Concerning gymnasts and power tools

I was never very good at making things. I'll admit that every time I take something apart I always end up with two"spare" screws in my hand. And I'll warn you now not to be in the vicinity if I have power tools or nails in my hand.

Why am I sharing this with you? Because I believe that tools should be flexible enough to allow you to experiment. Given my weakness with power tools I've found that Stronger than Nails or Gorilla Glue can often get you the same results as traditional hammers and nails do. For example, last year I accidentally broke my son's desk which he actually put together himself - he was nine and acutely aware of my lack of skills in the area. I spent an evening try to screw two pieces of wood together so they were positioned perfectly. I'm sure that a skilled carpenter or handyman could have completed this task quickly and efficiently. My issue is that I don't keep one of those in the cupboard so I was failing miserably until, in a moment of genius (yes I'm declaring it genius) I thought I'll glue it! Ten minutes later after wiggling it to the right position the job was done.

In the business arena we're expected to do many things and assume many roles to complete a variety of tasks. We call it being versatile, flexible or being a multi-tasker. So when we're hired we're expected to be the"highly qualified and skilled carpenter" but when reality sets in we're actually a jack of all trades. The problem lies when the tools we are given to work with are complex and require us to use them all day, every day in order to remember which button to click.

Whatever happened to simple?

Datatel isn't simple for me. I found that out the hard way. It powers our student information system and handles a wide variety of university functions that I don't even pretend to understand. From my perspective when something happens in our main data systems we should be able to update our website automatically and vice-versa.

A few years ago we planned to achieve this, we implemented ActiveCampus version 1.9. It was a little dated to be honest but it got us through. For new features we struggled through various import and exports and manuals eventually discovering we needed an upgrade. So we upgraded hoping it would solve our problems. It boasted a number of new features with a sprinkling of"feature candy" on top for good measure. It looked good and had a number of very powerful features.

My problem is that this year we really want to enable faculty and professional offices to provide content and update their pages. We hope that they will bring their wisdom and passion to pages that we might not ever get a chance to create. Upon seeing the complexity of the (Datatel) ActiveCampus CMS product it was clear to me this just wasn't going to work for us. It had some amazing features and they did a nice job with it's capabilities. But there's no way a user who was only updating pages occasionally would remember how to do everything. What were we going to do? We could push on and hope that we had some techies in offices around campus would lead the charge, or we could do it ourselves. We've been there and done that, it doesn't fly. We needed a solution that was REALLY simple and flexible so that people don't get put off by the complexity of creating web pages.

What to do?

When presented with a task such as relaunching a web site and changing the engine that powers it there's a lot to consider. The decision on what software to use is critical and I looked for a few key indicators.

  1. Flexibility - We need something that we can tweak, change, bend to our will but still be rock solid.

  2. Simple - we need something simple to use for EVERYONE, not just techies - In fact especially not techies!

  3. Dependable - We need to know it works

Bringing in the Gymnast

To accomplish our goals we needed something with the flexibility of a gymnast. I decided we needed to dump Datatel and go  Open Source for the public facing site. My decision,  Drupal. It's flexibility is left only to the skill of a developer. We can make it as simple as possible for the end user by honing down the user interface and showing users only what they really need to use. Finally Drupal has been around for a long time and is powering some very large sites such as  MTV Europe,  Fast Company and more.

I've decided to let Datatel do what it does best. It powers our  online application. It's works great for this as it integrates seamlessly with our back-end systems and allows counselors to do their jobs. But for what I need to do on the front end it's no gymnast.

The flexibility that Drupal is giving me is nothing short of amazing. Not only is Drupal a gymnast and a jack of all trades, if it's put it in the hands of a professional it's completely capable of building whatever you need it to do. I'll be documenting my progress on this blog and sharing the ups and downs of a the transition along the way. There'll be days when I'm unhappy with it as no Content Management System is perfect, but that's ok.