I'm super excited to be invited to be a keynote speaker for this year's DrupalCamp WI (July 29/30). If you're in the area you should attend. The camp is free. The schedule is shaping up and includes some great presentations. Spending time with other Drupal developers is by and large the most effective way to learn Drupal. So sign-up, and come say hi to Blake and me.
Why is Drupal hard?
The title of my presentation is "Why is Drupal Hard?" It is my belief that if we want to continue to make it easier for people to learn Drupal we first need to understand why it is perceived as difficult in the first place. In my presentation I'm going to talk about what makes Drupal hard to learn, why it's not necessarily accurate to label difficult as "bad", and what we as individuals and as a community can do about it.
As part of the process of preparing for this talk I've been working on forming a framework within which we can discuss the process of learning Drupal. And I've got a couple of related questions that I would love to get other people's opinions on.
But before I can ask the question I need to set the stage. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine yourself in the shoes of someone setting out to be a "Drupal developer."
Falling off the Drupal learning cliff
When it comes to learning Drupal, I have a theory that there's an inverse relationship between the scope of knowledge that you need to understand during each phase of the learning process and the density of available resources that can teach it to you. Accepting this, and understanding how to get through the dip, is an important part of learning Drupal. This is a commonly referenced idea when it comes to learning technical things in general, and I'm trying to see how it applies to Drupal.
When you set out to start, there's a plethora of highly-polished resources teaching you things that seem tricky but are totally doable with their hand holding. Drupalize.Me is a classic example: polished tutorials that guide you step-by-step through accomplishing a pre-determined goal. During this stage you might learn how to use fields and views to construct pages. Or how to implement the hook pattern in your modules. You don't have a whole lot of questions yet because you're still formulating an understanding of the basics, and the scope of things you need to know is relatively limited. For now. As you work through hand-holding tutorials, your confidence increases rapidly.
Now that you're done with "Hello World!", it's time to try and solve some of your own problems. As you proceed you'll eventually realize that it's a lot harder when the hand-holding ends. It feels like you can't actually do anything on your own just yet. You can find tutorials but they don't answer your exact question. The earlier tutorials will have pointed you down different paths that you want to explore further but the resources are less polished, and harder to find. You don't know what you don't know. Which also means you don't know what to Google for.
It's a much shorter period than the initial phase, and you might not even know you're in it. Your confidence is still bolstered based on your earlier successes, but frustration is mounting as you're unable to complete what you thought would be simple goals. This is the formulation of the cliff, and, like it or not, you're about to jump right off.
Eventually you'll get overwhelmed and step off the cliff, smash yourself on the rocks at the bottom, and wander aimlessly. Every new direction seems correct but you're frequently going in circles and you're starving for the resources to help. Seth Godin refers to this as "the dip", and Erik Trautman calls it the "Desert of Despair". Whatever label you give it, you've just fallen off the Drupal learning cliff. For many people this is a huge confidence loss. Although you're still gaining competence, it's hard to feel like you're making progress when you're flailing so much.
In this phase you know how to implement a hook but not which hook is the right one. You know how to use fields but not the implications of the choice of field type. Most of your questions will start with why, or which. Tutorials like those on Drupalize.Me can go a long ways toward teaching you how to operate in a pristine lab environment, but only years of experience can teach you how to do it in the real world. As much as we might like to, it's unrealistic to expect that we can create a guide that answers every possible permutation of every question. Instead, you need to learn to find the answers to the questions on your own by piecing together many resources.
The scope of knowledge required to get through this phase is huge. And yet the availability of resources that can help you do it is limited. Because, as mentioned before, you're now into solving your own unique problems and no longer just copying someone else's example.
If you persevere long enough you'll eventually find a path through the darkness. You have enough knowledge to formulate good questions, and the ability to do so increases your ability to get them answered. You gain confidence because you appear to be able to solve real problems. Your task now is to learn best practices, and the tangential things that take you from, "I can build a website", to "I can launch a production ready project." You still need to get through this phase before you'll be confident in your skills as a Drupal developer, but at this point it's mostly just putting in time and getting experience.
During this phase, resources that were previously inaccessible to you are now made readily available. Your ability to understand the content and concepts of technical presentations at conferences, industry blog posts, and even to participate in a conversation with your peers is bolstered by the knowledge you gained while wandering around the desert for a few months. You're once again gaining confidence in your own skills, and your confidence is validated by your ability to continue to attain loftier goals.
And then some morning you'll wake up, and nothing will have changed, but through continually increasing confidence and competence you'll say to yourself, "Self, I'm a Drupal developer. I'm ready for a job."
What resources can help you get through phase 3?
So here's my questions:
- What resources do you think are currently available, and useful, for aspiring Drupal developers who are currently stuck in phase 3, wandering around the desert without a map asking themselves, "Panels or Context?"?
- What resources do you think would help if they existed?
- If you're on the other side, how did you personally get through this dip?
Responses from Lullabot
I asked this same question internally at Lullabot a few days ago, and here are some of the answers I received (paraphrased). Hopefully this helps jog your own memory of what it was like for yourself. Or even better, if you're stuck in the desert now, here's some anecdotal evidence that it's all going to be okay. You're going to make it out alive.
For me, it was trial and error. I would choose a solution that could solve the particular problem at hand most efficiently, and then I would overuse it to the extreme. The deeper lessons came months later when changes had to be made and I realized the mistakes I had made... Learning usually came also from working with others more experienced. Getting the confidence to just read others' code and step through it is also a big plus.
building something useful++. That's the absolute best way. Can't believe I forgot to mention it. Preferably something that interests you or fulfills your own need. You still fall off the cliff, but you at least see the fall coming, and your ability to bounce back is better.
At this stage I find that the best resources are people, not books or tutorials. A mentor. Someone that can patiently listen to your whines and frustrations and suggest the proper questions to ask, and who can give you the projects and assignments that help you grow and stretch.
Everything I know about Drupal I know through years of painful trial and error and shameless begging for help in IRC.
I spent a lot of time desperately reading Stack Overflow, or trying to figure a bug out from looking at an issue where the patch was never merged, or reading through a drupal.org forum where somebody tries to solve something but then just ends with "nevermind, solved this" without saying why.
I'd agree that people is what gets you through that. I learned IRC and how to write patches and get help from individuals and that is when the doors opened.
Another approach that really boosted me to the next level, especially early on in my career as a developer, was to work with someone that you can just bounce ideas off of. I'll never forget all the hacking sessions Jerad and I had back in the day. Coding at times can be boring, or the excitement of doing something awesome is self-contained. Being able to share ideas, concepts, and example code with someone that appreciates the effort or awesomeness of something you've done and at the same time challenges you to take it to the next level is priceless.
Printing out the parts of Drupal code I wanted to learn: node, taxonomy and reading comments and code like a gazillion times.
Try and code something useful so I could ask others for help. That's how I wrote the path aliasing module for core.
I often find that as you get into more complicated, undocumented territory, being able to read code is super valuable. You can often get lost in disparate blog posts, tutorials and forums that can lead you all sorts of ways. The code is the ultimate source of truth. Sometimes it takes firing up a debugger, stepping through the parts that matter to see how things are connected and why.