16 March 2022
There are two parties involved with IT projects, namely the service provider (you) and the stakeholder (client). There is an appropriate integration between these two parties that produces good outcomes. This means there are responsibilities on both sides.
For example, all projects use task lists, often seen in Excel Spreadsheets. We review the list noting who has reasonability for each line item, including ours and the clients. It is usual to assign tasks and agree to meet deadlines so the project can move ahead.
Understanding how we communicate together is part of a necessary process. This removes confusion or uncertainty around directions and tasks, both at high and low level.
We need skills and experience to execute and deliver a project, not forgetting things like testing and post support or maintenance, bringing together fundamental principles across a range of specialists. For example, the Business Analyst, IT Architect, Technical Writer, Project Manager, each of whom has a set of known best practices and business principles.
What is a business principle?
As one example, when a company intends to take over another company, it investigates the other company using what we call “due diligence”. This removes assumptions about the company, particularly with the health and financial status. It ensures one is able to manage the immediate extent of ongoing work the company provides to the public after a takeover. If there is no diligence, there is a failure – not just a small failure or potential risk, but a real failure.
What is best practice?
An example could be that an IT team examines the requirement for a new project’s data backup, creating what we call a Disaster Recovery Backup plan, which is different to a standard daily backup. If there is a disaster and no previous best practice, it may be impossible to restore an IT system from the standard backup. Even if a disaster never occurs, it is best practice to do the DR backup.
Best IT practices are usually up to the individual to explore, find and examine. They come from different sources, such as formal training, papers, subscriptions, forums, textbooks, dialogue, seminars, developers, experience and so on. It is healthy to have a network of sources and people.
But how do we design a project, small or large?
There is a methodology and design team or individual(s) somewhere at play. Large projects may use specialist software to develop costings, with a design team instructing how things will be done due to the scale of work.
A small project uses less stringent methods, It is readily manageable and does not have the resources or need to warrant fully fledged functional specifications or time sheets etc.
Either way, there is work behind the scenes that should be following best practice and business principles.
There are people who do not know about such things, not having been taught by example, mentored or trained. If having been placed into poor environments an employee may learn bad practices or simply be in the absence of proper practices.
If an environment is poor, things may only be perceived as needing to function without other contexts. Several people may therefore move towards least effort and extent of work. This can move into negative directions impacting quality, integrity and reliability. It can spiral into an unethical culture or illegal activities. If people move about good areas of the workforce, there is better chance to see how things should be and where not to stay.
Methodologies can be restrictive, not allowing for changes during the project at those key milestones where new decisions can be made. There are those who like to follow rules and steps – conscientious, and those who do not – creative. Each are equally valid.
One of the methods I have used for projects is modelling. A business has a model, (supposedly) but a project can also have a design model that covers an end-to-end solution – considering an array of things that won’t be covered by selling a product from a brochure.
For example, our office had a Bank communications project, large in scope across all divisions that produced public documents. There would be inputs and outputs. The Bank wished to develop a solution to integrate all these departments into one system. We used an old University textbook model of data flow through sequential layers. From that place everyone jumped on board and developed the model because models work. How else could we manage something so large? The model would show how data flowed in an integrated solution. This differed to another company that looked at some of the pieces, proposing brochure-driven hardware and software as opposed to a total solution.
Even when designing a website, we should be using our pencils and paper to sketch structures. This gives us something to work with before placing elements onto the coded page.
Sometimes we get a neat idea. We may do preliminary tests that look fine, but the question is how it holds up to real life, including the load on a system and future needs for scaling up in size. Those designs engineered with most pre-planning, testing and strong structures, are those likely to maintain their use for many years to come. The priority here is around robustness, reliability, performance, integrity.
We had one project where the client had no regard for such things when we explained them. They demanded a piece of software for its supposed good looks that was known not to be best practice. That aspect of the project failed quickly after it went live and was soon scrapped. Good design has its own elegance and caters for beauty.
An example of an idea that went amiss was the use of a forum’s database feeding new data onto a live webpage. The idea was good, but it was not achievable from this software product. After going live, the news updates were not always coming through to members of the public. That same product had security weakness, causing a server instance that hosted WordPress to become corrupted. Best practice would be to house the forum on a separate server, of course. But why continue using that software if it has inherent problems? With experience this sort of problem is part of our awareness and ability to execute best practice when others would question and fall into a trap.
The way we recognise a bad deal is when a product repeats or presents ongoing issues. At some point we know it is time to stop using it. It will always cause pain from future unknowns. The same applies at a simpler level, such as with WordPress themes and plugins that should be thrown in the fire even though they are advertised as fit for purpose. Marketing is not necessarily connected to reality.
Many unexpected situations arise in IT environments. Some companies keep check on the providers they use by conducting audits. Audits can be quite demanding. The understanding is that after an audit, a company will address the noted issues, then show proof of correction afterwards. If we have no idea about these complexities, we think we are safe, which of course is an illusion. We manage issues via an issues register.
It has been surprising to see some overseas companies who face chronic production problems not even knowing about such a register and process, because the outsourcer didn’t want them to know about such business practices. We come along and say this is what we do in Australia. It is knowledge. If someone does not care about such things they will say so. We don’t want to work with those people. For our small projects, such as building a website, we may still have a piece of paper or spreadsheet that lists what needs to be addressed. When production issues arise we keep a record even if simply via e-mail.
It is commonly known that company departments only relate to each other in specific ways. A Sales Team may tell the IT Department what it will do, not without problem, but more so is the ongoing disconnect between people. Good projects appreciate communications and respect.
A vibrant culture works together, thereby opening up new and innovative solutions. A persistent bug bear is limitation. How often we view the world through a single lens, thinking defined ways, not realising there is a whole world out there that offers intuitive and exciting solutions.
The fact we mention these sorts of things means it involves experience, time, awareness, psychology and more. In essence there is no textbook that can teach these constructs, other than to encourage such development, helping people see there is more than the computer paper on a table or the person who keeps suppressing you. Discussing this provides opportunity to consider who we are, to make change. For all of this, it is a development over time as we see others who set standards we like to attain to.
As previously mentioned in my notes, one of our best characteristics as an IT person is transparency within a proper context. Some IT people refrain from initiative as they think they may lose their job, or they just like to earn their bread and butter and nothing more. For some people this is valid, but for some it is not and it only hinders. It is like an illness to see people correspondingly hide everything they do, never being transparent, always blaming someone else for a problem and lying. It is awful. I never worked that way, not once even when under pressure, and never needed to. (Of course we know about diplomacy and when not to raise issues that put fuel on the fire.)
One aspect of good career development is to go to the next level. This is harder to define. Even when building a website, we can walk away from the completed product as a good site, or we can look to spend extra time in detailing and re-writes. We may have an innovation, something we have not done before, not to be trendy, as that soon fades. We may look very carefully at developing a story for the site, its consistency and so on, basically developing a composition rather than placing data with pictures onto a page. When we have gone to the next level, we know. It is a sense of having passed that previous level. A website may look straight forward to the public, but that is because it is smooth!
As we move past difficulties we break our past barriers. This can be painful. The thing is to decide if we should do that or move on, as some things are not meant for us. For instance, we do not acquire any significant value by knowing everything about a website’s security .htaccess file. There will be something else we commit to. This means our next piece of work is easier, allowing us to focus on new challenges. We develop a sense as to what we should continue to do or stop doing.
For instance, I minimally edit photographs. After editing thousands and thousands of them, I know what overkill is. At first, I did not. Those earlier edits look dreadful on looking back but they meant everything to me at the time. I know if I start doing too many edits, the photograph has something inherently problematic, so I stop. With website design, I don’t focus on one thing as though the whole world pivots on it where everyone must be told how important it is several times. We have to get into a better position, and I think this implies a willingness to let go, as opposed to grabbing and holding.
One hobbyist photographer I knew was excellent at street photography, and truthfully, not that good at wedding photography. This does not mean wedding photography could not be developed, but it was not their main strength. The street photography was not developed or leveraged because the revenue would be from weddings. There is sufficient competition for weddings and it requires in my view at least two photographers and some specialist equipment. If we think of what gives us most vitality, we have a better direction to enjoy and trust.
When reflecting back on who I was in the workforce, I grew up with a certain amount of freedom. That is in part why I did good work. I would not work with debilitating time sheets. I would also look at who my manager would be. These were key decisions. It is without doubt that younger people I have spoken to prefer to work with good managers. There is a better priority and maturity in some of our younger population I think than there used to be.
We cannot maintain the same level of excellence all the time. Like anything, there is a healthy flow. But excellence has a cost. It may seem at times to have no relevance to revenue, but people start to notice and want work with those who have what we call value. This value is either real and proven, then recognised by others in the industry, or it is fake, which some people seem to continue advertising. It is therefore up to us as individuals to aim for honesty and good values. We do that, not someone else. It is choice. We take responsibility for that and the meaningfulness that develops. It reflects in our work.
Over the years we have opportunity to see how people behave, and how they work with computing technology. My first IT work was in computer aided design. The technology was not bedded down. We wrote our own programs and used these systems firsthand for many thousands upon thousands of mouse clicks. We could see how people struggled with other IT systems. This sense of nature goes into our work, including website navigation and content. We know what people wish to find and where to put it. If a designer does not know this, it is an absence of that awareness. The reality still exists though.
All we can do is to be encouraged to continue developing our work. People have always said to others they will never be able to do the thing they want to do, being proven wrong over and over again. People will say your project will in no way work when it does. And there are people who think they have aptitude who do not. Some of this oddity depends on our personal psychology. A drug addict will always think they are good at what they do when they are not as they live in an alternate reality. A selfish, greedy person will always be yelling at others and scheming how to make money, saying they cannot be questioned. For us though, we have true indicators of what supports our adventure in life, and facts to back up our projects.
This ongoing development allows us to identify risk, make decision, how to develop longer-term projects, reduce maintenance and more. I have had projects in use in the Australian public for up to fifteen, twenty years or more.
When you first launch into hobbyist or Sole Trader work, you will make mistakes, but that is to be expected. You may think you should do all things for all people at no cost. You don’t need to do this because you are not protected by a corporate IT team. One can take on board what one can handle, but life still take its course so that we learn what it is about. My first websites were what I considered building vehicles and just getting them onto the road. That was the accomplishment we could be proud of. Some of my creative signals are still used today, but I don’t build like I used to. As we learn we set better expectations for all involved and know how to lead projects with our clients, keeping in touch with them as the work is performed. By contrast, there are traders who lack business principles of communications, let alone proper leadership.
We may continue at length about clients, their common mistakes and what they want, but the purpose of this article is to introduce awareness on some common principles in the industry. If we have an open mind, we can evaluate what goes on around us and invent.
When asking a senior company manager about a trending change in technology, he laughed and said it would never happen. That change caused the company, in my view, to finally close its doors. Society and technology did change, and opportunity was missed. We cannot stop other people’s systemic problems or even stupidity, and no website or IT solution will necessarily address such severe conditions. Meanwhile it is good for us to develop our relationships with those who are of similar mind, principles and competence.
Overall, people love working with each other, because we can.