Web Masters Episode #67: Dries Buytaert


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Dries Buytaert:

Open source at the core, is a license, a software license. It gives you certain rights. Basically, there’s four fundamental rights, I guess. One is everybody can download and install the software. So, everybody can use it, but it’s not in, itself, different from freeware, for example. But the other right is that you get access to the source code. And what that means is you can actually look under the hood and see how the software was built. You can learn how the software was built. You can see how every algorithm works. There is no secrets in the software. And then the third right is that you can actually change the software too. So, not only can you look at how it’s built and how it works, you can make modifications to it. And then finally the fourth right is that you can share your modifications as well. It allows you to use the software free of charge, look at the code, make changes, and redistribute your changes with other people as long as you give it the same license, the GPL.

And so at its score, I would say, it’s a license, but what the license leads to is a very new innovation model. It leads to community. It leads to hundreds or thousands of people contributing, working together on building software. And so it’s an incredible innovation model as well. That comes from being a licensed at the core.

Aaron Dinin:

That was an entrepreneur named Dries Buytaert, explaining the open source model. At first, it probably seems like kind of a crazy idea. Especially from an entrepreneurial perspective, “You mean you’re just give away your product for free, and anyone can use it for anything? They can know exactly how it works, modify it, however they want, and do all of that without paying you a single penny. How the heck is that a good business model?” And of course, that’s exactly what lots of people thought about the open source software movement in its earliest days, but not anymore. And it’s thanks to people like, well, Dries Buytaert and the open source project he helped launch, Drupal. Are you ready to hear the story. Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO]

Aaron DInin:

Hey, there. Welcome to the Web Masters, the podcast where you get to learn about entrepreneurship and hear some great stories about the history of the worldwide web along the way by listening to some of the internet’s most successful innovators. I’m your host, Aaron Dinin. I’m a serial entrepreneur. I teach entrepreneurship at Duke University. And oh, by the way, I’m a software engineer, or at least, I used to be a decent one back in my startup days.

I first learned how to code by tinkering with the platform we’ll be discussing in this episode, Drupal, one of the world’s most popular content management systems, a CMS. I’m surely not the only person who got my start building websites, using Drupal. Heck, maybe some of you did too. I’m excited to get to the story. But first, I’m just as excited to tell you about our sponsor.

Web Masters and the story of Drupal is being to thanks in part to the support of Latona’s. Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions broker that helps people buy and sell cashflow positive internet businesses and digital assets. I between a lot of those businesses are built on Drupal or platforms like it. They could be content websites, eCommerce stores, SAS apps, or maybe they’re Amazon FBAs, domain portfolios, Shopify sites, or whatever. If it’s an internet based business, you own it. It doesn’t really matter what platform it’s built on. If you’re thinking about selling it, be sure to contact the Latona’s team. They can help you get it sold for a great price.

Or if you’re interested in buying an internet business, head on over to the Latona’s website where you’ll find listings for all the businesses they’ve currently got for sale. That website is latonas.com, L-A-T-O-N-A-S.com.

I’ve already mentioned that Drupal is one of the web’s most popular content management systems, a CMS. You’re probably familiar with the term and the concept, but just in case you aren’t, let’s take a moment to let this episode’s guest, Dries Buytaert, explain both what a CMS is and what Drupal can be used for.

Dries Buytaert:

Drupal is a few different things in a way. It’s a community of contributors and users, but it’s obviously software too. And at its core, it’s a content management system. And so if you want to build a website, it could be any kind of website, you can use Drupal. It enables developers to build web applications, but it also enables content creators to create content and publish it on the web without having to be developers themselves. So, we have a way for people to create a web page or pages and to write content, whether it’s articles or blog posts. So, Drupal is used for all kinds of websites from blogs, my personal website, to a lot of universities. I don’t know if you know. About 80% of all universities in the world use Drupal. And they use it for all kinds of things, for their main websites, but for project websites and student portals.

We have a lot of eCommerce websites, too, that are run by Drupal. We have a lot of product websites. We have end-users like Pfizer and Johnson and Johnson, and Nestle, a lot of the largest companies in the world. And those organizations often have hundreds or even thousands of Drupal sites across the world. They have them for all of their product websites around the world. And so Drupal is a pretty powerful and flexible platform for creating web applications and websites, and to do so in a way that’s very fast and easy, and powers, often, less technical people, like marketers and content creators, to publish online without having to rely on developer.

Aaron Dinin:

If you’re not familiar with Drupal, specifically, you’ve probably at least heard of the 800 pound gorilla of the CMS industry, which is, of course, WordPress. At last count, nearly 40% of all websites are WordPress websites. And that’s a lot of websites. Coming in at a distant second is Drupal. And while you might think being second most popular isn’t as good as, well, being the most popular. That’s actually not how Dries sees things. In fact, according to Dries, he’s a WordPress fan.

Dries Buytaert:

I like WordPress a lot, first of all. They are much bigger than Drupal. I think Drupal is the second one largest. WordPress is the number one largest, and I’m good friends actually with Matt Mullenweg, who is sort of the project lead of WordPress. I would say WordPress tends to be used for less complex websites. Where Drupal fits in is the more complex websites. WordPress tends to be more for blogs or maybe news oriented websites. And Drupal tends to be more like … Could be complex eCommerce websites or intranets, or more application like websites. In the beginning, actually, it was very confusing. It was kind of this competitive vibe between WordPress and Drupal. But I think over time, and certainly today, people kind of understand simpler sites use WordPress. More advanced sites, you go Drupal, if you want to stick with open source. That’s, I think for many, the two options. Obviously, there’s hundreds of other open source solutions, but they tend to be quite a bit smaller.

Aaron Dinin:

You’re not bitter that WordPress is used on more websites?

Dries Buytaert:

Not really, to be honest. We do learn from each other, but we’re not really competing with WordPress. I would say we primarily compete with proprietary solutions, like the Adobes and Sitecores, and Optimizelys of the world. That’s really more of our competition. WordPress and Drupal, in many ways, we’re fighting the same fight. We try to evangelize open source. A lot of people dabble with Drupal and WordPress at the same time. A lot of open source centric organizations, they use both Drupal for maybe their complex websites, and WordPress for their simpler sites. And they happily live next to each other.

Aaron Dinin:

The relationship between WordPress and Drupal is worth noting because it underscores what I believe is a core misconception entrepreneurs tend to have about competition, and who their competitors actually are. On the surface, you’d look at WordPress in Drupal and assume that they’re competitive products because they’re both open source content management systems. But that’s not really the case. Rather than being competitors, WordPress in DRAL are more like … Let’s call them frenemies. They’re two forms of open source CMSs that serve two different purposes. They don’t battle each other so much as they work together to build similar usage habits among consumers. Compare them, for example, to two other seemingly competitive companies, Instagram and TikTok. Sure, Instagram would rather you be on Instagram. And of course, TikTok would rather you be on TikTok. But so long as you’re scrolling through social media on your phone, that it’s a good thing for both companies. It’s normalizing the practice of using a phone-based social media app as entertainment, which both companies benefit from. The bigger concern for them is that you’re finding ways of entertaining yourself, which are completely different, like watching Netflix or playing a game on an Xbox, or listening to a podcast.

In the case of WordPress in Drupal, more people using WordPress normalizes the practice of using open source CMSs in general, which is good for Drupal. And of course, the same is true for WordPress when Drupal is getting used. granted today, there’s not much of a debate about whether or not opensource software should be used. But remember, that wasn’t the case when Dries was launching Drupal.

Dries Buytaert:

At the time, open source was still brand new, and people were very skeptical about it, “Random people on the internet work on software. And why will we trust that software? No way it will be secure.” There was kind of a hippie element to it. And it’s probably true. It started as a move, almost an anti-establishment movement, to try and get rid of proprietary software, especially at the time. But fast forward 20 years and I think open source has become really well accepted. Every company in the world uses open source. They may not always know it, but it would be very hard to find a company that doesn’t use open source. Today, it’s very different. It’s no longer strictly this anti-establishment movement, but people have come to realize it’s actually a great way for building software. And there’s a lot of things that … As a company, we build certain software. But if we shared it with others, and we can get improvements contributed from other organizations and other people, that is actually a good thing for ourselves too.

It’s this notion that together, you can get further and build better software than on your own. It actually leads to better software that’s more scalable, more tested, and is more agile, works in more different use cases and situations. So, I think we’ve come a long way, so to speak. I think people just like contributing and participating to open source software nowadays.

Aaron Dinin:

Over the years, a few big projects have really driven the success of the open source software movement. The Linux operating system is probably the best example. Also, the Apache web server, the MySQL database, and the Android phone OS. Drupal has played an important role in that movement too, which we’re going to get to. Before that, let’s learn a bit more about how the project got started, which of course, requires us to first learn more about how Dries got started with computers and the internet.

Dries Buytaert:

I got into computers when I was 10 years old. I wrote my first programs, I guess. My parents, my dad, he had a Commodore 64. One day, he came home, and he had two little booklets or books. It was Programming for Kids. And you had to type, literally, small programs, and you could run them. And then you have a little game. I remember one of the games was … You had like five star stars on the screen. And stars, I mean icons [inaudible 00:12:52] characters, and you could pick one. You had to enter a number, and then hit enter. And then the stars would race towards the other side of the screen. And if you picked the right star, you won. It was a kind of program, you could write it in probably 20 lines of code.

And these two books, they had a whole bunch of those. And so I would copy them, run them, played the game. I would start to dabble a little bit, go a little bit off script, and kind of make little variety games based on what was in the book. That was kind of my first exposure.

Aaron Dinin:

And when did you first start writing your own software programs?

Dries Buytaert:

I think I was 14 or 15. My dad is a medical doctor, and he was still using … Everything was on paper, and there wasn’t much digital. And one day, he came home and he bought me this huge stack of compiler books. I think it was like 10 books. It was a programming language called Clipper. And the database was Clipper DB. I don’t know if people remember this. I don’t think it was a huge success, but he asked me to spend one of my summer vacations, trying to help him digitize his patient management system. And so I learned about databases that summer and about [inaudible 00:14:11] completely different programming language. And that was a lot of fun. And it was hard, too, because I remember this book, would talk arrays, a programming construct, but I had no idea what an array was. So, I had to learn all of these things based on the books. This was really before there was internet. So, I read this book back and forth, trying to figure it out.

I couldn’t quickly Google something. I also couldn’t go anywhere and ask people. I literally didn’t know anyone that was a software developer. And so a lot of self-starting, I guess, but I managed to wrestle through it. I ended up building him something that he could use. I don’t think it was winning any awards for being well architected or anything like it, but I ended up making it work. So, that helped him out.

Aaron Dinin:

You were being a good son, and that’s how you learned to code. And when did the internet come into play? How did you wind up building web software?

Actually, one of my first jobs was to go work at an internet service provider, and they hired me. Literally, I was a student. I was studying computer science. I was, I think, in my first or second year. And they were looking for students to come and work evenings and weekends to provide customer service. People would call. They would send CD-ROMs to people. And then you’d get a CD-ROM in the mail, and you could install the software on the CD-ROM. And so this company, like I think other companies, they would send these CD-ROM to everybody, hoping some people would actually install the software. And so my job was helping people install the software because back then, installing the internet between [inaudible 00:15:55] was kind of tricky. You had to manually enter IP addresses. You had to manually enter DNS servers. And so for most people, that was very foreign. And the installation instructions weren’t necessarily easy. So, a lot of people got stuck. So, my job was to help them get their internet installed. And one of the perks or one of the benefits of this company was that I would get … I think it was called a flat fee subscription, unlimited internet subscription, which again, at the time, in Belgium, most people would buy like four hours a month of internet.

And of course, I would burn through these, and I didn’t have money. I couldn’t afford to buy a unlimited internet subscription. And by the way, that was just a fee to the service provider, not your phone bill. And so one of the perks was I get this free unlimited internet subscription, which managed to get me online. I got involved with a lot of communities and IRC, and I built my own website. That’s how I got started. And then I got involved with IRC quite a bit and ended up writing bots for IRC. That got me exposure to online communities, and community building, and those kinds of things. I think it was probably ’96 or ’97.

Aaron Dinin:

Is that around when you got interested in the open source software movement?

Dries Buytaert:

Yeah. I was a student at the University of Antwerp. I was studying computer science. I was using Linux as my desktop software, if you will. I had a good friend, one of my best friends, and he lived across the street from me. He was one of the first 10 people in Antwerp that got high speed internet. Everybody else was doing the dial-up thing. I remember he was so happy, and he had to sign this contract with the company. Like, “You can’t share this with anyone.” And so of course, the first thing we did is, “How do we share this thing?” Because his speed was like 100 times faster. I don’t even remember. It was so crazy fast. And so we looked around. We couldn’t run a cable over the street. That didn’t feel right. The next best option was, “How do we build a wireless across the street that he could share his internet with me?” We started looking for solutions. I remember calling Alcatel-Lucent. And they said, “Well, a wireless bridge? It’s like $100,000.” Or something. And we’re like, “What?” And so we found this little company in the UK, and they were pioneering WLAN cards, wireless network cards, the ones that you had to kind of slide into your PC back in the day. And they said, “But we’re still creating them. We don’t actually have working drivers yet.”

And so we bought two, anyway. I think we paid probably $400 or something, which for us, was a lot of money at the time. Again, we were students. My friend was using Windows NT. they would literally send him new drivers every few days. It’s like, “I tried this. Does it work?” I was using Linux. I ended up getting involved a little bit with the Linux wireless networking project, which they were working on drivers for emerging WLAN. This was before it was called wifi, actually. They were working on drivers for their Linux kernel. I started contributing small and helped with the documentation, and other kind of things. And so that really is what got me hooked on open source.

Aaron Dinin:

How did that lead you to first creating Drupal?

Dries Buytaert:

Once we got the wireless network drivers working, which was a huge victory for us that it actually worked … It was very unreliable, by the way. I remember when I turned on my microwave in my room, the network connection would drop. If a truck drove through the street, the connection would drop. So, this was definitely early, early days. But once that was up and running, I was living in a home, and there was some other students in the house that I lived in. And so they’re like, “How do I get access to this?” And so we started running network cables. There was some friends that lived … Next to our house was … These are row houses, was another house with a family. And then next to that house, the family, was another house with students and friends. And so I remember at night, we would run a network cable over our neighbor’s balcony. They didn’t know. And honestly, that led me to create Drupal because they would always ask me, “What’s up with the network? Why is it down?” And we might have been installing new drivers or maybe my microwave was running, or all that kind of stuff. And so I’m like, “You know what? I need to build a small message board or something.” And at the time, PHP and MySQL, two of the technologies that Drupal is built on, they were brand new, emerging and hot.

I’m like, “You know what? I’m going to build this message board. I want to learn PHP. And I want to learn MySQL. I’m going to spend a few nights, building this simple message board. And when the internet is down, I can just leave a message, and people can find out it’s that of coming over and ringing my doorbell.” And so that’s how I started Drupal. I literally wanted to build a small message board for me and a few of my friends. My initial plan was to work on it for a couple nights, nothing longer. And so obviously, that spiraled out of control because here am 21 years later. I’m still working on it.

Aaron Dinin:

And probably not going to be done anytime soon. Huh?

Dries Buytaert:

No, I don’t think I’ll ever be done.

Aaron Dinin:

How did that happen exactly? How did it go from a little website to share the status of the internet with a few friends into a massive open source content management system that you’ve been working on for more than two decades?

Dries Buytaert:

Yeah, sure. Basically, it was running as a message board in my dorm. I finished college, and I moved out of my dorm. I felt kind of sad to shut down our website because it was kind of like an intranet. I wasn’t on the public internet. And so I said, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to move our intranets because it was a lot of fun.” We would post jokes and interesting articles, “I’m going to move it to the public internet so that when I move out, we can continue this community.” It’s when actually Drupal was kind of born, if you will, because once I went from an intranet to the public internet, I had to register a domain name. There’s a longer story there. But I wanted to register dorp.org, D-O-R-P, which is Dutch for small village or smallcommunity.org. But I made a typo, and I switched the O and the R, and I ended up registering drop.org. I’m like, “Wow, four letter words. It’s an English words. I’m rich.” kind of thing.

This was also early days on the internet when the domain names were still somewhat available. Anyhow, I ended up registering, drop.org and moved my site there. And that message board also evolved from kind of an intranet message board to my experimental platform.

Aaron Dinin:

And what do you mean by experimental platform? How did that become a CMS?

Dries Buytaert:

We dabble with things like … For example, I remember being on the mailing list where RSS was invented, RSS feeds. I didn’t really contribute to the format, but I was kind of lurking. I would be like, “Oh, I can implement it.” And so I would implement this on my website at drop.org. I remember implementing a feature that was called public diaries. And that was when people started to keep a diary online. Eventually, that became blogging, but it wasn’t called blogging. It was literally called public diaries. And so I implemented that feature, and I started blogging on my website. And so that attracted an audience of people interested in the future of the web, I guess, or all the emerging things on the web. So, my site, all of a sudden, had quite a few visitors. and people started giving suggestions and ideas for what to implement next. I implemented a feature where everybody could vote on articles, and the best feature would go to the main page. Reddit works that way now. And there was a website called dig.com. You may recall. But I did that on my away before all these other sites.

Obviously, mine was kind of clumsy and wasn’t as beautifully executed as any of those. But I would dabble with all of these things. And so more and more people came to my site and said, “Hey, Dries, can you do this? Can you do that? How about changing the algorithm to this?” One day, I just said, “You know what? Instead of this being my personal platform, how about I make it open source, and then it can be your platform too? And instead of me implementing all your suggestions, you can just implement them yourself.” And so I literally copied the GPL license file, the open source license file of the Linux kernel into my websites. I spent seconds thinking about the name Drupal. Drop in Dutch is driple. I thought, “How would English speaking person pronounced the Dutch words, driple?” Which is like droplets. And I’m like, “Drupal.” I created a TAR file, which is like a zip file, if you will, and uploaded it to my site. I expected 10 people to maybe download it. And some people downloaded it. People started contributing. I started to encourage contribution. And slowly but steadily, we grew the project.

Aaron Dinin:

At what point did you realize the project had gotten big? It sounds like you never really intended to start an enormous open source software community. So, what was your actual plan when you left college? And when was it obvious that your plans were going to have to change?

Dries Buytaert:

I finished college. I went to work at a startup. I got really passionate about startups. I had nothing to do with the web at this startup, but I would work on Drupal at night and on the weekends. It was truly a passion. I did this startup for three or four years, and then I went back to university. I did a PhD in computer science. Again, my PhD had nothing to do with the web or Drupal. It was all about compiler design, Java virtual machine compilation, that kind of stuff. And while I was finishing my PhD, I was still working on Drupal at night. I remember websites like mtv.com switch to Drupal, and they would crash. I would spend my night, free of charge, on the phone with engineers from MTV, trying to get their site to work. And it’s when I realized, “I should really turn my passion into my full-time job.” Which was a hard choice because I was also very tempted to stay in academia.

I was very passionate about that as well. But I ended up creating Acquia. And the original vision for Acquia was to be to Drupal what Red Hat was to Linux. And again, at the time, Linux was in the news every day. There was maybe a dozen open source companies in the world. I’m like, “All right, I’m going to start an open source company too.” I ended up co-founding Acquia with a partner and friend, Jay Batson. And that was in 2007.

Aaron Dinin:

You just heard Dries talking about Acquia. Acquia, as Dries points out, is to Drupal what Red Hat is to Linux. By that, I mean it’s the for-profit consult consulting and technology firm that Dries created in order to provide professional services and support for enterprise Drupal users. Oh, by the way, it’s also become a pretty big business.

Dries Buytaert:

Acquia is a company. I started Acquia in 2007, and we were born out of Drupal. The idea was, “What products and services can we build to help large organizations be successful with Drupal?” The first thing that organizations needed was commercial support. And that sounds silly. But if you’re a large company and you’re going to spend a $100,000 or a few hundred thousand dollars employ inventing a new website, something goes wrong, who do you call? How do you get support? And so that was the original idea. We would be support for Drupal just like Red Hat was support for Linux. But over time, we’ve added a lot of other capabilities. We added a platform as a service environment, “If you have a very large websites, how do you scale it?” And so we run websites like the Super Bowl website or the website for the Olympics, which they get billions of page views. How do you actually take Drupal, and then operationalize it at scale for some of the largest websites in the world? And so we’ve built a lot of software. Nestle, Johnson and Johnson, or Pfizer, these are organizations that have thousands of websites and have thousands of Drupal sites. How do you manage a thousand sites or 5,000 sites? What do you do if there’s a bug fix release? How do you update 5,000 sites? We have software to help you manage that.

Dries Buytaert:

We provide software services, products around Drupal that kind of maybe supercharge Drupal. And then in the last five years, we’ve expanded to include other marketing technologies as well. We have marketing automation software. We have a customer data platform. A lot of these things may not mean much to you. But today, our vision is, “If you want to be a digital organization, if you are a business or a university, or a healthcare organization, and you do business online, what are all the things you need to be a digital winner? You need a website. Yes. We can give you that with Drupal.” We also often need email marketing to send emails. We provide a whole platform. It’s called DXP. We provide all the tools a company or an organization needs to have an online presence.

Aaron Dinin:

And for context about how big is Acquia,

Dries Buytaert:

We’re almost 1500 employees around the world, well over $250 million in annual revenue.

Aaron Dinin:

And aside from being the founder, what’s your role at Acquia?

Dries Buytaert:

At Acquia, I’m the CTO. I run the product organization. That includes product management and product marketing. So, really thinking about, “What product do we need to build? How do we need to build them, and how do we take them to market? How do we charge for them?” All of these things. The R&D team at Acquia is about 500 people today. So, we have fairly large engineering organization. And so I spend a lot of my time giving them direction on what to do. A lot of my time also goes towards resource allocation, portfolio management, because we have like 15 or so products now in the portfolio. Over time, it has grown to be strategic and, I guess, more high level too. I can’t get into the nitty gritty details of each product. So, spend my time managing all of that, really. And then I also, obviously, am still the project lead for Drupal. I’ve been doing that for 20 plus years, 21 years almost, I think.

And so within Drupal, I’m on the board directors. I help set the product strategy for Drupal. I work with a whole bunch of people, really, on a variety of different aspects of the project, so a lot of different things in my daily life, a lot of variety as well.

Aaron Dinin:

Part of your time is devoted to helping run this big company that provides enterprise support for Drupal. And then, of course, another big chunk of your time is still devoted to overseeing the open source Drupal project. And now, those are two really big responsibilities. Out of curiosity, just how big is the Drupal community at this point?

Dries Buytaert:

In the case of Drupal, every year, we have over 10,000 people that contribute code and other things through the project, over a thousand organizations, some of the largest organizations in the world that are active contributors to the Drupal project.

Aaron Dinin:

Do you have a rough sense of how many websites are currently using Drupal?

Dries Buytaert:

Drupal powers one out of 30 websites in the world. And in the enterprise segment, the largest sites in the world, it’s one out of 10 websites.

Aaron Dinin:

Wow. That’s pretty incredible. Obviously, that’s not at all what’d you planned for. Why do you think Drupal has become so popular?

Dries Buytaert:

I think the reason it gained so much adoption … There’s a little bit of a chicken and an egg. I would say today … I’m biased, first of all. But I fundamentally believe Drupal is better software than proprietary alternatives. It’s just better. It’s more scalable. It’s more secure. It’s more feature rich. We have 40,000 plugins, and our proprietary competitors have less than 100. And so it’s just better. And because it’s better, it gets adopted. And all of these people that adopt Drupal, they may want to add a feature or they have special things they want to add to it. They add it, and they give it back through the project for other people to use. And so I think originally, open source was born out of inspiration to do something good and the antiestablishment movements, fighting against proprietary software. These were all the drivers, but it has now evolved to … Open source is often just better and that fuels contribution.

Aaron Dinin:

Dries claims that open source software, particularly large projects Drupal and WordPress, and MySQL, and Linux, and whatnot have evolved into being better than proprietary software. I mentioned earlier that Drupal has played an important role in that evolution. That’s not just because of the platform Dries and the community have built. It’s also because where Drupal has been used. Yes. During this episode, you’ve heard Dries talk about Drupal being used by some of the world’s largest companies, but none of those quite compare to Drupal’s most public user.

Dries Buytaert:

2008, there was the Great Recession. And President Obama had approved or had this $800 billion stimulus bill, which felt incredibly huge. Of course today, it’s like, “That’s nothing.” But at the time, that was unheard of. And they did this really cool website with Drupal, which tracked every single dollar of that $800 billion. For every project … Let’s say 20 million went to this, they had a page. You could see, “Is this project on time, on budget?” And it had a photo of the person that was responsible for the project. And you could click and see all the projects this person was responsible for. And it was all over the news at the time because it was this notion of radical transparency around where this money was going. And so one day, I get this invitation to go to the White House. And so, “All right, great.” And so I go to the White House. I figured that’s what they want to talk about. But within five minutes, the conversation shifted to, “What if we could run whitehouse.gov on Drupal?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” That was hard to contain myself. And they’re like, “Would that work?” And we’re like, “Yeah, of course. No problem.”

And so 2009, whitehouse.gov switched to Drupal was a Drupal website during the entire presidency of Obama. That was a big milestone for Drupal because that was the first time in history that the White House or the office of the president actually used opensource. And we’ve also worked with them to contribute to opensource. Again, another first in the history there. That was a really big moment for Drupal and actually also for opensource because a lot of people were skeptical about open source, its ability to scale, its ability to be secure. And obviously, whitehouse.gov is a large website. They get millions of visitors. And it’s also one of the most targeted websites in the world in terms of security or hacking attempts. Every 15 year old script kiddies to other nation to hacker groups like Anonymous and what have you, they’re all trying to take down whitehouse.gov. And it ran flawlessly for all of Obama’s presidency.

And so that changed everything. The conversation changed from, “Are you sure Drupal can scale? Are you sure Drupal is secure?” To, “Well, if it works for whitehouse.gov, I guess it will work for us.” And so that was a big moment.

Aaron Dinin:

It really was a huge moment for both Dries and the broader open source software community. Just think about it. White House.gov, the website for the President of the United States. Sure, it’s not the biggest or most heavily trafficked website in the world, but if anyone had managed to hack the White House website, maybe change the homepage picture or install a malicious script, it would’ve been front page news worldwide. Never happened. And because it never happened, it really put the final nail in the coffin of any concerns people could have about quality of big open source software projects like Drupal. Simply put, if it was good enough for the President of the United States, surely, it was good enough for just about anything else you could want to do with it, which is why Drupal has continued spreading around the world, being used for all sorts of sites many of us use every day, often without even realizing it.

Dries Buytaert:

As I mentioned, one out of 30 websites run on Drupal. And so in my mind, that means that almost everybody in the world kind of ends up on a Drupal site at some point. If you visit more than 30 websites, statistically speaking, one of them should be a Drupal site and probably more because we tend to power larger websites versus smaller websites, or a more trafficked website versus less trafficked websites.

Aaron Dinin:

It seems providing the infrastructure for all those websites is, well, to put it mildly, kind of a big deal. How does the knowledge that Drupal impacts so many people every day affect the kinds of decisions you make for the software project as it continues evolving?

Dries Buytaert:

One thing that I regret is when I started Drupal I really built it for myself. And when I opensourced it, it was for other people, as I mentioned, that wanted to have their own experimental platform. And so those people, frankly, were other developers. And so for the first five, six, seven years, Drupal was kind of built for developers by developers, or by developers for developers. And that excluded a lot of people from your using Drupal. Drupal got this perception of being hard to use, being incredibly powerful and flexible, but hard to use for end users. And that’s because I didn’t care enough about usability until Drupal started to take off. And I’m like, “Wow, hold on. A lot of non-developers want to use Drupal, and we should make Drupal easier to use.” And so now, of course, we are very focused on ease of use. But for the first seven years or so, it was kind of an oversight. I think that was a big mistake, looking back. If I were to start Drupal from scratch today, I would pay very close attention to ease of use and the usability from day one.

Aaron Dinin:

That kind of reminds me, back when I used to be a bit of Drupal power user, that anytime a new version came out, it was always this big problem because upgrading from Drupal five to Drupal six, or Seven, or whatever, it was a huge undertaking that, as the developer, I really dreaded having to deal with.

Dries Buytaert:

We used to do these big bang releases, like five to six, six to seven. I say big bang because we literally broke all the APIs. And the upgrade path was very painful. In more recent versions, we have no longer done that. We changed our development approach and our release management approach, where we do provide an easy upgrade path, and where we do maintain what we call backwards compatibility between versions so that the upgrade path is very easy and smooth. And so that makes a lot easier to convince people to upgrade. If it’s upgrading iOS from one version to the other, if you will, or your version of Windows from one version to the other, there’s always a little bit of things to do, but most of it is automated now. It’s only when you have custom code that there might be some work to do, but it’s gotten a lot, lot better. If you looked at Drupal way back when you like did, and you haven’t looked at Drupal in the last five, six years, you should really take another look because we have advanced quite a bit in upgradeability, ease of use, all of those things.

Aaron Dinin:

At the risk of coming off like one big Drupal commercial … And I promise this isn’t, if you’re a former Drupal user like me, who hasn’t tinkered with it in a while, maybe go check it out and see what you’ve been missing. That’s actually what I think I’m going to do after I finish recording this episode. Or if you’re someone who’s been avoiding Drupal because it’s the, quote, unquote, complex CMS, give it a shot for your next project. It might be easier to get started with than you think. Either way, as a Drupal user, you’ll be in pretty good company. You have already heard about the big businesses and universities using Drupal. There’s also another cohort that’s particularly important to Dries.

Dries Buytaert:

Tens of thousands of nonprofits used Drupal from United Nations to UNICEF, to Doctors Without Borders. I feel like every time we make a small improvement to Drupal, I think about, “Wow, that change will propagate to all of these sites, a million plus sites around the world. And it will enable all of these organizations, all these nonprofits. Tens of thousands of universities and schools, it will enable them to better fulfill their mission, whether it’s to get the word out, whether it’s to raise money for one of their campaigns.” It’s a big driver for me, helping these organizations, indirectly in a small way, be successful with their digital efforts. But then if you multiply that little benefit that you give each organization every time by all the organizations using Drupal, it’s extremely rewarding. I’m very proud of the scale and the impact, often indirect impact, I guess, that we have. It’s been a long run, 20 plus years, but every day, I feel good about what I do and why I do it.

Aaron Dinin:

And of course, he should feel good about it. That’s quite a legacy. And I want to thank Dries Buytaert for taking the time to share that legacy and the story of Drupal with all of us. If you’d like to keep tabs on Dries and his work, you can, of course, check out drupal.org. You can also find Dries on Twitter. He’s @dries.

We are on Twitter. too. You can find us there, and let us know your thoughts on this episode @webmasterspod. I’m on Twitter @aarondinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N-D-I-N-I-N. I also create lots of articles and videos, teaching about startups and entrepreneurship that you can find on my website. It’s aarondinin.com.

Thank you to our audio engineer, Ryan Higgs, for his work on the episode.

And thank you to our sponsor Latona’s for their support. Remember, if you’re thinking about buying or selling an internet business, be sure to visit latonas.com.

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