man painting a house

CMS Lessons from “Flip or Flop”

I love house flipping shows. They are perfect for background TV watching, which is just about all I have time for with a 6-year-old at home. My favorite show and the greatest of all time is the HGTV’s original “Flip or Flop” with Tarek and Christina. They make flipping look so easy. And profitable! It must be nice to completely remodel a kitchen for just a few thousand dollars. Where *do* they find those general contractors?

Imagine if Tarek and Christina just started flipping the same house over and over. First a new coat of paint. Then new countertops. Next a new lawn. And so on. For years. Decades even.

That’s the current state of the Web Content Management industry. 

Even legends like Tarek and Christina couldn’t save WCM vendors from all their endless house flips that equate to not much more than superficial updates. Let’s dig in and look at three examples:

A Fresh Coat of Paint on OpenText Web Content Management

OpenText Web Content Management is the new name for Interwoven TeamSite. TeamSite, along with Vignette, pioneered the WCM category all the way back in the late 90s. Since then, the TeamSite house has been flipped so many times over the years it’s hard to keep track. I mean, it does look pretty on the outside now. 

Much better than it looked back in my days as a Sales Engineer at Interwoven in 2001.

But that’s the thing about house flipping. Underneath all the glamour of new kitchen countertops and shower tiling lies a foundation that was built for a time when websites were a bunch of HTML and image files and Perl was the language-du-jour. The core architecture of TeamSite hasn’t changed since the late 90s, and while that approach worked well when managing websites worked as like managing source code files, it hasn’t suited the needs of a modern digital experience for well over a decade.

The “Flip or Flop” lesson? Just applying a reapplying a fresh coat of paint over and over again doesn’t result in a better house: just a house with better curb appeal.

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The Sitecore Experience Platform McMansion

Sitecore first hit its stride about a decade ago by focusing on delivering an easy-to-use web content management system that appealed to .NET developers. But they soon fell into the trap of trying to turn a simple, elegant .NET CMS into an everything-but-the-kitchen-sync all-in-one “online marketing suite.” The result was less of an organized suite of functions and more of the crowded attics you’d catch on an episode of “Hoarders”: Email marketing, campaign management, segmentation, A/B testing, lead scoring, analytics, reporting, literally everything.

All of that sounded great, but none of it really worked very well. Certainly not well enough to convince any of its customers to stop using the tools they were already using. So while Sitecore sold a lot of its Online Marketing Suite Digital Marketing Suite Customer Engagement Platform, no one used it, and it became a classic example of shelfware.

As if that weren’t enough, Sitecore went out and bought Microsoft Commerce Server, one of the oldest commerce platforms with roots all the way back to 1996. On paper, this made sense but there wasn’t much to the Commerce Server product. It was built on an entirely different and ancient technical architecture than the Sitecore platform. It took Sitecore a few years to get the product to the point where it was even sellable, and by then, it was too late. The commerce market had moved on.

All of this complexity created severe consequences for Sitecore. You see, Sitecore is a modern-day McMansion that prizes superficial appearance and sheer size over quality. It’s what happens when you just keep adding endless more floors and rooms on top of a shaky foundation. You’re left with a house that no one can afford, or even wants to live in.

The “Flip or Flop” lesson? Less is more. Just because you can build something doesn’t mean that you should.

The Drupal 8 Teardown

Drupal often is criticized for the difficulty of upgrading from one version to the next. The Drupal Community has historically chosen to prioritize the long term viability of the platform over continuing to be backward compatible at all costs. 

In house flipping terms, Drupal 8 was a teardown all the way to the foundation.

For example, Drupal 8 adopted Symfony, a high-performance PHP framework with a variety of reusable components. It swapped the legacy PHP Template theming language for the more modern Twig. Most APIs were deprecated so that Drupal 8 could evolve into a modern, API-first platform. The user experience was redesigned to make it easier for content creators.

Making a decision that limits “upgradability” is a tough decision to make. That’s why Windows 10 still runs Windows 95 apps nearly 25 years later. But the result of not making the difficult decisions is technical debt and complexity that accumulates over time and eventually snowballs out of control. The easy choice would be to continue to build on the same Drupal 7 foundation (Hey, Wordpress) but that wasn’t the best choice for the future of Drupal. 

But making the tough decisions is what makes Drupal 8 the most modern enterprise web content management system available today.

Because of that, for the first time, Drupal 9 is being created in Drupal 8. New functionality is being added as backward-compatible code and experimental features. Once the code becomes stable, old functionality is deprecated. This will make upgrading from Drupal 8 to Drupal 9. But that’s only possible because of the commitment of the Drupal community to advance the platform forward.

The “Flip or Flop” Lesson? Putting the minimal amount of work into a house just to flip it might make financial sense, but at some point, you’ve got to build on top of a solid foundation.

Tom Wentworth

SVP Product Marketing Acquia