Category: Web

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.

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.

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…

I hiked so hard I broke my boot

Today, I hiked. I woke up to a beautiful, warm, Western North Carolina morning (the first one we’ve had on a weekend I’ve been in town all year) and I decided to put aside work (yes, work on a Sunday… blurg…) and head for the trails.

I chose a challenging trail in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest just outside of town. The guide book said the trails can be quite muddy after a rainy week like we had, so I laced up my trusty hiking boots and headed out. It was hard, it was long, and it was amazingly fun. Several times while hiking, I thought to myself, “this is the reason I moved here.”

About one mile to go on an eight mile hike, I felt like something was dragging on my left foot. I looked back and saw that the sole of my boot had almost completely detached from the shoe. I flipped and flopped out to the trail and thought about all the good times I had in those boots, which I’ve owned for about 10 years. They were sturdy but comfortable (and bought on sale!) so I just never saw the need to replace them.

But sometimes you have to replace things that are old, outdated, broken, or just plain falling apart. In business and in life, you have to think about the tools you’ve “always used” and decide if they are still the right tools for the job. Just because I build sites in WordPress and use Dreamweaver, Coda, and Filezilla every single day, doesn’t mean those will always be the right tools to use. Part of succeeding in life is knowing when it’s time to retire some of those things.

And so this week, I’m boot shopping.

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.

Continuing Education

Part of the reason that I love the work that I do is because it is always changing. Just when I think I’ve mastered a technology or a technique, something new comes out that changes everything I know.

Because of this, it is crucially important to refresh my skills from time to time and to learn about new technologies before they become the industry norm.

Now, I was one of those people who loved school. I mean loved it. I went back to school after being out in the workforce for four years because I loved it so much. I loved that so much that after only about three years out, I’m starting to think about going back for a Ph.D. so that I can teach and never leave school again.

How do I maintain this kind of schooling when I’m not formally enrolled in classes? Well, lucky for me there are a number of web-based tools that can help me refresh and expand my technical skills.

Codecademy is a great place to start. It’s also a fun place to go back to when you need a quick refresh on some coding skills. And it’s free. is a low-cost way to continue to expand my knowledge. I particularly like their “updates” series, which covers just what’s new in updates of software like Adobe Photoshop. And the “Up and Running” series that gives you just enough knowledge of a technology or application to dig in on your own. Lynda now covers everything from Adobe software to strategies and philosophies of design, marketing and more.

Google Developer Tools has a number of high-quality, free tutorials that you can use to learn about web development, Google Analytics, and other products.

And finally, the applications themselves often have extremely good support, documentation, and even interactive tutorials of their own. This is especially true for open source applications like WordPress, but is also true of MailChimp and other proprietary software/web apps.

Hosting Your Site or Why Your Developer Really Wants to Handle This For You

A few months ago, I attend WordCamp in Raleigh. One of the earliest sessions discussed how to turn this whole web design and development hobby into an actual, pay-the-bills kind of job. The head of that session explained that he handles the hosting for most of his clients – not actually physically hosting their sites on his own machines, but he purchases and administers the remote hosting from reputable third party companies and passes along the cost to the client.

At the time, the only think I could think is why would a client pay you $60 a month when they could easily set up a hosting account for somewhere around a fifth of that cost. It felt, frankly, like a little bit of a money grab and was, in all fairness, explained as a great source of passive income. I quickly forgot about that as an option and moved on.

Fast forward to the last three weeks, during which I have fought tooth and nail for clients to give me access to their FTP and hosting accounts so that I could make significant changes to websites. (P.S. why does everyone suddenly want a website facelift in January? Is this a new resolution trend, like going to the gym more and trying not to eat exclusively from the office snack machine?)

The first client involves a third-party go-between who doesn’t understand exactly how this all works. The second client hosts their site themselves and was extremely hesitant to give me access to their servers. Because of these back and forth and a general misunderstanding of how websites actually work, I am now three weeks behind on at least one of those projects.

And so I say to you, person who wants someone else to handle their website, please allow me to handle not only the design and development, but also the hosting. I promise I won’t gouge you on prices, and you get the added benefit of me being the person that handles server issues, instead of someone in IT, or even you yourself.

Brainstorming and UX Development

Nothing quite strikes dread in the heart of the account executive like a Vice President inviting clients in for a “brainstorming session” to involve account, design and creative. These sessions, which have the potential to devolve into multi-hour, tangent-filled meetings where the client or creative over powers all other discussion to rail on about “this is how we’ve always done it” or “I’m the expert here.”

Which is 100% not the reason why we’re holding the brainstorming session to begin with. The very nature of brainstorming, love it or hate it, is to get new, out-of-the-box ideas out on the table. These sessions are often held when nothing else is working, or when new clients come online.

Brainstorming, in many cases, takes place for all the wrong reasons.  Some managerial level employee went to a leadership conference or read a book that said that effective teams hold brainstorming sessions and so we do them.  But the art of brainstorming isn’t that simple. Effective ideas meetings require experienced leadership, a culture of creativity, and, yes, structure.

In the world of user-experience (UX) focused design, these brainstorming sessions are of crucial importance. But they’re never free-for-alls with no goals or structure. Some lessons that any organization can take from these designers are:

1. Start with a purpose in mind – what problem are you trying to solve? What goals are you reaching for?
2. No ideas are bad ideas – this is said by everyone and acted on by practically no one. We all judge each other, that’s human nature, but the worst offenders on this topic are often leaders or creative types who feel that their processes or prestige are being threatened by a process that values all ideas
3. Create a structure – set a start and (loose) end time; use brainstorming activities to add value to ideas; never just sit in a room for an hour and throw out ideas – this is almost never effective and leaves many people sitting in the room feeling overpowered by the more dominant personalities.
4. Act on ideas – creating a work structure that shows participants that their ideas (collectively) will be acted on at some point encourages buy-in from everyone. Who likes going to a meeting where nothing happens with any of the topics discussed in there? In other words, don’t brainstorm just to brainstorm. Have a clear action plan in place and share that plan with your fellow participants.

Brainstorming works best on teams or in organizations that have more horizontal power structures, but even the most rigidly traditional company can create a temporary horizontal team by making the goals of the session clear to all participants and then actively valuing everyone’s contribution. Not everyone will contribute equally. Some participants will come up with initial ideas, others are much better at building on the ideas of their colleagues. The ideal team leader will assemble a team with a variety of strengths and encourage active participation by all team members.

Government Shutdown; Or Why News Teams Need Slack

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past nine days, you know that the federal government is shut down. There are a million stories about why it’s shut down, what exactly is affected, and how Congress is going to get themselves out of this mess.

This is not one of those stories.

This is a story about why a news team needs slack, which can also be described as people sometimes doing nothing, which is why managers don’t like slack. There’s no such thing as an average day in the newsroom, but most news managers try to keep their staffing at a level where, on a regular day, everyone is pretty busy, but there is some slack in the system. There is a person who can take on an additional task, such as a quick breaking news story or one added event to cover.

Slack is relative. Large teams often have more slack, while small teams by nature have less. A team with 10 people working Monday-Friday can often find at least one person to volunteer to come in for a weekend shift or work a late night once in a while. This works best when every member of the team is equally inclined to volunteer, since each member then knows they only have to do it once in a while.

A team with four members will have less slack than this team of 10 and will need a good manager to determine what is possible, but with enough slack built into the system (i.e. not using your team of four members to do the work of six or more), the team can still be flexible and dynamic.

Where this system falls apart, however, is when that one-time added event or breaking news event becomes two solid weeks of breaking news with no end in sight.

Enter the government shutdown.

While many people in D.C. are staying home, wondering if they will be getting a paycheck next week, my team and I have been busier than ever. We have been trying to cover breaking news 16 hours a day, 7 days a week with a staff of four for two weeks. My best prediction is this will last through next week, when we will be trying to cover the same number of hours and stories with just three people on all but one day, and potentially into the following week, where we will be covering the same hours with three people all week.

Because of the sheer number of hours in the day divided by the fact that we each work 8-hour shifts, you can see that there is very little overlap. Add in a few meetings or technical problems (such as, say, a streaming video issue), and you see a team stretched very thin. At some point, something has to give.

Or else you end up with people who are burned out, frustrated with each other and the management, and just generally feeling taken advantage of.

Because the hiring process takes weeks (instead of hours, which is about as much warning as we get that we are going to need extra staff), it seems to make more sense to have one too many people than one too few. If there was a perfect number, then this wouldn’t be the news business.

When you are rock climbing slack refers to the amount of loose rope you have. It is the amount of room you have to climb higher before someone needs to give you more slack in the rope. It is also how far you are going to fall if you lose your grip. That is why it is important to have just the right amount of slack so you feel like you can reach higher and cover more rock, while still feeling like you have the support you need to reach and fail.

And finding that balance in your staffing is the key to being able to cover breaking news without sacrificing your staff or the quality of your product.