Interview with Mike Gifford, Drupal 8 Core Accessibility maintainer

Mike Gifford
Community Drupal

Agiledrop is highlighting active Drupal community members through a series of interviews. Learn who are the people behind Drupal projects. 

This week we talked with Mike Gifford. Read about what his company is striving to achieve, where he thinks has been a lot of movement in the last 2 years regarding Drupal and what contribution to open source is he proud of. 


1. Please tell us a little about yourself. How do you participate in the Drupal community and what do you do professionally?

I am best known in the Drupal Community for my work on web accessibility. I am a Drupal 8 Core Accessibility maintainer and I have been spearheading changes in Core for the last decade. I have, also, done work on security and have published a Best Practices Guide to help managers, developers, and system administrators. 

I am the founder and president of OpenConcept Consulting Inc., this web development firm is based in Ottawa, Canada and has been specializing in Drupal for over 13 years. We are a Certified B Corporation and work to be sustainable in every way that we can. We are striving to be a carbon neutral business, and promote ways that we can all minimize our footprint (both online & offline). I have organized numerous of Birds of a Feather (BoF) sessions at Drupal events, trying to build a community of firms that want to “do good and do well”. 


2. When did you first came across Drupal? What convinced you to stay, software or the community, and why?

I was definitely convinced by the community before the software. Both are amazing, but I continually met people 14 years ago, who were advocating for OpenConcept to move to Drupal. It was a great community and one that I could see working with for a long time. We had been working on our own open source CMS at the time and had built in a lot of multilingual features. It took quite a few years for Drupal Core to surpass the work we had done to support multilingual organizations.  

It was clear that the dedicated team building Core was going to make it easier to maintain sites over the long haul. We were excited by the vast number of modules that were there at the time. Drupal had a critical mass of professional developers and users that made it really attractive to me. I came to appreciate the importance of critical mass when dealing with all software projects.  


3. What impact Drupal made on you? Is there a particular moment you remember?

There are lots of moments that have had an impact on me. Whether it was seeing the community get together to bring Vincenzo Rubano to DrupalCon Portland or being inspired by the work of Leisa Reichelt to make this geeky community more user-friendly. There are so many people finding ways to collaborate and innovate together, whether that is in government or around issues like the GDPR. I have had many fun and inspiring moments engaging with people, both online and in person. 

I think that one big thing was the realization that by improving Drupal, I have been able to help shift 2-3% of the web. I do remember the world before the World Wide Web, but it is hard to imagine how modern life would function without it. Being part of a big community has allowed me to make a dent in how the web is built, this is huge!


4. How do you explain what Drupal is to other, non-Drupal people?

Most people have heard about WordPress so I generally start with a comparison to this well-known web platform. If they are familiar with WordPress, I tend to talk about how the communities are similar and different. Drupal has a greater commitment to building an open source ecosystem where people are free to use, modify and distribute the code. I explain that  Drupal is a more complicated framework than WordPress, as it has the capacity to have robust permissions and workflows. 

We have done much work in the Drupal community to make it accessible for everyone. WordPress is catching up but has a long way to go and is limited by their ecosystem. I talk about how they are both based on PHP/MySQL and that both projects have their core code under the GPL. Because of this shared code be base and license, there is some overlap. 

For people less interested in the technical details, I discuss how Drupal is a community-driven software that helps people publish content to websites. 


5. How did you see Drupal evolving over the years? What do you think the future will bring?

It’s hard not to jump right to an API driven framework with a headless JavaScript frontend (likely ReactJS). There has been a lot of movement in this area in the last 2 years, and Drupal 8 has come a long way to help present its’ structured content effectively to a wide range of devices. 

I do think that we will need to do more to recruit more JavaScript focused developers to make good use of this opportunity. This knowledge-set will be needed across the board. 


6. What are some of the contribution to open source code or community that you are most proud of?

Absolutely, it is based around web accessibility. Seeing what a small team of people can accomplish in an open source community, provides me with a lot of hope for a future that is accessible by default. I was in a pretty unique position to be able to invest time into improving this piece of Drupal. Most of what I learned about accessibility was done through working on Drupal Core. I am really pleased to have helped support other people in getting engaged as Maintainers: Everett Zufelt, Brandon Bowersox-Johnson, Andrew Macpherson & Daniël Smidt. These are just some of the communities that got behind changing Drupal Core as well as helping to make the community, as a whole, more inclusive. 

Drupal 8 has centralized many elements of accessibility that make it easier to make and maintain an accessible site. Drupal is one of few projects that has invested in implementing elements from both parts of ATAG 2.0. The Drupal community accessibility is evolving, and just like security, is something we are going to need to work on and improve as long as Drupal is being used. 


7. Is there an initiative or a project in Drupal space that you would like to promote or highlight?

I would like to highlight some of the work that is being done by the Drupal Association on making usability improvements to We are dominated by geeks and we tend to focus on geeky projects rather than design/usability/behavioral changes. Much of this started with Leisa Reichelt’s Prairie Initiative back at DrupalCon Chicago in 2011. A lot of bold ideas were brought up at that time (and since). I do think that as a community we can do a lot more to leverage to put a spotlight on the community. We can do so much more than we are to nudge people to become more involved. There is so much more that we can do with our website to help make our community more vibrant. It is amazing to look at places like Stack Overflow where the Drupal community is engaged through gamification to help provide good questions and better answers. 

I wish the changes were happening a lot faster than they are, but I am happy to see the changes. It is not easy supporting a massive platform with hundreds of thousands of users. Making changes in our online community is not easy, as we are a community of very experienced and opinionated professionals.  


8. Is there anything else that excites you beyond Drupal? Either a new technology or a personal endeavorment. 


Seriously though, there is so much interesting work out there. I have been pretty excited about watching governments around the world, work to re-invent themselves along digital communications. The whole Open Government Partnership and Digital 7 is a really interesting effort to build a foundation of openness into a bureaucracy. In Canada, there is a serious effort to change the culture and behavior of government to adopt open source. Departments that have been stuck between choosing to buy from Microsoft or IBM are suddenly in a position of rethinking procurement processes so that they might be able to buy services from small businesses. Tiny countries, like Estonia, have been leading this initiative, and it is amazing to see that open source and Drupal was critical to its’ success. 

In Drupal 8 Core, Vincenzo Rubano did more to improve Drupal’s accessibility than all of the governments in the world combined. Vincenzo did contribute a lot as a student, but surely even a small country that is using Drupal could find ways to contribute more back. Imagine what would happen if government departments started finding ways to contribute back to the open source projects that they use on an ongoing basis. It could mean so much for difficult problems like security, accessibility and sustainability. 

I am hopeful that government IT will begin to shape open source projects for the better.