. . . and Launch!

A few days ago, I asked you to identify some mystery interface details:








As you all know, I am no master of suspense – people quickly guessed that I was redesigning my company site.  So without further ado, here it is.

Do you hear that?  That is the sound of a thousand professional designers simultaneously recoiling in horror.  😉

I can’t say I’m totally happy with the site.  I think it does some things better then the old site did, but as I look at it, I think the old site did some thing better as well.  I’ll be tweaking it up, but I’m not going to spend too much time on it, as I have eager clients awaiting deliverables!

I’m sure I don’t need to actually SAY it, but feel free to send feedback on the new site.  I’ll be over here, awaiting the onslaught of eMails insulting my non-existent design skills.  😉

What’s The Point of CSS-Based Layout Again?

Can someone remind me again why moving away from table-based layout in favor of CSS layout is important?

This isn’t a bashing post; I “get” how handy CSS is and I get that the whole world of the web is eventually going to all-CSS.  I get that all-CSS sites use less bandwidth.  I get it, I really do.  Perhaps I’m ranting because I’ve had a very frustrating CSS morning.

But that doesn’t change the fact that even after working with CSS-based layout for a solid year now, I can STILL turn out a table-based design that does exactly what I want it to do faster than I can turn out a CSS design that does the same.  It also doesn’t change the fact that every important site I use on a regular basis is table-based.  Amazon.  CNN.  Microsoft.  Inc.  Forbes.  Even Google!  It seems that the vast majority of the web is table-based, and the vast majority of the web appears to render just fine in either FF or IE.

So as I bust my hump learning a whole new way of doing things, I have to wonder; if table-based layout is good enough for those huge players I just named, why isn’t it good enough for the rest of us?

I will continue to work with all-CSS layouts, but I have the distinct feeling that I’m doing it more because that’s what everyone else is doing then because there are compelling benefits to doing so.  And I don’t like that feeling.

Of Dogfood and Soda Police

I encountered an interesting news article today.  It seems that one Ford plant has decided to force employees to drive a Ford or be barred from the plant’s parking lot rather than being allowed to park in the facility’s parking lot.

In the software industry, the phrase “eating your own dogfood” means that you actually use the products you develop.  In general, this is a good thing; it leads to higher levels of quality and a deeper understanding of the user experience.  But I think Ford is taking it much, much too far.  We’re not talking about using Ford products at work for the sake of understanding the user experience; we’re now talking about Ford penalizing employees for what they purchase with their personal money, on personal time.  That’s nuts.

I am reminded of a story I was recently told by an acquaintance about the HR department at his work.  The HR staffers would actually search the refrigerator and employee’s lunches to make sure nobody had brought in any Mountain Dew from home.  Why?  Because the company had struck a deal with a Mountain Dew vendor to provide vending service to their office building at reduced cost on the condition that anyone who consumed Mountain Dew in the building would ONLY consume Mountain Dew that came from the actual Mountain Dew machines.  So, the Soda Police from HR would check cubicles and lunch bags and refrigerators in search of illicit soda.  We’ve all heard stories about Furniture Police and Cubicle Police in the corporate world; now we have Soda Police.  Just saying the term “illicit soda” out loud makes me doubt humanity’s odds of long-term survival.

Anyway.  Back to the Ford issue.  The Soda Police episode makes me wonder; what if someone who works at that Ford plant comes to work in an old Ford that has, say, a non-Ford engine in it?  Are the Ford Police at the plant going to check under the hood to make sure that each employee’s vehicle is 100% Ford?  Suppose it’s a 1940s-era Ford truck that has been restored and is composed mostly of non-Ford aftermarket parts?  Is it still a Ford?  What if it’s a 1988 Ford Escort, but has had all the badges removed, or has had extensive body modifications so that it is not visually identifiable as a Ford?  Is it still a Ford if it doesn’t actually look like a Ford, or SAY Ford on it?

Isn’t this just a little bit like Microsoft or Intuit announcing that all employees MUST use Word or Quicken (respectively) at home, and that any employee caught NOT using Word or Quicken will not be allowed to eat lunch in the company cafeteria?  I understand the desire to have brand loyalty, I understand the desire to show a consolidated face to the competition, I understand the desire for eating your own dogfood in the hopes that it leads to a better customer experience.  But wouldn’t a better alternative be to allocate a loaner car or two for the plant and have employees trade off driving it?  Even better, give each employee one day per month to get out of the plant and run errands while driving a Ford.  They could get a feel for the product they build on a daily basis, and perhaps come to have new ideas about how to make it better.  Heck, some of them might even fall in love with it and decide to buy a Ford.  Mandating that employees must either drive a Ford or park off-site seems as though it’s going to do nothing but create resentment.

If the management who put this policy in place were smarter, they’d be asking the REAL question – why aren’t all of our employees willingly driving Fords already?  I suspect that the reason they haven’t asked that question is that they already know the answer, and they don’t like it.

I realize this is not, strictly speaking, a software business topic.  However, it IS a “stupid management” topic, which happens to be the #1 problem we face in the software business.

Keeping Track of Contacts and Sales

Companies who practice direct mail marketing have long been smart enough to maintain separate metrics for each avenue through which their customers find them.  You know – X number of sales came from our ad in Popular Mechanics, Y came from our ad in Discover, Z came from our infomercial, etc.

Now companies who take advantage of online marketing are able to take advantage of things like referrer logs and PubSub to tell us where our marketing contacts are coming from, but how do ISVs keep track of things at the more granular level, in the “X number of sales came from people visiting the blog, Y came through the handout at my last speech, Z came via Download.com, N came from the eMail newsletter” manner?  Everyone knows it is important to know which methods of advertising and marketing are effective – but how are you all doing it?  Is anyone using a tool that aggregates all this data in one place?

I’m aware of contact management programs such as Goldmine and ACT, but it seems to me that there must be a more specific tool out there someplace.

Christopher’s Guidelines For Meetings

I promise, these “me too” posts are not going to become a habit.

I saw yet another item on SvN that spoke to me.  The topic was the negative effect of meetings on workday focus, productivity, etc.  As usual, the SvN guys took an extreme position – “don’t do meetings” – but I’m going to present what I think is an effective approach to having meetings.  They really can be useful, you just have to run them correctly.  I’ve been told that my stance on meetings is extreme, too.  We’ll see what you think.

Note that I’m referring to these as “guidelines” rather than “rules” so you don’t get the impression that I’m saying my way is the only way.  I am, however, saying that my way might very well be the best way.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #1:  Meetings should never be used to present information, only to make decisions about information presented prior to the meeting.  Yeah, yeah, how do people GET information unless it’s presented to them in a meeting, blah blah blah.  See rule 2.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #2:  Meetings should have a written objective and agenda, which should be distributed in advance.  Preferably the distribution takes place far enough in advance that the participants have time to actually read up on the subject matter.  I know – being prepared goes against human nature, nobody has time to read, it’s not realistic, blah blah blah.  If nobody in your business has time to spend 15 minutes reading a brief in preparation for a meeting, you have bigger problems than evil meetings.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #3:  No chairs.  This one drives people crazy.  I can hear you already – “No chairs?!?  Have you lost your mind?!?  What about pregnant people?  What about the crippled?  What about employees who wheelchair bound, do you force them to hang from their hands, you cold-hearted dog?”  Obviously one must accommodate team members who have extenuating physical circumstances.  But mark my words – stand-up meetings make for short meetings.  Which brings us to…

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #4:  No meeting should go longer than 1 hour, and even THAT is too long.  I think this one is self-explanatory.  I don’t want to hear about how sometimes 3-hour meetings are necessary.  A 3-hour meeting is a seminar, not a meeting.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #5:  The meeting should always start on time.  If you are late, you should find yourself locked out.  Punctuality is the minimum entry fee to professional life as an adult.  If you can’t pull that off, don’t expect to walk in and waste everyone’s time getting caught up on what you missed.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #6:  The meeting should have a moderator to help participants to focus.  If someone is continually driving the meeting off-topic, that person should be asked to leave.  “But that’s rude and it singles out that person for humiliation and it’s not fair” and blah blah blah.  My heart bleeds, pal.  You’re in a meeting for a purpose – if a person can’t support and advance that purpose, they should go do something else that is productive.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #7:  Invite the fewest number of people necessary to make a decision on the meeting’s subject matter.  I once worked someplace that held “open meetings,” where everyone from the receptionist to the janitor was welcome to come and weigh in on engineering issues.  This is nuts.  The meeting organizer needs to cherry-pick the right mix of participants to ensure well-rounded decision making.  No more and no less.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #8:  No food, no drinks, no laptops, no cell phones.  Oh, I can hear you complaining already – “What if we need to look something up while we’re in the meeting?  What if I get an emergency phone call?  What if I didn’t make it to the coffee cart that morning and need my latte?”  What if, what if, what if.  Regarding the phone, why would you interrupt a task of known importance for a phone call of unknown importance?  That’s not an effective use of your time.  Regarding the laptop and coffee, I think they tend to distract.  Your mileage may vary.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #9:  If the group hasn’t reached a decision at the 60 minute mark, the meeting ends anyway and the meeting organizer makes the decision.

Christopher’s Meeting Guideline #10:  If you have not read or are not familiar with the subject matter that the meeting addresses, don’t show up.  Your presence will require the group to violate rule #1.

Obviously, you need to find a meeting style that is effective for your team.  When I say effective, I mean “leads to brief, focused meetings that result in a decision being made on some important issue.”  So feel free to tweak these rules to suit you, but be warned – I’ll go on record here as saying that if you’re violating more than three or four of these, your meetings are probably life-sucking, soul-deadening, productivity killers.

Get on the stick and retool your meetings, pronto!