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Where to Find And What To Spend on Open Source Support

Comparing specialist firms and individual developers.



By Matt Kinsman
10/08/2009

As publishers continue to embrace open source CMS, where can they find technical support? While day-to-day content changes should be handled by staff significant changes to site architecture, as well as site maintenance, need to be handled by individual developers or Web firms who know what they’re doing.

Most open source CMS communities, including Drupal, Joomla and Plone, offer resource centers where users can find developer and technical support. Standalone Web sites such as ScriptLance and eLance also offer links to freelance developers, including cheaper overseas programmers. While the CMS community tries to qualify people who register by asking for links to documented projects, the publisher still needs to vet that individual developer by looking at past work and talking to previous clients.

Developer or Agency?

Publishers can chose between a dedicated development firm or an individual developer within the open source community. They both offer advantages and disadvantages: Web firms typically offer better support but a more entrenched, bureaucratic process for getting things done while an individual developer may offer more flexibility and cheaper prices but less support.

Many Web development firms, such as GCN Publishing or Godengo, work within a specific open source CMS. GCN Publishing uses TYP03 as the CMS for clients such as Menswear site Marketplace.com.

“It’s very simple to use and we can change edit on the fly,” said publisher Stu Nifoussi. “We’re not spending a lot of time or money going back to GCN asking them to do things because we can do it ourselves.”

Alisa Cromer, founder of newmediahub.com, an online trade journal for digital media executives, recounts her experience trying to get her site built. “Open source CMS is a tricky road to travel,” she said. “While my site was built fairly quickly and reasonably, the first developer stopped 80 percent of the way through. It was like a housing project, I had a hard bid but the developer spent more time than they had estimated and was eager to move on to new customers paying big upfront dollars.”

Cromer switched to a local programming group which she said was initially fine except, “the main contact farms it to a secondary contact who farms it to freelance contractors and when extra hours build up due to poor communications there is a squabble over what the hard bid was. I get a hard bid on, say, the ability to automatically post seven to 10 blogs in an area on the front of the site and the estimate comes in at three to five hours. But the things that to me are obvious, ie , don’t stretch photos and don’t cut off excerpts in the middle of a word, wind up being an extra round of ‘charges’ at $75 an hour.” Today, Cromer is migrating toward more turnkey solutions and paying the designer on the front end.

As a rule, the more detailed your requirements and requests are upfront, the better the results will be. When the work is involved or if you're not sure if you've covered all the bases, you can ask for a 'playback session' to make sure all the requirements have been documented. Nothing is ever assumed to be included. 

Pricing
Offshore developers are typically $35-$45 per hour while a “good guy in his basement” may charge between $75 to $125 per hour. Agency rates range between $150 to $175 per hour but they often work on a sliding scale, such as giving the client a package of services for $200 per hour, then dropping the price to $125 per hour when the site has been built and is in maintenance mode.

Cheaper developers may be tempting but remember you get what you pay for—and a good developer can save you a lot of money down the road. “If you pay for someone less experienced, you still pay them by the hour,” said a Web project manager at a large consumer publisher. “A good developer can do in two days what it might take someone else two weeks. You could pay someone $175 per hour for two days or $60 per hour for two weeks and the final cost will be the same. Besides, the architecture may be better from a more experienced developer.”

Requirements for Partners
Try to offer a sense of what you want before developing the site architecture and include all the templates you’ll need in the initial build.

 Cromer encourages spending more to create a Photoshop model of the design before any functional changes are made. She provides Photoshop examples of each page she wants, including all check-out forms. Cromer is spending roughly $1,000 on Photoshop pages and $2,000 on the directory portion, $1,000 of which is programming changes to existing software and $600 of which is customization.  

“One thing I’ve learned, whether you’re dealing with a turn key or open source CMS, is that more time spent on full design in Photoshop, not just wire frames, is the key to getting what you want,” Cromer said. “Spend the time and money on design and the rest is 100 percent better and easier. One programmer told me, ‘wire frames are almost useless.’”

Also, build in contract hours toward documentation (which offers a roadmap of how your site was built) so the project can easily be handed off to a new developer if need be.

3 Things Your Development Partner Needs to Get the Job Done Right

1. Requirements Gathering - Think through exactly what you want in detail before you initiate a project, not in the middle of the development process. On the cheap: Provide a description of what you want with a list of all the elements you can't live without. Upgrade: Formal requirements document with workflows and use cases

2. Wireframes -
On the cheap: Sketch out how you think the requested elements will look on the page  Upgrade: Professional UI with annotations

3. Visual Design -
On the cheap: Photoshop new elements onto the existing page  Upgrade: Professional PSDs, web-ready and sliced

By Matt Kinsman
10/08/2009







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