New Orleans. NOLA. The pilgrimage to DrupalCon 2016. Six Canadians making the journey from a well established Drupal Commerce development agency…. some programmers, some managers, the Creative Director and the CEO in tow. A ragamuffin looking crew from Acro Media. Clutching our passports in hand, and our different colored money traded in at +30%, we were ready to get Drupalized for a full week. I was in the mix as the token lady staff member, trying hard to blend in! Three flights and 10 hours of travel to make it from Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, to New Orleans, Louisiana, some of the first time attendees in our gang were wondering, will this all be worth it?
As we crossed the border, and changed planes in the States, we began to see that familiar crowd also making the crusade mixed into the fellow travellers in the airport lineups. We are all off to join hands and networks with the Drupal Community in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, and brave that overly air-conditioned building for five steady days of learning, development, sprinting, sharing and affirming “light-bulb” moments as an open source clique. The fellow development community is always easy to pick out in a crowded airport; t-shirts, jeans (that are maybe just a bit too short), practical footwear, a backpack strapped on tight and a Macbook under the arm covered in stickers from Acquia, BlackMesh, Drupal.org, Pantheon, Platform.sh, Commerce Guys, and many other founding fathers of this coding faction. Conventions are a strange phenomenon. You’re mixed in a room with your biggest competitors, but you’re there in the spirit to to share your learnings, and help them grow, and they are there with the same intention as you. It’s the fundamental concept of open source that churns this entire event.
We land. Our hotel is on Tchoupitoulas Street.... How do you tell your Uber driver the name of the street your hotel is on when it’s called Tchoupitoulas? He asks where we are staying. I tell him hesitantly, “Ummmm, we’re staying on a street that is spelled like trichinosis, you know, like that worm parasite thing or whatever…”, He knows what I mean. New Orleans doesn’t pull punches, it’s not wearing lipstick. It knows where ringworm street is without batting an eyelash. You get your education of this city on the fly, and quick.
So what else did the city teach me?
Firstly, I learned that this place deserves your time and attention. It requires that you look down at the lumpy sidewalk, I learned that you will gain 5 lbs in a week from the amazing food and all those beignets and pralines that call your name. I learned that drinking Hurricanes two nights in a row should be listed on a “don’ts” page on the inside cover of the DrupalCon handbook. In big bold font. I learned that the locals are raw, and real. As an example, one day during the Con, I walked across the street from the Convention center to grab a coffee. As I stood at the counter to order, the woman on the other side was not trying to be rude, but she was sincerely engaged in watching an episode of Judge Judy on the TV behind me. When I asked her for a cup of coffee, she squealed, “Girl, Judge Judy don’t take no shit off of nobody!”. I turned, and looked up at the TV, and watched Judge Judy berate her guest for a full 5 minutes until it came to a conclusion and the woman was ready to pour my coffee. I didn’t want to watch the TV, I wanted coffee, but I wasn’t in a position to negotiate. I loved it. It was a real moment, with a real person, and that’s what New Orleans is made up of. The authentic people were everywhere, welcoming us with grit and flavor and a bonafide don’t give a damn attitude.
The Sales Manager, the CEO of Acro Media and myself also took a morning away from the excitement of the business center of town and schlepped across the city on foot in the humid (HUMID) climate to seek out what we’d heard rumored as the best pancakes in the city. We ended up in a neighborhood far from tourists, far from Bourbon street, and far from the developers we know and love. We entered Betsy’s Pancake House. It was packed, and they were locals. A side of hashbrowns or grits only cost $1 and heaping plates of flapjacks were hustling by in every direction. Our waitress called us honey and sweetie and baby and hugged us on the way out. We were welcomed even though we were clearly out of our Trip Advisor safety zone. Point being, New Orleans is an open source city. They have a deeply rooted culture and warmth that is real and genuine and transparent. The parallel of hosting a convention built through the souls of programmer’s goodwill had found its home for the week ahead. DrupalCon allows your often conservative and house-bound developers to get out and check out the world. Seeing DrupalCon NOLA t-shirts wandering down Bourbon Street each night, beers in each hand, warmed my heart. Cut loose programmer, collect those beads, go home with stories!
Takeaways From The Conference
So the city had a lesson around every corner, and quickly. But what did I learn at the conference?
I learned it was all about D8. The energy surrounding the next major release launch of our beloved platform set the stage for the entire week. It was that excitement you get at the start of a relationship, that warm fuzzy feeling when you are in love, you are in lust, you are sure this is the one. Drupal 8 - Powered by an amazing pack of legendary programmers, making me have sexy thoughts, all in one freezing cold convention hall. This convention is your opportunity to stop and meet the dudes (and dudettes) responsible for building out the features you use, sell, and earn your profits off of each and every day. That’s pretty powerful. Drupal 8 is grown up, and ready to move out of Mom and Dad’s house. Each day, I felt privileged to learn about the new characteristics and practices this code was flaunting, and I developed a sincere sense of excitement about being able to go back to my quiet Canadian town, get on the phone, and start preaching the word of porting to D8 to all of my clients (that feeling wore off when I got home, because like I said, we develop commerce, and who wants to call and talk about porting product data? Not me! So I’m going to wait until my Sales Manager makes me, or we have that D7 funeral and I have to. J/K. I will do it. Q4 stuff boss).
Why DrupalCon is Valuable to More Than Just Programmers
As a non-technical member of the Drupal Community, HOW did I learn while I was at DrupalCon? This is an important point, is there value in attending if you can’t write code? Should owners, CEO’s and Managers attend? The business value and learning is immeasurable for a layperson like me. How is this so?
The sessions and programming tracks are designed with every community member in mind. I stuck to a mix of business talks, case studies, and project management topics; along with a few more technical talks which really speak to my interests in the development world such as Commerce 2.X, performance, security and anything to do with core to feed my inner nerd for the week. The session organizers really did an excellent job of screening their content prior to putting speakers on stage. The talks were for the most part effective and packed with nuggets. If you are a non-technical team member, I’d suggest tagging along with a developer team mate to a few of the big “heavy” talks and surprise yourself by how much you will understand, and where you can easily connect the dots on how these topics relate back to your business, agency, staff and clients.
Next year, I will stick to a 100% technical session track, as these are the areas which I can’t learn on my own through Google and digest easily - I need the examples and animation of a human being. Additionally, if I didn’t understand something, I just took note of it, and asked any dude walking by with a laptop after the talk was over. Hot tip: devs love to teach non-devs about programming. Through a tangled web of analogies, they eventually get me to that Eureka moment where they see me “get it”, and we are both satisfied enough to smoke a cigarette after. Ya, that’s right, hot and bothered at a DrupalCon. It could happen to you too.
In the way of advice for business owners and decision makers, I want to encourage you to consider getting a booth setup. This may seem like a lofty investment, but it really turns you into a satellite office, inviting every community member to walk up to you to engage and discuss. We saw live development and problem solving happening at the corner of our table, as fellow developers recognized the screen names on one anothers badges and instantly started working on an issue or patch together. At the same time, shop owners could talk, share and understand the wide verticals Drupal was serving on the client side; allowing for discussions of partnerships and how we as a group can help push the product forward.
This all may sound like a sales pitch to get a booth, send your entire team, blah blah blah. Let’s go back a year, and I will tell you about our first Con experience. I feel like there’s a GIThub version control joke somewhere in here that I’m too scared to make right now. 2015 was the first year any team mates from Acro Media had attended a DrupalCon, myself and our CTO, Shawn McCabe (@smccabe) trotted down to LA with wide eyes and open laptops. Through this first experience, we learned how we were positioned in the open source community and where we sat in the stack of projects in the wild. We came to understand how we uniquely developed modules and the capabilities of our own staff, and through the week, we problem solved in sessions such as performance where we were struggling as a company at the time. While throughout the week, we did a ton of ground level learning, it was really WHO we met by simply attending that eventually would change the direction of our business within one year’s time. I say this in all seriousness, that DrupalCon 2015 changed the face of Acro Media. In 2015, we were a 35-40 person Drupal development agency, in business for 17 years; how did one conference re-write our company’s roadmap in such a short amount of time?
How DrupalCon Changed Acro Media
Attending DrupalCon showed us that while we were developing some of the most custom and complex commerce solutions in the live market, no one knew we existed, not even our fellow Drupalites. Embarrassing. Attending NOLA with a proud booth and a full roster of teammates ready to show off our work and smarts was how we remedied this in 2016. Secondly, we discovered we were doing a pathetic job of contributing back to the community; here we were billing clients for modules, contributed and custom, and we were not giving back at near the rate we should have been. In 2016, we could hold our heads high, knowing that we now maintain 22 modules, commit 150 hours per month back to the community on the company’s dime, are leading the UX on Commerce 2.X and incorporating module contribution, support and patching into our training programs for all new hires. At DrupalCon 2015, we met Ryan Szrama and Bojan Zivanovic, and talked to them about their baby, Drupal Commerce. Acro Media is a custom Drupal Commerce house, since the days of Ubercart we’ve been rocking big (BIG) solutions that take your dollars online. They’d never even heard of us. Pathetic, right? These were the guys behind our ability to make money. It was time to talk to them seriously and work together.
Why am I digging up the past, and telling you guys our dirty secrets of why 2015 was eye opening and borderline shameful….? Because we learned from it, and made changes in 2016 in New Orleans. Through attending DrupalCon in 2015, we forged an immeasurable relationship with Commerce Guys, understanding our dependency on their team, and offering up our services to help push the product forward, which we followed through on for the second half of 2015 as a team. In early 2016, we actually acquired the service side of their business, and are now working partners with this crew; allowing them to focus solely on Commerce Core and releasing Commerce 2.X, while we take on client projects and get Drupal out to the web shoppers to use.
THAT’S what attending DrupalCon can do for your business. It can change your mind, your thoughts, your revenue streams, your position in the business world, and your reach. All by showing up at a Con, and chatting with your fellow Drupal community members, your business can grow by 25 staff in a year, you can be leaders and people will knowingly nod in recognition as they approach your booth. DrupalCon was the springboard which pushed our agency to another level year over year, and NOLA was a place to pause and reflect on the growth and change we’d experienced that all started by attending our first con in Los Angeles the year prior. My advice to you business folk out there is this: Dip your toe in at Baltimore 2017. Send a programmer and a business rep and see for yourself. If you attend DrupalCon in the mindset in which the code is developed, you will get stronger by the will of the community, and hopefully, find your tribe along the way which will allow for your company to evolve as quickly as the code base, making our community stronger on the whole.
Thanks NOLA, you have a permanent place in my heart, and hopefully a temporary place on my waist line. Until 2017 fellow Drupalers, may your core be strong and your code be clean and we will see you in Baltimore. If you’d like to see any of our daily recaps from NOLA 2016, check out our YouTube channel for the highs (and hangovers) on Acro Media’s High Five! web series.