Silverstripe CMS Founder, Sigurd Magnusson Interview

Silverstripe is a Content Management System (CMS) that was founded in 2000 by Sigurd Magnusson. Since then, it has gone from being a commercial product to a very popular opensource offering. We interviewed Mr. Magnusson to get his thoughts on the CMS and it’s future.

CC: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your time with Silverstripe CMS?

SM: I’ve been fascinated with computers since a small child, and I also happened to have a grandmother working heavily in I.T. banking projects. She taught me BASIC and C before I got to highschool, and allowed me access to the text-only dawn of the internet. In 2000, I formed SilverStripe with two friends, and we have steadily grown staff numbers to a point where my days doing sysadmin and programming work have been delegated in favour of sales, marketing, project management, and managerial roles.

Over the same time our clients have also also grown; we’re now running official websites for many government and interesting private entities, including DemConvention.com, the official and heavily trafficked home for the U.S. Democratic Party’s National
Convention this August.

I’m very interested in usability and the user experience, as well as being idealistic about code quality, be it object oriented PHP or
semantic HTML and CSS.

CC: What was the vision for Silverstripe CMS prior to it’s inception? Was there a plan to focus on a specific target audience or were there other areas which you hoped the product would perform strongly?

Silverstripe's Sigurd Magnusson

SM: The SilverStripe software was always designed to suit two very different audiences, and this shows very strongly when you look at alternatives. Coming initially from a commercial context, we were
making a user-friendly web-based administration system for our clients that didn’t confuse them. We also had another area of the system, for us as designers and developers, to work. In the same way a car has a driver and mechanic as distinct roles, we’ve ensured our product worked for our clients and us, and we’ve continuously used feedback to ensure both get improvements.

In terms of what we consider the appropriate size of a website for it to be suitable for SilverStripe, we’ve always focused this being on hundreds or thousands of pages. We do try to make it suitable for smaller and larger sites, but we do that in the context of not ruining the usability or feature set for the main audience.

CC: What was the motivator behind the directional change within Silverstripe from a fully commercial platform to an opensource product in 2007?

SM: We wanted to make a bigger difference in the world. We were unexcited by the free and open source offerings and knew if we
made our system available to the public we could improve how developers build websites, and how most people manage and update their websites. We also wanted to grow our customer base and knew popularity and proliferation of our software would lead to credibility and drive commercial customers our way. Just as importantly, we feel strongly that open source development leads to faster development, higher quality code, and closer attachment to market needs. Finally, its an awful lot of fun and satisfaction knowing a new feature or bug fix shall be enjoyed by tens of thousands of people, rather than a few dozen clients.

CC: Do you feel that it was a good move for the company? If so, why?

SM: We’ve had nothing but positive outcomes that surprised or exceeded our expectations. We are a New Zealand company and in a matter of months since going open source, our international clients have shot up from zero to approaching half our of monthly business. With external developers and other agencies, we’ve got a quickly growing following both in New Zealand, Europe, and in America. They’re regularly using our software for their clients and offering us lots of encouragement. Our inclusion in Google’s Summer of Code and highschool coding competitions were great surprises, hugely helpful in growing our awareness and developer communities. Migrating our product to an open source model has worked very well and I’m delighted when I see other companies doing the same thing.

CC: What is your hope for the future direction of the product?

SM: The work we’re doing, in both our Government and private sector work, is increasingly taking on the depth of traditional
native-application software development. This presents a problem when the industry now expects websites to have compelling visual design, web-standards compliant code, strong usability and information architecture, well written content, and other laudable ideals. It’s all great for the end-user, but it is a total challenge to deliver, especially when trying to rein in risk, budgets, and timeframes. Most websites being built in 2008 are becoming this complex.

For instance, we work a lot with PR and Advertising agencies in New Zealand and in the United States, and it is clear that their customers are asking for what essentially boils down to software development, with design and marketing challenges wrapped in. Whether this is iPhone, Facebook, or complex website programming, it puts them in a difficult situation, so they need companies and products like ours to let them get their job done.

So, we are adding features that enable web developers to build websites in this increasingly complex world. Our recent automated
testing infrastructure is one example of how we’re helping this. We’re well past the point where you can, for instance, remove a field from a sign up form without wanting to test that the rest of your website remains fully functional. On any major website it is unrealistic to have a person manually visit each page of a website after you make a change, so we’ve created tools to build automated tests*. This increases reliability and means your time is focussed on enhancing the websites.

* http://www.silverstripe.com/new-automated-testing-tools/

CC: Do you feel the move to Opensource has hurt the company or helped the company from a financial standpoint?

SM: There were always millions of websites being built before we open sourced, so for some of those to convert to SilverStripe
without paying us a cent doesn’t hurt us financially or change much. In fact, there’s many arguments for it being rather helpful. The tens of thousands of downloads and the external developers vouch for us and show credibility. That is both a marketing strategy and a sales channel which supplies profitable work. We’re very thankful for that, because it funds a percentage of time we spend each month on open source development.

CC: If you could change one thing about your product or it’s offerings what would it be?

SM: Right now I’d love to see more regular and deep contributions from outside developers. That would help us broaden some
features and polish the usability of the product.

We opened the doors a year ago with the view that other developers could provide everything from documentation and translations through to core code and insightful decisions on the product itself. It is a challenge having enough time for ongoing commercial project work, supporting customers, freely helping our community in the forum and on IRC, developing our software, and vetting incoming code. It’s only early days so I think we’re on track with where we are now, however, we look forward to a day where outside contributors match our own ability in genuinely providing really high quality additions to the platform.

CC: What makes Silverstripe better than the numerous other opensource cms platforms on the market today? What differentiates your product?

SM: Firstly, we focus on making the administration area very user friendly for content authors, without compromising features. We
work very hard to make it easy to move pages around, add links, resize images, and all usual activities performed when managing a website. It’s much like the usability focus of Apple’s product-line really. Our video overview demonstrates that quite well (www.silverstripe.com/assets/video/cms.html).

Secondly, we’re a framework, just like Ruby on Rails, so the notion of massively customising the whole thing is absolutely fundamental to our platform. This means you can build a content-heavy website like www.epmu.org.nz, a flash-based website like www.thelowdown.co.nz, a complex shop system like www.perweek.co.nz, or a more Web 2.0 mashup for a start up, like  www.metroseeq.com.

This is all in stark contrast to alternatives that are very awkward to alter and customise and yet stay in the confines of the base package. Specifically, when you write a program with PHP, you don’t ordinarily need to change the PHP language itself to get your task done. We try very hard to embrace the same idea with SilverStripe, so that you can take advantage of our upgrades.

Thirdly, many recently developed systems come from a blog background, whereas SilverStripe is more traditionally based on the
concept of a website. That makes it suitable for both your 10-page website as well your 20,000 page one. Blogging platforms are perfect for blogs, but fail to scale to more complex information architecture.

Finally, we offer developers and end-clients commercial support.

CC: Can you give us a sneak peak of upcoming features we can expect?

SM: As part of our goal of simplifying the development of sophisticated websites, we’re making something called ModelAdmin. As is
usually the case, this was a feature written to complete a commercial job, and we’re refactoring it to put into the open source release. It will allow developers to define their data model (e.g. that you have cars, makes, models, customers, sellers, etc) and have very intuitive and complex administration interfaces for them built more or less instantly. We find in that projects where you need to manage lots of data like that, we wasted lots of time on building very similar administration interfaces. We want to put a stop to that so you can concentrate on the more fun stuff.

CC: Thank you for your time Mr. Magnusson and all the best with your CMS.

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