We are happy to host a very important person in the Drupal sphere here today, Tim Lehnen. Tim is the Director of Engineering at the Drupal Association. He’s been a member of Drupal.org for over 11 years.
Cloudways: Hello Tim, and thank you for your time. Can you give the readers a brief overview of your career?
Tim: Thanks for having me! I’d be happy to. My career to date has very much been book-ended by Drupal. I first started working with Drupal back at version 4.6, building sites as a freelancer to pay for my education. At that time, I wasn’t really involved in the project from a community point of view. Instead, I was focused on putting myself through school.
As I was finishing my degree, I had the opportunity to work for a new media start-up focused on subscription video streaming. This wasn’t a Drupal project, but it was my first opportunity to work on digital services and content delivery at scale and I learned a tremendous amount. Unfortunately our timing was not quite right. We started operations about 9 months before Google’s acquisition of YouTube, and in the same year that Hulu launched.
After that project wound down, I moved into digital healthcare services. I worked for an organization that helped small-practice health care providers with their online presence. My role evolved over time, and this is where I ultimately found my calling as a Project Manager and then Director of Technology Operations. The platform we used was based on JBOSS, though towards the end of my tenure I was advocating for a switch to Drupal.
Then in the fall of 2014, I saw the opportunity to join the Drupal Association as Project Manager for the Engineering team and jumped at the chance. It felt like my chance to give back to the community that had launched my career. I was privileged to take on the role of Director of Engineering in the summer of 2016.
Working in service of a community as talented and diverse as the Drupal community has been tremendously rewarding and challenging – and the highlight of my career.
Cloudways: What was your first encounter with Drupal and what made you get into it?
Tim: Oh wow – it’s tough to remember. I was on the leading edge of the generation that grew up on the web, so I was making simplistic static HTML sites from a young age. Sometime in high school, I realized that building websites could be a real career, and I started seeking out more complex tools. I think my story is similar to that of many of the people who found Drupal in the early days. We were self-taught and looking for ways to expand what we could do on the web as individual freelancers, by building on a platform rather than starting from scratch.
Even in those early days, Drupal was the most flexible platform for building sites. Out of the box, it was never the best choice for blogging, or brochure sites, or for a custom CRM. However, it was the best toolkit for building your own platform for the precise purpose you needed.
We didn’t have the vocabulary to recognize that distinction at the time(or at least, I certainly didn’t) but I think the community now recognizes this as Drupal’s strength: it’s not what Drupal does out of the box, but what you can build with it.
Cloudways: I see that you have majored in English Literature and Philosophy. How has that helped you in your Drupal journey?
Tim: Going into my undergraduate degree, I knew that four years of college would be about all that I could afford (even paying my way with freelance Drupal sites!). I decided to double major in English Lit and Philosophy to get the most out of those years. I have to admit I didn’t have any idea how it would impact my career.
As it turns out, the impact was huge. I built analytical and communications skills through close reading of texts, and writing proofs in formal logic has much more in common with mathematics and pseudocode than one might think! As a Project Manager and now a Director, those analytical and communication skills have been in many ways more important than my self-taught technical ones.
Cloudways: You are a great example of how one could make it big in ICT without a Computer Science major. What advice would you give to people who would like to enter the industry with a CS degree?
Tim: First, let me recognize how privileged I am to be able to work in a highly-competitive, well-compensated field without a related degree. The tech industry is one of the rare fields where this is still possible, and open source communities are a large part of the reason for that.
Whether you have a formal degree or not, the best way to learn is by doing. Code boot camps are the popular mode these days, but I’m still a strong believer in cutting your teeth on real problems. By all means, avail yourself of formal instruction and training, but once you understand the fundamentals, the only way to cement that knowledge is to use it to solve real problems.
The popular recommendation is to build out several portfolio projects—proof of concept examples that mimic existing sites and applications—but I would recommend a different approach.
In the Drupal community, we say, “Come for the code, stay for the community.”
Join an open source community, and seek out ways that you can contribute. Tackling these real problems will cement best practices in your mind, and further increase your fluency. Once you feel confident, take on a project of your own. Choose something of reasonable scope but that you are genuinely passionate about. Lean on the connections you’ve built in your community to help you.
Cloudways: As a Director of Engineering at Drupal Association, what are your core responsibilities?
Tim: The mission of the Drupal Association is to “unite a global open source community to build and promote Drupal.” We’re an independent non-profit funded by our community via direct membership contributions, support from companies in the Drupal business ecosystem, and revenues from DrupalCon, our twice-yearly community event. Those funds are directly reinvested in supporting the Association’s two primary programs: DrupalCon, and Drupal.org.
It’s a common misconception outside of our community that the Drupal Association leads the development of Drupal itself. In fact, our focus is on providing the tools, infrastructure, and resources to enable the community to manage the project on their own.
As the Director of Engineering, my job is to manage the strategic and tactical direction for the Drupal Association’s small engineering team. This means synthesizing all of the inputs into our priorities: whether from our Board of Directors, the community themselves, or our internal organizational needs. I help to decide where to put our limited engineering resources so that we can have the biggest impact in support of the Drupal project and community.
Cloudways: What are some major challenges you’ve been faced during your Drupal journey?
Tim: The greatest challenges I’ve faced with Drupal have come since joining the Drupal Association. The Drupal project is one of the oldest continuously active open-source projects, and the Association is rare in that it is a truly independent non-profit. Many more recent open-source projects are closely tied to a for-profit organization—which means they may be much better funded than we are, but also that they are less independent.
Our focus is truly on the needs of the community, and not just the developers who build Drupal, but also the end users and organizations who rely on Drupal for their success.
Our community is made up of many different people and organizations, from all over the world. This has been a tremendous strength of the project, but also the biggest challenge for the Association. We are a much smaller organization than most of the people in our community realize, both in revenue and personnel. There are 17 people currently working for the Association, and only 4 of us on the Engineering team.
These limited resources don’t mean we can’t have a big impact, but they do mean we have to carefully choose our priorities. It can be heartbreaking to have to say ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ to a community member who so passionately cares about the project, but it’s our challenge and our responsibility to use our limited to resources to have the biggest impact we can.
Cloudways: What advice would you give to Drupal newbies? Also, what do you have to say about the importance of community events like DrupalCon?
Tim: For someone new to Drupal, I would reiterate my advice above. Learn by doing. Reach out to the community. Level up your skills through contribution.
Both the code and community can seem intimidating at first, but there is such genuine warmth and camaraderie in the community that you will find yourself building friendships as you build your skills.
DrupalCon is a wonderful opportunity. I would encourage anyone, of any level of familiarity with Drupal to join us. DrupalCon is a chance to learn from the brightest minds in the community, a chance to put faces with usernames, and an opportunity to learn best practices from people and organizations who’ve built incredible things on Drupal.
Cloudways: What are some major feats you’d wish to see Drupal accomplish?
Tim: With the release of Drupal 8, we’re now seeing the continuous delivery of significant new features in each 6-month release. Drupal’s strategic initiatives no longer have to wait for the next major release of Drupal. We’re moving much closer to an ‘evergreen’ software model for Drupal. This ability to keep Drupal continuously relevant is exciting.
In particular, I’ve been following the Workflow and the Layout initiatives closely. I think that more intuitive and powerful tools for publishing workflows and layout are going to be crucial to Drupal’s success in the next years.
Looking at a longer horizon, I’m excited to see what Drupal becomes as it becomes a more API-first platform. The concept of headless Drupal, and using Drupal as the content hub of multiple end-points (the web, mobile, or IoT) is a fascinating one.
Cloudways: Ok, that’s enough talk about work! Let’s talk about your hobbies, what do you do when you aren’t at work?
Tim: I am an avid reader, and a writer as well. I primarily write young adult fiction, usually fantasy or science fiction. I’m hoping to publish my first novel soon!
Storytelling is really important to me, and I think it’s an important part of the way we transmit culture and shared experience. When I don’t have my nose in a book, I enjoy collaborative storytelling in the form of pen and paper roleplaying. The storytelling itself is more important than the system, but on any given weekend you might find me and friends playing Changeling, Call of Cthulu, Night’s Black Agents, or some new Indie RPG.
As you can tell from the picture below, I also play music—mostly fiddle—though I wouldn’t be caught dead doing it for an audience! It’s just something I do for me.
Cloudways: Could you share a snap of your workplace with us?
Tim: As of last year, the Drupal Association went 100% remote. Here’s a picture of my workstation in my home office. I’ve always been someone who can’t sit still—I fidget and pace constantly. I’ve found that quick adjusting sit/stand mount helps me quite a bit. I recently switched to a vertical rather than a horizontal monitor setup, and I’ve found it’s helped reduce neck pain. I recommend it!
Cloudways: Last question, have you ever had a chance to try out Cloudways? What are your thoughts about managed cloud hosting platforms for Drupal?
Tim: I haven’t had the chance to try out Cloudways myself, but it’s clear that managed cloud hosting is the future for sites and applications. It’s very rare that any organization wants to manage the overhead of bare metal servers, and even with cloud platforms the industry is beginning to standardize on best practices—and rather than reimplementing the wheel, teams can now find providers who have already put those best practices in place.
For Drupal specifically, it’s important that any hosting platform supports the toolchain that Drupal developers need: command line access, Git, staging environments, etc. It’s also great to see additional tools for managing varnish, elasticsearch, and for seamless scaling. While a development team could manage those things on their own directly on bare metal or with non-managed cloud instances, it’s good to see someone close the gap so that teams can focus on the digital experiences they’re building.