Operating in a shifting digital landscape — a CTO’s advice

Lessons in adaptability from Skylark CMS

Richard Amos
Mar 27, 2019 · 5 min read
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A couple of years ago we saw the media market change as customers grappled with the challenges brought about by device proliferation. Now people have been living for some time with the choices they made to meet those challenges, we are seeing more and more customers revisiting their technical architecture. For most, this means turning to an architecture that is service-based.

When building a platform from scratch, or even re-architecting an existing one, the desire to find exactly the right approach can be almost paralysing. This is especially true when everyone in the business believes they have the perfect answer — in the OTT solution they are selling.

Across the digital media industry there is a tendency to announce repeatedly that, finally, a long-resented technical challenge has been solved with a new tool. When we designed Skylark, our back-end and content management system (CMS) framework, we were standing against the notion that a single tool could solve everyone’s problem.

As a CTO, and having seen the various shifts in the market and customers’ requirements, I’ve come to recognise that Skylark’s strength is in its ability to respond adeptly to this changing landscape.

At Ostmodern, our mindset is that the answer to finding what is best for a product or business is actually admitting that there is no individual, definitive path to success and that, as a platform provider, you need to build for change.

Here’s a part of our story, the view we take, and how we believe our approach can help you.

Building with change in mind

We believe that building an easy-to-use system that adapts easily and quickly to a customer’s own product vision is the key to success.

Adaptation is important because that customer vision can — and often has to — change for lots of different reasons. Having an approach that tends towards adaptability leads to solid collaboration, which in turn brings better understanding of each other’s platforms.

I remember, when HTML went from table-based layouts to CSS, our team was tasked with working with a CMS that assumed fixed columns and rows. The CMS wanted to tell you how to design your product, using 10 year old nomenclature. We solved the misfit by stripping the CMS configuration back to its basic concepts.

Throughout our time navigating this industry, we’ve encountered advancements in all types of knowledge that we are able to draw on to build a product or offer a service. Front-end technology approaches, product strategy, and design methods constantly evolve because new platforms, user behaviours, experience paradigms, and third parties, emerge that challenge what was once accepted as simply ‘right’.

You can’t build a service today and expect it to be relevant tomorrow. An appropriate response to this assertive truth would be to build with change in mind.

Building outside assumptions

Part of thriving in the digital media industry where changes occur at such a fast rate is thinking in broader terms rather than trying to solve the problem strictly in front of you.

We discovered that a lot of people we worked with had difficulty finding economical ways of migrating to a new software stack.

Building a new product or platform can quickly lead to obsolescence, or simply become a repeat of the past, without giving weight to the importance of building for change, and bringing in the expertise that understands how to achieve this.

With Skylark, we have built a hierarchical, modular system that is also adaptable. It does not assume what a website, an app, or even an entity as specific as a page, will look like today. It certainly wouldn’t dare to assume what these will look like in three years’ time.

We refrain from having a preconception about what a customer’s needs are and how these might shift. Our focus is instead on how our API, and broader CMS, can meet these needs as a data interface.

Our biggest concern is to learn why our customers use it the way they do, so that we know how to bridge our product with their existing systems.

Ultimately, we decided, Skylark should be useful and straightforward, and not interested in reinforcing conceptual leaps that editorial and technical teams can’t draw any logic from.

Skylark is a CMS that brings commonality to a customer’s workflows through a consistent interface that uses terminology they already understand.

Building for longevity

As we set out to design Skylark, we asked two questions: “What do we want to live with for a long time?” and “What do we want to evolve?”

The core of the relationship between a back-end and a front-end system has experienced few changes in the last 20 years. The data set used to build a page where a customer runs an API layer, back-end processing, or a bit of both, remains identical to what it was in the past.

Today, it’s possible to introduce GraphQL, NoSQL in the back-end, or any number of other innovations; but it still comes down to dealing with data models when you finally reach the rendering layer, no matter what.

With Skylark, our goal was to build a robust and reliable infrastructure that would validate our decisions for years to come. One conclusion we arrived at was that using ‘traditional’ open source relational databases (such as PostgreSQL) is profitable in the long run.

Traditional systems may not be the technology everyone is talking about as the next big thing, but their application in so many types of businesses has made systems like PostgreSQL fully tested and remarkably flexible.

There is much that can be written about traditional vs bleeding-edge technology choices, but one truism we acknowledged was that we didn’t want to be struggling with our software when we wanted to evolve our approach three years later.

Instead, through choosing broadly adopted, battle-tested software as the building blocks, we find that everyone else in the industry is having the same challenges that we are, and we are solving them together.

Building by problem solving

Our unique selling proposition as a company is that we solve complex product problems with the help of talented minds that understand the challenges of adapting to a quickly changing industry.

In the end, our message is quite simple, but not often found elsewhere:

Skylark is a platform that is built for change, not for a future that you can’t see or predict.

Skylark is a modern headless CMS for rich media products. It is used by broadcast, publishing, media and sports brands to power front-end products with a difference. Find out more at https://www.skylarkcms.com/

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