DrupalCon 2015 Event Reflection

Published in Women Who Code newsletter, 2015

Drupal is an open source, web development platform that my colleagues and I use to build cool and cost-efficient websites for nonprofits. Standing on the core code and borrowing from the universe of community-contributed modules makes it possible for our nonprofit clients to afford online class registration systems, community forums, libraries of educational resources--all with stylishly designed themes and well-organized content architecture.

But who are the organizations building these modules? What goals do the community and its leaders have in mind for the platform? And how can I help? These questions motivated me to apply to Women Who Code’s ticket giveaway and ultimately attend DrupalCon 2015 in Los Angeles.

Who are the organizations building these modules?

The Drupal community in attendance included both multinational corporations like Time Inc. and Pfizer as well as tiny, ten-person Drupal shops like mine, Giant Rabbit LLC. And the conference schedule featured sessions by marketers, academics, and activists. To anyone unfamiliar with the platform, this might have seemed like a strange mix.

The organizational diversity represented at DrupalCon might be key to the platform’s success. If Cartier and Krispy Kreme hadn’t invested in Drupal Commerce, would the module and its associated tutorials have been polished and useful enough--not to mention affordable enough--for Giant Rabbit’s clients too? Because whether you’re selling $10,000 watches or a $10 cooking class, site visitors need pretty much the same things: they want to search and browse their options, they need to pay, and they probably want a receipt. And if we fix a bug in one commonly used receipt module, we’re happy to see other companies of any size benefit from it too!

Subject area expertise was another type of community diversity I came to appreciate at the conference (and let’s hear it for gender diversity, 7 out of the 13 speakers I heard were women). One presenter, Garrett Voorhees of Chapter 3, gave a historical overview and analysis of Typography, complete with a Helvetica vs. Arial quiz. Another panel of presenters from Pac 12-Networks showed how they are
coordinating college sport broadcasts and providing real-time game score updates with a complex combination of open source projects, which includes Drupal.

And perhaps more valuable than the expertise on show were the sessions by people who claimed to be enthusiastic about--but far from experts in--tangential topics like psychology and new theories of service experience design. They shared what they had found interesting and helpful to their own practice as web designers and developers. As someone new to web development, I found these talks particularly inspiring. There does appear to be space in the community and on stage for new people who have a bit of tenacity, curiosity, and desire to learn new things.

What goals do the community and its leaders have in mind for the platform?

In terms of goals for the platform, Drupal founder Dries Buytaert made it clear in his keynote that personalizing web experiences is an important priority for him. If I visit the homepage of an airline after stepping off the flight, I am invited to book another. What if it showed me the number I need to call because my luggage is lost or offered to call a cab? Because it would know that I had just arrived, that my luggage was lost, and probably need to get somewhere else in the city. The promise of these personalized web experiences is better service and less searching, and the peril is greater loss of privacy. The truth is we love these kinds of features and I have no doubt company websites are moving in that direction. My hope, however, is that web designers and developers will continue to build engaging online experiences and provide useful information to people who would prefer to protect their privacy, browse sites anonymously, and leave satisfied without having created an account.

In his keynote, the founder Dries Buytaert emphasized that the history of Drupal has been a history of incorporating wide ranges of ideas and different types of contributions. The conference agenda reflected this value. From what I could see at the conference, we have good reasons to think that the Drupal community will continue to move the platform going forward along many different fronts, be they speed, user experience, customizability, etc.

And how can I help?

I wanted to attend DrupalCon to find out how I could contribute, specifically to Drupal.org, the community site for Drupal, and the Drupal ecosystem. Drupal.org is a mostly chaotic, rarely organized collection of issue queues, blog posts, tutorials, and contributed modules produced by a distributed community of members from all around the world with varying degrees of time to commit to the platform (think Eric Raymond’s bazaar). Without Drupal.org and the discussions captured there, it would have been impossible for me to start working with Drupal. The presentations by Drupal Association staff (who manage Drupal.org) and community contributions were grounded in community values like diverse governance, explicit decision-making processes, inviting feedback, and reflecting and recognizing contributions to encourage more of them. Along with providing clear inroads for new contributors, presentations by the Drupal Association also provided good models for community development, generally.

Attending the conference gave me a better understanding of the kinds of contributions appreciated by the community, the guidelines and procedures that would make it easier for them to incorporate contributions, as well as the groundwork required to sustain a community of Drupal’s size and diversity. All of which, in summary, takes a lot of time. As much as I would love to dive in and start tackling tickets in one of Drupal.org’s many issue queues, the reality is that I need to spend the majority of my time on billable work. Combined with the fact that my relationship with Drupal is primarily a professional one, I see my contributions most likely continuing to come from work specifically requested by clients on contributed modules. Recent changes to the site, suggest that I am not alone. Users and developers can now tag companies and clients in comments and commit messages; a very welcome addition by conference attendees.

Drupal core members and Association staff are keenly aware that contributions from the community most often require the kind of sustained commitment that comes with professional support. Cathy Theys from BlackMesh, a full-time contributor to the platform, recommended companies allow one or two employees to work full-time on Drupal core or Drupal.org for several month stretches, instead of encouraging all employees to work on it a few hours here and there throughout the year. Her recommendation makes a lot of sense, but also means, benefiting the platform, not just benefiting from it, will have to remain a tricky balancing act for a lot of us without several months to spare. My hope in the coming year is that I make more of an effort to participate in comment threads directly related to my work, and keep an eye out for opportunities to participate on a larger scale. And in these ways help Drupal continue to be a viable web development platform for organizations of all sizes, so long as they are also trying through their work to make the world a better place.