Drupal Association Election 2013: Why I am withdrawing my candidacy, and who I'll be voting for
It is that time of year again when the Drupal community (1/4 of a million people last time were eligible as they had logged into their drupal.org account at least once in the year previous, although only 655 voted, roughly 0.25%) have the opportunity to choose who sits on the Board of Directors of the Drupal Association, a U.S.-based educational non-profit organization that tasks itself with fostering and supporting the Drupal software project, the community and its growth.
Well, I say that time of year again, but actually the first of these community elections, where Donna Benjamin and I were voted in, happened less than a year ago back in February. The election has been brought forward in order to align the yearly goal-setting which was made before we were elected, so we had no say over the 2012 goals, and however strange it feels as we haven't had our full year to show what we have done before the community is asked to vote again, I believe we can use this to our advantage.
For a period of a few months, the Drupal Association will potentially have four community-elected Directors, which is one of the reasons I've decided to withdraw my candidacy for re-election. If I am re-elected, we will only have three, going back to two in February 2013 when Donna's and my terms finish. Why is this so important? Read on...
At the moment there are twelve seats on the Board. Two are empty, and one is nearly or is free as it is currently held by someone who had made it clear they couldn't make the meetings - I've certainly never met nor heard from them. That leaves us with seven - Dries Buytaert, Danese Cooper, Angela Byron (webchick), Tiffany Farriss, Jeff Walpole, Vesa Palmu, and Cary Gordon. These elections are for Donna and my positions, which only last a year, and you are eligible to vote if you have an account on drupal.org, logged in during the past 12 months, and created your account before 31 August 2012 when the election was announced. The remaining three positions are to be chosen using a nominating committee.
As for the make-up of the Board, Dries and webchick are both Acquia; Danese is Open Source Strategist for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and on Board of Open Source Initiative; Tiffany runs Palantir.net along with husband George DeMet; Jeff runs Phase2 Technology; Vesa runs the recently formed Wunderkraut (previously four companies); and Cary Gordon, who runs the Cherry Hill Company - "a Los Angeles based boutique system integration and development shop serving libraries, education, non-profits and NGOs", has history in running many, large, music concerts, and used to be Events Director for the Association.
Donna runs a small Drupal business in Australia, and I have been freelancing building web sites for the past eleven years. The last seven of those I have been focusing on Drupal, and the last few of those years I have been trying to build a business as building web sites myself doesn't fill me with enjoyment - it is something which paid the rent after I was made redundant back in the dotcom days where I was consulting on, and winning, web site projects which had six figure budgets.
Then there is also an Advisory Board, although my only contact with them personally was during DrupalCon Denver where we had a strategy session together late in the evening after the open Board meeting - our Board meeting ran late during DrupalCon Munich so at 9.20pm it was decided to can the planned strategy session.
Learning Drupal the Hard Way
In order for this story to make sense, I have to delve into some history. I'd love not to have to, and believe it or not I've tried to make it as brief as possible.
What makes me get up in the morning and work late into the night is creating value by connecting people with people, people with technology, and technology with technology - after all, my core process is "fostering connections". I discover who and/or what needs to be connected for mutual benefit, I connect, I check the connection is working, then I go elsewhere and rinse and repeat.
In 2005 after a few years of helping people on the business network Ecademy find out more about free software, for free, I came up with a concept of how I could make money out of my talents as a connector, and in turn others could make a living out of whatever their talents were, simply by raising the intangible free software into the tangible world via a scalable variation on coworking spaces, which were beginning to crop up at the time. I coined the rather long title of Organic Open Source Cafe Coworking Concept and was so sure that everyone else would "get" the idea they would be throwing money at me to build them all over the world!
I had a mentor through Ecademy at the time, and one particular day when I was stressed because no-one was throwing pots of money in my direction, he recommended I needed a break. He was doing a talk in Toronto that weekend, so I thought where better to chill out than above the clouds, and promptly booked my tickets. Ecademy itself is a Drupal site, however I wasn't using Drupal myself (I had settled on XOOPS after working my way through the *nukes) and had the same view of Drupal as many still do - I thought it was just too damned hard to even bother taking a look.
I loved the "go for it" attitude in Toronto and decided to return home, pack up, and come back to Canada for a while, see if anyone there would throw me pots of money. The first few months were fantastic and I met many luminaries of Free Culture, including Lawrence Lessig (creator of Creative Commons), Eben Moglen (founder of the Software Freedom Law Centre), and John Terpstra (co-founder of the Samba project). We spoke at length about my concept and got some great responses and feedback. I then met a girl who I didn't realise hadn't been on "meds" for three years, in fact I didn't even know what "meds" were.
Without getting into the ins-and-outs, let's just say it didn't get much better from hereon in, apart from one thing which happened which was one of the XOOPS websites I made for a client, the now defunct LinuxVAR.co.uk, was relaunched in Drupal, which really pissed me off, so I finally cracked open Drupal and was hooked straight away - I couldn't understand why they weren't shouting about how good it was!
At the time I couldn't be seen to be interacting with anyone else, so I learned Drupal just by downloading modules and reading the code. I was quite adept to this as when I first learned how to code at the age of nine I spent most of my time in my bedroom on the computer playing around with code. I couldn't control my parents arguing, but I could control this amazing virtual world I had in front of my eyes. Having spent my childhood buying floppy disks of Public Domain software pre-Internet, I didn't know there was this whole "community" side to it, but I did realise soon that it could do everything the software I had previously been selling for £70k+ per licence, and all for Free.
Thanks to a good friend, I finally managed to "escape" the bad relationship and return back to the UK. I ended up going bankrupt a few months later, but shortly before that I tried my first piece of community interaction, I posted a little module I'd written for displaying your LinkedIn profile in a box. Five and half years on, still no response. OK, so it was probably posted in the wrong place, but how was I supposed to know?
After bankruptcy I picked myself up again and managed to build a good business because I knew Drupal. A year later I managed to pick up a great project for Mazda, and I used that money to move myself down to Brighton where I soon set up a local Drupal user group, and last weekend we had our second successful DrupalCamp, with everyone from career-changers to schools, charities, and multinational corporates turning up and joining in. The rest is history.
Although I've been in the Drupal world for many years, I still feel like an outsider sometimes, and I know many others feel the same - we have the Drupal "echo chamber". I remember once picking up webchick on a point during DrupalCon Denver when she said "100% of the community want this function on drupal.org" - I pointed out to webchick that it was actually "everyone you asked", as I'd asked everyone in the Drupal party the previous night and none of them even knew there was anything going on with drupal.org. Many people don't even know drupal.org is there or what it does.
Even when I'm lucky enough to be sitting in the back of a car with UID1 himself (although I learned recently that he was actually UID2 originally as it was his mate who installed Drupal first before he asked to swap UIDs!). Those who submitted code seemed to be the ones who were looked after the most, but I know from my previous experience of many years working in software houses that it takes more than coders and designers to make a successful project, it takes project managers, sales people, marketers, etc. to provide an all-round offering. If you leave geeks to do marketing they will do their best, but a better option is to get them connected to people who are experts in their field.
The Simple Solution
Drupal wasn't, and isn't built by money, it is built by people with passion. And some with money, no doubt, but the extremely long tail of the Drupal community is what makes it work and keep on growing. At the moment that works with code, but it doesn't successfully reach out to many non-code focused people. Marketing people, sales, project managers, etc. all mostly work outside the issue queues and in companies - they still work in a proprietary way, and that doesn't scale. The trouble is, if it's not on drupal.org, it's not on the same system which successfully created the software and the coding community.
The result of this is we've made a wonderful modular piece of software, we just haven't built the modular business model on top of it yet.
This is what we are beginning to fix with DrupalBAM - Branding and Marketing Committee. This is not a committee to create any chains of command, it is simply to put a system in place so those who want to join in and contribute to the project can. As webchick said during the Governance BoF in Munich:
"Things like committees and charters, they're scary words, even though it's not that scary, it's just putting people where an individual used to be in a lot of cases, or putting five people where a hundred people used to be"
We are essentially open sourcing Drupal's branding and marketing processes. This means working on big ideas, but also attending to the details at the same time, like helping get through the marketing-related issue queues. Because we are now "on the system", we can do things in parallel, and anyone is free to join in and help. It is going to take time for people to get onto the system and used to what little flexibility we have on the current system, but already it is working and we are seeing results.
As more people use the system, more issues will be resolved, more different ideas will be shared, the easier Drupal and *.drupal.org will become to use, and we will have a more rounded and fair community, with more people having an input, and more people helping out.
At the moment people are shouting "just do it" but not telling people what they want them to do, and even when they do they seem to make it as hard as possible to do. The amount of times I've looked at issue queues and run away, yet within five minutes of talking to someone it all became clear - that isn't scalable quickly though, unless we all start making short video tutorials, but better to make it easier in the first place to join in. As Jared Spool said in his DrupalCon keynote, you either have to raise the level of knowledge of your users or lower the complexity of your software.
Much work had been done on marketing before, but in many different places and having many of the same conversations - I know because I spent a ton of money going around as many Drupal events as I could in order to learn as much as I could about the business side of things as I have had little help from "official" bodies who are supposed to provide support and help for those who want to build a business, but the Drupal CXO people were all sharing ideas, and I was listening intently.
Why we need more representation on the Board
When I could finally afford to go to my first DrupalCon it was only a couple of years ago in Copenhagen. I had just been to an event here in Brighton entitled "Connecting Innovation" where Ken Thompson did a workshop and a talk on "Virtual Enterprise Networks". I read the book and the model Ken had created and used with clients including NASA seemed to match pretty much how the Drupal community looked to me - lots of companies, freelancers, and people across the world all coming together to create something bigger than the constituent parts.
I was really excited as I'd spoken to many people who had trouble finding work even though I kept hearing of this "Drupal Talent Gap", and the only way to get work seemed to be either be great at business, or work for a company. For many, Drupal is about Freedom, and the thought of doing a 9-5 is pretty abhorrent to many I spoke to. Drupal is also different in that the person you want to help you could be the opposite side of the world, it's such a big project it's impossible to know everything about it.
As I mentioned in my previous nomination back in February, I saw someone I knew was on the Drupal Association Board and asked if there was anyone I could speak to about this method which meant we could all collaborate on the business side only to get a response of "They're all very busy working for very large corporations", which of course threw me a bit. It didn't give me a great impression of the Drupal Association, and instead of pursuing that, I spent the next eighteen months working out the starting point for this so I could do it myself.
Eventually I worked out the first and most important part was to create a live skills heatmap so we could see who's available where and when, and what skills they have. That can be companies and individuals, and would enable us to work more like the film industry does when they come together to produce a film. It also mimics the natural world much more, for example starlings where no one single one knows the whole journey but together they do.
I began this year pursuing this and it was my intention to go round the events so I could talk to potential members and clients. It didn't turn out quite like that because at the second event, CXO Process event in Amsterdam, I bumped into Vesa Palmu and upon asking him about the elections which were going on he said there had only been a couple of people nominate themselves. After my previous experience with the DA not wanting to talk to me I thought "Well, they would have to if I was on the Board, right?" and as it was deadline that night I decided to nominate myself. Amsterdam can be trouble sometimes!
The next day a Drupal friend had made me a graphic "Vote Steve!" image and within a week I was voted in. I got a fair amount of backlash for the "Vote Steve!" thing, but I'd personally never heard of an election without a campaign, and at the time it seemed like a bit of fun. I'd helped many people out over the years with Drupal, and well-known in the community, and as it was a community position I felt "well, if I didn't have a community of supporters, I wouldn't really be a good representation of the community, would I?". Sure, we want people from under-represented countries, but as mentioned above, we have three further seats on the Board available which could help there, plus we could always consider opening up more seats.
It was a strange start to my Directorship, but within a month or two we had already managed to take the work we'd been doing on marketing and with the help of the Board we created the committee and charter. Ben Finklea was chosen to head it up as he had 'made it happen' in Denver at the marketing BoF, and whilst others had done much groundwork before, it was Ben who took the lead over the final hurdle and got everything and everyone in place to make it happen.
Admittedly I went into the Board with guns-a-blazing, however I realise many issues arise due to lack of, or no communication, and have grown to highly respect each and every person on the board. They have all made remarkable contributions to the Drupal project, and we have a wonderful opportunity to broaden the reach of the Board and we should be focusing on that.
Looking to the Future
DrupalBAM is just one solution, we need to focus on improving our own communication tools. We seem to have to use a different web conferencing each week - when this is such an integral part of how we collaborate it is essential that we invest in our own, free and open source, scalable systems. I've started a discussion on improving web conferencing tools if it's something you're interested in.
Biggest of all IMHO is helping move the Commons 3 project along and get it onto gdo so "normal" people can collaborate easier. There's some prototypes here and I believe Acquia are helping, but we shouldn't always look at other people to help, we need to work out ways to fund these sorts of initiatives ourselves and share the load.
The Drupal Association needs to focus on improving the tools we use, and working on stuff which a business couldn't necessarily make money out of but is of great use to the community. There is one candidate who is on the infrastructure team, and although I thought at first that wouldn't be a good fit, I'm actually thinking it might be the perfect fit - providing we don't just focus on the devs but the community as a whole - I'm sure that's their plan anyway.
Looking Even Further into the Future
The trouble with everything being on *.drupal.org is that then provides one central point of failure, one point of control. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, so it's something we will need to look at and try to solve. Exploring possibilities of the federated web is where we should be looking to next, but hey, let's get past this period of growth first before we worry too much about that.
Finally - Why?
Because if we don't massively and quickly improve our communication both internal and external, we may end up thinking the Drupal Association is something like this:
We have something special here with Drupal. My most memorable moment is at an OpenAtrium BoF in Chicago when most people were from universities and government institutions, but there was one guy sitting next to me who was built like a brick s******e - I asked him what he did and he said he helped prisoners on their 12 step programme when they come out of prison - he'd just downloaded OpenAtrium and was using it, thought he'd pay his few hundred dollars and come along to DrupalCon to find out what else he could do with it.
Drupal changes lives for the better, let's not lose that by voting in people based on whether we like them or not - read through their nominations and think about how they can help us grow and help us navigate safely across the chasm from innovators to early adopters and get in ship-shape ready for Drupal 8, which in real terms is not that far away when you consider how much catching up we have to do in certain areas. A manual process needs to be backed up with systems in order to scale.
When I decided to nominate myself for re-election it was because I didn't know who was going to put themselves up for nomination, now I am happy that there are many there who have far much more experience, passion, and energy than me to do what is needed in order to move successfully forward through the launch of Drupal 8.
These last few months have been an incredible journey, but it has cost me much in terms of cash and health. My 71 year old mother who has been through many illnesses was in hospital yesterday as cancer has spread to her other breast. She's out now and recovering, but again it is a reminder to me that life is short and I need to focus on getting my own life in shape and be happy again, and perhaps one day find or make a bucket of money so I can build a network of community spaces as I mentioned above ( offers of help welcome ;).
I will still be a Director until Feb 2013 unless I get chucked off ;) I hope you choose our new Board members wisely - I'm sure you all will, especially if you managed to get this far ;)
BTW, Vote Matthew Saunders, he has by far the most appropriate experience along with the passion to see it through and will serve us well. As for the others, well, I already mentioned the infrastructure side. Other than that, look at who's ideas are scalable, we have less than a year until the potential release of Drupal 8.
Stephen B. Purkiss