You don’t always get to start a project at the beginning. Sometimes the handoff is easy. Sometimes it’s like trying to learn to drive while the car is already barreling down the freeway. Usually, it’s somewhere in between. But no matter what the handoff looks like, there are a few things you’ll probably want to think about when taking over a website someone else built.
It’s important that you understand just what it is you’re taking on. It’s easy to lose track of this if the role you’re taking on is an informal one, but it’s just as critical to the success of the project, whether this is a new job or just a favor for a friend.
At first, you’re going to need to ask lots of questions:
- What is being handed off? “A website” or “an app” is not enough information.
- Who’s managing the hosting? Who’s paying for the hosting? Is there a company card? Is this a privately managed server?
- Who owns the domain name?
- What third party services/subscriptions/ licenses exist? How often do those renew? And who technically owns them?
- Who owns the email addresses associated with the site?
A lot of these questions will likely be directed at whoever was managing the site before you. But it’s important you understand them up front if you want this project to succeed. You don’t want the domain to expire 6 months from now, and then find out it’s locked in a registrar account owned by a previous dev, who no one can get in touch with. (I’ve seen this happen too many times.)
This is also a good time to do an initial scoping of what your responsibility will be. It’s usually best to get this info from whoever had this job before you did. That’s not always possible, but it does make it easy.
Now that you know what accounts and systems exist, you’re ready for the handoff. You’ll want to get access to everything. And I mean everything. Don’t email passwords if you can avoid it. If passwords do get passed over something like email, make sure they get updated immediately. There are also services online that make password sharing safer, like 1Password or LastPass. You can sign up for an account, have the previous owner sign up, and share passwords without them being visible over the wire.
And remember to update the passwords and access to any systems that are changing hands, even if they are shared in a secure way. If the passwords don’t get reset, you’re introducing risk, by adding the number of people with access. It’s not just about a previous webmaster or previous dev still having access years later. The issue is that if those people ever get hacked, your new project is at risk if they have access to it. So lock it all down. And going forward, practice the principle of least privilege. Or in other words, make sure people have the least access they need. Trusting people is good. But taking steps to ensure your project is safe is necessary.
That research you did before, where you checked on who owns what, and what accounts exist. That’s all useful now. And you can now log in to those accounts and double check to make sure you know what’s renewing when, and what you’ll need going forward.
If you’re using WordPress, don’t forget to update the wp-admin email address in the “Settings” page.
Take a backup
Before you make any real changes, take a backup. This is your save point. No matter what happens, you can always go back to this point. Also, test your ability to restore from that backup. If the process to restore your backup is a huge hassle or it’s not practical, the backup is basically useless. Your backup is only as useful as your ability to restore it. So make sure you’re familiar with the process and happy with it. If you’re not happy with the restore process, find another backup solution that you like better.
Plans for Improvement
This is the point when you can take a few steps back and decide how you can make things better.
Accounts and Services.
Now that you have access to the hosting, domain, etc. are those things a good fit? (Is your hosting a good fit? Does it make sense to have your domain where it’s at?) Sometimes decisions about hosting or registration, or third party services are made without the right priorities in mind. This is your chance to revisit those choices and see if there is anything better.
Look for ways to optimize
As you’re looking through the site and your accounts, take lots of notes and familiarize yourself with everything. Take an inventory of the content that exists. Check on the analytics and monitoring for the site if any exist. If none do, there’s something to add in the future. Check on the SEO and on your site’s sitemap and the robots.txt file. Look for ways to improve the performance and scalability of the site.
Talk with stakeholders
Find out which people, or organization, or group, has a stake in the success of this website. Find out would be impacted by changes to it. Discuss your plans with those people, and get feedback. Their input will help you create and prioritize the order of the changes and improvements you plan to make.
Staging and Deployment
Now that you know what changes and plans you have for the site, you can start preparing to make those changes. You don’t want be editing a live site or show the world something half-finished. So it’s a good idea to set up a staging environment to make changes and test things out. Then if they turn out as well as you like, you can deploy those changes to the world. That way if the changes aren’t what you expected or if something goes wrong, you aren’t impacting the real website, you’re only impacting your development copy.
There are lots of ways to set up staging and deployment. Often times hosting providers have ways built in to make it easy and can provide tools to make it happen. If your site is built with WordPress, check out the article Improving Your WordPress Workflow by WPMU DEV for a guide on how to get started.
If the site is in a state where you don’t want the world to see it at all, until you can make some changes, then you may want to use a coming soon or maintenance page on the site instead, while you work.
Managing a site and improving it is often trickier than starting from scratch, but it can introduce you to new ways of doing things, which can be useful. See what you can automate in your testing and monitoring processes to make things easier. Google is your friend. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
In conclusion, pace yourself. Even with the best preparation, sometimes unexpected problems come up. Don’t expect perfection all at once. You got this!