What exactly is Custom Coding criterion?

On the Website Award Criteria, one of the criteria under functionality:

How much of the website design is original to the team? (i.e. Did the team do any custom coding?)

I’m noticing that a lot of people are writing their own CMSs, including MORT, who won the Website Award at our regional. We switched to Wordpress this year; would that put us at a disadvantage in terms of this criterion as compared to our last year’s website, which was completely custom-made in Dreamweaver but looked like it was made in 2001? (I hope not.)

Is it worth writing your own CMS?

I have nothing to do with website except having captioned a handful of pictures, but I have heard our webmasters talk about this before. From what they say, FIRST likes crude, custom-coded websites more than elegant websites from a free hosting site. I don’t know how valid this is, but having won website 5 out of 6 years for our custom-coded website (check us out, teambroncobots.com) I think I’ll take their word for it.

In general, I would avoid writing your own CMS. It’s a huge amount of work, and probably won’t be as flexible or powerful as existing solutions like Wordpress. If you’re worried about showing off your coding skills, remember that Wordpress is incredibly flexible and there are numerous ways you can extend and customize its functionality.

It’s a little like building custom gearboxes: many top-tier teams do it, and it does provide certain advantages. But the practical reality is that with limited time and resources, there are way more important things to focus on. Off-the-shelf solutions do a superb job, better than what most teams could do on their own. For the majority of us, the wise thing to do is to build on top of the great platform we already have rather than re-engineer everything from the ground up.

While you want to make it look good for the judges, your focus really should be on your local community and the FIRST community who will be using your website. If you make a truly excellent website for the public, the awards will follow, regardless of the technology you use.

That said, writing a CMS would be an excellent learning experience. But pursue the project to learn, rather than for an award.

The issue is that modern CMSs like Wordpress, Drupal, Joomla, etc. are much more than CMSs–they have pre-built templates and add-ons that make it possible to build a highly-functional website while knowing nothing at all about web design or programming. This is where teams get into trouble, and have websites that appear too polished/safe/professional, and look almost “factory-made”.

My advice is to use a CMS, but only rely on the most basic features. That is, design your own template in HTML, CSS, and Javascript, and maybe even try to program your own calendar, image gallery, video gallery, etc. You will learn the most this way IMO, and will more than satisfy the criterion on the rubric.

I say go for it! Build it locally on your computer and see if you can get it working nicely. The worst that will happen is that you find out that it’s too much. At that point you’ve lost nothing and have hopefully learned quite a bit in the process. This is the mindset I had when creating MORT’s CMS.

Here’s a few things you should consider:

What language are you going to write it in? Do you have a relatively cheap host that supports that language? We use Python and the webpy framework on a VPS from vpsunlimited.com using the CentOS operating system (Linux).

Who will be managing the content of the website? Are they proficient enough to use HTML and CSS to make pages? If not, will you need some kind of graphical interface? We merely edit the html/css/js/user accounts/etc of each page. Our content manager knows enough about those areas to handle it perfectly fine. If the content manager that will be managing your content doesn’t know anything about those areas, I suggest making them learn! It’s a perfect time to have people expand their knowledge.

Let me know if you need any help!

-Pat Jameson
MORT Team Captain/Programming Captain/MORT11.org’s CMS creator

Website judge here.

You’re free to write your own CMS. If you do, please document it on your site with an “About this website” page detailing how and why you did.

You’re also free to use an off the shelf CMS like Wordpress, Joomla, or Drupal. I think the logic behind this is that due to the lower amount of time required to get the site up and running, the actual content on the site should be higher quality. (So you might lose a point or two on the technical side, but you’re expected to score higher on content.)

If you stick with the stock themes, you may not score particularly high either. If you do go with an off the shelf CMS, be sure to customize it as much as possible, and again, document what you’ve done on an “about this website” page. It’s not in the requirements, but judges appreciate it!

While you want to make it look good for the judges, your focus really should be on your local community and the FIRST community who will be using your website. If you make a truly excellent website for the public, the awards will follow, regardless of the technology you use.

Brilliant advice.

Creating a CMS is a nice project to embark on, but there are a number of issues with maintaining a custom-made CMS. The first and most important issue (probably) is security: I personally don’t think that hand-made CMSs will contain the security patches that more established CMSs (WordPress, Drupal, etc.) will have. Another issue is the (possible) high learning curve with making a CMS.

That said, if your team wants to make a CMS, go ahead! I’d personally recommend, however, using a CMS like WordPress for a production site.