Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: The Woman Who Revived Her Life with Drupal

"I am a strong advocate for local Drupal organizations and want to safeguard the bottom-up structure of the community."
The Woman Who Revived Her Life with Drupal- Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff

Historian, Author, Copywriter, Entrepreneur, Singer, Drupaler, Product Owner... the positions and the variety of career paths Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff has chosen up until now might leave some of us a bit confused or even in awe. When learning more about this "Woman in Drupal", our curiosity shot up multiple folds, and we decided that the Drupal world should know more about this special individual, and what better platform than The DropTimes?

Experiences come in different shapes, sizes, and flavours in human life. But becoming comfortable and open to acknowledging, critiquing, and accepting one's privilege amidst bad experiences is not an easy task. Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff’s journey is one of remarkable transformation, moving from the struggles of poverty to a leading role in the tech industry. As a Drupal Product Owner at DICTU and a board member of the Dutch Drupal Association, Esmeralda has harnessed the power of technology to reshape her life and career. Her story is a testament to resilience and the life-changing potential of accessible education and community support.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say Drupal played a pivotal role in the rejuvenation of Esmeralda's life. Her journey from self-taught web developer to a key player in the Dutch government’s IT infrastructure highlights her determination and the impact of open-source technology.

In this interview with Alka Elizabeth, sub-editor at The DropTimes, Esmeralda discusses her background, rise in the Drupal community, and ongoing efforts to promote inclusivity and collaboration within the tech industry. She shares insights into her roles with the Stichting Drupal Nederland and the Network of European Drupal Associations (NEDA), reflecting on her achievements and vision for the future of open-source solutions in public sector projects.

Esmeralda also delves into her passion for music and her band. If this might be of interest to you, please read on.

TDT [1]: Your session at DrupalCon Lille 2023 mentioned that you escaped poverty using Drupal. Can you share a bit about your background before you entered the IT field? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while being on social welfare and taking care of your children? How did you reach Drupal?

Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: In my talk, I explained that I consider my experiences with poverty as ‘privileged poverty’. Even though I had little money, the country I live in is quite rich. This means there were ways for me to ‘creatively’ get my hands on the resources I needed.  

Poverty is something that can happen to anybody. There are a couple of situations that make you ‘high risk’ for poverty, such as generational poverty, being a single parent, being female or from a minority, and your mental and physical health. Unfortunately, I checked a lot of those boxes.

I was the first female in my family to enter university. My parents had a hard time understanding why university would be something I wanted to pursue. Girls marry and become mothers, so why would one waste time with so much school? My parents didn’t understand and were unable to give emotional or financial support. I had many odd jobs and had to take out huge loans to put myself through university. It’s hard to make such an effort without any guidance.

This experience is well-known among people from the working class and those entering the academic world. You don’t belong anywhere. You can't really relate to your family and old friends anymore, but your new friends don’t understand your behaviour and struggles. And if your upbringing was problematic, you probably also lack the emotional skills that people from nice, stable homes take for granted.

All in all, my background meant it was quite a challenge to get my Masters. But I managed. I studied History, with a focus on gender studies and Modern history. I also learned autodidact to build websites using PHP as a student. I became a self-employed website builder (PHP, CSS) and writer. I started working as a teacher at the university and landed a job as a PhD student. This is a paid position in the Netherlands. This job took a huge toll on my mental health. In short, I had a burnout and became pregnant with twins while being single.

One of my children had a very difficult birth, and unfortunately, she became disabled. This put another strain on my financial situation. To be able to manage this all, I had to cut back on my work hours. PhD students do get paid, but the salary is pretty low. So, with my amount of hours, I became part of what is known as the ‘‘working poor".

Esmeralda's child
Esmeralda Braad- Tijhoff learning to program at home. Her child is beside her.

My contract with the university ended, and it became clear that there were no opportunities for a permanent contract or a better salary in the academic world. All the good positions were taken by the older generations and they had no intention to move. I was now living on welfare and looking for a new field to land a proper job.

What stung me the most is that you can work very hard, but life still gives you lemons. And I don’t like lemonade made from lemons. It needs lots of sugar to be drinkable. When I turned to the local authorities for support, they told me to become a stay-at-home mom on welfare because my child had a disability. It was so infuriating. I don’t want to raise my children on welfare! I was not even able to buy proper washing liquid. I had to ask friends for donations to be able to buy my child a secondhand special bike for kids with disabilities that another parent had kindly offered to me for a huge discount. Almost all the clothes and stuff my children had as babies came from the local free shop that I coordinated as a volunteer.

I worked hard to ensure my children were safe and had food and clothes. Can you imagine how it feels to see your toddler throwing their food on the ground while you deprive yourself of it because there just isn’t enough? It’s no fun. So, when this social worker kept on pressing for me to stay on welfare, I got uncomfortable and called her supervisor.

Not long after, I heard the city started a special program that provided a crash course in IT and a prospect for a normal job, so I jumped at the opportunity. I learned how to build websites and work with CMS systems like Laravel in four months. Next, I landed a job with the Dutch Government, where I learned Drupal. They gave me the permanent position I needed and decent pay. Life really turned around at this point. Not long after, I got into a relationship with the love of my life. We married, and now I have four children!

On a Plate
 The Pencilsword: On a Plate is a short story that Esmeralda said resonates with her experiences. The whole story might not entirely reflect her life, but it explains the consequences and struggles of different social and economic backgrounds.

TDT [2]: Can you tell us more about your journey from being a Drupal site builder to becoming a Product Owner at DICTU? What key milestones and turning points were there?

Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: I started as a Drupal developer, site builder, and front-end developer and used Drupalize.me to learn how to build sites. Next, we started working on many projects with peer programming to learn the specific way of working in the team. In our line of work, we had direct contact with customers who were always Dutch governmental organisations. The amount of projects my team developed and managed that had no Product Owner on the side of the customer grew to the extent that the communication and crafting of user stories for all projects became too much for the team. So our team leader asked me to become the general Product Owner for the team.

I already had lots of experience as an organiser for events, managing projects, and directing volunteers, so this task was something I felt confident to pick up. I have been active in multiple foundations as a board member or president since I was a student. So, coordinating projects, managing people, and saving time and finances, combined with the technological know-how I acquired as a Drupal developer, made me the right person to pick up this job.

In this role, I would handle all customer requests, set up streamlined communication lines, handle user stories and tickets on the boards, and hold strategic sessions with new and existing customers to formulate their needs and wants and establish a roadmap. First, I did this for a handful of customers, but soon, I handled all the projects. This method of work saved the developers tons of hours of work.

TDT [3]: As a strong advocate for open-source within the government, what do you see as the biggest benefits and challenges of using open-source solutions like Drupal in public sector projects?

Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: Open source is the present and future for government tech development. The technology developed with public finances should be of the highest quality. I firmly believe a gigantic community like the one surrounding Drupal, translates into the highest quality code one can find. In terms of safety and innovation, an open-source framework like Drupal is the obvious choice. Besides, if there are ways for the government to return codes, texts, services, or products generated using public funding to the public, then this should be supported and encouraged. With open-source, returning code to the public for further use is relatively easy.

Unfortunately, many conservatives within the government believe that anything you can download ‘for free’ can’t be trusted. These people are also very much against sharing code since that would be giving away code ‘for free’ (and that’s bad because…? Honestly, I can’t figure out why they are so against sharing).

TDT [4]: Could you share more about your involvement with the Stichting Drupal Nederland and the Network of European Drupal Associations? What achievements are you most proud of in these roles?

Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: I won a ticket to DrupalCon Prague by uploading a picture of me with the mascot during Drupaljam in Utrecht that year. I saved up traveling costs and booked a Flexbus and a nasty cheap hostel to be able to attend. At DrupalCon, I went and attended the meeting for the local Drupal associations. I was not a member of any association, but I joined anyway. At this meeting, the board members expressed their desire to meet up more often. So, after Prague, I joined the Slack channel and noticed there was no follow-up after a while. So I organised a meeting.

I put out a date picker, searched online for email addresses of local Drupal associations, went on Facebook, Twitter and other social media looking for Drupal organisations, and built up a contact list. This meeting was held on 13-02-2023 and I honestly can say it was a huge success. Since that initial meeting, each successive meeting has been organized by another member. I created the project NEDA, which stands for Network of European Drupal Associations, so that we can share our efforts with others.

The meetings have helped and stimulated the project to share the code of the new website of the Dutch Drupal Association. This project is so awesome! While searching online for boards in Europe, I noticed how outdated many of their websites were. With the new repository, Drupal boards can set up a modern Drupal website with little effort. And the new users of this repo are already giving back to it, improving and expanding the project.

After NEDA started, the Dutch Drupal Association had an opening for a board member. I sent in my resume and got elected. I do my best to help with marketing and communication. There is a lot of cool stuff happening within the Dutch and worldwide community. This is something I want to share with the world.

flowers at the day Esmeralda got a permanent contract at DICTU
Flowers on the day Esmeralda got her permanent contract at DICTU.

TDT [5]: You took the initiative to create the Network of European Drupal Associations (NEDA) to foster collaboration and support among local Drupal associations. Reflecting on your experiences and the proposed agenda from previous NEDA meetings, what are some key insights or successes you’ve observed from these collaborations? How do you see the future of NEDA evolving, especially in terms of supporting local associations with knowledge sharing, resource allocation, and managing online events?

Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: So there are three hot topics:

  • Getting more volunteers involved
  • Getting a stable stream of income 
  • Organising well-received and attended community events

One of the big returning issues for Drupal associations is the struggle to attract and keep volunteers. In some countries, the association rests on the shoulders of one or two persons at best. Under these conditions, generating finances and organising community activities and events is hard. Volunteer burnout is a hard reality.

I think NEDA is a wonderful place to share experiences but also to share business models and event setups. We can learn from each other's efforts. I think we are doing a wonderful job of not pushing a specific model or idea onto each other. What works for the Dutch organisation might not be the best fit for the community in, say, Finland or Greece. Each association has its own cultural, social, and economic context.

So, in real life, events might work best for a small country but won’t generate the same energy in a vast and scattered country. And, like the Dutch business model, it depends on companies that want to align with us. They give us funding, and we give them exposure on the website, at our events, and in our communication. This works well in the Netherlands, but for example in France, this will be very hard to pull off. The level of commitment from companies and the nature of their need differ. This is impossible to establish in countries where Drupal is not well known or even used. So, looking for funding from governments, NGOs, and personal memberships makes more sense.

By sharing what works where, we can analyse the mechanics behind the successes and disappointments. With this knowledge, all local associations can assemble the best approach for their region.

Besides the shared experiences, moral support, shared resources, and possibly shared funds, NEDA can also advocate for Drupal in the EU and help Drupal associations tap into EU funding and networking. Sharing specific legal advice and international knowledge would be a great asset. I think NEDA will also be able to strengthen local Associations worldwide. NEDA can become a more professional organisation and earn an official reputation as a representative of local European Drupal organisations. This would help the Drupal community to become more diverse.

Screenshot of NEDA Meeting
NEDA Meeting

TDT [6]: What advice would you give to someone looking to get involved with the Drupal community, especially those coming from non-traditional backgrounds like yours?

Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: So entering the IT world might mean breaking through walls. I think the strength of people like me, who have wandered on ‘alternative paths’ in life, is that we are creative and have a broad background and interest. I might even say people can be intersections of different mindsets and different (social/economic/ethnic) worlds. We can use these qualifications when entering a closed-off area like IT. You smash a wall and create your opening if you see no door. You hang a note saying welcome next to your opening, and that’s how you create the door for the next group.

I hope that entering a community like the Drupal community won’t be difficult for anybody. I hope we actively invite and welcome new people, both non-tech folks and tech folks.

So start looking for a Drupal group in your city and country. Join them if there already is a body. If your city/country lacks this type of organisation, then this is your chance to start one and become a ground pillar for Drupal in your area. Contact other organisations for support, join NEDA, and reach out to us or others around you for help. Together, we can help you strengthen the Drupal community in your area and promote the use of Drupal worldwide. It is important to recognise the agent you can be.

Esmeralda's son wearing a Drupal t-shirt
The next generation, Esmeralda's son wearing a Drupal t-shirt.

TDT [7]: You have mentioned setting up a Drupal educational curriculum. What are the core components of this curriculum, and how has it impacted your team and organisation?

Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: You have mentioned setting up a Drupal educational curriculum. What are the core components of this curriculum, and how has it impacted your team and organisation?

Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: I have set up the educational curriculum for my organisation so new people with zero knowledge about Drupal can join our team and start working on our projects. One of the resources we use is Drupalize.me. The new colleagues learn the basics and become a site builder. Next, they learn the specific work processes of the organisation by doing a group project. Then, they enter their scrum team and start with peer programming.

With this path, each student has a chance to really understand Drupal, work with it, and develop safe and stable web applications within our teams. Using this method, we can absorb a high rate of career changers. This is needed because the demand for Drupal websites keeps on rising. We need a lot of new people to keep up, so people from all backgrounds should be able to join. And these people often bring valuable new skills to their teams.

TDT [8]: How do you envision the role of open-source software evolving in government and public sector projects in the next five to ten years?

Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: We see a steep growth in interest in open-source solutions within the government and public domain. We noticed an upcoming trend for governmental agencies to specifically request open-source solutions. There were some instances where active involvement with the open-source community was explicitly sought after. So, it is safe to say that open source will play an increasingly important role within the IT landscape.

TDT [9]: It's rather exciting that you are a member of a punk band, De Introns. Can you talk more about your band and the kind of music you make?

Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: I was very active in the squat scene in my city. I really liked to get on stage and share my message; to unload the feelings you get when walking around in this ‘interesting’ and challenging world. I attended lots of demonstrations, and the injustice and police violence is just too much sometimes. I found a healthy way to cope by making punk music. I never had any lessons for playing the guitar, so punk was the first type of music I could play anyway. I am always stuck with punk because it’s just so energetic to play.

At the moment, I’m without a band. The drummer I have played with for over 20 years, died this year from cancer. It was a terrible and sudden sickbed. I’ve taken up drumming as a way to keep him around. I know he would have found it hilarious to have me behind a drum kit.

De Introns Punk Band
De Introns Punk Band

"I think if you listen to the music, you will understand that I'm a firm believer in the saying: No talent? No problem!"

— Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff, Product Owner at DICTU.
Malamondo at the squat Pino's
Malamondo at the squat Pino's

TDT [10]: I read that you are working on a biography about the Boissevain sisters. How far has the project come and how have they aided you in your emancipation?

Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: I published a couple of articles about my research and lots of articles about related research and histories. But the Boissevain sisters are now nicely packed and stored in my attic. PhD students are at high risk for burnout. That’s what happened to me. And when the funding of the university stopped, I chose to make a career change and take up my responsibility as the provider for my children.

Writing books and doing academic research don't pay you much. Besides, there are not enough permanent jobs in academia. I would have had to move to the other side of the county or abroad after my PhD to be able to get a faint chance for a career in academia. It’s all old folks taking up space. So I shoved my work in a box, stored it in the attic, and won’t touch it again unless someone gives me funding. I think the research would be a nice novel if I rewrite it and remove all the scientific theories. I might do that sometime.

TDT [11]: Your background in history and your academic work on historical women's movements offer a unique perspective on your journey into the IT field, which has traditionally been male-dominated. How have your historical insights into women's struggles and achievements influenced your approach to overcoming gender barriers in the tech industry?

Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: I knew coming in that it would be a struggle. No matter all the nice words saying ‘we don’t discriminate’. There is a lot of unspoken bias against women in IT. It helped me to realise that the attitude I sometimes encountered had little to do with me. It is easy to think people are hard on you because they don’t like you, or because your work is crappy. But I know that actually, this was not a ‘me problem’. Knowing this helped me stay put, raise my voice, and address the attitude I noticed.

That’s why I strongly advocate for women's networks within the company. By sharing your story and experiences with other women, you can discover that your experiences are not unique or personal. It’s a culture and the participants in this culture don’t even know they have these unconscious biases. So we need to understand that the personal is political in order to work towards a healthy and equal treatment of one another.

TDT [12]: Can you draw any parallels between the historical women's movements you’ve studied and your own experiences and initiatives in promoting inclusivity within the Drupal community and the broader tech industry?

Esmeralda Braad-Tijhoff: This is a fun question! I have studied the first, second, and third feminist waves. I noticed how different the line of thought was during each wave depending on the location of the movements. So during the first wave, even though the local women’s movement shared the same core principle of equality, how this played out, and the conclusions drawn from this shared value were vastly different. The perception of what feminism is and ought to be differs depending on the organisation's location. A typical American women’s organisation had a very different agenda and end goal than a typical French or Dutch organisation.

This is actually very logical because these countries all have very different cultures, histories, and possibilities for women throughout the ages. We all have different definitions, viewpoints, focus points, and lots of different cultural and social constructions to overcome. So the ‘feminist solution’ as propagated by the US feminists was and is not something we in the Netherlands or EU needed, and vice versa.

I hope we all have learned by now that it is not very helpful to dictate how others should perceive their position and experiences or explain what you think they should take issue with. One solution is not a fix for all. There is no ‘one diversity’. That’s why I strongly advocate for local Drupal organisations and want to safeguard the bottom-up structure of the community. 

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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