I catch up with Brendan Blaine, a developer for the Drupal Association, to find out what it takes to run events.drupal.org, why the conferences run so smoothly, and always remember to use a coaster.

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It's really exciting to be a part of the team that puts on DrupalCon.

This Episode's Guest

Brendan Blaine

Brendan Blaine

Brendan is a developer for the Drupal Association, working on Drupal.org and more specifically, events.drupal.org, to ensure your DrupalCon experience is an awesome one.  You can often find Brendan behind the help desk at a DrupalCon answering questions and providing support.

Transcript

Transcript

Chris:
We're here at DrupalCon Seattle, and I'm talking with Brendan Blaine, from the Drupal Association. Brendan, tell us a little bit about what you do with the DA.
Brendan:
Sure, so I'm a developer at the Drupal Association. I mainly focus on making improvements, hopefully, to drupal.org, and our subsites, largely events.drupal.org. Recently, been working on the scheduler, trying to make that a little more manageable, because we have a lot of content, so we got some new filtering up and that was exciting. Working on registration. I'm sorry, I know it's a little painful, but always trying to make that less of a lift, to get people to complete registration, get here, participate in the learning, and the community building that happens here at DrupalCon.
Chris:
Yeah, so there was a big change this year with the registration to DrupalCon, because of the new format, so how did that come into play? What sort of work did you have to do to try and reconfigure that?
Brendan:
Yeah, there... Suddenly, we have three tracks you can register for. All different content. We got agency leadership, we have content and digital marketing, both pretty tightly focused on the groups you would commonly associate with that, and then we got the builder track, which is kind of your classic DrupalCon, a lot about site building, the more techy side of what it takes to put a site together day to day, running a site, developing a site.
Brendan:
As far as what it took to set the site up for that... So, setting up content types, because we have to collect a lot of data, to make sure that we're properly serving the community. Figuring out what data we need to collect. A lot of funny permissioning changes that suddenly need to span across different permission types and registration types. Events.drupal.org uses organic groups to silo the conferences into themselves, if that makes sense, so kind of working to make sure that the changes we had to make to facilitate the new tracks that we had here... We were trying to not break the old Cons as much as we could, as far as how things display, make sure you can still access the old recordings on the old sessions. That's just a couple of things that come to mind.
Brendan:
Any time you make changes to a process that you're pretty comfortable with, it's both exciting and terrifying. We really went hard this time.
Chris:
No kidding. Yeah, this was a big lift.
Brendan:
It was, but so far, it seems to be going pretty well. People seem happy. I know we're just getting started here. It's still early. We're kind of on day one of the pre-Con. A lot of summits and trainings happening today, but people seem pretty happy and upbeat, and I see a lot of hallway conferences happening kind of ad hoc, in between... when there's breaks and things, so it's really great to see the community come back together.
Brendan:
Sometimes you only see each other once a year.
Chris:
Right? I say that all the time. I have friends in Denver where I live, that work in Drupal, but I only see them when I go to Seattle, or Nashville for a conference. It's very... It's a very strange thing that way, but it's fun community to have that.
Brendan:
I agree.
Chris:
So, you've been to a few you were telling me earlier. This is not your first North American conference.
Brendan:
Nope.
Chris:
And most of us pay to come to DrupalCon, but working for the Drupal Association, you get paid to come and work here, so I ran into you behind the help desk, so tell me a little bit about what it's like working for the Drupal Association, and helping to put on the conference that so many people attend.
Brendan:
Sure. Working for the Drupal Association is fantastic. They're the most caring, supportive, wonderful people you could work with. It is a little bit frantic, a little bit hectic, particularly as you start getting closer to the conference. It's amazing the amount of details it takes, to put together something like this, like signs have to go in specific places, people need interpreters, or accessibility assistants. There's so many amazing details that this time that we have... and it's not just staff. We work with an amazing event production team, Groundswell Marketing, but it's just seeing everybody come together to produce this conference, and to have the community arrive with smiles on their faces is fantastic, and I think I've strayed slightly from your question.
Chris:
That's okay. You can stray as much as you want to. I love it.
Brendan:
Yeah, I'm trying to figure out... I don't know how to put in words the dedication and focus our team really has to make this happen, starting months and months ago, in some cases years ago. Not many people know this, but if you want to book a venue for a conference, you actually probably did it two or three years ago, in some cases five years ago, depending on your location. So, the ball gets rolling a lot earlier than most people think, and this year we made a lot of changes, so there's a lot more of the technical stuff that started happening early on than normally would.
Brendan:
If you're just rolling with the same thing, you can just copy paste. It's more complicated than that, but that's the-
Chris:
Right, that's good developer speak. I'm following you.
Brendan:
Yes. Yes, and so this year wasn't like that. It was a little bit more problem solving than normal, but that's always exciting. We don't do everything perfect, but we try, and the main thing is at the end of the day, we gathered everybody, and so... Well, everybody that we could, and I think we've achieved that again, so it's really exciting to be a part of the team that puts on DrupalCon. You're sitting behind a giant balloon of the DrupalCon right now, and it's staring at me, literally, and it's an iconic event in the community.
Brendan:
Thousands of people look forward to it every year. I feel great having been part of producing that.
Chris:
I think it's one of those things where there's so much that happens behind the scenes, that we're not privy to, but you are, and when everything goes right, when you guys have done your job and put in all those hours, we don't necessarily see all that, because it's all running so smoothly. And it's not until something breaks, like the coffee runs out, or the signs were missing, or there's no BoF board, it's something like that. Then one of those small things can go wrong, and that's when people start to notice, or it's sort of a thankless job I'd say, in a lot of respects, because it often just runs so smoothly, and we can tend to take it for granted, especially after so many years of having so many great conferences.
Brendan:
Thank you.
Chris:
Yes, and thank you, so I imagine it's got to be very gratifying when you get to the end of it, and everything, like you said, everything's run smoothly. So many people have showed up with smiles on their faces, and gotten a lot out of it.
Brendan:
Yeah, and so the thing that's really interesting is I spend a lot of time at our help desk, and so frankly, I hear all the problems. People come to me when they have a problem, and my motto has always been you might come to me stressed out, agitated, upset, but you're going to walk away from here with a smile. I have all the power to fix your problem, and I love doing it, which is why I'm at the help desk. I'm also the one answering help@drupal.org, so I do that a lot day to day, as well.
Brendan:
It's interesting how you also keep in mind, even though all day long, people are coming to you with problems, it's a very small number. People are having a great time. Things work, and it's okay if people aren't saying thank you and don't know we're here, because that just means we're doing our job. Things work. That's exciting. We're proud when that happens. In particular, the amount of problem solving that happens while things in motion's impressive. We've put on a lot of DrupalCons, so we've kind of seen it all, but every once in a while you get a curve ball. When that happens, a solution is going to form, and we're going to make everyone as happy as we can.
Chris:
I want to put you on the spot a bit. What's the craziest, or maybe what's the most unique problem you've had to solve on the fly at a DrupalCon?
Brendan:
Yeah. Being a tech conference, there's a lot of live demos that happen on the floor. Conference WiFi isn't great. Sometimes mapping out all the power can be tricky, and we had a sponsor that plugged in a screen, and for whatever reason, it turned off the power to three other sponsors, and so four radios calls start bouncing, and people essentially come in to start helping immediately, and sort it out, and at the end of the day, it was only a five minute problem, but that's a weird call to hear over the radio.
Chris:
Power's gone out at three of our sponsor rooms.
Brendan:
Exactly.
Chris:
Yeah. That's a fun one, like... How do you begin to diagnose that, like, "All right, flip the circuit breakers?"
Brendan:
Yeah, exactly. It's a lot of creativity that just comes pouring out of a lot of smart people.
Chris:
Yeah. Oh, that's pretty funny. There are a lot of people here from the Drupal Association, like yourself, to help do this, but there are also a lot of people from the community, who volunteer their time to come and help out. What are some of the options that people have if they wanted to say... if they want to give back a little bit, but they're not sure what to do, what sort of volunteer shifts are you looking for, and how long do those shifts take? Is it... How much is somebody investing in that?
Brendan:
Sure. So, I'm not in charge of the volunteers, caveat, but we... Everything from head counts in rooms, like it's great to know who's attending what session. We'll take that data and run it back, to help orient next year's programming. We have people that will run power strips out, if there's something that needs to be done. We are people that are basically human maps. You can ask them where they need to go. They can point you in the right direction.
Brendan:
I think the volunteer shifts are about an hour a day, but I'm not 100% sure on that, but it... DrupalCon doesn't happen without volunteers. As much as it feels like we've done all the things, it's the community. The community is the one that picks all the sessions. We, the Drupal Association doesn't pick sessions. We help organize the groups, and give them the place to meet, and the tools that they might request for helping sort through the massive... I think we had over a thousand sessions submissions this year. That's a lot.
Brendan:
You know, you submit a session, that's three or four paragraphs. There's almost a thousand of them, and I think it's 12 or 15 volunteers, or something like that, that go through all of that data, and then schedule it out, and it's truly impressive, the amount of work that people will put in, to make sure the community has a strong DrupalCon. I love it.
Chris:
Yeah, it's amazing how many people it takes to get it all together, but when you think about it, if everybody does a little bit, it goes so far to make such a grand thing happen. So, I've done a volunteer shift myself, just sitting in a room, doing a head count, being a room monitor. For just one session, I gave up one session to attend... If I'm lucky, I can even find one that I wanted to attend anyway, but still, sit in the back, do the head count, and give back a little bit to the community that way. You don't have to know the code. You don't have to present at a DrupalCon.
Chris:
There's so many little things like that. When everyone pitches in, it goes so far.
Brendan:
Yeah, and it... You really don't have to know the code. If you want to learn the code, there's ways to do that here. I think earlier today, there was a first-time contributor workshop that happened. There's a lot of ways to contribute without coding. Like you said, be a room monitor. Update documentation. This community is so large, and there's so... Drupal is such an amazing tool that there's always a way to find a way to help. You could even just sit down and let someone rubber duck a problem off of you.
Chris:
Yeah. Hallway tracks. Yeah.
Brendan:
I've seen that, and it's amazing how you form a connection, and then the next year, the guy was just mentoring people at the contribution session. He had never coded the year before, and so... It's amazing.
Chris:
That is amazing. I love those stories. That's great. Is there anything in particular around drupal.org, where somebody who wants to volunteer a little time could help with? How does that ecosystem work? Is it anything like issue gardening, or is there a way to pull a local instance down and actually work out some bugs?
Brendan:
So, drupal.org is a site that has been around for a very long time. I think... Uh oh, I'm on the spot. I can't remember if it's 13 or 15 years old. In those years, it's collected a lot of customization. It's got really big databases, so local development isn't something we recommend. Technically, you can do it. People have tried. Generally when they do, they're like, "Help us," and we're like, "This is why we said not to do it." But that being said, you can open an issue, we're happy to spin you up a dev site if you got a problem you want to try to get solved. Please do.
Brendan:
Drupal.org is a site by the community, for the community, that the Drupal Association stewards to the best of our ability, and so any time that we get people that want to help, it is great when they reach out to us and work with us to do so. I don't want to sound ungrateful, but it is actually a challenge to take something someone built, and just plug it in to drupal.org. There's a lot of pieces and parts that are working behind the scenes, that people might not be aware of, that suddenly, now that we've been handed the contribution that needs to be integrated into the site, that wasn't considered, and it becomes a equally large project for us to bring in the contribution.
Chris:
Sure.
Brendan:
So, it's really great when people work with us from the beginning, if they want to contribute in that way. If you don't want to be coding stuff, like the webmasters issue queue on drupal.org is a great place to start helping out. With a large site, and the number of people that we have, there's all kinds of things that someone could need help with, and the webmasters issue queue is a place where you can get in, and help people who are having issues with their accounts, or they're having issues creating issues, there's funny things that happen on a site this size, of this age, and that's a great place.
Brendan:
All of the documentation has discussion areas, where you can give feedback on how it could be improved. There's a lot of options there. Off the top of my head, that's what came back to me.
Chris:
Yeah. No, that's great. So, the webmasters... Tell me about this again. What's the place to go to, for people to get involved?
Brendan:
Sure. It would be the drupal.org project.
Chris:
Okay, so drupal.org/project/drupal.
Brendan:
/drupalorg.
Chris:
/drupalorg. Oh, okay, so that'd be the drupal.org website, right? Okay, got you.
Brendan:
Yeah, it's the project for the site itself.
Chris:
Right.
Brendan:
And that's a little bit of a kind of a custom piece, there. It's got a little more facets than an average project, so the webmaster queue is there, the infrastructure queue is there, which is where you would post if you wanted to get ahold of a dev site, so it's got a few more things you can click around, and participate, if you wanted to help with drupal.org specifically.
Chris:
Okay. Wonderful. Well, Brendan, let's take this and flip it a little bit. We've talked a lot about the conference, what it takes, about the site, but I want to know about you, and why you decided that this is something you wanted to do, so why did you decide that you wanted to work for the DA? Why was that appealing for you?
Brendan:
Sure. Well, I had an opportunity to attend DrupalCon Portland, and wasn't sure what to expect. I'd never been to a DrupalCon before. Our site was running on drupal.org, so I had my hands in it a little bit, but I hadn't really been involved in the community yet, and I was blown away with the vast amount of people that were just willing to sit and talk about any problem I had, or anything, any project I wanted to explore.
Brendan:
It's funny. I wasn't planning on working for the Drupal Association. It just kind of worked out that way. At the time, they needed a technology manager, and that was kind of where my role really lied, and then I was super interested in helping with drupal.org, and evolved into a junior developer role, and then now, just a developer on drupal.org, for drupal.org.
Chris:
So, it was all sort of a serendipitous, like everything fell into place, and now you get to help put on the conferences that brought you in in the first place.
Brendan:
Exactly, and I think that's why I found DrupalCon so special. DrupalCon itself showed me something that I didn't know existed. A lot of people who aren't involved with Open Source have no clue what Open Source really means, and it's... Sure, it's the product. It's Drupal in this case. But the community, and the sheer good that they are trying to do on a daily basis is fantastic.
Chris:
Yeah. That's a really cool story. I like that.
Brendan:
Thanks.
Chris:
All right, we're going to get silly now.
Brendan:
Sure.
Chris:
So, let's get away from the work completely. Got a list of funny questions I've decided to bring with me on this trip of interviews, so the first one is if you were any piece of furniture, what piece of furniture would you be?
Brendan:
Oh, interesting. Okay. I would love to be an antique end table.
Chris:
Interesting. Tell me more.
Brendan:
I imagine people having fancy drinks in their sitting room telling awesome stories around me.
Chris:
I like that. I like the specificity of it. An antique.
Brendan:
Had to be antique.
Chris:
Yeah. Very nice. All right, let's keep going with this theme, then. If you could have one superpower, or mutant power, which superpower would you pick?
Brendan:
Oh, man. Okay. This is interesting. Since being a kid, I've always wanted the ability to fly, but that's what everybody says. The ability to know that every commit I push was perfect.
Chris:
Oh, like the... How would you phrase that? The bugless commit.
Brendan:
Yes. The ability to have bugless commits.
Chris:
I like that. I imagine that would reduce your stress levels by a lot. Like any developer, just knowing that whatever you push is going to be-
Brendan:
Flawless.
Chris:
Because really, at that point, you could just keep committing semi-colons, and whatever, it would just-
Brendan:
It would just come out beautiful.
Chris:
Yeah. I like that. That's a creative superpower. I've never met you before, so I really don't know any of your background, so actually, what part of the country do you hail from? Or part of the world, for that matter.
Brendan:
Yep, currently in Southern California. I just moved last year out of Portland. Life is good. Beaches are great.
Chris:
All right, so I got a little bit on you now. We're going to do rapid fire. I got five questions, yes or no, or this or that types of questions.
Brendan:
Okay.
Chris:
You don't need to defend them. Let's just hear what you got.
Brendan:
Sure.
Chris:
Toilet paper hung over or under?
Brendan:
Over.
Chris:
Would you rather attend school at Hogwarts, or have a wardrobe that takes you to Narnia?
Brendan:
Oh, Narnia.
Chris:
Marvel or DC?
Brendan:
Ouch. Both. Comics rule.
Chris:
All right. Coffee or tea?
Brendan:
Tea.
Chris:
I've lost count. I think we're on number five now. If 100 hippos and 100 rhinos fought on a mixed terrain of land and water, who would win?
Brendan:
Hippos are the deadliest creature on the planet. Let's go with hippos.
Chris:
I like it. That'll work. One more question and then we'll wrap this up. If you were given one month of work to do whatever you wanted to, you don't have to work on the Drupal Association pieces, but you still got paid. What would you work on?
Brendan:
You know, it's funny. A lot of people wake up in the morning and dread going to work, and I get up in the morning, and I'm like, "What do I get to work on today?" I would probably still work on drupal.org. It's so satisfying to add a feature, or further refine a feature, and just know literally thousands of people are going to use it today. I know it's a bit of a boring answer, but I have learned this because I love it, and I would just keep doing it.
Chris:
I think... I don't consider that a boring answer. I think you're right. There's a lot of people who can't say that they really love what they do, so to have that be your answer, that's fantastic that you've been able to find that.
Brendan:
I feel fortunate.
Chris:
That's a great feeling, and I'd like to wrap it up with that feeling. Is there anybody you can think of that you would like to say thank you to, or share some gratitude with, that maybe gave you a boost along the way?
Brendan:
Yeah. My coworkers, Neil Drumm and Ryan Aslett, have been absolutely amazing mentors. I didn't start out as a developer, and I am now, and they have been just absolutely tremendously supportive the entire way, and I would just like to say thanks, guys. I appreciate you.
Chris:
That's awesome, and it doesn't look like there's too much of a line at the help desk, so-
Brendan:
We're doing something right.
Chris:
Exactly. Excellent job so far. Brendan, thank you a lot for taking some time to talk with me today.
Brendan:
Thank you, Chris. It's been great.

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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.