Interview with John Faber of Chapter Three: Next-Drupal & securing the future of Drupal
Agiledrop is highlighting active Drupal community members and interesting projects through a series of interviews. This time we had a great conversation with Chapter Three’s managing partner John Faber about Next-Drupal, the need to change Drupal’s messaging in order to attract more people to the project, and what the future holds for Drupal. We hope you enjoy reading!
1. Please tell us a little about yourself and Chapter Three. How do you participate in the Drupal community and what do you do professionally?
My name is John Faber, and I'm the managing partner of Chapter Three. I've been in the internet business in San Francisco since about 1991 when I started an internet service provider. This was pre-everything. We sold bandwidth in San Francisco during the cowboy days of the internet, which was just so fun and it really was part of why I am still in internet because there was a lot of freedom in what we were doing.
I sold that in 2000 and we had an economic turndown in 2000 as well, a pretty bad one here in the Bay Area where the whole internet kind of collapsed. And I had sold the company and so I wasn't doing internet stuff in terms of access, but I was looking for other stuff to do. And that is how I came across Drupal.
It was something like Drupal 3.9, really early in the days of Drupal. My drupal.org user ID is 5402. So I have a four-digit D.O account number, going back to how far back I started with all of this. And with Drupal, there was the business opportunity here for me to do website management, and I didn’t have to do all of the website work. It was really the beginning of database-driven websites.
So I started a little business doing that; I really learned a lot about Drupal but wanted more. And so I ultimately ended up getting a job with a company called af83, out of France, and helping them here in the Bay Area establish themselves a little bit within the Drupal community. a883 then became Commerce Guys. So, I ended up working with Commerce Guys for a little while. And they had a larger vision for Commerce Guys that they were working on.
And I was here in the Bay Area doing that work for them. And then they launched Platform.sh. But in that time, I ended up getting a job at Chapter Three because the owners of Chapter Three were moving to Pantheon and they needed new people to operate the company.
That's where Stephanie and I came in. About 13 years ago we started running Chapter Three together in the same fashion that it always had been run, which was sort of as a well-known boutique Drupal strategy, design, development, training organization. And we have been doing that now side by side for 13 years.
And I guess some of the special sauce in what I do professionally – I am the top of the company with Stephanie, but one of the things that we do as managers is we work side by side with our employees on projects. We're in the trenches with our employees every single day. And that's a little bit different than some other top level management people. We find that doing that shows our employees that we are in it with them.
And the average employee tenure at Chapter Three is about 8,5 years. So we're doing something right at the company. But that's primarily about myself. I live in Lafayette, California, I have an 18 year old son who's in college, and we're still cranking away at Chapter Three every single day.
2. Of course we need to talk about Next-Drupal, the Next.js/Drupal integration by Chapter Three. Can you tell us more about how that came to be and how it’s progressing?
Next-Drupal was started as a side project during COVID, because our team had wanted to get into React and React-based headless websites and we had built some sites using Gatsby. And we didn't have a great experience with Gatsby because there was no real-time editing and even there were some bugs in it.
And so I told my team, I'm not doing decoupled, I'm not doing React sites unless you can solve this problem for me, which is, I'd like to replace the Twig templating system with a decoupled system of some sort. And what that means is I have to have all the editorial functions that editors have inside Drupal Twig in my decoupled setup.
And I thought that was a tall order, that there's no way they're going to be able to build that. Lo and behold, they built it, and it works. It might not be 100%, but it works pretty darn good. And what I mean by “it works” is it does replace the Twig templating system to some degree. You can do a lot of content editing on a decoupled website using Drupal.
So Chapter Three saw the potential there and decided to fund it, several hundred thousand dollars worth of work. And then we released it to the community to see if we can energize Drupal a little bit.
So we released it, and I talked to Dries about it and showed it to everybody – and it got some buzz, people were into it. And the project is really cranking along now. It gets downloaded 3,100 times a week out of GitHub. There's a ton of people using it.
When I was in DrupalCon Europe, Next.js and Next-Drupal is where I saw true innovation coming out of the community. But I'm a little biased because that's sort of what I was looking for.
The project's progressing well. The goal now is to have more community contributions. I don't want it just to be Chapter Three building this thing, I want other people to come in and contribute their ideas and their code to this project so that we can make it more of a community effort.
And I have this weird vision – when we look at inflection points inside Drupal, so, times when something really, really cool came out, and you just go, wow, that's going to change Drupal. There are not many. I sort of go back to Views; when Earl Miles first came out with Views, people were blown away by its potential, it was a game changer and nobody else had it. It was a visual MySQL query builder for content.
People were blown away, and it really changed Drupal, it energized people to do everything with Views. I sort of see Next-Drupal as the same thing. Let's make it like Views. Let's get it into Core. Let's make it part of Drupal. I don't want it just to be a Chapter Three project.
I want it to be Drupal because we can then compete in the future of this digital world that we're in. So that's my vision, but I don't want to do that alone. I want the community to help me push that and help that be a community effort. So that's where we're at now.
I will say, the lead engineer who was on it now works at Vercel. And so we have a lot of Vercel viewage on this which is great. But what we need and what I'm pushing for right now is community involvement.
I know there's Next. js people out there using it. And I know there's shops out there using it. Let's all work together to make it the best project inside Drupal, to energize people to come back to the Drupal community and go, yes, this is cool.
3. So, how can we do this? How can we encourage more people to get involved with Drupal and/or contribute to Drupal?
It's a tall order. I think the messaging from the top needs to improve in order to get people to come back to our community. I think there are things in our community that are exciting. But I feel like the messaging needs to change. And that is what I would do to encourage people to come back to the community.
I would talk about some of the cool, sexy stuff that's going on inside Drupal and talk about what Drupal really is, which is an OG content architecture platform that we can use in a hybrid decoupled or a fully decoupled setup.
It appears to me that this would be a good direction to bring people back into our community, because I just don't think that PHP and MySQL are really that attractive and you can't really make a compelling story around PHP for young people.
And so we need something else. I'm not seeing that right now. What I do see is communication about things like Project Browser, Automatic Updates, high-end visual layout builders as being the things that will bring people back to our community, and I respectfully disagree with that.
I do think those things are important and should get done. We've been talking about them for years. But I think that we need to figure out a way to energize the message around what Drupal truly is. And that message comes from the top, and that's how you encourage people to come back in.
And the Drupal Association is doing that now. They were at Web Summit. They're going to go to FOSS. They’ve got a new CEO, Tim Doyle, whose job is to change the messaging of Drupal and that's what needs to happen.
And it needs to be supported from the top down of our community, and we have to have some laser focus on what we are doing as a community and what Drupal is doing as a software package in order to bring people back. And I would say they should focus on JSON:API, GraphQL and all of the sexy stuff that's out there. We're already doing it, but we're not really doing it.
4. How do you see the current state of innovation in Drupal?
There are cool things going on within Drupal, Drupal Core is constantly moving and improving. I love every bit of what they're doing. Unfortunately, the CMO and the decision maker and the marketer don’t understand that type of stuff.
And so I think the state of innovation inside Drupal could use a little kick in the butt. I do think there are things going on, but they're all focused on Twig and PHP and MySQL. And how much longer do we have with PHP, Twig and MySQL, especially in terms of talent?
As I said, when I was in DrupalCon Europe, the space where I saw innovation was inside Next.js. I saw someone starting his own company with a SaaS based version of Drupal running on Next.js. I saw another company create a killer installation profile with an automatic setup.
I saw another shop invest money in the Decoupled Search API. But I just didn't see much really cool stuff just happening in regular old Drupal, except for the cool stuff that's happening in Core, which I would definitely not deprecate. It's very cool. I love it, but why can't we improve the JSON:API output with a filter? People would love it a lot better.
What's happening now is, people go out, they're like, Drupal is hard, so they leave, then they're like, we want to go decoupled, that might be really cool in Drupal. And then they use it as a decoupled platform and it's really hard. We need to solve the “really hard” somewhere. And I think it's pretty easy to clean up the JSON:API – but I am biased.
5. So, what do you think the future holds for Drupal?
I think the future for Drupal holds specialization. I think that's where it's going. It's not a general product. It's a specialized product that lives inside very specific verticals like government, education, nonprofit, healthcare.
And I feel as though specialization is the differentiator that's going to be in the future for us when we know we need to get off the islands. We've been on the Drupal Island now for 20 years. We need to expand out. I think the Drupal Association agrees with that and has plans for that.
6. Besides Next-Drupal, are there any other contributions from Chapter Three that you are really proud of and would like to highlight?
Well, I love our Next.js contribution. I also love the work that we did in Drupal 8. We really inspired other companies to hire core maintainers. We hired Alex Pott for almost two years to help us get Drupal 8 over the finish line.
And we sort of set a model of paying someone a full salary and let them just work on Core and things get done. So I'm super proud of that because I feel like there are other companies now that are modeling that behavior. I know that Catch is employed, for example, and so I know that there are other people doing it, they see the benefit of that.
We also support 90 projects and have about 7,700 commits on Drupal Core right now. So that's quite large. I'm super proud of all of that work that we've given back.
And then another one that I'm super proud of is our Apigee Developer Portal project, which is sort of under the covers. A lot of people haven't heard about it, but the Apigee Dev Portal is very cool and it's exposing Drupal to the really big stakeholders in their tech departments and they're seeing the value of it.
I'm just generally super proud of Chapter Three, the way that our company operates and the fact that our company has been around for almost 17 years and really holds the same ethos and values as when it first started, which is: we're a cool company. We like doing cool stuff. We respect our employees. And I'm super proud of the fact that we've been able to keep that alive for so long.