If you're thinking about a content management system for your next website, Drupal is an excellent option. With over 15 years of success stories ranging from mom and pop storefronts all the way to the top of the federal government, Drupal is a robust platform that effectively serves a variety of needs.
When building a Drupal website, your most important decision will be selecting an agency partner to bring it to life and to make it successful. There's no shortage of companies out there who say they "do Drupal," but what factors should you look at when picking an agency partner? What sets firms apart from simply "doing Drupal" to excelling at Drupal? Here are some criteria you should consider.
A True Partner
First and foremost, choose the agency that is dedicated to working alongside you and goes the distance to help you accomplish your goals. True agency partners bring multiple ideas and thoughtful solutions to the table for all of your requests. They will also demonstrate that they understand your business needs, and the needs of your audiences.
True partnership isn't limited to an agency's technical knowledge of Drupal. It extends to other areas of expertise that serve your needs. Superior development chops are great, but they're only one piece of the puzzle. Regardless of your project size or scope, you still need strong design, user experience, project management, analytics, and content strategy to be successful. At Velir, we have a contingent of in-house talent covering all of these key areas.
Total honesty and absolute transparency also indicate that an agency is a great partner — if Drupal isn't the right fit for your needs or budget, a true partner will tell you instead of forcing a square peg into a round hole. True partners always have your best interests at heart. They have no fear in being truthful with you, even though it can mean turning down good work. Opportunities come and go, but sour relationships and bad Drupal builds take forever to bounce back from.
An agency that speaks intelligently about the strengths of Drupal while frankly discussing areas where it's not as strong, can also indicate that agency is a great Drupal partner. This knowledgeable guidance demonstrates their awareness and ability to steer around project pitfalls toward better outcomes and functionality.
A Proven Portfolio
The next thing you will want to look at is a potential partner's client base and history of Drupal implementations. Some agencies are skilled in one industry, while other agencies focus on multiple industries.
Ask if there are any projects that are similar to yours. Pose questions about projects that you are curious about. The agency should be able to speak in detail about each, answer all your questions, and discuss the challenges they faced and their solutions. They should be able to explain how these challenges and solutions might apply to your project. If there is an aspect or feature about a website you love, ask how it was done. Experts can break down solutions and explain how they were done in a well-communicated manner, even if they didn't build it.
An agency should be comfortable answering any questions about projects in their portfolio and knowledgeable enough to analyze solutions on websites they didn't design. This ensures that they will have meaningful conversations with you when discussing the needs for your next Drupal build.
Extensive Platform Experience
It's important to partner with an agency that has unquestionable and proven experience in Drupal itself.
Some good Drupal questions to ask potential agency partners include:
- How many projects have you completed in Drupal?
- How do you handle security issues for Drupal and custom code? Do you perform regular code vulnerability scanning and understand how to develop applications with security in mind?
- Do you have a solid standing in the open-source community?
- Are your developers certified in Drupal? How many modules or themes have they authored and published?
- Do you write automated tests for the code you develop?
- How strong is your quality assurance process? Do you practice continous deployment? Code reviews?
- My boss wants to go with a homegrown solution, but I know Drupal is the better choice - what can I take back to my stakeholders to assure our future is secure with Drupal?
- What training services do you offer to get our organization up to speed and comfortable working in Drupal?
- Customers say our site is slow, but we aren't sure why. What performance audits and techniques do you do in Drupal development to ensure our site will be as fast as possible?
This will help you get a sense of the level of experience a firm has in Drupal and a broader view of development best practices. You'll want to go with a partner who is committed to Drupal with deep expertise and thought leadership, rather than an agency using it as a means to an end. Don't let your next project be someone else's budget-burning experiment to cut their teeth on.
Acquia Drupal Product Expertise
There are numerous providers of services online for Drupal, the most well known being Acquia. Acquia offers professional services and products dealing with content personalization, campaign marketing management, customer data management, cloud hosting, and site generation tools just to name a few. They also offer page building accelerators such as Acquia Cohesion and Acquia Lightning.
One or more of these solutions may apply to your needs. It's critical to partner with someone who understands these products and how they interact together to develop a successful Drupal implementation with them. Again, it is essential for the partner to understand your business needs as well as the needs of your team and organization. This will help determine which products will provide the maximum benefit and generate ROI toward key performance indicators defined by the discovery and development phases of your project.
Velir is a strong, committed partner and provider of the Acquia product ecosystem, with many years of experience and applications deployed using a variety of Acquia solutions under Drupal 6, 7, 8, and 9. In 2019, Velir was named Acquia Growth Partner of the Year. We also have developers possessing certifications in Drupal and Acquia products. Select a partner who helps you plan for where you want to be a few years to maximize Drupal and leverage Acquia services to help you get there.
A Strong Engineering Team
Strong engineering and development is the cornerstone of a successful Drupal implementation. When selecting a partner, you should review the technical team that will be building your future. These developers should be well-rounded and have a broad perspective on development and best practices that extends beyond Drupal.
You'll want to avoid partnering with a firm where development involves "just adding 20 more modules" or "creating another dozen content types" to throw at every issue. This is how Drupal implementations often get off track with an absurd number of modules, blocks, and content types, which weaves a mountain of technical debt that's difficult, if not impossible to manage as time goes on.
Look for a technical team that asks thoughtful questions about project requirements, and provides insight and guidance around blind spots. Solid technical leadership is demonstrated by developers who can evaluate if you really need that huge Drupal module for its one feature, or tell you if it can be done in a few lines of code—with the skills to eloquently explain their recommendations.
There are also longterm benefits to having a partner that uses a thoughtful approach like the one mentioned above. Being more selective about whether you really need that module adds up over time—using less contributed modules means smaller codebase, and in security-speak that equates to a smaller attack vector for code exploits or bugs. Smaller codebases also mean less overhead, easier maintenance, and the ability to adapt to the changing needs of a website over a long timeline.
Value the partner who takes the long view in all aspects of your project lifecycle. Dozens of decisions like these are made by developers every day and have a significant impact on the project's outcome, so they absolutely have to know, and own, their solution. As any chef will tell you, "you can always add more salt to a dish, but you cannot take it away".
Stellar technical Drupal leadership will make you feel comfortable that your Drupal partner is making thoughtful decisions with your interests in mind, not theirs. True technical leaders embrace project challenges where other firms may tell you, "this can not be done, period." This attitude is a great sign that the development team is skilled, fearless, and willing to go above and beyond for successful outcomes—this is the type of team you'll want to partner with for multiple engagements.
Support and Maintenance
Even the best Drupal implementations need support and maintenance. It's important to partner with an agency that offers support, either through full-time support or by collaborating with your internal dev/IT group. Support isn't simply limited to security updates and release management; it also includes looking at the roadmap of what's coming in Drupal's current and future releases.
A forward-thinking mindset will help you understand what Drupal does for you, the features that are coming down the pipeline, and how the team is making decisions today to better position you for when those features arrive. Proactive partnerships have a vested interest in staying ahead of the curve so less time is spent playing catch-up, and more time is spent delivering value in support and feature development to meet your changing needs.
Reach out to start a conversation on how Velir can partner with you for your Drupal and Acquia builds. We'd love to hear from you.
For more information, see how we reimagined Harvard Library with Drupal, provided design and UX for the Mass.gov Drupal build, enabled Brandeis University to tell their story with data-driven visualizations in Drupal 8 and CKAN, or see all of Velir's capabilities and how we can help you.