Demystifying the Technology Selection Process

Too often, I hear from editorial staff at news organizations about how horrible their publishing system is: how slow it is, how it simply “can’t do what I need it to.” The only conclusion is to scream from the rooftops and jump at the first system that they hear is “great” from who knows where. But not so fast.

Before you make that significant finance, resource and time-consuming leap, there are a few steps that can help your decision-making process. These tips are also relevant to web hosting and application development, but for today I’ll focus on website development.

As a former technology strategist, client partner and agency operator, I can tell you the hiring and managing of technology vendors can be a very daunting process for any media executive. It’s particularly true for one running a nonprofit organization with limited funds and experience. What makes this decision particularly daunting for the uninitiated are the number of variables at play:

Should you keep your current content management system? Do you know how easy or expensive it would be to migrate to a new system? Should you use open-source or pay for proprietary software? Should you go with a traditional hosting vendor or host in the cloud (and be at the mercy of outages like last week’s)? And the all important question: How much is this going to cost?

This week, I’m providing three steps to take before you call a vendor:

  • Take the time to clearly define your wants and needs
    Before you even start to look at a new content management system (CMS), you should have a concrete understanding of what you need your system to do. Be specific and write it down, and use this document both internally during the evaluation process, and externally when communicating with potential vendors. Once you’ve come up with your list of requirements go back and mark each as “required” (needed) and “desired” (wanted). Knowing the difference could potentially save you money down the road.
  • Educate yourself on the components and variables
    Understand that there are three components to a website:
    a) Back-end: This is the software, programming or code that actually produces the website. When we talk about a Content Management System, that’s the back end. This is generally the domain of a programmer or webmaster and is not typically exposed to you, the end-user. This supports the functionality of the site.
    b) Hosting: These are the servers or the virtual serving environment (a.k.a. “cloud”) that host the files that run your website, and which can be accessed from the Internet.
    c) User Interface (UI) or Design: This is how the site looks. This includes where functions are on a webpage. This is not, however, where those functions reside. Too often, people I talk to mistake the UI for the back-end. As a result they think that because a site doesn’t demonstrate some functionality, that it cannot support it. As a result, they assume that they need to change their CMS. Changing a CMS can an expensive and time-consuming process, and should not be undertaken without conducting the next step.
  • Do your homework
    Unless you are or have access to a senior technical project manager or CTO, it is highly unlikely that you are going to have the knowledge about which publishing system or vendor is right for you. That said, there is a lot anyone can learn from doing research up front. I always suggest looking at other websites that you think are doing it right, and calling the organization running it. Sure, we’re all busy and not everyone likes to share, but more often than not, people are willing to share the process that went into their selection. Some of the questions you should be asking include: How long have you been on your current system? How flexible is the system in meeting your needs? How easy or complicated is it to use on the back-end? After working with your current vendor, can you recommend them? What system are you on, and what version? You may be surprised to learn that the system that they use is the one you are currently using.

Next week, I’ll walk through the process of choosing a vendor.