When Should I Update my Drupal Site to Drupal 8?

Last year Drupal 8 finally arrived, and brought the question that comes with every new release of Drupal: when should I update? New releases of Drupal mean two things: new features and cool new tools, and the retirement of an old version. We got the power and flexibility of Symfony and Drupal 6 sites are no longer getting community support. Unlike WordPress, which has well defined upgrade paths, each version of Drupal is a new adventure in upgrade pain. The more I watch people suffer with this pain, and the more I watch them try to find a way to do upgrades that preserve their site’s fundamental structure, the more I come to the conclusion that this pain is telling us something: we’re doing it wrong. Not because Drupal’s strategy is wrong, but because keeping all your content in the same structures is usually wrong. Drupal 8 should not make it easy for you to continue to use an old strategy, it should encourage us to update old assumptions.

Here is how I encourage everyone to view their choices:

If you have a Drupal 6 (or older) site you should update right now. Drupal 6 is no longer getting security updates so you are on borrowed time. But more importantly Drupal 8 is a better tool for the current state of the web than your Drupal 6 site. Most sites running on D6 reflect an online communications strategy that’s at least 4 or 5 years old. Those sites probably aren’t responsive, aren’t prepared to support apps, don’t have the right focus on social media and user engagement, and make assumptions about user behaviors that have evolved. Skip to Drupal 8: do not migrate these sites to Drupal 7. If there is a tool that is missing from Drupal 8 that your current site uses make sure you need it before complaining (or paying to have someone port it for you). Maybe that tool hasn’t been ported because it doesn’t make sense anymore. Some things are still missing, but lots of things are being rewritten differently because we have a better platform. The community is smarter than it was 5 or 10 years ago, and the platform is better, take the time to figure out why something hasn’t been ported: is it just no one has bothered, or has something better been built instead?

If you have a Drupal 7 site you should update when your web site no longer supports your work.  This is actually the same advice I just gave, but without a few assumptions like “you need a secure site.” Many Drupal 7 sites have a lot of life left in them. A site you built today will be designed to meet the needs you have now, and the ones you foresee in the near future. Three years from now (when Drupal 7 is scheduled to lose support from the community) you will be operating on assumptions that have probably been wrong for at least two years. Every six months you should ask yourself: does my site reflect my online strategy, and is my strategy still working? If the answer is yes to both of those questions you are fine, if the answer is no to either – particularly the second – you should engage someone to help you update your strategy and rebuild your site.

I’ve been part of projects that failed in part because we tried to port a stale strategy and stale content to a fresh site. We broke the new site before it even launched. Don’t try to make Drupal 8 behave like your old site: embrace the change.

Nonprofits Drive Innovation in Online Communications

I spent ten years working at a nonprofit organization wishing I had the kinds of resources that large corporations can put toward their marketing efforts. A nonprofit the organization’s web site and related marketing are usually seen as overhead, and overhead is bad, therefore budgets limited. Nonprofit budgets are tight in general which doesn’t leave a lot of extra room for fancy services, tools, and consultants.

Then I started to work with large corporations. Turns out, all that money doesn’t necessarily bring you people who know how to spend it well.  Yes the margins are bigger, and there is less complaining about the basic costs of doing business, but when it comes right down to it they aren’t any more strategic than a small scrappy team of people in the communications department of any organization large enough to have a communications team.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise.  A great deal has been written about start-up culture and ways to help companies recreate the energy, passion, and creativity of their lean early days.  And there has been a great deal written about impostor syndrome which nonprofit communications staff tend to have in spades.

Of course I’m speaking here in sweeping generalities about two massive groups, but here is what I’ve seen working with both nonprofits and for-profits:

  1. As a group nonprofit staff are there because they care about the cause(s) of the organization, and they are driven to help the organization succeed despite their lack of resources.
  2. The lack of resources — both in terms of time and money — forces NPOs to find creative solutions to their problems. They moved aggressively into social media because it was a free way to spread their message: companies then used the lessons learned by nonprofits to craft their early engagements with social media.
  3. Due to corporate donations, nonprofits actually have access to the best software tools money can buy. Salesforce, NetSuite, Google, Microsoft, Adobe, and others give nonprofits amazing discounts that allow them access to tools companies twice their size can barely afford. I used to (legally) get $20,000 server packages from Microsoft of $200. Google gives $10,000/month ad-word grants. SalesForce and NetSuite provide amazing tools at amazing prices.
  4. Nonprofits are right to believe if they had access to better tools and more money they could do even better. Tools written for nonprofits tend to be second rate (look at the vast majority of fundraising toolkits), and they are held back in the places where they need specialized software. I have friends that write this stuff, they work hard, but with literally billions less in resources they have a big hill to climb.
  5. Organizations like N-TEN have been helping nonprofits learn from each other and from the best of the for-profit world for nearly 15 years.  That community has benefited thought leaders like Beth Kanter, John Kenyon, Ryan Ozimek, and others who help NPOs focus on their goals instead of their tools.
  6. For-profit marketing staff do not believe they have anything to learn from nonprofits, and are often making mistakes that the subject of basic talks at conferences like NTC 5 years ago.

Nonprofits often struggle to figure out the right way to leverage new tools because they try to leverage them first. When traditional companies start trying to market in new spaces they sometimes make it look easy because they have a path to follow.  A path broken by nonprofits.

Always Make New Mistakes

The first major online application I wrote was a petition for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in an attempt to build support against the war in Iraq. The Iraq Peace Pledge was a success in that it gave people a place to voice their frustration and helped encourage the anti-war movement. It was a failure in the sense that the guy writing the software (me) had no idea what he was doing, MoveOn completely stole our thunder (gathering 100 times more names than we did), and it didn’t exactly prevent the war in Iraq.

What it did do was teach a small group of us that the online work was important, harder than we thought, and required skills we didn’t yet have.  I could list dozens of mistakes that we made in the course of the project, most of which were totally avoidable if any one of us had known then what we know now, but it was those mistakes that caused me to learn to constantly push to be better at what I do.

The biggest mistake we made was that we allowed ourselves to repeat mistakes. We were sloppy, and allowed the same errors to get posted over and over. My colleague and friend Mark looked at me at one point and said: “Let’s always make new mistakes from here on.”  And we pretty much did — for the next 10 years (although he still makes fun of me for misspelling “signatures” over and over on the peace pledge site).

“Always make new mistakes” became something of a slogan for us and the organization’s Web Team. We knew that we didn’t have the resources to having someone else teach us everything we needed to know, we were leading projects in a medium very few people had mastered, and we were human. So it was going to be impossible to avoid mistakes, but we could make sure that we learned from our mistakes, find ways to avoid them, and then push into fresh territory filled with new mistakes we didn’t know existed.

I still use the slogan for my own work, and encourage it with teams I work on. People laugh the first time they hear it. But they discover I’m very serious when I adjust my work process and products to deal with mistakes I failed to avoid during the previous project. And I expect them to do the same.

We all need to work hard to identify our mistakes and come up with ways to avoid them.  Some mistakes are easy to see and fix: if you have poor spelling, make sure you have someone double checking your writing.  Some mistakes are harder to see: if you use the wrong metrics you may appear to be succeeding while actually failing. And some mistakes are hard to admit: creating a web applications with no experience thinking about security meant I made just about every security blunder possible, and since I knew more about web development than anyone else around me, I resisted attempts by others to point out much I didn’t know.

Think hard about your work, look for mistakes, own them as scars you earned doing something new, and figure out how to make sure you make a different mistake next time.