Interview with Justin Toupin, CEO of Aten Design Group: Enhancing Drupal's authoring experience

Interview with Justin Toupin of Aten Design Group cover
Community Drupal

Agiledrop is highlighting active Drupal community members through a series of interviews. Now you get a chance to learn more about the people behind Drupal projects.

It’s been a while since we last published a Drupal Community Interview, and we’re back with a bang! We spoke with Justin Toupin, founder and CEO of the Denver-based Drupal agency Aten Design Group. Learn more about what Drupal means to him and how they’re contributing to its mission with some of Aten’s dedicated projects.


1. Please tell us a little about yourself. How do you participate in the Drupal community and what do you do professionally?

My name’s Justin Toupin. Way back in 2000, after just a few years of college, I started an agency called Aten Design Group – where I am still CEO today. Growing up, my parents were missionaries and we lived in Ghana, West Africa. 

They were doing linguistic work developing the alphabet and grammar for a previously unwritten language, and were early adopters of a then cutting-edge piece of software for assisting in the translation process. 

All of this meant I had both early access to computers and a lot of encouragement to use them. A professor friend of my dad’s hooked me up with a college-level course in Turbo Pascal when I was 12 or 13, and I’ve been programming ever since.

Today, my agency sponsors a number of Drupal events and our developers contribute to Drupal in just about every way possible – speaking, writing code, mentoring, leading and organizing meetups, maintaining modules, etc. I personally help maintain a dozen or so modules. 

I’m particularly excited about Layout Paragraphs, a module that integrates Drupal core’s Layout API with the Paragraphs module and offers dead-simple, drag-and-drop editing.


2. When did you first come across Drupal? What convinced you to stay, the software or the community, and why?

For us, the answer is both. We first started working with Drupal in 2006, version 4.6. A client at the time asked us to review a number of open-source CMS products as potential candidates for a project they were starting. There were 6 or 7 on the list, including our own custom-built CMS, and of course, Drupal. 

Three factors made Drupal the clear winner: 

  • Design was (and still is) crucial to us. Unlimited front-end flexibility for supporting an effective user experience was critical.
  • Drupal’s modular, hooks-based architecture meant we could customize the application without limitation, and without sacrificing maintainability.
  • A passionate, fast-growing community was supporting the platform, improving features, and driving adoption.

It wasn’t long before virtually every website we were building was built on Drupal. We sponsored and attended our first DrupalCon in Boston, circa 2008, started helping with the local Drupal meetup here in Denver, and the rest is history. 


3. What impact has Drupal made on you? Is there a particular moment you remember?

I started Aten specifically to help mission-driven organizations increase their impact. Drupal’s long-standing, growing adoption in non-profit, higher education, and government sectors has made it the ideal platform of choice for our agency. Drupal has helped us make exactly the kind of impact we wanted, which has been incredibly rewarding.

With respect to picking one specific moment: Denver was the host city for DrupalCon North America back in 2012. Being a part of that was pretty special. It was also a ton of work. 


4. How do you explain what Drupal is to other, non-Drupal people?

I describe Drupal as an open source content management system and application development framework. Beyond that, Drupal is a vibrant, world-wide community of developers and technologists, individuals and organizations. 


5. How have you seen Drupal evolving over the years? What do you think the future will bring?

In my view, one of the all-time most important developments in Drupal was a collection of changes introduced in Drupal 8. Strong object oriented programming principles, adoption and integration of third-party libraries and frameworks, dependency management with composer, and as a result a radically simplified upgrade process were huge steps forward for the platform. 

In the future, I think we’ll see more of that. It’ll be easier for developers already familiar with industry standard programming methodologies – but not necessarily Drupal – to get involved. 

Perhaps even more important: organizations won’t have to completely rebuild their websites every time there is a new major release. I wrote an article about the radical changes to Drupal’s upgrade process back in 2017 (as well as colleagues of mine in the years since), and we’ve just experienced the results of those changes first-hand with the move from Drupal 8 to Drupal 9. 

For the first time since the very beginning of Drupal, upgrading major releases (i.e. 8 to 9) is truly an upgrade, not a complete rebuild. That’s huge. 


6. What are some of the contributions to open source code or to the community that you are most proud of?

A couple years ago I started working on Layout Paragraphs, a module that combines Paragraphs with the Layout API to offer a really simple, drag-and-drop authoring experience for people that work with content. 

We specifically had marketing and editorial staff in mind – audiences that I think have been somewhat under-served in the past. I’m proud of the headway we’ve made, and looking forward to where that continues to go in 2022 and beyond.


7. Is there an initiative or a project in the Drupal space that you would like to promote or highlight?

As I mentioned before, I’m excited about the progress we’ve made with Layout Paragraphs. Beyond that, we’ve been working on a product called Mercury Editor that offers effortless, drag-and-drop publishing for Drupal. I think these kinds of tools are incredibly important for the future of Drupal, as the needs and expectations of digital publishers continue to evolve.


8. Is there anything else that excites you beyond Drupal? Either a new technology or a personal endeavor. 

Between the work I do with Drupal and leading the agency at Aten, there is a lot to be excited about. I love helping our clients increase their impact, and am particularly excited about the work we’re doing with Drupal’s authoring experience as it relates to clients in higher education, government, cultural heritage, and nonprofit sectors. We have some big things planned for 2022.