What is DrupalCon to you?

Drupal

Yesterday, we had a Drupal Association Board Meeting to discuss upcoming DrupalCons. The meeting ran very long as we discussed and debated what criteria we should consider in selecting cities for DrupalCons in 2012, 2013 and beyond. Passions ran hot at times as we hashed out our thoughts on our evolving process for making these decisions.

  • What is the purpose of DrupalCon?
  • What components make for a great DrupalCon?
  • What factors play into selecting a city for throwing a majorly successful DrupalCon?

In the end, I feel that we made a lot of progress in this meeting. This post is not a debrief of this meeting, though, but rather is a collection of some of my own thoughts about DrupalCon, shared as a member of the Drupal community.

Growing presents challenges

As Drupal continues to grow so quickly, the Drupal Association has been working hard to adapt. The community is many times larger than when I joined it over 6 years ago, even since when the Drupal Association launched in 2006.

  • Members on Drupal.org are now over 1 million 515784. [I stand corrected. User id's are over 1000000, but many accounts have withered, were never used after registration, or turned out to be spammers who were blocked. And since about uid 600000 the uid numbers have been incremented by 5 2, not 1. Even so, that's a lot more than when I first joined.]
  • There are more Drupal Meetups happening around the world ... and many meetups are growing in size.
  • Drupal Camps in various cities are proliferating and growing. Many are now bigger than DrupalCons were just a few years ago.

No question: People want their Drupal, and they want their Drupal events.

Worldwide there are all kinds of Drupal community events of all sizes. For the Drupal Association, we've decided to focus our attention (for now) just on DrupalCons, as they are the most challenging to pull off, most expensive to produce, and are the only Drupal events that are primarily international in nature. Who else but the Drupal Association is in a position to produce DrupalCons?

(We've been testing ways to support regional Drupal Camps, and are looking for ways to help support Drupal Meetups, code sprints, hackathons, and other smaller community events that help people get better at Drupal and get more involved in the Drupal community. More on that in 2011....)

On the Drupal Association Board, I think we're all in general agreement that DrupalCon is about serving the Drupal community. But what that phrase "serving the Drupal Community" actually means can differ, depending upon whom you ask. Each of us on the Board has his or her own idea. This is what we ended up discussing in great depth — or as much as could be covered in 6 hours.

But difference of opinion about DrupalCon mirrors the diversity of the greater Drupal community. Indeed, yesterday, as word of our discussion got out, some people began tweeting thoughts and attitudes about DrupalCons. (I'm not going to try to characterize those tweets, or the thoughts of anyone else. We all have our own ideas. Perhaps you will share your own thoughts in comments below?)

It's about the community

Drupal is fabulously powerful software, no question. The ways it can be used to build quickly all kinds of powerful websites and web apps that otherwise would require potentially tens of thousands of programming hours to get off the ground make Drupal extremely appealing to businesses and individuals alike. I'm simply thrilled by the success Drupal has enjoyed in the online world, and delight being able to draw upon Drupal for solutions to challenges I face every day at work at PINGV Creative.

But to me, what makes Drupal a powerful force in the web design and development marketplace is the community.

When I go to DrupalCons, it's like getting a contact high. The collective energy of all these people, who are all there to learn about Drupal, get better at Drupal, meet people to work with on Drupal, hire people to work on Drupal, share what they're working on in Drupal, and just connect with other people in "real" life that they otherwise see only online, is invigorating. Code sprints, documentation sprints, theming sprints, keynotes that make you think, sessions that feed your brain, parties that help you wind down — DrupalCon is an experience in full.

As the community grows, how can DrupalCon adapt? So far, we've been making DrupalCons larger to accommodate demand. Naturally that's going to change the character of things. It takes more work to produce a DrupalCon now. A lot more work. It takes real money as well to secure the venue(s), buy the food, establish wifi for one of the most network-resource-demanding crowds of any conference per capita, build and maintain the website, handle ticket sales, staff the event, work with sponsors, and the list goes on and on.

This leaves us with a choice: Make DrupalCons small, and lock out thousands of people who want to come; or let DrupalCons grow, and find ways to underwrite the expense and effort it takes to throw a major event in a different city twice each year.

We've obviously gone the latter way, and for my part this is a good thing. The more people can get exposed to Drupal through DrupalCon, the better for Drupal. And yet it's not just about numbers. We want this to be about the community.

One commitment the Board made early on was to keep the ticket price affordable. People may differ on what's "affordable," but for me it means keeping it under about $100 per day. We want to make it easy for people curious about Drupal to drop by. We want it to be accessible to your average person living on a budget. And we have a scholarship program to provide free passes to people in particular financial need.

In short, if the event is too expensive, only the true believers who have the wherewithal to come will come, and we won't grow the community through this event. And that would be a failure, in my opionion.

But there are other ways DrupalCons can serve the community:

  • Offer quality sessions that share knowledge. This has been a touchstone for every DrupalCon ever, but this doesn't mean other kinds of sessions don't slip through. I'm not all that thrilled about brag sessions, for example, where presenters show off something, but don't really share the how or what so that the attendees actually learn something more than "Joe certainly thinks very highly of himself." Or sessions where the presenter has 10 minutes of material, and then just fields questions (if there are any). I prefer sessions I can sink my teeth into. These are the kinds of sessions I try to create when I'm presenting.
  • Provide ways for people to get involved. The code sprints are great, but lately they've had the image of being just for the elite developers — which is an essential part of DrupalCon, because when else will so many core developers be able to get in the same room for uninterrupted hours of collaboration? But also important are the quiet "coder rooms" we've had lately, where people can hunker down and get their hands dirty. And the birds-of-a-feather rooms where people can gather on a smaller scale to workshop or discuss whatever interests them.
  • Revealing all kinds of things you didn't know you didn't know. It's also exciting to see what others are doing. The community is quite huge. There's so much going on that duplication of efforts can be a real problem. DrupalCon provides a great way to connect people across continents, and expose people to all kinds of things other people are doing, including oodles of things you never even knew was happening. That is exciting, and I feel provides a rush for many of us attending. Many, if not most, of us leave DrupalCon fired up to do more. You don't get that from a forum or IRC chat.

Community is the foundation. All else comes from that — the code, the business, the cool websites….

Clients follow the community, not the other way around

To me, this is how open source works. I'm sure many won't agree with me on this point. But the Drupal community came to be before the Drupal ecosphere. Today it may be hard to discern, because clients are such a huge part of the Drupal community. Professional paid Drupal work is a major driving force in Drupal development, and we definitely want to keep that paradigm going. Drupal can't thrive if it's only a hobbyist's technology.

And yet, my view is that the clients are there not simply because Drupal is the bee's knees. Drupal is a powerful technology, no question, but it's the community that makes Drupal's technological power credible. The thousands upon thousands of people all collaborating on the commons that is Drupal are really why Drupal is so great ... or at least a hugely major reason. In choosing any open source project, the savvy client looks at the strength of the community behind it. Drupal wins because of all of us thousands of people behind it, working ot make it better. Take the Drupal code as it stands today, and back it with a community of 100 people only, and you'll see usage of Drupal flatten and eventually drop.

Nobody wants to adopt an open source technology with weak community support.

By extension, I see DrupalCon as best benefiting the professional Drupal consulting ecosphere by focusing on building and strengthening the community, rather than focusing on making an event optimized for finding clients and making deals. I say this because if we do the former, the latter follows.

Someone has to pay for it

And this gets us back to cost, because if we can't keep DrupalCons affordable to people, the events will not be doing all they can to help build and strengthen the community.

Over the years, there have been complaints about how DrupalCon sponsors have become increasingly visible. Some have asserted that the Drupal Association focuses too much attention on sponsors.

Here's the thing: When events cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, someone has to pay. If we keep the ticket costs down to make them affordable to a lot of people, the balance of cost has to be picked up by the sponsors. We want sponsors. We need sponsors. Otherwise we don't have events. Or we have ticket prices 2x, 3x, 4x more expensive.

And yet I also see sponsors as community members. We don't want to use up sponsors as if they're bamboo forests, expendable and replenishable. Our sponsors are part of our community. Most of the sponsors are in fact Drupal shops that comprise an important part of our community code, design and documentation efforts. DrupalCon sponsorships are not just revenue sources, they're also a major means for these companies and organizations to engage with and contribute to the community.

Sponsorship rates have gone up as the costs of events have gone up – and (very important) as attendance has gone up. My feeling is that we want to continue to offer a very diverse range of sponsorship opportunities, so that Fortune 500 companies can pony up big money for a big presence, while smaller shops can engage at lower financial levels. Over the various DrupalCons of recent years, there's been variable success at achieving this, and we're always looking for ways to do better.

What do you think?

I'm going to wrap up this rambling post here. What do you think? What makes a great DrupalCon? What would you like to see? What are DrupalCons getting right? How would you like DrupalCons to improve? What were your favorite DrupalCons of the past? And why?