To the many open source web designers out there: Your sites are crap. To a slew of businesses built on open source CMSs: Your online presence sucks.
There. I said it. Now that I’ve got that out of the way here’s the obligatory paragraph of introduction:
The open source CMS world is booming. CMS communities empower millions of websites for small business owners, web designers, developers, marketing firms, IT departments, corporations, and governments. Everyday businesses use open source CMSs to do things that would not otherwise be possible for them. Everyday many web designers, developers, and marketing firms bill their clients for something they could not otherwise deliver without an open source CMS…at least at the budget it was delivered. Open source CMSs empower massive amounts of websites. To this point I say: AWESOME. However, with any type of empowerment yields issues that communities must navigate. This blog post will address one such issue: the service industry and how open source CMSs affect it.
An open source CMS usually represents a community. It empowers millions of people to run a website or blog. It cultivates worldwide business through service and training. It generates revenue from the oddest of sources. It has groupies. It’s featured in magazines. CTOs salvage their over-paid jobs with it. Techs get promoted for it. An open source CMS is many things but it is first and foremost a tool.
Yes, an open source CMS is a tool. It is no different than my neighbor’s tools he uses everyday to work with drywall. They perform a specific purpose. They complete a specific task. Maybe my neighbor goes to a conference that showcases the latest and greatest tools. He meets some peers, feels accepted, thinks his tool is cool, and is told “if you use this tool you’ll be rich”. “Yeah right”, you say? In the end he still has to go home, plug-in that power tool, and put in a hard day’s work. It doesn’t magically cut drywall for him. It doesn’t mystically measure his corners. He has to use his brain, his common sense. He has to use his knowledge and experience while using his tool. He has to (ahem) work at it.
I’ll say it again: an open source CMS is a tool like my neighbor’s drywall tools. It doesn’t matter if you go to that super-narcissistic guy’s one-day conference and he tells you “Use WordPress and you’ll make millions like me”. It doesn’t matter if your friend built a website with “Joomla” and gets to sit at home the rest of his life. It’s not a passage to paradise. It doesn’t automagically make your business successful. It’s a tool.
My neighbor’s drywall tools don’t make his business successful. They help him do his job efficiently but they don’t give him business advice. His tools don’t even teach him how to do his business. Does his cutter teach him how to estimate? Does his saw help him assess the right solution for his client? Does his pencil make up for experience and understanding in a situation? It reminds me of the movie “Bolt”. Bolt asks the ambitious hamster, Rhino, if he thinks he can handle the rough road ahead. Rhino replies, “I have a ball”. As if that has anything to do with the rough journey ahead. It’s the same with businesses. ”It’s a lot of work, maintaining a blog,” says the web designer. The business person replies, “Yes, but I have a CMS”. Having a CMS doesn’t negate the work involved.
It’s no different for everyone out there using an open source CMS. If you don’t know what you’re doing you’re only going to go so far. If you build your candidate’s website in Drupal, because that’s what Obama did, that doesn’t mean your candidate is going to win his election (much to the chagrin of many). Like any other tool, it’s only as effective as the hard work, knowledge, experience, and understanding that’s behind it. And like any other tool, it can become dangerous to the person that doesn’t know how to use it (You should see me try to cut drywall. Be afraid).
A big problem with the open source CMS community is there are gobs of people that think they know what they’re doing. They think because they can install WordPress on to a site by clicking that cool “Fantastico” button they’re the Master of the Universe. Some think that because they know how to setup modules on a Joomla site they have an instant formula for success. And if they get to the end of their knowledge they decide to find someone smarter than them saying, “My ‘tool’ doesn’t do this. I’d be willing to pay $10 to include this in the tool.” Imagine their reaction when they’re told “Oh, that feature will cost $3,200 to implement.” It’s never a friendly response back. This is partly because they just don’t know what they don’t know and other times it’s because some would-be web designer never took the time to educate their client. Sometimes, when a person doesn’t understand their tool they leave nasty remarks on that tool’s forum. They say things like, “I can’t believe you idiots didn’t think of this! Why don’t you support my 20 other requests for this feature. You don’t care about your customers. You’re losing money!” (as if they paid for their tool in the first place).
I see the problem as two-fold: 1) Businesses need to be educated and informed by industry experts. 2) Faux-web designers and developers need to stop pretending to hold the keys to Trump-like success tactics.
#1 is common in any industry. People and businesses don’t have the time to keep up with the trends of every tool they’re using. They only know what they’re told or what they’ve learned from peers and vendors. If they’ve been told that an open source CMS is free – that usually means they think some dude in his basement released it and it’s crap. Nevertheless they decide to use it because their web designer (#2) taught them that it only costs $199 to implement and the tool itself will get them to the top of Google.
#1. Educate: It’s a travesty not to educate clients on the value of something like Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, etc. The millions of dollars of man hours that have gone in to something like these open source CMSs is amazing. Tell Andrew Eddie that Joomla was free to develop. Tell Dries Buytaert that Drupal is cheap because it’s free. Tell your clients it’s free and you’re educating them that it’s of little value. Why not start with teaching them that a global community that includes small business to large enterprises have invested their time and effort in to developing this amazing tool. Educate them that it’s been tried and true through many scenarios. Teach them that you’re not going anywhere because you’re invested in the project as well. Teach them the value of open source CMSs.
Please do not stop there! Teach them that their pep-rally of a business conference was a joke and “WordPress” and an email signup form do not bring about world peace (and pull in millions of dollars after you install it on a server). Teach them that it’s a tool and like any other tool in the world, you have to know how to use it. Teach them that there is work they have to put forth.
If you’re one of those business people out there where the above applies: Educate yourself on what open source CMSs really mean. Understand that there’s no such thing as an “easy” buck. You have to work at it. Attend a good conference that will teach you how to use the tool in context of your own business. Understand that if you’re going to build a house you have to consider the costs of everything. An AC unit doesn’t cost $10 and neither does that custom plugin you need for your site. Get some understanding and knowledge behind that zeal.
#2. Educate: “Wha…what? You just repeated yourself Rick”. Yes. I did. For all the would-be web designers out there: Your tool doesn’t make you any smarter. In fact it probably makes you dumber. Yes I’m serious. Your open source CMS tool probably has inhibited you from learning things you need to learn. Not a designer? Don’t want to learn HTML? “Oh I’ll just use that template”. What happens when the tool doesn’t do what you want? What happens when the client wants something that your template doesn’t offer? Do you blame it on your tool? Do you cuss out your template provider? Don’t take out your lack of knowledge on others. It’s fine if you don’t know what to do. Everyone at every level of life has to deal with this. What you do at the cross road determines the type of web designer / developer you are. Are you going to learn or are you going to blame your tool? If you don’t have time to learn contract it out to someone who knows what they’re doing, just please, I’m begging you, don’t blame it on the people that know what they’re doing.
The obligatory paragraphs of conclusion:
The open source CMS world has diluted the service industry’s quality of work. It hasn’t done this directly or on purpose. It’s natural for such amazing things to empower good people, bad people, honest people, dishonest people, educated people and uneducated people. Making things more accessible will inevitably dilute the pool. Drupal web firms retain a high quality of work because it isn’t as accessible to a lower-functioning / educated firm. WordPress and Joomla spread the gamut between awesome work and the worst stuff on the web. For every quality firm like Komrade and Zuno in existence there are 1,000 faux-web design firms out there that steer their clients in the wrong direction.
The ironic thing? I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing. I’m sick of these faux-firms polluting the web but it’s necessary. The crap work out there accentuates those who really know what they’re doing. It makes them more desirable. It also creates an opportunity for others, who don’t know what they’re doing, to learn and understand and get to the point where they do know what they’re doing. I’m glad those who know nothing about the web can enter the arena via an open source CMS. They have a chance to learn and help the industry through their knowledge.
If you’re one of those people: Keep learning. Don’t blame your open source CMS. Be humble. Learn the web technologies surrounding your tool. Don’t sacrifice business wisdom and savvy because you have a CMS.
If you’re an established web design firm: Help the communities out by educating your clients on the value of open source CMSs. Teach them that work isn’t cheap. Teach them to count the costs of their web site.