As I listened to one of the last panel sessions at this years HOW Design Live conference, I was surprised by how many questions were asked by the audience about content management systems (CMS). They ranged from the easily answerable—Do I need to use one?—to the not-so-easily-answerable—How do I choose the right one? As the questions kept coming up, I couldn't help but feel that the discussion was veering off into the wrong territory. It wasn't just that the question of which tool to use lacks a simple answer—most experienced developers have a preferred platform and will be able to make a good case for using it—but it seemed to me to be the wrong question to ask in the first place. The more important question is, How do I choose the right developer? I believe that if you choose the right developer, you will also choose the right CMS.
For many organizations and individuals, the choice of CMS is representative of far more than just a tool; it is often seen as a much more existentially defining decision, life altering in the way we think of geography or ethnicity. But honestly, folks, it's not nearly so grandiose. If you only built your website once, perhaps such a grand view of its inception might be merited. The mundane reality, of course, is that the lifecycle of the average active website is 3-5 years, often continually adapted to the changing technology of the ecosystem of the web. If you want to take a long-view at the beginning and make decisions accordingly, you're better off making a choice of relationship—aligning with a person or firm that will bring wisdom and stability to that changing environment—not one of technology.
Still, it is very common for specific solutions to be chosen purely on the basis of a perception of portability—the idea that once the website is built, the CMS won't impose any barriers to relocating it or enabling any developer to work on it later. While I'll agree that portability sounds fantastic, my experience has taught me that it's actually never that simple. A sophisticated website—anything more than what you might call "brochureware"—whether built upon an open-source CMS or something proprietary, will likely launch with enough customization to make it truly unique. In other words, two websites built upon the same platform could be speaking very different languages when it comes to their underlying code. From the point of view of one developer trying to make sense of another's code, true portability is a myth.
Though portability may not actually be the most relevant consideration, thinking critically about the CMS a potential developer will use is still important to do. But rather than evaluating the various platforms technologically, I think it makes sense to do so strategically—looking for what you might discern about your future partner (and website) in the process. So this month, I'd like to evaluate three possible developer/CMS scenarios and hopefully provide you with some points to consider next time you're making a buying decision.