A Tech Writer’s Thoughts on NYC Drupal Camp 2013

“Sprints include writing docs! We need more people like you in the community, come and network!” was Jon Pugh’s reply to my tweet, when I was wondering if coming to this year’s New York Drupal Camp was right for content people like me.

NYC Camp 2013 was my third Drupal Camp, and from a content professional’s perspective, the best out of the three.

What is Drupal?

Drupal is an open-source, Web-based Content Management System (CMS or WCMS). Its competitors include free tools WordPress and Joomla!, and proprietary systems Adobe CQ5 and Microsoft SharePoint, among others. Unlike WordPress, which was initially developed as a blogging platform, Drupal is more of a framework to create web sites, on which additional functionality, called modules, can be added. Most modules are created by developers in the Drupal community, though the most useful often make it into the base installation, known as “Drupal core”.

While not designed specifically to handle technical content, it can be used for this purpose; the highly regarded NPR “Create Once, Publish Everywhere” (COPE) that is the current benchmark of structured authoring and content reuse was created in Drupal, and our own Tom Johnson is using it. More sites you may have heard of using Drupal include the Grammys web site, and whitehouse.gov.

Druplicon, the official Drupal mascot/logo

I became a member of the Drupal community a few years ago when I started creating a site for my condominium community. I can’t remember what originally piqued my interest in Drupal as the solution, but the community around it has kept me engaged. The NYC group is huge and full of expert Drupal-specific developers and designers. Their meetups grew so large they just had to find a new home. The Northern NJ group, a smaller group that I joined early on, met at various Panera Bread shops in the beginning, finally finding a home at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, NJ.

Friday – Topic-specific Learning

Friday’s sessions were full-day affairs, focusing on individual topics. While most content professionals could have easily spent their day learning the very basics of Drupal and site building, I attended the session on using the Views module. Views is a visual database query builder used to assemble disparate pieces of content, and an integral part of how Drupal works and organizes and displays content types (which are the structured content building blocks in Drupal). It was a very good introduction if you didn’t know much about this module; I even learned a few things I didn’t know, but probably not a topic in which most content folks would be interested.

Friday night ended with a well-attended pub crawl. Drupal folks are hard workers as well a fun, social bunch.

Saturday – Sessions

Possibly the best and most applicable session for content folks was the first of the morning, Policy of Truth: Workbench, moderation and workflow case study. The Workbench is a set of contributed modules that defines workflow for content creators, editors, and reviewers. It was interesting to learn about this module and how it was applied at a major university, including both the successes and challenges they faced, particularly for a non-technical client. More than a few light bulbs went off in my head during this session. Other sessions I attended included SASS/SCSS, which essentially allows designers to create CSS programmatically, the Spark past/present/future presentation, which is the new — and very exciting — authoring environment in Drupal 8, and a session on search module options and functionality.

Sunday – Sprint Day

A sprint day is one where the attendees give back by contributing to the Drupal project. Because Drupal is open source, anyone can view the issues and contribute. There were even classes just on how to contribute. My new friend Jon sat with me for almost an hour ensuring I had the right environment to be able to review and test issues and patches listed in the Issue Queue.

During these sessions, developers often fix bugs, address items in the Issue Queue, and create new modules (plug-ins). Since the Drupal 8 release is on the horizon, most of the developers were working on fixes to “core”. Designers contribute CSS and design input. Others can test patches and new functionality, and contribute to the rather unwieldy Drupal documentation effort. Most of the time I dove into editing documentation pages on the Drupal site, though it wasn’t without its frustrations: the site’s spam filter prevented me from making rapid updates (and wasn’t well-documented enough to explain that), and the documentation issue queue is so large it’s hard to know where to begin.

What does all this mean to Technical Communicators?

So where do the content folks fit in? In the earlier days of my Drupal experience, it was hard to understand. Not too surprisingly, there aren’t many content pros as you’d expect at a camp primarily for developers. However, at this camp it seemed the community is coming around to the “content first” movement. In fact, content strategy guru Karen McGrane gave the keynote speech at this year’s flagship Drupal conference, DrupalCon, in Portland, OR.

First and foremost, the authoring experience improvements that will be baked into Drupal 8 alone make it intriguing as an option for creating structured documentation. In addition, promised gains in accessibility will no doubt make an impact.

Perhaps more importantly, tech comm folks have the opportunity to make a real difference in such a community, especially with our knowledge of information architecture and structured authoring. It was Jon’s encouraging tweet that convinced me to attend, and his is not the only encourgaging voice in the community. In fact, I was dubbed a “type geek” by the mentors. In my opinion, there’s no better time to be a technical communicator. Content and content professionals are getting the respect they deserve. Getting involved is as simple as creating an account on drupal.org and editing existing documentation!

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