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DrupalCon Vienna: Behind the Scenes of the DriesNote

Drupalcon Vienna 2017 Dries Buytaert keynote

It was an early morning, and my alarms started going off at 5:30 a.m. The early wakeup would be worth it; this morning I would be shadowing Dries Buytaert, creator and project lead of Drupal and Acquia’s founder and CTO. I had the opportunity to sit down with him during the final rehearsal for his keynote presentation at DrupalCon Vienna.

Sitting down on the stage before the prenote, I asked Dries how he was feeling about his presentation. Every “Driesnote” requires a lot of preparation and several late nights to get it all done but Dries’ goal this year was to present a balanced presentation. He was, of course, planning to highlight the growth of the Drupal community and its accomplishments but also what needed to be fixed. Much has changed in the 18 years since Dries created the first Drupal framework while finishing his masters degree.

“I originally built Drupal for myself. After I first open sourced Drupal, I could review every feature request, every bug report, every patch, and now I only see a fraction,” he said.

This is part of the importance of DrupalCon; to be a rallying cry to the community at large to tackle some of the biggest technical challenges, as outlined by Dries in his presentation.

“We're lucky to have a large community of contributors in the Drupal community. The community can only help solve our most important challenges if they know and understand them, he said. DrupalCon is like an internal meeting, in a way, to align on our goals and to accelerate collaboration around important initiatives. But it’s also external; part of DrupalCon is targeted at people new to Drupal or people considering to adopt Drupal. It's unusual to combine both internal and external topics in one keynote. On the one end, you end up exposing your dirty laundry to evaluators, on the other hand you end up selling Drupal to some of its most loyal users and contributors. I think it can be refreshing though - but keynotes aren't sales pitches like those of our proprietary competitors.”

DrupalCon, the annual conference of Drupalists worldwide, is full of energy. Recently, the community had struggled with things like the slow release cycle of Drupal for example, but there seems to very little residual negativity from that floating around (or perhaps all the singing and lederhosen in the pre-note blasted it out of the room). DrupalCons have always been a generally positive and highly anticipated event.

“If you think about it’,” Dries said, we're a global community of thousands of contributors across more than 250 countries in the world. This means that nearly all the work is virtual. So when we come together, people are happy to see each other and collaborate in person. It almost makes it more like a family reunion than a conference.”

One of the points of pride of the Drupal community for Dries is that it’s not just made of impassioned developers. For Drupal to succeed, there is a need for a large number of non-developer contributors, from designers to marketers to documentation writers, to project managers, to event organizers, sales people and much more. Even the Drupal core committer team has diversified with the addition a UX designer.

“I spoke to a person once, invited him to contribute a bug fix, and provided some help along the way,” Dries said. Now he runs a Drupal shop with more than 30 employees that gives back to Drupal a lot. Getting people involved with small way can pay huge dividends, which is why onboarding new contributors is so important.”

Dries at DrupalCon is very different from Dries at Acquia. While he may be our fearless leader, he’s pretty much a celebrity in Vienna. Walking the halls with him, he’s stopped every few feet by fellow Drupalists. Conversation range from ideas and pitches to genuine thanks for creating Drupal and leading the community.

And of course, there are several selfies taken (despite my offer to take the photo). But Dries himself, despite his leadership roles, considers himself as an introvert at heart and often more of a consultant, helping to gather other brilliant minds to combat technical challenges. He helps to guide the ship that way. Dries created Drupal as a creative outlet for himself and still at times, seems genuinely surprised and elated at how much it means to people today.

The Driesnote always starts with the State of Drupal as a whole. I won’t recap the entire thing because Dries already did that, but here are the highlights. Drupal is growing; from the 2017 Drupal Business Survey, surveyed 239 executives from Drupal agencies, 38 percent reported they are exclusively using Drupal 8. In regards to D8, it has become much more mature with 1400 stable modules, a 2x increase from year. In addition, there are 4,000 Drupal 8 modules in development. In parallel, the growth of headless or decoupled CMS has been rapid, with some agencies reporting a 500 percent growth year over year.

Why does this matter? Because it means Drupal itself has, in Dries’ opinion, no longer become the platform for simple sites. This declaration rattled some in the community, as Drupal hosts many blogs, portfolio and small business sites. But this is becoming the lower end of the Drupal market, as many more mid-market to enterprise level companies are looking toward open source frameworks to create what Dries calls “ambitious digital experiences.” This doesn’t mean Drupal is only for global mega-brands. Drupal is for anyone looking to create something unique, be it an art museum looking to engage art lovers in cool ways or a start-up with a big idea that expects their website to showcase something totally new and innovative.

There were several calls to action Dries made to the Drupal Community, but the two big ones were:

  1. Adding a JavaScript framework to Core: The reality is really good user experience is built with JavaScript. Not only do developers want to use JS but as mentioned above, headless / decoupled is taking the world by storm.
  2. Automatic Updates: Industry leaders like Apple and Microsoft have already figured out how to do automatic updates; Drupal should as well. Automatic updates would serve as security best practice as well. We all know hacks can severely damage a brand

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These changes have already begun. Since his presentation a week ago, Drupal's core committers proposed and JavaScript maintainers have proposed to go with React. However, Dries started sowing the seeds of JS more than two years ago; at the time, despite knowing it was the right decision for Drupal, the idea was not well received by the community. However, Dries has learned that listening, adjusting, and conviction have ultimately led to the changes he has wanted within Drupal.

The negativity or reluctance to adopt something he has proposed doesn’t really deter Dries; he understands that with any major change Drupal, it can mean developers having to completely re-learn something they’ve already invested sometimes years in. It can be frustrating. Though he’s sympathetic to that frustration, Drupal would not continue to exist without the continued innovation from release to release.

When I started Drupal, Google was only a few years old. SEO wasn't a thing yet, Dries said. Text messaging was invented only one year before Drupal. The mobile web didn't exist. JavaScript was a dirty word among web developers. Open source was distrusted. Layouts were table based instead of CSS based. Many technology waves have come along and forced us as a community to adapt, and even reinvent ourselves at times. But with Drupal, we thrived on invention, and the ability to help build the future.

So what does Dries hope to see in Drupal’s immediate future? It’s pretty simple really; The transition from Drupal 7 to Drupal 8 be completed and the for the community to continue on a positive trajectory. The good news is, those things seem to be on their way.

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