7 conference innovations that helped make Drupalcon San Francisco a success
by Kieran Lal
On the last night of Drupalcon DC last year, I was at a bar with some of my friends from San Francisco. We were talking about what a great conference DCDC was. The drinks were flowing and we started throwing around ideas for Drupalcon San Francisco. Even though I was the organizer of Drupalcon Boston, I live and continue to work in San Francisco and I wanted a conference in my city.
I knew how much work goes into a Drupalcon and that there was no way I could lead a Drupalcon again. But there was an opportunity to revisit lessons I learned from Drupalcon Boston, Szeged, and DC. The Drupalcon San Francisco idea started to gel, and within three weeks we had found a new leader with a community vision, charisma, and execution capabilities to pull off Drupalcon San Francisco. On April 1st, Matt Cheney, sent out the following email.
I have spoken to most of you already, but I wanted to put it all together and throw it out to the group. San Francisco is a fantastic city and I think we should propose to hold a Drupalcon downtown at the Moscone[ed] center next March. We have an amazingly vibrant community in the Bay Area and with our collective experience in running camps, organizing projects, working with the community, raising money, and generally making it all happen we can throw a wonderful, community focused Drupalcon.
This was the first of 31 meetings the entire conference organizing committee had over the last year. While the organizing committee did the hard work of actually organizing and executing the conference I was able to focus on experimenting with the Drupalcon model. My contribution was to lead the team that sold over $400,000 in sponsorships so we had the capital and cash flow to experiment with Drupalcon. In some cases those experiments worked out, in other cases the organizers were smart enough to tell me that was a really crazy idea that wouldn't work for this conference.
- Drupalcon is both shorter and longer
- Core developer summit
- Sprint before Drupalcon
- All night coders lounge
- Drupal association retreat
Drupalcon Boston was four days long, with a fifth day as a code sprint. For Drupalcon SF we were only able to get the conference center for 3 days during the week and still avoid religious holidays. Fortunately, we were able to get two move in days in advance where we could take advantage of some of the facilities to hold smaller events. In total, the Drupal association and Drupalcon organizers organized 7 days of events around Drupalcon.
At Drupalcon Boston, some of the most stinging feedback was that Drupalcon had gotten too big with 800+ attendees, and that it was no longer a conference for core developers but it had become a conference for Drupal site builders and vendors.
I took that to heart, and concluded that the Drupal community needed a smaller more intimate event that was separate from all the site building and business side of Drupalcon. We also needed an event that was inclusive and would allow people who were motivated to improve Drupal core to attend. But most importantly, we needed an event that was fun and reflected the passion the Drupal community has for working together.
Dries suggested the format of lightning talks and expert panels to provide structured debates. But after feedback from the community to have more breakout sessions, we dropped the panels. We experimented with a bunch of invitation criteria, and exclusivity to keep the event focused and on track. In the end, the criteria worked pretty well but it certainly upset key contributors in the community either because requirements are culturally not accepted or because the execution and communication of the criteria was inconsistent. We experimented quickly, cheaply, and failed in some areas. The conclusion was that the event exceeded expectations and that it should be a permanent addition to Drupalcon.
My observation from prior Drupalcons is that many people were too burned out either from partying or from attending sessions for 3 days to be their most effective in a code sprint. Adding a sprint before Drupalcon allowed us to tap some of that fresh passion. I found that the sprinters on Sunday were bright and fresh and the newbies were ready to learn how to contribute to core.
For Drupalcon SF I had come up with the idea that we would train 1000 unemployed bay area residents, or journalists, or students about how to use Drupal as a way to grow the community. To test this idea we held an all day training session for 120 people in a classroom at Drupal Camp San Francisco.
Fortunately, Josh Koenig, Jen Lamptom, and Matt Cheney actually knew how to train people successfully. As Jen put it, if you actually want people to learn, you need small class sizes with less than 25 people. Not only did they organize 20 training classes for almost 500 people successfully, but they managed to earn almost $60,000 in training fees after expenses and trainers were paid. During the closing ceremony, Matt Cheney pointed out that training more Drupalers was probably the most important accomplishment at Drupalcon San Francisco.
There were over 400 sessions submitted for Drupalcon San Francisco, but just over 100 were selected. We clearly are not utilizing the amazing learning content our community has to it's fullest. We need to provide more knowledge sharing experiences to our community.
During the last two years we've held four Drupal regional events in the Bay Area with 1100 unique registrants for those camps with no admission fee. We also held dozens of monthly local user groups in Berkeley, San Francisco, the South Bay, and Santa Cruz, all with no admission fee. However, when we compared the list of camp registrants with the people who bought a Drupalcon ticket for an average prices of $215 we found that only 300 of 1100 prior camp registrants had purchased a ticket to Drupalcon.
While there may be many reasons why so many people did not purchase a Drupalcon ticket, I can't help but think that cost is a barrier. When I started working on Drupal I was unemployed, and many of the people I know started using Drupal as students with limited funds. If we want Drupal to continue to grow we need to continue to aggressively lower barriers to adoption and use, and having a free unconference that connects people who want to learn with people who want to share knowledge should be a goal of Drupalcons. Crystal Williams understood this and helped make this new Drupalcon innovation happen.
At Drupalcon one of my many tasks is to act as a cat herder. One of the toughest parts is interrupting people who are in the middle of making incredibly important contributions when the conference venue is closing. When Josh Lawrence, Diana Connolly and I were touring the Parc 55 hotel and negotiating our hotel block packages I asked for all night coders lounge. It was important that we always had a place to go and work together without interruption.
Tiffany Farris, Laura Scott and others have been pushing for organizational facilitation for quite some time. While the association does meet in person, The Drupal association has not yet been able to dedicate a full day to have a facilitated session. The association faces many challenges in transitioning from a group of Drupal project collaborators to a successful non-profit that supports the Drupal project. By having facilitated meetings the association can plan it's future, build consensus, and set priorities which strengthens the Drupal project in yet one more way. The meeting was organized by the Drupal association's interm General manager and Treasurer Jacob Redding. Thirty permanent members of the Drupal association participated in advance of the retreat to help ensure the permanent members could make the most of the day.
The ability to experiment and create value with the Drupalcon model depends on having the conference fundamentals in place, and the Drupalcon organizers made that possible. I was also lucky enough to have the support of Acquia's investors, my management team, particularly Tom, Warren, Tim, Lynne, Dries, as well as my colleagues who've helped make my day job easier while I've been guiding these conference innovations. With out support and execution from the conference organizers and Acquia this event wouldn't have been the success that it was.
The ability to spend money on these experiments and take risks come from having have great returns on investment on prior Drupalcons. To paraphrase Peter Drucker
Profit is not the purpose of, but a limiting factor on business enterprise and business activity. Profit is not the explanation, cause, or rationale of business behavior and business decisions, but rather the test of their validity.
As Matt Cheney indicated in the closing ceremony, Drupalcon is on track to be a very profitable activity. The profit from Drupal is almost equivalent to total sponsorship revenue. That will hopefully lead to a whole new set of conference innovations at Drupalcons Copenhagen and Chicago. If you've got a innovative idea for how to improve Drupalcon write a blog post about it, I'd love to hear about how the Drupal community can make more innovative conferences.