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Barrie North on Books, Videos, and Joomla!

Dee-Ann LeBlanc talks with Barrie North about his latest book and video on the Joomla! content-management system, and the three core things that people new to Joomla! need to know.
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It used to be that (unless you wanted to edit the HTML yourself), you had to hire a web developer if you wanted to put up a complex website with user interaction, comments, dynamic content, and a back-end for adding material. These days, many people with almost no actual HTML skills are putting up complex, rich sites. How? By using an open source content-management system (CMS) and customizing it.

One open source CMS is Joomla!, popular with web developers and designers for its vast collection of extensions and its flexibility. I recently spoke with author and Joomla! expert Barrie North to learn more about his recent projects and the wild and woolly world of this popular CMS.

How long have you been using Joomla!?

I have a folder on my hard drive where I keep all of the extensions that I download. The name of the folder is actually "Mambo!" It totally surprises me—every time I go to install an extension I see that folder name.

I basically started doing web design at the beginning of 2005, and by the end of that year was using Mambo/Joomla! exclusively. It was at the end of 2005 that the new project Joomla! was created, so I suppose I have been using Joomla! for as long as it has been around. I think I actually have one of the oldest blogs about Joomla!; that started in the fall of that year.

What inspired Joomla! A User's Guide: Building a Successful Joomla! Powered Website? [Editor's Note: Joomla! 1.5: A User's Guide: Building a Successful Joomla! Powered Website, 2nd Edition and Fundamentals of Joomla! (Video Training) are now available.]

My background is actually teaching; I was a high school teacher for eight years. In 2006 and 2007, I had lots of opportunity to interact with Joomla! users as we were doing development work and helping them set up their sites. I started to discover that the same issues were experienced by virtually everybody as they tried to make Joomla! websites.

I happened to be volunteering at the Joomla! booth at Linux World in San Francisco when Mitch Pirtle (then a core team member) was asked by a Prentice Hall editor if he was interested in writing a book. Mitch was too busy at that time but gave the editor my name and suggested that I might be interested.

I had never written a book before, but I thought it would be a great opportunity to try and help people learn how to Joomla!.

How has Joomla! evolved since the first edition of the book, and where do you see it going?

Joomla! 1.5.0 was released over a year ago, and now is on version 1.5.10. Joomla! has a typically fast release cycle, something that you see in many open source applications. Over these series of releases, from 0 to 10, there have been many bug fixes and minor changes that were not hugely significant, but were enough to trip up new users—hence the second edition.

We are already seeing activity on some of the developer blogs about Joomla! 1.6. It will be really interesting to see how end users make the decision whether to stay with 1.5 or start the process of upgrading to 1.6. Many might have only just upgraded from 1.0!

What have you changed for the second edition of the book?

When the first edition came out, the screenshots and various text were accurate to the 1.5.0 version. The published second edition is updated to 1.5.9 with new screenshots throughout the book and any new features addressed (1.5.10 came out during postproduction!). This revision will help make it smoother for those who are learning to get to grips with Joomla! for the first time. The second edition also includes an updated chapter about search engine marketing, another topic that moves very quickly.

What are you expecting from Joomla! 1.6? How is it going to improve? What's going to change?

Joomla! 1.6 has a major feature that is lacking in Joomla! 1.5. It will have much better ACL (access control level), which lets Bob from Accounting only edit Bob's category articles. There are also a number of features that would improve Joomla! as a blogging platform.

What key things do users need to be aware of when deciding if they want to upgrade or stick with the version they have?

I think that everyone should be planning on migrating from 1.0 to 1.5 right now. Support for 1.0 ends in July 2009. I think there will be a much bigger window for 1.6. Considering [that] 1.5 was released more than a year ago, we might expect a similar window for 1.5 to 1.6.

There are a lot of content management systems out there; a lot of open source ones as well. What drew you to Joomla! in particular over the others?

I have seen in Twitter many people asking about the differences between Drupal, Joomla!, and WordPress. It got to the point that I even made my own tongue-in-cheek flowchart to help you decide which one to use.

What drew me to Joomla! is that I think it firmly occupies that middle ground. I see it as an easy(-ish)-to-use "everyman's" CMS that most people can build a pretty decent dynamic website with.

What are three core things that techies new to Joomla! need to understand?

  1. Have a plan. Make sure that you understand what your goals are for the visitors to your website. If you don't do this thinking, you'll just get "widget overwhelmed" and end up having everything and the kitchen sink on your pages. Joomla! is almost too easy to extend!

  2. Have another plan. One of the biggest challenges is organizing all your content. You need to figure out how to set up the sections and categories to manage all those articles. This is best done on paper before even touching a keyboard.

  3. Pages don't exist. There are no pages in Joomla!. Everything is dynamically generated on the fly. This means that everything is controlled by the menus and not the articles. If you make an article, it won't even be seen on the site until Joomla! is somehow linking to it!

Was Fundamentals of Joomla! (Video Training) your first video?

Yes, though I had made some short how-to videos. But nothing like the 10+ hours that ended up in the video series.

What are some of the major differences between preparing a book and preparing a video tutorial?

I would have to say getting over insecurities about your own voice and how boring you sound. Oh, and cringing at listening to yourself say, "Bugger it" in out-takes.

Seriously, though, I think writing a book was a lot harder for me. Writing is more of an art of craft (if that makes sense), hence the expression "wordsmith." It's a lot more of a careful process. Also, my spelling is really, really bad....

Videos, by comparison, I found easier. I had a vague idea of what I would say and then just "had at it." I think that's a result of eight years of being able to sound convincing in a classroom when I had no idea what I was talking about (a trick all good high school teachers have mastered!). There was a surprising amount of editing, though. I found about a 5:1 ratio between raw footage and final cut.

What would you say are the advantages of book over video, and how did you take advantage of them?

I think with a book you can really distill key concepts down and present them in a way that's in line with learning theory:

  1. Tell people what you are just about to tell them.
  2. Tell them.
  3. Tell them what you just told them.

That kind of process is embedded in the whole book, and I tried to use it to really drive home what I thought were the important concepts.

What would you say are the advantages of video over books, and how did you take advantage of them?

The obvious advantage of video is the visual/audio aspect of it. It really lets you explain things in a complete way. Throughout the videos I tried to take a "watch me over the shoulder" approach. You get to see every last nauseating detail of what I did to achieve X. That's one of the reasons they are so long; nothing was skipped over.

Are the book and the video meant to supplement one another?

I am not sure I have really thought of them in that way. A lot of the material is common to both, but I think different people will choose one or the other depending on their learning style. Together they certainly make a complete, and perhaps unique, learning package for Joomla!. For people that are on a mission to learn Joomla!, the combined bundle is a great option.

What does Joomla! offer that's unique among the open source CMSes?

I think Joomla! is the Swiss Army knife of the open source CMS world. It can do practically anything. Its power is in the 4,500+ extensions you can get that can turn it into anything. I play a five-minute game when I do training, to see who can find the strangest extension. The answers are never the same (the winner is still the one that tracks women's menstrual cycles, though I figure that [might] be more help to men).

What Joomla! extensions can you not live without?

I don't find I have those "key extensions" that lots of people recommend. I do always use an advanced editor, JCE or WysiwygPro. Most sites I develop probably also have some comment extension.

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