Most prepackaged solutions for building websites come at a price. In the case of 100 Product Managers (100 PM), that price to pay was a lack of flexibility and a great overhead due to unneeded functionality. Fortunately, today’s landscape provides the tools needed for projects to be more customizable than they used to be. 100 PM is an excellent example of how painless and liberating it can be to transition from a stack based on legacy CMSes to one which takes advantage of modern technologies and ideas, from static websites to Content-as-a-Service.
Not all projects are created equal. A lot of them don’t start with a clear vision, careful planning, and a detailed long-term plan. Many great products begin as a simple idea, and time and passion turn them into something potentially bigger. This is the case of 100 Product Managers, which is the result of Suzanne Abate’s passion for product management. She wants to raise awareness on the topic, but not just by bringing her own experiences to the table — although more than eight years as PM at The Development Factory certainly qualify her for the job. Instead, she wants to gather a group of PMs and let her guests share their unique points of view. The goal is to reach the 100th episode (hence the name) and to allow people who are not familiar with product management to take a peek into this world, as well as letting actual PMs know that they’re not alone in their struggles.
"It felt like an opportunity to bring greater awareness
to the community about product management"
Suzanne’s initial vision did not include a podcast, but a written transcript of the interview. Only later did she realize that people like to consume this kind of content through media such as videos and podcasts. This is a perfect example of why projects need flexibility: requirements are always changing, and people need a platform that can adapt to these changes without imposing arbitrary constraints.
The average podcast produced by 100 PM is between 40 minutes and an hour long, and is recorded on-site with the guest. To get to the final product, there’s a lot work involved. This includes the preparation of questions beforehand, some of which Suzanne repeats to every guest (“to give a sense of continuity,” she says). Others vary and are the result of spontaneous discussions. In podcasts, just like in web development, flexibility is a quality-defining trait. The ability to move freely without any restrictions is a fundamental requirement to be able to uncover unexpected and exciting new possibilities.
"I've seen a lot of websites built in WordPress
that should have never been built in WordPress"
The Development Factory has often relied on WordPress for their development toolchain — but times are changing, and so are developers’ needs. While there are certainly reasons for the widespread adoption of tools like a fully-featured CMS (such as the ease of use for people less familiar with code), the development trends are clearly showing a paradigm shift towards leaner architectures which rely on small, flexible, and completely customizable microservices. Andrew Bodis, Chief Technology Officer for The Development Factory and development lead for 100 PM, confirmed this challenge with current monolithic CMSes: “[…] the whole thing is convoluted. It’s counter-intuitive to the level of efficiency and optimization that I would want on a website. I don't want to load 700 things and try to clean that out, because that's what WordPress does by default.” “The problem with CMS platforms that let you edit too much is that you end up editing too much,” confirmed Suzanne.
Initially, 100 PM started as a static website built on top of a stack that included Symfony and Twig. “Even though the content was static on the original website, I still put it into JSON for easy management, it was almost like there was a virtual API that I was using,” Andrew told us. That was a great starting point, demonstrating the team’s foresight in implementing a system that was already made suitable for the decoupling of components. When faced with the decision of whether to rely on a classic CMS or not, the development team felt that they would not have used a good amount of the features provided by such tool, yet they would have had to work through the unnecessary overhead imposed by it; Contentful then represented the ideal, modern, and fun alternative.
No platform is a perfect fit for every situation, so it was necessary for Suzanne and Andrew to evaluate pros and cons of their choice to turn 100 PM into a Contentful-powered static website. “The concept of a headless CMS was appealing in terms of the flexibility of being able to be implemented any way I want,” remarked Andrew. The minimal assumptions that Contentful makes about how developers consume content are one of the features they love about it, along with the ability to shape it and make it behave the way they want.
“Choosing such a platform means let’s make sure we understand right now what the site needs to be able to do for the next six months, and possibly for the next twelve. That’s ridiculous; it’s like saying that right now you should pick the car that you’re going to want to drive for the rest of your life. I don’t know what kind of car is going to be valuable to me three years from now” echoes Suzanne.
"Contentful is a really well done headless CMS, flexible and fast.
I think most developers value those things"
Contentful’s integration into the technological stack was quick and painless: “It literally took two hours to integrate everything” — said Andrew — “If you have the correct mentality and are aware of how to use JSON APIs, it’s very quick and easy.” This was also thanks to the Contentful SDKs: libraries for the most popular programming languages, which help developers integrate Contentful into their projects quickly and painlessly. After integrating the PHP SDK, content was flowing to 100 PM without breaking a sweat; a simple custom deploy script was the only thing that was then needed to push out the new website to the world.
Some of the possible pitfalls that people might face in the move from a classic CMS to Contentful involve the shift from a page-based content management mindset to an entry-based one. However, for 100 PM the editorial experience was actually very pleasant. “If I’m just putting on my content editor hat and saying — how do I feel when I navigate through Contentful’s interface for the task of populating content? I love it: the UI is clean and bright […]. I love that I can do things in-line, and the fact that I can build out an entire piece of content from top to bottom without having to leave a single editing module is very beneficial. I figured everything out in two minutes,” added Suzanne.
Editing Markdown text instead of HTML directly didn’t result in any headaches. On the contrary, professionals in web publishing such as Chris Coyer actually advocate the use of Markdown for blogging, and the motivations behind this suggestion are similar to Contentful’s core principles: encouraging structured data and most of all keeping the presentation data separated from the actual content, thus promoting the reusability in different contexts.
The whole project wouldn’t have been possible without one key feature, Contentful’s free plan. Contentful and static sites are a match made in heaven, thanks to a comprehensive free tier which includes great functionality, which then combined to the many SDKs available for public consumption (with plugins for popular static site generators, such as Middleman, Jekyll and Metalsmith) and the decoupled architecture, proves to be a great choice. “There is a mid-range market where I do have a need for a CMS, and I want to be flexible in my publishing platform, but I don’t have the margins of a corporate enterprise,” Andrew told us. Development and transition costs were also taken into account, but once again the flexibility and ease of use of Contentful proved to be a key factor, thanks to very quick project bootstrap times and an intuitive editorial experience.
100 PM started as a simple project which then evolved into the great resource for Product Managers that it is today. By having a static website at its core, it’s easy to see the value that a product such as Contentful can provide for these kinds of projects, in terms of ease of use, ease of integration, flexibility, and last but not least, price. The positive experience in using Contentful for 100PMs convinced Suzanne and Andrew to adopt it for their agency website as well.
Header picture by Sorrell Scrutton