DrupalCon 2018 Lessons Learned

May 7, 2018
A drawing of the six people from the Digital Services Georgia team who went to DrupalCon.

This year, 6 of our Digital Services Georgia team members headed to Nashville for DrupalCon 2018. It was a busy week of learning, meeting both new and old friends, and preparing for our upcoming Drupal 8 replatforming project.

Now that they’re back, it’s time to hear some reflections from each.

The Drupal Community is a Strong One

First off, it’s encouraging to see such a strong community around Drupal.

Chief Digital Officer, Nikhil, explains:

Seven years ago when we moved Georgia’s state agency websites to Drupal, I had to pacify other leaders that I am not indulging in risky behavior. The things about open source that worried them were the same things that excited me. While I was able to educate them about open source and Drupal, I also knew I needed to stay tuned to the radio waves of open source; the community!

DrupalCon is the perfect platform for me to renew my assurance every year that the community supporting Drupal is growing, strong, and well aligned towards the future of the product.

“Community” comprises everyone from the technical leaders who are influential in defining the roadmap, independent contributors, agencies who serve as vendor partners, and — last but not least — customers like us. For the last few years, every segment of this community has grown more mature. While I have stayed away from the internal ups and downs, it has been reassuring to see community leaders step up in the moment of need and realign members to focus on the mission.

Our Content Strategist and first-timer at DrupalCon, Jon, reflects:

Being professionally mired in editorial matters, I can sometimes feel a bit like the odd man out. But what DrupalCon confirmed for me is that it takes a range of personalities with an array of skill sets to put together a great web experience.

That’s reflected in our team at Digital Services Georgia, and I saw at DrupalCon the same range of talents and focused attention to success across the diverse slice of humanity who comprise the Drupal community.

Put simply, Jenna adds: “People are doing amazing things with Drupal!”

So What Did We Learn?

First off, everyone agrees … There was so much to learn! With 5 days packed full with sessions and summits, there was certainly never a dull moment.

Solutions Analyst, Heather, recalls one of her primary takeaways on where Drupal is heading:

Decoupled Drupal is quickly gaining traction in the community. “Decoupled” describes using Drupal as a backend content repository with a separate front end, typically using a JavaScript framework such as React, Node, or Angular. The benefits of a decoupled architecture are becoming more obvious, as we expand Drupal’s capability to serve as the single point of truth for content delivery, and also to deliver a modern web publishing solution that rivals platforms like Medium, Squarespace, etc.

The future of Drupal frontend — and even backend (1XInternet presented a fantastic demo of a very flexible and intuitive admin experience at the Decoupled Summit) —  must adapt to serve the ever-changing landscape of devices and platforms where content will be consumed in order to effectively meet user needs.

Our Development Lead, Jenna, shares one of the many fun things she learned people are doing with code:

One of my favorite sessions was Hot JAMS(tack): Building a Music Discovery App with Drupal and React. The presenter took a massive Google spreadsheet of 2017's best albums and their critics' scores compiled by the Album of the Year Project, and transformed it into an interactive React app where you can browse though the data, and visualize and sort it in different ways. You can even view the album covers and listen to the records on Spotify.

I felt like this session demonstrated well how to take existing data, open source technologies, and APIs to quickly build a simple interface that just does something cool.

And Charronda, our Support Lead, walked away with a stronger sense of ownership over site security:

At the Defense in Depth session on cyber security, I was both terrified and overwhelmed. I learned about an app that can strip personally identifiable information (PII) from images, how to capture PII through encryption, and what information needs to be protected.

For us as agencies and organizations using digital platforms to connect and communicate with the public, how informed are we regarding cyber security? As I listened, I couldn’t help but feel that certain information and terminologies, as it relates to security, should be second nature. So why isn’t it? Until hackers learn to play nice and allow us to catch up, it’s time for everyone to get more involved in securing our information.

Peer-Learning: Connecting with Other States

One of the best parts of a conference like this is getting the chance to speak in person with our counterparts in other states and industries.

Director of Product, Kendra, recalls:

What I value most about DrupalCon is all the amazing interactions I have with people across so many different parts of the Drupal ecosystem. After the conference, anyone can watch the sessions online for free. But what I can’t get from watching videos at home is the chance to talk to a leader of the layout initiative during my walk from the hotel to the conference center. From speaking with developers who are solving shared problems, to comparing notes with other state and local governments who use Drupal to power digital properties — this opportunity to interact and share ideas with so many amazing people will inform how we think about some of the solutions we’ll be tackling this year.

There are so many colleagues in the community that we only see once or twice a year at these events, so we make it a priority to connect with as many of them as possible while we’re there. I feel like we accomplish more in 4 days of in-person meetings and knowledge sharing sessions than we can with weeks of conference calls.

On Monday, our team hosted breakout sessions for state & local attendees of the Government Summit. We used that time to reconnect with folks at mass.gov, nc.gov, and oregonmetro.gov. We also made new connections with some folks from Texas, Wisconsin, and Virginia who manage individual agency or city sites on Drupal. I love hearing how others are approaching some of the same challenges we are, and sharing what we’ve learned along the way. We had opportunities to share how our round robin support system works for us, and learned that no one has cracked the code on document management.

Nikhil also values this time to talk with so many people he wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to meet:

My highlight for this DrupalCon was joining the round table discussion on making Drupal more strategic. The conversation focused on how we can come together to invest in the success of Drupal for our organizations. Megan Sanicki, the president of the Drupal Association, and Dries Buytaert, the founder of Drupal, had arranged the session and invited strategic investors from all verticals across the industry. As a strategic investor in Drupal, to be able to participate in such conversations and to learn and influence how we could further the strategic roadmap is not something customers get to experience in a proprietary environment.

Since DrupalCon organizers record talks for attendees to watch later, I can carve out time to meet and speak with other states and local government people who use Drupal. We have similar challenges and it helps to understand how they address theirs. We may be different states in geography, population count, and local challenges, but we come together to rally behind a single product. We discuss every aspect of Drupal, sometimes past midnight, and walk away energized. We learn from each other, enjoy the time spent together and promise to do the same next year.

Charronda also highlights the summit:

At the Government Summit, we connected as the “humans” behind government. This is where we came together to explore ideas, lessons learned, and action plans for creating a better public experience. When thinking of government websites, it can be easy to see why there’s such a disconnect. At the summit, I got to hear from the women and men bridging the gap between people and their government, and eliminating the wall of mistrust between the two.

Jon adds his perspective:

The Government Summit on the first day of DrupalCon was a great experience. As public servants, we fit into a particular niche within the Drupal ecosphere, with needs driven by our citizen constituencies rather than profit or play. And yet, our drive to bring information to the people fits neatly within the open source ethos that is at the heart of Drupal itself.

It was great spending the day in conversation with other government-based digital service teams, learning from one another while sharing many common experiences in service delivery in a public sector environment.

Bringing it Back Home: Supporting Our Content Managers

Yes, it was fun. We learned a lot and met some amazing people. But ultimately, we did it for you!

Heather highlights the improving support for content managers as one of her primary takeaways:

At long last, Drupal is getting serious about prioritizing support for content authors and editors. So much of our effort has been scattered amongst all sorts of technical initiatives, with very little push to improve the content authoring experience. If Drupal is to stay competitive in the CMS market, it needs to do a better job satisfying the users who spend the most time in the system every day.

Kendra adds:

I got the opportunity to talk to quite a few people about how critical the layout initiative is to all our content managers, and why supporting you, our content managers, is critical to the success of any digital property. That includes getting a chance to tell Drupal’s founder, Dries Buytaert, how excited I am to see his team at Acquia leading the layout initiative for the Drupal 8 roadmap, just in time for us to benefit from it. Finally, I got to geek out about structured content strategy with some new friends over gin and tonics at an evening networking event. It should not surprise any of you to hear that this was a highlight of my week!

Represent!

One of our team members was particularly involved with this year’s conference. Heather recounts her experience as a first-time track chair for Being Human:

I could not be prouder of and more thankful for everyone involved in facilitating this entire experience. From the speakers we selected for sharing their wisdom, talent, and commitment; to my fellow track chairs for their thoughtfulness and dedication to providing the highest quality experience possible; the Drupal Association program team for allowing us to address the human experience at a tech conference; and finally, my employers at Digital Services Georgia, who graciously supported me in my effort to give back to the community I love.

Jon fondly remembers the Being Human track as his favorite:

First, how cool is it that a tech-focused conference devotes an entire track to the subject? Whether you’re a hard-core OG dev, or a neophyte site manager, the Being Human track offered opportunities to learn and hone skills related to the day-to-day aspects of life in a tech-based career. Whatever your role in the Drupalverse, there’s value in the Being Human track.

I appreciated several sessions, but I want to single out I Was Wrong, which featured a panel of professionals, each of whom told stories of past mistakes. While each tale related in some way to the individual’s career in tech, these were also highly personal stories of empathy, growth, and forgiveness. I deeply appreciate the bravery of the panelists, including my teammate Heather Rodriguez, and that hour of humanity will stick with me long after the practical lessons I learned during the week.

Charronda remembers the same session, I Was Wrong:

How amazing that this group of people inspired us by admitting they were wrong? As a society, we are taught not to fail, not to make mistakes, to always outshine everyone in the room and to never, ever be wrong … Why? We usually learn our best lessons through mistakes. This session truly caught me by surprise and I feel inspired by the women and men who shared their stories. It’s okay to be human!

Well done, Heather!

Exhausting, but Well Worth It

Are you considering attending DrupalCon next year?

Prepare yourself with these wise words from Charronda:

I was a greedy little kid in a DrupalCon candy store and yes, I was trying my best to eat every piece of candy in site! Can you blame me? “The tracks are recorded,” I kept reminding myself, but it does nothing to sooth my urge to hear each track live and in person.

Pace yourself!

Kendra adds: “This year, by the end of day four I had lost my voice and my body felt like jello.”

So was it exhausting? 110% yes.

But would we change a thing? Maybe these final thoughts from Jon can answer that question:

Between shared sessions, lunches, and some after-hours tourism, I came away feeling closer to each of my teammates with whom I shared the 2018 DrupalCon journey, and I returned home rededicated and energized to our mission to deliver the best possible digital services experience to our fellow Georgians.

See you in Seattle!

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