If you have been around the Drupal community for a while you know who Aaron Winborn is. If not, take a few minutes and learn more about his story. His is a story that is both inspiring and heart breaking.
Drupal users around the world know Aaron Winborn (aaron), a long-time community member who has made countless contributions to the project and to the people who use it. From building the Media module to helping organize NYC Camp, Aaron has had a massive impact on our community and our project.
For years, Aaron has contributed valuable code, acted as an advocate for increasing involvement in the Drupal community, and has inspired countless people with his brilliance, humility, and grace. That’s why we’re proud to feature Aaron in our latest Community Spotlight, to extend our thanks and let everyone touched by Aaron’s contribution know how they can do the same.
“I met Aaron through Drupal in 2006,” said Jacob Redding (jredding) , a good friend of Aaron's. "I was living and working in New York, and he was at Advomatic at the time, where he was working on a lot of different things. In 2007 I wound up moving to China and doing some open source and Drupal work out there. Then in March of 2008 I was at a meet-up in China, and there were these guys talking in Chinese about Aaron’s code, and they were ecstatic about it.
“Aaron wrote a lot of modules around media, like putting videos on Drupal sites. It’s something that we do a lot now, though in 2008 it was hard to put video on your website... but Aaron made it easy. So, at this meet-up, these guys thousands of miles away took Aaron's work and extended it to fit all the video formats that work in China.
“So I filmed this video for him with these developers in China,” Redding concluded. “I said to him, 'your code just made it to the other side of the planet and made a huge impact — here it is in Chinese, in a different language, for a different market.' I don’t know where the video is now, but it was really fun. It just shows the way the community gets together and reinforces all these different relationships."
A friend and mentor
“When I first decided to do Drupal professionally, I was working hard to learn more,” said Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg (Alex UA). “A friend of mine has a firm called Advomatic, and Aaron was the first employee there. So, I asked Aaron if he would help me learn about Drupal, and in repayment, I offered to help him manage the issue queues for his module — the Embedded Media Field. Aaron really helped me figure out the development side of Drupal and… you know, I say that I offered to help him, but really, he’s one of the most giving people I’ve ever met, and I’m sure he would have helped me for nothing more than the karma."
“He’s a very warm and thoughtful person, and is a very unique individual,” said Amanda Luker (mndonx), a coworker of his from Advomatic. “Aaron has a lot of interesting things to say — you might not know it right away, since he can be very quiet at first. But he really is very thoughtful and sweet. Advomatic was my first job in a development shop, and I was really nervous, but Aaron was so great to work with. He did a lot to help me feel comfortable, and to help me not feel dumb. It means a lot, especially from someone like him — he was always working on a different level. “
Jonathan DeLaigle (grndlvl), another co-worker from Advomatic, agreed. “I’ve always found Aaron to be very approachable, someone that you wouldn’t have to worry about phrasing the question in such a way as to not get ‘oh, well, that’s a stupid question.’ Even though sometimes I’d ask a question that I probably should have known the answer to, he’s the sort of person where it’s ok. You can ask those stupid questions and you can expect a response that’s conducive to your learning experience.”
“It just pours out of him, this intelligence"
When it comes to qualities in Aaron that his friends and colleagues admire, his brilliance is always one of the first things mentioned — alongside his generosity, humility, and kindness.
“Every time I had a conversation with Aaron it was fantastic,” said Redding. "He’s one of these guys where you know he’s super smart. It’s hard to describe when you’re talking to someone who’s pretty much a genius and they’re very subtle and subdued, not over the top — but when you talk to them, you realize what they’re saying is intense and complex and intricate... and it just pours out of him, this intelligence."
"I met him though the Drupal community,” said Arthur Foelsche (arthurf), who worked with Aaron on the Media module. “Aaron is someone I’ve been at multiple DrupalCons with, someone who I’ve done media sprints with, someone I’ve always appreciated. My experience of Aaron was that every time he encountered a road-block, he always tried to figure out ways to solve it himself.
"That’s not to say he’d eschew other people,” Foelsche added, "but he’d work to figure out solutions that were interesting and relevant to him and to others. He didn’t approach things from the perspective of, ‘why am I being stopped,’ but rather, ‘I bet I can create a solution to get around this problem.’ I see Aaron as this person who believes on a fundamental level that he can make change — not just in Drupal, but in everything and in his personal life. It’s a very important part of who he is.”
“Fixing problems in elegant ways"
Aaron made a reputation for himself in the Drupal community as someone who was happiest when quietly working to solve difficult problems and make Drupal better.
“At one DrupalCon, we were talking through some of the handling of the files themselves in the Media module,” said Foelsche. "Aaron was going through this rumination of, ‘how can these be useful’ and we talked until late at night. We started up again in the morning pretty early (all things considered), and he came back with this notebook just full of ideas. He was so excited and engaged, and just wanted to be able to fix problems in ways that were elegant and useful to people. His enthusiasm around it, and all the time he had spent just that night — I saw him in that moment as just being so glad to be able to work with people on the same problem."
As any DrupalCon attendee can tell you, camps, cons and great parties go hand in hand. And while loud parties may not be Aaron’s scene, he still participates in his own way.
"I guess one anecdote,” said Aaron Welch (crunchywelch), the founder of Advomatic, “was when we went to OSCon on the Yahoo campus in 2006 or 2007. It was a general Open Source convention, but basically it was overrun by Drupal shops and agents — we completely eclipsed all of the other projects. In any case, the Advomatic team rented a house, and we had some big, crazy parties. There was Guitar Hero on giant screens, lots of drinks, people barbecuing in the back yard… Anyway, Aaron was staying with us at the house, and in the middle of all of this crazy partying going on, he was coding away on the Media module in the kitchen, happy as a clam.
“He was totally participating in his own funny Aaron way,” Welch continued. “He was really happy to be hanging out with everybody, but was still just coding away, being his quiet Aaron self. And that’s Aaron — he’s a pretty reserved kind of person, and he’s the nicest, most dedicated, hard working guy you’ll ever meet."
Whether alone or in a group, Aaron’s problem solving has gained him a tremendous amount of respect from his peers in the Drupal community.
“Aaron has always tried to find solutions to problems — not just getting around road-blocks,” said Foelsche. “I’ve always been impressed by his knowing himself as a person, and wanting to find ways to do things in the world when he didn’t know that he could. That disposition is a marvelous one. In my opinion, Aaron has always struck a really graceful balance between the ability to solve things on his own and the willingness to work in a group to solve things together. I’ve always enjoyed his company and work, and appreciated not only his disposition in the community but also as a human being.”
“Aaron has never been the person who would blindly jump in if there was a problem,” said Luker. “Working together, he’s always very thoughtful, very deliberate in how he approached things. I could tell that, with his background in philosophy and his interest in alternative education, that independence influenced how he approached life in general. It made me feel like I was in the right place when I started at Advomatic. Knowing that he was there, believing what he believed, it made me feel like, ok, this is a good fit for me, too."
"An advocate and activist"
Aaron’s passions extend further than just writing code, though. A strong advocate for involvement in the Drupal community, Aaron often quietly stepped up to help grow the project and facilitate change — in Drupal, and in the greater world.
"I would say that Aaron taught me a whole lot of humility,” said Redding. “I don’t know if a lot of people know, but he was behind the scenes of so much stuff. In October of 2009, Aaron stepped up to serve as the Drupal Association (VZW) financial point person for a few sprints… he just sort of stepped in and said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ And he did. At the time he was also running culturefix.org, he was working in activism, and he was — and even after his diagnosis has continued to be — a strong advocate and an activist. He was behind the scenes in a lot of sprints, meet-ups, camps, and was instrumental in a lot of the foundational work that turned into the Drupal Association as it is today."
“Aaron is, to me, really inspirational when it comes to open source. He really lives it and gives himself to it,” agreed Urevick-Ackelsberg. ”He needed the work, like everybody else, but whatever he could give he gave freely. I feel like, for all the people whose lives he has touched, the repayment is that they’re here and contributing— and I think the real lesson that I’ve taken from him is to give yourself as freely as you can afford to, and the payback for the community that you’re a part of, it goes on and on."
“Aaron has taught me that you should enjoy the people and the things around you,” Urevick-Ackelsberg said. "I know that Aaron has and does; he’s very inspirational in that regard. He’s taught me that you have to do good things every day, and to give yourself as freely as you can."
“Strength and dignity from day one"
In spring of 2011, Aaron was diagnosed with ALS, which he announced in a heart-wrenching post on his blog several months later.
“When Aaron got his diagnosis, he took the news and he tried to find a solution,” said Redding. "He's used the time he has to the best of his ability: he’s spent it with his family, with the communities around him, and looked towards the future of what he could do for those around him — including those he will never meet."
“He has been so realistic and matter of fact about it,” said Aaron Welch. “It’s just incredible watching how strong he has been. A lot of people would, I think, give up — but Aaron has always been focused on the next challenge. We wanted to give him every opportunity to keep working,” Welch continued. “We knew it would be important — you have to have something to keep you going, and he was always just so strong and generous about it. He was grateful for any help he received, but he wasn’t necessarily asking for it, either. I think you can see that strength and dignity from day one on. He’s just been incredible through the whole thing."
About a year after Aaron’s initial diagnosis, he and his wife attended DrupalCon Denver. Though his condition had begun to deteriorate, Aaron did not let it stop him from making the most of the experience.
“I remember, we had a day when the Advomatic team all worked together in the same room — and we’re never all in the same room so that was great,” said Luker. “At that point he was able to use voice commands to do his work, and we were all joking about how he got way more done not even typing than the rest of us in the room. You could tell he was so happy to be at DrupalCon — with his community, with his people — and he was so happy that he could contribute."
“Since his diagnosis it’s been hard,” said Sam Tresler (Tresler), another friend of Aaron’s. “The way he can muster the ability to still find joy in the various things that he does...the ability to face something like that with dignity is such an inspiring thing to me.
“You kind of assume when that much of yourself is taken away, it would cause some drastic changes to an individual — but he hasn’t changed. He’s just using different tools,” Sam continued. "And that’s the best thing I could say about him — his priorities haven't changed, his desire to learn didn’t change, and his determination to keep his quality of life and his family’s quality of life is forefront in his mind."
As part of preserving that quality of life for his daughters and his family, Aaron wrote a short book for his daughters called “Where Did Daddy Go?” The book tells the story of a young girl trying to discover what happened to her father, who died. She asks, as a four-year-old might, her pets, the sun, moon and earth, before finally asking her sister and mother,"Where did Daddy Go?" Aaron plans to make the book available on Amazon in the coming weeks.
“We wouldn’t be what we are without him"
"Aaron has always been an example of the values we hold dear in the Drupal community. His humility, generosity, and enthusiasm have quietly but profoundly helped shape our community into what it is today. Drupal wouldn't be the same without him,” said Dries Buytaert (dries), speaking to Aaron’s numerous contributions to both the Drupal project and the wider community.
“If you look at Drupal 8, and how much time and energy people spent on it, and all the conferences we’re having on it, he has a big influence in it,” said Redding. “He’s not making a big deal about it… he’s not out there saying, ‘I did this!’ because he’s never been that way. But his work on the Media module is really important to Drupal 8, and this comes back to his lessons in humility: that you should do what you do because you like doing it, work on what you love to work on, and if it becomes a big deal, great— and if it doesn’t, great. You don’t have to get caught up in it."
“Aaron was the first employee of Advomatic,” said Aaron Welch. “It’s hard to point out just one thing Aaron did — I couldn’t even tell you how many projects we worked on together. But we could always, always count on Aaron to be there and help out when we put in a lot of long hours. For a pretty small team, we were doing big, important stuff— and he was a critical part of building Advomatic and making it what it is today. We wouldn’t be what we are today without the incredible dedication and talent he has shown over the years, and his quiet support and hard work.
“He really, in a way, is one of the founders of the company,” Welch continued. "He made his mark, not just on Advomatic but on the Drupal community in general and it has been amazing watching the outpouring of support. People are always asking, ‘how can we help, what can we do…’ and, in my opinion, the best we can do is support him and give him encouragement. I know he really deeply appreciates it."
Thank You, Aaron
Aaron has given an incredible amount to Drupal. He has contributed to the project, the community, the Drupal Association, and the wider world in ways measurable and immeasurable. And, as Aaron and his family have found, the world is giving back.
“So many people in the Drupal community have generously given to Aaron’s Special Needs Trust,” said Gwen Pfeifer, Aaron’s wife. “Our family has really appreciated it.”
Aaron, thank you so much for everything you have done for all of us. The Drupal project and the Drupal community would not be the same without you. Your kindness, generosity, humility, and dedication are an inspiration to us all. Thank you for the gift of your friendship and code. Through your hard work, dedication, and your incredible strength of character have made the world a better, brighter place. Thank you for everything.