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Feb 27 2021
Feb 27

Part of contributing to any open source project, or even really being a contributing member of any community, is sharing what you know. That can come in many forms. While many projects over emphasis code, and most of us understand the value of conference talks, good how-to articles are some of the most critical contributions for any software platform. There isn’t much point to a tool if people cannot figure out how to use it.

Why do I write how-to articles

I’ve contributed code to Drupal, some of it even good and useful to others. But usually when I hear someone noticed something I created it’s blog posts about how to solve a problem.

When I struggled to find the answer to a question I expect it is a candidate for a how-to post. I am not so creative that I am often solving a problem no one has, or will want to, solve for another project. And I am good enough at what I do to know that if I struggled to find an answer it was probably harder to find than it could been.

That helps me find topics for articles that are helpful to the community and benefit me.

How-to articles help others in the community use tools better

The goal of a good tutorial is to help accelerate another person’s learning process. The solution does not have to be perfect, and I know most people will have to adapt the answer to their project. I write them when I struggled to find a complete answer in one place, and so I’m hoping to provide one place that gives the reader enough to succeed.

Usually I combine practical experience earned after digging through several references at various levels of technical detail – including things like other people’s blog posts, API documentation, and even slogging through other people’s code. I then write one, hopefully coherent, reference to save others that digging extra reading.

The less time people spend researching how to do something, the more time they have to do interesting work. Better yet, it can mean more time using the tools for their actual purpose.

How-to articles serve as documentation for me, colleagues, and even clients

The best articles serve as high level documentation I can refer back to later to help me repeat a solution instead of recreating it from scratch. When I first wrote how-to articles I was solidifying my own learning, and leaving a trail for later.

They also came to serve as documentation for colleagues. When I don’t have time to sit with them to talk through a solution, or know the person prefers reading, I can provide the link to get them off and running. Colleagues have given me feedback about clarity, typos, and errors to help me improve the writing.

I have even sent posts to clients to help explain how some part of their solution was, or will be, implemented. That additional documentation of their project can help them extend and maintain their own projects.

How-To articles give me practice explaining things

One of the reasons I started blogging in the first place was to keep my writing skills sharpened. How-to articles in-particular tend to be good at helping me refine my process in specific areas. The mere act of writing them gives me practice at explaining technology and that practice pays off in trainings and future articles. If you compare my work on Drupal, Salesforce, and Electron you can see the clarity improve with experience.

How-To articles give me work samples to share

When I’ve been in job applicant mode those articles give me material to share with prospective employers. In addition to Github and Drupal.org, the how-to articles can help a hiring manager understand how I work. They show how explain things to others, how I engage in the community, and serve as samples of my writing.

How-To articles help me control my public reputation

I maintain a blog, in part, to help make sure that I have control over my public reputation. To do that I need inbound links the help maintain page rank and other similar basic SEO games.

From traffic statistics I know the most popular pages on this site are technical how-to articles. From personal anecdotes I know a few of my articles have become canonical descriptions of how to solve the problems.

When I first started my current job we had a client ask if I could implement a specific feature that he’d read about in a post on Planet Drupal. It turned out to be mine. Not only was I happy to agree to his request, it helped him trust our advice. My new colleagues better understood what this Drupal guy brought to the Salesforce team. Besides let’s be honest it’s fun when people cite your own work back at you.

Writing your own

You don’t have to maintain a whole blog to write useful how-to articles. Drupal, like most large open source projects, maintains public wiki-style documentation. Github pages allow anyone to freely publish simple articles and there are many examples of single-page articles out there. And of course there is no shortage of dedicated how-to sites that will also accept content.

The actual writing process isn’t that hard, but often people leave out steps, so I’ll share my process. This is similar to my general advice for writing instructions.

Pick your audience

It’ll be used more widely than whoever you think of, but have an audience in mind. Use that to help target a skill set. I often like to think of myself before I started whatever project inspired the article. The higher your skill set the more you should adjust down, but it’s hard to adjust too far, so be careful is aiming for people with far less experience than you have – make sure you have a reviewer with less experience check your work. Me − 1 is fine, Me − 5 is really hard to do well.

Start from the beginning and go carefully step by step

Start with no code, no setup, nothing. Then walk forward through the project one step at a time writing out each step. If you gloss over a detail because you assume your audience knows about it add reference links. You can have a copy of a reference project open but do not use it directly; it’s there to prevent you from having to re-research everything.

List your assumptions as you go

Anything that you need to have in place but don’t want to describe (like installing Drupal into a local environment, creating a basic module, installing Node, etc) state as an explicit assumption so your reader starts in the same place as you do. Provide links for any assumptions which are likely hard for your expected audience to complete. This is your first check point – if there are no good references to share, start from where that article you cannot find should start (or consider writing that article too). 

Provide detailed examples

Insert code samples, screenshots, or short videos as you progress. Depending on what you are doing in your article the exact details of what works best will vary. Copy and paste as little reference code as possible. This helps you avoid accidentally copying details that may be revealing of a specific project’s details.

If you look at mine you’ll see a lot of places where I include comments in sample code that say things like “Do useful stuff”. That is usually a hint that whoever inspired the article had interesting, and perhaps proprietary, ideas in that section of code (or at least I worried they would think it was interesting). I also try to add quick little asides in the code samples to help people pay attention.

Test as you go

Make sure your directions work without that reference project you’re not sharing. This is both so your directions work properly and further insulation against accidentally sharing information you ought not share.

End with a full example

If you end up with a bunch of code that you’ve introduced piecemeal, provide a complete project repo or gist at the end. You’ll see some of my articles end in all the code being displayed from a gist, and others link to a full repository. Far too many people simply copy and paste code from samples and then either use it blindly or get stuck. Moving it to the end helps get people to at least scan the actual directions along the way.

Give credit where credit is due

If you found partial answers in several places during your initial work, thank those people with links to their articles. Everyone who publishes online likes a little link-love and if the article was helpful to you it may be helpful to others. Give them a slight boost.

May 29 2020
May 29

This month’s SC DUG meeting featured Will Jackson from Kanopi Studios talking about his virtual background and office.

Before everyone was learning to use Zoom virtual backgrounds, Will had built out a full 3D room for his background, including family pictures and other fun details. He talked about what he built and may inspire you to try some more personalized than swaying palm tree and night skies.

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If you would like to join us please check out our up coming events on MeetUp for meeting times, locations, and remote connection information.

We frequently use these presentations to practice new presentations, try out heavily revised versions, and test out new ideas with a friendly audience. So if some of the content of these videos seems a bit rough please understand we are all learning all the time and we are open to constructive feedback. If you want to see a polished version checkout our group members’ talks at camps and cons.

If you are interested in giving a practice talk, leave me a comment here, contact me through Drupal.org, or find me on Drupal Slack. We’re excited to hear new voices and ideas. We want to support the community, and that means you.

Apr 16 2020
Apr 16

This month’s SC DUG was a round table discussion on working remotely during the Covid-19 lock down. We had actually planned this topic before the crisis emerged in full, but found ourselves having to pivot our talking points a fair bit.

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The discussion centered on things that people are dealing with, even those of us who work remotely on a regular basis. A few resources were shared by people on the call, including Pantheon’s Donut Slack Bot.

If you would like to join us please check out our up coming events on MeetUp for meeting times, locations, and remote connection information.

Feb 15 2020
Feb 15

This month for SC DUG I gave a talk on the importance of self-directed learning for professional development as a developer — or really any other modern career. It was an extension and revision of my December blog post on the same topic. The presentation runs a hair over 30 minutes, and parts of the discussion are included as well.

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We frequently use these presentations to practice new presentations, try out heavily revised versions, and test out new ideas with a friendly audience. If you want to see a polished version checkout our group members’ talks at camps and cons. So if some of the content of these videos seems a bit rough please understand we are all learning all the time and we are open to constructive feedback.

If you would like to join us please check out our up coming events on MeetUp for meeting times, locations, and remote connection information.

Dec 23 2019
Dec 23

From time to time conversations come up among developers, and other fellow travelers, about being self-taught vs getting formal training. Over time I’ve come to realize that the further and further you get into your career, the less the distinction means anything; eventually we are all mostly self-taught.

I’ve written before about the value of my liberal arts education and I stand by my assertion that what I learned in that setting was, and is, valuable to my life and work. But just because something was useful to life does not mean it was the only way to acquire the skills. It’s a good way for many people, but far from the only way.

For anyone in a technical field, and most professional fields really, to succeed over time you need to learn new tools, skills, and techniques. The tools I knew when I graduated college are all largely outmoded or significantly upgraded, and I’ve had to learn a variety of technologies that didn’t exist in 2001.

Within the Drupal community lots of people talk about being self-taught, sometimes with pride sometimes with embarrassment, but in truth very few people were formally trained on the platform. Lots of very successful developers in the Drupal community (and beyond) have degrees in fields like religion and art history, not computer science, and have taught themselves how to do awesome things. In fact, I’ll argue that just about every Drupaler taught themselves most of what they know about Drupal. How they did that can vary widely, but we are a community with few formal training programs and lots of people who stumbled into Drupal trying to solve a non-technical problem. Even advanced workshops at conferences dig deep into one small area and expect you to generalize that knowledge to your projects, which I count as self-teaching. For example, I had a friend ask the other day about how to control the PDO connection settings in Drupal 7 — which I didn’t know how to do, but knew they were similar to Drupal 8 — so I sent him my Drupal 8 instructions and he figured it out how from there. He’s now taught himself how to do what he needed for that project and in the process generalized the approach for whatever he may need next time.

So then it is important for all of us to find, and hopefully share, techniques for self-teaching — even for those who have some kind of formal training. Here are my suggestions for people who are starting out and haven’t yet found the pattern that works for them:

  1. Assume you first solution is wrong. Most of us have, or will, stumble our way through a project where we don’t really know what we’re doing without a lot of support. We usually learn a great deal in the process, and launching those projects can feel pretty good cause you’ve succeeded at something hard. It is easy to get into the habit of assuming the solutions from that project were correct because they worked. In truth those projects are really rough around the edges, and just because we got it to work does not mean the solution was good. Assuming the first solution is good enough forever is how you become an expert beginner which then takes a lot of effort to undo. Once you have a working solution, step back and see if you can think of a better one, or see if you now can guess better search terms to see if someone else wrote up a different solution to the same problem. Admit your work could be better and try to improve it.
  2. Learn a few more programming languages. Most people who are self-taught from the start, and even some who have a BA/BS in Computer Science, only know 2 or 3 programming languages (PHP, JS, and CSS+HTML are often the only languages new people learn at first). One of the courses I took by chance in college forced me to learn 8 in 16 weeks. It was grueling, miserable, and darned useful. I can still learn a new language in just a couple weeks and rarely do I hit a language construct I don’t recognize. You don’t need to go that far. When I first started out a mentor told me you should learn a new language every year, and for several I did. Some of those, not the languages I learned in college, are the ones I use most day-to-day. All told I’ve spent time writing code in more than twenty different languages. That many isn’t terribly useful but the more languages you learn, the more you learn to understand the elements of your primary language.
  3. Learn basic algorithms and to measure complexity. The kind of thinking that goes into formal algorithms will help you be a better developer overall; badly thought through processes is the place I tend to see the largest gaps between developers with and without formal training. Any college-level CS program will put you through an algorithms course that teaches a variety of specific algorithms and force you to understand their structures. If you didn’t go through one of those programs, this is probably the course that will help you the most. On the one hand most of us rarely rewrite these algorithms as on modern platforms some library or another will provide a better version than we are likely to craft for our project. But learning what they are, when they are used, and how to understand their performance is useful for any project that involves lots of data or processing. MIT has a version of their algorithms course from 2011 online, or find one through another provider. Even if you just watch the lectures (really watching, not just vaguely have them on while cooking and cleaning), you can learn a great deal of useful information. I learned a lot watching those lectures as it refreshed and updated my understanding of the topics.
  4. Find and learn from mentors. Notice I used a plural there; you should try to find a few people willing to help you learn your profession, and more generally help you learn to advance in your field. Most of us benefit from learning from the experiences of multiple people, and who we need to learn from changes over time. I had the great experience of having a few wonderful mentors when I was first starting out, and much of the advice they gave me still serves me well. Some of it contradicted, and resolving those contradictions forced me to learn to do things my own way and find my own solutions.
  5. Learn other platforms. This is both a protection against future shifts in the market, and also a way to see how things work from outside your current professional bubble. Drupal developers can learn a lot from writing a WordPress plugin, or better yet an add-on for a platform in another language (think about Plone, Gatsby, or Hugo). Or try to learn to work with a platform like Salesforce or AWS. Other platforms have different communities, different learning styles, and different patterns. Like understanding additional languages, different platforms help you broaden your understanding and provide insights you can bring back to your main work.
  6. Learn to give and take criticism. Part of learning is getting feedback on your work, and part of being on a team is sharing feedback with others. If you took art or music classes in high school or college you probably learned some of the basic lessons you need here, but if you didn’t, consider taking one now at your local community college or art center. The arts are wonderful for getting experience with criticism. For all art is often open to interpretation, it also requires specific skills. If you play off-key, it sounds wrong. If your sculpture collapses under its own weight, the project failed. If your picture’s subject is out of focus, you need to re-shoot it. Sure there are brilliant artists who can violate all the rules, but if you have never experienced an art critique you are not one of those artists. The experience of getting direct, blunt, and honest feedback will help you understand its value and how to give that feedback yourself.
  7. Share what you think you know. We learn a great deal with we teach others. Both because it forces us to refine our thinking and understanding so we can explain it, and because learners ask questions we cannot answer off the top of our heads. This can be user group or conference presentations, internal trainings for your team, mentoring junior developers, writing a blog, or anything else that gets your from learning to teaching. It’s okay if you’re not 100% right, that’s part of how we learn. A few years ago I was doing a joint project with a junior developer who asked me a lot of questions, and pushed hard when she thought I was making mistakes. When she asked why I was selecting a solution or setting a pattern, she was never satisfied with “because that’s the best way to do it.” She wanted me to explain why that was the best way. If I couldn’t walk her through it right away, I went back and hunted for reference material to explain it or if that failed I tested her counter ideas against my plans to see if I was missing something. While I was usually right, not always and we did make changes based on her feedback. More importantly it forced me to show my work in fine detail which was a good exercise for me and gave her insights to help her do better work.
  8. Find your own patterns. At the start I said this list was for people who didn’t have their own patterns yet. In the long-run of your career you need to figure out what you need to know to get to where you want to go next. Eventually you will need to find a pattern that works for you and the life you are living. No one can tell you what that is, nor how to learn it all yourself. Experiment with learning styles, areas of work, roles, and types of projects as much as you are able until you feel your way to the right solutions for you.

About Drupal Sun

Drupal Sun is an Evolving Web project. It allows you to:

  • Do full-text search on all the articles in Drupal Planet (thanks to Apache Solr)
  • Facet based on tags, author, or feed
  • Flip through articles quickly (with j/k or arrow keys) to find what you're interested in
  • View the entire article text inline, or in the context of the site where it was created

See the blog post at Evolving Web

Evolving Web