In the fast moving world of tech, products come and go, languages and tools quickly pass from must-have to yesterday's news. Working within the tech field means that I'm used to this, practically desensitised to the rapid pace and frequent changes. Working in such a tech-focused company, you might mistakenly believe that every team within the company shares this ability. After all, it's a part of my everyday life: code, languages, tools, sites and techniques that all evolve on a daily basis. Companies flaunt the concept of continuous delivery proudly like a badge of honour. However, I recently discovered this view - that all teams function similarly to the tech team - was completely flawed.
It's 2013 and I'm starting my first day at a new company. The challenges, like those that many others face, are legacy systems preventing rapid iteration and change. The great escape had already begun and I needed to help it happen faster.
The primary target was effectively the shop front, our customer-facing product forms. Lots of work and almost a year later the majority of the work was completed. The company was celebrating as we'd accomplished one of our last milestones. The team had changed dramatically and the products had undergone a massive face-lift. Lurking in the shadows of our successes, however, was the task of breathing new life into the other areas of the business. Many teams had rallied together over the months to create our "New World", but it was quickly obvious that a pivotal team had almost been forgotten.
Marketing, a fundamental area of the business, was still wrestling with outdated tools and poor support. The company was moving faster than ever, but our ability to market ourselves and improve customer targeting couldn't keep pace. These teams were still fighting with older tools that much of the tech team had no idea how best to maintain or improve. The commercial systems in place carried with them licensing fees and premium support that couldn't be properly utilised. The site design began to show its age, and the ability to test new acquisition tactics was limited at best.
When I was told I would get the chance to build a green field system to replace the existing archaic CMS, I remember having several thoughts:
Ha. A CMS. This should be simple. This is the type of stuff developers cut their teeth on.
Marketing will love me after I show them how easy all this content stuff can be!
It turns out that finding the balance between the company's tech objectives and the Marketing team's actual requirements is no easy task. There is a fine line between both that made this one of the most enjoyable projects of my career.
When I first demonstrated the new system, I thought it would be a matter of minutes to convince them how amazing it was.
I would say:
Look at how easy it is to update and view changes. You can control the layout here and update this to change the button and...
... our head of marketing cut in:
It looks like a black hole. Well, this is scary.
Not the best start. The developer in me responded.
It's early days and we can iterate and improve the process, but it's a great start.
Months passed and the process is under constant refinement. That fine line I mentioned earlier involved far more training and tutelage than I had ever anticipated. The exciting benefits that I saw were often troublesome blockers to freedom and flexibility for Marketing. The real problem wasn't mis-aligned technology or missing features, but the ability to rapidly adjust to change.
Real progress didn't really happen until the division between tech and marketing was bridged. We needed to stop working as two individual units. No more requirement lists or third-person reports of opinions. Things needed to get personal to truly better direct the project.
What started as a daily tech standup transformed into a joint tech and marketing standup. Copywriters would join the conversation to let us know what they would be using the system for on a given day (updating an SEO page, rewriting a new content article, etc). This gave us the opportunity to discuss the difficulties that often get marked down as "it's just part of the system". We soon saw where time was being wasted and we even got the rare view into strange solutions to problems we never knew existed.
Today, I'm remarkably proud to know that designers, developers, copywriters and marketers can often be seen sat around a single machine discussing ways we can improve the workflow or the feature set. We now get to hear what they would love to be able to achieve, often something they hadn't previously considered. I don't feel like a part of a tech team anymore, but more a part of the marketing team using technology to help my colleagues.
Of course not! It never will be. There will always be areas that need compromises. We still have deadlines to meet and need to deliver the best quality we can within them. As with every project, if I were to start again then I'd probably do it differently.
Our new content management system, however, is doing quite well. It changes daily and those changes are now accessible to anyone in the company. The team is closer than ever and we are all super excited at being nominated for an award because of the new CMS.
The biggest take away from the project is the importance of collaboration. Pairing doesn't only have to be between two developers. We can build better tools if we abandon the concept of a tech team and instead see ourselves as a product, or marketing team. We have helped build better tools by often avoiding the technically impressive solution and opting for the solution that works 90% of the time with a bit of training for handling the other 10%.
Next time you're in a position to build something new, take the time to consider all the options instead of your favourite. I hate to say it but guess what? You're not always right.
Check this space in the future for an upcoming post on the technical implementation of Seedy, our custom-build CMS!
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