Interview with pinball wizard Greg Dunlap, Senior Digital Strategist at Lullabot
Agiledrop is highlighting active Drupal community members through a series of interviews. Now you get a chance to learn more about the people behind Drupal projects.
This time we talked with Greg Dunlap, pinball wizard and Lullabot's senior digital strategist. We spoke of how satisfying it is to work on interesting things with the right people, the importance of the Drupal Diversity and Inclusion initiative, and the close similarities between the Drupal community and Greg's local pinball community.
1. Please tell us a little about yourself. How do you participate in the Drupal community and what do you do professionally?
I am a Senior Digital Strategist at Lullabot; historically, I’ve been very much involved in the development and technical side of website building, but in recent years I’ve gotten much more into the content, digital strategy and information architecture part, and so that’s more how I do my work these days, sort of dealing with bigger picture problems.
As far as my participation in the Drupal community, it’s been pretty light these days. I still speak at conferences here and there about various things, but my contribution beyond that has dropped off quite a bit. I’ll pop in in an issue here and there, and I’ve been involved in the Drupal Diversity and Inclusion group and similar projects, but other than that, my participation is pretty light right now.
I think it’s also been a bit of me taking my life back, I was very very involved in the Drupal community for almost a decade, and so I think a lot of it was also just sort of me taking some time for myself. It’s hard because I built my career through participating in the community, so to some extent that’s necessary, but you really need to find a balance.
2. When did you first come across Drupal? What convinced you to stay, the software or the community, and why?
I came across Drupal at an interesting time in my life. It was around 2007, Drupal 5 was out, and I was working for a newspaper in Seattle called the Seattle Times. We were doing a migration to Drupal, and through part of that migration we hired Lullabot to come in and help us out. And that was when I first met Jeff Eaton and Matt Westgate, and it was Jeff Eaton who pushed me to get involved in contributing. I was talking to him about a problem and he said “wow, you should really file a core issue about that”, which I did, and 10 years later it got marked “won’t fix”, so that was great.
But at the time I was looking for a new job anyway and Drupal was just taking off, so I started getting involved with the local Drupal user group, and through that I met a bunch of really cool people. I also needed to figure out what my next thing was going to be professionally, and so all of this stuff kind of came at just about the right time for me. I was looking for something in Drupal to dig my teeth into, and we were having a bunch of problems around deployment and configuration management at the Seattle Times, and so that kind of just became my niche.
And through that I met a lot of people who helped and I also wrote a lot of code, and that ended up getting me my first Drupal job, which was at Palantir; then, everything just kind of snowballed after that.
Now I’m basically working for the company that was my first contact with Drupal. And through that Eaton and I became really close friends, and the two of us are the strategy team at Lullabot. One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that people always tell you to follow your passions, but I really think that the people that you do things with are much more important than what you do. Because, granted, it’s great to do what you want, but if you don’t have the right people around you, it’s not going to be any good anyways.
3. What impact has Drupal made on you? Is there a particular moment you remember?
I’m doing a project right now for Lullabot which is involving me going back and listening to a lot of our old podcasts, and one of the things I did was, I went back and listened to my old podcasts (we used to do this series called Drupal Voices and I got interviewed on it a lot).
And I really noticed as I listened to them, that every year as I was on the podcast, I could hear in my voice my confidence level growing. The first year, for example, was at DrupalCon D.C. and I was very scattered, I could tell I was very nervous; then the next year, I sounded much more confident, and then the year after that when I was at DrupalCon Chicago, I could tell I had really found my steps and stride.
Chicago turned out to be a really formative DrupalCon for me because I gave the very first ever core conversation at a DrupalCon and I was very very nervous about it. And as a result of that core conversation Dries came and asked me to lead the initiative for Drupal8, for CMI. So, DrupalCon Chicago really stands out as a turning point for me in the Drupal community, and where I really hit my stride. I’m just a little upset that the talk wasn’t recorded.
4. How do you explain what Drupal is to other, non-Drupal people?
Even when I explain my job, usually all I say is just “I build websites”, and so I just say that Drupal is software that you use to build websites. Sometimes you’ll meet somebody who actually understands conceptually what a content management system is, but I usually don’t even bother going down that rabbit hole. “I build websites” is close enough for anybody to at least get the idea.
5. How did you see Drupal evolving over the years? What do you think the future will bring?
It’s crazy seeing how Drupal has changed. Returning to the podcasts from question three: the first Lullabot podcast was in 2006, and at that time, while there were a couple of shops doing things, the global economy in Drupal was essentially nothing. Now, it’s grown to billions of dollars in thirteen years, and I think that change has been incredible; not in a good or bad way in particular, it’s just been change.
For a lot of people who prefer a small scrappy group, it’s probably been a negative thing, but for people who prefer a more mature industry that they can grow into and make a career out of, it’s been a positive change. And I think that, as Drupal grows, we’re going to be seeing more and more focus on that maturity, that focus on stability. One of the things that we hear all the time now in the Drupal community is that we’re much more focused on predictable releases, on backwards compatibility, easier migrations, all of the stuff that you focus on when your focus is much more on stability.
Because, given the kind of industries that we’ve grown into, stability and predictability are super important. And I think that theme is going to continue to grow over the years, not that we won’t have new features, but I think that the turnaround time on them is going to continue to be more stretched out; we’re already seeing this now with Drupal 9, for example.
The experimental modules are also interesting, as they’ve allowed us to get new features into core in the middle of the release cycle, e.g. the Content Moderation came in and Migration and stuff like that. This takes a long time, however; Content Moderation is a functionality that’s been in development for years in contrib, it’s not as straightforward as somebody just writing a patch and whipping that out in 3 months.
Getting new functionality into core is a very long process that demands lots of testing, and even then the module has to have the “experimental” status for 6 months. All these smaller processes make the overarching process longer, but they also make it more transparent, predictable and stable - it’s essentially just a trade-off.
6. What are some of the contributions to open source code or to the community that you are most proud of?
I wrote a lot of code for the Configuration Management initiative, and even though that code ended up all getting thrown away and rewritten, to me the mere ability to put that on a path to getting done is extremely satisfying. I ran it for about 2 years and then I handed it off to Alex Pott who ran it for about 2 years before Drupal 8 got released.
Getting all of those concepts in place and putting together a team of people to get those concepts in place and get it working and rolling forward is something that I’m really happy with. And it was also really great because it represented the end of a long period for me; I started with configuration management as my niche that I dug into in the Drupal 5 era, and then to see that all the way through to getting done in Drupal 8 was really satisfying for me.
Recently, working with the Drupal Diversity and Inclusion group has been really satisfying. It’s a truly amazing group of people who are really interested in growing our community in positive ways, and making sure our community is open to everybody who wants to contribute and welcoming to everybody who wants to contribute.
I think this is going to be more and more important going forward, because as Drupal becomes a global enterprise, we need to be able to bring all of those voices in to speak. Even Dries is starting to talk about how important that is now (e.g. in Seattle in his keynote).
I think that work is really important and I’m really glad to see more focus on the community management side, because traditionally Drupal has been a place where we bring in contributors and then we kind of burn through them. We need to realize that contribution is hard and takes a lot of time, and focusing on how we can make that contribution cycle more healthy for people is really crucial to sustaining the community - so, in whatever ways that comes in or works towards is really great.
I think that anything we could do to make the Drupal community more welcoming to people is going to be really important. Obviously, growing the community is important, but so is bringing in different voices and viewpoints, so that we can make the community more open and more interesting and really bring in all of the wonderful differences we have in the world.
7. Is there an initiative or a project in Drupal space that you would like to promote or highlight?
Well, the one that we just talked about, of course! Anybody who’s interested in the Drupal Diversity and Inclusion initiative can join the DDI channel (diversity-inclusion) on Slack. That’s where a lot of that discussion happens; there are weekly meetings on Thursdays, and from there you can get links to their website and other similar resources.
I’ve also been really interested in the work on the Drupal product side for Layout Manager recently. I was a little skeptical of that when it first came out, but we’ve been using it on a couple of client projects and I’ve been really impressed with it. I think that it’s going to fill a lot of gaps and needs in the Drupal community.
While the UI is still a little rough, I think that once the usability gets some polish on it, it’s going to be a really important thing for Drupal going forward. I’ve been really really pleased to see how that’s been working, and the clients just adore it; every time we demo it for a client, they completely freak out, so, I’m really looking forward to seeing how that progresses.
8. Is there anything else that excites you beyond Drupal? Either a new technology or a personal endeavor.
I don’t get into a lot of technology stuff out of work anymore these days as a hobby. My biggest hobby outside of Drupal is pinball; I’ve been playing it competitively for 25 years and I’ve always been very involved in the local community here in Portland, Oregon.
I’ve been really involved in that for a really long time - running tournaments and playing in tournaments, I was also the state representative for the group that runs the pinball rankings for many years, and recently I’ve gotten really into fixing up and repairing pinball machines, which has been really cool. It’s very physical and manual, not at all like working on your computer, so it kind of like rubs a different part of my brain than computer work does - and then when you’re done, you have something fun you can play, which is really cool.
But I will say that one of the nicest things about running tournaments and being involved, similarly to Drupal, in the pinball community, is that you can build the community that you want to see. One of the things I’ve really done in Portland is trying to bring together a different set of voices to help run tournaments, to be the face of the community here, to create welcoming and safe spaces for people. And we have seen, for instance, the number of women that we have competing in tournaments here grow by leaps and bounds as a result of that work, and that’s been extremely gratifying too.