Drupal, the next evolution of my tech learning?

I am a ‘web developer’ by trade as if that terminology has a lot of meaning. As part of my daily duties, I do a lot of content administration, strategy, and some minimal web development and theming. I also deal with analytics, troubleshooting, quality assurance and SEO. It’s really a mixed bag. I’m good at my job in some respects. I’m a good problem solver and great at strategy. Unfortunately, being a ‘Jill of all trades’ and truly an expert and none doesn’t always serve me well.

In September, my company relaunched its website using Drupal 6. Our build is probably one of the more complex builds out there. So I thought to myself, it’s time for me to get to know Drupal better.

I have been dabbling with Drupal since version 4, but I have never really gotten my feet wet with it. It doesn’t help that our particular build is very complex, nor that I have limited permissions on production. On our development server I have cart-blanche to do what I will, but it isn’t the same as learning Drupal from the ground up. Our development environment is not the place to get to know Drupal intimately, the way I would need to in order to advance my career. It’s just too complex of a build, and a fragile one at that. Hence, it’s time to try to redo my personal website using Drupal 7.

Drupal is a CMS and a framework, but it is tech heavy and not very user friendly for people like me who have a limited background in backend operations, subversioning, Linux commands etc. If I were a programmer, I would have some experience with it. I have done most of my work on the front-end and haven’t ever needed to delve into the more technical parts of web development.

So in learning Drupal, I get stuck on some very basic things. I’m OK as a power-user. I understand views, at least to some degree, and blocks. I know how a lot of things work on Drupal. At this point I want to be much more skilled than I am now. Often get stuck on some very basic hurdles and I get frustrated and give up.

A recent book review of Drupal 7 states:

One thing that is always true for those new to Drupal is the learning curve – it is steep. There are some things that you can do quickly and easily with little experience but soon you will hit the wall and start rummaging through the Drupal documentation site which in itself is a good tool but often is confusing for the true beginner.

This is exactly how I feel about it because I end up going in circles. It seems the documentation on Drupal.org is like driving in New Jersey. The sign posts make perfect sense if you already know the way. But if you are looking for the sign posts to guide you, they are confusing. I get lost like that on Drupal.org. When I delve into other sites to help me with this, I find the information too basic, or too fragmented to be of real use.

I have a part of my nature that is a bit of a perfectionist. I will abandon projects because the best I can do is hack through it. I have trouble accepting that something is a hack so I will readily hit the delete key rather than work through it. I have to stop that because I will never learn if I don’t. I’m determined to keep going and I know I can do it.

I have overcome hurdles in my life. When I was in college, I didn’t get into the program that I wanted to be in on my first try. I kept at it and by the second year I got in. I was a voice major at a high profile music conservatory. Two things happened to me that year. 1) I had vocal nodes, probably from the years of singing the wrong voice-type 2) I struggled through music theory.

The vocal nodes thing required vocal rest for nearly the entire semester, my first semester as a voice major. One can imagine how I felt not being able to sing when I finally got into the program. It undermined my confidence and I felt challenged to prove I deserved to be there.

The music theory thing was different. Music theory, to be blunt is very difficult. The essentials of music theory is probably the biggest hurdle one has to get past because there is a lot of memorizing. I barely knew how to read music, something I taught myself the prior summer in hopes to skip over a few core curriculum classes. Music theory is very mathematical, something I’m simply not good at it. I sludged through it, probably getting a C or a B-. I don’t recall. What I do know is that by the time I graduated, I had performed several recitals and operas. My very first recital, I received an A. And when I completed my music theory curriculum in the 3rd year, I also got an A. This was due to determination and setting my mind to just ‘do it’.

In my working career, I had freelanced for a long while. I started my career in financial services doing admin work. In those days, corporate machines were not locked down the way they are today. I used to get bored and so I would clean up machines, fix software errors etc. I was also great at Word Processing, a skill I picked up because I wanted my recital programs to reflect the same quality as my recitals. I simply wasn’t satisfied with the sloppy way the school put them together. (The lyric translations, which were a requirement were separate documents from the program, without the same look and feel, or even a fold with a staple down the middle.) You work on music for several years and work your butt off to memorize it and perfect it. You want your program to reflect that. But that is a side conversation.

Anyway, I was able to pick up a lot of tech, so much so that I had the choice to go toward Windows support, network engineer, or toward design. It was luck that put me in the direction of design because at the time, my knowledge was good at both.

My skills evolved with WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, with really early dabbling in MultiMate and Xyrite. I was extremely skilled at WordPerfect and it was a hot commodity back then. I worked as a type-setter while working for a jewelry advertising agency. When I started freelancing ,I migrated to Word, which at the time was vastly inferior. But it had the MS Office intergration that WordPerfect did not. WordPerfect also started to become very unstable and bloated when Novell took it over.

I was working in a lot of investment banks, and occasionally for law-firms. The latter work, I hated with a passion. I worked a lot in Excel, Freelance Graphics, and then PowerPoint. I had a few long-term gigs at big-corporate investment banks and one very long assignment for Anderson Consulting. I became very good at learning new software. By the time I was at Bankers Trust, I was working on research reports. I didn’t want to do them in Word so I taught myself Pagemaker and migrated all of our content to that. It was because I knew Pagemaker and Photoshop well, I landed an assignment at Solomon Smith Barney which led to a full-time position there. (At that point, I had been freelance for a long time and I wanted more stability, more challenge from being able to work on longer-term projects, and benefits). In that job, I did a lot of print production which landed me a promotion. The promotion was less technical, one I didn’t want. I was pressured to take it anyway, and finally left because I was unhappy in my position and with my boss. I wanted to work on the web and I felt like I was hitting brick walls in my department.

It took me quite a while to learn HTML. I kept starting and stopping. It was only when I decided to leave Salomon Smith Barney that I worked fervently to teach myself. It was slow going but I did get it eventually. I found a job in three weeks while working full time at SSB working for a dot.com. It was there where I also learned Quark Xpress, and a lot about server-side technologies, and a little bit about connecting databases to the web, and a lot of maintenance and trouble shooting skills that are required when you are maintaining a 1,000 plus page website in flat html.

HTML which seemed like such a struggle at the time is now second nature to me. People who work with me are amazed when I tell them how long it took me to learn it or that I ever struggled learning it at all. They think I’m a natural born technie. I’m not. Now, there is so much MORE to know and it is very hard to focus on one thing. Do I improve my css skills which are ok, but could be better. (I’m not really a designer but a technician anyway.) Do I learn SQL? Do I learn PHP? (I only encounter those technologies on a minimal basis during my day-to-day work.) Finding incentive under those restraints is difficult. Oy!

So all that said, I have made a commitment to myself to rebuild this site using Drupal 7. I didn’t really learn WordPress on the level I wanted to until I built my own site in it. (Though I had been administering it at work for awhile). I may scrap the project if I find myself getting into road blocks, run out of time (which for me is very limited being a single parent), or find it to be overkill. (Does this site really need something as powerful [and bloated] as Drupal rather than WordPress? But if I can make it work, without having serious performance issues, then it will be the platform for tremendous learning. Even if I never do the final step and migrate the content over, and maintain my WP blog, that will be ok because I will have learned something.

This morning, I started by installing Drupal 7 on my server. I usually do one click installs provided by my hosting compani because dealing with database configurations is a hassle for me. But this time, I had to set it up manually because my hosting provider does not yet support Drupal 7. I did struggle with it, even to the point that I blew up my working site. (I have no idea why deleting an unused database table would do that, but it did. I had those databases restored but I would prefer to get rid of them if they are being unused. I’ll have to shore up my mySQL skills perhaps to figure out where things went wrong.)

I’m going to start very slowly and take my time tackling issues one at a time. I may buy some books to help me along. I’m determined to not let my mental madness (fear of not being techie enough) get in the way of my growth potential. I KNOW I’m capable of this, I just have to get over the initial hurdle.