On Minting New Drupalists: Quality, Quantity and Culture

My buddy Lynn Bender — superconnector and consigliere of the Austin, TX tech scene — has an important post that addresses on of the big questions as various groups, shops and individuals ramp up in responses to Dries' call for more and better Drupal Training. The post was provoked by this comment from one of his friends and readers:

You don't want to get into a situation like CS had a few/several/many years ago, with a big influx of people learning Java because that's where the money was, and we end up with a wealth of lackluster, unmotivated, average Java developers who can "get by" but who aren't ever going to build you anything interesting.

It may seem like hubris, but this is something we could actually have to worry about in the next few years. I've seen more than one RFP cross my radar lately for a big site moving off a proprietary CMS like Vignette. I've also seen a few about a major organization (fortune 500 company, university, etc) looking to adopt Drupal "institutionally" as a go-to web solution. All indications are that we're across the chasm and standing at the end of the early-adopter wave, a.k.a. the beginning of Mainstream Drupal.

That's a good thing. It bodes well for all of us, but it also means we can expect a rush of new participants over the next few years who are primarily (or at least initially) motivated by the market opportunity. Which can be problematic. As Lynn says:

I can't remember from whom I heard this remark first — either Eric Raymond or Tim O'Reilly — it was something like: "It's important not to grow your organization faster than you can propagate its culture." This is a dilemma we Drupalers now face. There is tremendous pressure to grow more qualified Drupal developers and designers. Yet many fear that, in responding to this demand, we may encourage an influx of those for whom Drupal is merely a means to a paycheck.

My own experience with this via the Drupal Dojo (which is making a comeback!) is that the culture can propagate relatively quickly if the right mix of factors are in place:

  • Role Models: people who are new to a community or practice will take their cues from how others behave. We should all keep in mind that when we train people (or just answer questions in IRC) there's always an audience, and that audience is always learning.
  • Pragmatism: one of the big upsides of Drupal's culture is that it's full of norms that are quite practical. "Don't hack core" and do file an issue, not just because we say so, but because it will make your life easier.
  • The Gestalt: in addition to being useful, many of Drupal's technical design patterns (open, hookable architecture) are echoed by the surrounding community and culture. Making these connections helps to promote said culture, and seeing the proverbial "big picture" is always helpful in getting people inspired.
  • Personal Projets: the single greatest way for people to be passionate about Drupal is to have them use the software in a context in which they're already passionate. The unfortunate truth is that for a lot of folks, this isn't how they'd describe their day-job. To the extent that we can all make it easy for people to have personal projects that use Drupal too, we'll have a more passionate community of practitioners.

There's a synergistic potential here, and practical usefulness is the key. One of the greatest kudos I ever got was reading one of our team member's personal blog posts and hearing that spending time working on Chapter Three's "Drupal Farm" made things much easier:

building sites used to involve a lot more struggle and hacking to get the last 10% working, but it's really satisfying smooth sailing these days. i love it.

You only love it when it works, but when it does, and it makes you powerful and free, you can really learn to love it a lot. This is why Apple has such an passionate consumer culture around its family of products. Unlocking this experience for more and more newbie developers is a requirement for turning them into contagiously passionate Drupalists.

Lynn's ambition to create a local group (using the "Dojo" name!) that's focused on skill-building and the "practice" of Drupal development is quite exciting. What will be even more exciting is if it bears out as a repeatable pattern.

As the Drupal market grows there will be an inevitable influx of paycheck-seekers — and to be honest at this point we can use all the help we can get — but the more we can propagate The Drupal Way and increase the percentage of developers who are of the excited and passionate variety, the better off we are.

I expect the pending release of Drupal 7 and associated ventures to create another groundswell of interest in the platform. It's going to be exciting not only getting people up to speed, but also making them converts in the process.