Products are Ephemeral, Movements are Eternal

Much has changed in the landscape and culture surrounding the ELMS platform since I first began calling things by that name 7 years ago. There have been changes in leadership, IDEs, hosting, Drupal versions, but most importantly; culture. I knew after my first year or two of development that I couldn’t just create a packaged system for people to use. Anyone can do that, people do that every day as I sit here writing.

No, I had to create something more—something lasting.—something about which I could write and tell my children someday. Anyone can write code, and many do. But code is only as successful as the community built to sustain that code. There are plenty of examples of this in which tribes culminate around a common technology goal and we get things such as Drupal, WordPress, Joomla, etc.

But, what if you started building a platform and didn’t have a support network? What if there was no community? What if people were all part of different tribes and you had to win them over to your side? What if you believed in your platform and ideals so much (too much), you’d put your research, platform, and life on hold to see that it was ultimately successful?

This is one such story. This is the previously unspoken story of the rise of the Drupal @ Penn State community.

Drupal Is a Tool, Among Many Tools

In 2007, Drupal was a dirty word. Drupal was not the blessed platform and, much like today, is not an officially supported platform. As someone who doesn’t believe in such a thing and who knew Drupal, this was odd to me. Why would we not cast a wide net and support a number of of tools? The reason was somewhere muddled in politics, in-fighting, and most importantly, a fundamental philosophical difference in community design. One that is at the heart of many of the political battles we see on a national stage, today: the notion of centralized authorities versus decentralized autonomy and, potential chaos.

So, how were we to go from Drupal being a bad word to it powering psu.edu and hundreds of other systems? If it wasn’t going to come through centralized support, it would have to come from grass roots.

Drupal Is Just a Learning Tech

When ELMS was being showcased in its Drupal 4.7 edition, it was only used to power one thing: a course collaborative space—as in a single course. Collaborative space—as in upload photos and leave comments. That was it. This tool was so powerful a notion at the time though, to build your own space for engagement, that it was a shock to the system. Few were doing this and even fewer were doing it in Drupal.

The desire to convert to the Drupal platform was almost immediate. From that one Drupal system, we built three more and ran tiny Drupal 5 instances on our own. This was neat, but certainly not a threat. It also didn’t scale. It required a full-time employee to manage and build and (constantly) fix four Drupal sites. What threat could four little Drupal sites be?

Five different colleges requested a demo of our four-course, Drupal-based environment. Four, unrelated colleges that were not talking, suddenly wanted to see this rogue college’s work; my work. Why are you using something different? How do you get support? You actually build your own tools?! Who supports that?! There was much dismay and gnashing of teeth—not because we were doing this—but because others didn’t have it!

I Want Shiny Toys

We started to get into the monopolization of our unit’s time simply demo-ing, discussing, and trying to get others up to speed with what they would need to do in order to run something similar. Suddenly, everyone wanted to jump into the deep end and take this previously unheard of risk and put their courses into a CMS. Not just any CMS, mind you; the wrong CMS. The shiny toys syndrome was in full effect and it was a great place to be in. It took up a lot of time… but it was cool. After some time, the “wow” and “scary” factors began to wear off, and we began to form a fledgling community of developers and site builders of drastically varying abilities. We’d meet once a month or so to talk about modules that we had found and how things were going.

It was about this time that Drupal 5 was nearing the end of its life cycle (which in Drupal terms means it was just getting really good) and Drupal 6 was about to be debuted. I was also getting bored. I had four courses. Cool. But I couldn’t really scale myself to meet my current demand . I quickly realized I didn’t want to just be the guy that built new sites in a week or so and talked about it. I wanted more out of life; I wanted automation.

I slapped a hacked D5 system together. We went from four to eight courses in a similar level of scale, but then we kind of hit a wall. I was constantly in maintenance mode fixing issues and meeting very specialized requests. At the same time, people were asking for our “architecture.” Providing this code to others, managing their deployments, and getting them up to speed sucked up a lot of valuable time. Sometimes, I “lost” over half of my week. It was a frustrating and unintended consequence of our success. But in that frustration, I started to notice something: The automation changed the nature and scale of those units that got their hands on it. No longer were IDs glorified HTML developers. No longer did they muck with CSS, JavaScript and HTML on a daily basis. They had a workable tool that allowed them to focus their real talents on thorough instructional design.

School Falls to the Wayside to Save School

It was around this time that I began to get so overwhelmed with all this work that I couldn’t do much with grad school. True, I had joined graduate school to help better prepare me for “the real world” but I felt that I was immersed in it at this point.  After engaging with it, I didn’t really like grad school; I hated the busy work, but I loved the theories and the concepts of technological design.

Something that really stuck with me was the idea of technological artifacts. That technology all throughout history has been intentionally (or unintentionally) designed to have political implications. This was a world-view changing notion for me. Not just that technology was this thing people did, but that it could be used for perceived good or to alter the behavioral patterns of others.

Oddly enough, it was around this time that wiki pages were being populated to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about Drupal. A lot of it had cropped up over the last two years as use of ELMS/Drupal for IDs spreading around. ELMS/Drupal was not something that could be controlled, and this wildfire threatened the stability of established technologies. If people worked and did business for themselves autonomously without blessing, authorities would cease to exist.

Achieving the goal of enabling others to be fully autonomous became my life.  I won’t say how much time I was working officially, but it’s a good thing that at that time my wife was working the night shift. Those days of work could easily stretch into nights with a small break for dinner in-between. School couldn’t even find a place in this new world in which I found myself trying to build. I became quite literally addicted to Drupal. There was just so much to learn and so many cool things really smart people were doing, and I wanted to learn it all. It was the educational experience I never got in college: the practical, hands-on, by-example type of training that just clicked for my mind.

I increasingly abandoned active participation in schoolwork and mostly just investigated theories of technology, started to become more civically engaged, and researched all things Drupal. It is in this intersection of theory, politics, and Drupal, that I began to develop a plan.

The Plague Campaign

I formulated a long document entitled “Plague campaign,” and all communications hinting at the fact that there was a larger plan to everything was tagged with plague from that point on.  There were a few ground rules to the Plague campaign, the first of which was that you didn’t talk about the plague campaign until such a time that the effects were irreversible. Sure, I could ramble to my wife and a few trusted friends about what I envisioned. The rules were simple:

  1. Don’t tell anyone.
  2. Don’t lose yourself in obsession over this
  3. Always remember this is to make this place a better place for everyone, not just you.
  4. Document events and turning points to learn from this later.

“Technology is just technology.” “You need to let it go.” “This isn’t worth making a fuss about just work.” This is what I was told, but this was no longer just a “tech is tech” argument. Drupal had grown leaps and bounds beyond all competition with the maturation of Drupal 6. It was now more of a “what you don’t know can hurt you” argument and, quite frankly, we were wasting time. There were important, world-changing problems we could be addressing if we weren’t so busy arguing about technology solutions and HTML.

The Plague campaign would have to be multi-tiered and untraceable. It had to essentially “just happen” organically.  Political movements of the day drove what I imbued in my technology implementation.. After all, all tech is political. Why not give my tech a political identity and mission with which to alter behavior? I found one, analyzed its methods—not its message—and went about my business.

Information Altruism is Discovered

Plague was the first step of a five-year plan (from my initial employment because that’s when Drupal really started). The goal of that five-year plan (of which I was into two years already) was to completely alter the technical landscape of the university to change the dirty word “Drupal” into the de facto standard. I knew that we were gaining momentum, but I needed a way to accelerate it.

I was still in grad school actively at this point and doing some light research. In analysis of some interviews, I noticed a few patterns. One, everyone who was using the system had talked or heard about the system through me.. Two, they were extremely appreciative of the time I had donated to them in order for them to get up to speed and stand on their own. I knew what had been the impetus of organizational change even in this minor way: altruism. The gift of time. The hours spent working beyond what was required or oftentimes outside the scope of my actual job. Time invested wasn’t just in my own work, it had the power to change more then just systems implemented. It remade the technology of units, increased their efficiency, which would then alter the employees they would hire and the skill sets required of those employees.

Technology had the ability to change the rules by which the people working on the web and online education played. The act of giving away time to achieve transformation would work with an exponential effect if I could give and have others pay it forward. At this time, I started to give my time forward. Not just to learning design shops anymore, but to anyone who had any contact with web systems in any way. By giving away my time, I could replicate what was happening in the ID space with the web-shops and lone-wolf developers around the university.

Simultaneously, if I could get everyone at the University on a unified platform, I would be building a community, and in doing so, have the community pay forward the skills acquired through my initial paying forward. I started to respond “Yes” to any and all work others at the university needed help with in achieving their CMS needs, going even further into time-debt.  I no longer cared about my time, it was more important to supplant Drupal everywhere I could.

And just like that, a community started to form. After I’d help get people on their feet, they’d have a local expert built up with knowledge of how to maintain that system.  Their paying forward often times would be telling someone down the hall about Drupal, or applying knowledge gained to the next Drupal project.  No longer was it one or two doing Drupal, it was a bubbling community.  And the community was getting so large, it needed a flag in the ground.

The Tipping Point: Drupal Camp 2011

Now that we had people who could be vocal, I wanted a Drupal camp. After all, there were events for other CMSs on campus—so why not us? I quickly found that no one was willing to put up the time or voice to support it. Without funding and backing by any authority, we had no camp. And with no camp, there would be no additional community growth.

At the time I was putting out feelers for people who might be interested in a Drupal camp (getting several positive responses), I learned a Learning Design summer camp was scheduled on campus. Learning Design summer camp and Drupal Camp have nothing in common; but, many learning designers developed content in Drupal thanks to ELMS. So, people could potentially see them as related. Someone asked me if I’d be willing to put together a session of some kind about Drupal for educational systems development and I got to thinking…

If it was really that informal—this learning design session—why not just have a Drupal camp during that time? I mean, if I announced something, found a room and people would listen, who would stop me from talking?? I quickly threw together a wiki page for the Drupal talk but it was no longer just a session: it was for an entire day of Drupal talks; a Drupal Camp I thought I had a lot of slots available when I put down 40 total and was excited to see if anything came of it.

On the first day, we had 40 registrants from just posting the page and sharing with a few list serves. By the end of the month, we had 100. On the day of Drupal camp, six weeks later; we had 130+ people registered and eager to attend PSU Drupal camp. People who registered reached out and asked if I needed help with presentations. Little did anyone know that we accepted everyone who asked, because the “we” was really me and a coworker who helped reserve the location for the event, which was originally only one room, so it was easy!

On the day of the camp, one of the key slides in my opening talk was about the “Pay it Forward” culture. I said this is a key principle in the Drupal community, and we, as participants, needed to mirror the Drupal community as a whole. Even as I spoke, I knew we didn’t really have a community. People were at the camp to listen to people ramble about web technologies, not discuss community and engagement. I knew I lost many, but the key is that I wasn’t trying to recruit many. I was just trying to recruit one “true believer”. One champion who would join me and be as vocal as I was to kick things up to another level. All it would take was just one to be successful…

Unfortunately (for others), we didn’t get one…we got about eight very vocal members and another eight modestly vocal ones. From there, we went forth and started the Penn State Drupal Users Group (PSU DUG) which began to meet on a monthly basis to discuss all things Drupal.

Our users group has grown to as many as 24 people who attend monthly meetings on a regular basis. And the three Drupal camps that we’ve put on (no longer I—but WE) have hit 100+ attendees every year. Next year, we are even talking about having a for-pay, sponsored event where people are brought in to give presentations and people external to PSU could attend…something unheard of just three years ago.

This Is Just the Beginning

And so, any of you out there reading long enough to find this line—I hope you take away this:

As Steve Jobs said..

“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Go out there dreamers. Get passionate, get excited, and go change the world. I’ve put out multiple calls to action to get developers off the bench and into the game for not just ELMS but Drupal development at large.  Developments that, when seemingly are for other purposes, always come back around to benefit the ELMS platform.

‘Cause all it takes is one of you to build an army of developers and site builders looking to change things.  Never sit down, never accept the status quo, pay everything you can forward in time, energy and love.  Build these things and give them away for the world to experience and grow from.

Imagine what will happen when more communities come online thanks to this story.  Imagine what we’ll all build together!

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