Seven Principles for a Web Team

I’ve worked on a lot of web teams. I’ve written and edited web content, collaborated with designers and developers on new sites and been responsible for the management of existing sites in government and nonprofit organizations.

Every web team has its own principles, even if they’re unwritten. A combination of culture and procedure, these are the guides that team members follow when it comes to web development.

For example, when I was at AARP, we had a rule that we wouldn’t launch a new site on a Friday. Why? Because the team wanted to get out of the office on a Friday. They wanted happy hour, not to proof the site. Mistakes would be made and they would stay up all weekend long, until someone noticed the error on Monday. Therefore, no site launches on a Friday.

If you’re lucky, everyone agrees to the same principles. The web site manager supports the web designer when she says “no” to the client who wants a giant flashing red banner on the home page. And to launch it on a Friday without testing.

At the recent WordPressDC meetup.  Mark Wahl, Technical Director at Jake Group, shared his Seven Principles for a Web Team.

It’s about choices, according to Mark. WordPress is infinitely flexible and, as a small firm, there’s a wide variety of projects and clients to consider. What workflow should you follow? How are projects managed? And, most importantly, how do you keep the web development team sane? No one likes chaos, especially web developers. They want achievable deadlines and established processes rather than churn and instability.

The answer is to follow a set of principles. Discover the principles that guide your team. Write them down. This clarity reduces stress for everyone by eliminating unwelcome surprises, like the cry of a manager, “We need to launch the site on a Friday! Rules be damned!”

Some (bad) managers may object. Rules are limiting, after all. But, as Mark wrote:

Principles make our approach clear to the entire team, allowing all to participate and contribute.

A set of clear and concise principles let team members to make decisions, confident that they’re following the “rules of the road.” Not only is this the most efficient way to manage a team, it’s also the most sustainable. Chaos is a tiresome and burns out developers and content creators.

While a rule like “don’t launch a site on Friday” may seem silly, a set of principles keeps everyone on the web team happy, engaged and sane.

From the Cold Room to the Cloud: Amazon Web Services (AWS)

Back in the day (the 90s), the servers were kept in the Cold Room. This was a floor devoted to rows of black boxes on racks that served up our web pages. They would sit there, seemingly inert, until something went wrong. Then the cry would go out “the servers are down!” and the techies would disappear into the Cold Room to fix the problem.

The downside to having physical servers in your office is obvious. You need to keep them secure and safe. Your technical staff is tasked with maintaining a physical asset. They spend their time unboxing and installing new equipment. And you’re limited by the amount of space you have. You can only serve up so much web. Too much traffic and your web site goes down.

Russell Heimlich, web developer at Billy Penn, illustrated this problem – and a solution – in his recent presentation on Amazon Web Services at the January WordPress DC Meetup.

He used to work at US News & World Report. The biggest thing they do all year is their issue on college rankings. Millions of parents and students check it out to find the best universities in America. Back when Yahoo was relevant, the web portal ran the college issue as a featured link on their home page. The US News site crashed within four minutes, their servers unable to handle the massive spike of traffic.

The solution is to have a more flexible hosting environment than boxes sitting in a cold room. For many organizations, that is Amazon Web Services (AWS). Instead of unboxing equipment, web developers set up servers virtually in the AWS environment, pointing and clicking on a grid until they have the idea solution for their hosting and traffic needs. Rather than serving web pages off your servers, you’re serving them from Amazon’s. While Russell made it look easy, it’s an expert-level tool that is customizable and complex.

However, AWS is so robust and efficient that it powers much of the social media and network services that we think of being in the Cloud. But the Cloud is not magic. It has been configured, set up and hosted by humans. Rather than working in the cramped confines of the Cold Room, developers now play in the infinite spaces of the Cloud.

The Cynic’s Guide to Government Contracting

There’s an interesting post by Ben Balter on why government doesn’t use open source. It’s a good read, in which Balter presents all the reasons why government doesn’t use open-source software for its web sites, from the demand for enterprise solutions to a desire to avoid transparency (really).

Why is government so bad at building web sites? Why do they frequently build nonfunctional monstrosities like healthcare.gov, with its price of $840 million (and growing)?

Because there is no Web Department in government. There is no Web Development Corps of dedicated usability specialists, designers and editors. There is no government-wide web strategy.

Instead, government web sites are built ad hoc, created by individual agencies with wildly varying degrees of competence. Some are good. Others look straight out of the 90s. There is no standard design nor is there a standard platform. Instead, every agency builds what they want, with only a cursory nod toward the needs of the public.

These web sites are largely built by contractors, with names that sound vaguely Greek, like Synergos, or sound high-tech, like Advanced TechnoData Inc (ATDI, for short). These companies exist solely to win government contracts. They’re experts at it, and form and reform, based upon government requirements. If there’s a contract that asks for a small, disadvantaged business with a transgendered Intuit at the helm, then that company will come into being.

In their protean stage, these companies are little more than a sign on an office door and a web site filled with stock photos of happy tech workers. To succeed, they have to win contracts. For that, they have specialists in responding to Requests for Proposals (RFPs). These specialists are expert at analyzing RFPs and then parroting back the requirements in the most convoluted and voluminous manner possible. These responses go back to government, which analyzes them, and then selects the lowest bidder.

Congratulations – your company has won an RFP. You promised you’d build a web site. Now you have to hire the people to do the work. Why don’t you have them on staff? Because you have no money to pay anyone until you win a contract. So, you go out and hire them – quickly. You want them on site and billing, so that you can get your money.

But it’s hard to get good help, especially when it comes to developers. You do the best you can, optimizing for speed and price over skills and experience. Better to get a cheap developer today then spend six months trying to woo top talent.

You created a beautiful Gantt chart, one with different colors for every week of the web development process – and it’s all gone to hell. Recruiting takes longer than anticipated – people have families, other jobs and they can’t start immediately, as much as you want them too. And just getting them into a government building is a chore – you need a person just handling the paperwork. Getting your staff computers and software from unresponsive government IT departments takes even longer.

Along the way, you decide on a Content Management System (CMS). Maybe you were strongly encouraged by the government CIO. He goes to big conferences sponsored by big software companies, ones that he hopes to join. He has a preferred CMS.

So, you ask your developers, “Can this CMS do what we want?” Of course they say yes – what else are they going to say? Their jobs depend on it.

You spend months in the planning stage. Wireframes are presented to rooms full of feds. Designs are revised endlessly. Everyone offers opinions but authority is elusive.

You move forward, months late. The build phase is a trainwreck. It’s where plans collide with reality. You find out you can’t put a button there and that the slideshow isn’t Sec. 508 compliant and that it’s not clear who’s going to write all this content anyway.

But the money is flowing. Your people, though they may be frustrated, are billing 40 hours a week. The COTR (Contracting Officers Technical Representative) is happy. His job is to make sure that the money is being spent. It’s a game where you don’t want to have any funds left at the end of the year.

Dog and pony shows are put on for senior management. You don’t show them the actual site (which doesn’t work) but you show mockups to people working on Blackberries.

Developers work late into the night hacking the thing together. It’s a big mess of ugly code, workarounds around workarounds, but it should hold up, provided you don’t get too many visitors.

You launch. It doesn’t suck. It works, kinda. You have a pizza party in the break room. The developers are surly, as if they hate the site, the process, you, everything. The feds hardly seem to notice their new site. And the public, well, their emails of complaint go into an unmonitored inbox.

While the web site may not be perfect, and it may be impossible to update (thanks to your CMS choice), the important thing is that the money was spent. It’s good enough for government work. The thought cheers you, as you pull into the driveway of your McMansion, paid for with taxpayer dollars.

Matt Mullenweg Is a Very Dangerous Man

Matt Mullenweg is a very dangerous man.

At the inaugural WordPress for Government and Enterprise meetup on May 6, the co-founder of WordPress & founder & CEO of Automattic, discussed the amazing journey of WordPress from a home-spun blogging tool to the world’s most successful enterprise content management platform.

Mullenweg believes in democracy. He believes in competition. He believes in open-source. All dangerous notions in Washington, DC, a city devoted to closed-systems, insider deals and imperial government.

WordPress is free. Government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on complicated content management systems that don’t work. “Why is the free thing better than what your agency spent $5 million on?” Mullenweg asked.

WorePress LogoFor him, users drive software. They are always right. Users will decide whether WordPress survives or fails – and he accepts that. “You win because you’re the best,” he said.

I asked him how government could avoid debacles like healthcare.gov. He called for more transparency, imagining a world in which hackers could fix the doomed health care site and develop their own, better vision.

No one got fired for healthcare.gov. Why should they? The project managers at HHS followed all the policies and procedures for government procurement and contract management. You can’t blame the contractors either – they were just doing what the feds told them to do, as crazy as it must’ve seemed at the time. Healthcare.gov was built according to all the regulations and was a $1 billion failure.

The world is moving in Mullenweg’s direction. We, as consumers, pick winners and losers – not the government. Yet, we have a federal bureaucracy designed for the 1930s.

Walter Russell Mead calls this “the blue model“. He writes:

The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.

Big Government doesn’t work in a world that’s become small, dynamic and user-driven. For example, Mullenweg works with a distributed team that gets together once a year. He doesn’t even know what some of his employees look like. In contrast, government spends millions on buildings it doesn’t use and struggles with implementing even the most basic of telecommuting policies.

Working in government, I have an old Dell wired to an ethernet jack. We don’t even have a working copier. Office supplies are locked away. Wi-fi is forbidden.

At home, I have a MacBook Pro, wi-fi, WordPress, a digital camera, Dropbox, an iPad and a host of other tools – as well as better coffee. The consumer market provides me better tools than a billion-dollar bureaucracy.

If government is to survive, it must be reformed. We can no longer afford a massive, unresponsive federal state that’s tied down by endless rules and regulations.

Government must become responsive to citizens. It must adopt the WordPress model that users are always right. Citizens pay for government and they deserve better.

If government does not reform, debacles like healthcare.gov are not only likely – they are inevitable.

Governments like China fear WordPress for the openness and free expression it provides. The American government should fear it too. WordPress demonstrates a new, more democratic and more user-driven way of working together. It’s impossible to go back to the blue model. Matt Mullenweg is a very dangerous man.

Defeat Writer’s Block the WordPress Way

WordPress pencilsIf you’re a writer, that first blank page can be daunting. The blinking cursor awaits. What do you have to say? Do you really have what it takes to write a whole book?

Yet, the same writer, when put in front of a friendly blog interface, will immediately start writing. After all, it’s just a blog. It’s not serious. Blogs are for cat photos, cappuccino comparisons and lists of your favorite films.

Writers and readers love blogs because they are:

Ephemeral. It’s not permanent media, imprinted on a page. They exist here and now but could be gone in a year or two.

Timely. Blogs do not have six-month long publishing lead times, like books and magazines. They are about what just happened.

Social. Blogs are social. Feedback is immediate. Content is shared, rated and commented upon.

Bite-sized. You’re not reading Ulysses on a blog. Posts are a few hundred words, designed to be written and read in a sitting.

People who say they cannot write a book will write blog posts. They will write scores of them. They will write so many that, when you add them all up, they’ll have written a book without realizing it.

The solution to writer’s block to tell yourself that you’re not writing. You’re blogging. It’s not serious – it’s just a blog, one that you can revise, change, edit and even delete if you want to. No one even has to see it.

Take the outline you have for that Big Serious Book. Use it as a blueprint for your blog. Take the items on the list and write a blog post for each one of them. Do one a week. Remember, a blog post isn’t final. Think of your post as an exploration of a topic rather than the last word on the subject. A blog post is a chance to try out ideas, conduct research and get feedback from a live audience (if you want).

Dealing with a sensitive subject? You don’t have to make your blog public. Create a blog on WordPress.com and it keep it private. Share it with a few people – or no one. It’s up to you.

More comfortable with email? Did you know that you can literally mail it in? Post to your WordPress blog by email, if that’s more comfortable or convenient. You can also update your blog with your favorite mobile device.

Afraid to hit the “publish” button? WordPress has a solution for that. You don’t have to publish immediately. You can schedule a post to run on the date and time of your choosing. You can write your scathing expose of daycare regulations, leave the country and then have it publish when you’re safely overseas.

Are you more organized than most people? WordPress can accomodate that. Rather than creating posts organized by date, create pages and sub-pages by subject, matching them up with your undoubtedly elaborate outline. Use tags and categories as a kind of index for your document. WordPress is underrated as a tool for organizing text.

Looking for a popular topic to explore? Check out what’s fresh on WordPress to find something to talk about.

Really stumped? WordPress has tool for that. It’s called Plinky. Every day, it provides a new prompt to get you writing, a question to consider like, “What was your favorite toy as a kid?”

The key to overcoming writer’s block is to tell yourself that you’re not writing. You’re blogging. It’s not serious. It’s just a blog. And with the help of the friendly WordPress blog interface and a few simple tools, you can defeat writer’s block.

Migrating WordPress: Yea, There's a Plugin for That

migrating WordPress

How difficult is it to migrate a WordPress site? It’s not.

Russell Heimlich managed to explain import/export from a WordPress site plus how WP content is organized, potential problems you might run into during migration, solutions to those problems and how to import from other CMS. All this was covered (plus questions) in less than an hour at the WordPress DC Meetup.

It’s all covered in Heimlich’s Migrating WordPress presentation.

Migrating an existing WP site is easy – you go to Tools and export your existing site. And then import it into your new site. Even myself, with just a basic knowledge of HTML and fear of all things database, was able to figure it out.

And this being WordPress, there are plugins for everything else you could want to do, from exporting your widgets to doing a massive find and replace on your new site. There are even plugins and other tools for importing from other CMS like Drupal.

WP is #1 in usability and the backend is easy to navigate as well. Why the whole world doesn’t use WordPress is a mystery to me…

How to Lead a Fascinating Life but Make No Money: My Year in Writing

Lawless poster with Tom HardyThe more interesting the work, the less it pays – that’s the rule I uncovered in 2012. It’s the reason why technical writers are paid well (you want to write a help guide for Sharepoint?) while film reviewers are paid poorly (you get to see movies!).

However, it was a great learning experience to meet so many creative folks. Truly inspiring to meet people who had written books, made movies and created web sites.

The highlight of the year was the work I did for On Tap, the free monthly entertainment magazine in DC. There’s still a special thrill to see your name in print that no digital facsimile can replace. I wrote about Lawless, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Dark Knight Rises, V/H/S, Mansome and The Sessions. Continue reading “How to Lead a Fascinating Life but Make No Money: My Year in Writing”

Free Yourself from the Tyranny of Sharepoint

Sharepoint is a plague upon the American workforce. This ubiquitous piece of collaboration software has taught millions of people that Intranets are destined to be places where you can’t find anything.

It doesn’t have to be this way, despite what Microsoft may have you believe. There are alternatives to Sharepoint that actually work in ways that ordinary humans can understand.

One of these alternatives is WordPress. You can set up your own Intranet using WordPress with a minimum of technical knowhow.

It’s certainly better than learning the maddening intricacies of Sharepoint, as developer Ben Balter discovered. Given the dreaded task of updating the Sharepoint site, he instead decided to spend three hours to see if he could come up with an alternative.

The result was WP Document Revisions. This is a WordPress plugin that allows teams of any size to collaboratively edit files and manage their workflow. In other words, the core of what you probably would use Sharepoint for if it was actually usable.

Ben wasn’t done. He’s since gone on to craft additional plugins, as he described in WordPress as a Collaboration Tool, a talk he gave at the monthly WordPress DC meetup. The tools he created essentially improve upon all the functions of Sharepoint, but in WordPress, so you don’t need expensive licenses or pricey database experts to keep the whole thing from crashing.

By using WordPress, you turn “add this information to the Intranet” from a frustrating task into something as simple as blogging. And just think how good your Intranet could be if people actually wanted to contribute to it.

Improving internal communication does more than just lead to happier employees. It contributes to the bottom line by saving the time of staff. Do you want people spending hours trying to figure where their document disappeared to on Sharepoint or do you want them to do, well, something productive?

Most of us, however, have no control over what software we use at work. I asked Ben what to do in this case. He replied with the truism that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. He also demonstrated what WordPress could do and developed internal support for it. When presented with a credible alternative, rational decision-makers will make the right choice, if they can.

There’s a lot of caveats in that last sentence. I know. Big organizations choose big software for reasons that defy reason.

But life’s too short to use bad software. Investigate the alternatives. Anticipate objections. Present your case. Just something is ubiquitous doesn’t meant it’s right or destined to last forever. The way we work is changing, and software should change with it.

Update: I cross-posted this to GovLoop, which prompted a great deal of discussion from govvies.

Usability Testing – Kill Your Darlings

Last night was another interesting monthly WordPressDC Meetup. This time, the topic was on, “Users: Understanding and making features for them.”

Evan Solomon gave a really interesting presentation on usability testing for wordpress.com. His slides don’t really do justice to his talk, which was filled with anecdotes on improving the usability of the WordPress home page. The objective was to increase sign-ups for this blogging service. They performed A/B testing using Optimizely. This type of testing is where you present half of users one version of your web page (the A version) and the other half another version (the B version). You then measure which page does better.

In the case of wordpress.com, the simpler version did better. Less text, fewer buttons and more white space meant more sign-ups. Evan said that there was a lot of interesting items on the original home page, things that the team really liked. But they got rid of them because they didn’t perform as well as the simple page.

There are a couple of lessons here:

  1. Simple is always better. Think Google or Apple – it’s about taking things out. People who work on web sites should read Strunk & White: The Elements of Style. It’s a little book about grammar but its lessons on clear, concise writing are directly applicable to web content.
  2. Listen to users. There’s a lot of resistance toward usability testing within organizations. They don’t want to give people what they want – they cling to the broadcast model of “we’ll tell you what we want you to know,” as if there’s not a billion other web sites out there.

There’s a saying among writers that you must “kill your darlings.” That means take out the florid passages that you love but don’t help the reader. Do the same with your web site.

"Software is Wrong, Not the People" Republished by Design Firm

My post, The Software is Wrong, Not the People, is the most popular thing I’ve ever written. It’s something I wrote after hearing Matt Mullenweg of WordPress discuss his philosophy toward software development. In short: if users are confused by something, then they’re right.

A design firm in NY republished it on their site (with my permission), since it explains why they use WordPress for their clients.