drop's picture

As we go about thinking about goals for our community in 2020, several people have raised the question of better defining the skill level we would recommend for someone to install and configure a Backdrop CMS site. Our end goal is to both provide better guidance to someone evaluating Backdrop CMS for their own needs, but also to set reasonable goals for future features targeted at site architects or site builders. 

Assuming the ability for push button installation on a shared hosting platform, what other skills does one need to create and configure their own custom website?

We would be curious what users have to say on this topic based upon their experience?
We would also be interested in what Backdrop core contributors believe that it should be (what are we shooting for)?

In regards to this question, what other CMSs or platforms are we (should we be) competing with (Drupal 8, Wordpress, WIX, SquareSpace, etc)?

What technical skills does one need, in order to be able to leverage the power of Backdrop CMS for themselves or their organization? Based upon your experiences, what skills would you recommend that one have before they try to configure their own Backdrop CMS site?

  • Basic PHP?
  • Basic HTML & CSS?
  • Experience with other CMSs such as Drupal or Wordpress?
  • Experience setting up databases or a power user of spreadsheets?


In my opinion, the recommended skills for someone to leverage Backdrop CMS for their own use should be similar to the skills one might expect of an advanced Wordpress user, with no coding experience beyond a basic understanding of HTML and CSS. This would be my proposed (draft) list of recommended skills.

  • Some experience using (as content editor) a CMS like Drupal or Wordpress. 
  • A basic understanding of how databases are structured - fields and records. Some experience in setting up databases in programs like Excel would be helpful (at a minimum), especially if they hope to leverage the views module.
  • Enough familiarity with web concepts to formulate and create good internet searches for help solving basic problems. While we do our best to make Backdrop CMS as easy as possible to understand and to provide good documentation. However, I think that users are going to run into problems that are not fully documented and where they will need to search for outside resources. 
  • A basic understanding of how HTML and CSS work. I don't think you should need to be experienced in writing HTML or CSS, but I think that understanding what an HTML element and CSS class or ID is probably necessary to get the full benefits of Backdrop CMS.
  • An ability to find the source code in your browser and use the inspector to find specific elements and classes. 

Right now, I think that due to limitations in Backdrop CMS core and the limited contrib themes available, one practically needs to be able to:

  • Write/edit basic CSS
  • Upload CSS files to a server
  • Create a sub-theme based upon the following instructions.

I think that in the future users ought be able to create basic changes to color scheme, layout, and type styles without touching CSS and ideally select from a larger list of contributed themes/skins. This is partially possible today through core and contrib features, but we have additional work to do (in my opinion). 

User should not be required to (and I don't think they are):

  • Know any PHP
  • Understand or work with command line tools
  • Understand or use advanced front end workflows like SASS or LESS to update their CSS (if they want to edit their own CSS). 

I think it is reasonable for Backdrop CMS to complete with Wordpress for power users, people who in the Wordpress world can add plug-ins and tweak their color scheme through the UI. 

I don't expect Backdrop CMS to compete with the user interface for sites like WIX and SquareSpace in terms of layouts and visual customizations. I do expect Backdrop to provide many more advanced features and flexibility for users with the skills I've outline above. 

I look forward to what others have to say. Most importantly, I look forward to hearing about the experiences of end users. 


Speaking as someone who both uses Backdrop CMS regularly and is involved in developing new features for Backdrop (core and contrib development). 

klonos's picture

For me it all comes down to what one expects from the site they are about to launch, and how much experience they've had in such tasks previously.

No special skills should be required in order to launch a simple Backdrop site, with just the Basis theme that ships with it out-of-the-box. They should be able to start adding/editing basic pages straight away.

Now, as they dive deeper, any previous knowledge and experience in working with other CMSes will come in handy, as the basic concepts are practically the same. With a little help of documentation/tutorials and chatting with members of the community in this forum or on Gitter, they should be able to learn how to implement more complex functionality to their site.

At some point, they may start exploring new ready-made contributed themes, and when they are ready, perhaps start building their own theme. Any experience with html/css/php should come handy then.

So to me, there is no specific level of experience required; just will to learn by doing. I guess what I am trying to say is that learning how to build sites cannot happen with a snap of one's fingers; it is a journey and it'll take time. But we're here to help :)

BWPanda's picture

I tell my clients that if they can use an email client (e.g. Outlook or Thunderbird) or use a word processor, they can use (as an editor/admin) one of my sites.

To this end I use modules like Simplify to hide any features/functionality they don't need access to, to make it as simple and easy to manage their site as possible.

@BWPanda - I agree with you about the skills that should be required to edit/admin a site. 

The point of this question is about the skill level necessary to build a site from scratch (without the help of a developer). To configure it and customize it enough to meet a basic use case?

Are we building Backdrop for a small business owner to set up and build their own site? Or do we assume that a developer or experienced site architect will be involved?

BWPanda's picture

Thanks for the clarification.

I may have a simplified view/opinion on the matter, but I believe that people wanting to build and manage their own website will want to do so via a hosted system where they can create an account, have a website spun up, login, edit, publish, etc. I don't believe they want to download software, install it on a server, configure it, etc.

There are people who will want to or be willing to do that, but I believe they are the sort of people who would then be willing to learn to use a system they've just spent time manually installing (e.g. become and entry-level developer, for lack of a better term).

So, we can either develop Backdrop to be usable as a hosted system (but then we're competing with WordPress.com, Wix, Squarespace, etc., and we'd need to have lots of beautiful themes for people to choose from or the ability to 'theme' a site from the UI without coding), or we focus on building a system that developers can install and configure for their clients.

This discussion is extremely important, I am delighted that the community poses this issue.

The theme is very extensive. A professional and reliable response can be obtained through a professional sociological study, which is conducted repeatedly, periodically and investigating the dynamics of the processes. However, this requires money, time and is hardly possible in the foreseeable short future.

However, the site and the forum can make this task feasible. How? Using the site and the forum to save the largest part of the cost of a sociological study - the making of polls and pay for interviewer for interviews with hundreds and thousands of respondents.

One strong side of Backdrop is the Webform module.

It is possible together with specialists in sociology to make a professional questionnaire through Webform, which is to be published on the site/forum.

Stimulate site visitors fill it out. Provide a link to this poll and ask users to fill it out on the admin/Reports/Status page and repeat a message asking them to fill out the poll after every system update.

In a few months you will have a significant and representative sociological sample. Which sociologists can analyze, to do statistical processing of the answers and to present you interesting and extremely useful data, correlations between the primary data and most importantly - trends, tendencies.

This can be done periodically and you will have empirically substantiated data on the user profiles, their knowledge, abilities, interests and requirements, with dynamics over the years, divided into different groups of users by occupation, age, business type, education and many other parameters.

* * *

I will share in a hurry some of my thoughts on the subject.

If Backdrop is a small and medium business system, and Drupal 8 is already looking at big corporate business, then it might be helpful to take into account the difference between two completely different categories of users.

Unlike the corporate business world (and Drupal 8 users since the latest changes), entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs in small and medium-sized businesses (including micro-businesses) and small NGOs have many, if not entirely different, approaches to mastering new knowledge.

They are highly committed to self-education, to "lifelong learning" and their knowledge is not the result of approved curricula of any university or other formal educational institution. They are accustomed and in love with solving problems, succeeding where others give up. They are by nature inventors and innovators.

What this category of users need is not an easy-to-use system that will motivate them to choose it because it is as easy to use as "e-mail program or MS Word".

Entrepreneurs hate easy and common things. The easiest way to get them repel it by telling them - it's easy, that's what everyone does!

On the contrary, advertise Backdrop as a system that is not for everyone, which is for smart and resourceful people, those who are able to find solutions and handle challenges. And most of all - a system that excels others and gives them business advantages, makes them competitive!

It is superfluous and annoying to give them more and more interface features, innumerable layouts, and generally tools that are useful to people who lack motivation, or are unable to educate themselves. There are enough vendors for this category users - let for them compete Wordpress, Wix, SquareSpace, etc.

Your (our) type of users - small and medium-sized businesses and NGOs - need something else - excellent educational documentation and good textbooks to acquire the necessary basic knowledge of HTML and CSS. Teach them clearly and easy how to create their own themes.

It's not difficult (creating themes), I know it from my own experience, it's just hard to explain how to make it easy and understandable for people who have no special education but are resourceful, hard-working and eager to learn.

I'll give you an example from my personal experience.

10-15 years ago, I had a basic knowledge of HTML and CSS, I had done a dozen static sites by this time with HTML editors. I had done 7-8 sites with Woprdpress before, it was not difficult to learn Woprdpress in 2005-2006. (Before that I was prepress master, printing books and advertisement graphic designer with good computer skills but with no web sites creating or programming knowledge.)

I was then trying to figure out how Drupal works. I decided to try Drupal because I read in a popular Bulgarian computer magazine that Drupal was much more powerful and unmatched by other CMSs, and people from the hosting company where I bought domains and hosting spoke up enthusiastically for Drupal and warned me that this CMS is much more difficult to study.

I studied both Drupal 5 and Drupal 6 at the same time because I didn't understand well the difference between the two and almost didn't understand anything at all. I have read dozens of books and articles. Or hundreds. It took me 5-6 months and gradually I started to understand a step by step. After 1 year, I made my first (very simple) site with Drupal 6. After that I have made over 150 sites up to today, the last 20-30 I have already made them with Backdrop CMS.

I have been helped i the beginning by the many dozen short tutorials found on the Internet such as these (You can find them on the Internet):

  • Beginners Guide To Drupal
  • Drupal Cookbook 2008

So my advice is:

Slow down the pace in developing new and new options and refining Backdrop. It is important, you are doing a great job, but you miss out another very important thing for easy mastering of the system by the audience and its imposition over competitors - help and learning information.

The forum is useful but not enough. A good textbook does not consist of a series of independent random articles, but of a sequentially thought-out lessons, done alone or co-authored, didactic teaching material that goes from simple to complex.

Find authors who can write a book like "Oh! Backdrop CMS - this is something very easy!".

Developers and developers are very important - without them the system will not exist.

But now is also the time for teachers and writers who can present the complicated things understandably - without them, the system will remain misunderstood for millions of potential and desperately needing it users.

Thanks @amilenkov

For the record, I don't think that the community necessary needs to adopt a policy or official position on this issue (maybe we should, but suspect we don't have sufficient consensus on this topic). But, discussing it and understanding the differing points of view on this topic is important. 

As someone who is involved in Backdrop CMS outreach. I need to understand who we are trying to reach out to and what we are promising them.

What are (should be) the prerequisite skills to install and configure a site with Backdrop CMS?

The exact same as the original D7.  That was basically:

  • being able to read and follow instructions on how to install a Drupal instance, and
  • being able to follow pretty much the exact instructions WordPress.com uses today for site setup.

Knowing PHP, CSS, HTML were not requirements.  Yes, they are exceedingly helpful, but probably the vast majority of people who started with Drupal 4/5/6/7 knew no programming languages before starting.  Arguably it’s the one reason Drupal was so well received, all the tinkerers went for Drupal, while all the Barbies, for lack of a better term, went to WordPress.


A Wide Focus
I think that BackDrop should be a wide-focus CMS. It should be as easy, or easier, than WordPress to get a basic web site up, but highly customizable as needs arise and skills improve. There are millions of people today who are out of work and they will need to create an independent income. Many jobs are not coming back. The newly unemployed will need to create their own very-small businesses, but without a web presence, they will be invisible and their business potential severely limited.

Let's Help Emerging Businesses & Non-Profits
Most of these emerging business people won't have either web development skills or money to hire professional web developers. They will be motivated and willing to learn, but being innocent, they may be drawn to Wix, SquareSpace, or similar platforms where they will become locked into a system that will become costly with limited opportunities for expansion and customization as their business or non-profit needs expand. They will be taken advantage of.

As business owners-developers, they will want to own their own "real estate" and not be subject to loss if their chosen platform should fail and go out of business. To minimize cost, they will also be drawn to open source because it's free, but they won't be aware of the complexities of most open source software.

We Have a Unique Opportunity
Now is a ripe time to address the needs of these millions of people with an open source solution that is friendly to newcomers.

Most new businesses just need basic pages and a blog. They need to be able to post photos and videos without the arcane complications that Drupal 7 imposed. If done well, it could bring about an economic renaissance that is so badly needed by our diverse population.

Required Skills
Initial required skills should only be the ability to follow clear step-by-step instructions. The look of any web site is mostly from the photos that are used, not from structural html and css customizations. So the initial site should be simple to start with and modestly customizable with color selections from a color wheel and font options from a list of widely used internet-ready fonts.

Of course, more skills will be needed to refine their site, but new business owner-developers should not be burdened at the beginning with having to learn too much, too fast.

Offer a Powerful Upgrade Path
Later, as the desire for a more unique site arises and to address newly realized needs, the owner-developer of the site should have a clear path of education to learn the basics of HTML, CSS, perhaps PHP and other languages. They should be able to create their site initially on their own computer where they can work without fear of wrecking their site. They should not have to work on or develop a live site.

This basic need to help newly emerging businesses and non-profits is imperative. Start with simplicity and add complexity as needs arise.

Address the Needs of Two Groups
BackDrop should position itself to benefit two groups, 1) the emerging business owner-developer and non-profits and 2) the experienced small site developer. The huge group of existing small developers would welcome an alternative to WordPress because they have experienced its limitations. They likely won't give it up since they have that skill base, but they know they need something more, but something much less than enterprise solutions like Drupal 8 or 9.

It is not unreasonable to address both groups simultaneously. New business and non-profits need easy access. But experienced developers will experience an easier and faster development path when well-functioning basics are included with the installation.

An Educational Opportunity
We should not miss an educational opportunity. Many more people need to understand internet technology and how to present themselves and their business online. We need to position BackDrop as a resource for these people. The knowledge of how the internet works and how BackDrop CMS works, starting with basic concepts, would go a long way towards attracting new users.

The Ultimate Guide
As I have started with BackDrop, I've been writing "The Ultimate Beginners Guide to BackDrop" to address these educational needs. I remember the years of effort and books I had to read and study to be able to put up a simple Drupal 7 site. It was horrendous. I would get stuck for months at a time and gave up several times. The whole field of web development has been learning through the school of hard knocks. It was hard because I didn't know what I didn't know and I couldn't even search for concepts I didn't know. I had no one to help me. The local Drupal user group was focused on enterprise level work. I needed not only step-by-step guidance (a how-to), I needed to understand why I was doing the steps. I needed to learn additional software like FTP, phpMyAdmin, cPanel, how to find a host for my site, plus Photo, Video, and other software to create the assets I needed for my site.

Creating a business is daunting enough. We need to make creating a web presence for new businesses and non-profits accessible and easy to get started.