Drupalcon in Chi-town

The last time I was in Chicago the weather was rather lovely. I spent some time walking around, gaping up at the skyscrapers and exploring the city.

This time the weather has been a bit chillier. My attempts to venture out and explore the city on foot ended in defeat as I was beaten back to the warmer confines of the hotel playing host to Drupalcon.

My first day, as anticipated, was spent hunting down a mythical FedEx/Kinkos so I could print out workshop materials—paper-based exercises and HTML5 pocketbooks. With that task achieved—at no minor expense; charging for ink on paper is clearly a lucrative business model—imagine my surprise when I turned up the next day for my workshop and I was handed the printouts of my workshop exercises; the same materials I had been told I would have to print out for myself. Clearly, I didn’t get the memo …possibly because said memo was never conjured into existence.

Apart from that breakdown in communication, the HTML5 workshop went smoothly. Better than smoothly. The attendees were asking excellent questions and some great discussions emerged. Running a workshop can be very tiring but it can also be very rewarding.

The next morning I attended Dries’s pep-talk keynote. It was like experiencing a milder, kinder more collaborative version of Scientology (I kid, I kid; ‘twas a lovely State of the Union address).

Part of the keynote was a compilation of answers to the question “What is Drupal?” put to a backing track of a suitably schmaltzy motivational song (David Brent would’ve been jealous). As I watched the quotes appear on screen, I noticed that one of them was attributed to me. Except… I have no recollection of ever saying or writing something along the lines of:

Drupal makes complex things easy and easy things complex.

Sure enough, it turns out that the quote was misattributed to me.

I guess it sounds like something I could have said. In fact, I could justify the paraphrased quote thusly: If you want to get a database-driven site up and running quickly, you can do that with Drupal simply by pressing a few buttons and pulling the software equivalent of levers. However, if you want to edit, for example, the way that a particular form field has been marked up, or you’d like to remove some superfluous div elements …well, for that you need to really know what you’re doing.

Hence, Drupal makes complex things (like setting up a website) easy and easy things (like editing some markup) complex.

I had quite a few conversations with people about the nature of frameworks and Drupal in particular. Personally, it doesn’t appeal to me, not just because it doesn’t output the kind of markup that I’d like. It doesn’t appeal to me simply because it outputs any markup at all. I prefer something more like Django that takes care of abstracting away all that server-side complexity and database work, but leaves it entirely up to you to create the front-end (well, except for the admin interface).

But that’s just me. And I totally understand that for other people, that just isn’t a priority and Drupal’s ability to deliver an entire site, front-end included, is a godsend. Different frameworks will appeal to different people—the trick is in finding a framework that matches the way that you approach a problem. A framework is, after all, supposed to be a tool to help you get work done faster. No one framework is suitable for all projects and no one framework can possibly hope to appeal to everyone.

Yet, at Drupalcon, I got the impression that Drupal might be attempting to do just that. Rather than focusing on the kind of sites for which Drupal is particularly well-suited, the goal appears to be nothing less than total domination of the web. I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. If you try to please literally everybody, I think you’ll probably end up pleasing nobody.

I did hear rumblings of the possibility of changing Drupal so that there would be no markup in its core release. Rather, different distributions (built on top of core) could be used to create the right kind of site; one distribution for news sites, another distribution for company websites, and so on. I like that idea. It would also make it easier for Drupal to adapt its output to different devices—something that Dries touched on his keynote.

Meanwhile Jen is spearheading an effort to update Drupal’s output to include HTML5 additions—new input types for forms, sectioning elements for content, and so on. She’s beginning by proposing some design principles. I believe this is a thoroughly excellent approach. At Jen’s Drupalcon core conversation I offered my feedback (and encouragement) on how the design principles are shaping up.

For the rest of Drupalcon, I found plenty to keep my interest. There was a significant design portion to the proceedings so even a non-Drupal person like me could find some great talks, like Samantha’s superb round-up of design techniques—I’ll be bringing some of those gems back to the Clearlefties.

My final night in Chicago was nigh-on perfect. Adrian had been in touch to let me know that his band would be playing in the historic Green Mill. I rustled up a little posse of designers and we spent the evening listening to superb gypsy jazz in an amazing venue that was once a favourite haunt of Al Capone (rumour has it that the grumpy doorman is related). A nightcap of beer and cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger at The Billy Goat Tavern was the coup de grace.

Now I bid farewell to Chicago and hello to Austin, where the weather is significantly warmer.

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