessible. Several users of the website used screen-readers because they were visually impaired, and the website as-is didn’t support them.
- The website was not well-documented, version-controlled, or tested.
After tinkering around with the PHP files, I knew it was a semi-lost cause. So, I rewrote the entire website. Instead of using PHP, I used Jekyll, a Ruby-based static site-generator. This meant that I could segment and component-ize the website into little re-usable bits and pieces, kinda like importing things in PHP with
include_once(), but without having to use PHP.
In addition, I ended up using Bootstrap. While it’s not as flashy or as satisfying as completely writing your own CSS, I ended up using Bootstrap because it had a lot of out of the box support for things that are hard to self-code: things like accessibility, or mobile-responsive elements. I simply built our theming on top of Bootstrap.
The final big tech change I made was to host our website on GitHub. I love GitHub and the open-source community, but there’s also a more practical reason I did this. Previously, the only copy of the site was remotely stored on the production server - there was no version control, and no backup. Putting our website in a git repo allows us to have version control, has a centralized “backup” server, and makes collaboration a lot simpler.
I also changed a lot of our website layout and functionality. I made everything more card-y, using Bootstrap’s default components - but, I’m still not sure if it’s an improvement over Nick and Derek’s design. Using the power of Jekyll, I was able to generate more HTML/CSS components - so, making something like a staff page was super easy.
As I got better at coding, the website got a lot better, and the tools I used got a lot better. I learned how to fully harness the powers of Jekyll, and other Ruby tools (like Rake and Bundler). I started using Travis, a continuous integration service, to help proofread our code. And, I’d like to think that my web design skills got a lot better, as I learned more about basic design principles, but also about things like accessibility and mobile-responsiveness - things that are normally swept under the rug.
I’m proud of the work that I’ve done on the website. It’s been a huge growth opportunity: the skills that I learned from making this website have been instrumental in every other web project I do. But furthermore, I’m proud because I did it, all of it. I never thought that I’d be able to create an automated build system, or make a website screen-reader friendly, or be somewhat confident passing this website down - but I am. I’m happy that all of my hard work is immortalized, on this awesome website or on some GitHub repository.
Before I came onboard to WAC, registration was done entirely through paper. Schools would fill out their attending students and their preferences on a ballot we sent them, and then we’d manually tabulate them and convert them into a spreadsheet and then generate nametags from there. Obviously, this is very inefficient, and it’s also awful for the environment. I wanted to change things up, and to use the wonderful power of computers - so, I made an online registration system.
The first incarnation of the online registration was written in PHP. Looking back, it was a bad idea, but it was the only backend language I had confidence in at the time. It was hastily put together by me and colleague, and we did a bad job of writing good code, testing it, and generally creating a good product. Combine that with the other personal struggles in my Grade 11 year, and you can understand why it was poorly done. If you really want to, you can see the code on its GitHub repository.
Still, it was a good idea - and while we had to iron out numerous bugs in the system, it saved a lot of work on our end, and made life easier for everyone on the WAC team. No more dealing with mail, no more registration packages, no more tree damage.
However, I led the remake of the system this year, determined to make things right. I enlisted the help of two younger developers who were slated to take over my role next year, and unlike the previous year, I let them make the design and development decisions, and played a support/supervision role instead. Since they were the ones who would inherit and maintain the system, I thought it only made sense if they were the ones who led its development. Plus, it’s a growth opportunity for them - I think “formal” work experience is underrated amongst fellow teenage developers.
And to be honest, they didn’t do a bad job! For sure, it could’ve been better, but the end product they designed (with a few tweaks from me) was a significant improvement over the first version. Dubbed “donna”, the registration system was developed with React and used Firebase for authentication and data storage. This made the system a bit more reliable, and a lot easier to deal with from a non-technical side.
Long-term, I want donna to be more of a tool, and less of a one-off. Hopefully, other student organizations can use donna to make online registration easier, since I think that’s something that is rough to create from scratch. But, we’ll see - I can’t predict the future!
I think that making an online registration system was the right choice - while it was a short-term headache, it solves lots of long-term problems. It’s a good example of how digitization makes life a lot better, and opens up opportunities for new things (e.g. “payment status” badges). It was a nice idea that turned into another good learning experience.
There are lots of moving parts to WAC’s design - in fact, I have to write an entire manual on it! This blog post is already way too long, so I just want to touch on a few things that I learned during the design process.
First of all, there’s way too much stuff to design as a team of two - I’m surprised that Nick and Derek handled it so well! Here’s what we have to make:
- Delegate Package
- Registration Package
- Program Logos
- Program Posters
- Recruitment Posters
- Social Media Support
That’s insane! In my first year as the head of Reg & Media, I tried to do almost all of it myself - rookie mistake. I learned how to delegate work - especially for the packages, the program logos, and the program posters. While delegating didn’t always work (low-quality designs, people behind on deadlines), it made my life a lot easier, and mimicked what work looks like in real-life. Learning those collaborative and organization skills was really important in developing me as a worker, and as a leader.
Also, I essentially self-learned Illustrator and InDesign for this job. Prior to joining WAC, I fiddled around in Photoshop to make memes, but didn’t do much else. At WAC, I learned why Adobe earns so much money off of their software, and learned how to use it - I saw the power of Illustrator in creating logos and InDesign for creating publications and using data merge. Without WAC, I wouldn’t have learned these skills.
The final thing I want to touch on is the big failure I made with the design at WAC. Coming in, I was given a very strong foundation of design materials, and a foundational style. At the end of the day, I never really stuck to that style, or looked to develop my own - rather, I just created band-aid solutions that looked alright. I think, in that aspect, I half-assed the design. Either I should’ve religiously stuck to the previous design style (which would’ve been fine, because it was awesome), or created an entirely new style, and stuck with that. The lack of a cohesive design created the Frankenstein’s monster of styling: we used 8 fonts and 20+ colours just because I used “whatever” that made the design look passable enough to let me go to sleep. I tried to remedy this using “paleta”, a style guide I whipped together, but nobody (not even myself) stuck to it. That was a problem.
Design is a beast in its own, but I’m happy that I learned a lot about it - and moving forward, I hope I don’t make the same mistakes. Making things pretty is hard.
All in all, WAC sucked, and WAC sucked. Yes, I was positive about the things that I learned from it, but it really took a toll on my life - and I’m not sure if those lessons were worth it. However, I’m hesitant to say that I wouldn’t do WAC again if I had the chance - it’s shaped so much of who I am, it gave me humility and perspective. And, it let me make the world a better place - giving the opportunity for thousands of kids to engage with world issues, and especially giving the opportunity for hundreds of kids in low-income neighbourhoods to experience something that they normally don’t get to.
I’m worried about what’ll happen to the ethos of WAC. Next year will be a struggle: I have big shoes to fill, and I’m not particularly confident in the grade below us to fill mine or the conference chair’s. Regardless, I’ll avidly watch on and see what WAC has to offer, and hope that the hours that I put in to make WAC a better organization really does make WAC a better organization.
But really, only time can tell. And by that time, I’ll have even more experiences to look back on.
Until next time!