Drupal history, learning, business, & D8 - Meet Alan Burke

I got the chance to catch up with Alan Burke at DrupalCon Prague. He and I go back a long way; we met at one of the first Drupal events I ever attended, DrupalCon Brussels in 2006. In the meantime Alan and his co-founder Stella Power have built up the successful Drupal agency Annertech in Ireland and they have an impressive list of contributions to Drupal to their names. Here, we speak about Drupal's technical history over the last 8 years and the exciting improvements coming in Drupal 8, the business climate for Drupal in recession-plagued Ireland, and the Drupal community's culture of teaching, learning, and sharing.

On choosing Drupal in 2005

"Drupal looked like a powerful tool. I read all about it and said, 'it's really difficult to learn, but it's really solid,' and I figure that that was a better thing than something that was easy to use but wasn't solid. The long term benefit of learning something solid would pay off and it has."

Drupal 4.6: How we used to do it, aka "CMS by hand"

"There were little things like when I wanted to install a module, I had to download the SQL file, run the sequel query on the server to install the correct tables ... that was fun ... You needed to do the same thing to run Drupal. [!] There was no Form API (not that I needed to know that I didn't have it). There was no Views. There was no CCK. There wasn't even Flexinode when I started. It was a long time ago."

"At the same time, you could download things like the Calendar Module, which was amazing, to have such a system with one click installed. The amount of functionality you got out-of-the-box was just mind blowing. And now ... it's still mind blowing."

Drupal from 4.6 till now

Alan claims two things are consistent throughout Drupal's history: "It changes all the time and it gets better all the time. The other thing is that at every single release of Drupal, there's always people who are worried about the next version, how complicated it is and 'I hope that the following release they won't do so many changes ...' and it always happens. Drupal 8 is a sea-change from Drupal 7. Drupal 9 will be as big a sea-change. But people can't see it now. To know that's coming because you've been involved in the community that long is interesting, 'cause you see other people who don't see that coming."

Running a Drupal business in Ireland

Alan talks about building Annertech, "It's a little challenging. Anyone familiar with the economic situation in Ireland will know that we're in the depths of a recession. We've had the fortune to start a company in a recession and have to grow it and build it during a recession. It keeps you tight; it keeps you lean. You don't have room for expensive mistakes. From a business perspective, that's been useful."

"We got into business to build top quality Drupal websites and that's been enough to get us more business. Luckily, we've had successful projects and happy customers," who have spread the word about Annertech for them. I asked where the next wave of customers and growth would come from in Ireland: "Drupal doesn't have that strong a reputation, however, it's got enough of a reputation for us that people have picked Drupal, gone looking for help and found us."

"Drupal's got a long way to go. Right now, local authorities and local government is starting to pick it up, some of the third-level institutions are picking it up. It's growing, but it's got a long way to go. Microsoft has a big presence in Ireland. That reflects on the technology choices at all levels. Open source hasn't taken off in Ireland as much as in other countries, but that's changing slowly."

Teaching and learning in the Drupal Community

Alan's strongest memory of DrupalCon Brussels 2006 is one that seems to explain a lot about the Drupal community's self-identity and how it works: "I remember sitting down for dinner with a big bunch of Drupal people on the very last day. Webchick [aka Angie Byron] was relatively new in the community at the time. She dragged somebody aside to teach her about testing. I believe it was Rok Zlender. She dragged him aside and asked ... demanded that she be informed about how testing worked."

"The best way to learn is to learn from other people. My favorite thing about Drupal is the fact that there's always somebody involved in the project who knows how to do something better and seems willing to share that knowledge – perhaps even force that knowledge onto other people." :-)"

"By doing nothing else but using Drupal, I'm improving myself as a developer and as a Drupal development company, the platform that we build on is continually being improved by industry best practice."

Getting off the island and Drupal 8

"Larry Garfield's call to 'Get off the island' as he put it, is extremely useful and the best thing that ever happened ... I don't think we can underestimate how important that was. There's people out there solving problems that we have as well, so why reinvent the wheel? I think that was a key changing point for Drupal."

  • Q: "What's the most compelling feature coming in Drupal 8?"
  • A: "CMI. Full stop. If you ask me what the second most important one is, it's still CMI. For a company of our size it [deployment, content/configuration staging and versioning] is the single most important problem that we need to get solved. Greg Dunlap did a fantastic job. I've been reading up in his blog about the process. The community has a lot to learn – both from a technical level and from a process level, on a core initiative – from Greg and other core initiative leads."
  • Q: What's the third-most compelling feature of D8 for you?
  • A: "It's still CMI."
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