by Alexander Limi, co-founder of Plone
It’s always fascinating how life throws you a loop now and then that changes your future in a profound way—and you don’t realize it at the time. As I sit here almost six years after the Plone project started, it seems like a good time to reflect on how the last years changed everything, and some of the background of why you are holding this book in your hands—because the story about the Plone community is at least as remarkable as the software itself.
It all started out in a very classic way—I had just discovered Zope and Python, and wanted to build a simple web application to teach myself how they worked. This was back in 1999, when Zope was still a new, unproven technology, and had more than a few rough spots. I have never been a programmer, but Python made it all seem so simple that I couldn’t resist trying to build a simple web application with it.
After reading what I could find of documentation at the time, I couldn’t quite figure it out—so I ended up in the online Zope chat rooms to see if I could get any help with building my web application.
Little did I know that what happened that evening would change my life in a significant way. I met Alan Runyan online, and after trying to assist me, we ended up talking about music instead. We also reached the conclusion that I should focus on what I was passionate about—instead of coding, I wanted to build great user interfaces and make things easy to use. Alan wanted to provide the plumbing to make the system work.
For some reason, it just clicked at that point, and we collaborated online and obsessed over the details of the system for months. External factors were probably decisive here too: I was without a job, and my girlfriend had left me a few months prior; Alan had just given up his job as a Java programmer at a failed dot-com company and decided to start his own company doing Python instead—so we both ended up pouring every living hour into the project, and moving at a break-neck pace towards getting the initial version out.
We ended up getting a release ready just before the EuroPython Conference in 2002, and this was actually the first time I met Alan in person. We had been working on Plone for the past year just using email and IRC chat—two technologies that are still cornerstones of Plone project communication. I still remember the delight in discovering that we had excellent communication in person as well.
What happened next was somewhat surreal for people new to this whole thing: we were sitting in the audience in the “State of Zope” talk held by Paul Everitt. He got to the part of his talk where he called attention to people and projects that he was especially impressed with.
When he called out our names and talked about how much he liked Plone—which at this point was still mostly the effort of a handful of people—it made us feel like we were really onto something. This was our defining moment.
For those of you who don’t know Paul, he is one of the founders of Zope Corporation, and would go on to become our most tireless and hard-working supporter. He got involved in all the important steps that would follow—he put a solid legal and marketing story in place and helped create the Plone Foundation—and did some great storytelling along the way.
There is no way to properly express how much Paul has meant to us personally—and to Plone—five years later. His role was crucial in the story of Plone’s success, and the project would not be where it is now without him.
Looking back, it sounds a bit like the classic romanticized start-up stories of Silicon Valley, except that we didn’t start a company together. We chose to start two separate companies—in hindsight a very good decision. It never ceases to amaze me how much of an impact the project has had since.
We are now an open-source community of hundreds of companies doing Plone development, training, and support. In just the past month, large companies like Novell and Akamai—as well as government agencies like the CIA, and NGOs like Oxfam—have revealed that they are using Plone for their web content management, and more will follow. The Plone Network site, plone.net, lists over 150 companies that offer Plone services, and the entire ecosystem is estimated to have revenues in the hundreds of millions of US dollars annually. This year’s Plone Conference in Naples, Italy is expected to draw over 300 developers and users from around the world.
Not bad for a system that was conceived and created by a handful of people standing on the shoulders of the giants of the Zope and Python communities.
But the real story here is about an amazing community of people—individuals and organizations, large and small—all coming together to create the best content management system on the planet. We meet in the most unlikely locations—from ancient castles and mountain-tops in Austria, to the archipelagos and fjords of Norway, the sandy beaches of Brazil, and the busy corporate offices of Google in Silicon Valley. These events are at the core of the Plone experience, and developers nurture deep friendships within the community. I can say without a doubt that these are the smartest, kindest, most amazing people I have ever had the pleasure to work with.
One of those people is Martin Aspeli, whose book you are reading right now.
Even though we’re originally from the same country, we didn’t meet that way. Martin was at the time—and still is—living in London. He had contributed some code to one of our community projects a few months prior, and suggested that we should meet up when he was visiting his parents in Oslo, Norway. It was a cold and dark winter evening when we met at the train station—and ended up talking about how to improve Plone and the community process at a nearby café. I knew there and then that Martin would become an important part of the Plone project.
Fast-forward a few years, and Martin has risen to become one of Plone’s most important and respected—not to mention prolific—developers. He has architected and built several core components of the Plone 3 release; he has been one of the leaders on the documentation team, as well as an active guide in Plone’s help forums. He also manages to fit in a day job at one of the “big four” consulting companies in the world.
On top of all this, he was secretly working on a book to coincide with the Plone 3.0 release—which you are now the lucky owner of.
This brings me to why this book is so unique, and why we are lucky to have Martin as part of our community. In the fast-paced world of open-source development—and Plone in particular—we have never had the chance to have a book that was entirely up-to-date on all subjects. There have been several great books in the past, but Martin has raised the bar further—by using the writing of a book to inform the development of Plone. If something didn’t make sense, or was deemed too complex for the problem it was trying to solve—he would update that part of Plone so that it could be explained in simpler terms. It made the book better, and it has certainly made Plone better.
Another thing that sets Martin’s book apart is his unparalleled ability to explain advanced and powerful concepts in a very accessible way. He has years of experience developing with Plone and answering questions on the support forums, and is one of the most patient and eloquent writers around. He doesn’t give up until you know exactly what’s going on.
But maybe more than anything, this book is unique in its scope. Martin takes you through every step from installing Plone, through professional development practices, unit tests, how to think about your application, and even through some common, non-trivial tasks like setting up external caching proxies like Varnish and authentication mechanisms like LDAP. In sum, this book teaches you how to be an independent and skillful Plone developer, capable of running your own company—if that is your goal—or provide scalable, maintainable services for your existing organization.
Five years ago, I certainly wouldn’t have imagined sitting here, jet-lagged and happy in Barcelona this Sunday morning after wrapping up a workshop to improve the multilingual components in Plone. Nor would I have expected to live halfway across the world in San Francisco and work for Google, and still have time to lead Plone into the future.
Speaking of which, how does the future of Plone look like in 2007? Web development is now in a state we could only have dreamt about five years ago—and the rise of numerous great Python web frameworks, and even non-Python solutions like Ruby on Rails has made it possible for the Plone community to focus on what it excels at: content and document management, multilingual content, and solving real problems for real companies—and having fun in the process. Before these frameworks existed, people would often try to do things with Plone that it was not built or designed to do—and we are very happy that solutions now exist that cater to these audiences, so we can focus on our core expertise. Choice is good, and you should use the right tool for the job at hand.
We are lucky to have Martin, and so are you. Enjoy the book, and I look forward to seeing you in our help forums, chat rooms, or at one of the many Plone conferences and workshops around the world.
— Alexander Limi, Barcelona, July 2007
Alexander Limi co-founded the Plone project with Alan Runyan, and continues to play a key role in the Plone community. He is Plone’s main user interface developer, and currently works as a user interaction designer at Google in California.