A Conversation with Louis Landry of the Joomla! CMS Project

Today, we had the pleasure of having a conversation / interview with Louis Landry of the Joomla! project. During our discussion Louis takes us on a journey through his time with the Joomla! project and his thoughts on the project and it's future. It is one of our favourite and most fascinating interviews to date.

Thank you to Louis for taking the time, enjoy the read everyone.

CC: What is your background with the Joomla! project? Can you tell us a little about your time on the project and what got you involved in the first place?

I started using Mambo back in 2001, I believe. It was the 4.0.14 release and I had need for building a site for a friend… and was simply tired of doing everything in Dreamweaver. I existed around the edges of the Mambo project, harassing some of the developers with feature requests and a patch here and there right through the split to Joomla.

This coincided with Hurricane Katrina … which had a heavy blow on my life and direction.

During the split I was in close contact with a couple of the core team members and in the short period after Katrina I started working more closely with the developers and found myself spending a great deal of time working with Joomla.

I was asked onto the core team in late 2005 and joined in early 2006 and started off as a developer. I was an architect of the Joomla Framework that Joomla 1.5 was built on and was elected a Project Manager in 2007. I held the role for a little over a year, at which point i stepped down for someone else to take it on.

I have been the communications team lead and have since relinquished that role as well. Now i serve as a development coordinator and am focusing on future endeavors.

CC: Without getting too personal,  how did Hurricane Katrina come into the fray direction wise?

louis-avatarLL: Well i was born and raised just outside of New Orleans and was in the final stages of signing on to work for NASA as a computer security engineer at Stennis Space Center.

I was supposed to go in for the last meeting before paper signing the Monday after Katrina hit. It was an interesting time.

I lost everything i owned as well as the job i might have had as Katrina wiped the buildings i would have worked in off the map ?

What it did for me was give me time and what i did with that was to find something positive to focus on, that was Joomla!

CC: So in a way, Joomla was somewhat of an outlet initially then for you?

LL: Ultimately i think it was just one of those situations where, to borrow a cliche, God closed a door and opened a window.

Joomla is something i was loosely involved with before  but it was something i could grasp on to. It helped me keep my mind sharp and there was obviously no programming jobs or work to do.

I graduated the year earlier with a computer science / history degree and i wanted to stay sharp. it was an outlet the people were great, the coding was fun and the purpose was positive.

CC: How do you feel about it's progression since you came aboard? Do you have any regrets or wish you had not left some of your previous roles?

LL: Thats a good one ? I think for me, I don't particularly have a lot of regrets… and I have tried to give as much as I can along the way. Project Manager was a tough role when i held it. I was dealing with project issues 14-16 hours a day most days… which seriously cut into my ability to make a living. I was glad to do it and I think I achieved most of the things I set out to achieve along the way.

I feel the progression is good, its in the right direction, but as with anything as big as Joomla… change happens slowly.
We are still a very young project and it's easy to forget that because of the scale of things. We are going through growing pains, and finding our best processes as we go.

None of us have really done this stuff before, and I think given the amount of time people have to give… and the overall direction of things I believe we have done a good job. I would say, we are on the right path… with the right direction.

There are lots of changes happening in the project and not all of them are readily apparent I would say, and some of them require mindset changes so they will take a while to really sink in. Culture change is the hardest to come by ?

CC: You speak of changes coming to the project, are you referring to directionally or within the people themselves?

LL: I think Joomla is going through an evolution of sorts. What we are seeing right now … from the inside-out is a transformation where we are looking for ways to bring more people in and open up previously closed processes we are working through ways of solving problems in more of an “open” approach.

I'll give you an example.

Traditionally, development has been done by a relatively small group of people. Patches have always been “accepted”
but in practice have never really been a part of our process. It's always been about a group of around 15-20 people with commit access just hammering away at the core code base and of those people there are generally about 5 that are highly active and driving the direction. We've had closed mailing lists and while the source was open, the
process wasn't.

We've been actively trying to change that culturally and it takes a while. We have opened up 3 new development mailing lists and have published processes for getting feature patches accepted into the core and are looking to change the model altogether.

We are currently working on another initiative that will hopefully help to open up development even further by providing a sort of “playground” for joomla developers to play with technology in a common sandbox. This process is something that is happening all over the project, and will take time to implement and grow but i do think its in the right direction.

Oh and as for people… there is always an ebb and flow

CC: It sounds like somewhat of a maturing of the organization as a whole, which takes time like any good project. What can be said for sure is that it's remarkable how much of an impact Joomla! has had on the open source market. Exposure wise, I doubt anyone could have expected where it would be today in comparison to some of the other players.

LL: I think i would agree with that characterization and the shock in that impact is certainly not lost on the project leadership. I am personally looking beyond CMS because I think the traditional CMS is probably not going to be the focus of the web in the near future.

CC: As you are aware, there was a lot of opinionated commentary on my recent article entitled “What everyone ought to know about Joomla!” What points did you most strongly disagree with and why?

LL: In reference to #1, Poor out of the box SEO: I think that evidence will show that the SEO out of the box is actually not poor, but then again I think SEO is such a generalized term that you could say it is poor of any system depending on how you frame the topic. I would say that our standard markup is less than ideal and certainly not semantic there is a good reason for that.

The URLs you mention, very nice URLS can be achieved “out of the box” in Joomla 1.5 (1.0 was a mess), but I would certainly agree that improvements can be made. One of the biggest issues we have with that is that we do not have a unified content model with Joomla. All components are black boxes with respect to each other and with respect to the Joomla application, because of this it is difficult to solve the problem “correctly” in a complete way.

Its something we are certainly aware of and are working towards but I would say that there are lots of Joomla sites all over the web that are very well search engine optimized out of the box without needing hacks.

Again though, I would certainly acknowledge that improvements need to be made

#2 with respect to the vulnerability causing plugins, I would say that this is the danger of any open platform accepting third party plugins. I will say this though, we do need to do a better job of educating people about best practices and security. I think one of the odd positives that I see in this is that amateurs feel comfortable developing on our platform.  Granted, they should learn best practices.

We do unpublish all extensions as soon as a vulnerability is reported. We need better systems and we know that, but there is only so much you can do with a distributed model like that

#3. We do not have a figure head, we have a body of leaders. I don't think we would be comfortable as an organization with a figure head. I actually think culturally this may have arisen out of the mambo/miro fiasco.  If you have a group of open source developers and they have an overlord, even if its percieved, and they are decieved by that overlord they will be really weary of having anyone take on that role again.

I liken it a little to the US government i guess. When the colonies revolted, they didn't have a king, so many of the leaders didn't want one. Largely I think because of the bad experiences they had under one.

Whether thats true or not I don't know, but we do seem to generally work pretty well as a team and we build consensus around things. We do need to do a better job of having contact/press details. We used to have a page for that i think on joomla.org and in the redesign last year, it got lost.

I don't believe we need to have a figurehead

Who is behind joomla? The community, not a person. A collective.

We get flack for not living up to that all the time but its what we strive for.

CC: It is indeed an interesting arguement. I think one of the things that people seemed to come under the impression that I was implying is that there needs to be a central figure for Joomla! as a whole. More so, I was attempting to point out that without someone at who people can point and say “that's the man to talk to”.. for someone new to the organization or project, it can be a little confusing and discouraging trying to find the right people. I agree that Joomla! needs to be a community and as a community that is how it has gotten to where it is today..

LL: I do think we don't do a fabulous job of directing traffic like that its sort of luck of the drawbut at the same time most of us don't do Joomla full time. I mean… the president of our non-profit is a university professor in sociology and she gives more time than she should ?

One of the most passionate contributors I've ever had the pleasure of working with. Most of us should make ourselves more available. I think on some level we see it right now as not a big priority. I guess i should speak for myself but right now my principle concern is sorting out any organizational issues we have to facilitate the growth of the project and the evolution of culture. Outreach isn't something most of us have been involved in lately and as you rightfully point out to our detriment.

At the very least we should have a more available contact us form or something ?

LL: #4 Ease of use. This is such a difficult topic. I've heard so many people scream to the rooftops how much easier Joomla is than Drupal.

I think you hit on one of my biggest gripes in usability for #4 . Just adding a page takes too many steps. Its on our minds for sure but as far as what is easy or not i think thats more attuned to what flavor ice cream you like.

There are people who think Joomla is dead simple. People who think Drupal is and EVERYONE thinks wordpress is ?

Ultimately its all about the mental model you have and how that maps to the software. If joomla was exceptionally hard to use we wouldn't have the download numbers and the installed userbase.

As they say, people talk with their feet but… again, you hit the nail on the head in a couple of areas where we could really use some improvement.

What is not spelled out well is that the “menu manager” is really closer to a “page manager” than it is a menu manager.
It's just somewhere in the middle, in limbo.

CC: Rewind 1 year. What would you change about a) Your current situation within the project b) The project itself?

LL: One year ago we were a month or so past the 1.5 release. If i were to do it all over again, I would probably have tried to rally the troops more. 1.5 was an epic release, it was 2+ years in the making and most everyone was just exhausted and took a long (and deserved break).

I think we lost a lot of momentum there and i think from a development perspective we didn't pick up quickly enough
and get back into the saddle. Maintenance processes have been great, our Joomla Bug Squad is spectacular but as far as innovation and building to the next releases it all sort of stagnated and it didn't have to.

I guess if i had it to do over again i'd have likely gotten more dirty with development and helped encourage new things for the next release and tried to rally people around that.

CC: What areas of the project do you feel need the most focus at the moment? I ask on the chance that someone reading may wish to contribute in some way.

LL: Well, I am single minded at the moment… and that is development. I think we need to focus on building the platform such that it can stay relevant and innovative in the years to come, and for that we need developers.

CC: What is the biggest change forthcoming in 1.6?

LL: By and far the biggest change in 1.6 is the much anticipated access control system.

CC: Can you elaborate on the access control system for us?

LL: Certainly.

The system is inspired in design by phpGACL and has an inherited model. With 1.6 we have not exposed the entirety of the system because we don't believe it to all be necessary but all the power is underneath, and we believe that third party developers may come in and provide interfaces to it to do more complex things.

It adds configurable user groups that inherit permissions, assets, rules and asset groups. What we have done is provide an easy way for third party developers to attach the ACL system to their existing systems and built it to scale such that many things other than just the Joomla CMS can use it.

CC: Can you provide me an example of how you envision this being used?

LL: The way your average user will use it is that they will create “access levels” in the member manager. An access level will have a name and some number of user groups. When managing content or menu items they will apply that access level and only people in those user groups will be able to view those items.

Its much akin to how Joomla currently has the hard coded access levels of “public, registered, and special.” There will also be a provision for site administrators to choose which user groups can edit and/or manage different areas of the site.

CC: Will it offer tie ins to more traditional systems such as AD (active directory)?

LL: Great question! One of the things we are doing with this system is allowing you to sync up user groups via plugins in the same way you can sync up users in 1.5 via plugins. This is being built specifically so taht you could manage your users/usergroups in AD or LDAP and then that will be mirrored in Joomla.

Thats the extent of it as i know it, but with plugins, anything is possible

CC: Do you see yourself taking on any other roles in the future?

LL: I don't think so. I am pretty well happy in where I am and what I want to do. I suspect I may emerge as more of a platform advocate in the future but that will likely be still within my role as development coordinator.

Traditionally i have gone where the pain is. ?

CC: Does Joomla have any financial backing?

LL: Nothing formal. We have google adsense on our sites, some of them. We get some donations from individuals and we have a great hosting partner that donates so much time and infrastructure.

CC: If someone wanted to donate, how would they?

LL: Well the most important donation we can ask for is time