Preparing for the huddled masses from Drupal’s success

3 March 2010

A recent CNet article notes that such shops as AF83 have been turning away business because they can’t keep up with demand. That’s a familiar story to many of us, including me: Drupal is just growing and growing, and we’re reaping the benefits and challenges.

But consider the other side of that coin, expressed by the article’s title: “Need a job? Learn Drupal.” If the message gets through, the Drupal community will experience a wave of people driven by practical matters of employment. A few minutes in Drupaldom’s current hangouts — IRC, drupal.org, mailing lists — predicts how such an influx will clash with the existing culture.

Not that the the Drupal world isn’t already commercial and entrepreneurial — it is, in large part thanks to pioneering companies like Chapter Three* and Dries’ own openness to commerce. But the three badges of Drupal honor today are that you (1) you code, (2) you work on GPL projects, and (3) you’re active in “the community”. Few people responding to the call of this article — or of the business community at large — will meet these criteria. Let’s look at each separately.

  • New immigrants will not be coders. Coders were necessary to Drupal as hunter/trappers were to U.S. expansion. And, like trappers, they’re not as important as they used to be. After food sources are secure, people need banking, commerce, clothing, entertainment. These are institutions that pioneers are not equipped to provide.

    Obviously, trapping isn’t as important a skill now as it was in 1800. We still need food and warm clothing, so the functions formerly served by trappers are now served by others. Trappers can be angry at how they — the people who built this country! — have been pushed aside. (Old westerns are full of such grizzled characters.) The smart ones will get off their laurels and adapt to inevitable change.

    New Drupal workers will be in public relations, finance, advertising, distribution, sales, business relations, and content. They’ll think inheritancy and encapsulation are about wills and pills. They’ll fail to recognize coding intelligence, because they’re not optimized for such wisdom. In my experience, coders repay that ignorance with a vengeance, failing to recognize the intelligence of those “soft” skills even more. But they’ll make Drupal’s banks, markets, stores, and bars run — regardless of how you feel about them.

  • New immigrants will not work on — or care about — GPL projects. They’re here for a job, not a philosophy. The first ones will become educated about open source because they’ll have to be in order to get along with the community. But peer pressure will shrink as the pool of Drupal users grows. We’ve already seen this in (for example) the Linux world: How many users understand their operating system’s origin or license? 1%? How many contribute back to the project? 0.001%, maybe.

    Which leads to a hard question: Does Open Source Matter? On some level, yes, and I spent a good part of the late ’90s expounding the position that it does. But for the people building a career based on using Drupal? No, it doesn’t. They hope that Drupal remains strong, and perhaps have a vague idea that volunteers are behind it. Because they’re not coders, they won’t have any connection to those volunteers — unless the Drupal project changes in ways that make it easier for them to get involved.

    That, of course, has been a topic of much discussion. The Drupal.org redesign will help, but it’s only a drop in the bucket. Ultimately no amount effort will entice the majority of new Drupal users to get involved.

  • New immigrants will not be in “the community”. This will be the hardest blow to Drupalistas who have been with the project since Dries was a jongetje. It strikes at the real reason that people contribute their efforts to Drupal, or any cooperative project: Because they like the people as much as the subject.

    When a group is small, members feel they can know everybody, and problems can be solved via IM. Even if they don’t know everybody, they feel they can at least trust others, and that they’ll share common beliefs.

    But growth engenders diversity. I remember being part of a pretty insular bisexual activist community in the early ’90s, all working together for the recognition and dignity of Our Sort. We started interacting with some counterparts from another city and found them… tacky. Suspicious. Poor representatives of what we thought We were. We had gone beyond our tribe, and not liked what we saw.

    So it will be with Drupal. One thing that’s surprised me is how little we hear of Drupal being used for right-wing political sites. Will our community, with such left-wing support businesses as Development Seed and Chapter Three prominent among us, trumpet their success as well?

So — the contrast between “old guard” and “new school” may sound harsh, but it’s actually cause for celebration. If Drupal does in fact attract such people — who don’t code, who aren’t GPL-savvy, and who aren’t community members — it’ll be a sure sign that it’s escaped its corral into a larger world. And as we can take advantage of their skills, the circle will continue to be ever-widening.

* Say, who were the first Drupal service companies? I’m assuming Chapter Three was one of them because of its leadership’s involvement in Deanspace.

Web development

11 Replies to “Preparing for the huddled masses from Drupal’s success”

  1. The future is exciting
    Flattered to be so prominently mentioned!

    I also agree that we have to make peace with the fact that the Next Wave of “immigrants” will be of a different stripe. It’s a good thing overall, and the key here (IMHO) is not to be too much of a hipster about it. Drupal will still be cool even when it’s loved by people who we all might think are relentlessly mainstream. 😉

    FWIW on the left/right political front, I’ve been following the success of NetBoots (and noticed the Scott Brown campaign of course) with great interest and enthusiasm. As far as I can tell, NetBoots is essentially delivering on the same premise that Zack and I started DeanSpace/Civicspace on, but for conservatives. While I politically don’t share their outlook, I think this is very exciting for two reasons:

    1) They’re demonstrating that it’s possible to run Drupal-as-a-service, which we all intuit will be a big deal, but is still more theory than practice.

    2) I have a core belief that a more transparent, network-centric politics will yield better outcomes for everyone, and being able to interact with the opposition is critical there.

  2. The best people
    for the drupal community are the ones we have not found yet – I 100% embrace the fact that this years Drupalcon is running full day training classes to widen the appeal, understanding and reach of Drupal and hopefully uncover some real gems in the “New Immigrants” who we bring into the community.

    This article is presumptuous to assume that anyone new coming into the project will not be a coder, or care about GPL projects, or be “in” the community – I disagree with that premise and 100% agree with Bejamins comment.

    1. Some will be coders, but most will not
      Hi, John. First, I have to bring our statements in line. You write:

      This article is presumptuous to assume that anyone new coming into the project will not be a coder….

      My statement was that “Few… will meet these criteria.” Few != all; some will be coders.

      Regarding Benjamin’s statement that people who know Drupal code and community improve the project. Of course I agree — how could I not? All true knowledge is valuable. On the other hand, I believe that good designers, salespeople, and other “soft” specialists are more valuable at this point in Drupal’s history.

      But it doesn’t really matter what I think, since neither of us can dictate who the next Drupal professionals will be. The premise of my article is that they’ll be non-coders unfamiliar with open source and uninterested in Drupal’s traditional community. My position is that that’s a fine thing, and that we should adapt to make them comfortable and productive in the Drupalsphere, while at the same time educating on the benefits of giving back.

      1. You wrote three things
        You wrote three things clearly and in bold:

        1. New immigrants will not be coders
        2. New immigrants will not work on — or care about — GPL projects.
        3. New immigrants will not be in “the community”.

        The community would grow that much is it was left only up to companies like C3 and Dev Seed – its the whole community and ecosystem which makes up Drupals forward motion. I run SF Drupal users group and when I took it over it was tiny – I have grown it to be one of the largest groups in the country now. Most of the people are new people who are learning and contributing themselves to the Drupal community. They are not all here for jobs. I embrace and welcome new people to the Drupal community, if I can encourage them to learn more about drupal and possibly get a job, even better, we need the help.

        1. Many venues, many types of people
          Hi, John! I didn’t realize it was you. We met at the SFDUG over a year ago… I think I was at one of the meetings when you were announced as a new hire. Congrats on growing it! I hope a future visit will coincide with a SFDUG meeting so I can see.

          Anyway, back to your point. People who come to a DUG tend to be highly motivated by community. Those who read books, watch instructional videos, and take remote-learning courses… not as much.

          I don’t think we’re disagreeing, really, except perhaps about proportions of the new-immigrant population.

  3. I agree that we need to
    I agree that we need to continue to help people get involved with Drupal as contributors. There is still a lot of evangelizing to do as to why people should contribute and give back. My “openness to commerce” aside, at Acquia, we try to be an “example” company by continuously contributing to Drupal development. Many other companies like Chapter 3, Development Seed and many others do the same, of course, and it is important to Drupal’s long-term success.

    1. How did Linux (et al.) do it?
      Hi, Dries. You write that we need to “evangeliz[e]… as to why people should contribute and give back”. I agree… but how?

      I was pretty involved in the Linux community around 1998-2001. That project faced the same questions Drupal’s facing now, as non-coders started to see it as a good career focus. (Interestingly, the two projects’ timelines are separated by exactly a decade: Linux was started in 1991, and faced these issues around 2000.)

      Honestly, I haven’t been very close to that community since then, so I don’t know whether it’s been able to exploit the talents of non-coders for the good of the project. What can we learn from Linux and other open-source projects?

  4. Keeping non-coders involved
    Keeping non-coders involved in something they’re expert at: asking questions, is great. They could write de facto documentation by asking questions–the ones that get solved go straight to structured documentation. This will encourage people to craft their questions better, which will get better answers, improve the documentation, and involve coders and non-coders at the same time.

    1. Documentation, yes!
      I completely agree, and like your thoughts about using newbie questions as a basis for documentation. It sounds like you’re talking about creating a structure that truly does make a “FAQ”.

      The devil’s in the details, though. Nobody’s really attacked the problem of how to improve Drupal.org’s documentation structure, which I think is broken (as I’ve previously said). I suggested a wiki-like structure; yours sounds more like a FAQ, perhaps with the most-read bits floating to the top somehow.

      I’d love to see someone take this on. Done well, it would certainly help engage “new immigrants” on the drupal.org site, which in turn would lead them into greater involvement in the project.

  5. Solution: Stop spreading FUD
    No, not “FUD” in its embarrassing meaning, I mean:

    Fear, uncertainty and doubt

    Growth factor from 2001 to 2003? From 2003 to 2005? From 2005 to 2007? From 2007 to 2009? 2010 will hardly make a difference.

    Drupal is not a product, Drupal is the community. It always has been. And the community is what drives the Drupal project.

    We need to stop fearing. Because we can handle it.

    We need to stop being uncertain. Because we are very certain.

    We need to stop having doubts. Because we have plenty of possibilities.

    If we are pessimistic about new users right from the start, then the Drupal community will #fail.

    Instead: Start right here, right now. Welcome new users and make them contributors!

    We can and they can improve documentation.

    We can and they can find bugs and do tests.

    We can and they can innovate.

    There are plenty of good reasons to be optimistic. And I don’t see why we shouldn’t be.