Drupal, Identity, and the Road Ahead
In the wake of the poor leadership demonstrated by the FSF, there was a sharp contrast displayed today at DrupalCon. Passion, interest, and innovation around open source software seems to be at an all-time high. One of the most prevailing open source projects, Drupal, just turned twenty years old. You can't help but recognize Dries and other long time community leaders for choosing open source before it became cool and helping to push the boundaries of what a large, open source community is capable of doing. Today's Driesnote was an inspiring message fitting for now and the road ahead.
While twenty years is a celebratory milestone, what about the next twenty? Will Drupal be around to see it? It's of no surprise that Drupal faces competition in a number of forms. WordPress continues to see strong adoption. Proprietary tools, both headless and conventional CMS tools, continue to pump investment to compete with Drupal's largely volunteer led community. But, to their surprise, Drupal persists and, arguably, is stronger than ever. For there to be more certainty, Drupal needs to evolve and more clearly define it's identity.
One may wonder why after twenty years that the identity of the project is in question. Well, simply put, this is because Drupal has evolved with time. In my opinion, it's solved key problems at the right time to remain relevant. While starting as one of the first database driven CMS systems, it moved into one of a no-code site building platform. In Drupal 6, 7, and 8, it then drove major new features and made major strides in it's developer framework. Drupal 9 continues more of an investment in decoupled API-based features and underlying dependency modernization. Today, Drupal needs to position itself through an identity and vision that helps sustain itself. Dries is taking the project back to its roots and for good reason.
When interviewing Drupal candidates during my agency time, I would ask every candidate how they solved problems when creating Drupal applications. The best candidates responded with the same message. You would leverage both out-of-the-box and contributed Drupal features to build as much as possible before diving into code. I used to call it the 80/20 rule. 80% would be site building and 20% would be tweaking what was configured to match customer-specific requirements. As the Drupal framework matured, the community invested more features into core and other features were made in the contributed space. Modules were created that solved more problems or even opened up new, easier to use APIs to simplify the development. Now, outside of the specific visual branding and theming work, users readily can create a Drupal application that is even closer to 100%. Drupal remains fully qualified to be customized and extended through code, should you need it. Today, we find Drupal not only offering a robust development framework but it also has readily configurable features can compete with anything. It's time to get back to what put Drupal on the map: recommit to the experience of low/no-code tools that help a non-technical persona.
Many Drupal community members came for this originally. Structured content could readily be modeled through CCK. Field types could readily be added through core-sponsored modules or extended with contrib options. Content displays could readily be created through View Modes or Views. Much of this possible without adding any code. This pathway helps non-coders get into code when they need more. Individuals readily understand the capabilities of the system and the potential problems solved before ever writing a line of code to customize it. Then, figuring out how to do this customization is a logical next step and one people can use specific experiences that extend their Drupal knowledge. These experiences and the corresponding code are often great things to contribute back. The community is fantastic and at the ready to help make these outcomes happen. This is the path many of us went down both using and contributing back to Drupal, one that inevitably grows the space of relevant first-hand problems we solve, and one that doesn't require a Comp Sci degree through it's organic growth.
Dries demonstrated bravery and was refreshingly honest during his keynote. It can be difficult to stand in front of a large audience and admit where the project you've spent twenty years creating is falling short. He was forthcoming that the current experience of Drupal was too technically minded and that we needed to shift the tide to one of an easier, more native experience those in other open source communities are used to. He presented a Project Catalog feature as one of the more straightforward ideas that could help enhance Drupal. It's a cool ideal. Non-technical users could avoid Composer and work around some of the Drupal-specific jargon that can be a barrier of entry. An investment in the Drupal Association will be made to help continue to modernize and build tooling that aide in the experience of contributors through Gitlab, bots, and more. In a previous DrupalCon, the experience of installing Drupal was a major focus, too. I fundamentally believe this shift in focus can help Drupal become significantly more accessible and appealing to a wider audience. I believe this can open doors for more people to see the value in Drupal, help the community grow, and allow more people to have professional opportunities with Drupal.
For those reasons, I left the keynote inspired and grateful for the chances I've had. Much like my motivation for simplytest.me, I want to open doors to see others have this same experience. I see the path forward now for Drupal itself and fundamentally believe Drupal is and will more readily be competing with Contentful, Wix, WordPress, SquareSpace, and all other enterprise, proprietary CMS systems at the same time. Drupal can and should be aggressive in positioning itself as the open source, low/no-code solution for all of the modern, backend digital systems. The features are there. The development extensibility and modern framework is there. The shift toward a site building, no-code focus will help Drupal shine. Let's dive in to help Drupal continue to be a leader for the next twenty years.