DrupalCXO - When Business and Freedom meet and shake hands
Thirty years ago I encountered computers for the first time. They were already involved in my life in some way or another, but not sitting there in front of me with a keyboard and a cursor waiting for my command. I learned how to program in a language called BASIC. I learned how to get the computer to display “Hello World!” and have it repeat all over the screen. I worked out that if I added another blank space between the two speech marks it the text would zig-zag over the screen.
Heck, I was nearly ten years old and lived in the middle of the East Anglian countryside surrounded by fields of corn which I spent most of my life playing in as there was little else to do - until my parents bought me a BBC 'B' computer, then it was mostly spent in my room for hours as I watched Mandlebrot fractals being generated in glorious eight colours at a pace which I could easily have painted quicker. Not entirely sure I need to tell you all this, however as I write I hear that Benoît B Mandelbrot, the man who made geometry an art, has sadly passed away, so I'll take that as a sign and keep it in. The point is that to me, the power and ability to change something around and make it do something different was everything, and the possibilities were endless - especially when it comes to Mandlebrot graphics...
Twenty years ago, whilst working for an independent IT reseller, I found myself in a hotel near Heathrow Airport attending my first ever IT industry event. It was a pure sales event where we sat for hours in stuffy rooms listening to the latest features of software X version Y and why it was the best software in the world and we should go out and sell lots of it. Mostly I enjoyed getting the boxes of free software they gave us, especially CorelDraw, a vector-based drawing app. Not that I ever ended up drawing much but it was a whole load more interesting to me than Lotus 1-2-3, and as you can probably gather by now, I like playing with software to see what it can do.
Ten years ago I found myself being the organiser of stands at such trade events to market a piece of software called RemoteApps, a product which was very similar to Drupal, the software I work with now - software for managing the three C's of the Internet – Content, Commerce, and Collaboration (or Community, or Communication, if you prefer). Apart from the fact RemoteApps had a sad demise along with many other companies when investors pulled out of tech stocks in the dot-bomb period, the main difference between these two products is that one is free and the other was proprietary. In other words, anyone can download Drupal and see how it works, change it to their needs, and help continue the process by giving what they can back to the community - whether in terms of code, helping other users, running a local user group, or any number of other ways. RemoteApps was more like those boxes of software I used to like getting for free from the trade events, it was a 'black-box' to anyone outside the company itself - you could by then download a 'trial' version, but in no way could you change it without prior negotiation with the software house itself. Perhaps if it had have been free and open it would still be around.
RemoteApps was quite forward-thinking for its' time. It was the first Enterprise Content Management System to combine all three C's, provide a web admin interface to manage them all, and itself be a platform for the rapid development of web applications. It even had a content-type builder much like Drupal's, but learning how to develop on the system wasn't necessarily that easy. We had a documentation team, we had people training clients on-site how to build using our API, but with the economic downturn of the time people just weren't investing vast amounts in new software. Our client list included Volkswagen, IPC Media, Umbro, Primark, and had a number of system integrators including Logica, but was mostly made up of risk-averse Blue-chips or innovative startups, and the latter had pretty much disappeared by the time I got my email asking me to see my manager for what was to be the last time. We had grown from six people to sixty and then back down to zero in the space of a couple of years, but I can tell you it was one hell of a ride, and I learned much from the experience.
Back to the present day and I find myself in Brussels attending the first meeting of Drupal CXOs - those who are building businesses using Drupal, mostly systems integrators who build sites for clients using the platform. In Drupal's ten year history, this was the first time the business community had come together, and it was being held in Microsoft's offices - a company who's software certainly isn't, free. So why did the meeting happen? In some ways it echoes of what I saw before - steep learning curve, how to get more people interested and excited about developing for the platform, and so on except for one big one - clients. Drupal is everywhere, and adoption rates are growing fast. Large consultancies are winning multi-million dollar projects and looking to source the expertise needed, from hiring more staff to working with companies such as those attending the meeting in Brussels.
Out of the sixty-odd participants who registered, those who turned up had a number of business models, some focused totally on Drupal, some were already virtual business networks set up to tackle these issues, including my own Drupal delivery network, DRUSHI. I had recently set up DRUSHI because I was facing these same issues. I had been a freelancer since I was made redundant from RemoteApps, and I although I love playing with software, I am more akin to someone who enjoys cooking but doesn't want to be a chef, more someone who wants to build a chain of restaurants, just with an all-you-want free software buffet! I used many other Open Source CMSs before I finally decided to focus on Drupal about five years ago. I didn't particularly want to use Drupal at the time for similar reasons I hear people saying now - the steep learning curve, etc. however one of the sites I built, LinuxVAR was rebuilt in Drupal (I had used XOOPS), which made me investigate Drupal further and I haven't looked back since, no more so than in the last couple of months when I decided to attend my first ever Drupalcon in Copenhagen.
When I actually met other Drupal developers face-to-face, 1,200 of them in Copenhagen, and had the chance to explain what DRUSHI was all about, I received a lot of interest, some of whom have already joined our community. As opposed to the supply chain which is being formed as we speak, my inspiration for DRUSHI comes from an event here in Brighton where Ken Thompson talked about Virtual Enterprise Networks. VENs are where you have a network of SMEs who develop and deliver collaborative solutions and offer an alternative solution to just dealing with the Big Fish. A little like how the film industry works, a little like swarm teams which Ken also talks about. They furthermore provide a framework for developing more interesting mutually beneficial relationships with universities, and developing new products. In a world of free software which has grown organically over a period of 25 years, this solution where everyone retained their independence seemed like a natural fit to me. This structure, I thought, would provide me with the ability to jump in where I liked and add value, much like the Drupal project itself. It would allow me to finally be back in front of the end client instead of being the last person in the chain with little decision-making abilities and smaller slices of the pie. We, the community, could provide solutions which were modeled on the software itself and hopefully avoid all these catastrophic IT project failures which cost us millions and do nothing for the reputation of IT.
I tried out a few things when I was in Brussels, the first being a general chat with other interested, again the response was encouraging, but when I tried a practical exercise things got a little tougher. I wanted to try out one of the exercised Ken had shown us in a workshop at the VEN event, the Synergy Discovery technique. This highlights connections between participants, and I can imagine that it would be easily done in Drupal using profiles and tags. I tried it in real life though, but of the few who did participate, most put down "I do Drupal" or thereabouts. I did not explain the exercise well enough, and I felt a little like the first Apprentice to be sacked on this year's UK series - at the end of the day I'm a geek and not necessarily good at this sort of interactive group stuff. I said to one of the participants that I had used Drupal Panels quite a lot and they said they hadn't touched it at all, to which I pointed out was exactly the point of the exercise. It gave me good feedback though, that I need help to explain the benefits of such an exercise!
I have previously tried to obtain funding for starting a VEN, however there was very little available for anything which was not a physical product. Because I also believe the VEN should be owned by those who participate in it such as a co-operative does, I didn't think it was necessarily something which angel investment would be a best fit for, however I am beginning to think that this may be an avenue to explore if we are to build a VEN in less than the next 25 years - I can't do this on my own, I just know it feels right, and I've learned to trust my gut instinct a lot more of late. I need people to help me translate Ken's VEN very clinical book into an easy-to-understand proposition and workflow. People need easy. More clients always helps too ;)
To also end up with a distribution of Drupal which could enable VENs in many industries by providing things like the synergy discovery and skills heat maps would be a wonderful outcome but I've realised that I have many more dreams in my mind than my hands can possibly achieve alone. If we can get the VEN model working for Drupal, we may be able to get it working in other Open Source best-of-breed software worlds. If we can't, then at least it was worth a try. Like my ultimate vision of building open source coworking cafes on every street corner (slightly less egotistical though than when I first wrote about it), it's worth setting your aims high because you learn from every mistake.
I'm working in the world of Free Software because, if I ever have any, I want my children to have the same freedoms as I had to tinker and grow my own career, I hope the current mashing of Business and Freedom today produces more choice for the end consumer, and more power and revenue back to the community at large. I hope we do get to build systems which help governments in every country cut costs and help their fellow countrymen, and I hope we don't just repeat the past and not look at what is happening and looking at it from a number of different perspectives.
After spending the last month attending a number of conferences and community action groups, I have been reminded that we have all the tools and the people we need to build our brave GNU world, we just have to spend a little time and effort looking and learning from a little history and making some choices which may not be the most obvious or enticing ones, but which may have more benefit in the longer term. As one person who has devoted most of their life to not taking necessarily the easiest route says:
"Free Software, Free Society" - Richard Stallman, founder Free Software Foundation
To win more business, simply focus on your uniqueness
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
- Dr. Seuss
Living in Brighton I get to see and meet a vast array of different characters - it's a place where anything goes and that's one of the reasons why I love it so much. When it comes to creating or building a business though, people seem to forget their individuality and talk in too broad terms.
For example, lately I've had far too many people describing themselves to me as simply a "designer", which is not really a rarity in Brighton. When I ask them what type of design they do, the vast majority say "web" or "web and print". This still does not help. What I need to know so that it sticks in my mind is what makes you different than the rest of the designers, because you are! Dr. Seuss was a very wise man. He also said:
“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind.”
What I need to know is what is special about you? Why should I phone you instead of the designer over there? What work have you done recently that you can describe in terms of style? For example "I'm very much into the Web 2.0 style of design, I recently did X for company X" or "I really love surrealist design and wherever I can I try to inject some of that into my work".
Perhaps you focus on the branding side, perhaps you focus on helping coders - whatever it is that you do which is different, however small that difference is, I need to know as I may meet, or even be, your ideal client at some point on my travels. I need to know what your uniqueness is.
When people ask me what I do, I often say that I enjoy building communities on and offline. I say that I use Free, Open Source Software to do this online, mostly using the 'community plumbing' Drupal system. I also give them a recent example of a brand which I helped to build a community for. I try to give people three 'hooks' to remember about me - what I do, why I do it, and who has paid me to do this for them.
It changes slightly depending on who I am talking to, which is often why you find me asking other people what they do first so that I can adjust my answer accordingly. I could say that I am a PHP developer, but there's probably as many PHP developers in Brighton as there are designers.
The simple truth is, if you keep just telling people you're a designer, you're not going to stick in people's minds. Take some time to work out your words and try them out - after a few times watching how people react to what you say you'll be able to work out what works best for you, and your networking efforts will be much more worthwhile.
Finally, Dr. Seuss further remarked:
"So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads."
So I'll leave it at that, for now ;)