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Confessions of a Non-Technical Drupalist

Next week I’ll have the honor of presenting a session at DrupalCon in Vienna titled “Confessions of a Non-Technical Drupalist.” As the CEO of Acquia, I’ve been involved with Drupal since 2007, when Dries Buytaert invited me to join the company. I am an engineer by training, with a keen interest in computer science, software and technology, so my session’s title may be a wee bit disingenuous. But semantics aside, I am not what one would consider a “core contributor” to Drupal, yet, as I hope to show in Vienna, I am a devout member of the Drupal community.

As I make the transition from CEO back to my original role on Acquia’s board, I want to use the pulpit of my DrupalCon session to urge the community to consider the crucial role non-technical contributors have made and are still making on Drupal’s success. As anyone who has attended a DrupalCon or DrupalCamp may have observed, Drupal may be coded and extended by developers, but it flourishes because of the passionate contributions of the business community that both supports it, but which also depends on it for their economic success. The lack of a true business track at DrupalCon has long been a disappointing omission and lost opportunity to my way of thinking, yet despite a deserved focus on technical discussions, code sprints, and other “coder” topics, the biannual gathering of the community has attracted not only companies who profit from Drupal, but also the end-users and customers, the designers and facilitators, the salespeople and marketers who have propelled Drupal to the top of the list in any significant content management selection process.

The Drupal ecosystem encompasses a broad palette of contributors, some of whom have never written a line of code in their life. It includes individuals and teams at some of the world’s premier digital agencies, system integrators, design shops, PR firms, and midmarket and global 2000 brands who rely on Drupal to build and deliver the digital experiences the framework is so excellent at supporting. I believe, after 10 years of working within the Drupal ecosystem, that the true concept of an ecosystem is lost on a big segment of the community, the developers who value others only by their code contributions.

The success of Drupal over the past 17 years is a credit to the leadership of the community, at many levels, as provided by individuals such as Phase 2’s Jeff Walpole, who exhorted many people to help develop the distributions which make Drupal so appealing to the organizations who adopt them. My co-founder at Acquia, Dries, brought to Acquia a lot of the leadership principles so essential to the governance and culture of open source, and I can say that on multiple occasions, Acquia changed its strategy for the betterment of the Drupal community. It isn’t easy building a company predicated on free software, but I’m proud that Acquia has been one of the most successful commercial open source companies along with Red Hat and a small handful of others.

The influence and impact of the commercial interests aligned with the Drupal project are, I would argue, as significant as the most technical contributors. Would Drupal be powering the government of Australia, NBC Sports, Pfizer, the BBC, and Nestle if not for the efforts of marketers, solution architects and salespeople who pushed those clients to take a chance on an open source solution over so many entrenched proprietary ones? Would Drupal be on the consideration list of some of the Global 2000 were it not for the analyst relations efforts who keep it top of mind with the most influential industry analysts and experts? One thing an open source project like Drupal lacks is a marketing budget, a PR team, and a squad of dedicated salespeople pushing it to the top of the list when a prospective user is considering a fresh approach to the way they manage and deliver digital.

Those functions are shouldered by the commercial side of the Drupal ecosystem, the companies (yes like Acquia) which pay the salaries of not only talented developers but non-technical talent who market Drupal and keep it relevant to the broad swath of organizations who receive calls and solicitations daily from Drupal’s many competitors. There are facilitators, marketers, salespeople, analyst relations experts constantly working on Drupal’s behalf but who receive little, if any credit for their contributions. Yes, Drupal’s strength is great code, and that certainly drives a lot of adoption, but without communications and marketing, event planning and press coverage, that code on its own could have faded into obscurity as so many open source projects have.

Drupal represents a very special opportunity for all of us inside of its ecosystem because it is driven and led by developers. Steve O’Grady, in his 2014 O’Reilly book The New Kingmakers, makes the case that the way software is procured and deployed today is because of the developers who choose it, and who prefer open source every time:

The success of these projects and others like them is thanks to developers. The millions of programmers across the world who use, develop, improve, document, and rely upon open source are the main reason it’s relevant, and the main reason it continues to grow. In return for this support, open source has set those developers free from traditional procurement. Forever...Armed with software they could obtain with or without approval, developers were on their way to being the most-important constituency in technology.

From the rise of the RESTful API to their rejection of classic marketing techniques, developers are in the driver’s seat at most major organizations when it comes to selecting technology. But I know, firsthand, that it is salespeople and evangelists who bring big brands like Pfizer and NBC to an open source community like Drupal for the first time, and in the case of Pfizer, help them become one of the top 30 contributors to the project.

Is Drupal a “developer’s CMS?” Absolutely: sometimes to its detriment when it gets compared to far easier solutions from Squarespace to Weebly. I’ll be provocative here and say that the Drupal community has failed miserably to understand the end user. Marketers struggle to use the product whereas developers thrive with it. Perhaps this will play out in its favor in the end. The current trend towards headless or decoupled offerings takes the need for Drupal developers to understand the world of end users away. It places that burden on the JavaScript developers who are creating the user experiences.

As developers continue to push for open, API-first, decoupled solutions, Drupal has an opportunity to take center stage, ahead of the aging architectures that Adobe and Sitecore deploy. Yet to make that happen, the commercial ecosystem around the technical heart of Drupal needs to develop a healthier appreciation for each other. Oh, and let’s include the other vital non-developer and non-commercial contributors too, like project managers and designers. While we are at it, let’s celebrate the finance, HR and legal people in that help pull the whole of the community together as well, they believe in Drupal as much as developers and marketers.

Yes, I have a great deal of respect for the technical community behind Drupal and I believe the integration of the technical and non-technical constituencies has come a long way in the 10 years I’ve been privileged to be part of Drupal. Now is the time to create products that are easier to use; to build contributed modules that make users more successful; to focus on ease-of-use, easy installation, and finding people in the community to support its developers with the overall user experience. More testing, more Q/A, focusing more on addressing issue queues and soliciting and addressing user feedback to help improve Drupal … that’s my parting advice to the community: bring in, embrace, and celebrate more non-technical talents because Drupal definitely needs designers, product managers and marketers to make sure Drupal 8 and future versions are well received.


Posted on by Bless Quarshie (not verified).

Very well spoken, and aptly said. I've always been concerned about the disconnect between my testimonial of Drupal as a developer, and the experiences of the ones I recommend Drupal to. While I have so much confidence in the power of Drupal to deliver, the other comes back and says it's less user friendly than other platforms they know, and that it doesn't make things easier from a user perspective.

Again, I happily point out the myriad of huge organizations doing world-class, critical work who have chosen Drupal to support their complex operational infrastructure and activities and rely on its great architecture, but that badge seems to fade in the face of the fact it's still not the most popular, mass adopted platform (yet).

I think this is the chance not only to laud the efforts of the non-technical community, but I think acknowledging them in this way and harnessing their deep insights will also prove very useful to drive Drupal to the level of usability, user friendliness and mass adoption that we see for other platforms.

Posted on by Len (not verified).

This message is all so true, but unfortunate that it's only making it's way outside the walls of Acquia as you're leaving the CEO role. Starting this conversation 5 years ago with you still at the helm championing the discussion (and *gasp* actually calling out the developers) would have been true community building. Tossing it out there as you're heading out the door leaves no clear "non-technical" champion in the community. Maybe Jeff will take this as an opportunity to catapult his firm and step up to the table as the default #1 business person.

Posted on by Ray Taylor.

I think the idea of integrating more diverse stakeholders into the community is a great idea, but what does this look like?

I can see how designers (UI and UX) can jump in today and contribute. Technical writers would be HUGELY useful on many levels. QA experts and many other professions that work closely with software and developers are needed at many levels of the community. But I don't see an immediate opportunity for some of the others you mention, such as marketing, sales people, or end-users, to jump in and contribute, at least not today.

That is not an argument against a more diverse community, more of a question as to how you envision this.

A quick thought on the idea that Drupal developers' need to understand the end user may be less important as it becomes more in the realm of JavaScript devs: I think it's a mistake to think that headless Drupal is THE solution. There are still a large (majority?) of projects that headless is not an appropriate solution. Many of us serve organizations with Drupal that will never really need headless. But we still need a more user friendly Drupal. I would guess the bulk of Drupal installs are not enterprise, and the bulk of module developers are not working on enterprise projects. Maybe I'm wrong.

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