Web Development Strategy in a Drupal 9 World

A hand with a pen writing on paper

The Drupal 8 to Drupal 9 upgrade path represents a big change for the Drupal world. The big change is that…your organization’s website won’t require a big change. The first iteration of Drupal 9 is just Drupal 8 with all of the deprecated code removed, mimicking Symfony’s model of major release upgrades.

This is good news. Keeping your platform up-to-date with the next version is no longer an “all hands on deck” situation.

As with all changes, however, this new model comes with its own challenges and problems. You will need to shift your own thinking and habits. When it comes to your Drupal website, your organization will need to begin running a marathon that goes on for years. Your relationship with outside vendors will take on a new cadence.

In this brave new world where upgrading to the next major Drupal release isn’t a big re-platforming effort, what does web development strategy look like?

Establish a cadence for web development work

One good thing about major re-platforming efforts is that they have to be planned for in advance. Budget and time have to be allocated. It acts as a huge celestial star, with everything else gradually falling into orbit around the big initiative. It draws out intention, direction, and sometimes enthusiasm, and none of these are bad things to have. 

Having this large, common goal that everyone sees with clarity can make a lot of this stuff come more easily, but now, you need to figure out how to create and harness these things while not depending on the existence of a monolithic target that dominates the landscape. And you need to maintain what you have at a sensible pace.

Planning out the release cycle

 Like Drupal 8, Drupal 9 requires frequent updates. To get the latest security updates, you need to stay on the latest minor point release (9.1, 9.2, etc.). With this, you also have the possibility of getting new features that have been included, and you should be aware of them. Our article on Drupal 8 release planning is still relevant for Drupal 9. In summary:

  1.  Build a schedule of releases and support windows for your software. Not only for Drupal 9 but also for any contributed modules and other software that is part of your hosting stack.
  2.  Schedule updates ahead of time, and do not let the desire for new features cannibalize these dates. These should be scheduled from the top by project managers. This might mean a sprint every month or so 100% dedicated to updates. These should be just as visible as other initiatives that are being developed and be treated as equally important.
  3. Promote any new features that were rolled out by these updates.

Planning new initiatives and features

Ideally, with a more iterative approach to development, stakeholders stay more involved and informed, and therefore better discussions can be had around the website. With the old Drupal upgrade model, there was a risk of the dreaded stakeholder swoop: someone swoops in, lists a bunch of requirements without regard to overall goals and priorities, and swoops back out. Sometimes they aren’t seen again until close to launch.

That risk still exists but is mitigated by the extra number of touchpoints required from a more long-term, iterative approach. There are more starts and mini-launches. If a typical swooping stakeholder wants to get something done, they will have to do a lot more swooping, which might start to look more like informed involvement.

Regardless, you need to be more intentional with planning out and prioritizing new features. You can’t let every neat idea, frustration, or new design collect in a bucket over the course of two years, only to implement them on the new platform. With iterative development, your organization will need to communicate more, not less.

Set up regular touchpoints with stakeholders and domain experts. This will look different for every organization. The Marketing department might be the main driver. In that case, you’ll need to regularly meet with the person who has the authority to make requests and set priorities, in addition to domain experts that can answer questions and provide deeper knowledge. In smaller organizations, this could all be invested in one person.

If your website represents the needs of many different silos, like a company selling multiple products, then you will need regular meetings for each different product team. The same standards apply. You need someone with authority and domain knowledge.

These meetings should match up with your project management philosophy. For example, are you running sprints via agile? Invite these folks to sprint planning. Requirements with large uncertainties can trigger the creation of a targeted discovery phase with stakeholders, which becomes part of a sprint, just like all of the other tickets.

Regular usability tests are another way to find potential improvements. These don’t have to take a lot of time and money. The book Don’t Make Me Think outlines a simple framework that anyone can implement, and running them once per month is usually enough to fill any gaps in your pipeline.

Re-factoring and technical debt

Codebases tend to gather junk over time. This comes in the form of disorganized code, “temporary” fixes that have become permanent when no one was paying attention, things that work but could use performance tuning, and modules included in the codebase that aren’t used anymore.

Previous upgrade cycles allowed messes to be stacked up into a closet somewhere. When the migration or re-platforming came along, everything from that closet could be safely dragged out and lit on fire. Easy clean-up.

With an iterative model, you can’t afford to keep pushing things off. Eventually, that closet will need to be so big that it takes up the entire house.

Start making an inventory of things that need to be cleaned up, and start adding these as tasks for your team. Maybe your goal is to complete two technical debt tickets per month. Maybe you start smelling something really foul and need an entire sprint dedicated to a refactor. Maybe a new feature will be easier to implement if some other code is reorganized, so you add that task as a pre-requisite. 

However you do it, do it with intention and planning. That closet is not going to clean itself.

With an iterative model, you can’t afford to keep pushing things off.

Allocating development resources

You have planned out the release cycle. You have a list of new feature requests that is constantly growing thanks to your increased communication with stakeholders. And you have identified good targets for refactoring. 

Now what?

Prioritize and allocate. This, of course, depends on your team's size and the number of stakeholders involved in the work. Your project managers have their work cut out for them because they also have to worry about allocating themselves properly within the changing tides of shifting priorities.

You might give each stakeholder a team they work with exclusively. This helps people grow comfortable working together and builds rapport. You are less likely to need project kickoffs each time something starts. 

You might also rotate developers and teams so everyone has experience doing a bit of everything. That way, there is some overlap in case of emergencies or turnover. It also keeps things fresh and can aid in preventing burnout. Let developers speak up and tell you what they’re thinking, and, if possible, indulge their preferences.

It can be helpful to have the same person in charge of the release schedule day after day, month after month. But does someone actually want that job day-to-day? Maybe they do. But you should be sure.

For smaller teams, you may have to split things up by month or quarter. Maybe November and December are the months everyone focuses on technical debt. Maybe the first quarter of the year is reserved for new design initiatives and higher priority feature rollouts.

But do not let security and software updates get lost in the shuffle. Do not get lost in the weeds of zealous re-factoring. Do not ignore the needs of your stakeholders. This can feel like a juggling act, but it is one your organization must master to keep your website secure, relevant, and successful.

Celebrate

There is no more “big reveal” and launch of a new website. The highs and lows, the victories and stress, are hopefully flattened out to more manageable peaks and valleys. That doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate the completion of smaller initiatives, however. You absolutely should. Announce them, treat them as huge milestones, make your hand sore from giving so many high fives and pats on the back.

This can be done in many ways.

  • Public recognition in meetings and internal newsletters.
  • Demos and learning days where people responsible for the work show off what they have done and learned.
  • Small parties that happen immediately after lunch.

Whatever fits within your culture, do it.

Since each initiative and feature stands more on its own, it doesn’t get drowned out in the excitement of a “big reveal” where the gloss of so many new features can blind people from seeing certain parts of the work that have been done.

Iterative releases allow for more focus. And they give more opportunities for kudos. Take advantage of them.

Revisiting site architecture and content

Historically, many organizations have used major Drupal version migrations as a cadence to review information architecture. In part, this has been because content migrations across major versions haven't always been 1:1 migrations, so organizations have had to undertake information architecture (IA) work to decide what to migrate and where it should go. 

The other aspect of this is that in more complex migrations, it might have been faster to remove old content and deprecated content types than to spend the time migrating them, especially in the event of a custom migration.

The upside of migrating from Drupal 8 to Drupal 9 and beyond is that there is no content migration. The downside is that organizations now need another cadence for undertaking information architecture and strategy projects. This is similar to creating a new pattern of web development work, and a lot of the tips for development also apply here.

In fact, architecture and strategy should drive most new development work. Get into the habit of doing periodic IA and content audits. Every year or every six months. Whatever makes sense for your organization. It’s part of having a well-kept house. 

Some example questions you could start asking:

  • Is historic content still meeting your needs? Can it be updated, moved to another content type, or archived?
  • Does the site contain one-time-use fields that should be deprecated?
  • Do content types need to be trimmed?
  • Have the site's navigation needs changed?
  • Does our taxonomy structure still meet our needs and goals?
  • Have we added new departments or consolidated older ones? Are they represented properly?
  • Has our audience shifted? Have we started targeting new audiences?
  • How has our business changed? Have new competitors required us to think of different approaches and goals?

Sometimes your IA might require a major shift, and that shift needs to happen to a website that needs to remain up and running. For example, consolidating two content types into one new content type.

The good news is that the robust, well-tested migration tools that would have aided you during a full upgrade are there to help you accomplish a smaller shift. Drupal migrate tools are great at Importing content and pouring that content into different structures. Take advantage of them, even if it might feel like overkill at first.

Architecture and strategy should drive most new development work.

Bringing in outside help

Large upgrades and migration efforts demanded expertise and more developer hours, but without this traditional demand, is there still room to hire outside help?

Yes, there is. It can make a lot of sense, depending on your situation. In many circumstances, establishing a longer-term relationship with a vendor can yield even more gains, as the external team isn’t just around for six months to a year, then off to the next thing. Trust has time to grow. Communication settles into familiar rhythms. Everyone involved becomes more comfortable with each other.

Long-term engagements were still possible before the Drupal 9 paradigm, of course. At Lullabot, we have worked with some of our clients for 5+ years, which has enabled us to contribute in unique ways.  But without the inevitable, looming migration in the distance, it allows for additional possibilities, and we are excited about the potential.

There are many ways outside expertise can be utilized beyond a big project crunch. Keep in mind the lines between the following categories are fuzzy, but they are good places to start when trying to determine if you want to hire an external vendor.

Support and maintenance

If you want your own team to focus on new features or work you consider higher-value, using external help for support and maintenance of your existing infrastructure can provide a level of consistency that allows you to forge ahead.

Put a specialized team in charge of managing your release cycle. They manage the software updates and work within your schedule. 

A skilled support team can also help manage bug fixes. This frees up your developers’ time, so they aren’t bouncing around between tasks, losing a little bit of productivity each time. Help them avoid the concentration whiplash.

How do you know you might want help with support?

  • Assigning responsibility for the release cycle is like a game of hot potato. No developer really wants it.
  • The backlog of “urgent” bugs is growing month-over-month instead of shrinking. Complaints from stakeholders begin to grow.
  • Your software is continually months out of date, and it requires everyone’s attention to rectify the situation.

Fill gaps of expertise

Even if you have a large, diverse development team, you probably have some experience gaps. Technology is complicated. It’s hard for a team to stay up to date with everything that’s going on all of the time, and it can help to bring in some specialists.

Security audits. Accessibility audits. Performance audits. These are good opportunities for someone to come in, give you some actionable items, and ride off into the sunset. Each round of these helps educate your staff, as well. Depending on the scale of your website, it might make sense to augment your team with this type of experience for long-term engagement instead of periodic audits.

DevOps and continuous integration is also something that can benefit from a dedicated resource. A good expert in this area can help make your entire team more productive. They can set up and maintain the automatic deployment and testing of code, manage local development setups, and help enforce best practices.

Content strategy and design are areas that can benefit from outside perspectives. Good talent in these areas can help make your internal projects more successful by forcing you to clarify priorities.

Increase development velocity

Sometimes, you just don’t have the resources required to meet your goals. Too many initiatives with too many people demanding their pound of flesh. These requests and requirements could all be funneled through the Marketing department, or maybe your company has multiple departments that each own a section of the website.

Either way, you need more help, and you need that help to hit the ground running. An expert team can be integrated in several ways.

  • They can augment the current team with no change in structure. With this model, they become additional team members for you to utilize, whether they are project managers, content strategists, designers, or developers. The aim is to increase the general velocity of your development work.
  • They can come in with more focused intent as a differentiated team. They are assigned to a stakeholder or a specific initiative, so important work can get pushed forward without interrupting your normal development workflow. Close collaboration can still happen, but the external team has different priorities they will focus on.
  • A mix of both paradigms. There are no hard and fast lines to draw, and being flexible has its advantages. For example, after a team has completed a specific initiative, they move on to another one, or the team is split up and dispersed throughout other internal teams so domain knowledge can be spread. Or maybe they move to a support role.

Brave new world

Despite not having a big re-platforming effort on the horizon, web development in a Drupal 9 world still requires planning, thought, and intention. Release cycles need to be managed. New work needs to be planned and developed. Stakeholders need to be kept happy.

Drupal 9 makes it easier to take advantage of new features while keeping your site secure, successful, and relevant, but you can’t push things off anymore. No more waiting for the big migration to get rid of technical debt or re-work your information architecture. No more sweeping things under the rug until spring cleaning.

New habits need to be formed. New cadences need to be implemented. Exciting times are ahead as we juggle with this new reality.

If you enjoyed this Article, you may also enjoy...

Matt Robison

Thumbnail
Matt has been working with Drupal since 2008. He loves spending his time reading, writing, playing with his three kids, and eating lots of ice cream.