Feb. 3, 2011

John VanDyk

Photo by Bob Elbert.

Five questions for John VanDyk

by Diana Pounds

On campus, he's the guy who launched ISU entomology's legendary website. At home, he's a father of eight. In the web world, he's a rock star.

ISU systems analyst John VanDyk has a few things going. He provides IT services to several departments, including entomology, the department that garnered internet fame for its early entry on the web, and particularly, for its VanDyk-built insect photo gallery. The early bugs were mostly Iowa crop pests, photographed by former ISU entomologist Marlin Rice, but they were an immense hit and soon, bug sites were showing up all over the internet. ISU's entomology department currently hosts another of those early insect galleries, BugGuide, a massive collection of North American insects, photographed by the public.

Beyond campus, VanDyk was among a band of early developers of Drupal, a popular open source content management system for the web now used by millions of websites, including The White House. With then-ISU colleague Matt Westgate, VanDyk wrote one of the most popular Drupal books ever, "Pro Drupal Development," which debuted in 2007. He followed up with a second edition in 2008; the third edition is just out this month.

Quick! Do you know what a Blatella is?

In the event of a nuclear war, this animal is widely believed to inherit the earth.

How many hits do you get on the Bug Guide?

BugGuide.net had over 809 million hits in 2010, which averages to about 26 hits a second. BugGuide has become a huge encyclopedia of insects and spiders. We currently have 384,000 images in the guide and almost 34,000 written pages. This represents about 23 percent of the estimated insect species in North America.

So how were sales on your Drupal book?

We didn't get rich (we would have made more working nights in fast food instead of writing) but that wasn't our aim. We were trying to entice good web developers to join the Drupal project by providing solid documentation. We found out how much pent-up demand there was when the book shot to No. 1 on Amazon.com. That was just for 'geek' books on Amazon, not all books, right? No, believe it or not, that was No. 1 for all books on Amazon!

What good is Drupal to non-tech folks?

An analogous question might be, "what good are pipes to non-plumbers?" In the same way that you don't have to know how to braze copper pipe to use a water faucet, you can surf the web without knowing that Drupal is creating the web pages. If you are a web content creator, Drupal allows you to easily create and update web pages without being a "techie."

For example, Drupal empowers entomologists Donald Lewis and Laura Jesse to publish the popular Horticulture & Home Pest News with very little support from me. I set up the website in Drupal and handed control over to them. Drupal allows me to put complex functionality together quickly. It's like a power toolkit for web developers.

As an open source project, Drupal welcomes all kinds of contributors, not just coders! That's one aspect of Drupal that seems key to why it is growing so quickly: there is an emphasis on people helping one another get up to speed. This is done through online forums, online chat, but importantly, also through in-person meet-up groups across the world. The Iowa group (groups.drupal.org/iowa) meets in Ames on the last Monday of each month. All are welcome, especially "newbies," and the atmosphere is accepting and relaxed.

Do you know who Tom Bradford* is and if so, do you ever feel like him?

Sorry, our old black-and-white TV was only on for essentials like the evening news, Wild Kingdom and The Six Million Dollar Man.

*Editor's note: Tom Bradford was Dick Van Patten's good-natured father figure in the 70s sitcom Eight is Enough.