Interview: Drupal founder Dries Buytaert balances community and company interests
Sunday, February 24, 2008
In the year 2000, Dries Buytaert created Drupal, a freely licensed and open source tool to manage websites, as a bulletin board for his college dorm. Since Dries released the software and a community of thousands of volunteer developers have added and improved modules, Drupal has grown immensely popular. Drupal won the overall Open CMS Award in 2007, and some speakers in Drupal's spacious developer's room at FOSDEM 2008 were dreaming aloud of its world domination.
Buytaert (now 29) just finished his doctoral thesis and has founded the start-up Acquia. The new company wants to become Drupal's best friend, with the help of an all-star team and US$7 million collected from venture capitalists. Wikinews reporter Michaël Laurent sat down with Dries in Brussels to discuss these recent exciting developments.
Wikinews: How important is an event like FOSDEM for yourself and for the Drupal community?
- Dries Buytaert: I think it's more important for the Drupal community than for me personally. It is important because we work together day and night through mailing lists, fora etc., and when you meet each other face-to-face you can understand one and another better, it gives more depth to your relationship. It's also important as a forum were many ideas can be discussed in a shorter time. With the growth of Drupal, the community has grown, and even for me it has become impossible to follow all communication, all forum posts etc. So it is also a way to filter new ideas.
WN: Do you go and visit other projects as well?
- DB: Normally, I would. I've been coming here for seven years from start to finish, but this year I'm only here today and purely for the Drupal DevRoom. My job is to be present in the corridors, to chat with people, to do networking and to connect people. So FOSDEM is important to share information, to improve our relationships, and thirdly to promote Drupal. Drupal is both an end-user product and a framework for developers, and the latter is certainly a direction in which I'd like to see Drupal grow more.
WN: Can you give some examples of websites that use Drupal?
- DB: In Belgium: Studio Brussel, Donna [both radio stations, ed.], Indymedia. Internationally you have for example Amnesty International, but it ranges from Ozzy Osbourne's to Britney Spears' site. Also Greenpeace, a lot of universities,... oh and zattevrienden.be in Belgium.
WN: Wow, it must be everywhere if it ranges from Britney to Ozzy. Tell me, how has your role changed over the years?
- DB: My role has changed a lot. At first I did everything myself from the first to the last thing, I wrote every letter of code, I managed the infrastructure, I did source control, public relations, etc. Today, there is a team of thousands of people who write the code, and a lot more who work for example on the infrastructure, there is a group of people concerned with PR and marketing, etc. Nowadays I write little code myself, but I continue to review a lot of code, giving yes, no or yes but... answers. So I've become more of a code reviewer.
- We have founded the Drupal Association, a Belgium-based non-profit organisation which aims to do promotion, organisation of things like conferences, etc. The organisations takes on a lot of these tasks. There are eight or nine directors, so it has really become a bigger organisation that's operating and developing Drupal. It's also international: it's based in Belgium but there are only two Belgian directors I think.
WN: Do you think Drupal is important for software in Belgium? Countries like France have a big software industry but we don't.
- DB: Drupal was created in Belgium, but it has become really international. Most contributions come from the United States now I think. There are a few other open source projects from Belgium, maybe not on the same size scale, but still there are definitely some projects. The fact that we organise the largest open source conference in Europe shows that there is a lively interest.
Acquia: company-community interaction
WN: Looking at your new start-up Acquia, there are some people in the Drupal community who are concerned that you're combining your leadership role with that of Acquia CTO. You could have done like Jimmy Wales, who started Wikia and took a step back from Wikipedia.
- DB: I admit that combining these positions complicates matters, both for myself as for Acquia. But I have always fought hard for what the Drupal community has achieved. The Association still has the right to use the domain name and such; Acquia will not have special privileges. I have always fought hard to keep the play field open.
- Of course we will be a major player, simply because of the money and there are some highly visible people involved. But if we do things with which the community does not agree, we will not force them. That's built into our corporate DNA. We want to be seen as the best thing that ever happened to the Drupal community. Our goal is to work together closely. I'm glad to see that the community has faith in us. There are a number of important people from the community in our company: they will not suddenly turn to the evil side! They know better than anyone else what lives in the community. Openness and transparency are very important. People will simply have to give us a chance.
WN: If I listen to some community members, I get the impression that they trust you, and that they believe it will be all right.
- DB: It will be like that. Of course there are a number of challenges, but I have full confidence. I will do everything to make the community succeed. And if a problem arises, then we'll organise ourselves; we're very good at that.
WN: On the other hand, you have to satisfy your investors, they have invested heavily and they will want something in return. How will you generate revenue from your free software product?
- DB: Our business plan is to create Drupal distributions, similar to what Red Hat did for Linux. We'll produce distributions that work on the platforms of the client. A second thing will be support. Say you install Drupal, and something goes wrong: who are you gonna call? We want to make Drupal grow and get bigger by bringing it to organisations who don't possess such expertise. Apart from packages and support, a third thing will be network services; services you offer through a network to automate certain things. An upgrade service, for example: if a certain module has been updated, it could be installed automatically. Your website will be easily upgradable: there is a security update, do you want it yes or no?
WN: Some fear that if you focus on wealthy enterprises, NGOs might be disadvantaged.
- DB: I have two answers to that. Answer one: we're just adding extra values. It's not clear that we're going after the big ones, we're still determining our target audience. But we're making contributions, the others will not be worse off, they'll remain status quo. My second answer is a personal vision: I want to make it easy for people, I want to empower them to use Drupal. I want to make web publishing democratic; this is a strong tendency towards a social goal. People often say that we'll focus more on the bigger ones, but I don't believe in that. We're not sure yet if we'll go after the big enterprises, the NGO's or the bloggers. We've just gathered our capital and we've started hiring people. Lately, I've spent about one-third of my time doing interviews, and we're still interviewing more people. One-third of my time has gone to working with the Drupal community, releasing patches and Drupal 6. And about one-third of my time has gone to product definition, to determine what exactly we will do with Acquia.
The future, near and far
WN: Speaking about Drupal 6, you had a talk about it this morning. I'm not going to ask you to repeat that presentation, but what are the most important new elements in Drupal 6?
- DB: The most important new features are actually a good example of what we're doing for the common user: Drupal 6 has become a lot simpler to use, we've made a lot of usability improvements. But also for enterprises we've implemented a better caching strategy, a better log-infrastructure, etc. These are just some of the features, there are probably 50 to 60. OpenID is also integrated in Drupal 6.
WN: As a final question: where will Drupal be ten years from now, and where will Dries be ten years from now -in Boston?
- DB: Ten years ago I had just started working on Drupal, and I couldn't have predicted that I would be sitting here. I just want Drupal to expand, to continue along the right track as we are doing now. Attracting new people, continuing to innovate. The bigger we'll get, the bigger the challenges will be. I want to make software that people like to use, and offer it to them in a good way; democratisation -it's such a big word. We've been working as a distributed team for seven years now. Of course it's going to be a lot of travelling, but we'll still be able to work together as we were used before.
WN: Thank you for your time and for the opportunity to talk to us.