Helping Drupal beginners

20 February, 2009

TopNotchThemes just released my “How to make an online store look great with your new theme from TopNotchThemes, which I’m happy to say has gotten Übercart founder Ryan Szrama’s endorsement as “helpful and thorough”. If you haven’t grabbed your copy yet, grab PDFs of it and TNT’s basic guide to give out to your Drupal-newbie friends. And please do let me (and TNT) know what you think.

TNT’s customers span the range from shopkeeps with no Web experience to experienced Drupal developers who appreciate their themes’ special features. These guides aim primarily to help the first group: that is, folks who think of themselves as something other than “Drupal people”. Helping them be successful with Drupal is crucial to whether the platform will cross the chasm to move on to mainstream success. But they’ve not gotten much love from the Drupal community before now. In short, it’s hard to point mainstream people at a single, easy-to-digest document that helps them get up and running quickly.

Before you suggest Drupal’s official site, try this experiment: Send a couple of (non-techie) friends to the site and ask them what it’s about. It’s notoriously hard to navigate — especially for beginners. The problem isn’t a lack of information: It’s too much information. As the pros know, writing is easy, but editing is hard. And organizing others’ writing is even harder.

The average Drupal user has an absurdly high technical level, which leads to the second big problem: Nearly all of drupal.org is beyond the neophyte’s abilities. That’s as it must be at this stage of Drupal’s maturity. Drupal is still a developer’s tool; does it have the potential to become usable to the average person who wants a Web presence beyond WordPress and Yahoo! SiteBuilder? Maybe. But it’s not there yet.

These two factors — Drupal’s promise for ordinary people and the disorganization of its official documentation — add up to a market opportunity for those who are able to capture it. And yet, I would argue that nobody’s really captured this market. Taken medium by medium:

  • Training: Of those people and companies listed in Drupal.org’s training directory, the best known is probably Lullabot, whose past courses have generally focused on advanced topics. (The success of their “Do It With Drupal” course stands out as an exception. I have to wonder, though: How many attendees were “beginners”?)
  • Books: I think O’Reilly’s Using Drupal reaches out to beginner/intermediate Drupal users well, while sales copy for Wrox’s new book “Leveraging Drupal” promises that it’s for “users of all levels of expertise”. And yet… The O’Reilly brand has little currency outside of hard-core tech geeks, and many people (me included) don’t know what “leveraging” is supposed to mean as Wrox uses it. Further, both books are nearly 500 pages! It takes fearlessness to dive into a book of that size, no matter how good. (Full disclosure: I have a contract with Peachpit to produce a shorter, beginner’s-level Drupal book later this year. More on that later.)
  • Videos: Obviously, I’m biased. 🙂 I’ve been impressed with the number of people who have made Drupal video screencasts — although again, most have been for highly technical topics. Frankly, production values have been very mixed: I find some of them unwatchable. One sparkling exception is Matt Petrowsky’s free GotDrupal.com lessons: They’re concise, well-made, and conveniently tagged so that beginners can easily find videos they’re likely to understand.

So there are gaps in the curriculum. Personally, I’ve bet that filling those gaps is good business — and so far that’s been an extremely winning bet. That first Lynda.com course has led to a second, the TopNotchThemes work has been both enjoyable and fruitful, the Peachpit book will come out with Drupal 7, and several other clients have asked for these sort of explanatory materials for Drupal. Professionally, it’s a good time to reach beyond Drupal’s existing circle of technologists; Drupal’s growth from such actions is a fortunate side effect.

[Graphic source: Craig Chelius on Wikimedia, based on work by Geoffrey Moore. License: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.]

5 Replies to “Helping Drupal beginners”

  1. Tom,
    Just a quick note to say

    Tom,

    Just a quick note to say thanks for your work on Drupal Essential Training. I am new to Drupal and your videos have saved me countless hours.

    After about 30-40 hours of exploring Drupal, I’ve decided to try Acquia Drupal. I noticed you were posting in the forums there.

    Regards,

    Stuart

  2. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
    Tom,
    It is with a gasp of relief that I read this article.

    I have personally wanted to tell Dries Buytert, that not only won’t he kill any webmasters with Drupal, he won’t even leave a scratch on one! Drupal is a killer for beginners for all the reasons you state.
    And yes, the Drupal website and most available learning materials are nothing but blind alleys and secret handshake programmer language that almost seem to aim to shake off newcomers.
    Hooray to you! what great courses you’ve created at lynda.com. And in what I mean to be a huge compliment, I hereby knight you the Mr. Rogers of Drupal! Calmly accepting all newbies and calmly giving awesomely clear instructions. I can’t believe how much I’ve learned from them. I’ll actually be dangerous soon! Previously there was nothing but frustration with what was out there, and I’ve spent about a year trying unsuccessfully to cobble together some good learning materials. So thanks! thanks! and thanks again!

    1. Wow…
      “The Mr. Rogers of Drupal!” Can’t do much better than that. 😉

      Thanks so much for your kind words!

      1. Mr. Rogers
        Sorry I’m repeating myself, but I think your new mission statement should read:
        The Mr. Rogers of Drupal. Welcoming everyone to the Drupal Neighborhood!