It’s time for another community spotlight, and this month, we’re highlighting a community member who has made huge contributions to the success of the Drupal project and of DrupalCon — and not only through code.
Paul Johnson (pdjohnson) of Manchester is currently the Drupal Director of CTI Digital, and is the social media lead for most DrupalCons. He also maintains the @Drupal Twitter account. Paul has grown the DrupalCon social media program from a small following on twitter to a set of huge, engaged channels. (Image credit to Frank Crijns on Flickr. Thanks, Frank!)
The Drupal Association sat down with Paul in late January to talk about some of his accomplishments and passions.
DA: How did you get involved with Drupal and volunteering with DrupalCon?
Paul: I got involved in 2005 or 2006 by accident when I found it on Google, though I don’t really remember the exact moment. The company I worked for at the time wanted to move from their own homegrown CMS to something else, so I was looking for other solutions. While doing research I came across Drupal, and before I knew it I’d gone to DrupalCon Barcelona [in 2007].
Not long after that, I got really in to twitter. I was going to DrupalCon London in 2011 and I was fiercely excited about going, and I was expressing it on Twitter. Out of the blue, Isabel Schulz -- a nice woman who worked for the Drupal Association at the time -- reached out to me. She said, “it sounds like you want to get more involved.” It was like lighting a touch paper. Before I knew it they’d given me the username and password to the DrupalCon account and said “right, get on with it."
DA: That’s a big responsibility!
Paul: At that time social media wasn’t so prevalent, and I don’t think anyone in the Drupal community realised how it could make a big contribution to the success of the conference— how it could reach a wider audience and get help in executing the conference.
I had no rules, and I made mistakes… I was really quite daunted by the prospect. Looking back, I might have destroyed my reputation with Drupal but thankfully I didn’t! I grew and learned, and then in Portland the social media aspect started to grow more quickly. I began writing formal processes to help myself, but it became apparent that as DrupalCon was growing, the success of the social media was perhaps leading towards other people getting involved.
I suppose I’m an unusual person — I find it difficult to find my place in the Drupal community. There are a lot of people out there who are better developers than I am, and I have this thing in my head that held me back from getting involved. I suppose it was quite a long time before I realised I had something valuable to contribute to the community. There has been this idea that contributing modules or contributing to core is cool, but there are lots of us who fall outside that immediate group of people, and who have-- until recently-- felt orphaned from contribution.
I’ve always thought about when the Association reached out to me. It was a small bit of recognition, but it felt very empowering. It had a big influence on me, and because of it, I’ve always tried to shout for these people who have enthusiasm, and try to ignite it.
DA: Do you have any good examples of that?
Paul: Sure. DrupalCon Portland took place at the same time as that awful Oklahoma tornado. Before it happened, I had always wanted to use social media to watch out for these kinds of things, because… with a very large audience, we can do things and help people very quickly by using the broadcast mechanism.
When the tornado hit, I saw guys in our coder lounge hacking together a solution to help people on the ground, and I used social media to draw attention to it. It snowballed, and before we knew it, FEMA was involved, and that sends shivers down my spine. I love it when social media translates from something that’s just a conversation on the internet to something with a positive, real-world impact.
DA: Switching tracks a little bit, can you tell us about some of the challenges you’ve faced when working on the DrupalCon social media?
Paul: I’ve grown up with the Drupal Association and the project, but in many respects, the biggest attraction is also one of the biggest challenges. The diversity of the Drupal community is… well, in being responsible for representing the Drupal Association and the project and the community, you have to be quite careful. You’re an ambassador, and you have to have to have the highest level of conduct. You can’t always speak your mind.
Sometimes I’ve gotten upset. It’s a big part of my life, Drupal, and people will say things to the official accounts that are upsetting, and you have to rise above that. And sometimes, people will say things from within or without the community that can be quite cutting, and I suppose that’s one of the hardest things. But, ultimately you can draw many positives from that because it becomes a question of, how do you work towards enhancing the minds of people who think like that.
Another challenge was that, in the early days, nobody knew it was me behind the accounts. It does take a reasonable amount of my time — a half an hour or more a day every day, oftentimes more. I didn’t mind [not being known] necessarily, but it’s really nice to get recognition — and, if anyone writes anything valuable I try to give them credit on social media, to encourage and celebrate people who make the effort, and put them on a pedestal so that it spurs others to do the same.
Along those lines, I so often hear, “I don’t go to local meet-ups,” or "I’m not good enough," or "people will think I’m not clever enough or that my contribution isn’t sufficient.” I think it’s really important that people appreciate that, no matter where you are in your Drupal journey, you know more than the person who just started. You don’t have to be chx or morten or webchick-- they all started at nothing, too, but they started a long time ago.
DA: What’s your favorite thing about the Drupal community?
Paul: When our community gets behind an idea, stuff really happens, and it happens really fast. Whether that’s code, or whether it would be to crowd source some funding for a blind man who lives in Italy and wants to go to DrupalCon Portland, it is just magnificent how fast things can happen if the will of the community is drawn.
And, you know, the Drupal community gives me the opportunity to meet or converse with people I would never imagine having the chance to do so with otherwise. It makes my life so much richer. It’s not about the code, Drupal is providing me with the most unimaginable opportunities. It has allowed me -- in my career and my personal life — to take on challenges that would never have been available to me before.
Drupal has allowed me to be brave and to take a few risks, like interviewing Dries at the end of his keynote. I like to hide behind social media.. but then I’m projecting it onto a stage. And another thing about the community is, rarely do you meet someone who’s not nice.
DA: What’s your favorite thing about volunteering?
Paul: The thing that I enjoy the very most of volunteering is making a difference. There have been a few things where, I don’t know, I’ve seen a small smoldering fire and I’ve been able to ignite it into a bigger thing.
I was given the keys to DrupalCon, and then in the last few years I’ve taken ownership of the Drupal twitter account. Previously, it had become an abandoned channel, but under my stewardship it has gone from 30k followers to over 55k. And, you know, there are lots of people in media who are watching Drupal and who might be loosely interested. The Drupal twitter has so much opportunity to reach a wider audience with big achievements. So I love to use social media to show that Drupal is more than just America, more than just Europe — there’s a lot going on in India and in Africa and elsewhere.
I welcome anyone to approach me with news of things that they are doing in their local community that we can celebrate on official channels. I love to help grow something that’s a great idea into something that’s really big, because I think we’ve succeeded in growing the community in the USA and Australia and Europe. For me, the next big thing is to support the community in those regions that are about to flourish. How can we help them to make things happen more quickly?
DA: Who are you when you aren’t online?
Paul: I do seek solitude, and I really have a strong appreciation of wilderness. I’m a dad, and I love kids, and I suppose most of my time is spent cycling with my family. We go to The Lake District quite often in the UK, which is a beautiful and mountainous area.
I am passionately into road cycling on my bike, and mountaineering too. I like challenging myself — in everything I do, I always like to push myself. I’m always trying to climb higher or go faster. I’m no happier than when I’m in a mountaintop in the snow, even — especially — if it’s in a blizzard. I love being in a hostile environment where perhaps other people wouldn’t be able to cope. I love to explore places and trek the untrodden path. So even if I go back to the same place, I’ll take a different road.
DA: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us today?
Paul: With Drupal 8 on the way, I started a twitter account called @drupal8iscoming. It’s starting to grow and grow and grow now: it celebrates all things Drupal 8 on the internet — you know, articles, tutorials, events, and also how to help to get the word out to organisations about Drupal. Please check it out!