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An Interview with Tom Geller on Drupal 7

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Michael Anello interviews Tom Geller about the changes in Drupal 7, why installation is such a big hurdle, and whether Drupal is really for programmers (who favor elegance) or users (who favor a wild-west-style of freedom).
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Tom Geller, author of Peachpit’s Drupal 7: Visual QuickStart Guide, is an active member of the Drupal community for more than three years as a site developer and documentation author, as well as assisting the community in the user forums. His knowledge is not limited to Drupal, as he has been an author and speaker on a variety of topics including real estate, computer programming, spam control, and open source projects. Some of Tom’s clients have included Apple, IEEE, Business 2.0 magazine, and Drupal theme development company TopNotchThemes.

Born and raised in Mount Kisco, New York, having spent time in the San Francisco Bay area, and now a resident of Ohio, Tom has been writing full time for more than four years, with his most recent work mainly in the Drupal space. He describes the difference between a writer and a Drupal developer who also writes as “more time:” more time to focus on research, more time to focus the structure, and more time to consider how to write a technical book that is understandable for a large group of readers.

His new Peachpit book is meant to be an introduction for people new to the platform. It provides both an explanation of the various concepts users need to understand to be successful, while also giving an overview of the new features of Drupal 7. Tom believes that the process of installing and configuring Drupal (on both a local development machine and a live server) is one of the “pain” points in Drupal development. He takes special care in describing this process and potential pitfalls in great detail. While the book does focus on Drupal core, there is a section on the top 20 Drupal 7 modules and their current statuses for Drupal 7.

Michael Anello: With Drupal 7 being recently released, give us your "elevator pitch" description of changes to Drupal 7.

Tom Geller: The changes fall into three categories:

  • First, visual interface changes are obvious when you first use it. There are two beautiful new themes, and a toolbar makes it easier to get around by clicking.
  • Second on the list are administrative changes. Drupal 7’s installation procedure is clearer, and you don’t have to do as much after installation to get your site running the way you want. There’s been a fundamental re-organization of administrative links: That’s confusing at first if you’re used to Drupal 6, but ultimately the new arrangement makes more sense.
  • Finally, numerous "under-the-hood" changes aren’t immediately evident, but that make an enormous difference after you’ve been using Drupal for a few days. I surveyed Drupal 6’s top 20 modules for the book, and I found that nine of them are part of Drupal 7. The changes go well beyond that, but what new users will notice more are improvements in ease-of-use and functionality.

When people ask me this question, it’s hard to know where to start! All three kinds of change in Drupal 7 are important for different reasons. And while the interface things aren’t that important from a programmatic point of view, they’re crucially important for folks just starting on Drupal—which is the main audience for Drupal 7: Visual QuickStart Guide.

Michael: Historically, what do you think are the most difficult concepts to understand when learning Drupal?

Tom: It depends on the learner’s previous experience. Someone who used to build sites with traditional HTML has to understand that there are essentially three different systems to control: the main content area (via nodes), surrounding areas (via blocks), and general look of the site (theme). Someone who’s only had a MySpace page could be overwhelmed by Drupal’s openness.

The biggest hurdle for everybody, I think, is installation. There’s only so much a Drupal instructor can do about that: The problems are related to how the Internet works. Getting a domain name, selecting a web host, moving a site from your local machine to a server… these are all very difficult tasks for someone without previous knowledge. Acquia in particular has done a lot to make these tasks easier with its Drupal Stack Installer and hosting services; other companies have done their part, too. But it’s still a mess, and will be for a while.

Michael: We’ve seen that Drupal has a number of "supermodules" that are widely used and leveraged. What are the pros and cons of this with respect to Drupal core?

Tom: Supermodules is a term I’ve recently started to use for Drupal extensions that add fundamentally new features; they’re sort of like platforms themselves that sit on top of Drupal. The granddaddy of them all is Views, which lets you extract information from your site and display it in complex ways. More recent ones are Panels, Rules, Context, and Spaces.

Anyway, back to your question. I’m excited about any useful modules, because there’s only so much that Drupal core can do. Drupal’s core developers focus fairly narrowly on creating a solid, reliable system, and leave the rest to module developers. I agree with that philosophy, because it’s resulted in a very high-quality core product. The problem is that most individual modules are designed to solve specific problems, so you need a lot of them. But these "supermodules" generalize solutions, so they go a long, long way.

Overall, I think the existence of supermodules is a sign of Drupal’s maturity. A good parallel is Oracle Corporation; the success of its database software encouraged the development of third-party products that depended on it. Those third-party products—such as PeopleSoft—then became platforms in themselves, and birthed highly profitable companies.

Michael: Who is the Drupal 7: Visual QuickStart Guide geared towards? Site builders? Content administrators? Themers? Developers?

Tom: The book is geared mostly toward site builders, and to a lesser degree toward content administrators. (It dips briefly into CSS for modifying themes, but doesn’t dwell there.) Above all, it’s intended to be a first Drupal book—the one you get to help you set up and run your first Drupal site.

Michael: When tackling a project like this book, how do you decide which modules to cover?

Tom: In this case, it was easy. I don’t cover any non-core modules! I mention them here and there, and the last chapter is about "Extending Drupal with Modules." Like Drupal’s developers, I focused on being thorough with the core software, then point readers to other resources when they want to go further.

Michael: A great deal of effort was put into making Drupal 7 more usable—specifically for content creators. Do you feel it was a success? Do you think that other stakeholders (developers, themers, etc…) will find the changes helpful or… something else?

Tom: Drupal 7’s developers set themselves some really ambitious goals and didn’t achieve them all. But overall, Drupal 7 is definitely easier to use and more flexible than Drupal 6. As I wrote in the book’s introduction, they shot for the sky and missed—but landed among the stars.

I can’t speak from personal knowledge about whether developers or themers will find Drupal 7 easier to work with, because I’m not very knowledgeable about those fields. However, it’s clear that the "under-the-hood" changes—a new database connection system, the inclusion of jQuery UI, the testing framework, simpler installation profiles—redound to developers’ benefit. And every experienced Drupal developer I’ve talked to has been happy with the changes.

Michael: The popular module Content Creation Kit (CCK) was moved into Drupal core (fields-in-core) in Drupal 7. Does this make explaining Drupal to new users more complicated or easier?

Tom: You’re talking about custom content types, which would let you (for example) create "restaurant menu items" that include fields for the price, serving size, and so forth. In Drupal 6, that required the addition of a module which is now part of Drupal 7’s core.

The hard thing about teaching custom content types is conceptual. Students first have to understand how fields fit in with content types, how content types define nodes, and how this all fits in with a site as a whole. The addition of CCK to core doesn’t change that conceptual problem: It’s still a hurdle that beginning Drupalists have to overcome. At least Drupal 7 gives them some encouragement to explore custom content types right off the bat: They see those "manage fields" and "manage display" links when they play around with content types, and are therefore more likely to be bold in their education about content types.

Michael: Let’s talk about the upcoming Lynda.com “Drupal Gardens Essential Training” video. What was the genesis for this course?

Tom: “DrupalGardens Essential Training” is an experimental thing for Lynda.com. When I did the first Drupal title for them, they really didn’t know how it would do. Lynda’s core audience includes graphic designers and they’re super-strong in Photoshop, Illustrator, and from there they realized that many of their customers are also doing video so they started with some Avid training, then branched into some audio training. Lynda.com tends to look at its core audience and looks at where they are going. They started with some Dreamweaver courses, and now they now have an iOS as well as Drupal courses. I think my way was paved by the Joomla course, which was successful enough where Lynda said, “OK, we’re going to look at some web development apps.”

Because “Drupal 6 Essential Training” was successful, “Drupal 7 Essential Training” was a bit of a no-brainer. I looked at the success of WordPress.com—they have something like 12 million blogs—and the fact that Lynda has a number of WordPress courses, so I pitched a Drupal Gardens course. I looked at what Acquia was doing with it, and I just kind of bet on that horse.

Michael: “Drupal Gardens Essential Training” appears to be the first of its kind: a Drupal training product (course, book, video, etc.) that is based on a product, rather than Drupal core or contributed modules. Was this on purpose?

Tom: That’s an interesting point and will be the focus of what I’ll be doing in the next year: applications that have come out of Drupal. For example, I’m hoping to put together a Drupal e-commerce course for Lynda.com. The fact that we’re starting to see books about Ubercart is a sign of health in the Drupal community. If you look at any technology project, this is the way things go for growing communities. Back when I a kid, we had magazines about programming a certain operating system. Then a few years later we had magazines about just a single program on the same operating system.

Michael: In the past, we’ve talked about Drupal’s "crossing the chasm." What exactly does that mean, and where does Drupal stand?

Tom: Actually, the discussion about object-oriented programming leads well into this question. In a larger sense, it examines whether Drupal is for programmers (who favor elegance) or users (who favor a wild-west-style of freedom).

The "chasm" you’re talking about was postulated by Geoffrey Moore in his 1991 book Crossing the Chasm. He believed—and I agree—that technology products are generally created by innovators with a high level of technical skill, but that they can’t succeed in the market unless they go through a cultural transformation that favors the mainstream—even at the expense of those original founders.

I see this in Drupal every day. Developer culture is at best insular and unfamiliar with newcomer culture, and at worst openly hostile. Many developers try to bridge the gap, but they often underestimate how big it is. So when a beginner asks a question, good-faith pioneers respond—but to the wrong question. Then hostile pioneers sneer at them for even asking. Beginners go away frustrated until they find instruction that speaks to them. I hope my work is in that group. In this regard, I’m trying to help Drupal bridge that chasm, even as I’ve been the target of pioneers’ sneers myself.

I should explain my own situation: I have a long history in technology, going back to writing BASIC programs on TRS-80s in middle school around 1980. But I’m not a hard-core technologist: I’m a poor-quality system administrator and have a terrible time getting programming syntax right. What I am good at is understanding end-user technologies and how they fit together, and how people understand them. So it’s frankly in my own interest to favor the mainstream for Drupal’s future.

At the same time, I feel for Drupal pioneers who are now feeling under-appreciated. The thing is, they haven’t lost admiration in an absolute sense: Drupal’s innovator community is still alive and well. But now more attention is going to non-coders: marketing types, executives of large Drupal-based businesses, designers… and me. It’s inevitable. We latecomers have a duty to appreciate and nurture the pioneer community. That means listening to what they need from the user community and giving it to them. It also means letting their sneers pass over us.

Michael: You just wrote an article for Informit.com discussing Drupal’s chances to be the dominant CMS in the future. Is Drupal positioned well?

Tom: I think it’s positioned very well for the enterprise market. WordPress isn’t a competitor there, Joomla’s been having its own troubles, and businesses continue to see the value of a mature open-source solution over (for example) Microsoft SharePoint. We have the product, the commercial support teams, packaged infrastructure offerings, training… it’s all coming together.

On the low end of the market, I’d like to say that Drupal has a chance, but WordPress is a behemoth. It boasts dozens of times as many active sites as Drupal—that’s a huge lead! Plus, it still beats Drupal for ease of setup and use, and all its materials are geared toward less-experienced users. To some extent, Drupal Gardens is aiming for that market, but I don’t think it’ll make much of a dent in it.

That leaves the middle: small companies, town governments, private colleges, and the like. Drupal (and Drupal Gardens) has a good chance here, but it’s still a toss-up. Joomla remains a strong player in this sector, and the field is far from settled. It’s an exciting time to have front-row seats for the battle.

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