Unleashed in the East: Ukraine University Tour April 26-30
Web standards and heavy metal in Ukraine
I have to start this report by saying that there's nothing more eye opening than doing a tour in a CIS country - the turnouts (we had almost 800 students over the three universities we visited), the reaction, and the amount of Opera love was fabulous. It is also very interesting to experience a culture so different to my own, and to be around so many people that not only do not speak the same language as me, but don't even use the same alphabet. It felt very humbling, and further brought home to me the importance of internationalisation on the web, in attitude as well as technology support.
The students were nothing short of inspiring. They all seemed very passionate about web standards, open web philosophy and anti-proprietary technology in general. Ad a lot of them use Opera. A heck of a lot. It was very much "preaching to the converted" in some respects, although I'm sure we did lots of good work in any case. It was great to evangelise future web standards like CSS3 and HTML 5, mobile development, and accessibility. The latter was a topic that surprisingly didn't seem so well-known.
Thank you so much to my comrades in arms - Alexey and Uliana - we worked great together on this tour, and you were very good at looking after me - translating, organizing me, and pointing me towards the beer! It was so great to get to know you better on this tour.
Note that you can get my university tour presentation slides at my own blog....
On Monday, we had a really busy day ahead of us - 2 sets of press interviews, and a university seminar. We quickly grabbed breakfast, then did some preparation, then at 9.30 the first interview started. It went well, and we handled all questions well, not running into anything particularly difficult. It really helped to have Alexey there, not only for translation, but because he is a desktop developer and a hardcore Linux user, so was great for answering specific questions about those areas.
Next up, we went to the university in Kiev, and prepared. The set up was all fine, and we had a very large turnout (which actually proved to be the smallest, I think). I was unsure how the translation format was going to work out - basically Alexey did live translation into Russian after every few lines of English. I was slightly worried that it might break up the flow of the talk, and make things go a bit slowly, but it seemed fine, and we made a good team. Alexey proved to be amazingly fast at thinking on his feet and working out Russian equivalents - very high quality translation. Some really intelligent questions were asked afterwards, and then the students descended upon the free t-shirts, like locusts at a fresh harvest. I am surprised Uliana made it out alive ;-)
It was weird to be asked to pose for pictures alongside Opera fans, but I handled it like a
hysterical pop star . I was also asked a number of questions about my band - there are quite a few metalheads amongst Ukrainian students! There was a guy in the front row with a Dark Tranquility shirt on, which rocked.
After the seminar we went and ate some food at a local self service restaurant - such a huge variety of food to choose from, and it brought it home to me how cheap food is in Ukraine compared to the West. Most of my meals on this trip cost about £1-5, including drink and dessert.
Then it was back to the hotel for a press round table meeting, with 5 or 6 journalists. I gave a 20 minute presentation on some subjects I was told beforehand that they wanted to discuss, then they asked numerous questions. They seemed a bit reluctant to ask questions in English, but the questions started to flow in Russian, and Alexey did most of the talking after that. We managed to get our points across pretty well again.
Next an Opera community meetup followed, attended by a number of very interesting Ukranian fans, including the infamous Mongoose, our biggest Ukranian fan. After a couple of hours of beer, sushi and good conversation, it was time to board our first night train, bound for Kharkov. It was very stuffy and warm on the train, but we enjoyed a bed time beer, and caught a few hours sleep.
We kind of sleepwalked to the taxi, then sleepwalked to the 2nd hotel, where we caught a couple more hours sleep, did some work, and got ready for the second seminar. We rode across town, and ended up having lunch with the taxi driver in a really old USSR-style canteen - it felt a little strange but was very interesting, and dinner with a side salad and drink cost about £1.
When we got there, I was taken aback - the venue was absolutely huge! This was slightly odd in a number of ways. First of all, a female pop/Opera singer (who I was later told was preparing for a concert later that night) appeared out of nowhere and sang two songs to provide us with a soundcheck. We got prepared, then waited for a little while. Students started pouring in, and in the end there were about 300!
the talk went better this time - Alexey and I were more together, and I cut out most of the web history stuff, which seemed a big long winded and wasn't the best way to start the talk. the students seemed really interested in the new HTML 5 and CSS 3 features, and were asking questions about when they might get implemented, and the best way to start propagating them around the web. Also, my talk was about 20 minutes shorter, so Alexey had a good amount of time to demonstrate Opera Turbo, and talk about how he joined Opera. He engaged the audience very well, and got a lot of laughs. I was convinced he was making fun of my beard in Russian, but I've been assured he wasn't ;-)
It was also really nice to meet up with Dmitry from Stella Systems, a development company in Ukraine that is creating web sites and e-learning solutions for CIS countries and Germany. He wants to collaborate with me to use the web standards curriculum
to teach web development at schools in his area, and also get some advice form me about how to create e-learning solutions in general, for example handling video content alongside text tutorials, etc.
More good questions followed, and T-shirt wrangling, then we escaped to go get some food and beer with the campus crew guys. They took us to a good place, then showed us around Kharkov for a couple of hours, which was fun. When the night drew in, it was again time to go catch a train to our next destination. A couple more beers and good conversation followed, along with some really strange dried fish that the rather drunk train conductor sold to us. they looked hideous but worked very well as a beer snack.
Into the final destination we rode, followed by some more sleepwalking to a taxi, and some more sleeping at the hotel. We went for some lunch, then got to the university in really good time to set up and get comfortable. This proved to be the best talk of the tour - talk about going out on a high note! The crowd was almost as big as at Kharkov, and the reaction was even better, with the biggest round of applause afterwards. I was standing outside the hall for about 20 minutes having photos taken with various male and female students. It was so odd to be made to feel like a rockstar on a geek uni tour! I must say I rather enjoyed the feeling ;-)
I also had a long conversation with several students about music, the web community, and other stuff besides. They said they loved how down to earth and real the people from Opera felt, not just businessmen in suits, more trustworthy than that. They love our messages of one web worldwide, and propagating standards.
More talks with campus crew members followed, plus beer, some nice pasta, and some horrible pizza made with tomato ketchup not tomato puree. Only bad food I had in Ukraine!
We then said goodbye to Alexey, who was off to visit some friends somewhere else, and Uliana and I made our way back to Kiev; a 13 hour train ride. I sit in a slightly cramped top bunk on the train as I write this, tired, but very happy with how everything went.
So there you have it. Ukraine rocks. Not only from an Opera perspective, but also from a nation perspective - friendly, down to earth and welcoming. I wonder where I'll end up next? Umm, London I think.