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DrupalCon Global 2020 – Highlights from a virtual conference

A few of us recently took part in DrupalCon Global 2020, an online conference which took place over three days, from 14 – 17 July.

The event, which was originally due to take place in Minneapolis, covers everything related to Drupal, the open source Content Management System (CMS) that EdWeb is built on, along with many other university websites.

DrupalCon Global 2020 website

The conference isn’t just for developers – it spans all aspects of web management including UX, content and marketing as well as lots of interaction with the lively Drupal community.

You can read highlights below from Bruce, Stratos, Billy, Jennifer and myself as well as our reasons for attending – and a few thoughts on how attending a ‘virtual conference’ compared to ‘the real thing’.

Contributors, in order of appearance:


  1. Bruce Darby, Website Development Project Manager
  2. Stratos Filalithis, Head of Website & Communication Technologies
  3. Billy Wardrop, Senior Drupal Developer
  4. Jennifer Smith, Service Manager (Website Services)
  5. Milo McLaughlin, Content Designer

Bruce Darby

Why I attended DrupalCon Global 2020

I use DrupalCon to reconnect with the Drupal community and look for inspiration and new techniques we can use in our existing and up and coming projects.

It’s also great to validate the tools and methodologies we are currently using. DrupalCon covers much more than development and code. So I look for presentations on content strategy, product management, agile and leadership as well.

My top three sessions

1. Driesnote

The Driesnote is the highlight of DrupalCon for me. His honesty and modesty is refreshing compared to many global company leaders. He is rightly proud of Drupal, but is also happy to discuss its shortcomings and look at ways to improve. It was good to hear about the delay to the Drupal 7 end-of-life to November 2022, which will give us a bit more time as we prepare to move our EdWeb CMS from Drupal 7 to Drupal 9.

2. Why Open Source Contribution is Essential to your Business

This was an interesting discussion on the benefits of supporting contribution as part of your business process. The three big takeaways were firstly, that developers who contribute back to Drupal tend to make more of a concerted effort to write code that is very high quality with an emphasis on sustainability. This is because they know the code needs to be peer reviewed and potentially worked on by many people.

Secondly, it’s really important to build in contribution as part of any project planning so that it doesn’t unnecessarily delay projects.

And finally, evangelising open source is very important. This was particularly good to hear as we have employed an Open Source Champion for the past year as part of our team.

3. The visual editing experience 

This session looked at how to support editors and content writers better. It’s something that developers can overlook as they concentrate on delivering coding solutions to what can be very complex problems. We need to build interfaces that help editors to avoid breaking designs. They certainly shouldn’t need to tweak things by editing HTML!

However, What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) interfaces have probably had their day. Editors need to get used to writing content either in a more modular way, or in ways that allow for content to be structured in order to include metadata and taxonomies. This will help our target audiences search for and find what they are looking for.

What I’ll put into practice and learn more about

Combining lessons learnt from two very different talks I saw on mindfulness and leadership, the thing I’m going to try to put into place is to try to be calmer and to leave my dramas behind! In times of stress this can be hard, but a calm and mindful approach can help colleagues and reduce their stress too.

It seems a timely lesson to learn with the additional pressures a global pandemic can bring. In addition to this we should strive to have fun whilst pursuing excellence at the same time.

How I found the virtual conference experience

This was my second virtual conference as I also attended Kent Digital Accessibility Conference in June this year, so I knew what to expect with DrupalCon Global.

Whilst it’s always fun to travel to new places, I’ve found the virtual conferences to be much less overwhelming, stressful or tiring. I did find my first few sessions hard to concentrate and it’s very easy to be distracted by the many different things that can interrupt you in a normal working day. As I got more used to the set up and approach of the virtual presentation, I found my concentration improved even whilst slouching on the sofa!

Stratos Filalithis

Why I attended DrupalCon Global 2020

Having registered for DrupalCon North America, which was planned to take place in Minneapolis during May but was cancelled due to Covid-19, attending its online replacement was the natural next step.

DrupalCon provides the best opportunity to have direct engagement with the Drupal community and expert agencies. Having previously attended DrupalCon Amsterdam in 2015, my expectation was to get up to speed with not only the latest Drupal developments, but also with a wider set of platform-agnostic web-related best practice approaches. And I wasn’t disappointed with either strand.

My top three sessions

1. Driesnote

The keynote from Drupal’s founder Dries Buytaert is always a classic for each DrupalCon. In this instance, he has reviewed the timeline and highlighted priority initiatives in the preparation for version 10. Since the University Website is currently using version 7, and there’s an open procurement for its replacement Web Publishing Platform, this roadmap was of special interest. Furthermore, it was very inspirational to better understand Drupal’s initiatives for ensuring inclusion and diversity in module development.

2. Higher Education Summit

One of the highlights of the conference were the specialised summits, and especially the one focusing on Higher Education. Colleagues from universities and colleges in the United States (US) presented on a variety of subjects, technical and not. As always in similar sessions, it was great to touch base with what are the greatest challenges in the sector (hint: not very different to our University web estate) and to see how other Universities have addressed them.

3. Battle for online privacy

A subject that’s near to my heart is online privacy. In this session, Dan Moriarty reviewed the existing and new privacy laws that have recently been developed and launched across the globe. Apart from the well-known General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Brazil and several states in the US have developed similar legislation.

Dan highlighted that as responsible website managers and citizens, we ought to take these regulations into consideration and follow a ‘privacy by design’ approach wherever in the world a website is hosted. What I found interesting was the term ‘Privacy Experience (PX)’ which encapsulates an important aspect of a modern online user experience.

What I’ll put into practice and learn more about

It’s not something new, but definitely something to do more, which is to engage with the open source and Higher Education communities more frequently. Once more, it was clear that there’s a lot to learn by talking to fellow colleagues in HE web and digital teams. Extending this networking to North America was the aim behind attending DrupalCon Global. It has provided even more feedback and versatile points of view, enriching our knowledge as a University on the best ways to progress when addressing our web estate challenges and enterprise service delivery.

How I found the virtual conference experience

This has been my first virtual conference, so I was eager to see how the experience was going to be. I believe that there are both pros and cons. The most significant positive was that I could fit session attendance in my own schedule and take part while doing other work, or in the comfort of my back garden/sofa!

What I missed, though, and I believe is more important, is the natural interaction and networking with fellow conference attendees. I find it a lot easier to wander around an exhibit hall or catch up with someone after the session instead of doing this virtually.

As with everything else happening right now, I believe that perhaps a ‘hybrid’ approach might be for the best in these situations, enabling attendance of events taking place across the globe, while ensuring local events can retain their human interaction.

Billy Wardrop

Why I attended DrupalCon Global 2020

After attending many DrupalCons in the past, I was a little apprehensive about this one as it was fully online, and I wouldn’t be able to learn as much as I did in the past through speaking to people face-to-face and asking questions in the sessions.

With the new CMS replacement project on the horizon and the high volume of development work in our team, I wanted to learn more about DevOps at this year’s conference. In anticipation of this, I looked at the schedule in great detail and found quite a few talks on Docker, Gitlab, composer, JSON API and best practice customisation for Drupal. I tried to select a mix of presentations, summits and BoFs (informal ‘Birds of a Feather’ sessions) to make sure I could connect with the correct people.

My top three sessions

1. Decoupled summit

I found this session the most interesting of the whole conference. It was packed with talks about everything to do with decoupling Drupal. The only way to do this is by accessing all website content through the JSON:API module.

The best talk at the summit was by Matt Glaman who talked about ‘API driven Drupal Commerce.’ He went into detail about the modules he used in his case study, such as JSON:API Views and JSON:API resources. This allowed him to build custom endpoints to suit his needs. He also discussed best practice API development and how to preform structured testing on your APIs. I’m looking forward to watching the video again to get further tips.

2. BoF – managing hundreds of websites at scale

This was a great an informal discussion on the unique challenges faced when building a Drupal 8 or 9 platform for hosting many (50+) websites. It was good to chat to developers in the higher education sector and share ideas about managing and deploying websites at scale.

The main focus was on leveraging docker for local development and pushing it to the cloud using continuous improvement methods. This has helped me evolve our current development process to include these techniques. The panel were also very informative and answered questions in great depth. Once the recording is released, I will be encouraging my team to watch it.

3. An overview of Drupal 8 front-end component integration methods

Due to other work commitments, I haven’t had a chance to look at the latest ways to integrate Drupal with the latest design system technologies. This talk focused on how Drupal integrates with Pattern Labs using both the graphical user interface and custom code. The examples used were very informative and showed how to integrate it properly.

After covering the Pattern Labs techniques, we looked at how React is becoming even more popular and how easy it is now getting to integrate it with your Drupal theme. This mainly due to the increase in the community size and the amount of developers working on the project. It will be interesting to see how these two technologies develop over the coming months. It may change the way we build our design system.

What I’ll put into practice and learn more about

I’ve already started putting what I’ve learned into practice. Lando (a Docker-based tool) has been tried and wasn’t as successful as I expected. We have reverted back to Docker but it was good to test out new things. I will also continue to evolve our development process based on what I have learned – especially how we deliver websites at scale and make updating them a fairly easy process.

Once the development process has been adapted, I will be switching my focus back to Pattern Labs and integrating a design system into our websites. Hopefully the new techniques I have learned will make this a lot easier to pull into our custom Drupal sites.

Overall, I learned a lot and I can’t wait to get started on the new CMS to put these new techniques into practice.

Jennifer Smith

Why I attended DrupalCon Global 2020

I’m new to both the University and Drupal, so my main objective was to increase my overall understanding of the platform and new potential in latest releases, as we move closer to our own re-platforming project.

With the department’s desire to become more involved in the Drupal community I was also interested in understanding how we can look to contribute and collaborate further in the future.

My top two sessions

1. Improving your onsite search – Caroline Roberts

Caroline passionately spoke about website search, comparing the similarities and differences with both organic SEO and onsite search. The main takeaway from this discussion was that a well-built site with correctly structured content benefits both onsite and search engine results in the same way. Both demand the same thought and effort when writing and structuring site content.

What was interesting was her take on who is using onsite search. Caroline explained that although for higher education, most users come via search engines, onsite search can be key to achieving conversion goals. Prospective students who are leaning towards enrolling (those already on the conversion funnel) are more likely to know what they are looking for and will use onsite search. Therefore clear and easy search results are key to meeting their needs. Unfortunately, this is where onsite search can let a site down, if it is unable to provide direct results.

Caroline pointed out that companies need to spend the same time and effort tuning their onsite search as they do for SEO. It is not enough to provide well written content. The onsite search configuration needs to be tailored to support users, mitigating human error to ensure clear and strong search results for all search terms.

2. Mitchell Baker – Executive Chairwoman and CEO of the Mozilla Foundation

Mitchell discussed open source as a concept, which 10 to 15 years ago did not exist to the extent that it does today. The idea of voluntary contributions to a community, in your own time, for others’ gain, was not something that was easily sold to the masses! This, however, is exactly what has organically grown and developed into the open source community we know today, proving it can provide better quality software at a lower cost.

Open source has been key to the success of many enterprises across the digital world, and continues to get stronger as more people adapt to using this concept in their working life. The open source ethos is powerful. Mitchell also invited us to imagine the impact it could have if it were not only applied to software development but all aspects of everyday life.

What we now need to look towards is the future of open source as it evolves and how we, the University of Edinburgh, can make an ongoing contribution to the Drupal community.

What I’ll put into practice and learn more about

DrupalCon has given me a much stronger understanding of not only the Drupal platform but also the various ways that anyone can contribute to the community. We are currently looking to bring more focus onto the onsite search service, and Caroline Roberts’ talk has given me food for thought around developing and setting KPIs.

As we move closer toward the Web Publishing Platform project, it is key that we set it up to retain existing users and entice new users, developing a product and community that users feel proud to be part of. Bringing users together before the migration will ensure we are delivering what they need – not what we think they need.

Milo McLaughlin

Why I attended DrupalCon Global 2020

The new web publishing platform project is a big focus for my role, so I was keen to improve my understanding of Drupal as a CMS. At first I thought the conference might only be useful for developers, but I was encouraged that there were UX and Content Strategy tracks covering a broad range of topics.

My top three sessions

1. Avoid a redesign train wreck – get content from A to B

This talk was a comprehensive overview of a content migration project, from independent digital strategist Lynn Winter. She took us on a whirlwind tour through all the steps involved in auditing and assessing content when migrating to a new CMS.

Much was familiar to me, but there were plenty of new ideas that made this session worthwhile. For example, I liked the idea of an ecosystem map, which makes it easier to visualise how the various pieces of a web estate interconnect. The specific mention of a ‘content removal spreadsheet’ was also music to my ears! Winter was very generous in sharing her experience and expertise, and her use of examples from higher education made it even more relevant.

2. Big Systems, Big Problems: Lessons learned from building 40 design systems

This session wasn’t quite what I expected from the title but I still found it very relevant. It was focused on best practice for creating a component-based, flexible design scheme (similar to atomic design methodology) that enables a CMS to deliver content in a way that is “beautiful, consistent, and user-friendly”. It was presented by two employees of a US-based consultancy called Palantir who work with higher education clients (amongst others).

As they are a remote-first company, they had considerable experience with collaborative sketching and wireframing using virtual whiteboards, which is something our team has been embracing during lockdown. The presenters said the single biggest thing they’ve learned is that an interdisciplinary approach is not just better, but also faster and cheaper.

They also found sketching to be the most effective form of cross-team collaboration (they use InVision Freehand for this, which is similar to our virtual whiteboard of choice, Miro).  The speakers also emphasised a content-first approach – a design system “should be built to serve the content” and  getting the editorial flow right is essential.

3. Your component library is not a design system

This session looked at design systems on a bigger scale and from a more technical point of view. The presentation was basically a demo of Emulsify, an open-source design system tool that works across multiple code languages and platforms (including Drupal of course).

The demo was based around a fictional higher education example with many similar challenges to those faced by The University of Edinburgh, which made it very relatable. They showed how the tool enables the creation of multiple design components that could be used across different properties of a university web estate to ensure brand consistency and adherence to accessibility standards as well as allowing for flexibility for sub-brands.

If you’re interested you can watch a demo video on the Emulsify website:

Emulsify demo video

 What I’ll put into practice and learn more about

I picked up a new way of ensuring accessibility is part of the UX design process from a talk called ‘Accessible patterns from the ground up’. This is definitely something I would like to incorporate when creating wireframes and prototypes in future.

There were also some really good tips on stakeholder engagement from an entertaining talk called ‘The “P” word: managing the people in your digital project.’ They used the cast of Mad Men as a very entertaining example to demonstrate how to create a stakeholder engagement strategy based on the relative impact, influence and interest of the people involved.

How I found the virtual conference experience

This was the first time I’ve attended a virtual conference and also my first DrupalCon. The conference was accessed via a platform called, which was easy to navigate around. For example, you could jump between the main stage where the Driesnote and other plenary sessions took place and a space for accessing individual sessions, and there was even a virtual ‘exhibit hall’ for the promoters were holding extra sessions. The chat function also means you could have a bit of banter with other attendees.

The downside was extra screen-time in the evenings (due to the time zone difference) and less interaction with other attendees than you would get in real life, but overall it was a great way to immerse myself in the world of Drupal.

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