usable in any place a human can be used

20110202

Lipsum Lives

[caption id="attachment_903" align="alignright" width="300" caption="This is how I feel right now"]Kitten passed out in food[/caption]

I've been hard at work for the last 7 weeks, sprinting from start to finish on a custom CMS system that will manage our company's various online publications. It has been a grueling experience. When I started my friend, Jeremiah, told me, you are crazy, don't do that, I'm going to hit you in the face. And yet, undeterred, I soldiered on.


I was not so foolish or prideful to think that other CMS systems were inferior or stupid or ugly. I use WordPress to power this blog, and let me tell you, WordPress is friggin sweet. Drupal 7 just came out, it looks to be an amazing piece of software as well. I looked at various PHP CMS systems, but at the end of the day I decided to build my own for the following reasons.



  • I have no experience with developing for WordPress / Drupal / Insert favorite CMS here

  • Time was at a premium

  • Flexibility is a must


Now I'm sure there are Drupal Ninjas and WordPress Wizards out there, thinking, if you need to get a flexible website up fast, just use [the CMS system I know and love] and it will be easy peasy. I'm not against learning, and I try hard to fight NIH syndrome. The long story short version of this was I was told, "5 weeks we need A, B, C, D, E, F, G and it needs to work in X, Y, Z, (several other alphabets worth of letters) ways." I knew that I didn't have the time to climb up the learning curve of a CMS and become a WordPress Guru or Drupal High Priest. I did have time to write software, and since I know PHP and Flourish like a fat kid knows cake (aka, like I know cake), I decided that the route with the highest possible success was to write something.


The next most important point is that I work for an amazing company. We are growing fast and the future is anything but certain. Ideas for the publication sites come fast and furious, sometimes radical, sometimes insane, sometimes brilliant, having total control of the software is a must. Getting something up was important, but building a solid foundation that would allow us to build new engaging features in the future was even more important. With our custom framework we will be able to pivot and experiment in a way that we simply couldn't with off-the-shelf CMS software given the engineering skills at hand.


Here's what I learned building a "successful so far" CMS system. CMS systems are hard. They are really really really friggin hard. They are hard in stupid ways and hard in smart ways. Getting it just right is impossible, getting it half-way good is a tremendous challenge. Every feature is 10x more complicated than it looks on the surface and you won't know how until you talk to the person that cares about that feature. Every feature, no matter how much you talk to people while building it and no matter how much you model and poke and prod, is going to be wrong in some way. You have to simultaneously be so cocksure that you look at this mountain of a task and say, I can take this on, and humble enough to listen to bug reports, user frustrations, and endless visual tweaks so that it's actually worth using.


I have a new found respect for the tremendous task software like WordPress and Drupal and Joomla and so many others try to tackle. I want to go and learn one, Drupal 7 looks nifty, just to see how the pros do it. I have also been reminded that even when you are Inventing it Here, you don't need to go NIH crazy. Building this software was an exercise in standing on the shoulders of giants. Our avatars are powered by Gravatar which easily has the most straightforward and easy API ever. Our comments are protected by ReCaptcha cutting edge captcha technology that also helps read unOCRable books. Our email campaigns are being handled by the amazing MailChimp. And of course the whole project is built on my favorite unframework, Flourish.


So now it's live, you can go view the fruits of my labor at DIG Baton Rouge. It's the first of four sites that will be moved over to the new Lipsum CMS engine. I will spend the following weeks, tweaking, adding new features, fine tuning and bug smashing. I'm incredibly proud of what our small team was able to accomplish in such a short time. Lipsum represents a solid technical foundation on which we will build the future of our publication sites. It was not easy, but it was necessary, and I for one am glad we took the road less traveled. As Joel Spolsky famously wrote, "If it's a core business function -- do it yourself, no matter what."

3 comments:

  1. Matt,

    You have made and elegant and functional foundation, and I am grateful. I like working with people who take pride in what they do. The whole thing is as easy to understand as an interface, it moves around nicely, and it looks great. I hope to do your platform justice with the work we do on and around it. I also found yourblogpost pretty insightful; thanks for you help.

    Total War,
    dsl

    ps - don't believe the horrible things you have heard about me. they are true, of course, but much more charming and functional than you've likely been led to believe.

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  2. I can feel your pain, IE is full of nasty surprises.

    I believe Microsoft is doing this on purpose and it actually may be a smart thing from their point of view.

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