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January 17, 2014

Lack of Knowledge Can Cost

Understanding CMS Development Needs and Cost

As strange as it sounds, I know, a lot of our business still comes from Craigslist. I was estimate something like 50% of all of our business over the last 6 years has come from Craigslist. Ironically, posting my resume seems to generate more leads than running advertisements - go figure! That being the case, a lot of my inbound calls start off seeking out an hourly guy to work a 9-to-5 at their office, planned out as multiple month projects.

A typical call of this kind might start out with a sort of shopping list of Developer skills they've been told are needed for their project. They begin an interview process and work their way down the list asking applicants if they know how to develop their own php extensions, edit database tables and hand-code javascript. The set off on a plan to install Wordpress and then write a bunch of custom code for the features they need, often hacking the core software in the process.

The obvious problem with this is the quality of information their being given. Prehistoric IT staff often have a difficult time understanding CMS solutions like Wordpress and Joomla. This isn't a jab at IT people, it's just something I've noticed. With a decade of manually running servers and editing database tables by hand, spending day in and day out making php calls and dealing with networking issues in large companies - often managing the aging websites we're called to replace, these IT guys approach a new website with the preconceived notion that they understand exactly what's needed for production.

However, it's my personal experience that this is rarely the case. For the most part, this seems to end one of two ways:

  1. The company hires an hourly contractor, on-site, who spends several months and hundreds of hours producing a Wordpress website, or occassionally, a sort of jig-saw puzzle of a Joomla site. The total cost over several months can range $30-$60k this route (A low cost on-site, hourly Developer at $30/hr is around $30,000 for 4 months - plus consumed time and energy from in-house employees during meetings, additional hired help for Design, SEO, etc can add another $20k over the same time period). At best, the company ends up with an aesthetically pleasing website that continues to operate as an expense as a dedicated employee spends hours every week updating, editing and revising.
  2. The company hires the wrong person or agency. This is very, very common. Approaching the site under the assumption that their IT advisor knows their stuff, the company sets out to find a PHP and Javascript programmer to hand write extensions for Joomla or Wordpress from scratch, often hacking into Joomla or WP's core and making modification to the database. Thousands of dollars are wasted as the Developer hand-writes JS and PHP, CSS and HTML to create a from-scratch template and from-scratch custom extensions to power their features. In the end, they have a website that's powered by static extensions and a static template, that can only ever be updated, managed or edited by the developer that produced them - or another expensive contractor to further rack up the expense.

Both of these paths destroy a lot of the major benefits a CMS Solution should yield. First and foremost, the whole idea behind a CMS is to have a solution that anyone can mange. The beauty of a CMS is that unskilled staff - the receptionists, for example - can make updates and changes to the design, without any coding knowledge whatsoever. Secondly, using a CMS like Joomla or Wordpress should cut in half the cost of of a from-scratch website, or better.

Now, I do understand that on-staff IT and Developers want to hold on to their job. Of course they will want to justify that $140k annual salary and convince the company that for their needs, a "simple" CMS like Joomla or Wordpress simply wont do. That, while the typical CMS solution may work for smaller companies, their specific needs require skilled programmers on-staff or long-term, and always will.

That just isn't true.

Let's try a different approach and compare. I can think of a particular client of ours that could have easily fallen into the latter path. The owner called me originally, looking for a face-to-face interview for an on-site Development gig. He had an aging php based website for his distribution company, that used iframes to show manufacturer products on their website. The trouble was, the fonts, layout, thumbnails, etc were all different (all being streamed from different manufacturer websites), and they could not edit the content.

After a brief call we setup a remote meeting and screenshare session. We pitched a Joomla solution with Zoo-based custom applications that would handle a massive product catalog, office directory, download archive, and news and video section. The main focus was on the product catalog, which can be updated periodically with new data from manufacturers by CSV. Products could have their own images galleries, specs, etc as well as Commenting and "You may also be intereted in" item relations. The products could be fed to modules for "Most popular products in this category", "Featured Items", etc and compared side-by-side to other items for a spec-to-spec customer analysis. The whole project was bid at $10k.

"Lack of knowledge can cost big. Your IT staff may have decades of server and old-school web programming know-how, but that doesnt make them an expert on Web 2.0"

Taking this opposite approach - using our plan, rather than a plan drafted by their internal IT staff - the company had everything they wanted and more, in about a month and a half. What's more, their website continues to update itself (automatic Joomla updates) and the custom applications we created (the zoo framework continues to receive updates). This gives them a living, evolving solution that stays current and doesn't require hired/internal paid labor to make updates. Even more, they receive free email support from us for life, any time they need help. That's a virtually permanent solution for $10k, in a month and half's time.

The picture I'm attempting to paint here is that, had they taken their initial approach to hire an on-site hourly developer to follow their original plan, this client would have spent tens of thousands more - very likely over many months time - and would arguably have an inferior finished product with no free support and static software that remains stuck in 2012 until they pay someone to make updates.

Even presented with a simple case study like that, there are still some who will believe themselves not in that class and therefore exception to the rule. I admit that I'm biased here, owning a small Development Firm, but that doesnt make my points any less true.

In the end it is the companies choice. Hire someone as a pseudo-employee to work in your office, or hire a professional agency. It's a choice every company has to make at some point. There are plenty of on-site Developers that can produce a first rate website solution, and certainly a skilled team can produce quality. Just consider a word of caution from someone who is 200+ sites down the road:

Lack of knowledge can cost big. Your IT staff or internal Developer may have decades of server and oldschool web programming know-how, but that doesnt make them an expert on Web 2.0. If you want a well thought out first rate plan, you should always consult with an expert. Your handyman may build a stunning shed, but it's just good practice to speak with an architect before having him hire a team to build that addon room for your house.

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