Project managers and developers: a love story

You know the situation: you begin to make furtive glances over your shoulder because you think they are near; you wonder if they actually understand what it is you do at all, and the dread, moments before the monotonous weekly meeting, surpasses what even coffee can placate.

They are the project managers – the very whisper of whom incite fear in the most hardy of web veterans.

I’ve seen good and bad project managers (PMs): from the micro-managing control-freak prone to panic attacks, to the uninformed motormouth, who spurts buzz words faster than they can be created. I’ve also worked with some incredible people who can forge a mini-utopia from the chaos created by 30 programmers, designers and writers in one room. These folk can read a Gant chart like a conductor reads a musical score and churn out a dead-line driven symphony which, at the end, leaves all involved feeling euphoric and satisfied.

However it’s wrong to assume that we, in the creative output department, can sit back and do what we’re told by our PMs and leave them to tackle everything alone. The pressure is on them to deliver, but the attitude of “I just write the code – don’t blame me for being a scope creep” dodges our responsibility to contribute to the project’s smooth running. We are there because we have specialised knowledge and regardless of the personality of whoever is running the project, we should use it.

How we can help them and ourselves?

Contribute and participate

Why would you go to a mechanic if you were going to dictate to him or her how to perform an oil change? A PM shouldn’t do this to you either. You need to get in early to help define the scope of your own work to avoid nightmares later on. Identify the risks and ensure that the timelines are realistic. A PM might not know that you need four days for bug fixing, or that creating a Flash movie player needs more than one day’s preparation. He or she can’t be over all the minutiae of a task, and, if they don’t ask for your advice before they write technical or design requirements then, it’s up to you to stick your hand up.

Also, ask to have a look at the final requirements before they are signed off. You are not being self-important here – you’re just making sure that everyone, including yourself, understand what the expectations are.

Education

If your PM is new or not up to speed on your area or expertise, tell them what you can do and demonstrate your knowledge through projects you’ve previously delivered. There’s no need to be a complete nerdy suckhole, but it does help to prove to them that you’re not just another monkey looking for a banana.

Depending on the intricacies of what you have to do, you should always provide proper documentation on what you have delivered. When working on the frontend, I try to provide a master document that contains all the CSS and markup rules to which those working on the site in the future have to adhere, along with examples. If they’re integrating your work into a backend application, programmers will love you for it and content managers won’t be able to complain later that they didn’t know that there was a class to style their images. As you can probably guess, this will facilitate everyone’s role and thus make the PM smile.

Communication

Meetings can be a bore, particularly when they focus on an area you’re not working on; large team meetings don’t usually provide an opportunity to go over everyone’s issues. But it’s not hard to email your PM when you discover something useful – such as an alternative solution to a problem that your team is experiencing. Many times they won’t care what technical solutions you offer then so long as you deliver whatever the functional specification says. But if you talk their language – budgets, timelines, making the client happy and so on – you will get through. For example, you may raise the risk that the groovy new AJAX application will not be accessible to everyone and argue that:

  • you can raise the exposure of your client’s website by modifying the application to cater for screen readers and provide alternatives to AJAX-generated content for search engines
  • the return on investment from the three days of extra work will come in the form of status (you’ll get a better solution) and money (it’s easier to implement a fix while the site is young rather than six months later)

Will they love us or hate us?

Anything you do to make the hectic life of a PM easier will reward you with positive vibes. Some won’t like what they perceive as ‘meddling’, and they’ll employ the old chestnut: “I don’t tell you how to do your job buddy, I have an MBA blah blah.” Although you can go too far, you’re just trying to do a good job and ultimately, at the project launch party you’ll get respect and beer instead of just being known as that guy who sat in the corner, coding and seething because no one listened to his advice.

On a short trip to New York

On my left, a 40-inch television with 600 cable channels has been drilled into the wall. On my right, the cold remains of a sandwich, with still enough sliced meat stuffed in it to open a deli. Outside in the heat, traffic snakes and shoots through walls of sunlight, sounding their horns and  shouting out to the world: “I’m alive! I’m alive in New York!”

If Paris is a city for walking, then the Big Apple is one for skipping: mainly because you get around faster and, at the same time, you can display that air of optimism (while hiding deep-seeded depression) that you can only pull off in the USA.

Fortunately you don’t have to skip everywhere. Thanks to the subway and grid system of Manhattan streets, getting around New York is piece of a generous serving of your favourite cake (which, by the way, you can get on every corner along with a bucket of watery coffee). The only hassle is trying to not get sidetracked by the mayhem: there are traffic cops screaming at cars, cars tooting at other cars, blinking signs, crazy people in bare feet, diners brandishing “All day burritos and jugs of beer”, flocks of garbage trucks and of course, the thousands of residents and tourists from everywhere and, judging by the mixture of fashion, every when.

New York could be described as London pushed into a tube and stood upright, sprayed with essence of extrovert. But it’s best not to make comparisons. This city is exciting in its own skin and I’m just about to walk out the door of my west mid-town apartment right into the thick of it.

Tips for a standards martyr

Q: How does a spectacularly immense organisation go from tables and HTML 4 to web standards and XHTML strict without breaking a sweat?
A: They don’t.

A large company that shall go unnamed to which I have a particular affiliation has recently updated the standards to which all new websites will be developed. This is after having spent the last nine years using the same, table-based layout for 1000s of sites, mini-sites and single pages. Nearly half of this rubbish contains elaborate CSS hacks for IE 5. Imagine that.

The first, and potentially most difficult battle has been won: getting the support of management across the organisation and the resources to research and develop the new solution.

The second, and arguably most fun part of the task has been completed: you’ve created a flexible, standards-based template using a new brand or design that works in every browser you care about.

Now comes the dirty work.

The particular concoction of 100s of developers, a gigantic online catalogue and nine years of “internet time” has created a labyrinth of hacks, validation nightmares and enough <td>s to crash View Source. Resource-wise it would have been impossible to go through each and every page of HTML to upgrade the templates. We all know that this essentially means a rebuild and in some cases a redesign – not just dumping content into a few div tags.

So what do we do?

I’m not an expert in change management but I have played various roles in the evolution of a company’s code, thinking and practice from old to new. Each experience was different, but I’ll try to provide an outline of what to look out for.

New sites – a new way

It makes sense that all sites in development will follow the fresh standards since you now have your new code and the rules in which you can implement them. This teething period should weed out any structural problems with the code and allow time for designers to explore the possibilities and limitations of their new space. Make sure you share what you have learned!

If you work with a team of developers, get together before starting and ensure that everyone understands how the new code works and should be used.

You can also use this opportunity to document new guidelines and show off recently-built sites to other staff and indoctrinate them in the ways of standards. Content editors in particular deserve a training session in coding for standards and using semantic markup.

It’s a good idea to discard old dependencies unless you really need them. Importing JavaScript or a CSS file that was used in your old site will create confusion later. These files may even be deleted three years down the track when someone considers the migration “complete”.

Old sites – a new project

You will be updating the landing page of your portal, or parent site. That is clear. However, there will be a period when your network of sites will not be consistent. This may cause some minor panic in the creative or marketing department and elsewhere where brand consistency is considered important.

Take care of the vitals first:

  • Your brand – if the branding changes, try to modify this across all your sites first. The process will be a pain but not as great a pain as the designers and brand managers will be when they realise that your sites don’t represent the company’s “brand-spanking new persona”.
  • New navigation elements – unless you want people to get lost when moving in between your sites, you’d better update any changes to the global navigation. For example, network bars in the header, footers and links to new content like updated help/accessibility pages (which you will update to reflect site modifications, won’t you?) 🙂

Again, depending on your resources, you should then organise a new project. At the very least you have to:

  • Evaluate your online properties and decide upon the sites that are priorities for migration.
  • Book time with your most efficient designers and frontend programmers to determine the methods, timeline and resources.
  • Start one at a time – after the first site has been completed you’ll have a better idea of what to expect as you go down the list.

Things that will go wrong

A portion of your audience won’t like it and they will tell you. They would have grown accustomed to navigating around the old layout, if indeed that has changed, and the former look and feel. A simple task in web education should suffice to address discontent even if it consists of one page describing the reasons and advantages behind the changes. You can then direct any complaints and queries to this page and then hope that they will understand. You will never please everyone, but an explanation is usually considered polite.

Even though we are in 2008, a few members of staff may not possess the sufficient skills to code according to your new standards. Sometimes it is only a misunderstanding of simple concepts or a gap in their knowledge regarding new standards or elements. For instance, thanks to a generation of “Dreamweavers”, we often see this:

.myclass {border-top:0px;border-right:0px;border-bottom:0px;border-left:0px;font-size:12px;}

For CSS best-practice and accessibility issues a one-day session should suffice.

Nevertheless, I’ve come across many cases where there is a misunderstanding of fundamental concepts such as inheritance and syntax, or of the accepted usage of markup such as using unordered lists for navigation. Teaching people even elementary JavaScript or CSS 2 in one day is not realistic and will require a more extensive training program assuming the person is a valued member of the team.

Some members of your team may resist. Generally I found it was the content editors who didn’t understand why they had to change what they had been doing for four years. Since you have management support, they will have to comply but being nice and explaining things in simple terms will work better.

Going the distance

After all the hard work is done, keeping abreast of new standards and then advocating them wherever possible is the best way to ride out with greater smoothness the wily waves of the ever-changing web. Given the nature of large companies with disparate teams and financial objectives, a full migration will probably never happen in your employment lifetime but with planning you can go close. You can pick out even the tiniest success story and make it into something huge. Is there someone out there who, because of your changes, can now access your site more easily than before? What are your SEO results like these days?

Don’t stress if you don’t get the W3C green light. Unless you have full control over all aspects of your sites, achieving 100 per cent validation will be like trying to dig a hole with a defrosted fish-finger. Liberating your sites from tables and font tags will feel better than any endorsement anyway and you can always work on these points later.

Ode to my Saturday morning newspaper

“Adapt or perish”, “turn new corners”, “invest in people”: yeah ok, enough already. If you haven’t already heard about the rise and rise of online news then you may not have had the pleasure of hearing such responses to the perceived challenge of the internet from media executives. But if all the hysteria and rapid investment in the web by media companies is any gauge, then there is actually some substance to what they are saying.

Countless paragraphs have been published on the implications of the digitisation of news media, particularly surrounding the fate of traditional media at hands of its precocious digital cousin.

But what it boils down to is consumer behaviour patterns – how people consume news media, how they are told to and how they want to. The behaviour of the market is what drives our capitalist system. It’s not the actual presence of the internet or the web or the ipod – it is that people are using or prefer to use these methods of information retrieval and delivery. But are we all heading towards a plugged-in future?

Personally, I enjoy the whole weekend newspaper ritual. You buy two kilograms of recently pulped Tasmanian rain forest, discard anything related to motoring, sport, advertising or the insidious tabloid journalism that is infecting the major dailies these days, haul it down to the local cafĂ© and spend the next two hours skimming. I could just as easily take along my laptop which weighs about the same and utilise the cafĂ©’s free WiFi, thus gaining access to all the adblocked news, entertainment and porn I could ever want at 10pm on a Saturday morning. However, until the concept of e-paper is commercially realised, a newspaper will always have the following advantages over online news:

  • Convenience

    The portability of paper is why it’s still quite popular. In fact, you can take it nearly anywhere except to places where you might indulge in a little swimming or fire dancing. And we all know that sand and keyboards don’t mix and that’s a fact. Furthermore, in the absence of sudden blindness or total solar eclipse, you can assume full control over your reading experience. There are no cords, no electricity and no download limits and you can read a newspaper in bed and on the toilet. Hoorah!

  • Readability

    Unless you are the terminator, I’m guessing that prolonged reading from computer screens makes your eyes tired and your mind mush. Reading a newspaper is just easier. Black and white. No white on cotton blue, or 10px Arial with 80 per cent opacity, marquees or whatever some designer considered cool on the day.

  • Static structure

    The static nature of newspapers can sometimes be a disadvantage, but it is dependable. It presents you with a sequence of information that can be accessed as part of an unchanging index. There’s no danger of losing your way, and if you decide to skip or re-reread a feature on battery-hen farming practices it will be there when you return, just where you left it and unedited by a nervous copyeditor who has just received a call from KFC’s lawyers.

  • Information underload

    Newspapers and websites provide distinct reading experiences. Unlike modern news websites, newspapers don’t contain flashing advertisements or promotions tempting our brains and fingers to click away from what we really came for. Of course,  a newspaper contains publicity and, at times, grossly over-sized advertisements but there are no popups or 1000 links to divert your attention from breezing past these and onto the next page. I know a great deal of money is poured into online information architecture these days however with a newspaper you don’t have to spend hours figuring out why the letters section isn’t listed in the navigation, and is linked from the right hand side of the op-ed main page.

  • Enjoyment

    Reading, whether on the web or through the printed medium is fun and when combined with another activity, such as sunbathing, it can be terrific!

Online news is tremendous nevertheless and gives us access to a seemingly unlimited and close-to-realtime resource of world and local news, weather and facts. And although the web’s influence on modern journalism and news production is undeniable, I am confident that we won’t see a radical decline in the stuff that ends up as birdcage liner in the immediate future. Newspapers will change the way they present information and we will see more references to online editions, but I speculate that we latte-lovers will continue to have our moments of newsy solace every weekend for a long time to come.