Category: Work

Conference Notes: All Things Open 2015

Last week, I attended my first All Things Open conference. The conference focuses on Open Source software and includes speakers from major industry players like IBM, Microsoft and Red Hat.

This conference was a reach for me. I am not a backend developer and know very little about server-side technology or app development. But it was an important reach for me for a few reasons.

First, working from home means not having people to bounce ideas off of and not having those informal conversations that allow you to get new ideas and see cool things that other people are working on in person. Conferences can fill some of those holes for me.

Second, while contributing to open source software can seem intimidating (WordPress is Open Source), it shouldn’t be. The community is overall supportive of new people joining projects and wants to find new ways to include people who believe in the mission of open source.

Third, and possibly most importantly, spending time with people who are passionate about what they do, whether it’s the same thing I do, or something completely different, is energizing and regenerative. I came home from this conference convinced that I can build that app, finish this project and do something new.

For more on what I learned at the conference, check back in a couple of days.

This is the first in a series of nine posts on the All Things Open 2015 conference I attended in Raleigh in mid-October. For more information on the conference, along with videos and slides from the presenters, check out the conference website.

Design at the Speed of Digital

The web changes quickly and clients expect us to keep up. In this always on age, clients often want design projects turned around within a few days, if not hours.

The traditional agency is used to having a lot longer to do its work. Print deadlines are set many weeks in advance and work is signed off on a weekly basis, not hourly. But when you’re talking about small graphics projects for digital properties, or even iterative web design, those timelines may no longer work for your clients.

But how can you continue to produce excellent design work while working within these newly compressed timelines? Sometimes you just have to wait for inspiration to strike, and sometimes that doesn’t happen overnight (or over the next hour – whatever the case may be).

First, be honest with your clients about your workflow. Especially if you are single-person shop, like I am now, you need to let them know not only that it takes time to produce design work at the quality that they hired you for, but also that you have other commitments, and, at least in my case, you can’t rush the process or you’ll get flawed work that makes no one happy. No one, NO ONE is less happy with flawed work than I am. Not even the client who is paying for it.

Second, you need to re-evaluate your processes and see where efficiencies can be found. Some clients don’t need three mood boards, let alone six. The curse of digital can also be the benefit. You can check in with clients more often which means you don’t have to do unnecessary steps to hone in on a design.

What is it that you do, exactly?

How many times in the past three months have I heard that question? So, so many times. What’s worse, I don’t really have a good explanation for it. My career services counselor from grad school would be so disappointed that I haven’t perfected my elevator pitch yet, but there’s a reason for that.

This excellent article from CSS Tricks explains exactly why it’s hard to explain what I do.

Working in the web industry, my job title and job description is ever changing. Add to that the fact that I have experience and interest in doing a vast number of things and you’ve got the problem outlined in that article.

According to his descriptions, I am mostly a “front end developer” with some “content strategist” and “SEO specialist” elements mixed in. But I also do digital advertising, social media, and other tasks on a fairly regular basis.

How about you? What job title do you give to people?

90 Percent of the Time it Works Every Time

Repeat after me: When in doubt, it’s almost always a plugin conflict. It’s almost ALWAYS a plugin conflict.

You know how sometimes, when you’re having a problem at work and you can’t figure it out, you just need to step away for a bit and the answer miraculously comes to you?

I have a very complex site I am working on, and for some reason, a perfectly coded membership system was generating 404 pages for all member profiles. The pages existed, the code looked good, but there came the 404 page, all the same.

Since the site is complex, with multiple layers and plugins to generate forums, a membership system, a link to an email service provider, and other items, I assumed that the code was the problem and started to dissect the files that were creating the profiles, to no avail. I couldn’t figure out what was causing this 404 response.

So I did what most developers would do, I googled it. And it was at that point that I was reminded – here it comes – when in doubt, it’s almost always a plugin conflict.

I turned off all the plugins except the membership forum system and voila! a working profile page. Then I turned the plugins back on, one by one, and discovered that the plugin that was generating the 404 page was the plugin that had the conflict (this should probably have been my first idea, right?).

So… a problem that caused me a sleepless night and several hours of work could have been pretty easily fixed by just remembering that – when in doubt, it’s almost always a plugin conflict. Despite the complexity and customization of the site, it’s almost always a plugin conflict. Despite my growing fluency in the code, it’s almost always a plugin conflict.

Because – all things being equal, the simplest explanation is almost always the right one.

Don’t Always Do The Easy Things First

Like any web developer just starting out, sometimes I have days where it seems like nothing works. Today is one of those days. I have one site where all of the out of the box solutions are failing in one way or another, forcing me to dig into code that I had no intention of changing. I have another site where, try what I may, I can’t seem to access the FTP servers. I have googled. I have changed settings. I have contacted support at the hosting company. Nothing is working.

On days like today, my inclination is to set these items aside and do the “easy” things first. Starting new projects, writing blog posts (procrastination alert!), and sending emails sounds like a better option than trying to figure out these issues.

But it’s not always a great idea to set aside the hard things. They need to get figured out at some point and that point needs to be soon for at least one of those sites. So I will continue to plug away at these issues and hopefully at least one of them will get solved.

#TBT: The Last Time I Was Unemployed

The last time I was unemployed was when I returned to Washington, D.C., after finishing grad school in Chicago. This was a weird time in my life. I had left a great job to get my master’s degree in journalism, and then returned to Washington, where I thought I had a great network of contacts, excellent, well-connected references, and a shiny new degree that would certainly lead to the job and career path of my dreams. Right?

Fast forward two months and I have worn out my welcome at every guest room, couch, and floor of my friends and friends of friends. I have sent out maybe 50 resumes with no response. I have had coffees, dinners, lunches, and happy hours with people who should be able to help me get in touch with people who are looking for someone with “exactly my skillset.” And, to add insult to injury, I have broken my wrist in an ice skating accident.

So… sitting on a friend’s couch in Oakton, Va., eating bite sized foods,  I did what I had to do. I emailed my former employer to see if there was any work that would be a good fit for me and my new skills. They knew I hadn’t intended to come back, I knew I hadn’t intended to come back. But there was a job available, and the pay was good. So back I went.

And I got great experience. And I learned a lot of things about a lot of things. But the most important thing I learned is that I will do whatever needs to be done to make it on my own. And if I hadn’t ended up back at that company, I may never have decided to move to Asheville. And that was one of the best decisions I ever made. So now, when I’m just starting out on this whole self-employed journey, I know I will do whatever I have to do to make it work, and I know I will learn a lot. And most of all, I know it will lead to great things, no matter what.

On My Own: Or, How Unemployed Became Self-Employed in 24 Hours or Less

About a month ago, I left my job at the Advertising Agency in Asheville. There were a lot of reasons, some positive, some negative, but mostly, it just wasn’t a good fit for me personally or professionally, and it was time to make some major changes in my life.

I had been planning an exit for a couple of weeks and when the end finally came, I was prepared to be “unemployed” for several months, if I had to be. Most importantly, I was not planning to immediately start looking for a new job. Instead, I wanted to take some time to think about the things that I liked and wanted to do, and the things I absolutely did not want to be in my next job description.

What happened next, however, was unexpected to say the least.

Within about 24 hours of leaving my job, I had lined up enough meetings for enough freelance projects to take me well into the fall. While not all of them ended up working out exactly the way I wanted them to, I do have a roughly 100% success rate in signing all these clients. What’s my secret? Most of them are friends (and I definitely realize that well will run dry sooner than later), but I am also finding that when I’m doing work that I am truly excited about (in this case, web development), it comes across in the way I describe my day and my projects. I also can’t overlook the fact that I am priced relatively competitively in this market, especially compared to a full service agency fee.

So now, I am getting used to answering “self-employed” on applications for credit cards and online services. And I’m figuring out how to split my days between billable hours and networking for new business. I’m rapidly learning the ropes of estimates, invoicing, and all the other items that go with being my own business. And I’m loving every minute of it!

If you are looking for web or digital marketing services, or are interested in working with me on other projects, please contact me at meganmjonas (at) gmail (dot) com. In the coming days and weeks, expect some improvements on this site to let you know what I’m doing and what kind of projects I’m looking for in the next few months.

TV Commercials; Or, has the river gone up since you scouted that location?

Last week, we shot new television commercials for our largest client. The shoot for two commercials took 25 hours over a two day period.

We contended with rain when it was supposed to be dry, no rain when the outdoor scene called for rain, two kitchens, a hike upriver with all our gear and an overnight shoot at a local grocery store.

There were also nine actors, a food stylist, a wardrobe stylist, a makeup stylist and somewhere around ten guys who’s jobs were lights, camera and miscellaneous.

All for a grand total of 60 seconds of TV… well, actually something like 50 seconds of TV when you take into account the art cards and stock shot at the end.

The end result we’ll see next week, but I think they’re going to be really great. I was reminded of how much making TV is a team effort, and that while the Creative Director comes up with the overall concept, there are a thousand little decisions made by all those people that lead to the final product.

Getting Started is the Hardest Part

Why is getting a project started always the hardest part?

I have a number of big projects waiting in the wings and I know that once I get them started I will be obsessed with finishing them. These are truly the types of projects I love to do.

But I always have the hardest time getting them started. I procrastinate. I clean, I cook, I write blog posts and yet there those projects are, waiting to be started, finished and invoiced, and I just can’t seem to do it.

I told myself last week that if I could just get through that crazy week at my day job, then this weekend, I would have hours upon hours to dedicate to these projects. Then yesterday, I told myself that if I could just get this basic housekeeping work done (a proposal that needed finishing, a couple of profile sites that needed basic setups, grocery shopping, Target, a new windshield wiper blade for my rear window – see, I really know how to procrastinate), then I could get started.

Now it’s 6pm on a Sunday night and, while I feel like I accomplished a lot this weekend, I don’t feel like I’ve done enough for these clients. But maybe if I just have dinner… then I can focus…

Do your clients give good feedback?

Clients come in a variety of sizes and experience levels. Sometimes I am working one-on-one with a client to develop a new website. Sometimes my client has more people in their marketing department than I have working with me at the agency.

Regardless of the client, one thing that we struggle with is how to encourage clients to give good feedback. That is, feedback that is helpful to the designer, developer or creative, and feedback that accurately reflects the client’s views on the project.

Setting the tone and standards of feedback early is key. Once a client has devolved into a bad habit (say, completely rewriting my copy minutes before the print deadline), it’s hard to break them out of that.

So here are a few things that I tell clients early on in the relationship to encourage constructive feedback:

1. Tell me why: You may not like this color or that image, but please, tell me why. How does it make you feel? What feeling were you hoping that element might create? What is your goal in changing that element?

2. Tell me early: Feedback is best when it comes early. When you see the wireframes, if there’s something you want to change, it’s much easier to change in that stage that it is once I have built your navigation. Same thing with more general feedback on the feel, styling, and substance of the end product.

3. Tell me straight: The number one thing I hate that clients do is to sugar coat their criticism. My graduate school professors can tell you I have never been a fan of the compliment sandwich. You are not going to hurt my feelings if you don’t like something. I am a grown woman and can handle it, so please don’t water it down for me. The only thing that accomplishes is creating another round of edits when I thought I made the changes you requested and you think I have no idea what you said.

4. Finally, Let me explain: You hired me because I am the expert at what I do and you are not. So let me explain to you why I made the choices I did. They are almost always based in research, data analysis, or best practices. You and I may ultimately agree to deviate from those standards, but let me explain to you why I did what I did so that you can make a decision based on all the facts.

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