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Interview with a Drupal Education Entrepreneur

I’m always seeking out entrepreneurs and their innovative business ideas and sometimes they’re found in unexpected places. I am especially drawn to education and the advancement of others through the teaching of new skills. These can then be leveraged for the greater good. Recently, I learned about Ashique Tanveer, who has been able to launch a successful Drupal training program working with his local education institution Montgomery College. Their combined efforts serve as a good model for others wishing to do the same. Ashique graciously consented to tell me his story and would be open to assisting any others seeking to establish a similar program. Read on for more……

Ashique, please tell me about your background

I’m a Sr. IT Project Manager for Booz Allen & Hamilton, a leading strategy and technology consulting firm servicing the US Government as well as the commercial sector. My latest assignment involves leading an IT team responsible for developing and maintaining a critical food-safety system for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). I also served as a technical lead for the National Institute of Health (NIH) eRA program and played a lead role in developing the electronic grant-processing system which enabled NIH for the first time to process large volume of all electronic grant applications without using the paper forms.

I was born and raised in Bangladesh and moved to the US right after high school. I completed my Bachelors degree at the University of Maryland College Park and my Masters at John Hopkins University, both in Computer Science. My career started at the leading satellite services provider, Hughes Network Systems, as a software engineer, developing enterprise web applications. My primary focus has always been Java and Oracle-based Enterprise web application development on both Unix and Windows platforms. I developed an interest in Drupal later in life – thankfully!

How did you get involved with Web development and Drupal specifically?

My interest in web development started way back in 1996 when I was excited to receive 5 megabytes of server space on my university web server for a personal website. That was pretty big back then. Equipped with just basic HTML and a tiny bit of JavaScript knowledge, I developed one of the first news website for the Bangladeshi community. During my undergraduate years, I got a summer internship as a webmaster for the National Association of Black Journalists and was tasked with redesigning their website. Back in those days when “the Web” meant mostly static pages, I utilized various scripting languages to make the site dynamic. Fresh out of university, my first job provided me with plenty of hands-on web application development experience. When Dynamic HTML and CSS were introduced and were still buzzwords, I was one of the first to study and master the technologies and started teaching them to other web developers within my firm.

Still, I probably would not have gotten into content management systems (CMS) and Drupal unless my mom’s need inspired me. One morning, over coffee, she asked me if I could help her build a school website. Being a Java/Web developer by nature, what came to my mind instantly was to develop a custom coded website and use either jsp or php (depending on what the hosting company would support) to build some dynamic pages and forms. Before I could go further in my train of thought, my mom interrupted and added that she would like to be able to change the content of the website herself. Now, I was not ready for that! My mom is not technically savvy, to the point of not being able to locate the mouse pointer on the computer screen. I just could not imagine her trying to remember even one single html tag, let alone php or jsp. But she told me, she would like to change the text on the front page, update news, links, weekly principal’s message, school event calendar and photos on the site frequently. She even wanted to even have a section for other teachers to write articles and publish newsletters. So I had to give up on my grand plan of building a custom coded website. The first challenge that came to my mind was, “How in the world will I teach my mom, whose computer knowledge is limited to MS Word and Internet Explorer, to update the content of the entire school website?” After much thought, the answer clicked in my mind: CMS.

Soon after I discovered the power of CMS, I started learning Drupal. The flexibility and extensibility of Drupal highly impressed me. As a software engineer, I could appreciate the strength of Drupal’s core code and architecture, compared to WordPress or even Joomla. Later I helped my mom rebuild the site in DrupalGardens, which turned out to be much fancier and powerful than the previous one built on Wordpress.

How did you begin teaching your course and why?

I always had a great passion for teaching. It probably started with my first job, where one of my responsibilities was to research, master and then introduce the latest software technologies (ranging from Java, Oracle, web technologies, tools) to the rest of the company. I frequently hosted brown bags and mini training sessions on various new technologies. So designing and delivering training classes was not all that new to me though doing so at a college level was.

Montgomery College, based in Rockville, Maryland, serves over 60,000 students annually. Its Computer Science, Information and Interactive Technologies department, headed by Dr. Andy Yao, offers an extensive program in software development as well as web development and gaming. Last year, I was fortunate enough to be in touch with Dr. Yao. He informed me that the college was planning for a new course on web content strategy and content management systems. Professor Melissa Lizmi, who is in charge of the web and database development track of the computer program, loved a presentation I made on content management systems and expressed her interest in hiring me to design and deliver this new course. It was an honor to join their distinguished faculty.

This class offers the right mix between theory and hands-on development. It covers both the theories of web content strategy as well as showing students how to develop fully dynamic database-driven websites using a CMS. I had the fun and freedom to propose the curriculum for the class and design the course work; such an enjoyable task!

Tell us about your students.

Due to the Drupal / CMS course being an evening class, I get a variety of students with a variety of backgrounds. I have everything from typical college goers to students with 30 years of work experience in IT. I have students with no programming experience as well as students with PHP, database or even Java development experience in the class. This broad mix of students makes the class very interesting as well as challenging. I even have few professional web developers in the class and just those looking for a career switch.

How did your school decide to start with a Drupal program over other technologies? What have you learned?

Once the college decided to introduce a web content strategy and CMS course, the question of what type of CMS to use was raised. Wordpress and Joomla were considered but Drupal was selected in the process. Drupal is already being used and seriously considered by numerous government agencies. Given the fact that the bulk of jobs in the Washington DC area relate to government consulting, having a solid Drupal knowledge can really boost your resume. And, there has been a very positive trend in utilizing open source software in government, especially recently. In fact, two of my students from the spring 2012 program landed part time work assignments from a non-profit organization in Bethesda within a week after the final. That definitely is a killer reason for using Drupal as the CMS of choice in a college environment too. For a college course to be successful and popular, you have to pick the technology that is readily applicable in the trenches of the outside world. Drupal has a solid position on that list. Given all that, it was not difficult for the college to pick Drupal for the class.

What are the plans for growing the program?

The Drupal/CMS class was well received in Spring 2012. Students loved the course and provided very positive feedback. We expect a lot more students to sign up for the CMS/Drupal class next semester. In anticipation of increased registration, the college is now offering an additional online version of this class in Fall 2012. I hope that beyond 2012, the class will become very popular as the only web content strategy and CMS college-level class in the region. I plan to promote the course among governmental and non-governmental agencies here to attract a broader crowd and I see huge potential. Drupal usage is growing but there are few options for a formal Drupal education.

What can others learn from your experience? How could other schools do the same? Why should they?

My experience was way more positive than I expected at the beginning of the semester. In one of the first classes, I had students follow a few simple steps to build a simple, dynamic website on Drupal Gardens in less than one hour. Students who had never done web development before were thrilled to be able to build a pretty fancy website with few simple mouse clicks. Students with much more development experience under their belts instantly appreciated how much time and energy it saved them developing sites without having to write a lot of custom code. Students were hooked on Drupal from that moment on. Throughout the semester they were very engaged and enjoyed the fact that they were no longer just graphic designers or webmasters editing some static HTML code. They were now actually building database-driven dynamic sites with minimal effort. For their finals, most students spent countless hours on their own projects and developed fairly sophisticated websites with advanced layout and dynamic contents that changes depending on roles, page context etc.

Throughout the semester, I highlighted the Drupal development and content web strategy jobs available out there. The fact that some local web development companies approached me looking for interns or part-time developers from my class is the biggest reward for me and will motivate me to continue teaching this class.

For any student, regardless of their major, Drupal is definitely a great skill to list on the resume. What other colleges should really focus on is the fact that there are jobs. There is demand for good Drupal developers. If evening or weekend classes can be offered, this class will not only attract college students but professionals from local companies too.

Ashique, is there anything else we should know?

There is no doubt that the usage of Drupal is growing. But content management systems are still under-utilized in government agencies. Being a government consultant, I realize that agencies still pay a whole lot of money to the IT team on a continuous basis to update the contents of the organization website. In an ideal world, the expensive IT resource should be used to enhance the IT infrastructure and the clients, business stakeholders, and users should be empowered to update the content of their own website. A solid CMS like Drupal offers that capability. Security used to be a concern but slowly the IT community has understood that open source CMS’ can be secure too. There is no reason to purchase an expensive proprietary solution when an open source CMS can do the job just as well or better. It is more important than ever to raise awareness regarding open source and Drupal.
Thank you Ashique for the inspirational story and promoting the power and spirit of Drupal in your own unique way.

To learn more, check out http://montgomerycollege.edu. If anyone is considering a similar course on Drupal and would like some feedback, please contact Ashique directly: ashique.tanveer@montgomerycollege.edu.

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