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From zero to standard platform: Drupal community at Stanford

Stanford University is home to a large and growing number of Drupal sites. Drupal’s qualities as a platform – flexibility, extensibility, and speed of development, to name a few – are part of this equation, of course. The other, vital component of this success is the efforts of a grassroots community of Drupal users at Stanford over the last few years. They have not only created great websites for the university, they’ve also dedicated time and effort to helping others succeed with Drupal and spread the word.

In 2011, the University officially recognized the value of these grassroots efforts and the fact that Drupal had become an invaluable resource to the University in two ways: First, Stanford Web Services (SWS), a Drupal-focused internal service provider was founded. Second, the university standardized on Drupal for Stanford websites. SWS provides design, development and consulting services to university departments, groups, and centers, as well as its own Drupal-based platform, Stanford Sites. University departments and organizations can have their own, automatically-provisioned Drupal websites up and running within minutes simply by filling out an online form.

Here are excerpts from conversations I had with Zach Chandler, Web Strategist with SWS, about getting from zero to standard platform at Stanford.

Getting a Drupal community together at Stanford

"Those of us doing Drupal at Stanford started out communicating via a Listserv discussion list. It has an incredibly low entry barrier – it’s email based and it’s cheap and easy to maintain – and then people can participate as much or as little as they want to. One thing that we learned is that lurkers on an email list can be extremely important to the overall success of the Drupal project at your institution. Some of the lurkers may be influential people that will eventually be making decisions about investing in you and in Drupal. You may want to put out 'bait' to encourage people to become more active – invite the list to user group meetings, install parties, and so on – but even if they don’t come at first, your list will still let them learn about Drupal and about the vibrancy of your community.

"We worked hard to establish a culture of learning and humility (be non-critical, funny, and honest) on our list. It is a place where there are no stupid questions (nobody can know all of it – there’s just too much out there!). By establishing the community space as a safe place for new people to ask questions, we were able to grow very quickly. Experts emerge over time, but we downplay 'expertise' – we’re constantly helping each other, and everyone is a learner.

"The other focus of our Listserv has been Drupal at Stanford specifically – local problems for locals. We’re all a part of Stanford and this makes it all feel real and important to us. We want to contribute more in the wider Drupal world," that’s the next step.

Helping others helps you, too

Setting Drupal up as a go-to resource in your organisation can also lead to more spontaneous opportunities:

"Once experts started to emerge in our Listserv-based community," explains Zach Chandler, "they started to get calls; people asking questions, for help, and advice. If you can then show up in someone’s office and help them more or less right away, this is a game changer. It adds a human face to the technology and puts it in a good light. Take every chance you can to help people understand Drupal. People will always be grateful for good, free advice. Answering the phone, going to meetings, helping out all add up and create a huge payback in the end. We didn’t provide all this free help with machiavellian forethought; but looking back over the past few years we have indeed realized huge dividends from our volunteerism."

Grassroots Drupal community changed IT at Stanford

"Eventually, we had a community built up around our Listserv discussions, drop-in help, meet-ups, and so on. Drupal was gaining in popularity at Stanford. Because we had a forward-thinking training office, we were able to help get centralized Drupal training offered alongside other professional development courses at the university. Training targeted to more advanced users was offered first; this might seem counter-intuitive, but the Drupal community was already helping people new to Drupal." Over time, more levels of compact, job- or task-specific training focused on day-to-day needs were offered.

"We opened the door to getting new Drupal sites online quickly by creating an official Stanford Drupal theme. It gave sites a unified (and approved) look and feel out-of-the-box. This lowered the barrier to entry for using Drupal by eliminating a lot of design and development time. In the back end, we’d started harmonizing choices about the administrative theme, input filters and editors. This made the training programs easier to plan, execute and made them more effective. Once you have a standardized back end, training people on one Drupal site makes them qualified to use another, too. We could train based on our choice of input editor, base modules, and configuration. All of the above made it easier than ever to get on board with a Drupal site, which ended up accelerating our community-building further.

"The advent of Stanford Web Services was an important milestone, as SWS now plays a pivotal role in Stanford’s overall Drupal strategy. In the pre-SWS days, IT Services offered Drupal and a set of collaboration tools via an installer. Lessons from that phase have informed the design of our centralized, dedicated Drupal hosting environment. Since one can get a Drupal site provisioned for a Stanford club, department, or project within minutes of filling out a webform, much of Stanford is taking advantage of this system, centralising on Drupal. We’re adding dozens of sites a week to the hundreds we already have online.

"None of this could have happened without a responsive IT organization that was geared toward listening to the community and forming partnerships to build the future. Without a visionary IT leadership group, we would still be an unofficial grassroots community. Stanford IT Services recognized what was happening organically – actually, that Drupal and our efforts were producing great results – and made a conscious decision to invest in the future with us."

In summary

"Our simple Listserv-based community of people helping each other get the most out of Drupal paved the way for internal expertise to emerge. Physical meetups let us demonstrate Drupal to new people and solve real problems on the spot. Personal interactions like answering questions on the phone, going to meetings, giving good advice, and our initial projects showed Stanford that Drupal and its advocates were reliable.

"All of this led to organic change that created a huge payback for Drupal over time. This word-of-mouth style might not work in your organisation; if you’re in a big company, for example. You’ll have to match your efforts to the institutional preferences of your organisation. If you don’t 'speak the language' – the priorities and methods that count – you can be 100% right about something, but it won’t get you anywhere." Some places will want slides and metrics, others a convincing real-world example to follow, yet others will need something else. Match your tactics to your organisation’s culture and methods and remember your advantage: you’ve got Drupal and its global community backing you up!


Cooking Up Your Own Drupal Community

“Come for the code. Stay for the community.” That’s the Drupal motto. Now that you have started using Drupal, is it time to create a Drupal community at your organization? We've assembled a guide called "Cooking Up Community" that contains the “recipe” for building a Drupal community. This recipe has worked for thousands of Drupalists. Let’s get cooking!

Community building

Learning and training

Drupal community resources

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