Cathy Theys could often be found roaming contribution days at DrupalCons organizing people, but she's recently switched gears back to development. I caught up with her in Seattle to find out why.

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Somebody showed me that if you help other people in the issue queues, they'll help you back, and that snowballed.

This Episode's Guest

Cathy Theys

Cathy Theys

Cathy is a passionate mentor, member of the Drupal Security Team, and now also a Lullabot.

Transcript

Transcript

Chris:
I'm back at DrupalCon Seattle, going Behind the Screens with Cathy Theys. Cathy, I think most people would probably recognize your name from a lot of the mentoring work that you've done over the past years, but lately, you've gotten back into the code a little bit. So I'd like to start with, tell me how you got into the mentoring and how that evolved over time, and now why you've decided to step back from that a little bit.
Cathy:
Sure. Originally, I got into mentoring when I was raising my young kids and working on nonprofit websites for interests that kind of were parenting-related and tried to, on the cheap, build my own website. And using the issue queues, somebody kind of showed me that if you help other people in the issue queues, they'll help you back. And that snowballed from simple, trying to just get what I need, to helping people more and more, and then getting involved with XJM and the official Drupal mentoring program in IRC. And I went to a Drupal event and did some in-person mentoring, and let's say, I really liked it. I was pretty good at it. I learned a lot while I was doing it over the years. I had a lot of fun. It was a good fit for me, and did that quite a bit. Eventually, I got a job at BlackMesh, and they sponsored my work to continue then, so then I started getting paid to do it, and that was amazing. Now, I'm a developer, and it's not my job to do mentoring in the community or to contribute, and so that's reduced quite a bit since my focus has also shifted. Which is I think an example of what Dries was talking about in his keynote today on how paying people to contribute is a key aspect in increasing the diversity of people that can contribute. And to be able to do any kind of work in our free time is quite a privilege, and so for companies that can sponsor people or pool their money to sponsor people and do things like that is so important because without that, I never would have been able to focus on mentoring and grow my connections and skills in a way that ended up allowing me to have different kinds of jobs.
Chris:
And what was built out of that, the mentoring program, and what is the... now the contribution days on Fridays after DrupalCon is... If you follow the community over the last decade or so of DrupalCons, it has become such a large and impressive thing to have so many people turn up. You were very instrumental in helping to build that up, so what did you learn along the way? How did that all come together for you when you were... You know from conference to conference.
Cathy:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, I really picked up from XJM. She had a lot of ideas. She was really good at organizing sprints and doing the mentoring. And we were able to work together consistently event after event, not just once a year or at DrupalCons, two or three times a year, but also at smaller sprints, and Dev Days, and local camps, and because we were... Had so many chances to do it over and over again, we could iterate. And because some of the volunteers were consistent, year to year to year, we could learn from our mistakes and learn from our successes and just constantly try things, and then, "Oh, this didn't work, and this did," and build things over time. And so a lot of it was just process that's usual came about because of some pain. So we would go to an event, and we would put it on, and we'd be like, "That really sucked," but not the whole thing, but maybe this one apart. There was a lot of frustration, and people on this day at the beginning of the day, or maybe there was a lot of frustration of people when they were doing a certain thing. And so we would hold an event, and then we would do a retrospective on it, and be like, "What went really well? What ideas do we have to do things differently?" Making sure that we were always getting new ideas from people, so it wasn't just like the old people who established people, but also listening to other people and getting those in there. And then we were really good at documenting it, so when we had a next event, it wasn't like we were trying to remember something, and if somebody else wanted to put on something similar, they didn't need us because we had things documented. So whether we were doing it again, or somebody else was going to do it for the first time, that it was very clearly, "This has worked for us. Here are some variations. Start with this, and then after you hold your event, do the same thing. Update our documentation." And so I think having a combination of new people with some consistent people and really good documentation, and the risk to try things, right? I mean if a community like Drupal holds, I don't know, hundreds of events a year, and maybe some of them have some kind of official mentoring presence, 20... I mean 10 to 50 certainly, and you do it for eight years, as long as you document, and learn, and you have some consistency, you end up with something that works pretty good. And it's cool to see some stuff that we may have tried still in the process, and then there are new things that are different that we never tried that they're doing this time at DrupalCon, and it's still kind of going, and that's really good.
Chris:
Yeah. And everything that had been built over time, you've documented. You've improved the process, and what I really wanted to ask you about is now that you've been doing it... You did it for a long time. You were a large proponent of getting these things together, working with XJM, and have now stepped away from that after a number of years, but you've helped to organize things in a way where a new generation can kind of come in and help to run things.
Cathy:
Yeah.
Chris:
How are you able to get people to come in and step up... To allow yourself to have a break from doing this for a little while?
Cathy:
So it was very strategic and on purpose. That when people would participate in a mentoring event, we would teach the mentors there that part of their goals is to encourage those participants to go to the next level of mentoring, and if we could, what we'd like to do is have it happen that day. So you could be skilled in your area of expertise at work, come to a Drupal event, never have contributed before, participate in the morning tool explanation for how to get your expertise into the project, and then have lunch, come back from lunch, and somebody slept in and was arriving later that day... And if a new arrival would ask a mentor, “Oh, I have a question,” the mentor would come over to the table, and they'd hear the question. They had already talked to somebody this morning, and they would say, “Oh, that's really great. I think this person went through that this morning. I'm going to have the two of you work together.” So even on the same day, there's conscious effort. We would train the mentors that you don't wait like three months for somebody to come back after being a new contributor, and then they're ready to mentor. They are ready to mentor that day. For some people who've never had an opportunity to teach somebody something and be trusted to do that, it can be really eye-opening because they're like, “Wait, I can do the thing that I see these official mentors doing, and I can already do it. It's like, oh, I am a mentor.” And then maybe they come back to another event, and now they're not a first-time participant, they're immediately a mentor, and maybe they don't ever do that again, but they have this chance to view themselves differently, super, super fast. And then you just extrapolate that to all levels, and it's in our documentation, and it's in the orientations that we do, and it's in the one-on-one. It's just, you immediately move from first time contributor to mentor, and not like in a weird pressure way, but more like an enabling, supportive way.
Chris:
Sure. That's incredible. That's a great system that you've got set up. So when was the last time that you were actively involved in organizing a DrupalCon Mentoring Day, or a Contribution Day?
Cathy:
I think in Nashville I mentored. In Baltimore, I think I was more doing reviews of work that people had done that day to try and identify something that was worked on that day, by a new person, that was going to be committed that day, in the live commit.
Chris:
Right.
Cathy:
And so Baltimore was already... Somebody else was leading the room, somebody else on the microphone, somebody else was mentoring the mentors and demonstrating things, and I was more like... Had fewer checklist items to get done, and so it was like, “Hey, who wants to do this job?” And we have roles, so the planning for a big event like this have identified roles, and so five months out somebody can pick up this list, and be like, “Okay. Who's going to do this? Who's going to do? Who's going to do that.” And so it's not like there's a lot of lead time to be like, “Oh, no. We have a hole.” Somebody has maybe done this for the last two conferences. Maybe they don't want to do it anymore, and you can... You have a lot of time to convince people or support them where they might be like, “Oh, I think I might be interested, but I've never done it before.” You can show them that they will be supported which is another really important thing about how you constantly increase the number of mentors or leaders in the mentorship program. If I'm mentoring at a table with a new contributor, and they ask me a question, that I say out loud that I don't know the answer, and then show them how to find the answer, or ask another mentor a question, and then they see me do that... When they see that's how the experienced mentors do it, and then you suddenly ask them to do a small mentoring task, they know that what you're really asking them to do is just to not know how to do something, but to find out with other people how to do it. One of the things I've seen changed over the last couple of years as I've been less involved is constant improvements on being more inclusive in the language that's used to describe things. And for example, we don't have sprints anymore. We have Contribution Days because we don't want people to feel pressured to overly exert themself in a hurry to accomplish a task which sprint implies, and so now we don't have those. We have Contribution Days, and so I think it makes it a lot more reasonable, changes like that, for people to be like, “Oh, yeah, I want to do that."
Chris:
Right. The sprint also implies. I code sprint, so maybe I'm not a great developer, but I speak three languages, or I'm really good at describing my processes when I do things, so I can contribute to documentation. It opens up a lot of other doors, and really it makes the whole project that much more solid, and it's just fantastic. Fridays are one of my favorite days at DrupalCons. So now that you've shifted your focus a little bit now in the community, so now you're back to doing some backend development work. How does that feel for you?
Cathy:
Oh, I love it. I miss the rigorous code reviews that you get in open source. But it's kind of cool to see your... Oh, that's a terrible thing to say... It's cool to see your value in your work immediately yielding results because when you work on core, you make a tool that other people use to make websites.
Chris:
Sure.
Cathy:
I'm making a website that people directly use, and I'm helping it do their job better. And so it's cool when I fix a bug, it's like, "Oh, I'm helping this government agency report highlight areas of improvement they can work on to make their employees' work places safer." Which is different than when you work on a bug in core, and you're like, "I've made the product so more people can do things." I think it was a couple of years ago when we were working on the governance structure for the community in terms of initiative leaders, and core committers, and contributors, and we were laying out these roles, and what their responsibilities were, and we were looking to increase the number of product manager committers. So in Drupal core, the only people who can actually commit to the repo are the leaders or owners of a project, so you can commit to a feature branch, but you can't commit to the main branch. So the people who help work on individual issues are usually called contributors. So to kind of differentiate, committers are the people who actually make the code available on drupal.org, so everybody can download it. Anyway. And we were looking for kind of a project manger kind of role, and I was like, "Oh, I would love to do that, but I have no project managing experience at all." So I was like, "What if I got a job where I worked on a product for a few years, and then built up those skills, and then maybe"... So it wasn't just happenstance. It's kind of like a plan.
Chris:
Aha.
Cathy:
But not like a plan that has to happen. More like-
Chris:
A guideline.
Cathy:
Or like if you have a dream of doing something, if you don't take a small step toward that dream, it's probably not going to happen, but it doesn't mean you have to do that particular dream. On the way, you could have changed to another one. But it's nice to have a little bit of guidance and working on a product at work now is enlarging my experience which I think could be useful.
Chris:
Yeah. For sure. For sure. All right. I want to learn more about you.
Cathy:
Okay.
Chris:
The people who make the community up. So I've got a couple of fun questions here. If you could take any two movies or books, and create one single crossover movie or book from them, what would you choose?
Cathy:
Okay. So you did let me cheat and look at this question earlier, and I made sure-
Chris:
I gave you a little heads up admittedly.
Cathy:
Okay. So I pick Jumanji and Arrival.
Chris:
Now are we talking the Robin Williams Jumanji, or The Rock Jumanji?
Cathy:
The Rock Jumanji.
Chris:
Okay.
Cathy:
Okay.
Chris:
I'm with you.
Cathy:
So I love movies. I love storytelling. I love the combination of science and art. I love the way that you can use that to share an experience with other people and effect change, but also just have fun and make something aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable, and I love the whole combination, and people who can do that are amazing. And I think there's a hole in the world between what would be the combination of Jumanji and Arrival. First of all, The Rock is adorable. He's super supportive of people around him, and he collaborates really well. He has like this family-focused kind of role that he likes to weave into his stories. And if you look at the movies that he's done recently, they're not all white guys featured in his movies. Like he did the one where he caught like the... Climbs the tower, and it's an amputee. Oh, spoilers. In this heroic moment, he's sheltering and caring for his two children while his kid's mother is saving the world, so it's like turning these tropes upside down and really making a lot of space for prominent roles to go to people of different genders, and races. And what is a hero, and what is not a hero, and so The Rock kind of builds that in. Plus in Jumanji, it's amazingly funny. So not only does he play with gender tropes, and what is a hero. In terms of this game, do you have to be like a strong guy or can you have these other roles and characters. It's hilariously funny. It's action packed. It's got all these positive aspects about it, but it's not necessarily doing it on purpose, but I feel is a really good model for people who make movies. That you can do that and still make a lot of money with it. But then you combine that with Arrival where it's science fiction, and the main characters are scientists and being... Using technology and building your knowledge base is really critical to saving the entire world and all of humanity, as good movies do.
Cathy:
So I think you put those things together, and you can have an amazing movie.
Chris:
I love that answer. I really do, and I'm trying to imagine how those two story lines play into each other. That's a whole other level of creativity I'm going to have to sit down with later maybe over a beer. All right. If you could be any garment, any piece of clothing, what piece of clothing would you be?
Cathy:
I would be a ruby red, sparkly, flowy... I want to say, "Dress," but it wouldn't have to be a dress, but kind of a dressy thing, like something you would wear to a big fancy party or a holiday thing, or a debut of something. With pockets.
Chris:
With pockets.
Cathy:
Yes. And it would be comfortable. It would be bright red, sparkly, flowy, the whole entire outfit. That was comfortable, with pockets.
Chris:
I see. Let's do a rapid fire. I like the rapid fire questions, and I feel like you're going to have some good ones here, and then we'll go ahead and wrap up. So first question. So there will be five questions.
Cathy:
Okay.
Chris:
They're yes or no, this or that types of answers.
Cathy:
Okay.
Chris:
All right. Toilet paper, hung over or under?
Cathy:
Depends on if you have a cat or a toddler.
Chris:
Good answer. Okay. Coffee or tea?
Cathy:
Tea.
Chris:
Marvel or DC?
Cathy:
Both are amazing.
Chris:
Fair enough. Would you rather attend school at Hogwarts or have a wardrobe that opens to Narnia?
Cathy:
I would rather attend school at Hogwarts. Both have a sufficient amount of danger which I would be satisfied with.
Chris:
Nice. Mountain lodge or beach hut?
Cathy:
Mountain lodge near a waterfall.
Chris:
I like that. You can add your own question to it. Sure. I'll take that. That's great. To wrap it up, is there anybody, or a person who would come to mind that you would like to say thank you to or share some gratitude with who gave you a boost along the way?
Cathy:
Yes. Gábor Hojtsy. He welcomed me into multilingual initiative when we were working pm Drupal 8. He always believed I could do things. Gave me things that might have been challenging and taught me so much about how to be successful in what I was doing, but also he was very transparent in how he was being successful in what he was doing. And that combined with working with XJM in the mentoring, I think together those two things really built upon each other, and he's just a great mentor.
Chris:
Cathy, thank you so much for spending a few minutes and talking today. This was really wonderful. I enjoyed it a lot.
Cathy:
All right. Thank you.

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About host Chris Albrecht

Chris Albrecht
His backend brings all the nerds to the code. Skilled in Drupal development and architecture, you can often find him running through the Colorado wilderness and hosting the Behind the Screens podcast.