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Hiring Drupal professionals, part 1: Know what you need

(This is the first installment of a multipart series.)

As a Drupal trainer and consultant, I've been getting a lot of phone calls lately either asking if I have trainees to recommend or else hoping that the "consultant" in my job title is a synonym for developer. (It's not: I'm the kind of consultant who helps you figure out what to do rather than the kind that does it for you.) People are having a really hard time finding experienced Drupallers to hire.

At the same time, I've become aware of more and more Drupal projects that went horribly awry because the freelancer or shop hired, though perfectly good PHP coders, didn't really know or understand Drupal. (In just in the last few months, I've personally had not one but two clients who were site-rescue refugees from the same freelancer!)

Unfortunately, the increasing popularity of Drupal can add up to a double whammy for those trying to hire Drupal help. Not only is there a shortage of experienced Drupallers, but there is an increasing number of inexperienced Drupallers offering their services. And these difficulties are compounded by the fact that many of those seeking to hire, quite naturally, don't know very much about Drupal.

So how do you find good Drupallers so your project actually gets the power, flexibility, and ease of use for content creators/managers that led you chose Drupal in the first place?

The first step is to ask for the right thing. There are different kinds of Drupal professionals and most clients and companies seeking to hire Drupallers don't understand or ask for the kind they need.

Besides end users, there are three broad categories of Drupallers: themers, site builders, and module developers. Of these, only module developers actually need to be PHP ninjas

Themers are responsible for the site's graphic design, which in Drupal is independent from the site structure and content. A Drupal site's entire visual design can be completely changed with literally just a couple mouse clicks. (For a demonstration of the independence of content and theme, visit Drupal Gardens —note how the content remains constant as you change from theme to theme.)

Themers come in two flavors: those who customize existing themes (subthemers) & those who create entirely new themes. Only the latter need significant PHP skills, but even then, graphic design and CSS mastery are much more important. For subthemers, PHP doesn't hurt, but isn't vital; often only custom CSS is needed.

Site builders put together the site's structure —the data types, displays, menus, navigation, entry forms, access control, administration, and other functionality for the site's content.

Site builders have even less need for mad PHP skills. Much more important is information architecture, usability, accessibility, and the like. Very complex, feature-rich Drupal sites can be built using only existing core and contributed modules. Indeed, while having familiarity with PHP can help, you actively do not want someone whose first instinct is to code to solve problems. For Drupal, custom PHP should be the last resort, not the first. Re-coding the wheel defeats the purpose and advantage of using Drupal!

If custom PHP is needed for a site —that is, if there is some functionality needed that can't be achieved using existing contributed modules— then it should go in a custom module, which is where module developers come in.

For module developers, of course, PHP is a must. But to be a good module developer, you also need to have good site building skills; you need to understand and appreciate The Drupal Way and also have mastery not just of PHP, but of the Drupal API (and certain contributed module APIs).

I should clarify that there aren't impenetrable divides between these three broad groups. Many themers are also site builders, many site builders are also at least subthemers, etc. and naturally there are various specializations that overlap or even fall somewhat outside these broad three, such as performance optimizers who get into server configuration, etc.

Unfortunately, clients and companies new to Drupal rarely know much about Drupal beyond that it is a CMS based on PHP and databases. So they understandably, but detrimentally, focus on the PHP bit, advertise for "Drupal developers", and emphasize PHP skills in their criteria.

But in a labor market where any kind of experienced Drupaller is in short supply and where there are more good site builders than good module developers, advertising for module developers (which is effectively what advertising for a "Drupal developer" with PHP skills is) when what you need is a good site builder is not the best recipe for success. Good site builders know when to bring in a themer or module developer, but trying to hire a module developer before you even know if you actually need one just frustrates everyone.

Worse, remember those decent PHP coders who don't really know Drupal? They tend to be attracted to "Drupal developer" positions that emphasize PHP skills, too. And that's how sites end up with custom PHP code that is not only totally unnecessary but located in the wrong place (e.g., hacked core/contributed modules or everything in a single theme page.tpl.php file instead of in a custom module where it belongs) and an unsustainable site that doesn't work properly.

You're much more likely to be successful finding and hiring a good Drupal professional if you know what kind you need and ask for it by name. If you're new to Drupal, start by looking for a "Drupal site builder" and emphasize Drupal knowledge and web best practices, not PHP skills. If you already have a site builder but need a graphics professional for your visual design, look for a "Drupal themer" and emphasize graphic design and CSS skills as well as Drupal theming knowledge. If you already have a site builder but determined that existing modules can't do what you need, then it's time to look for a "Drupal module developer" (not just a "Drupal developer") and emphasize Drupal module development knowledge, especially Drupal core and contributed module APIs and best practices.

So, you're advertising/searching for the kind of Drupaller you need, now what? How can you know if you've found them? See the next installment in this series: Hiring Drupal professionals, part 2: Know who they are

[Added 5 Jun 2012] Especially for larger projects, a more expansive discussion of the different roles involved in creating (Drupal) websites can be found in Randall Knutson's great blog post Why Web Development is Like Building a House over at LevelTen. (Just make sure to translate their use of "Developer" to "Site builder"!)

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