Who Ya Gonna Call?

This entry is part of a series: You Get What You Pay For»

When To Call The Developer For Help

When most people build a website, they generally wait until something goes wrong before they call for help. This is especially true with WordPress. Given the ease of install and modification, non-technical users can make lots of changes and tweaks without a dedicated developer. However, when things go wrong, the easy facade falls away and you are left staring at PHP, CSS and HTML code. At this point you might understandably be asking yourself, “Just what have I gotten myself into… Maybe I should call someone.”

Unfortunately, once something has gone wrong, a developer has to unwind what the customer has done. This usually costs a lot of time and money, often as much as you would have been charged to have the developer build the site from the start.

This is because the developer is coming in blind, with now way of knowing what the customer did and why. Retracing these steps with the client can often feel like an interrogation for someone who is already embarrassed at breaking this WordPress thing everyone said was easy. It’s a painful, uncomfortable and expensive process that nobody likes, but what is the alternative?

You basically have three choices when you start a project:

  1. Do it all yourself.
  2. Hire the developer as a consultant.
  3. Hire the developer to do it all.

If you have been reading this series since the beginning, you have a pretty good idea of the pitfalls involving in doing it all yourself. Any time you spend working on a website is time you are not spending on your business. Price out what your time is worth to you and make the call. If all you have is time and no money it could be the only way to go. Be aware of the issues and patient with your progress. This is tricky stuff and you will not get it all overnight.

The second option is to use the developer as a consultant. You can do this by paying for an hour or two of a developers time to walk through your website needs with them. Build a plan together that you can accomplish and ask the necessary questions before you start your project. Plan for at least one more hour for later on when something goes boom. This will shorten some of the time you need to get rolling and give you a safety net when something goes wrong. There are, however, a few caveats to this route.

  1. Don’t expect free advice. The developer has already priced out what their time is worth to them. If it’s not worth that to you, find another developer. Don’t take it personally and ask for recommendations. Developers will often have people they farm smaller jobs out to.
  2. Take notes on what you are doing as you put the site together. This gives the developer a road map to follow if something goes boom. The will also help you ensure that you are following the correct directions you laid out with the developer in your first meeting.
  3. This is still going to take a lot of time on your part. If you are not paying the developer to build the site, you cannot expect them to be “on call” for you. Most developers will answer reasonable questions via email, but when it starts to get out of hand don’t be surprised if the developer wishes to be compensated for the time.

These 3 caveats will give you and the consulting developer a much smoother consulting relationship and help yield a successful project for both of you.

The final option is, of course, to pay the developer to build a website for you from the start. While this is the more expensive of your 3 options, you are paying for the experience level of the developer, the knowledge and skill they bring to the table. Developers enjoy this kind of thing and they can bring that joy to a website project. The developers goal is to build something they are proud of and that you want to show off to potential new customers. It’s how we stay in business and afford all of those video games that we love.

This is the win – win situation for both of us. Trust me on this.

An Unexpected Error Has Occurred… What now?

This entry is part of a series: You Get What You Pay For»

When Something Goes Boom

It is a given fact that at some point in your website building process, something will go boom. This happens to novice users and seasoned web developers alike. You are doing something enormously complex, despite what you may have heard from your local high school student.

You are taking code designed by dozens of different people and mixing it together into a working website. The people who wrote this code have no idea how your server is set up, what your comfort with technology is, or which pieces of code you may have mixed together. They have done their best to allow for every possibility they could think of, but at some point… it. will. go. boom.

So what do you do when you find yourself confronted with this:

Internal Server Error
The server encountered an internal error or misconfiguration and was unable to complete your request.
Please contact the server administrator, webmaster@yourdomain.com and inform them of the time the error occurred, and anything you might have done that may have caused the error.
More information about this error may be available in the server error log.
Additionally, a 404 Not Found error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.

This helpful little notification is the equivalent of “Oh noes! Something bad has happened! Call for help!” It provides little information and even less guidance on fixing the issue. It is also worth noting that, if you have chosen to go it alone, the “server administrator”  the error message is asking you to contact is you. This is usually the point at which myself or another developer will receive a phone call for help (it is also typically the worst time to call the developer, which we will talk more about later).

Most developers have had tremendous experience with stuff going boom. We experiment, tinker and fiddle the way most people breathe, and at one time or another, each and every one of us has brought a computer or server to a crashing halt, an inert mass requiring the complete re-installation of everything. We are also painfully aware that we can do it again at any time. However, beyond the initial swearing and fist shaking, we are different in the fact that this does not frighten or stop us.

Developers plan for the fact that things will go wrong. We have entire systems set up for backing things up, testing and moving between versions. If something goes boom, we can pretty much hit rewind and go back to the version that was working before while we fix the current problem. We build things in such a way that boom only stops us for a few minutes, while for most people, one good boom can lead to weeks of down time while trying to figure out the problem and sometimes it will just stop you completely out of shear frustration.

So how do you prevent this kind of frustration? Talk to a developer before the problem even starts. Next we will cover a few options for this in our series wrap up  which asks the question: When To Call A Developer For Help.

Out Of The Box And Beyond

This entry is part of a series: You Get What You Pay For»

WordPress Modifications

Say Hello To Frumpy...

Out of the box, WordPress is very, very basic and very, very drab…. frumpy actually. However, the ever flexible WordPress also allows you to use themes, which change your site from frumpy to professional looking with relative ease. The key word here is “relative.”

There are thousands of themes for WordPress, ranging from really bad to truly exceptional. Some themes are free and some cost money. WordPress keeps a list of 1,195 free themes linked from their website. Some of these are really good and some are not. You can, of course, look through these yourself and find which ones fit your needs, but a serious developer will be familiar not only with these themes, but with the hundreds of other sites which house prettier and more targeted themes. These themes will more easily address the goals of your particular site (shopping, news articles, customer relations, portfolios, etc.) Developers tend to maintain a list of useful goodies like this, so they can quickly pull it up it whenever a new kind of client appears.

Again, we look at these kinds of sites on a daily basis because we think it’s fun. We are just wired that way.

The WordPress Theme List

So the choice here is to look through several thousand themes yourself, or let us help you select from 5 to 10 good themes that meet your needs. We may even have a subscription to some of the pay sites, which means that we can get the theme for you as part of our existing subscription. This saves you money.

Now let’s suppose you have picked out a really good theme. Themes usually include a fake logo and some clip art pictures, but you will need your own logo and the clip art pictures are almost never licensed with the them itself. We typically help you work with a designer to create a logo if you need it and help you gather and edit your own photos for the site. Even if you don’t need any help with logos and photos, it is very unlikely that the theme will do everything you want straight out of the box.

This is where WordPress plugins come in to play. Plugins add features to your site, everything from shopping carts, event schedulers, contact managers, photo galleries, video players, statistics, social networking and just about anything else you might ever need. WordPress lists 9,652 so far with more arriving every day. These plugins are searchable and more often than not, free to download and use. Cool. More free stuff for you, right?

The WordPress Plugin List

Well yes and no. While free is a wonderful thing, figuring out which of these 9,652 plugins will do what you need it to can be a very confusing process. Remember that most of these plugins are written by nerds. They are also documented by the same nerds. Nerds have a startling vocabulary of technical terms and jargon and most of them are surprisingly unafraid to use it.

The second issue is that, as free software, most of these plugins are written as a labor of love. This means that they are not always updated on a regular basis. Can you risk running a plugin that has not been updated in the last 2 years? Additionally, the plugin was likely written to accomplish only what the author wanted to accomplish and in the way that makes the most sense to them. What do you do if the plugin only does 80% of what you need it to?

A web developer can easily update and modify plugins to make sure they work with your current setup and do exactly what you need them to do. They can typically accomplish this quickly because they have either seen it before, or they know where to find the answer to the problem.

Which brings us to the next consideration: What do you do when something goes boom?

Free Software And You

This entry is part of a series: You Get What You Pay For»

Freedom of The WordPress

Currently, one of our favorite tools for creating new web sites is WordPress. What started as simple blogging software has become the weapon of choice for small and medium business sites (including the one you’re looking at right now).  It’s simple, elegant, extensible and best of all it’s free. The “free” part always leads us to interesting conversations with clients, which usually start with the question: “If it’s free, why am I paying you?”

This is an entirely valid question, but it is also a frustrating one for developers who spend an enormous amount of time, knowledge and energy installing, configuring and modifying these systems. Hopefully this article will give you a little bit of insight into what you are paying for and why.

The Initial Setup

One of the things WordPress prides itself on is an easy setup and this pride is fully justified from this developer’s point of view. Getting WordPress installed, up and running is a breeze for any seasoned web monkey. However, for the average non-nerd setting up a copy on your own hosting space can get a bit more complicated:

  • Do you have hosting server? (a place that your website will live on)
  • Do you have a domain? (i.e. www.yourname.com)
  • Do you know how to point the domain correctly to the server you are using?
  • Does the server have PHP and mySQL installed? (these are required for WordPress)
  • Do you know how to create an empty database for WordPress to use?

Are these all things you can learn to do? Certainly! Most of it will involve a couple of days of reading and study, some careful note taking and probably some time on the line with tech support. If the questions above look like total gibberish to you, then you will probably need to spend a bit more time on it.

For a developer, this will take about an hour tops to track down any missing info and run the initial setup. This does not mean the developer is smarter than you. This is simply the kind of thing we have done a hundred times. When you have done it a hundred times, it will be easy for you too.

It should be noted that WordPress.com will also set up the software for free under yourdomain.wordpress.com which is a viable option for a quick cheap website. However, if you want to have the site available at www.yourdomain.com you will have to pay for a premium account (ditto if you need more space). The free or premium plan may seem like great options at first glance, but there are still a number of things to consider.

WordPress Default Install

The biggest one is that a default installation of WordPress looks like the image on the right. Is that really what you want your site to look like? It’s probably not, but WordPress has a number of wonderful ways to fix the look of your site and add cool now features as well.  Using themes and plug-ins, you can take WordPress from simple blog to a professional business site, store front, social networking site and much more.

We will take a look at these options and the potential issues in the WordPress Modifications article next: Out of the Box and Beyond