Drupalcon growth: Ideas on how we go from 300 to 30,000 participants based on 5 Drupalcons

Disclaimer

I am a permanent member of the Drupal association, and the director of business development for the association. I do not speak officially for the association, nor do I speak on behalf of the Drupalcon organizing committees. But I do have a blog and I want to have a discussion with the community about smart growth at Drupalcon. (*I've also helped raise approximately a million dollars for the association so they at least listen to me)

Growing smart

The smartest thing I've heard about Drupal community growth over the last week was that Drupal should not grow beyond our ability to spread the Drupal culture. I've got some ideas about how to grow smart and what is appropriate growth for the Drupal community.

Ideas for how we can grow Drupalcons and not lose our soul

  1. Drupalcon with a companion virtual conference

    Last year, a large technology company held a conference with 5000 attendees. What was interesting was that they recorded their conference sessions and displayed them in a virtual conference format. They made the conference sessions available for over a year, including regularly scheduled online follow up events, and 10 times as many unique attendees attended the virtual conference over a year as attended the physical conference.

  2. Satellite Drupalcons

    People will not be able to travel to Drupalcons for a variety of reasons. Having satellite Drupalcons is a great way to share a world-wide Drupal moment, and respect the budget and accessibility of Drupalcons. We've already seen world wide movements in the Firefox and Drupal community to have meet-ups in parallel on the same day around the world. Last week we saw approximately 25 regional Drupalcon events to deal with the travel restrictions due to the Volcano in Iceland.

  3. Building the regional events around the Drupalcon city

    For Drupalcon San Francisco I invested a lot of time in building the bay area grassroots. I researched Drupal projects in the Bay Area and recruited their leaders to present at the local San Francisco Drupal users group. I also held two Drupal camps:Drupal camp San Francisco, and Design4Drupal at Stanford. I also actively recruited local Drupal community members in Santa Cruz to start a local Drupal group. In order to grow Drupalcon, we need to create strong local groups that have their own social and support networks.

  4. Partnering with bigger industry events

    Drupalcon has managed to line up beside two large industry events in the last two years. At Drupalcon Boston, the conference was co-located with AIIM. This year Drupalcon was across the street from Ad-tech, the event for digital marketing which I heard had 25,000 attendees. I was surprised at how many business executives I knew in the Drupal community only attended Drupalcon because it was across the street from Ad-tech.

  5. Quality
  6. At various times during my participation in the Drupal project, I've wanted to pull my hair out because we as a community were unwilling to chase the latest trend. Then a few years later, that trend turned out to be just another passing trend and massive consolidation of these niche players in that trend led to it being just another feature.

    Drupal has grown slower than many competing solutions, often to Drupal's ridicule, only to slowly catch up in relevance and significance. What has kept our growth on track is our focus on quality. This is probably one of the capacities that makes Dries's leadership so powerful. He understands quality and can be a very tough, but polite critic.

    In order to grow Drupalcon, we need to focus on the quality of the main program. Drupal sessions are still wildly hit or miss, both in session quality and session attendance. As a community, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and raise consistency and quality of every Drupalcon session. With over 400 sessions submitted we need to be better at selecting quality sessions, and setting higher standards in presentation preparation and delivery that will attract attendees not just because the conference is about Drupal, but because the sessions are worthy of attending on their own. Future Drupalcon organizers should spare no expense, but no more than necessary, especially if it means increased ticket prices to raise the quality and value of the Drupalcon program.

    I can't think of two people in the Drupal community better able to raise Drupalcon session quality than George DeMet and Tiffany Farriss, the Drupalcon Chicago 2011 organizers. I believe George and Tiffany have the communication skills necessary to gracefully make this transition to more consistent high quality presentations. But in case they manage to upset some vaporware session submitters or Drupal gurus who know their stuff but didn't prepare a quality session, be on notice the Drupalcon quality bar is being raised.

  7. Better specialized social networking
  8. Drupalcon can't become a sea of anonymous faces. With almost 3,000 attendees it was hard at times to find a face I recognized, and my Drupal rolodex has 13,000 contacts in it.

    We need industry social events early in the program to help create social networks that will persist past Drupalcon and evolve into industry partnerships.

    We also need better integration of social networking tools like LinkedIn, Facebook, Dopplr, Twitter, Four Square, and new social applications on Drupal.org. The integration of these applications will help bring us together in person and make those important collaborative connections that sustain us over IRC and bike shedding in issue queues.

    At Drupalcon San Francisco platinum and gold sponsors hosted a special networking event with key representatives from interesting Drupal projects. The event had 88 attendees half of which were sponsors, and no more than two representatives were invited from any Drupal projects. The event was facilitated and introductions were made amongst the attendees through out the evening.

    At Drupalcon Szeged a special old timers dinner was held for core contributors who were active in the project prior to 2003. We need to brainstorm more about how to create welcoming and intimate personalized events at Drupalcon.

  9. Multi-lingual Drupalcons

    In Europe we are already running multi-lingual Drupalcons. We should create multi-lingual tracks, and translate the most popular sessions.

Talk is silver

None of these ideas about how to grow Drupalcon are promises. They are just ideas. In Drupal parlance, they are core feature requests without a patch.

Code is gold

Cary Gordon is the Drupal association events manager. He is the Drupalcon coder extraordinaire who sees the entire picture, and the architecture necessary to see these events succeed. While he might be criticized for reigning in the wild inconsistencies in our architecture, at the end of the day he is ensuring that Drupalcons are sustainable, and do not rely on 6 figure volunteer donations from the conference organizers employers. We need to listen to "The Architect".

Some of these ideas will be ignored, some will be adopted by Drupalcon organizers, some will be adopted by local Drupal user groups and Drupal camp organizers, and others will be adopted by private companies for their own Drupal events. We need lots of experiments in how to grow Drupal events. The Drupal community should fail quickly, cheaply, and share those lessons learned with the whole community. Some of these ideas, and others should be so successful that they are just expected. When they don't just appear magically, the community should leap into action to implement them.

We need smart growth, that preserves what is special about Drupal and the amazing community that powers it.

Comments

I soundly agree.

DrupalCon SF was my first, so it was hard sometimes for me to find a familiar face; I'm glad I wasn't the only one! Fortunately, I have a couple old friends in the community and they introduced me around so I attached some faces to drupal.org and IRC nicknames. But we definitely need ways to keep the community personal as it grows.

First off let me say what a great event Drupalcon SF was - despite the considerable challenges of size and de-centralisation (with the spontaneous satellite drupalcons going on and people skyping in to do presentations as they were stuck in Europe).

Spreading Drupal culture: I don't know if you can really expect events for several thousands of people to spread culture. You can try but as Dries said in some event not too far in the future people will be there because Drupal is just their day job (horror!).

The event means or will very soon mean different things for different people and although I believe in the ONE BIG MOMENT where all the marketing, etc effort is concentrated rather than lots of smaller events I think that within that we need to break it down into different sub-events. The developer summit was great for who is interested in that aspect and we should probably create more moments like that for other sections of the community (designers, newbies, managers, devs, startups, etc).

Personally this time round I found the BOFs more appealing as the sessions were too impersonal (although some were excellent). I would also like to see more sessions like the one from Google (outsiders coming to inspire Drupalers to think in more innovative ways).

Also, although I don't know how exactly sessions are chosen, I would hope that it goes beyond solely voting for them. There needs to be a committee of wise old people that guide the final choice (perhaps aided in choosing by the voting). Democracy is great but not necessarily useful in choosing sessions for a tech conference.

So, imho, keep it as one big moment but within that cater more specifically for the different facets of the community - balance the impersonal sessions with more intimate moments and have mechanisms in place that a) bring more outside influence into the Drupal world and b) provide more guarantees that the sessions will be a success.

I think we need to change the way tech cons do programming. Tech cons are the dullest conferences I've ever attended. There are too many presentations and it's too much like being in class... except that few of the presenters are good teachers, or good presenters. Sometimes you see demonstrations or code examples, often too complex, or not complex enough. Twitter posts tells us many arrive at the con without having prepared their presentation, let alone practiced it. Many are seen preparing for their own session while attending someone else's session. It's more than a little, um, unprofessional, though to be fair this happens at all tech cons.

For a DrupalCon, content is so focussed that this does not matter as much as at, say, an OSCon, where you would be lucky to find more than a few Drupal sessions, or even more than a track of PHP... but it still matters. The SF DrupalCon was the best tech conference I ever attended and the first tech con where not one presenter I saw was trying to sell me something. However it still felt like 4 days of class to me, and overloaded, jumbled days at that. Where I am right now, that was super helpful, but I could quickly see how programming would be less relevant to me on every successive DrupalCon.

As useful as it was, my overloaded brain has already forgotten entire sessions. The only ones that really sunk in were those with content that I was solidly familiar with. At our local DUG the audience gets involved. They question, debate and add new information. This discussion helps. With a large audience and a schedule to keep, an audience discussion is ill-advised, but there is a way around it: panels. Panels take much more organization, thought and effort, but they are so worth it. Think of a Drupal Distributions panel with, for example, Dries (who raved about Distributions and is an Acquia founder) alongside a representatives from Open Atrium and OpenPublish, coupled with an able moderator to control both them and the audience. Now we'd have several similar, but possibly wildly different perspectives. We'd hear a discussion and we'd all learn. Preparation would matter much less because the discussion is based on knowledge and experience. The discussion would flow in an interesting and organic way. You could vary it by coupling a couple of distro owners with a couple of major distro users, resulting in an entirely different, but equally useful conversation. Also, think of a panel with Dries, Angie and Tim O'Reilly debating the future direction of Drupal. What about a panel with users of multiple CMS, or even representatives from other OS CMS communities, discussing where Drupal is better and where it needs to catch up. The possibilities are endless.

Further, at tech cons I've been involved with, they often give programming a lower priority than most other departments, after all, there's often no shortage of presenters. They try to find technical solutions to the problem (usually some variation of online submissions and voting), but sometimes you need the human element. At other conferences the head of programming and their team are seen as having the most vital job of all. They don't wait for all the topics to come to them, they also go and find it. They vet speakers. Known quantities matter, both good and bad. Known self-promoters are skipped. Good speakers are courted. Higher quality speakers are invited as guests, and not just as keynote speakers, but also on other panels. Care is taken to ensure that the most vital/popular talks don't happen at the same times, but are spread out evenly through the day. They think of what topics have to come up and they make sure they find people to talk about them. It's much more proactive. Tim O'Reilly pointed out several things we were not talking about, but ought to be. A good program team would take care of this and keep us current. They would also have asked Tim what other panels he'd be interested in being on, and made some of them happen. They would also make sure that there were discussions to stimulate thought, planning, broader initiatives, etc, and keep the more experienced Drupalers interested in programming too. You get the idea.

If we want better programming we need to break the tech con mould. My 2c.

Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I'm glad you're in the mix.

I meant to add, I think the social side of DrupalCon was largely absent. It seemed to me the most social thing at DrupalCon was some of the BOF sessions. Sure, there were giant parties, but the music was so loud that people had to shout at each other and the next day many were hoarse. Worse, I never saw anyone dance, so the loud music was for naught. People largely went to parties to hang out with people they already knew and the large quantities of booze ensured that morning panels would be far less crowded than afternoon ones. What about having quieter, more-social parties where people could just talk?

Further, some other conferences I attend ensure that there is a social side by creating social spaces near the conference, usually with longer hours, often offering free snacks and sodas. On occasion these are in an adjacent hotel, or are even in a CC hall. These spaces would be filled by tables and chairs and/or couches in circles, creating a host of spaces where people could sit and chat. Sitting down at tables/circles where others already sat was encouraged. Sometimes games were available (e.g. the Drupal Card game). In other words, they encouraged people to interact, make friends and have other reasons for attending DrupalCons. They made it easier for people to overcome shyness. These spaces were also a peaceful oasis in the sea of chaos that is a con, a place to take a breather between panels, a place to reflect. I miss that tangible sense of community at tech cons.

One final thought: I keep hearing, "Talk is silver, code is gold." I love the sentiment, but not the saying. Even though I am a coder, I think Drupal needs to move on from its programmer-centric focus. I think we as a community need to acknowledge that running/helping with a DrupalCon or a DrupalCamp is as important, or more so, as writing code. Projects with better documentation regularly outstrip better projects, so documentation needs to be acknowledged too. The same for testing, theming, blogging, evangelizing, etc. Any contribution as at a minimum as valid as any other. I think it's high time we changed that saying to something more like, "Talk is silver, contributions are gold."

If DCSF would've been my first DrupalCon instead of Paris, then I'd probably have been totally lost. I was already slightly lost in Paris, with less than half of the amount of attendees.

However, talking to lots of Drupal contributors in Paris and also seeing myself in the drama, I learned that almost every active contributor only attends a maximum of 1-2 sessions a day. Most often those by key contributors or heavily visionary sessions/ keynotes.

The remaining time is better spent with getting to know other contributors, discussing stuff, and doing social stuff.

Most of the sessions I attended covered stuff that I knew already. Nice to see news being presented for the masses, but from the 1-2 sessions I attended each day, I even could have skipped some, but of course, I had to stay to only know that afterwards.

Of course, we need such sessions to spread the news about new awesomeness. But in the end, one might be able to say that we already have a 1/10 split of DrupalCon attendees having different expectations, different schedules, different goals, and different whatnot, mainly to share and give. While 9/10 are attending to learn, figure, and get.

Perhaps we need to start splitting somehow - although even thinking about splitting is against Drupal's culture and principles in the first place. But perhaps we also need to face reality and there is room for separate "DrupalTrainingDays" hosting both commercial/paid and free sessions, for all that want to "get" something. Leaving DrupalCon (or similar) for those that really want to join the social culture, share, talk, discuss, and improve Drupal, possibly with less sessions, but much more social events and in-person collaboration instead.

Thanks for your hard work, Amazon!

My first Drupalcon was Boston, I only knew a few people's faces at that point, but with 1,200 attendees probably about the same proportion as at DCSF. A few observations:

Core developer summit - knew nearly everyone there by name or by face, with the exception of a handful of very new people. The summit massively exceeded my expectations and those of others I spoke to who attended. Let's do it again.

Dries' keynote - I walked in by myself and had a look for someone to sit with - it took at least ten minutes to find someone who's face I recognised.

2nd night party across the street - walked in with a group of about eight people, didn't see anyone else I knew for the rest of the evening, didn't really talk to anyone I didn't already know either since there wasn't the kind of random encounters you get when you know 30% of the people there instead of 3%.

Something which would be great, but hard to do in a conference setting, is make the coder lounge about ten times as big - so it can comfortably seat 500 or more people, includes some open spaces to have discussions etc. preferably open after hours (and with food and booze ;)) so there's not a hard choice between socializing and coding in the evening. If not in the conference centre, then hiring a large bar nearby the conference center for the week from mid-afternoon onwards, install wifi, etc.

I'm sad that so many of the comments here are negative. There were so many amazing things about this year's DrupalCon, and for me the greatest thing was seeing the potential for much grander events in the future.

Kieran, I think you're absolutely right that the conference doesn't need to grow vertically as much as horizontally. There have been several conferences I could have spend thousands of dollars to attend, which I got a lot out of while sitting on my couch watching them live. Getting to watch the Twitter backchannel at the same time really helps with these live events. I'm not too familiar with events that repeat, but it sounds like a fun experiment. I could watch video from all 8 DrupalCon session tracks I cared about, and the people who were only following on Twitter or at the sattelite cons.

I love the step the association is (will be?) taking to enable the local DrupalCamps to have a non-profit partner, and hopefully raise the bar for Camp sites by providing tech resources like hosting and a pre-baked site (right?). Better (and more) local events will do so much more to attract passionate contributors than an international event.

On social network integration - I'd love for us to take a tip from South by Southwest - include a QR code (and username) on conference badges that links to your d.o. profile - which should point to your personal presence online. This may help some of those in-real-life-to-chatroom type connections - since our profiles don't just list our contributions, but also places we have worked.

One thing I think is missing from profiles is a zip code or location data. I talked a bit to Greggles about this, and have offered to help out to get this on to g.d.o. There are so many people lurking out there who don't show up to local events for one reason or other, even when we have a much larger event like a DrupalCamp, and I wonder how we can reach out to them. Knowing where they live could help.

Are there multi-lingual versions of the Drupal handbook? That could be a good place to start... (here, let me google that for you http://drupal.org/language-specific-communities)

On having Drupal next to other tangentially-related topics - I also know people are throwing DrupalCamps at events like Linux conferences, Library conferences, etc. Here in Florida, we convinced a large conference to lend us a room for 6 hours to throw a BarCamp, and we introduced a lot of those people to unconferences, and hopefully built some creative capitol for Orlando in the process.

On the role of the host city - this year I know there was an effort to create a "Drupal for your business" room, but maybe we need to think of it as a number of smaller conferences, and treat them each as a vertical. "Drupal for your nonprofit", "for government and institutions", "for rapid prototyping", "for intranets", "for publishers". Even if they are just an afternoon, and the conference pass is less than $100. Hold a Keynote for each of these mini-cons, and really try to engage these different groups and get them involved in the larger context of what's happening. D4D is a good start, and the Core Developer summit, but those are "echo chamber" events - Drupal for Drupalistas, not Drupal for your boss.

Thanks for this post, and all your hard work and leadership.