Making money in open source: Drupal future looks bright

Demand for Drupal is growing, and demand for developers is greater than supply.

Who says there's no money in open source? Demand for Drupal talent is growing, and opportunities abound for developers, designers and artists, and related disciplines such as database and system administration. Let's take a look at what some Drupal consulting firms are doing, and get an inside view from a Drupal core maintainer.

Four Kitchens, the un-company

One of the most unusual companies I've ever had the privilege to be introduced to is Four Kitchens. Located in Austin, Texas, I call them The un-company because co-founder and developer Todd Ross Nienkerk painted a picture of a company with hiring and work practices that are not typical.

Mr. Nienkerk says that demand for Drupal is growing, and that demand for developers is greater than supply. Drupal's architecture lends itself to long-term sustainability and flexibility, provided that developers stick to best practices and don't paint themselves into corners. The Drupal community places great importance on mastering Drupal best practices, such as Do Not Hack Core. Coders, themers and designers, and documentation writers; PHP, HTML, CSS, system administration, and MySQL are all important Drupal-related skills.

When Four Kitchens is hiring, Drupal experience is not at the top of the list. Expertise in a particular platform isn't all that relevant, because good coders can learn new languages and tools quickly. Rather, they're looking for the right kind of people. Mr. Nienkerk explained that their first criterion is a genuine passion for open source. They want people who are already involved with open source as users or contributors.

Next, they like people who have interests outside of work, whether it's some other kind of programming, music, skydiving, what have you; I took his meaning as "has more on the ball than flopping in front of the teevee".

They like people who are technically creative, and who see technology as a means for solving problems. Then, after all that, they look at experience.

Four Kitchens has remote workers in South Africa and Australia. They don't hire remote workers in the US, instead preferring that employees come into the office, though employees can work from home when they need to. Mr. Nienkerk feels that their workers function better with face-to-face interaction. Obviously this is not available to their people in South Africa and Australia, so they have Webcams with video chat set up on the water coolers and coffee machines. Four Kitchens does not use contractors in the US because they feel that workers are better off being on payroll. One of their more unusual policies is unlimited paid leave. This sounds like an invitation to abuse, but it has its advantages. It's less overhead and management hassles, and it's healthier because employees can take care of themselves. Naturally it requires staff who are self-disciplined and responsible, which emphasizes the importance of hiring the right people. It also helps to have managers who set a good example by actually taking time off.

Metal Toad Media

Metal Toad Media, in Portland, Oregon, looks for talented Drupal developers in Portland because they also hire only for in-office positions. Joaquin Lippincott, President and Founder, explains: "We find that our employees really enjoy the stimulation and help from other talented developers." They value Drupal experience: "As far as skillsets go, Drupal experience is a must, which is often seen in length of time on Drupal.org and the existence of committed code. Drupal.org is really the only place we post jobs anymore because Craigslist doesn't attract the right type of person. The market for Drupal development is growing tremendously with new companies coming to us asking for work on a regular basis."

Metal Toad has built sites for Sony, Cisco, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (the Emmys),Verizon, and a number of non-profits and wholesale and retail sites. Their own site was recently rebuilt to be mobile device-friendly -- check this out by resizing your browser to a narrow width.

Angela Byron, Drupal Core Maintainer

The Drupal community is large, and Angela Byron is its face. She is a Drupal 7 core maintainer and "open source evangelist who lives and breathes Drupal." Ms. Byron works for Lullabot Consulting Group. I asked her what the Drupal job market looks like, the freelance market, and what kinds of skills are in demand.

"There are definitely Drupal jobs out there. Drupal Jobs is the semi-official place to post them, and you can see that already today alone there've been 16 posted, and previous days have similar statistics. You can also find Drupal jobs in all the usual places: Monster.com, Craigslist.com, and so on.

"The organizations with these jobs range from Drupal development/consulting shops, to universities and libraries, to government organizations and non-profits, to startups, and so on. Some are permanent, some part-time, some for freelancers. Most allow people to work remotely."

"Developers are definitely in the most demand, but themers (people with both PHP and (X)HTML/CSS chops who can take a PSD/Dreamweaver template and turn it into a Drupal theme) are also high up on the list. There are enough designers in our community that there's a community conference specifically to them: Design 4 Drupal." She says that project management jobs are high on the list, and there are opportunities for those who specialize in user experience, accessibility, automated testing and quality assurance.

There is a large, diverse commercial ecosystem surrounding Drupal, with as many as a thousand companies doing primarily Drupal work. The Drupal Marketplace lists companies that are major community contributors. The Acquia Partner Finder lists all of its paid partners, and there are quite a few more than in the Drupal Marketplace. If you're not familiar with Acquia, they specialize in Drupal enterprise service and support, offering services such as developer cloud, cloud hosting, and training. Available for work list is an unfiltered list of Drupal shops and freelancers.

"I currently work for Lullabot and our work is a mixture of huge migration jobs from proprietary CMSes such as Vignette and Stellent, performing training and overseeing technical architecture for organizations with their own development teams (e.g., training Java developers up on how to do PHP module development, breaking down their wireframes into what modules would do this or that, staying on during the development of the project for questions, etc.), and also the odd rescue job if it's for a really good client (there are certainly a lot of rescue jobs available, unfortunately; Drupal is really easy to screw up if you don't follow best practices). Other shops focus purely on non-profit or NGO work, others on SaaS-based businesses built on Drupal, others just pick through random $500-and-under jobs and make their living that way, and others just do it for their church or whatever for fun."

Drupal is big enough to provide opportunities for specialty companies. Here are a few examples:

  • Cyrve does only big Drupal data migrations.
  • Tag1 Consulting specializes in the performance and scalability of Drupal and the entire LAMP stack.
  • Top Notch Themes sells premium custom Drupal themes, and gives away their base theme for free under the GPL.
  • Mustardseed Media Inc. serves churches and ministries.
  • FunnyMonkey does training and consultation.
  • Chocolate Lily builds sites for non-profit groups.
  • Volacci is a Drupal SEO specialist, asserting that "Drupal...is hands-down the best platform for SEO available today."

Top Skills

It takes a lot of different disciplines to maintain modern dynamic Web sites. In the olden days all you needed was static HTML and rudimentary Apache server knowledge. It's a lot more complex now, and these skills are also necessary for running Drupal sites:

  • MySQL (database)
  • CSS (cascading style sheets)
  • HTML (hyper-text markup language)
  • XML (extensible markup language)
  • Linux (server and development operating system)
  • LAMP stacks (Linux, Apache, MySQL,PHP)
  • PHP (scripting language)

What sort of money can you make? I surveyed a number of sites that collate salary data and talked to people in the industry, and nationwide the US average is around $75,000/year. This is a very rough guide because salaries vary depending on the location, company, and experience level, ranging from around $30,000 to just over six figures. Keep the cost of living in mind, because $75,000 goes a lot farther in Portland, Oregon than it does in San Jose, California. MySQL admins average about $69,000, PHP developers about $60,000, LAMP developers around $70,000, and Linux sysadmins average around $70,000.

I Want to be a Drupal Dev!

So you want to be a Drupal developer-- where do you get started? Just like any open source project, with your own desire, talent, and hard work. The software costs nothing, Drupal.org has many how-tos, and there are books, online courses, and classroom training. The best starting point for people who want to hire Drupal developers and people who want to be Drupal developers is Drupal.org.

Author's note: Just as this was heading to publication, Angela Byron announced she was leaving Lullabot to join Acquia.

See also
Building Your Career in Open Source
What to Include in Your Open Source Resume
Joomla vs. Drupal: An open source CMS shootout
Drupal's Dries Buytaert on Building the Next Drupal
Joomla or Drupal: Which CMS handles security best?
QuickStudy: Drupal

What’s wrong? The new clean desk test
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies