Repeat after me: I don’t really know Drupal, I just build stuff with modules and config.
Good. You’ve got that out of your system. NEVER SAY IT AGAIN.
It’s really easy to look at the skill level of Drupal developers, listen to them talk about hooks and APIs and queries and data structures, see their lists of contributed modules...and feel hopelessly far away from ever having the right to profess mastery of Drupal or contributing anything worthwhile.
It’s not Drupal’s fault, nor is it yours. From the beginning of the web, it’s been all about who can write the code. The “webmaster” was the all-powerful wizard turning piles of graphics and content into meticulously (or not) coded HTML files and directories. Need a new page on the site? The webmaster will code it. Need a new link in the navigation? The webmaster will code it. Need a form? The webmaster will code it. Need to do anything to the website? The webmaster will code it.
Of course, Drupal is software, and software is code, and you can’t have code without coders. It is also true that the biggest Drupal enterprise projects involve quite a bit of custom code. But creating value with Drupal isn’t always accomplished by writing code. It is often, in fact I might even say most often, accomplished through site building.
The Assembled Web
On December 9, 2013, Drupal creator and Acquia CTO Dries Buytaert posted an article on Forbes.com where he asserted that the internet had entered the era of the “assembled web.” The minute I saw the phrase, I thought it was kind of perfect.
In the assembled web, sites are the result of collaborative efforts. A site is assembled from pre-built components (we call ‘em modules, in Drupal Land). The components are created from the assembled skills and insights of contributors who build off of each other’s code and experiences (like the Drupal community). And the broader web ecosystem is assembled from sites, systems, and services passing data around in real time through open APIs.
That’s a pretty big deal.
With the assembled web, small organizations and individuals have access to powerful functionality that would have been hopelessly out of reach only a few years ago, while larger organizations can pour their resources into even more advanced features and customizations. Site managers are empowered to evolve their sites without relying on developers, and developers are freed to create greater things.
In this environment, the coder isn’t creating the site, they are creating the building blocks of the site. This has opened the door for a new kind of web creator: the site builder.
The Site Builder
The site builder doesn’t “just.” Assembling Drupal’s building blocks into a website is more than simply shopping for nifty modules and sticking them together.
On a small project, the site builder may very well be “it.” They may or may not have the benefit of a dedicated front-end developer or themer, but regardless, the site builder is likely the guardian of everything from user experience to information architecture, to site performance and security.
On a larger project, the site builder lays the foundation for the customization to be implemented by the developers. The builder gets the project as close to spec as possible, which allows more resources to be allocated to powerful custom features and user experiences. A well-configured system gives developers the rock upon which they can develop efficient, specialized enterprise-grade systems on the Drupal platform.
A master site builder assembles a Drupal site with both the big picture and minute details in mind. Choosing the modules required to build the site to spec is only the first part of their job. They must also build for access control, policy and workflow enforcement, content findability and SEO, data migration and integrity, user engagement, maintainability, and--to the greatest extent possible, resource efficiency.
They don’t “just,” and you’d better believe they really know Drupal. They are experts at creating powerful, efficient Drupal sites that deliver major value, and it’s got nothing to do with writing code.
So what does this mean for you? If you have the inclination, and are willing to put in the effort to learn Drupal’s subsystems and best practices in module selection and configuration, mastering Drupal as a site builder is well within your reach.
You don’t have to be an expert developer. Savvy site building and a bit of HTML and CSS are enough to create the kinds of sites required to launch startups, debut products, conduct e-commerce, provide public service portals, share content across sites, run major events...you get the idea.
But first you have to start.
Install Drupal on your computer. (I’m liking the Acquia Developer Desktop. Does all the messy stuff for you and includes a few different “flavors” of Drupal.)
Play with Drupal. Add modules and themes. Break stuff and fix it again--or mess it up so badly that you give up and install a new copy. Check out one of the many contributed distributions, like Commerce Guys’ Commerce Kickstart.
Go to a local Drupal meetup or camp--go to http://groups.drupal.org, sign yourself up with a user account, and search for a group in your area. Read Planet Drupal, where the collected wisdom of Drupal bloggers around the world is aggregated for your perusal.
And when you are ready for a guided tour, and to see just how much you can accomplish through site building, go to a classroom training like the ones we offer through the FFW Center of Excellence. Take a step-by-step walk through Drupal, its subsystems, and effective project planning. Do easy-to-digest hands-on exercises, and ask lots of questions from a real live person who is passionate about Drupal and wants to see you do awesome things with it.
Go home knowing what you don’t know, knowing how to go about learning what you don’t know, and having the confidence and insight you need to explore Drupal and master site building.
PS - As of this writing, we’ve got a Site Building with Drupal 7 course in the hopper for February 12 and 13, in New York City. To kickstart your New Year’s resolution to grow your Drupal skills in 2014, we’re offering the class at a $200 discount from its regular price from now ‘til New Years’ Day. Get the details and register here.<
PPS - This is my first-ever blog post for FFW! My goal with my posts is to inspire you to explore Drupal and give you useful information to help you do so. Got a question you’d like answered, a tutorial you’d love to see, or some other topic you wish someone would write about? Tell me in the comments below!