Cowboy coding is not a term that is familiar to business owners. There are even some web developers for whom this is a strange term.
But it is something that you should be on the lookout for, as a business owner, or as a web developer.
Just like the lawless frontiers of the Wild West, cowboy coders like to live dangerously. With reckless abandon, they make coding changes directly on live websites, without testing changes on a staging or development site first.
Cowboy coders write code without documentation, so that future developers (or even their themselves!) who look at the code will have to figure out what is going on — the hard way.
Cowboy coders often work in a silo, and are poor at communication. They may disappear for days or weeks at a time. Working in a team is not for the lone cowboy.
As you can imagine, the consequences can be quite severe.
Web development is a process that takes time. This is why experienced web developers use local and/or staging environments to work out bugs on before migrating changes to a live (production) site.
Some developers prefer to have a local version on my laptop, then push to a staging server, then production.
Some developers have a staging environment protected from prying eyes, where they work until they have extensively tested changes. Only after doing quality assurance testing do professional developers make changes to a public facing site.
Good developers also write documentation in their code. They know that even if they are the next person to touch the code they’ve written, it saves a lot of time and effort to look at the notes that were left by the last person.
When a new developer comes to the project, getting acquainted with what code controls what takes a minute. Documentation is a courtesy to future developers, and a help to whoever works o the project next.
The Negative Effects of Cowboy Coding
Professional developers understand that your website is the face of your company and your main marketing tool. It is detrimental to show bugs and mistakes on your public facing site.
Beware the cowboy coder who has little regard for your public website.
Here’s some things you should be looking for.
Before you get involved with a developer or web development company, ask them what their development process looks like.
Make sure your developer has a safe staging area where they can do all the necessary development work.
If your web developer goes directly into your live site and starts making wholesale changes as a first step, run away.
Web development is tricky. Each site has a unique configuration.
Your own WordPress site has unique combination of the theme, plug-ins, and hosting environment. Not to mention some sites have additional features like SSL certificates and payment gateways.
The more moving parts the website has, the greater the chance that one of these components will not play nicely with the others. This is the reason staging environments are crucial to the development process.
An experienced WordPress developer should not fear moving your site from staging to the public facing site. This is one of the main reasons cowboy colors make changes directly on the live site, and not on a local (on their computer) or staging version of your site.
If you’re a burgeoning WordPress developer, and you need help learning how to migrate your sites: reach out to other developers in your community. They can give you hand showing you how to move websites.
Make sure you are leaving documentation for others that may have to work on the site in the future. It’s also a great idea to leave documentation for yourself. You can forget a lot of project idiosyncrasies after a few months.
If someone is redesigning your site, the first thing they should do before developing is clone your site into a staging area. This is so they can work out it without accidentally destroying your public facing site.
If you’re a business owner looking to hire WordPress developer or agency, do your research. Know what the development process Will look like before you hire someone.