Last fall, someone asked me to take over work on a website that was half built. The previous web developer had quit in the middle of the project, deadlines for launch were looming, and the code was a mess. It mostly worked, but because everything was “customized” it took a lot of doing to cobble things together as best we could and get it to completion. The site launched. Everyone was happy. Sort of.

This kind of thing happens a lot in website world. People try to reinvent the wheel in the name of “innovation.” But it’s not innovation. It’s hubris.

If your web designer wants to “build a custom framework” for your site, or “come up with a unique customized security protocol,” run like hell. These are website world’s equivalent to “I’m going to reinvent the wheel and charge you extra for it.” Most of the time the new and improved wheel will have a few square corners. Take the bait, and you’re asking to spend a lot of money to get hacked.

Six months later, with a little time on my hands, I’ve gone back to see how I would have done the project given the opportunity to do it over from square 1. For me, it’s practice. I’m doing it on my own time, and I’m not going to pretend it’s all going to work more efficiently (though it probably will because I’m using a standard framework), or that it’s security is bulletproof (though it probably will be because I’m using a standard security protocol).

Sometimes the best way to learn or improve a skill is to reverse engineer something that’s already been built. Seeing how someone else approached a problem gives you the chance to learn something new. Seeing if you can improve upon someone else’s solution gives you the opportunity to spot pitfalls when there really is something critical on the line. It’s part of practicing just about any kind of craft. Practice makes perfect. Do it on your own time, or at least have the decency to let your clients know that you’re practicing on their nickel.

But re-inventing your own version of something that’s already been invented isn’t innovation. It’s practice. Reinventing your own wheel and calling it innovation sets everybody back. Innovation is when you use your understanding of wheels to create something that will take people places they want to go. That’s something that really is valuable. And, if you can find it, it’s worth paying for.