Nneka Hector Reflecting on DrupalGovCon 2023

Balancing Passion and Profession: Navigating Diverse Leadership Realms

The pandemic caused a stir in many of us offering a new perspective on space, connections, relationships, and community. Sure, we were making plenty of connections and receiving multitudes of services online but that yearning for the physical presence stood close to heart. For a community like that of Drupal, these occasional physical meetups, camps, and conferences are an elixir that rejuvenates togetherness. But in a post-pandemic world, this "potion-making" comes with many challenges combined with the already-existing hurdles.

Here, we have a veteran, a professional who cultivates a passion for leadership who took on that challenge and led DrupalGovCon 2023. Nneka Hector is currently the Director of Web Development at DSFederal and most importantly the Organizer and Director of Digital Engagement for Drupal4Gov. She has more than 15 years of experience in technical architecture, business development, team management, and full LAMP stack web development.  

The DropTimes was determined to learn more about the Drupal events that carry the spirit of its community forward, especially the struggle that goes into conducting each of these events. Nneka Hector, the co-organizer of DrupalGovCon 2023 was more than generous in guiding us through the preparation days of DrupalGovCon. 

In an email correspondence with Elma John, a sub-editor at The DropTimes, Nneka shared her extensive experience in event organization, remembering her past contributions to DrupalCons and other Drupal-related events. She explores the distinctive challenges of orchestrating an in-person conference in the post-pandemic world.

"This was Drupal4gov’s first in-person event post-pandemic and the event attendance was low compared to the pre-pandemic conferences. But one of the benefits of having fewer attendees was that it allowed us to get back into the groove of putting together and running a conference. It felt good to be back connecting with the Drupal community!" 

says Nneka Hector. 

From the challenges faced to the unexpected successes and key takeaways, Nneka provides a behind-the-scenes look at the meticulous planning and execution that goes into making DrupalGovCon, a cornerstone event for the Drupal community. She also probes through the process of selecting speakers for a conference that has to cater to the needs of a diverse population. Nneka believes that, 

"The Drupal Community is diverse. The people who are on the session selection committee should reflect that community."

As she reflects on the evolution of event organization practices and the impact of DrupalGovCon on her professional life, Nneka offers a glimpse into the dynamic world of Drupal event planning and its broader implications for the open-source community. 

"Being a co-lead for Drupal GovCon has significantly broadened my understanding across various domains. From a non-profit perspective, it has provided invaluable lessons in effective strategies for sponsor marketing, fostering collaboration when working with volunteers, and contributing to a community."

Please read on.

Group photo from the Leadership Tech Exchange on 15 September 2023 showcasing the participants in attendance.

TDT [1]: Could you reflect on the overall experience of organizing the DrupalGovCon 2023?

Nneka Hector: An engaging and educational conference requires a lot of planning and volunteers working together. Fortunately, we had quite a few new organizers this year that jumped right in, along with our existing volunteers to help with planning and working the event. This was Drupal4gov’s first in-person event post-pandemic and the event attendance was low compared to the pre-pandemic conferences (hosted at NIH) particularly due to space constraints. One of the benefits of having fewer attendees was that it allowed us to get back into the groove of putting together and running a conference. It felt good to be back connecting with the Drupal community.  

We plan on keeping this momentum going by holding Drupal’s Global Training Day:  Drupal and USWDS (the beginning, the middle, and the advanced).  This training will be about using USWDS.  It will be held in the National Press Building on February 7th from 11:30 am to 4:00 pm.  If you are interested, sign up soon!  Tickets are limited due to class size.

TDT [2]: What were some of the key takeaways from DrupalGovCon 2023? Were there any unexpected successes or challenges that provided insights for future planning?

Nneka Hector: A major realization was our attendees missed attending Drupal GovCon in person which was voiced by participants throughout the conference days. Our event serves as a platform for government employees, developers, contractors, and more to convene. Organizing a successful conference beyond the NIH campus was a notable achievement. We utilized both the Residence Inn and Hilton Garden Inn to accommodate training, sessions, and sponsor booths. 

Despite diligent efforts to provide attendees and sponsors with logistical information and session conference rooms based on the estimated popularity of the topic, some unforeseen issues arose. Challenges included insufficient screen sizes in certain conference rooms and occasional crowding despite a smaller overall attendance. Taking these lessons into account, our aim for 2024 is to secure a conference space that addresses these concerns.

TDT [3]: Could you walk us through a typical day of planning during the actual event? What were the key aspects the organizing committee focused on each day, and how did you navigate any challenges that arose?

Nneka Hector: The bulk of our event planning occurs well in advance, typically 8 to 10 months before the conference. Organizer meetings, held 6 to 4 months before the event, get deeper into the important aspects such as sponsor coordination, session tracks, marketing, website development, training, and the list goes on. 

Conference days are spent on autopilot!  Early mornings are dedicated to ensuring the registration desk is properly staffed and making sure volunteers have what they need. Monitoring sponsor booths, optimizing lunch lines, and swiftly addressing any issues that arise keep us on our toes. Regular communication is essential during the conference days, which is why you'll notice several volunteers walking around with walkie-talkies to ensure we stay in constant contact with each other.  

From left to right (Luisa Gallego and Kate Dearie - Drupal4gov Interns; Mario De Fazio, PMAA Administrator; Kirsten Burgard, President Drupal4Gov; Jessica Dearie, Vice President of Drupal4gov and Co-Lead of Drupal GovCon; Nina Ogor, Operational Director & Board Member; Nneka Hector, Board Member & Drupal GovCon Co-Lead.

TDT [4]: Speakers and sessions are central to any conference. The diverse range of speakers must accommodate the varying needs and tastes of many diverse listeners. How were the speakers decided and what impact did they leave? Personally, did you find any sessions to be a must-listen?

Nneka Hector: The session selection team prioritizes topic relevance over individual speaker identity when choosing sessions for Drupal GovCon. Speaker details are only revealed after the committee has finalized the chosen sessions and is working on alternate sessions. Each session undergoes a thorough ranking process involving diverse reviewers from varying backgrounds such as project managers, developers, content managers, dev sec ops, etc. 

The Drupal Community is diverse. The people who are on the session selection committee should reflect that community.

Drupal GovCon 2023 keynotes are not to be missed. Amy June, a prominent Drupal core member, spoke on "Pitching My Tent in Drupal: From There and Back Again, a Contributors Tale." Her keynote sheds light on her contributions to the Drupal community, emphasizing her ongoing work and commitment to encouraging others in code contribution. Having collaborated with AmyJune on past Drupal GovCon Code Contributions, I appreciate her down-to-earth approach and dedication to the cause.

The second keynote, "Re-framing Diversity through the Lens of Star Trek: Voyager" by Frederick Mitchell, Principal for Bright Plum, Inc., a Drupal agency specializing in custom development, consulting, and marketing, offers a unique perspective on diversity within the tech industry, using Star Trek as a lens. Mitchell's engaging exploration of diversity is both compelling and necessary, making it a noteworthy addition to the conference agenda.

TDT [5]: Gathering feedback is crucial for continuous improvement. What has been the initial feedback from attendees, and are there any specific areas or aspects that the organizing committee is looking to enhance based on this feedback?

Nneka Hector: Gathering feedback from sponsors, trainers, and conference attendees is important to ensure, we provide an educational and memorable experience for conference-goers. Pre-conference and post-conference surveys were distributed, supplemented by our interns actively seeking feedback during the event. The survey feedback affirmed concerns we were already aware of, such as venue size limitations and the use of two hotels for the conference. Our focus for 2024 is on securing a more spacious venue equipped with screens, monitors, and adequately sized rooms to accommodate everyone comfortably.

On a positive note, the feedback we received highlighted attendees' genuine appreciation for the conference experience—from the streamlined check-in process to the thoughtfully selected sessions and the well-organized, lunch lines. Surprisingly, even the lunch lines, which can often be a point of contention, garnered praise. Additionally, the feedback from many sponsors expressing their intent to return next year is so important, emphasizing the crucial role sponsor support plays in making this event possible.

TDT [6]: The success of an event often relies on effective collaboration within the organizing committee. How did the team dynamics contribute to the success of DrupalGovCon, and were there specific strategies in place to ensure seamless coordination?

Nneka Hector: As previously mentioned, our planning team begins conference planning early. Our new volunteer organizers jumped right in, injecting fresh perspectives into our planning process. The team dynamic is very collaborative.  Each volunteer contributed out of genuine kindness and a passion for the Drupal GovCon and the community.

The positive spirit and willingness of our volunteers to help stems from their desire to play a role in ensuring a successful conference. Communication is very important, with regular team meetings dedicated to discussing status, next steps and action items. In between meetings, we leverage Slack for instant communication, which helps keep things moving along. This proactive communication platform enables volunteer organizers to pose questions, seek clarifications, and ensure the planning process maintains momentum.

 Drupal GovCon 2023 Sponsors during the conference.

TDT [7]: Looking ahead, how do you envision the legacy of DrupalGovCon 2023 within the Drupal community? Are there any insights from this year's event that will shape the planning for future DrupalGovCon conferences?

Nneka Hector: Drupal4gov’s purpose is to create avenues to foster collaboration, shared knowledge, and community around using open source at all levels of government. This is done by creating environments to allow for collaborating with other organizations and/or government entities while at the conference through sessions, Birds of Feather sessions (BOFs), networking events or code contributions. In addition to the yearly conference, Drupal4gov provides Full & Half Day training, and webinars that occur every 3rd Thursday of each month and we organize DrupalCon’s GovSummit. Our goal is to allow this spirit of learning and collaboration to continue through educational opportunities I’ve just mentioned.

TDT [8]: As the Director of Web Development at DSFederal, how have your experiences from Drupal event organizing influenced your professional life, or vice versa? In what ways have these experiences enhanced your role in web development?

Nneka Hector: Being a co-lead for Drupal GovCon has significantly broadened my understanding across various domains. From a non-profit perspective, it has provided invaluable lessons in effective strategies for sponsor marketing, fostering collaboration when working with volunteers, and contributing to a community. The various moving parts of planning and organizing a conference have taught me the importance of collaboration and teamwork. 

Collaborating with a team of dedicated organizers has been a source of continuous learning. My role involves project management, marketing, assisting with website debugging, and web content administration. The wealth of knowledge gained from these talented organizers has contributed significantly to my professional growth and expertise in diverse areas.

In my professional capacity at DSFederal as the Director of Web Development, my responsibilities involve managing teams, requirements, vendors, and budgets. However, organizing a conference introduces a different dynamic, particularly when working with unpaid volunteers driven by their passion for the community and the conference. This endeavor has allowed me to refine and enhance my project management, communication, and presentation skills.

TDT [9]: Considering your involvement in other events like DrupalCon Portland 2013, DrupalCon Baltimore 2017, and DrupalCon Nashville 2018, how have event organization practices improved over the years? Have there been lessons from these past events that shaped the planning and execution of DrupalGovCon 2023?

Nneka Hector: We took our experiences in organizing GovSummit and the metrics we received from it to better inform decisions made for the organization. We have implemented surveys, co-ordinate better with sponsors and have implemented a more robust social media presence. Our experiences with DrupalCon also helped us to implement Sessionize for session submissions and our experiences with the Camp Organizing committee have led us to evaluate ticketing for our events, use of the Drupal recording Initiative and our recruitment for the planning team.

One of the biggest lessons we learned since the founding of the event in 2012 (hat tip to Drupal GovDays in Belgium) is that we are not ever going to plan another online event. It was way more exhausting for our team and left many of us feeling overwhelmed and with no tangible benefits for the planners. We're excited to be coming together in person and raise awareness of Drupal4Gov and our event...Drupal GovCon.

A shot of the hallways of sponsors and attendees during Drupal GovCon 2023.

TDT [10]: Being a Drupal organizer for many years, how do you personally define the success of an event? Has the definition evolved over the years?

Nneka Hector: The measure of a conference's success lies in the number of returning attendees, highlighting the importance of survey data. Surveys provide essential feedback, pinpointing recurring issues expressed by participants and guiding improvements for the subsequent year. Receiving direct feedback from conference-goers, gained through volunteer interactions, is particularly invaluable. It provides a unique opportunity to engage with attendees, who generously share both positive and constructive feedback.

My definition of being an organizer has definitely evolved. My first volunteer experience at Drupal GovCon involved giving a training session on setting up local development environments. Each subsequent year brought added responsibility, with diverse roles such as trainer, room monitor, registration desk attendant, and even organizing the code contribution room—a role that remains my favorite. For those familiar with Kirsten, her talent for "volentolding" (volunteering someone with authority) is well-known. Along the way, I've made lifelong friendships and learned tons.  And THAT is priceless.

AmyJune Hineline - Drupal GovCon 2023 KeyNote Speaker .

Disclaimer: The information provided about the interviewee has been gathered from publicly available resources. The responsibility for the responses shared in the interview solely rests with the featured individual.

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