I know we are all looking forward to saying goodbye to our Contribute environment at UMW. But, before its imminent demise, I want to point out a few really good things about it.
Over 7 years ago, we put our hearts and souls into investigating and standing up a web environment that would be easier to manage than our previous environment was. At the time, Macromedia (now Adobe) Contribute was pretty much revolutionary: a low cost content management system that provided users with an easy interface to edit Web pages. It was a barrier remover in its time.
The unfortunate thing throughout the life of our “Contribute” environment was that Contribute wasn’t the amazing part of it. Calling it “in Contribute” is a misnomer. Our Web development team Blaine Donley, Edward Gray, and myself created a PHP application on the backend that filled in the blanks that Contribute could not. Our application stored all the urls, their relationships, and their structure, in a database. It allowed people to create new pages and arrange them through a Web interface, something that Contribute could not do natively. Something that no one else was doing with Contribute at the time.
Then, the content itself lived within the familiar notion of a “page” which our highly distributed team of Web managers could understand and manipulate.
The result was a really fast-performing CMS that only had to retrieve urls instead of delivering and parsing all the content. Considering the speed of servers at the time, this was a great decision that allowed us to scale up to the creation of over 22,000 Web pages, with 8,000 active at any point in time, and very rarely has there been a performance issue. As a matter of fact, I can’t recall one time when performance was an issue.
But the interwebs have moved on from directory structures and stored collections of html files. I knew this was coming, but I also knew, back then, that the technology to deploy a real CMS was too expensive, immature, clunky, and overpromising. I knew that this system we were building would be an intermediate step while the Web got its act together, Web standards settled in a bit, XML grew up, browsers got a clue, and our folks became more Web savvy.
I chose Contribute because, unlike its predecessor Dreamweaver, it could lock out the user from marking up text with font tags, sizes, colors, and other non-standards-compliant markup that was just beginning its deprecation as CSS2 was looming on the horizon. A few people did not like that they couldn’t put big, green, ugly text on their home pages. But, it was a decision that had to be made to ensure the integrity of the markup. Always, in the back of my mind, was some notion of an XML dump of everything in the system, and that had to include standards-compliant markup or we’d be in a world of hurt with manual editing, copying, and pasting.
I think that I was a lot smarter back then than I remember being. Now, folks are able to import their content from our old environment to our new, amazing, beautiful, multi-network WordPress installation, with the click of a button. And only a few error messages in the bunch, which were easily addressed.
It wasn’t simply a script that I wrote that did this, although I wrote a script. It was all the thinking and foresight that we had years ago when we built that now ghastly Contribute system. I’ve always been fond of building and creating systems — it’s why I’m not very good as a one-off designer or Web developer. I like the larger context, the longer view, the seeing what’s around the corner, solving problems on a larger scale. It’s part of my narcissistic grandiosity.
So, before we say goodbye to Contribute, I’m patting myself, and my two former colleagues on the backs. Our system may be on the way out, but by thinking through the larger implications, we created the basis to enable an import thousands of standards-compliant Web pages into a state-of-the-art CMS so painlessly that all folks asked after training is “Now how do I make my site look good.” They are jazzed up, rather than overwhelmed, wanting more rather than less.
Part of that is the power of WordPress. But a big part of getting there is the power of our team back then. Blaine and Edward, we did good.