Becoming a Drupal Ace
My handle and site name, Drupalace, are a goal. A Drupal Ace – that's what I want to be. I'm not there yet, but this new site is part of the bombing run to the target.
The origin story
Drupal came at me in 2006. As the representative of a tiny outpost of a large public agency, I had to don many hats within the small office, including IT guy and webmaster. My first handmade site went up years before, cobbled under a succession of off-the-shelf WYSIWYG apps, including Adobe GoLive toward the end.
Yet more and more, it was painfully clear that a growing chunk of the webmaster world was doing something different. Very different. Sites everywhere were sporting headlines and teasers, info sidebars and news feeds, logins and comments, forums and polls... How the heck were they doing that? Were they creating all these features and pages by hand, as I was tooling my pages? I knew that wasn't the case; the inefficiency would be appalling. And maybe they had slick, streamlined tools for handling each fancy feature, but I knew there was something else, something big tying it all together, for the modern sites that I envied.
The heavens part, choirs sing, etc.
Not having many web-designer types around me (at least, not who could address my puzzlement), I had to search on my own. And once I got serious about doing so, the answer walloped me both quickly and solidly. Content management systems.
It seems utterly obvious now, of course, but at the time it was like some grand Revelation, sunbeams and doves through parting clouds and all. A system that put content into a database, and arranged web pages on the fly... yes! Sure, I knew such things existed – but to find out that such things were not just the custom-developed province of huge site owners, but open-source tools that even small site owners used, and that I could use, was almost too much. I had to learn more.
So I dove in... to Mambo (now Mambo and/or Joomla, I believe). A little quick searching showed it to be an established, popular, and accessible system; without looking much further or overthinking things, I began. Now, I'm no IT wonk, but I have enough chops to teach myself new stuff (within limits), and before long, I was bludgeoning my way through my first CMS site dev. Fortunately, my initial needs were pretty low: no "community", or even any login beyond admin. I just wanted to present news and event information from my workplace, and offer a database of products introduced by my office, categorized for easy browsing. Maybe some event sign-ups and a newsletter in the future, but that was about all plans called for.
"Surely I must be missing something..."
From the start, Mambo offered a comfortable workplace – and a Kilimanjaro-sized roadblock that brought all to a screeching halt. An obstacle that's so brazenly "what are they thinking?" big, I still suspect the fault must have lay not with Mambo but with my missing some simple procedures. Yet all the Mamboans I queried told me that, yes, it was indeed a Mambo shortcoming.
It was this: I needed to categorize products that my site would introduce: consumer products, medical products, IT products, etc. Simple enough. The only catch, if the trivial requirement could even be called a "catch", was that some products would naturally fall under more than one category. A toothbrush, for example, might naturally fall under both the medical and consumer product categories. That dual classification would niftily allow users to come across that product whether they were browsing under medical or under consumer products. It would even allow me to create a new category of "consumer medical products" that would only list products at the intersection of the two, like my example toothbrush. Surely not a problem, right?
It was for Mambo! If I'm recalling correctly, the system allowed for only a two-level hierarchy of content classification. If my top level included obvious classifications like "news", "stories", "products", and so on, then there'd be only a second level remaining for dividing my product category into broad sub-categories like "medical" and "consumer". And if I wanted more refined categories like a "dental" category under "medical"? Forget it; we're all out of hierarchies.
But here's what was really unbelievable to me. There was, I was told, no way to place a product under multiple categories. So if I wanted a product to fall under both "consumer" and "medical", I would have to create two entries for the product. HUH? Is that not counter to the entire point of a database-run content management system?
My harsh words may not be called for; I don't mean to put down Mambo's creators. Lord knows I'll never create anything a hundredth as nifty as that CMS, and I know that many, many great sites are built on the system. To be honest, I still think my above understanding must be wrong, and that there was indeed some simple way to get the result I wanted, limited classification system notwithstanding. Or if the above was true, perhaps it's resolved in today's Mambo/Joomla.
But I swear to you: people on the Mambo forums assured my unbelieving self that the above is indeed how Mambo worked. What amazed me even more was that they seemed relatively unconcerned about a pitfall that loomed to me like the Chicxulub crater. I couldn't imagine taking another step forward with the platform.
(Mambo users, please don't hesitate to correct me where I'm mistaken on the above. I'm still a bit mystified that a CMS could carry such a major limitation, and would be happy to learn that it doesn't exist after all.)
Say hello to Drupal
I hadn't gotten too far with the Mambo site, and started afresh with Drupal. I don't remember where and when I first heard of it; I presume it was during a simple bout of Googling for more CMS platforms. Drupal was not as welcoming as Mambo, but I kept hearing great things about its technical strengths and its potential for building most any site. Most important to me at the time, it seemed to offer flexible content classification, letting my site place a product under any category, subcategory, or mixture of these that I wanted.
I set up my office's site using Drupal. Not long afterward, I left the job while the site was still in pretty crude form (where it remains as of this writing, no longer under my control), but in the meantime have set up additional, and increasingly polished, sites – some as test projects, others as live sites with modest readership, for myself and for small clients. There's an infinite amount left to learn, but I'm happy with what I'm seeing myself accomplish with Drupal.
Getting to the point
Ah. Ahem. Yes, this site has a purpose. I spend a lot of time playing with Drupal, making sites, learning techniques, and researching answers to problems. I have a big fat list of sites I want to build on Drupal. Many will be "container" sites, places to hold growing lists of ideas, resources, tips, etc. picked up in daily life, in a wide range of fields. I'm going to run into all sorts of Drupally issues as I go ahead with these, so it only makes sense I start knocking off the sites on my list by making one about Drupal. This will be the "container" site for the Drupal problems, ideas, and "don't make this same mistake" lessons that I come across and wish to share.
The Drupal.org site is already a natural place for much of the same. I've asked many a question on the forums there, and have received many an answer. And I really want to give more back: as a developer in the future, but until then, by helping others. I do make an effort to return to the forums and post a solution I've found to a question I've asked, for the benefit of others with the same question. And I'll do more to answer others' questions there (I won't be the first to lament that many Drupal forum questions go sadly answered by no-one).
But it's nice to also have a home for miscellaneous comments and musings that don't fit neatly into Drupal.org or that risk getting lost in its oceanlike depths. Every additional website about (and running on) Drupal helps raise the platform's profile. I offer this one as a tiny contribution toward that. Please read, and most importantly, please critique what's wrong, boring or unhelpful, and suggest what would be better.
So that's the story. Watch in amusement as I fumble and stumble my way from Drupal Beginner to Drupal Ace.