I used to go to BookExpo in New York City every Spring. It was a grand event, a joyous social swirl of writers and publishers and editors and bloggers and critics. But, regretfully, I stopped going to BookExpo a couple of years ago. Some friends tell me the event has shrunk and that I’m not missing much. But I know I’m missing a lot whenever I get a chance to hang out with book people.
This year, I strangely found myself for the first time at DrupalCon, an amazing gathering of web development technology gurus, experts and dabblers who use the very powerful Drupal open source platform to build websites. I’ve been a Drupal developer since 2009, and I ported this blog from WordPress to Drupal in 2010. Drupal has been both my day job (currently, an exciting new federal government health information and community website launching in October) and my personal obsession. This is my first DrupalCon, my first chance to hang around with thousands of other developers who are as obsessed as I am.
I bet many of the people clustering around me as I write this in the convention center in Austin, Texas share the same sense of happy unreality that I’ve enjoyed this week: finally, we are surrounded by other people who know what Drupal is. The brand is not at all well known outside software development circles, though it is one of the most popular web dev platforms in the world. It’s especially strong in science, education, arts, media, entertainment and government, and Barack Obama’s whitehouse.gov is one example of a flagship site. (Litkicks, of course, is another).
Drupal is fully free and open source, and lives on the free and open source LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL PHP) stack. It’s both extremely easy and incredibly hard to use, depending on how unique your requirements are. If you need to create a blog and plan to use designs and templates and features created by others, you will get great results very quickly with a Drupal install. In this sense, Drupal is similar to WordPress. But WordPress is not as complete a platform as Drupal. If you need to implement a custom design with complex functionality that integrates dynamic data with a variety of external services, Drupal will allow you to go as deep as you need to go. WordPress won’t take you there. But going there with Drupal won’t always be easy, and it won’t always make sense.
Because Drupal is so popular among web developers, it often generates a lot of backlash, and I know some very smart web developers who consider it an infernal mess of quirky legacy code. They may have a point. Web development is a perplexing and fast-changing field, and developers like me choose Drupal — not because it’s always the best platform, but because it’s the one with the greatest positive convergence of developer enthusiasm and technological vision. Web development thrives on hive-mind wisdom, and hive-mind wisdom is what the Drupal technology community provides.
Really, the whole magic of Drupal is simply the fact that web developers all over the world are doing things the same way. We modify forms with hook_form_alter, create lists with Views, cache with memcache, build custom search engines with Search API. It’s not that this grab bag of techniques is any more valid than any other grab bag of techniques found in any other PHP toolkit. The strength that Drupal creates is the strength of community. Because we all agree to build websites the “Drupal way”, we can share knowledge, share code, share experiences. We can build upon each other’s work. We can meet at a convention and discover deep currents of commonality within the very private and often isolating mental processes that define our daily work challenges, and we can discuss these challenges at a very precise level with a crystal-clear vocabulary. For a software developer used to working and struggling alone, this can feel like a miracle when it finally kicks in.
This is why I find Drupal so transcendent, even though spending a week in Austin in crowded roving packs of peer developers can sometimes be obnoxious, frustrating, disappointing. Smelly, even. Well, each individual Drupal developer may or may not have a transcendent mission in life. Together, we definitely have a transcendent mission in life: we are creating Drupal, even as we use it.
It’s funny for me to compare DrupalCon, the annual convention that seems to compel my presence at this point in my life, with BookExpo, which used to compel it. I’ll be upfront about one thing: book people are more gregarious, and more skilled at the art of conversation. But there is a beautiful purposefulness to social interactions here at DrupalCon. It seems to be a general rule here that one should not speak unless one has something intelligent to say. Book people should try that sometime …
But it’s not just a roomful of techies I’m in right now: it’s a roomful of web development techies, and this adds an interesting flavor to the brainy mood of this strange gathering. Software developers can choose many paths, but people choose to become web developers because they are creative or artistic or socially conscious in some way. Our work is public facing by definition.
Pure scientists and engineers don’t deal with audiences. Nearly every introvert that surrounds me right now in this room in Austin is thinking about how to engage with audiences. Maybe that’s what gives us Drupalistas — not just here in Austin, but all over the world — the bare minimum of social sense that allows us to work harmoniously together towards a quiet but brilliant goal: the continued development of awesome open source software.
In this way, DrupalCon people are like BookExpo people. We’re into reaching audiences. And we all enjoy the chance to work together, to communicate harmoniously and productively with friends and strangers in a shared public workspace.
I only wish I could go to a convention and be with my Drupal peeps and my book peeps at the same time. Now that’s what I’d call convergence.
NOTE: I’m flying home from Austin this weekend and will have to take a break on Philosophy Weekend. See you in a few!