What’s the Pantheon Difference?
April 26, 2017
GeekHive has partnered with Pantheon, a website management platform for Drupal and WordPress, on several projects and we’ve had a lot of success with the tools they provide using their services on both WordPress, and Drupal 7 and 8 builds. We wanted to sit down with one of their top engineers to talk about what Pantheon does, how it may benefit you, and so much more. In this post, we’ll introduce Steve Persch, Agency and Community Engineer, discuss what benefits Pantheon offers as a hosting provider, and chat Drupal 8.
How long have you been with Pantheon?
Steve: I’ve been with the company since September 2015.
What did you do before this?
Steve: I was a senior engineer and team lead at Palantir, a Drupal-focused agency in Chicago. I moved to Milwaukee a few years ago for my wife’s job but was able to continue my work at Palantir because much of the team was remote.
I started making websites in college in 2006. I was a theater major and took a class called Media for the Web while I was producing a radio drama. We had a WordPress site that existed just to generate a podcast feed. I was curious and wanted to learn more about how it worked. Interning at a theater company the next summer, they said they wanted to do an online magazine and a blog and I volunteered to build it. That internship turned into making blog sites and by end of summer, I was hired on part-time to maintain the site.
Do you use the skills you learned in comedy and improv in the work you do now?
Steve: I think so, the comfort level I have for public speaking is a big part of what I draw on here. Good communication is the essence of making this work, translating needs – the more time I spend in web development the more I feel like the tech is the easy part.
One of my former bosses said something that always stuck with me: “you don’t have a tech problem, you have a governance problem.” I completely agree. What’s needed first is a clear set of expectations around what an organization expects, then you choose the plugins.
On the teamwork side of things, the type of improv I did was long form, it emphasized finding and heightening patterns. This is something I pull from in web development, especially in the Drupal community which is essentially a pattern implementing machine. Once the Drupal community decides how to do something, they refracture things to make it work with the new pattern.
Editorial Note: Steve view sounds a lot like our technical director Kevin Varley, he believes having strong communication skills are the sign of how well you’ll do in a tech career, check out the recent interview we did with him here to learn more.
Your role at Pantheon is Agency and Community Engineer, what does that entail?
Steve: That involves doing training specifically for agencies, like the session I did with GeekHive where we spent time making your team comfortable with Pantheon, our dashboard, command line tools, and any other workflow questions that your team had. Also, sometimes we go over any code we think will be useful for the agencies we work with. Drew was a guinea pig for me, learning how to do specific things that could then be automated better.
Drew: During our time with Pantheon, we got a sneak peak into what Steve and the team had been working on with regards to continuous integration using Composer and CircleCI on the Pantheon platform. We were able to try some beta level code and help Steve get a better idea of where the pain points were in terms of setup and basic testing/automation.
After our time together Steve went back to his team to evaluate what could be done to alleviate some of our pain points mainly around the initial setup. As a result, the Pantheon team came up with nearly a 100% automated setup script allowing anyone to set up something that took us a few hours in mere minutes. If you’re interested in the team’s work on this topic the Couch Coding: Terminus 1.0 webinar has some great demos.
Can you tell us about the Pantheon difference? What sets you apart from other hosting providers out there?
Steve: What sets us apart from more traditional hosting providers is that we give developers a much better starting point for doing Drupal or WordPress projects. I was a Pantheon customer before joining the Pantheon team. It was clear to me what I was/wasn’t responsible for as a developer using it. I liked that I couldn’t customize things like the Varnish VLCs. My site didn’t require that level of customization, so I wanted something I knew was already working on numerous other sites. And if I had a site that did need it, there were options for that too. But the real question is, at what number of sites does it make sense for a tech team to manage things like Varnish? For most teams, it’s not a worthwhile use of time to figure out how to manage.
We can all get into the weeds with these things because we are interested in figuring out how they work, but that’s not always a productive use of our time. At my previous job, the thing that indicated we got too much in the weeds was when we started talking about which Linux distribution to use. I don’t think it mattered to the end client, so when we were talking about it, we could talk about what we preferred for them but it wasn’t a necessary topic of conversation.
What do you want customers to know about Pantheon’s services?
Steve: I’d want you to know that a project hosted on Pantheon will have less risk, both in terms of schedule and down time once the site is live. For customers putting a project on Pantheon, you should have more confidence that you will see your development team make changes more rapidly to the site versus hosting in a more traditional environment. In a traditional environment, it’s more likely the team will get bogged down with server configuration that they don’t have to worry about in a hosted environment like Pantheon. Your site should also run quicker than a site run on a traditional server model.
When making updates what brand values are you trying to deliver on for your customers?
Steve: Ultimately, we are trying to make agencies successful, we think of web development as a team sport. When Pantheon launched a few years ago, we sold ourselves on our technology, and the containerization our platform is built on. As the wider market has adopted this more and more it’s become less of a differentiator, so what we are trying to deliver on going forward is making sure teams are successful on it.
What questions do you most often get asked from end clients looking to use your hosting service?
Steve: They are usually concerned with performance, security, and uptime. Is the website up, not getting hacked, and being served as fast as possible?
There are still plenty companies who insist on hosting their sites internally for numerous reasons. What would you say is the biggest advantage to someone hosting their site with Pantheon vs self-hosting?
Steve: The biggest benefit is opening up their team to deliver on higher value features for their website. One thing I’ve noticed (especially in the university context where I spent much of my career) is that they have a culture of self-hosting. Often the same group of people are responsible for CMS level updates, keeping servers running, and even theme implementation. The same 2-4 people simply can’t do all that is asked of them. To be able to draw a clear line on the server level opens up a huge amount of time for that team to be able to effectively deliver on other aspects of their role.
What do you think of Drupal 8’s feature releases model?
Steve: I love it, I think it’s one of the best things to happen to Drupal Core in years. At Drupalcon New Orleans we did a presentation about how WordPress was doing something similar. We highlighted the benefits the WordPress community had gotten over the years once they solidified on the 4-month release cycle. I think Drupal is already seeing the benefits. It’s really helpful for platforms like Pantheon to know the exact dates of when Drupal updates are happening. It’s also great to have everyone focused on the same version. Drupal used to operate as a forked community, more active developers were looking at making updates, the rest were building on the released version. In retrospect, that seems so odd, compared to having everyone in the same version now.
Drew: Having the knowledge of when an experimental module may become a full release or just a general idea of the Drupal core roadmap helps tremendously when speaking to clients about their site needs. For example, we may have a client who is looking to develop a complex publishing workflow. Sure, there are community developed modules that may get us most of the way there, but there is also a great initiative going on to get workflow into core. With the incremental release schedule, we have a better understanding of what will be complete by the time we would start development for that particular client so we can choose which option will be best for them.
In our next interview post with Steve, we’ll take a look at Pantheon’s workflows, how they work, what they help you to do, and how Pantheon upstreams compares to classic Drupal multi-sites, along with digging into continuous integration through CircleCI on Pantheon’s platform, understanding when to use which command line tools, and how Pantheon approaches caching differently from other hosting providers.
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