The Cost of Compromise
There is a cost to doing work that does not adhere to your beliefs about the Web.
Sometimes it’s worth the cost. Sometimes it’s not.
One of the best ways to find great talent is to be open with the work you’re doing. Write about it, speak about it, share the successes and the failures. If you do this, the people who share your vision will be attracted to what you’re doing. And, when you are hiring, they’ll be ready.
The challenge this presents is that doing real workin the real world is about more than doing the best work possible. It’s about doing the best work possible in the context of the project. Unfortunately, that often means compromise. And every compromise you make can eat away at your culture.
I used to believe that culture was simply about hiring the right people. Now I know it’s more than that. It’s also the difference between what you say you are and what you actually are—the size of the compromises you choose to make.
There will always be forces pulling you away from what you believe about the Web. Begging for parallax, for fullscreen background videos, for scroll-jacking. There will always be a claim that prioritizing the user is “killing the soul” of the Web. And there will always be a time to compromise—a time when the right thing is not the right thing.
Just remember, there is a cost.
So, when the compromises come calling, measure the cost and decide carefully. And, whatever you do, make sure you can always tell the compromise from the vision.
Conservation of Energy
The law of the conservation of energy can be paraphrased as:
Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only transferred or transformed from one form to another.
It’s fascinating to think that the Sun feeds plants here on Earth, and that those plants grow and die feeding other life forms—transferring their energy. And ever since the discovery of fire, humans have been taking the energy given by the Sun, stored in the form of wood, coal, oil, and natural gas, and converting it to other forms of energy for our use. (Go read “The Story of Energy” on waitbutwhy.com for a much better and more entertaining explanation.)
Of course, the implications of this for humanity are scary. Much of the news we read and hear, when stripped of the politics, is about this very thing. Energy. There is a finite amount and we seem to be addicted to its use.
But this addiction is true in many ways, even beyond the global concerns relating to the Earth’s natural resources. As organizations and as individuals, we are constantly trying to figure out how to get more work done. All this work requires energy, but we only have so much. In my past, choosing to work 60 and 70 hour weeks limited the energy I could spend on being a father, husband, brother, boss, friend. Those other roles suffered while I started my company. It’s been a long-time goal of my business partners and I to reach a more sustainable place—one where we as individuals are more balanced in how we spend our energy.
Similarly, I want the individuals on my team to be amazing Web designers and developers. But I also want them to be the best parents, siblings, children, friends that they can be. If I structure Sparkbox to demand an unbalanced amount of energy from my team, I am setting my people up for failure in other areas of their life. This may benefit me as an owner for a short amount of time, but the gain will most certainly be temporary. Viewing people as resources implies they can be used up. Instead, taking a longer view means we opt to see our people as renewable, but only if they are given the opportunity to develop.
I’ve recently hired a personal trainer and wellness coach. It’s been too long since I’ve been as physically fit as I should be. The active lifestyle of my youth has slowed as I’ve focused on my career and my family. Similarly, I’ve found myself fascinated to consider how the limited amount of energy I have in a given day is dependent on the food, water, and sleep I give my body as fuel. Recognizing this and learning about how the body works—what it needs to transform these into the energy I use for work and life—has made a shift to healthier choices easy.
I can already feel a difference. And it’s not just physical, I have a stronger focus on the important things in life and the discipline to prioritize them.
Life is short, and we only have so much energy. Let’s choose to do the work that matters, the work that will last.
How we get There
I suspect we, as an industry, care too much about how we get to great work and not enough about actually getting there.
I am just as guilty as the next person. I’ve spoken about the process we use. I’ve published my ideas about process. I’ve taught workshops and I’ve tweeted and I’ve read every process article I could get my eyes on.
Some of us sell our work based on our process. We talk about how it’s unique to us, about how we’ve put it through the test of time, about how our work is better because of it.
Some of us are just plain excited when we get to the end of a project and the result is great. So, we look back at what we did and reverse engineer a process for the next gig.
It’s not that this is bad. Honestly, we probably wouldn’t write or speak so much about process if there wasn’t a real desire for this content. The truth is, this stuff is hard and we’re chasing a moving target. Every project, client, budget, timeline, team is different, so it’s incredibly difficult to find a system that always generates great work and doesn’t destroy our relationships along the way. When someone thinks they have a piece to the puzzle, they share it. They share it, and we consume it. Supply and demand, baby.
But, great work is being done all the time. More importantly, great work is being done in about a million different ways all the time. There are an infinite amount of ways to get to great work—the one commonality among them all is a team of people that care about the end result. Seriously, go read any case study for any great project and there will be a section talking about how great the team was.
You want to do great work? Work with great people.
Now, I’m not telling you to forget about process. I just want you to realize that the most important part of your process is the people executing it. Focus on them, and watch the quality of your work improve.
Have you ever taken a project where, along the way, you see that your client’s organization is not really setup for doing the kind of work required. You can feel the silos, you flip through the book-length spec documents, observe the handoffs, the pixel-perfect expectations. Often, it feels like you’re running into the wind.
Over the past few years, I’ve been observing what has worked as we’ve found ways to be successful in environments that don’t embrace the kind of flexible, iterative thinking required to do great work on the Web these days. The following is my attempt to explain how you can not only survive a large-scale, enterprise, responsive redesign, but how you can thrive.
Agree on the Goals
It’s our job to successfully drive a project from where we are, to where we and our client agree it should be. A start and an end. Simple. With this ultimately simple view of a project, the biggest challenge is that you and your client may not share an understanding of the goals of the project. So, as simple as it seems, you need to spend the time to agree on the goals—agree on what you’re building, where you’re going.
There has been a lot written about stakeholder interviews, user research, and clearly defining the goals of a project. So, I won’t waste time here explaining how to do this. Just know that, without this agreement, it’s nearly impossible to be successful in a client/vendor collaboration.
Measure the Project Drag
Once there is a shared vision of the goals of the project, you need to measure the project drag. Let me explain. Imagine for a moment that you are driving a car. It’s a beautiful day, so you roll the windows down and reach your arm out the window. You can feel the air flow, trying to slow you down, pushing against you. This is drag—“a force which tends to slow the movement of an object through a liquid or gas.” In this scenario, the object is your hand and it’s being slowed by the wind resistance as it travels through the air.
Project drag is much the same. It is all the forces that are trying to slow your project as you attempt to push it through the process and achieve the agreed upon goals. So, how to you measure project drag? Turns out it’s not as difficult as you think. There are two major factors that impact project drag. They are team size and organizational variance.
Start by making a list of all the people who will impact your project. If you’re working with a small business, this might just be the CEO and the Director of Marketing along with two or three folks from your team. If you’re working in an enterprise environment, the size of the team can be massive. I’ve been a part of projects with over 50 people involved in the work. Stakeholders, Directors, Tech Leads, UXers, Designers, Developers, Security Leads, Sys Admins, Marketers, Web Producers, Brands and their Art Directors and Content Producers… The point here is that you need to understand the number of people who can make or break your project and the amount of influence they have on those around them. Generally, smaller teams will create less drag and larger teams have more potential for a high amount of project drag.
The size of the team needs to be considered alongside the organizational variance. What I mean by this is that you need to understand the differences between the organizations collaborating on the project (which is at least your organization and your client’s organization). This includes differences in company culture, process, approvals, communications, and the list goes on. What we’re actually capturing here are the expectations that each team brings to the project. The more variance there is between the organizations, the greater the project drag.
These two factors—team size and organizational variance—combine to help you understand the potential for drag in your project. It’s not that you’re bound to fail if you have huge teams with a great amount of organizational variance. It’s that you need to be intentional with how you shape the project.
Shape the Project
Put your hand back out the window. Turn it so that your palm is facing forward and feel the drag. Now, turn it flat, so that your palm is facing down. Notice how much the drag decreases.
We can use this to our advantage. If we know there will be a lot of drag, we can shape our project in a way that reduces the drag. Since it’s unlikely that you can greatly reduce the size of the team, we do this mostly by reducing the organizational variance. Look for areas of variance where neither side of the difference will dramatically impact this specific project and then be proactive about closing the gap.
Quick example: perhaps your team is fully invested in using Sketch to lay out static design ideas but your client’s designers (who will also be involved in the project) are using PhotoShop. Certainly, your team could probably work faster with the tool they love. But when you consider the impact this will have on the project—the drag it will create—it’s pretty easy to see how choosing to work in PhotoShop will reduce drag. You are closing the organizational variance gap. You are compromising. The same could apply with Sass or LESS, with Grunt or Gulp, with Slack or Skype. Even with something more fundamental like designing comps or designing in the browser. You get the idea. I’m not telling you to change how you work completely. I’m suggesting that selecting the easy variances and being willing to close them will help the project in the long run.
I was involved in a project once where we were not required to work within the client’s system for measuring progress. We saw this as freedom, so we jumped in and started working! We got a lot of work done in a short amount of time, but we were ignoring the organizational variance. Internally, our client was struggling because it didn’t appear that we were making progress. After some discussions, we shifted how we worked and fell into their system. This allowed us to demonstrate our progress and to start to build trust with our client. We got rid of an organizational variance and it decreased the project drag.
Another way to shape the project is to identify the project advocates and skeptics. An advocate is someone inside your client’s organization that believes what you believe about the project. They believe it strongly enough to fight for your ideas internally. If you’re just getting started with this client, chances are you have only one or two advocates, if any. And, don’t be fooled, if someone isn’t actively in support of your approach and involvement, they are a skeptic. Skeptics may actually work against the project, or they may just take a neutral stance, waiting to see how you do before the choose a side.
It doesn’t matter how good your work is, if you want to be successful, you need to convert the skeptics to advocates. Doing this is like adding an aerodynamic windshield to your hand. It lowers the project drag and gives you the opportunity to work faster.
So, how do you convert a Skeptic to an Advocate? Find out what they care about and shape the project to show value in that area. Demonstrate how your team and your way of working can help them. Pretty soon, you’ll have them advocating for your approach and you’ll continue lowering the project drag.
The dynamics of a project change all the time. This kind of thinking works best if you are continually monitoring the situation. How many advocates do you have? How many skeptics? What is the influence of each? Are there areas of organizational variance which are causing problems? Find a way to close them. And, of course, keep a close watch on the goals of the project. If those shift, you could find yourself cruising 110 MPH toward the wrong destination.
Milk and Cookies
It’s quite possible that my parents are the most supportive parents in the world. It’s also possible that they have some of the highest expectations in the world for my brothers and I. A quick example…
It’s late on a Thursday night. My mom and dad both have to work early the next morning. My two brothers and I are in my parent’s basement rocking out. Literally. I play keys, my brother Jesse plays bass, and our youngest brother Paul plays drums. For Christmas last year, I bought a couple new amps and a whole sound system, which we are putting through their paces. We’re having a total blast, so we don’t even notice the time.
Now, the door to the basement makes this kind of odd sounding squeak and no matter how loud we’re playing, we can always hear this sound when someone opens that door. So, we’re rocking out and we hear the squeak and we all suddenly snap back into reality, realizing just how late it is. Or—technically—how early: 1:23 AM Friday morning...
We stop playing. We listen. Dad is coming down the steps and we’re all looking at each other thinking he’s about to lay into us—tell us how he has to get up in four hours or something. Instead, he pops out of the stairwell balancing three glasses of milk and a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. He says, “All this hard work, you’re next show is gonna be so good!” And with that he disappears up the stairs.
I think about this moment often because it’s the first time I actually understood how my parents were raising us. They supported us in so many ways, but they also expected us to have great things to show for that support.
I’m now seven years into parenting and twelve years into running a business. There are a lot of parallels. In both cases, I want to avoid being prescriptive in how I instruct people—nobody likes a helicopter parent or a micromanager. In both cases, I want the environment to feel safe, to feel like experimentation is perfectly fine. And, in both cases, I expect great things from those involved.
To do quality work, we need a balance of high expectations and the support to meet those expectations.
One without the other is not enough—in fact, it can be damaging. Can you imagine how frustrated you would be if your leadership was continually concerned about your quality of work but every project was tight on time and budget? This is high expectation without the necessary support. Conversely, having a highly supportive environment but no expectations often results in laziness or entitlement. The balance is difficult to strike.
Creating a place where experimentation is the norm means we have to be OK with mistakes—not every hypothesis will be true. At the same time, we can’t only call out the successes of the team. There must be a place for critical analysis of each other, a place where honest and constructive feedback can be given.
We operated for five years without really taking steps to help individuals on our team set and reach their personal or career goals, without ever explicitly stating our expectations. If you want people to be challenged, you have to challenge them. Take some time to sit down with the people on your team and give them actionable, constructive, criticism. If you’re worried how people will receive it, ask them to critique you first. And, be ready to demonstrate (with your response) how you want them to respond.
It’s great for individuals to know their goals. But what’s really powerful is when we understand how our individual goals are part of the bigger picture. A commonly shared vision can dull the sting of individual critique when that critique is being done in the pursuit of something bigger. Of course, this only works if you’ve done a good job of sharing that vision and if your team has bought in.
My parents had this down. They wholeheartedly supported us when we found a passion, but they also pushed us to be great at the things we loved. I want to do the same for my team. If you lead an organization, I’m guessing you want this too. Take some time to help your people understand their goals and make sure they know how those fit into the big picture. Remember to deeply consider how you can support them in achieving those goals. And, when in doubt, don’t forget that everyone works better with milk and cookies.
Imagine the sound of your alarm clock, but infinitely louder. That’s what the burglar alarms sound like in Eastern European book stores at two in the morning when someone falls through their plate glass windows.
A brief pause, then another crash.
This time, it’s the two-thirds of the plate glass above him, coming down on his legs while he sits in shock on the table right inside the window.
“If he had been leaning forward when that fell. No. Stop thinking like that.” I try to focus, but…
The guy in the window is actually one of three guys I’m with. I am the only one sober—always the good guy—and the other two are running scared. Separate directions, eyes wide.
My friend tries to stand up, presses his hands down on the broken edge of the glass he just fell through. He falls back onto the table. I notice it’s full of travel books on display—like a hook in the water, hoping to snag a passer-by.
“You caught one,” I think.
Now the table is full of glass. Glass and blood.
I help my friend to his feet. I can hear police sirens. Part of me wants to wait for them to arrive so we can explain that it was an accident—always the good guy. My friend wants no part of that.
So we move off the main street and onto side streets, winding our way back to our apartment. Not far behind us, I can feel activity. The alarm is still ringing. We make it back, avoiding eye-contact with the few people we pass.
He does not want to go to the hospital. So, instead, I do a little examination of the damage. His hands are cut up pretty bad, but nothing very deep. We get them washed, cuts cleaned out and a few steri-strips. Good to go.
Then he says, “My leg feels warm.” I notice that both jean legs are torn just above the knee, so I have him shimmy out of them. There are two, three-inch gashes in his right thigh. There is stuff (human stuff) sticking out. His leg is red with blood.
I tell him not to look and direct him onto the kitchen table. Spot light on for a better view and all I can think is that I’m gonna have to stitch it up. I grab my sewing kit—a last minute packing decision, but right now it feels like the best. A match, a candle, sterilize the needle. Two shots of vodka for my friend (not that he needs more) and I get started. Human skin is a lot tougher than you think. I have to use a thimble.
That was almost twenty years ago and today he is still one of my best friends. There’s something about these kinds of crazy situations that bonds people in a way you can’t explain.
This experience has taught me a few things.
Difficult situations are really opportunities to strengthen relationships. In the moment they are no fun. But focus on making it through, and you’ll experience a new level of connection. I’ve seen this happen with clients and employees as well as friends.
When tough stuff happens, your true self shows. The other two guys were gone before I could even turn around. They left our buddy sitting bloody in the window and they left me to help him. I’ll let you form your own opinions.
And perhaps most importantly, always pack a sewing kit. Hopefully, you’ll just need to stitch a button back on. But in the off chance there’s more to it, better to be prepared.
I Want to be a Great Husband
I want to be a great husband.
I want to be a great dad.
I want to be a great son and a great brother.
I want to be a great friend.
I want to be a great business partner.
I want to be a great boss.
I want to be a great member of the web community.
Most of the time I feel that the roles I play are competing, that I can only ever truly succeed at one. Each morning begins with a choice—which role will I play today?
Every so often I see that the best version of each of these roles is actually the same person.
That person is gentle: one that can comfort a scraped knee and be trusted with a fragile idea.
That person is patient: allowing others to try/fail even when experience knows a better way.
That person is humble: ready to admit when they are wrong, ready to accept the blame and pass on the credit.
That person has vision: the ability to inspire greatness from others and to clarify which direction is the right one.
That person has endurance: they recognize that life is a marathon rather than a sprint—they work towards sustainability.
That person is brave: not afraid to headfirst attack the monsters under the bed or the dragons in the code.
That person is trustworthy: ready to listen to a deep secret or a potential product pivot.
That person is reliable: you’ve nothing to worry about once they’re committed.
Our lives are sometimes defined by meeting or missing the expectations others place on us. Recently, it’s been freeing for me to consider the characteristics of the individual that excels in all of the roles I hold. It’s helped me to make progress in all of my areas of responsibility—to become a better husband, a better business partner, a better father, and a better member of this community.
Most importantly, it’s reminded me that I am just a guy, one person. Remembering my weakness pushes me to become stronger, but also to rely on those around me. On my own, I will never meet all the expectations placed on me. With my family, with my friends, with my team? Anything is possible.
Ping Volley Pong Ball
It’s pretty much what it sounds like.
You play it on a ping pong table with ping pong equipment, but each side has up to three hits. You can also play the ball off of any surface, including each other. Trust me when I say, it’s an amazing game.
My brothers and Dad and I invented this game a few years back in my basement. A long over-due reunion with the youngest Callahan brother combined with a few beers and we had the basics of the game laid out. Over the past year, however, the folks I work with have been putting the rules to the test.
We have rotations and positions. People dive. We sweat.
I’d love to be able to take the credit for creating this game. After all, I was there when it all started. But Ping Volley Pong Ball is a great game because of how it’s matured—if you can use that word—over the past few years. Every volley-pong player at Sparkbox has had an impact on its direction.
Ideas are a lot like this.
We think we can own them, take credit for them. Everybody wants to be the one to speak something unique into being. Most people believe their ideas should be kept quiet, locked up until the NDAs are signed.
If surrounding myself with humble, brilliant, trustworthy people has taught me one thing, it is this: letting go of an idea makes it so much better.
There are few more powerful forces in this world than a group of people who share a common vision. Allow people ownership in your idea, and you’ll be amazed at what happens.
How to Get Smarter
- Commit to writing a thing.
- Committing to writing a thing will make you research the thing.
- Researching the thing involves reading what others have written about the thing.
- Reading what others have written about the thing will make you want to try some stuff out.
- Trying some stuff out will likely create more questions than it does answer existing ones.
- Attempting to answer those new questions will require you to dig even deeper on the topic.
- Digging deeper will make you realize there are a few ideas you have to offer on the subject. *
- Realizing that you have a few ideas to offer will inspire you to publish what you’ve written so far.
- Publishing what you’ve written so far will motivate you to publish something else.
- Commit to writing another thing.
* This is the secret. Digging deeper will help you to understand that there are many people who are smarter than you. However, it will also help you see that there are many people who are not. This provides the context that you have a role to play. **
** Please play it.
An excerpt from “A Sand County Almanac,” by Aldo Leopold in 1949.
“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from a furnace.
To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.
To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside. If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own good oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the weekend in town astride a radiator.”
The past few weeks have been bitterly cold here in the Midwest. My family and I have stayed warm, largely due to the massive amount of firewood I have cut, split, and stacked over the past two years. It’s a slow, laborious process. Some even call it back-breaking work. Yet, as true as these descriptions are, I find myself drawn to this old way of life, of working for my warmth. Certainly, it’s not necessary. My Nest knows how to keep me warm. But, while I love what modern technology has done for my life, I also more fully appreciate that technology when I know what life is like without it.
Looking to the past helps us find a stronger awareness of our place in the present.
For those of us that make the Web, this means remembering back to the time of “The Webmaster”—that mythical person who could build the server, write the copy, design the graphics, develop the code, and make it all available on the World Wide Web.
Remember this person? She was awesome, but she’s extinct now.
You see, eventually we recognized that the people who built the server weren’t necessarily the best folks to design the site. And so, we had Web Designers and Web Developers. Then we realized that there was much more to web design that just pretty pictures—we needed to understand the interactions. Hello, User Experience Designer. We continued this trend, creating separate roles for Content Strategist, Information Architect, Frontend Developer, Backend Developer, and the list goes on. We were digging deeper and deeper into the Web, unearthing critical roles where there previously were none.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve made a career as a Frontend Developer. I’ve benefited from this pattern of specialization as much as anyone. But it has me worried.
I’m afraid the fracturing of our roles is leading to a Web of fractured experiences.
It’s why we have designers who are uneducated about performance. It’s why we have developers who don’t care about the content. It’s why we have content strategists who know nothing about the timeless rules of typography which make their content legible.
I want you to look up from your desk, to look back to your roots. I want you to understand what it took to get us to this place—an awesome place—where you can focus on the thing you truly love. I want you to try some of the things that you normally rely on others to provide.
Designers, write some code, bring your site to life! Developers, write some copy instead of just writing the code! IAs, check out the architecture of the Sass, not just the architecture of the content!
As I write this, it’s 3° Fahrenheit outside and I’m sitting by a fire in my family room. I’m burning a split from an Ash tree that was in a friend of my family’s backyard. I remember taking the tree down and cutting it to length two Autumns ago. I remember how much work it was to split and stack. Those memories make the heat I earn from this fire seem somehow more meaningful than the blast of hot air I could summon from my furnace with the push of a button.
Similarly, the empathy you gain in experimenting with other’s roles will go a long way toward your appreciation of what it takes to participate in this messy process that is making the Web. I believe it will improve your skills in your specialty. I believe it will unify you and your team in ultimately beneficial ways. I believe it will help you to create more cohesive experiences. But most importantly, I believe it will free us from our titles and I believe it will result in a better Web.
Nobody seems to be very happy with the state of education for the people interested in entering our industry. As someone who interviews, reviews portfolios, hires, and is generally trying to build a capable team, this is on my mind a lot. Over the past few years I’ve continually found myself in conversations with others much like me, expressing concern that people aren’t getting the education they need via “official” channels.
A lot of folks in our industry have seen this as an opportunity. We are, after all, problem solvers:
All of this is absolutely fantastic. In fact, it’s what has prompted me to write this.
One thing that I absolutely love about this industry is that we figure stuff out. We are a community of people who see a problem and attack it from every possible angle. And you know what? There was no “web design and development for the modern web” major when most of us went to school—if we even did.
Check this out: I asked on Twitter if my web–geek friends went to college and if so what they majored in. Read through those responses and you’ll see that our industry has been built by people from all walks of life. From political science to journalism. From architecture to creative writing. From theology to natural resource recreation.
We are a scrappy bunch.
“Scrappy: Having an aggressive and determined spirit.” (Merriam-Webster)
I believe the lack of a formal educational program to follow in order to do this kind of work means the bar is higher to get in. It means you have to want it. You have dig in, you have to read, you have to experiment, you have to fall down and you have to get back up. You have to make your own path. You have to find someone who’s a little further along than you and learn from them. And then, once you’re confident in your ability, you’re more likely to realize there are a bunch of folks digging in a little behind you. You’re more likely to offer a hand to them, to help them along.
You want to know why the people in this industry are just plain nice? It’s because we’ve had the ego beaten out of us by struggling to learn our craft. I love this. I want the young people coming after us to struggle a bit. They’ll be better for it. And my own struggle to get to where I am makes me want to extend a hand.
Keep On Keeping On
Look at that list of amazing resources for learning—and I haven’t even scratched the surface of all that’s available. I want to encourage you to find a place where you can offer something to those trying to learn. Start to write about the things you figure out. Organize a meetup in your area. Start an apprenticeship. And, the next time you find yourself in a conversation about web education, point to all the amazing things we are doing instead of the lack of relevant four-year programs.
Don’t wait for new and better curriculum at accredited schools to solve the problem with web education. Honestly, I’m not convinced that it can. We are the answer to the problem.
You are the answer to the problem.