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WordPress: A Cautionary Tale

Friday, March 02, 2012

“For those who don’t quite understand the title; Automattic is the company behind the world’s favourite blogging engine – WordPress, and EllisLab are creators of fine products such as CodeIgniter – and, the commercial CMS ExpressionEngine. Now that you have the basics, the title will make sense later.” - from a blog post at By Bjorn of his business experience with WordPress. Which, for me, rang a lot of bells.

It appears some larger companies have been cold-called with promises to pull them into the WordPress network, and some Ellis Labs customers (Expression Engine and CodeIgniter clients) have been the recipients. Which makes Wordpress tempting…Sure - the software is free, but the corporate hosting costs and support contracts can be eye-watering. Expression Engine has a nominal up-front cost ($300 for a company license) and free support - the opposite of WP. But because WP appeals to the instinct of getting something for nothing, it’s gaining traction more quickly than any other CMS. 

The big trick, it seems, is get the foot in the door, get the software on the customer’s iron and then “blog the hell out of it”. Then they’re hooked into a service system once they realize their business depends on it (and that they’ve outsourced their control). Seriously, “self-hosted starting at $15,000 a year” is never the price - it’s the starting point - and it’ll be far more expensive. Having worked for the #1 and #2 online newspapers in the Netherlands, I’ve experienced this “bait-and-switch” first hand, and I’ve seen many people lose their jobs because of presumed promises. 

In a previous work life, in a now-defunct company (an arm of a publish group that was once the defacto leader) we went through the same cycle. It was a classic example of a top-heavy corporate collapse…too many cooks, not enough ingredients…and for the most part fueled by the move to WordPress.

We used a several products, all tuned to the project needs. We started migrating out of an existing, aging standard (if you want a hint, thing 10 minus 4, separated) and started moving to a new, more flexible and powerful platform. Were re-directed and railroaded into using WP via a political choice (eg, it’s wasn’t a technical choice). Development - which required huge customization of the WP software, took months longer than expected. Of course the technical arm was blamed because Corporate were sold something else.

Corporate Project Managers decided to bring in external developers with specific experience in WP (hell, we only had 20+ people with decades of experience with PHP, SQL & Oracle, CodeIgnigter, C++...how could we be trusted?) and the development time only got longer. Unified corporate services (like the portability of user accounts)  became fragmented, developers were constantly being redirected by featuritis, and some websites never were finished. From WordPress came service outages that lasted days (we never had more than minutes in the past), constant security patches and updates, and a continual chase where, if you cared to look up, became obvious that for business (who appreciate fixed costs) that the path we took was more expensive than they expected. But clearly it had to be the fault of the developers - management was promised that WP was cheap and easy!

The Architects left, then Development managers. Front-End teams were the first to feel the cut, then a bit later back-end developers. Project websites closed or were sold off, their managers being fired first, then the teams migrated into corporate, then disposed of soon afterwards (Except email marketing - luckily having a 1998 skills set is still required). The site catalog was cut to 1/3 of previous size (we did over-segment the market, but not by 2/3rds) and crown jewels were sold off. In the end, the company management left, unable to steer their own course. The company was closed, remaining assets sold-off and small chunks of the remaining sales groups were absorbed into the publishing parent.

And of the sites? Those few that made it are hardly changed from pre-WP versions 2 years old. Most are gone - ah, but the programming mess remains! Here’s a nice trick - Every site requirers a separate account, and some of them have very interesting logic. Ever heard of a site where you couldn’t recover your password by sending an email? Yeah, me neither, but in these cases you needed your email and your handle - not login name, account handle - to recover the account. Let’s face it…that never happens, so old users just had to sign-on as new users. If you’re a kid from 9-16, what difference does abandoning an account mean? Nothing to the kids - but if you as a company can show constant growth in registrants, even if it doesn’t match the page views even remotely, then you can tell your ad network you’re growing. There’s a word for that.

Yeah, I’ve been holding that in for a while now…

Let’s recap:
So to keep costs down, they grabbed free software, segmented development, hired externals to start building without clear, unified development goals (which only doubled costs), dropped or sold-off corporate assets, lost or abandoned market share and let the company collapse onto itself from the top-down.

I’m pretty sure that part wasn’t in the cold call.

Posted by admin on 03/02 at 10:14 AM
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