20 February 2011

"If I told him that my problem was a broken leg, he'd tell me that Drupal was the solution."

This one comes from the grapevine.(1)

I gather that this was overheard at an event for nonprofit professionals:

Party of the First Part: "What do you think of that web developer, (Name Withheld)? Our nonprofit needs a content management system for the web site, and he says that Drupal is the solution."

Party of the Second Part
: "He's great at Drupal development, but you'd better do your homework about all the options before you hire him. If I told (Name Withheld) that my problem was a broken leg, he'd tell me that Drupal was the solution."
Or maybe it was Wordpress. Or Plone. Or Joomla. Or Sharepoint. Or Raiser's Edge. Whatever.

It so happens that software applications tend to attract zealots. It's usually but isn't always open source content management systems that have this effect on otherwise reasonable people. There's a lot of this zealotry going around in the nonprofit technology field.

I've seen this sort of situation play out a number of times, so even if I don't know (Name Withheld), I can make a few guesses. He's enthusiastic, articulate, and public-spirited. His technical experience and skills are solid. He's probably willing to take this project on at a reduced fee (or free of charge) because he believes in the nonprofit's mission. But there's a major problem here: he's a true believer. In Drupal. Or in Sharepoint. Whatever.

This means that (Name Withheld) is going to have a hard time handling any cognitive dissonance that may emerge from the needs assessment process. He won't be able to hear any indication that his development platform is not the best choice for the nonprofit. This in turn almost guarantees that he will not listen to input from organization, and that's a disastrous flaw in a web developer.

While I'm making guesses, and extrapolating a great deal from very little evidence, I'm going presume that the Party of the First Part did not meet (Name Withheld) through a rigorous process of reviewing great web sites belonging to comparable nonprofits, and asking her counterparts in those organizations who developed their web sites. Nor did she educate herself about the relative strengths and weaknesses of various content management systems. Nor did she draw up a rank-ordered list of priorities for how the web site needs to support the organization's operations. No. It's more likely that she already knows (Name Withheld) socially, or that she met him in a professional setting, and they got into a conversation about web sites. He offered to make all of her worries about the web site go away with a platform that has all of the features she needs, and assured her that he would manage everything.

It will probably all end in tears.

Nonprofit executives with very little technical knowledge are highly susceptible to fallacious thinking and fear-driven decisions about their web sites. What the Party of the First Part wants to hear is that the solution will enable her to set it and forget it - in other words, that there's an ideal tool that can be installed, and that she won't have to participate in the distasteful development process, and that once it's implemented she won't have to think about it anymore. (Name Withheld) seems to be offering that, because he honestly thinks Drupal is just that good, and if she just hires him, the pain and anxiety will all be over.

In fact, it's probably just started.

I know, because I've watched a number of web developers like (Name Withheld) operate in the nonprofit sector. Oh, my! If you could only hear the stories they can tell! It's always about the client organization that seemed so promising, but mysteriously turned out to be unworthy of the Sacred CMS platform! Those Parties of the First Part start out so grateful and relieved when (Name Withheld) shows up to rescue them - but before you know it (Name Withheld) discovers the real truth, which is that the clients are demanding, impatient, unresponsive to requests for information, unable to articulate their apparently very specific but unspoken expectations, uninterested in the inner beauty of the Sacred CMS, and petulant because it doesn't have all the features they need. (Name Withheld) will be all injured innocence, and, oddly enough, the Party of the First Part will feel the same way.

Do you know where my empathy really lies? It's with the Party of the Second Part, a Cassandra of the nonprofit sector. She is faithfully fulfilling her duty to warn, even in the face of the Party of the First Part's willful disregard.(2)

When you meet the Party of the Second Part at one of those gatherings, please buy her a drink, and give her my regards.(3)

1) I love receiving stories from people who read this blog. Keep them coming, please.

2) Or perhaps I should say "invincible ignorance." It's difficult to be reasonable when you're terrified, and that's how many nonprofit executives feel when they step out of their areas of expertise.

3) You might learn something.


Edward Vielmetti said...

You can listen to this song


and understand some part of the Drupal world.

Anonymous said...

It really is like religious zealotry. There are a thousand sects out there, full of true believers.

Mr.Noah Kleiman said...

"Well..If your broken leg needs to manage over 100 web pages, or you want your new leg to integrate seamlessly with a database, or you plan on using your leg to do more than just stand, sit and walk around, then I would suggest Drupal. Otherwise a traditional cast and an anonymous blogger account should do the trick" - Noah, Nonprofit Ambassador

This article could easily be about me, since I work for a nonprofit-serving Drupal development firm and I advise NPO leaders on this very subject. Still,I really enjoyed reading this. There is a lot of truth to what you wrote.

I'm actually a great counter-example to the person you described. My background is in nonprofit management, and the Drupal firm I represent has a very long service history of happy NPO clients.

Over the years exclusive specialization in Drupal happened over time, we always looked at what the best tool for each job was, and Drupal gradually matured into the best framework for accomplishing the custom web programming we do. We routinely refer out web projects for which Drupal would be inappropriate.

It's true, there are a lot of cowboys in the world of web developers, no matter what architecture they build in. It's an unregulated industry so finding responsible, experienced, and dependable developers can be a challenge.

Yes, it can end in tears. We frequently get called in to rescue projects like this.

Enthusiasm about Drupal isn't really the problem there, nor is the issue open source software zealotry. The real challenge isn't in identifying the right architecture (Drupal, Wordpress, etc.) it's in finding qualified and reliable developers; People you can trust.

The lesson here is:
If your nonprofit needs something impressive built, make sure the builder you hire has built impressive tools before, preferably for other NPOs.

Talk to your NPO peers and ask developers for client references. Remember just because a website design looks pretty doesn't mean it's easy for the NPO staff to update & use; Look at how recently the website content has been updated.