Matthew Chestnut is a Senior Consultant at ThreeWill. He has over 20 years of software development experience around enterprise and departmental business productivity applications. He has a proven track record of quality software development, on-budget project management and management of successful software development teams.
Find this Podcast “Getting Started with Sitecore” on the ThreeWill Soundcloud, Stitcher, and iTunes.
Getting Started with Sitecore
Danny: Hi, this is Danny Ryan and welcome to the ThreeWill Podcast. Today I’ve got Matthew Chestnut here with me. He’s a Senior Consultant for ThreeWill. Thank you for joining me Matthew.
Matthew: Hello Danny. Glad to be here.
Danny: Great. We’ve got a very interesting topic that we’re going to cover today. We’re going to talk at an intro level on Sitecore. I’d love to take what you’ve learned about Sitecore, maybe compare it to some of the things that you’ve done in the past with SharePoint. I’m a newbie to Sitecore, how would you describe what Sitecore is at a very, very … My level. That’s pretty high, that’s pretty high level.
Matthew: I was a newbie to Sitecore as well. I think I might have understood or heard the term before but I never really was aware of the product until we had an opportunity with a customer to do some Sitecore type work and we figured we better get some Sitecore experience. I was sent to a Sitecore developer training class and it was really rather eye-opening. Sitecore is at its essence a content management system, but it’s really more than that. Sitecore is based on Microsoft.NET technology, ASP.NET Pages, .NET code behind C#, all the stuff that as a developer I’m accustomed to in the SharePoint world. Sitecore is geared towards what I would consider corporate presence, corporate websites, branding of sites for companies for their internet presence.
Danny: Like public facing website, what we’d call public facing websites.
Matthew: Yeah. It would be overkill in many ways to use this for an internal facing site unless the internal content was such that you had to have content authors and you had a lot of workflow associated with it, stringing publishing schedules, et cetera. What I found about this is Sitecore’s purpose are these public facing websites. SharePoint of course can do it, but as SharePoint experts that we are at ThreeWill, we know that there’s some shortcomings on the publishing content management from SharePoint in that public facing world. Sitecore cuts through all of that.
Danny: Through the years, it’s been one of those things that when people have come to us for public facing websites, half the time I talk them out of using Sharepoint. Some of the time it does make sense if they want to centralize on one platform and they’re trying to get the benefits out of that centralization on one platform but there’s a lot of things I think, even as far as our blog, we have a lot of things where we’ll cover things like using Google Analytics in a SharePoint site. Some of the things that you typically do on a public facing site and I use WordPress on our public facing sites, so that tells you I used to use SharePoint, don’t anymore, but really I think this is more a purpose built product for that public facing website.
Matthew: Exactly. Purpose built was the exact term I was thinking of. It’s a mature product. We were trained on Version 8 in the classroom setting that I was in with other developers. They were on various versions of Sitecore, Version 6, Version 7 primarily and they were trying to understand Version 8. This has been around a while. What was interesting to find out in talking with not only the instructor and the fellow students is there is a lot of similarities between Sitecore and SharePoint in the concepts. Now obviously they’re implemented slightly differently but you got to think, if you’re doing a content management system, it’s got to be certain things that you have to have, the ability to be able to let authors edit the content, to be able to change the design of the content. It’s how you implement that is what makes one tool more useful than the other.
I found that Sitecore has thought of a lot of stuff. They’ve got a lot of pieces that are very similar to SharePoint but for example one thing that I learned is this whole concept about experience management. It’s one thing to have a content management system that manages your pages and let people author them and publish them on schedules. This whole idea about experience management. They have a whole training session, training class on that whole concept in and of itself. I was of course on the developer aspect, but the experience management is the concept whereby a user comes to your site, and you may have never heard of this person before and when I mean that, we’ve never seen their IP address before, we’ve never placed a cookie on their browser.
As they interact with the system, Sitecore has APIs available and built in analytics to drive content or change content based on what the customer is doing. It’s the standard thing where you were always concerned that Google is looking over our shoulder in regards to what ads do they show. Here’s an idea where you can actually show content your customer may be interested in, at the website level, managed by marketing people, not managed by developers. Sure, there’s some rules that have to be set up to make all this happen, but it’s an infrastructure, it’s a whole product onto itself, this experience management. That’s why you might see Sitecore XP or Sitecore 8 XP as the brand name because they’re trying to tout that capability and it’s very powerful.
Danny: Interesting. Is this with SharePoint, you can use the cloud version versus on-premise, is it similar thing with Sitecore as far as they have a cloud version and then an on-premise version?
Matthew: That’s very interesting because we were focused on the on-premise version primarily because you need API capability to make it really, really go. To answer you, I don’t think they have a cloud version like SharePoint does. The whole idea about SharePoint is it’s a more general purpose tool where departmental sites where you’re doing team sites or collaboration where you’re sharing documents, that’s what SharePoint is really strong in. Oh and by the way, you can do workflows, you can do content and publishing. Sitecore is really designed for corporate branding, for corporate public facing websites. Usually you have to have control over that. I guess it’s like the WordPress model where you can host WordPress wherever you want to host it, but the idea is you’re writing code for WordPress to display your pages.
Danny: Is there any e-commerce functionality or do they have add ins for that?
Matthew: Yes, there are add ins. Once again, this was a very broad product and we focused mainly on the developer aspect is how do you make this thing shine. Because Sitecore has the ability to have a different look to the internal user, whether you’re a marketing person who might be doing some easy editing through the browser based on permissions and roles to change some content, or a hard core developer who’s developing content components which in the SharePoint world are called web parts but these components can be chameleons if you will where they change the look, the feel, the content based on what the user’s doing, what products are interacting with, et cetera.
Danny: I imagine there’s quite a bit of this with people more and more using mobile phones that this is the sites responsive to ways of targeting different types of devices.
Matthew: Absolutely. In the SharePoint world, they had this concept of device channels. In the Sitecore world, there’s the concept of devices. There’s also sub-layouts and layouts which are very similar to page layouts in SharePoint where you can control the content. You have full control over CSS and they give it a better structure. In the SharePoint world, you have the concept of a master page, which is a standard .NET capability. In Sitecore of course you’ve got that MasterPage [content 00:07:23] but they hide it through their tools. I guess in some ways you can say that Sitecore is better at hiding some of the .NET infrastructure than perhaps SharePoint is.
Matthew: The bottom line is you can do quite a bit with Sitecore, you can do quite a bit with SharePoint, but Sitecore perhaps make it a little bit easier to do it.
Danny: What else … Let’s maybe talk through some of the … You said there’s a lot of similarities between Sitecore and SharePoint. If I look at the … Where do the differences come into play? What are the similarities and what are some of the things that are different about the two?
Matthew: Yeah, that was one of the challenges for me going into this training class because you’re introduced to a whole new language. Keep in mind, I had not been introduced to Sitecore at all, whereas some of these students had used it in-house. They knew the terminology, they knew the IDEs, they knew the capabilities of the editing tools. I didn’t know anything so my head was spinning the first day or half a day trying to figure out what are they talking about when they say placeholder or when they say something like component. The challenge there was once I understood what these pieces were, like a component is very similar to a SharePoint web part where it’s a self-contained unit that you can reuse in a variety of pages.
Sitecore has this concept of items which are very similar to list items in Sharepoint, but they’re more powerful in the sense that these items are objects onto themselves and each item can have certain characteristics that can change and be dynamic depending on where they’re used. The biggest thing that I found is in the experience of the editing of the pages. They’ve got two different types of tools, one that’s straight through the browser, one that’s a more sophisticated browser add on, and one is a visual studio plugin that they call Sitecore Rocks.
The Sitecore Rocks is great for someone like me who’s accustomed to using visual studio. You have the ability to interact with all the pages, all the content and drill down as deep as you need to go to look at the API level. Obviously a marketing guy who’s in charge of branding and such isn’t interested in that. They’re interesting in when they pull up the page, pulling up the page template, they want to be able to change the CSS styling and they want to use a friendly name. They don’t want to have to use some kind of obtuse CSS language. They provide a lot of helping tools to let the casual but powerful user, the power user if you will in marketing, define the content, define the style, define the look.
It’s not to say that a marketing person could do this on their own. You still need a designer. You still need someone who understands HTML and understands graphics and understands the web. Once you get your catalog of tools, it provides handholding to publish content in the future.
Matthew: It’s really a combination. A lot of it for certain things like list data management, so if you’re returning a list of products, you might be doing a little bit of API work there to get the appropriate content. There’s this concept of a data template which is similar to a list in SharePoint but it has some other different characteristics but the idea, it’s a source of data. Once as a developer you create the data template, you can connect it to a variety of data sources and it does queries and things of that nature. Based on the customer, you can get their particular products. Based on the customer’s interest, you’d get the products that satisfy their interest.
A marketing person is not going to be at the API level. The API level is the idea there to present the foundation but just like with SharePoint, there is the right way to do things in Sitecore. You can do things the crazy way where you’re not leveraging the Sitecore platform itself and so you could program yourself into corners or you could not use it to its full potential, but if you do it the Sitecore way, very similar to how we in the SharePoint world tell our customers, “Let’s figure out what SharePoint can do for us and make the necessary tweaks versus trying to force fit something into SharePoint.” The same pattern applies to Sitecore.
Danny: They must have with publishing sites in SharePoint, they must have the concepts of moving it through environments, like going from dev to test to production …
Matthew: Absolutely. You’re absolutely right and that was one of the sessions in the training class itself was the whole publishing scheme where you can go from a test site to a staging site to a production site and how that particular process works. A lot of it is where you point your URL to, are you going to the internally facing site for development or are you going to the externally facing site. Once you’ve … Satisfied with how the development works, then you through a scheduling process, you can publish it to the outside world through the mechanisms they provide.
Danny: Now we’ve done a lot of extranet work with customers. This seems to be something that is … You have your intranets where SharePoint very squarely hits a lot of the functionality that you want to have there, you’ve got extranet which is almost like it’s in between the public facing site and your intranet. Was there any discussions about extranet focused sites at all and does this, where do … I’m just interested, if we had to give somebody direction of where would you use Sitecore vs. SharePoint and you’re talking about let’s say a client extranet.
Matthew: That’s a good point because we talked about Sitecore in the public face in corporate branding. We’ve talked about SharePoint on the internal team site where you don’t really care about branding, you’re more interested in content lists, et cetera. This extranet … That we at ThreeWill expose to our customers to collaborate with them, it’s kind of a blend. You want it to look good but you want the versatility as well. I would lean towards SharePoint still being a better solution, provided you’re trying to keep the branding simple. The reason being is I know how we use our SharePoint client portals with our customers. Sometimes we need to add a column to a list or we need to create another view. It’s quite simple to do that in SharePoint.
Now it may be just as easy to do that in Sitecore. The challenge you get with Sitecore is the licensing restrictions. It’s not a cheap platform. It’s not saying that it’s more expensive or less expensive than SharePoint, you’d have to talk with your Sitecore sales rep to figure out what the licensing cost would be but I know with SharePoint and it’s licensing model, sometimes it doesn’t matter how many sites you are publishing. It’s just based on a server basis whereas Sitecore may have a little different plan. I’d like for extranets for the client, I’d like the versatility of SharePoint and maybe that’s a bias because I’m so used to using it but that’s the way it is. I didn’t see anything in Sitecore that made me say, “Ooh, we’ve got to get that to do our extranets.” I felt like we were doing a pretty good job with our SharePoint extranets, especially now that we’re going to the cloud with most of them anyway. We’re in O365, Microsoft 365 with our client portals, which makes it real easy to spin up an environment very quickly for our customers based on a template that we’ve developed so that all our extranets are very similar in look and feel.
Danny: What other things would you share, maybe somebody who’s coming from the SharePoint world and taking a look at Sitecore? What other things did you pick up on and would like to share with somebody in that situation?
Matthew: Yeah, I think the key here is if I were to do this all over again, if I had a little bit more preparation, it was kind of a crazy thing on Friday, late, I got told, “Hey we’d like you to be in training on Monday.” I had no real time to prepare and I like to be prepared but if I were to give another developer a suggestion is if you’re moving to Sitecore, there is plenty of material to learn about it. Sitecore has got a lot of YouTube videos, a lot of training materials, et cetera. Sometimes the terminology does change between Version 6, Version 7, Version 8. It’s very similar in structure.
The other thing is learn the Sitecore way. They have it put together in a certain way for a good reason, it’s because it does work. Don’t try to force fit your old design patterns into something new. Learn how it’s done. I would even recommend contracting with perhaps some Sitecore experts. We, even in our SharePoint world, the work we do here at ThreeWill, we go into environments, corporate environments where they are using SharePoint. They got a lot of expertise, but they’re looking for some other expert guy. In the Sitecore world, you could do that as well. Consult with somebody for a week, a few days. Get yourself off to the right start. It’ll save you a lot of trouble in the future.
Danny: Gotcha. It seems like these types of projects, we have designers that we can bring on or some organizations already have maybe a marketing agency that already do their branding. It seems like that’s a, no pun intended, a core piece of this that really the branding side of things that is even more than SharePoint, than what you typically have to run into with SharePoint. Your designers are getting involved very early on with this, especially when you’re focusing on experience, there’s some people who are very good at that. You need to have those types of people on projects.
Matthew: The whole world of what [does 00:17:38] a web page supposed to look like. It evolves over time. You see some common threads, responsive design is very important now, mobile ready so that if you’re on a different device, whether it’s a phone or a tablet or a laptop or desktop machine, you get the proper experience for the device you’re using. That expertise is important, it’s important to design with that in mind at the beginning so you don’t get stuck saying, “Wow, we got this great desktop site, but it looks terrible on a phone.” You got to be prepared for that.
Danny: Excellent. Anything else before we wrap up?
Matthew: I will say that I enjoyed it. It’s fun, it reminded me of going back to school in the sense that I feel wide-eyed and very, very dumb at the start. I did pass my exam, which I’m very pleased.
Matthew: So yes, it was worth the trip.
Danny: Excellent. Thank you for taking the time to do this and the folks are, we’re pretty up-front here at ThreeWill. If you’re interested, maybe your team has a lot of folks who have a background in SharePoint and you’re starting to get into Sitecore and you just want some additional help from somebody who would be a good person to work with, a good team to work with outside of your internal folks. Feel free to reach out to us. We can get on the phone or maybe talk a little bit more about how we could help out with that. Maybe this gets us in more into doing public facing websites and I’ll have to turn all those projects down anymore, that will be wonderful and we’ve got some designers that we can work with, we’ve got a wonderful QA staff, we’ve got the world’s best developers, so maybe you’ll see for 2016 for us, we may start doing some Sitecore projects. I appreciate you going to the training for passing the certification, that’s awesome. I just thank you for taking the time to do this today.
Matthew: Happy to be here, Danny.
Danny: Absolutely. Thank you everybody for listening and have a wonderful evening. Bye bye.