'Little Bits of History Repeating'

Blog Post created by pmonks2 on Sep 9, 2009
(with apologies to the Propeller Heads and Shirley Bassey)

Laurence Hart recently posted some reminisces regarding his formative years in content management, and it got me feeling a little nostalgic about my own introduction to and history with content management.  Allow me to bore you with a rather self indulgent look back at the last decade or so...

Sun, Surf and Sandstone

For me it all started in late 1996, when I decided to update the 1991 rockclimbing guide to Sydney.  Lacking in publishing experience and having heard from more experienced souls that publishing was more than half the work in preparing such a guide, I decided to update the information, put it online and then consider a hard copy edition at a later date (the classic divide-and-conquer get-bored-and-do-something-else approach).

At the time I was working for one of the (then) Big-5 management consulting firms, and had specialised in BEA (now Oracle) Tuxedo, so the web and its technologies was pretty much foreign territory for me.  I figured this little guidebook project would be a good use case for learning about this newfangled interwebitube thingamajig.

Not having heard of content management (in part because it was a niche indication in those days!) I rolled my own 'CMS' in MS Access, and used that to publish out the new guidebook as a static HTML site.  This wasn't just a one-trick pony CMS either - the editor of a rockclimbing guide to the Glasshouse Mountains also picked it up a year or two later, and has been using it to manage his guidebook since then.  It's with mixed feelings that I admit that this is one of the longer lived CMS implementations I've worked on!

The key takeaway for me from this period was that keeping presentation and content separate is indeed a highly valuable guiding principle, but that it's also difficult to do without creating a visually repetitive site (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but tends to rub marketing and creative folks the wrong way).

The 300lbs Gorilla

Having caught the web bug (and if the truth be known, being completely fed up with developing business applications in C & C++), in 2000 I took a leap of faith and joined Vignette, arguably at about the time the company was at the pinnacle of its success.  To the casual observer it could appear that Vignette was on a steady decline from that point on, but for me personally it was a pretty wild ride - a lot of very smart people with a dizzying array of ideas - many of them brilliant, even more of them completely outlandish and/or impractical in the extreme.

And of course all of it focused on how best to manage and deliver web content, rather than being seen as a slightly perverse hobby that detracted from the 'real work' of OLTP, N-tier client-server, data warehouses and the like!

In some ways the dotcom bust and subsequent 'dark ages' actually helped Vignette, by bringing a previously missing intensity of focus to operational matters and (mostly) putting paid to the hubris accrued during the heady closing days of the 20th century.

If I can summarise that period in one statement, it would be that relational databases make *terrible* CMSes.  So many of Vignette's technical flaws (specifically in the StoryServer and VCM product lines) stem directly or indirectly from the architectural decision to implement custom content models directly as relational data models.

Creative Interlude

After a stint in product management, I left Vignette in early 2006 and joined Avenue A | Razorfish - a Web Design Agency.  While only brief, this assignment gave me a new appreciation for the fine art of web design and the highly skilled, creative individuals who choose this profession.

It also reinforced the fact that many Web CMSes are still wrestling with basic plumbing issues (versioning, deployment, performance etc.) and have yet to really wrestle with some of the higher level issues of usability and productivity all while supporting creative freedom.

On a more mundane note, this experience also gave me a marked distaste for docroot management systems - that model was antiquated last millennium and makes no sense in this day and age!

Open Source Comes Calling

While I'd always had an interest in open source (in fact the Sydney climbing guidebook has been published under an open source documentation license - the GNU FDL - since its first edition in 1997), I'd never worked for an open source company before, and when the chance presented itself in late 2006, I jumped at the chance to join Alfresco, where I continue to work.

While it's a little premature for me to be drawing any conclusions from my experiences at Alfresco, there are some patterns that I can clearly identify.  For starters there's no doubt that open source is a disruptive business model - having a company that spends a majority of revenue on R&D (rather than on sales commissions) is a huge win for everyone (except career sales executives! ).  There's also something to be said for openly visible source code - the 'given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow' principle and all that.

In terms of content management, Alfresco comes closest (that I've seen) to realising the promise of a blended DM and WCM system (although as with any system there's always room for improvement).