Zen and the Art of Drupal Maintenance

Recently while rummaging through my bookshelf for a good book, I came across Robert Pirsig’s classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM). One of the occupational hazards of web work is having your attention span reduced to that of a house fly and for some time I have guiltily been making New Year’s resolutions to return to reading ole-fashioned books. I suspect I was drawn to Pirsig’s work because it required enormous concentration when I read it during college and figured this would demonstrate once and for all to my wife and kids that I can read something other than a LCD.

Of course, I didn’t get very far into ZMM before I became distracted with tea parties, the NBA playoffs, and global pig flu, so I should warn the reader here that this post isn’t very factual on the Metaphysics of Quality and it won’t teach you how to maintain your Drupal site, either.

What it did do is get me thinking about the curious phenomena of John Sutherland as it relates to the maintenance of Drupal sites. In ZMM, the narrator travels cross-country with a friend who – having purchased an expensive, new motorcycle – refuses to learn the basic maintenance tasks that would save him time, money and stress. When his bike acts up, he either assumes it is a lemon and is ready to toss it in the trash, or insists on sending it to a mechanic for repairs. The narrator, naturally curious about what makes things work, wonders about the existential fear that prevents his friend from learning some basics about the machine that offers him the freedom he seeks. This opens up into an exploration of two types of philosophical world-views: romantics who desire perfection without expending personal investment / risk and rationalists who seek knowledge through objective, proven facts and require the Truth to align neatly alongside those facts. Pirsig seeks a balance between the two.

How does this relate to Drupal maintenance? Drupal is the best open-source CMS out there and its success is derived from a community of developers who have architected a rational system that can be reused, extended, and customized freely. It is a CMS built by developers, for developers, based on developer’s best practices. Because Drupal developers are generally driven by quality, efficiency, and openness, they’ve built administrative tools into Drupal which allow non-coders to manage, customize and administer their sites. Drupal developers want end-users to share the Truth. “Come into the fold, join us in learning and improving Drupal and we’ll put the power of a first-class CMS in your hands at the fraction of the cost of a proprietary system”, they say. And in droves, organizations are doing just that.

And that is where the tension with the Sutherlands comes in. Organizations spend thousands, often tens of thousands of dollars building customized Drupal sites. They have done the math and they know that the RoI on Drupal is shorter, the technology evolving faster, and the cost of operations lower than alternative tools. So they buy the best motorcycle they can afford and hire an expert mechanic to get them ready for launch. In their haste to get moving, they decide they don’t have time to read the operating manual, or invest in learning some Drupal mechanics. They reason they won’t need to; after all, they have purchased the site they want, and they know it’s dependable. So their shop gets them ready to go and wishes them a good journey. They wave goodbye with a map of Google metrics in their hand.

Inevitably, a few days / weeks / months into their trip, things change. Their vehicle has slowed to a crawl. They need a new feature. They are frustrated that their machine’s configurations aren’t easily understood. They’ve overwritten code and they have no way to roll back. Their site desperately needs security patches and they don’t know how to apply them, so they ignore them. They hired a cheap mechanic to make a quick fix and he broke everything. Their in-house Drupal expert left and took with her all of the organization’s Drupal capacity. So they kick their machine, curse it, and then make a panicked call to their original mechanic. Usually the original mechanic agrees to help, but it will take money and time to make proper adjustments and check for problems – neither of which are available. Short cuts and bad decisions follow. These decisions limit options, lead to more wear and tear and more frustration. This goes on for years until one day a new manager comes in and tosses the entire platform out the window, blaming Drupal or the mechanic or both. The mechanic shakes his head and mutters that Sutherland never belonged on a motorcycle in the first place.

Pirsig suggests the way out of this cycle of frustration is to embrace a balance between these two disparate points of view. For romantics, there is no perfect system and one should be prepared for problem solving, ongoing tuning, and investment in learning the basics of the machine. On the other hand, rationalists must be flexible, understand that their approach is not always the most intuitive and leave room for new approaches and suggestions. From where I sit, the community of Drupal rationalists are doing just this, working hard on usability testing and enterprise improvements. As a platform, Drupal is determined to make the Sutherlands comfortable with the ride, without sacrificing the craftsmanship and flexibility that makes it a joy for mechanics around the world to work on. As for the romantics, the most successful Drupal enterprise sites are learning to meet the rationalists half-way, investing dollars saved on open-source back into the Drupal community via funding, training, maintaining, and employing Drupal talent. With this approach, they are actively participating in the changes that they need to see happen and somewhere along the way finding that they’ve come to enjoy the ride.

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.” – Robert M. Pirsig


Advomatic offers maintenance plans for rationalists and romantics. If you’re handy under the Drupal hood and just need a dev server, code repository and regular security updates, we will give you all the tools you need to work on your site, while taking care of regular security updates. And if you also need an expert mechanic to customize your site and make it hum, we offer development retainers as well.