How I learned Joomla – Dénes Székely

From coders to content managers and from designers to developers: everyone in our community has had a starting point. And we all learn in different ways. Dénes Székely, for instance, started out as a programmer, created his first websites by using raw HTML and Javascript and discovered Mambo when he was looking for a way to manage a large, multilingual website.

Thanks for sharing your Joomla story with us, Dénes! Could you please tell us a little about yourself?

I live in a little town in Transylvania, Romania, named Csíkszereda in Hungarian (Miercurea-Ciuc in Romanian). And this small detail in my CV is an important detail, as you will see later on. I graduated from University as a physics engineer (specialising in nuclear fuels) and this is important in my story because this was the place where I made my first contact with computing – a medium building size IBM 360. Yeay! This was some years ago, fall of 1980 more precisely. After I graduated – and before the Chernobyl disaster happened – I decided that I am good without nuclear fuels, and ‘refurbished’ myself as a programmer by graduating a second masterate. Long story short, after some tumultuous years I ended up as the man who was supposed to introduce IT in everyday life in my hometown’s City Hall. Was fun, was challenging – and was rewarding.

Before I met the Internet ‘in person’ I had read a lot about it and was eager to use it, but it took some years until, in 1997, I was able to put together my very first server and began to make websites. Mostly for fun – at that time nobody understood what I was doing or whether this could be useful for anyone. I was the freak in some hidden little room in the back section of the city hall.

After I learned how to put together a basic website, I decided to make one for the city too. We were the second city in Romania to have a website, by the way. And at this point in my story, the place where I live becomes important. My city is one of the important Hungarian settlements in the middle of Romania. Yeah, it is a little known fact that Romania still has a significant Hungarian minority, representing around 8% of the population. But it is not the only minority here; in the Romanian Parliament there are 18 ethnic minorities represented beside the Hungarian one.

So, the website had to be multilingual. And that was a challenge. Using raw HTML and a little Javascript I did it and managed to obtain the Cool Site badge from the Open Directory Project (DMOZ, if someone still remembers…).

When did you make your first Joomla website?

We’re about to get to this too, but there are two important steps. First of all, over the years a raw HTML website of that size became very hard to manage – especially if you do it as your hobby. I began to search for a CMS I could use, a CMS that also supported building a multilingual site. WordPress was there, and I knew a lot about it, especially that it did not fit the bill. Back then it was basically impossible to build a multilingual site with (and it isn’t much easier even today). And this way I came across Mambo sometime mid 2002, just after the MOS – the Mambo Open Source (v 3.*) has been released, and MambelFish – the multilingual addon has become available. So the answer is tricky – I made my first Joomla site two years before Joomla forked out from Mambo ROTFL.

What made you choose Joomla?

Well, first of all I liked the concept, and the way it was programmed. I found my way around Mambo pretty fast, and began to develop all sorts of addons for it – mainly because there were things I needed to solve. Secondly, I liked the licensing model. At that time I had already a rich history in working on various Open Source projects and had a lot of code – and not just code – used by others, distributed on this model.

What did you do first, and after that?

First I built the site for the city. And discovered that there were a lot of missing pieces for it – from various addons to translations of the core and the components, snap-ins to make extensions built by others usable with MambelFish. Later I was hired by a local bookshop to build – well – an online bookshop for them, and this way I entered one of the dungeons of the web – the online shopping. Started with phpShop – which today has evolved to VirtueMart (I still have 2000 plus entries in VM’s support forum).

Can you describe the process of creating your first Joomla website?

Tough question. I experimented a lot, until I got a grip on how you could use Mambo to build a site, first of all. Created the plan for the site with a pencil and a paper sheet first, based on the site I had already in HTML and tried to carry it over to Mambo. And in the process I discovered what can be done – and most important, what can be done differently in a CMS. It took me almost a year until I began to be satisfied with the outcome – but every hour spent on the learning and experimenting was worth it.

And this happened almost at the same time with two important changes in my life – the fork from Mambo happened almost the same time when I left the City Hall and decided that I was going to try a career as a freelancer. I was tired of serving politicians and not being appreciated at all for the added value I put on the table. So, basically I have been a Joomla freelancer since Joomla 1.0.

What challenges did you face?

Basically I needed to reinvent the way I built websites (remember, I had 5 years behind me already), I had to find, to discover the tools I could use, to learn to use them properly, to find out how I could tweak them to serve my purposes – and how to fill the gaps with my own code.

It was a true manufacturing process, not like a pseudo-industrialized workflow, when you put together the individually bought/acquired parts, tighten the screws, pour some oil where needed, add some wax on top of everything, and you have a shiny, great looking, smoothly working website in a few. This is the best comparison that comes to mind, it’s like you try to compare how cars were built 100 years ago to what’s happening in the modern factories.

Every screw, bolt, cog you needed was either very hard to find – and most of the time you have found things of questionable quality, or you needed to manufacture it, on your own. Lots of spaghetti coding – and a couple of real gems, that was the general feeling.

How did you solve them?

In various ways. By asking around. By reverse engineering code written by others to understand how they did it. By using the forums and other formal and informal communication channels. By thinking and planning a lot, writing code and experimenting with it. There is no simple answer to these questions. Slowly, the ecosystem began to grow, the community became more and more colourful (in any sense of the word LOL), you could always find a helpful person, a code example, a good forum entry – and sometimes a good documentation or a valuable blog. And I liked this a lot.

Where did you get help?

First of all, in forums. Not only the official Joomla forum, but the individual developer’s forums, forums created to support a component, personal blogs. Over time I developed a network of people I could ask for advice – or give advice to as well. But up to date my best source of help is the code written by others – I am doing a lot of reverse engineering up to date. I know, it can be a waste of time and is less efficient than just buying an extension, but I like to do it. And I like to improve myself. Hence my tagline: 

‘Like a fine wine… Good from the start and getting better over time.’

Where to find the forum?

If you, like Dénes did when he first started, need help from other community members, take a look at the official Joomla forum. You’ll find it here: