138: Holly Ross in conversation at NYC Camp 2014

The Executive Director of the Drupal Association, Holly Ross, and I sat down to talk at NYC Camp 2014 at United Nations Headquarters. Roughly one year on from her appointment to the Drupal Association job, I got the chance to ask her about her Drupal "origin story", what she thinks about the community now that she's in the thick of things (we're a welcoming and diverse bunch), and the role of technology and especially Drupal in making the world a better place.

How did you end up at the DA?

"Like all good English majors from UC Berkeley, I went into community organizing after college. At a certain point in that job, I realized we don't have to run the world on index cards, maybe we should try this thing called Excel! I became the person who was always trying to move things onto the computer and I realized I like this stuff! From there, I started working with technology and helped to run a lot of advocacy-based websites. I landed at the Non Profit Technology Network [aka NTEN], which is an organization whose mission is to help non-profits create social change using technology."

"One of the great things about the NTEN community is that there is a group of really strong open source advocates. One of the things we started hearing about in 2004 or 2005 was this Drupal thing. Eventually we moved our own website onto Drupal. Within that open source community, the Drupal fans just started amassing at NTEN. So much so that we have a monthly Drupal meet-up online for folks who are in non-profits and using Drupal."

"That was my intro to the community. When the position was available, I thought, 'These guys have something going on and I like where this is going. It'd be really fun to see if I could play with them.'"

Vitriol, Hugs, and Beers - The Drupal Community!

After most of a year on the job, I asked her what the most unexpected thing she'd seen along the way so far. "I knew that the Drupal community was really diverse. Because I was more of an end-user of Drupal, not a developer, I was a little bit surprised to get into the issue queues and realize how much vitriol can live inside of those issue queues. That was shocking to me at first. It's not the vitriol, the shocking thing is that at DrupalCon Portland, I would see two people that I'd just seen fighting to the death in the issue queue hugging and having a beer together. It was sort of shocking ... in the nicest way possible."

I contend that meeting in person a lot at events and meet-ups makes the human connections in the Drupal project the most important factor. Knowing the people you're dealing with, you remember they are people when they're remote, too and that we all want the best for the project; even when we disagree on how to get there. Holly agrees, "I've seen that all over the place. One of the great joys of being part of all this is that sense that we're all trying to go to the same place. The connectedness we feel from that is really wonderful. I want to figure out how to tap into that feeling more. It's such a great feeling to be part of that current."

Diversity means better solutions

Regarding the incredible diversity of the Drupal community, Holly points out, "It's really important, too. I am a believer in the fact that we have to challenge each other in order to come up with the best solution possible. I don't mean 'challenge' in a combative way. We need challenge that comes from a diversity of experience and thought. The idea that you could put a solution on the table that absolutely solves the problem ... But is it solving it in the best way? Or most inclusive way? Or in a way that aligns with our values? Those are the other kinds of things we have to think about. Having people from different backgrounds and different experiences means that they'll ask those questions."

The 50 year challenge

Atefeh Riazi, the CITO of the United Nations challenged us in her NYC Camp keynote address to think about the consequences, the impact in 50 years of what we are doing now. "I fundamentally believe," explains Holly, "that technology can create positive change. I've done that for almost my whole professional career at this point. I get really annoyed when tech companies are saying all the time 'We're gonna change the world with this,' and I fail to see how knowing where Fred is having dinner tonight is changing the world. That's not world-changing in my definition. I get really mad. I feel that they undermine the idea, which is valid and true. We can use technologies in ways that are useful and help make the world a better place."

"There's definitely lots of opportunity for Drupal to do that and I think lots of Drupallers have demonstrated that. We had that great project coming out of DrupalCon Portland," a platform to help the victims of the Oklahoma tornadoes of 2013 – Help4OK.org. They sprinted for 48 hours straight [Looks like it was 25 hours straight] and built something that helps people connect and that actually ended up getting used by the government." At NYC Camp while we were talking, people were building a tool to help you understand the environmental impact your new project might be having.

Removing the middlemen

Building on an idea Josh Koenig discussed in his session at NYC Camp (similar to this one from DrupalCamp Mexico), we discussed Drupal's power as a tool for direct communication and empowerment. My hope is that we can put more power to communicate into the hands of the disadvantaged and make a difference. "That's a great point," adds Holly, "We've talked about that a lot this week at the UN. That work is so difficult because solutions are often dictated by someone who is sitting up above what's actually happening on the ground. So the more that we can use technology to enable the average person to articulate what's going and say what they need, the better."

"The UN anti-poverty campaign, they just finished a whole round of organizing. I think there were 187 million people that took part in events around the world. That's two percent of the world's population that just participated in anti-poverty events around the world. All of that was not 'because of Drupal', but there was a Drupal site at the center of all that work. That's a lot of power that we have."