How to get started with Drupal?

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Sometimes these kinds of questions about Drupal come up (typically from somebody new to web design/development):

  • How to learn Drupal, and where to start?
  • What else do I need to learn for Drupal?

Here are some no-brainers to answer such questions:

Any other answer for such questions?

Topics: 

1 answer

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Part 1 - What are the prereqs to start?

0. HTML, PHP, JS, CSS knowledge

If you already know HTML, PHP, JS, CSS, etc it will for sure help to get you going with Drupal.

But in my experience those skills are not the most important ones to get up to speed with Drupal. You can learn about them "on the fly (on the job?)". Specific to PHP, in the context of Drupal, you only need to know a subset of all the things you can do with PHP.

1. Required Infrastructure

  • Obviously you need a computer, and (at least occasionally) a working internet connection and an eMail ID. At least to download Drupal, contributed modules, etc to your own computer.

  • Later on, when you have a website that is ready to be shown to the world, you'll also need:

    • some hosting provider to host that Drupal site.
    • a domain name (DNS registration).
  • To actually be able to use a Drupal website on your own computer, you'll need the typical softwares that are like pre-requisites for Drupal. Here is a list of those so called 'stacks' (often referred to as WAMP, MAMP or LAMP also):

    • an operating system for your computer (Windows, Mac or the free Linux).
    • a web server (like the free Apache, ...).
    • a DBMS (like the free MySQL).
    • PHP (no other languages here, but ... free).
  • Some typical utility programs, such as:

    • something to unpack files in an archive format such as a .tar or .zip, since Drupal and its contributed modules are downloaded in these formats.
    • an text editor (like notepad, notepad++, your favorite editor, etc).
    • an FTP client, such as FileZilla (to upload your site frm your local environment to a live server)
  • Setting up the required pre-requisites (as in the previous bullet) can be a bit of work (and/or a challenge). However there are some great packages available to reduce the required effort (and required skills) quite a lot, such as (pick whatever option you prefer and/or fits for you, incomplete list!):

    • VirtualBox combined with QuickStart (bonus: comes with GIT, Drush, etc pre-installed).
    • XAMPP.

Part 2 - How could a training program look like?

2. Climb the Drupal ladder

When I'm asked the question about how to get started with Drupal, I always point to Climbing the Drupal ladder (from famous Dries ...). It's only 1 diagram, but there is so much information and value in it (a picture is worth more then 1000 words ...).

It's a great outline to be used during a "Getting started with Drupal" session. Anybody who's a bit familiar with Drupal should be able to explain most of the items mentioned on it also.

There are also these variations of it:

  • The DrupalLadder.org website, which contains (or links to) lessons and materials to help people learn about Drupal and contribute to Drupal. The site helps Drupal user groups develop and share and develop materials for learn sprints and issue sprints.

  • Drupal Ladder installation profile (alfa version only, and missing some security updates ...).

3. Get familiar with contributed modules and themes

These days, there are around 17K contributed modules and/or themes. There are tons (thousands ...) of great modules/themes, and a lot of hidden gems. So think twice (or 3 times?) before diving into writing custom modules/themes. Ask yourself the question "Who will maintain them in say a few years from now?".

However, quite often you'll run into more then just 1 contributed module or theme. Here is a sample: Which contributed module should you use to create a chart in Drupal? ... Make your choice, e.g via the Comparison of charting modules. But which module would you go for if you are looking for:

That's when you'll need to have some criteria in place for selecting the most appropriate one, as illustrated in the "Maintenance scorecards" also (you can use them for many other Drupal topics, so not only just for charts).

4. Views / Flag / Rules / Message

It's rare to find sites that don't use the (amazing) Views module, which however isn't obvious to get started with (there is so much to learn about it). I learned a lot about this module via the great, and free, set of 30 video tutorials about the Views module.

Combined with the Flag, Rules and Message modules, a lot of site functionality can be delivered already. To get started with Rules, checkout the 32 (!!!) great, and free, video tutorials Learn the Rules framework, organized in 7 chapters. There is a similar set of 8 video tutorials about the Flag module.

So make sure to have a good knowledge/understanding of all the amazing things you can do with only those "magic 4", in virtually any site. A few samples:

5. Study available documentation

Documentation about Drupal and many of the contributed modules is available in various formats, such as:

  • The Readme.txt file that comes with contributed modules.
  • The Community documentation available for many modules, which can typically be found via the "Read documentation" link on a module's project page (not all modules have one however, though they should).
  • The Advanced Help documentation that comes with selected modules, and which you can access from within your site if you have the Advanced Help module installed.
  • The impressive set of (great) questions and (great) answers at Drupal Answers.

6. Learn to use the issue queue(s) on Drupal.org.

Each contributed module on Drupal.org has a "project page" located at something like https://www.drupal.org/project/issues/abc, whereas abc is the "namespace" of the module (not always exactly the same as the title of the project page). Multiple links to its corresponding "Issue queue" can be found on the project page, or just use an URL like https://www.drupal.org/project/issues/abc.

The issue queue (search results of issues) offers various search features and/or filters. Even if you're not "searching" for a specific issue, but just browsing around in these issues, you can learn a lot by reviewing these issues. Often times there is important (crucial) information contained in "some" issue that didn't make it (yet) to the documentation related to the module.

In my case, when I first started using Forena, I kept iterating over its issue queue, and occasionally posted new issues.

As a module (co-)maintainer, I try to point module users to such interesting issues, via a list of 'issues' mentioned (hyperlinked) in these Community documentation pages: Charts HowTos, Forena HowTos, Chart HowTos. Note: later on I started adding similar links to interesting question on Drupal.SE also ...

7. Learn from podcasts about Drupal

There are some interesting podcasts dedicated to Drupal, which also have a great website with all sorts of hyperlinks to topics covered in each of them. Though there are quite a few, here are my favorite ones (+ links to answers about topics I learned about via them):

FYI: I "learn from these podcasts" (+ get ideas) while ... walking my dog. You could do so too while commuting, exercising, etc.

8. Learn about Drush

Learn to walk before you want to try to fly ... So start building / maintaining Drupal sites using the typical Admin interface (UI). Such as:

  • install/enable modules.
  • clearing the cache(s).
  • updating site information.
  • typical modules you keep using in most of the sites you build.
  • etc.

However, when you feel you have enough experience, and start to know and understand Drupal well enough, you should invest in learning about Drush. After you do, you'll wonder "How could I do work in Drupal without Drush?". For each of the bullets above (and many more bullets), there is a way to do it with Drush.

9. Learn about GIT

A Drupal site mostly consist of 2 major parts: a database (typically in MySQL), and code (mostly PHP, also JavaScript, CSS, etc). Drupal core, it's contributed modules, and also custom modules are all in "code". Git is used for the "Software Change Management" (SCM) part of that code.

It is highly recommended to start using GIT "as soon as you can" (after you do, you'll wonder "how would I do work in Drupal without it?"). Git is typically used for topics/tasks such as:

Part 3 - How to gain more experience?

10. Pick an area to grow

Drupal is big, actually huge. Nobody (even not Dries) can do/know everything in Drupal. So try to find an area (or a few areas) you're interested in. If you can, look for something you also have experience with already in other (none-Drupal) domains already.

In my case it was (is) Software Change Management and also Business Intelligence (reporting). That's what explains the contributed modules I'm now 'involved' in (Charting, Reporting, etc) ... and my interest in the upcoming "Configuration Management Initiative".

11. Learn from experience ... and mistakes

Another important aspect to come up to speed with Drupal, is that you have time to learn "from experience", and "from making mistakes". Starting as a site builder seems the most obvious starting point.

From there you can move / evolve into roles like a Drupal Developer (back-end), Drupal Themer (front-end) or Drupal all rounder. That's also what seems to be compliant with recent Drupal certification programs.

Remark: how to get started in any of these roles, seems to be out-of-scope for this question.

12. Get in touch with other Drupal-fans

You must have seen this before: "Come for the software, stay for the community". If not, have you ever visited www.drupal.org? See it in the upper left of the homepage? If you're new to Drupal you probably wonder what that really means. Here are some suggestions to experience it:

13. ...

This bullet is intentionally left blank ... because of its "number" ... Did you notice the numbering started at 0? ... to compensate for this missing number ...

14. Attend Drupal conferences and meetings

Meeting in person with other Drupal peers takes more effort (and is more expensive), but you will get a lot in return. Here are some options to pick from:

  • Attend Drupal Cons, these are big conferences, about 1 in every continent every year, relatively expensive (travel, hotel, registration). Common language is English (though there are exceptions like in Latin America I believe it's in Spanish). Next one coming up is in Barcelona, sept 21-25, 2015 (I'm registered ...). If you can't make it (or missed some of the sessions while there and busy doing networking, etc.), go find the videos about dozens of sessions.

  • Attend Drupal Camps, which are more local and (way) smaller. They are typically by country and/or state, in your own language.

  • Attend Drupal Sprints, where you wil not only be contributing (= giving back to the community), but where you will find others willing to help, guide and mentor you where needed.

Part 4 - How to target the golden cradle?

15. Don't wait for George, just be like George

George@Drupal.org was (at least to me) first introduced at DrupalCon 2014 in Amsterdam during the Keynote (from Dries) (on slide 76/198). Review those slides, and watch the movie to understand what that George is all about.

Then stop "waiting for George", and instead start acting like George. Even if it's something challenging (difficult, major effort, etc). When you're done, you'll for sure have learned something, and probably AlotMORE ...

If you're looking for inspiration about what could be good examples of this, then stop wondering "When will D8 be released?". And instead, "Get involved in contributing to the release of D8" .... And continu using D7 for building websites until D8 is ready (and mature enough).

16. Start contributing as a novice

Apart from what's detailed in the Novice code contribution guide (which is about creating patches to contribute "code" to Drupal), there is also a lot of community documentation that needs work, and can be done by novice users (typically tagged with "novice").

Same for modules that need better/more documentation. That's actually how I got 'promoted' from being a Drupal user/admin to becoming a module co-maintainer and module owner. Refer to HELP Reports reorganization (which is 'just' 1 issue ...) for an illustration of how I got started in doing so.

Such contributions will help to "Build your reputation", and might resolve the chicken/egg issue to get started with Drupal (most jobs in Drupal require knowledge / experience in specific Drupal areas).

17. Learn to manage Drupal configuration

Any Drupal site consist of 2 major parts:

  • Code downloaded from Drupal.org, such as Drupal core and contributed modules or custom modules.

  • Configuration which is stored in the Drupal database (typically anything you do using the Drupal administration screens).

Managing code (such as migrating or synching between 2 or more environments) is relatively easy. All sorts of tools (such as GIT, etc) are available to actually do so.

However you also need to manage the configuration of a Drupal site. A site without any configuration is like a site for which you have not even ran the install.php script. Here are some examples of what configuration is about:

  • As soon as you start running the install.php script, you start entering configuration data about your Drupal site (Site name, site slogan, etc.).
  • Anything to content types, permissions, roles, rules, users, taxonomies, filters, custom views, etc. (none of this is stored in "code", and you can't just download it from somewhere).
  • Modules and/or themes that are enabled (just unpacking a contributed module that you download from Drupal.org will not enable it).
  • Options to configure specific modules and/or themes.

So whenever something about such configuration items changes, or needs to be migrated to another site, you need to correctly manage (and secure?) all this. Otherwise there is a chance that (parts of) your site breaks.

That's why at first these kinds of contributed modules were introduced:

Even though those modules add a lot of value in the area of managing configuration, they also have weaknesses. That's why the Configuration Management Initiative (=CMI) was introduced. CMI is planned to be released as part of Drupal 8.

Part 5 - Appendix

The above list is incomplete (still ...). Other topics that might be added here:

  • How could a training program look like?

  • How to gain more experience?

    • Find a Drupal mentor (+ accept invites from others to become theirs ...).
    • Chat with the Drupal Community on IRC.
    • Participate in sprints.
    • Learn about Drupal deployments (dev, stage, QA, prod).
  • How to target the golden cradle?

    • Workflow automation.
    • Automated testing.
    • Apply software reuse (Features, drush make, installation profiles, etc).
    • Get ready for D8 (Symphony, Twig, OOP, CMI, server prereqs, ...).