When I was on vacation in Italy this summer, I had no internet. Having no internet gave me a lot of time to think. Some of that time was spent reflecting on why I do what I do. I have been working on Drupal for over 15 years and on Acquia for almost 10 years. The question of what gives me meaning and purpose has changed drastically over that time.
I started Drupal because I wanted to build a website for myself and a few friends — an internet message board to exchange messages. In the early days of Drupal, I was obsessed with the code and architecture of Drupal.
As I wrote in 2006: "I focused completely and utterly on creating fewer and fewer lines of more elegant code.". I wanted Drupal to be pure. I wanted the code to be perfect. For Drupal to be architected in the right way, I had to rewrite it multiple times and strip away anything that wasn't necessary – I couldn't imagine preserving backwards compatibility as it meant we had to drag along a lot of historical baggage. My mission in the early days was to keep the platform fast, clean and on the leading edge of technology.
As time passed, my role evolved. More people became involved with Drupal, and my focus started to shift away from the code to scaling the community, including our tools, processes and culture. I started to focus on building the Drupal Association, promoting Drupal, handling trademark issues, and last but not least, setting the overall direction of the project. In the process, I started to worry less about achieving that perfect vision and more about the health of the community and collaborating on a shared vision.
I miss programming but I have come to accept that I can't do everything. Every day when I wake up, I decide what to focus my energy on. My guiding principle at this time in my life is to optimize for impact. That means enabling others versus doing much programming myself.
Meaningful moments: part I
While in Italy I decided to make a list of the moments in Drupal's history that stand out as particularly meaningful or purposeful. I started to discover some patterns in these moments, and ended up sorting them into two groups. Here is the first set:
- When people find Drupal, and it gives them a better career path. I got goosebumps when almost 3,000 people stood up at DrupalCon San Francisco when I asked "Please stand up if Drupal changed your life". I often talk to people that went on to make a full-time living with Drupal – or even start a Drupal business – to provide better lives for their families. Some of these stories, like Vijaya Chandran Mani's, are deeply impactful.
- Seeing how Drupal is used for aid relief, like in the aftermath of the 2013 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. Drupal people worked throughout the night to create a website for victims to help each other.
- Seeing how Drupal has made a meaningful impact on the Open Web movement. Over the last 10 years, millions of people have created Drupal sites that express their creative freedom and individuality. In recent years, I've become concerned about the Open Web's future and have spoken out on how the Drupal community is uniquely positioned to help preserve the open web. I believe it's an important mission that we should all embrace, so the original integrity and freedom of the Open Web remains intact for our children and grandchildren.
All of these moments suggest that my purpose is self-transcendent – I get meaning when my work matters more to others more than it does to myself. Organized into radiating circles, the impact on each of these groups gives me purpose: individual Drupalists, the Drupal community, Drupal end users, and the open web. It is why I've become so passionate about things like usability, internationalization and accessibility over the years.
I know it's not just me; my team interviewed many other people that have the same feelings of finding meaning when their work results in life-changing outcomes. One great example is "Franck" Seferiba Salif Soulama, who hopes that training more young people in Drupal can lift people from Burkina Faso, Africa out of poverty. He wants to provide them job opportunities so they don't have to leave their country. Other examples are Drew Gorton or Ronan Dowling. There are many people like Franck, Drew or Ronan around the world that have a positive domino effect on others.
Meaningful moments: part II
The second group of moments I wrote down weren't necessarily self-transcendent, but still gave me purpose. Here are a few examples:
- Fundraising after the great server meltdown. In 2005, we had to raise money to buy new infrastructure for Drupal.org. We nearly had to shut down Drupal.org and could have lost everything. While it was a difficult time, this moment was especially meaningful as it helped us come together as a community.
- Having to ask individuals to leave the project or change their behavior because their values weren't aligned with the project. While providing critique or removing someone from the project has never been never easy, I'm proud of the times we stand up for our values.
- Getting Drupal 8 over the finish line after 4.5 years of hard work. At times, many people doubted our progress, questioned whether we were making the right decisions, and even left our project. While the development process wasn't always fun in the moment, when we did release parties around the world, we all felt a real sense of accomplishment. In the long run, we built something that will keep Drupal relevant for many years to come.
Many of us find meaning when the hard and uncomfortable work results in life-changing outcomes for others. Not only does this type of work provide purpose, some people believe it is the recipe for success. For example, Angela Lee Duckworth's TED talk on grit applies directly to the work that is done by Drupal's maintainers.
How do we scale purpose?
Hearing all of these inspirational stories gets me thinking: How we can attract more people to the project, but do so in a way that ensures we share our core values (like giving back)? While there are no straightforward answers to this question, there are many organizations that are doing great things in this area.
One example is the Drupal Campus Ambassador Program which hopes to appoint ambassadors in every university in India to introduce more students to Drupal and help them with their job search. While at Drupalcon India earlier this year, I met Rakesh James, who has personally trained 600 people on Drupal!
Another example is the Drupal apprenticeship program in the UK, which focuses on recruiting new talent to the Drupal community. Participants get an extensive Drupal bootcamp to help them with their job search. Many of these apprentices are disadvantaged young people who have great talent and aptitude, but might be lacking the traditional route or access to a meaningful career path.
I'd love to take programs like these global – they instill our values, culture and a sense of purpose to many new people. If you know of similar initiatives, or have ideas to share, please do so in the comments section.
Based on my own introspection, and hearing from amazing Drupalists from around the world, I truly believe that Drupal is fueled by a collective sense of purpose that sets us apart from other open source software communities and organizations. We need to keep this purpose in mind when we make decisions, especially when the going gets tough. What is your sense of purpose? And how can we scale it around the world?