The Secret Sauce, Ep. 27: A Peek at Drupal GovCon

Drupal GovCon has been gaining momentum for four years now. Curious about what it has to offer?

On this week’s episode of The Secret Sauce, we are joined by guests Kirsten Burgard and James King, organizers of Drupal GovCon.

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Allison Manley [AM]: Hi again everyone, and welcome to The Secret Sauce, a short podcast by, that offers a quick bit of advice to help your business run a little bit better. 

I’m Allison Manley, an Account Manager, and today we have a different Secret Sauce. Ken Rickard, our Director of Professional Services, recently attending Drupal GovCon in Washington DC in July, and got to sit down with two of the organizers: James King from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Kirsten Burgard from the US Department of State to chat about this annual Drupal event. So they are going to share what this event is about, and why you may want to check it out next year. 
All right! Take it away Ken . . . 

Ken Rickard [KR]:  This is Ken Rickard. We’re at the Palantir Secret Sauce podcast. This is our broadcast from Drupal GovCon, and we’ve invited two of the organizers to join us today: we’re with Kirsten Burgard and James King. 

Kirsten Burgard [KB]: Yay! Welcome to Drupal GovCon.

KR: Thank you. This is I think my third or fourth . . . it used to be Capital Camp, and it’s now GovCon. This is the second year I’ve been here at the NIH, I know that. So tell me, how did the two of you get involved in this event?

KB: Well, it started . . . this is all really Tim Wood’s fault. He’s at the Department of Commerce. And he thought it would be really great if we all got together and started to do events, mini events where we could share information. The very first event one we did we had thirteen people. Then we decided to hold a larger event as a government-focused one at Commerce, and that was 2012.
KR: Yes, I was there.
KB: Yeah, we killed the wifi before 8:00 in the morning [laughs]. I had never seen that before. We thought we’d get about 200 people. We had 330. And at that event James approached me and said, “Hey, what about NIH hosting it?” And I thought, ‘this is never going to happen. Who at NIH is really going to make this happen?’ And it’s been James for three years now.
James King [JK]: So I did go to the Commerce event, and I had started using Drupal since 2010. When I got hired here in 2009, they gave me a project that hadn’t been started, and they bought this thing called Drupal and had a server, and I knew nothing about Drupal so I was learning on my feet Drupal 6. And I started playing with it and really liked it, and wanted to learn more about it. Found out about the Commerce event and that, like what was there, but saw how cramped it was.
KB: [Laughs]
JK: And wanted to get involved, and also selfishly wanted to be able to get more exposure at NIH on Drupal. I work for the NIH Library . . . the internal research library for NIH . . . and one of the things that we’re trying to do is foster community in different areas. And since I have a technology background, I’m trying to encourage use of technology across NIH. And Drupal being one of the things we’re working on, we were trying to encourage more people to know about and use Drupal.
So it made sense to at least try to have an event at our place. Since then obviously this has continued to grow, and we now have user group meetings as well just for NIH people. And those are growing as well.
KR: Yeah, the GovCon is a little bit of a special event of all the ones that I go to. Most of the ones that I go to are regionally-themed, but this one is industry-themed, or in this case, government service.
KB: Yeah.
KR: Public service themed. So, I mean, what are the goals of the whole idea? What are we trying to accomplish here?
KB: Well when we started doing DrupalGov . . . it’s actually called Drupal For Gov . . . we really just wanted to make it possible for government practitioners in open source communities to get together. Drupal just had the largest influx of folks within government. We also have Linux people, WordPress people, Joomla people. We have a wide cross-section of open source CMS’ mostly, and some back-end things. And our primary goal was to make it possible for government employees to get access to the information they needed. Whether it was training, or collaboration, or even just innovative new thoughts and processes.
Oftentimes in government we’re very stove-piped. We don’t collaborate, we don’t cross sections. We don’t . . . even within my old agency, Department of Veterans Affairs, one section didn’t talk to the next section. It’s very confrontational almost between offices. So to make an organization like ours, which started with 11 people, to an event that now has over 1,000 people attending, is pretty weird [laughs]! It’s just pretty darn weird.
JK: So as a librarian geek or information professional, information architect, I very much embrace the idea of open source, but also government use. The government spends a lot of money with contractors developing themes, developing modules, so forth, at a minimum I wanted to try and bring together the NIH people to be able to share that. To not only share the products, the deliverables, but to share lessons learned, to share the modules they’re using, tips and tricks, to come together on training, and so forth. Drupal GovCon was an easy way to foster that.
Having it here on campus made it very easy for the NIH people to come, but we’re also trying to be a sharing, open environment, so we’re making it as broadly available as possible. That’s why we continue to try to keep it to be free so that any level person, whether they’re a budding sysadmin, or developer, or a UX person, we’ll be able to come and learn.
KB: And we’ll have something for them too. We have sections that aren’t just like the regular “here are the tracks,” but actually sections across the board, and on top of that, additional training too.
KR: Yes, it’s a very interesting lineup. You have a very diverse speaker group, and very diverse attendee group. It’s interesting too, a lot of the Drupal events are weekend events . . . this is during the week. And so it’s almost a professional event. I think that’s fascinating too.
So based on the success we’ve seen from the last few years, I was at the Commerce event, what are you hoping to see next year?
KB: So next year might be a little bit more difficult because like I said, we’re over 1,000 now. Our attendee drop is nowhere where it needs to be on a free event. So typically a free event will have like a 50% drop in attendance over registration. Ours hovers at less than 40%. That makes it much more difficult for us to gauge how many lunches to buy, how many cups of coffee we need . . . we ran out of coffee yesterday morning an hour into coffee service, and we bought 800 cups! We ran out of lunches really close to the very end, so it wasn’t as like a lot of people had to go buy lunches. I believe we ran out of lunches again today, but not badly . . . only a couple.
JK: No, we were pretty close. The auditorium seats 500.
KR: And that’s the biggest space we have available.
KB: Yeah. And what we do through the day is we flux space everything. So we try to tell all the attendees, “Please, refresh your screens. Sessions will move.” And they do. And sometimes speakers forget where they’re supposed to be.
JK: I appreciate and I expect that we’ll continue to have that diversity as highlighted in our keynotes. The first day keynote was challenging attendees to really look at diversity and bias that’s in the industry, and how do we step back and address that. Today was more of a practical on how do we practically move an agency top-level site to Drupal. And tomorrow . . .
KB: Tomorrow it’s all security. We actually have the keynote from Velocity from last year, Laura Bell, who is a security expert from New Zealand. So I’ve had all kinds of fan boys come up to me and say, “oh my god, how did you get Laura Bell?” and I’m like, “I asked.” [laughs] 
KR: That might be the lesson for folks to takeaway from this episode of the podcast is sometimes all you have to do is show up and ask.
KB: Yeah. Show up and ask. It works really well.
KR: All right. Thank you both for joining me.
KB: Thank you. 

AM: That’s the end of this week’s Secret Sauce. For more great tips, check out our website at, and check us out on Twitter. Our handle is @palantir. 

Have a great day!