203 people tell What I wish I knew when I started Drupal

We had 226 respondents to a survey about roles in the Drupal community. Though we pilot tested the survey and honed down the questions, the findings were inconclusive, though we could draw one result. Apparently we use terms like "themer" or "module developer" yet these platonic ideals seem to only exist in our heads. In reality, a person on a team will find themselves handling many roles. In the context of a larger organization, Drupal is one tool in a larger set to be integrated with. In a smaller dev shop, Drupal is again, one tool of many which are used. Slicing up Drupal developers into roles turned into a muddy exercise.

However, there was one interesting outcome. Of the respondents, 203 individuals replied to the open-ended question: "What do you wish you had known when you started Drupal"? It's taken me this long to code and analyze this information so we can make some use of it. I think it can give people within Drupal some insight on how we can improve our welcome mat. And for those who are new, I hope this gives you some good tips and advice!

Summary of responses

12% of responses were related to pre-requisites. Of those, 83% said knowing PHP would have been good to know. The others said HTML and CSS.

12% were related specifically to contributed modules, mainly around the selection of them. Hopefully changes at Drupal.org are assisting in that. Check out DrupalModules.com for a search tool and reviews. Also see Similar Module Review.

  • "What was most overwhelming when I started was the sheer number of modules and alternatives. For instance choosing an image handling set up or a wysiwyg"
  • "Not all modules are created equal. Often there are 1-5 modules that accomplish the same thing. It's NOT EASY finding the right module"
  • "That there is soooooo much that you have to do on an ongoing basis and that it is soooo easy to choose badly (modules), even when you follow all the rules. I love Drupal... but..."

11% were about the best starting points for approaching Drupal. Check out Drupal concepts on Drupal.org and the free Intro to Drupal course on P2PU.org and don't miss the weekly Drupal Dojo. Acquia also has the Acquia Drupal installer and hosted Drupal 7 with a selection of essential modules.

  • "Basic understanding of a CMS."
  • "CCK/Views... it took me two years to even learn what they did." (9 people mentioned CCK and Views)
  • "The concept of nodes being the foundation for any type of content."

9% of responses were about the community, specifically how easy it is to get involved. See my blog post about connecting to the community.

  • "I wish I'd known about the meetups sooner."

6% were related to best practices. This is a tough area, which you can learn most easily from those with experience. Hence the need to connect to the community. Here is a typical response:

  • "To research properly prior to building a site; now i'm being asked to do things which would be easy if I had only done things the proper way when starting and making this particular site."
  • "Drupal is oriented for sitebuilding first, coding later. "

5% were about the process of learning Drupal. See my blog post about how to learn Drupal, steps to follow.

  • "How wonderful the world is when you start beating the learning curve. Drupal's scariness kept me from diving in for a long time."
  • "What stages another developer had to go through in order to go from absolute Drupal (not php,html,css) beginner to beginning expert :) (what did he learn first, what second ...)"

4% simply wished they knew about it earlier!

  • "to be honest, I wish I had heard about it's awesomeness sooner"

3% were related to challenges they wish they knew about, for example finding talent.

  • "How difficult it was to find Drupal developers."
  • "I wish I had known sooner how much Drupal developers would be in demand."

3% were related to deployment. See a recent Acquia Webinar by Joshua Brauer on Deployment.

  • "That it's so difficult to maintain & upgrade a live site."

Finally, the lion's share- 27% of responses were related to Development, which includes everything from knowing the Architecture to custom theming and module Develoment. It makes sense to break down development. For example, 4 people just mentioned "Drush!"

Of that group, 30% wanted an overview- a high level picture of how Drupal architecture works.

  • "Jeff Eaton's DrupalCon SF talk 'Architect's Overview'. I learned many things by tracing the code in a debugger -- but that way of learning was sometimes agonizingly slow. I have this feeling that having more of the eagle's-eye overview of how Drupal works would have saved me a lot of time." See Jeff Eaton's presentation on Archive.org

26% wish they had known more about the theming layer.

  • "Not to rip out all html and start from scratch with theming"
  • "Theming, I think developers that 'get' themes can make much more useful and flexible components. I now think that a well designed component is built around the idea of being themed by any number of other developers down the line."

31% wish they had known more about module development, specifically how easy it is!

  • "That it's actually quite easy to write a simple module."
  • "I wish I'd realized that module developers are not some kind of God... many of them are making mistakes and it was only once I got my hands dirty and started looking at module code that I realized that I could do it too. That said, I also wish I magically had an understanding of the PAC architecture and how the theme system works. And EVERYONE should be told that their module shouldn't output HTML except through the theme system."

And 2 people simply said, they wish they knew where api.drupal.org was!

About this Survey

This survey was delivered in June 2010. It was promoted mainly through Twitter and on the Drupal Dojo group. Though it's a small sample, it's still very interesting. The results were previously distributed to the working group on Groups.Drupal.org working on curriculum development. I've uploaded the .csv data in case you'd like to look through it.

What can we do better?

I think there are certainly some things we can work on in the community to make sure the welcome mat and entrance hall help direct people the right way from the start. The recent redesign of Drupal.org should help quite a bit.

I'm working with others in the community to help supply local meet ups with learning activities. For example, Marek Sotak and I collaborated on 3 hours of theming workshops which can be delivered in local Drupal study groups or meetups. Doug Vann, Web Enabled and I worked on a Intro to Drupal self-study course, which we delivered online, but we'll be packaging for local groups. If you're interested in pilot testing the materials in your local group and helping us improve them, please contact me: heather dot james at acquia.com

Also, please join Acquia's partners upcoming training events, or tell people that this training is available. We know there is demand for Drupal resources and training, we just need to make sure people outside of Drupal know about it. Our training partners are Drupal experts in your local area providing hands-on training. All software is provided, and you get a printed manual with clear step by step instructions. In most cases these are held in computer labs, so machines are provided as well.

Want to learn Drupal development to make custom modules and themes?

Last chance to register for Drupal Theming and Module Development training in DC for next week Nov 15th-19th. This is a unique opportunity for intensive, practical training for custom development in Drupal. The 5 days together are an essential foundation for Drupal development. While you can get 60-90% of the way with Site Building and configuration of existing modules, the remaining percentage will require custom development.

Photo 4/366: Beginning by Magic Madzik