Using Drupal in a Pandemic

Table of Contents

(This article was originally published on

One of the founders of Lullabot and former CEO, Jeff Robbins, used to joke that Lullabot has "built-in disaster recovery" because the employees are accustomed to working from just about anywhere. Lullabot, one of the first Drupal consulting companies, started in 2006 after Matt Westgate and Jeff Robbins met on Drupal has been at the heart of Lullabot's work for more than 14 years, and the core of what Jeff suggested could apply similarly to the Drupal community.

As each of us negotiates a world where COVID-19 dominates the headlines and our everyday interactions, this article considers how some of the lessons that the Drupal community—perhaps an idealized Drupal community—has learned might shape our understanding of these times that feel so extraordinary. Drupal does not have a monopoly on any of these concepts, but in stressful times, similes and metaphors can help us interrogate our underlying assumptions and the communities that we have each constructed.

You Don't Have to Do Anything

Free software communities thrive when people contribute in the ways that feel comfortable to them rather than out of guilt. People support the Drupal community in a wide variety of ways, and we encourage people who choose to contribute to the project to have fun and enjoy the process of contributing. Sometimes this means the best choice is to take a step back and not contribute at all. The Drupal community is huge, with nearly 5,800 contributors to Drupal core alone, and it's okay for people to pause once in a while—or altogether—and let others step forward.

As COVID-19 spreads through the world, and the world works together to slow the progress, sometimes the best option is for us to stay home. This recommendation goes against the natural human urge to fix things, but we can bring to mind the fact that, with Drupal and viruses alike, we simply can't fix everything. No one of us can "fix" the more than 95,000 open issues in Drupal core any more than we can "fix" the very real devastation caused by COVID-19. You can contribute, or you can do nothing, and the world will continue without you. There is no reason to feel guilty about taking a break and pausing to examine what is important to your life.

Honor Your Family

Historically, the Drupal community has supported people who have needed to take a break and focus on themselves or their families. From daily interactions to the highly-visible gestures of support, such as when Aaron Winborn needed it, members of the Drupal community have offered countless acts of kindness.

In a recent example from just weeks ago, before most of us had ever heard of COVID-19, our friend, colleague, and long-time Drupal contributor, Jerad Bitner, needed help after his wife received a diagnosis of Stage 4 Brain Cancer. Jerad and his family have received assistance from people in all areas of their lives, and it was especially heartening to see so many people from the Drupal community among the impressive list of supporters.

While the Drupal community may seem like it exists and organizes itself primarily on the web, in a "socially distant" manner, it can present itself in very human and sincere ways when our members need assistance. Take the time to focus on yourself and your family during this period of uncertainty and take comfort in the fact that the Drupal community has a remarkable capacity to support its members in times of need.

Get Off the Drupal Island

Especially since Drupal 8, the Drupal community has learned about the benefits of drawing from other communities. When we partner with others "off the island," we can save ourselves a lot of work.

Likewise, we can take what we have learned to help others. For those of us with the good fortune to have a job working for one of the many Drupal agencies with "built-in disaster recovery," we have a unique chance to help others. We can use our technical knowledge of online collaboration tools, microphones, cameras, and more to act as resources to those with less technical experience.

We don't have to go far to get off the "island." All around the world, meditation centers, yoga studios, churches, synagogues, and other places people seek during stressful times are scrambling to transform their services models and move them online. We in the Drupal community have an opportunity to volunteer our skills and knowledge to support organizations like these, both non-profits and for-profits. These are not business opportunities, but rather opportunities to help our neighbors. We can share our recommendations about open-source options for collaborating online, such as OBS Studio and Jitsi Meet. Perhaps our station in life allows us to donate money to organizations that need help, such as the food shelves that provide food and groceries to kids in areas where schools have closed.

Or we can put our Drupal skills directly to use. For instance, you might feel especially appreciative of your local public media organization for bringing you impartial news at this time. Many public radio and television stations use Drupal. Without needing access to their entire codebase or infrastructure, you could ask them if any contributed modules need features they will use, bugs they need fixing, or other ways to help that match your skillset.

Because of the prevalence of Drupal among non-profits, non-governmental, and community organizations, there are many opportunities to contribute directly to local organizations doing good. Now that seemingly every in-person conference, vacation, user group, and other regular meetings on the schedule have been canceled, we might be looking for activities to fill those hours. The chances are high that organizations and businesses in our communities -- the ones important to our daily lives -- are struggling to find a way forward, and they might welcome unsolicited offers to help.

We Don't Need Rock Stars

In both the Drupal community and our local communities, our capacity to bring about change can feel limited. Anyone who has contributed to Drupal likely knows that the process of getting things done in the community can sometimes take a lot of time, effort, and discussion. We progress one patch at a time. Often it would be much simpler just to make a change to fit one specific use case, but in the Drupal community, we have learned that we need to work together and create consensus around ideas. We realize that we are stronger together and that sharing code feels so much better than hoarding code. Getting code into Drupal is rarely about maximizing revenue, but rather contributing to something bigger.

During a pandemic, the same mindset applies. Social distancing might feel challenging, but it's an act of compassion that benefits others. We help in the ways that feel genuine, not forced. We don't need rock stars and hoarders. We need just enough people to work toward more manageable, short-term goals. Thus, joining a group rather than going it alone can help make your otherwise small contributions feel more significant.

Do Your Homework

Through experience working on Drupal sites, we realize that many of the problems we face are already solved. We don't assume every problem is a bug in Drupal core. We don't assume that the problem with our Drupal site is unique. We encourage the person with a question to "do your homework." We look for others who have encountered similar problems and learn from those who are kind enough to share their solutions.

The argument that we live in exceptional times, while accurate in the short term, does not reflect a broader view of history. Everywhere in human history, people have been affected by violence, war, injustice, widespread fear, and, yes, disease. Our seemingly exceptional problems, which cause real suffering, are variations on similar historical problems. The 1918 flu pandemic, for instance, killed 50 million people. Understanding and connecting to past events can help reduce the sense of exceptionalism that we all feel. In history, we find people who overcame fear and redirected their focus from helping themselves to helping others. As we become more socially distant in this current reality, we can connect to people online and in the past that have encountered problems like ours. We can also see how problems in the past always come to an end, even if they reappear again.

Your Code Won't Last Forever

The Drupal codebase and community, like everything else in the world, changes constantly. Our prized contributions get replaced. With software, it can be easier to accept the fact of change. We have learned that the point in time when we know everything about Drupal will never arrive. For as long as it can take to get a patch into Drupal core, it can simultaneously feel like Drupal moves at a breakneck speed. The list of completed and in-process strategic initiatives just for Drupal 8 is long, and Drupal 9 will arrive before we know it. We have learned to accept the fact that we need to learn continually, all of our contributions to Drupal will eventually be replaced, and change in the Drupal community is inevitable.

Similarly, the cozy worlds that some of us had grown to inhabit now feel threatened. We live in a society that rarely admits the inevitability of sickness and death, and yet both are guaranteed in life. The world, like Drupal, is always changing, and after our initial reactions begin to subside, we can choose how we respond to these ever-changing circumstances. We will each find our way to negotiate these always-changing realities. Some days will be sunny, and others will not.

Ask For Help

The current state of reality might feel overwhelming, but in the Drupal community, our response is to encourage people to ask for help. The Drupal software can feel like a complex, unknowable beast. We have learned to find others with more knowledge in a particular area than we do. We practice acts of kindness when we first look for answers by ourselves before asking others for help. Sometimes we work really hard on a problem and do everything we can before we "bother" another community member. In the Drupal community, we regularly practice a version of "social distancing" out of respect for the other people in our community. But at some point, we must ask for help, and significant relief can follow when the recipient of our question seems happy to offer assistance.

As we find our way through this new (and temporary) reality, we have many options: do nothing, offer help, connect with friends and family, connect our experiences with historical events, dig into the Drupal codebase, ask for help when necessary. None of these responses is incorrect. We can imagine the ways that Drupal can help. Even better, we can stop merely imagining better worlds and embrace this reality by finding activities, words, and thoughts that reduce our struggles and the struggles of the people around us. When you notice that something you are doing is not helpful, consider shifting your efforts. The Drupal software will continue to evolve, and we can, too.