Digital Success is a Journey: Staff Insights from 25 Years in Digital
In 1991, while "The Real World" on MTV didn’t yet exist, we welcomed Jerry, Kramer, George, Elaine, and…Newman! to the neighborhood. It didn’t matter who you were…your closet contained a puffy shirt...worn with parachute pants. Kentucky Fried Chicken officially changed its name to KFC and Nintendo released its 16-bit console, the Super Nintendo. Terminator 2 coined the phrase, "Hasta La Vista Baby" and Hannibal Lecter gave us nightmares with just two words, "Hello Clarice." All the cool kids were listening to Nirvana's Nevermind album. And in August 1991, the World Wide Web became a publicly available service.
A 20-year-old John Berndt set up shop in Berndt's parents' garage, dubbed the venture TBG, and began working on a prototype. To generate the capital he used to start TBG, Berndt sold his Volkswagen microbus and Hewlett-Packard calculator…oh wait, that may have been Berndt’s neighbors named Steve…
While John Berndt may not have started TBG in a garage and owned a VW bus, he did have the foresight to jump into the digital space from the start, thoughtfully building and growing TBG over the last 25 years into a successful, national company. As we celebrate our 25th anniversary, we look forward; we also take time to reflect. Below, TBG staff share wisdom we’ve gained and insights about what we’ve learned from our time in the trade (expect the unexpected!) We’ve also learned along the way that a sense of humor and not taking ourselves too seriously translates to a fulfilling work environment and building successful sites.
And when you break it all down, back to the command line, love what you do, love who you work with, love where you work. At TBG, we embrace change, recognizing that thoughtful change can bring enlightenment and growth. Digital success after all, is a journey, not a destination.
Don't Get Too Attached
Ashley, UX Designer
As a User Experience Designer, I've learned to not become overly attached to anything I create. I think it's really easy for designers to think of their work as an extension of themselves, and take critique really personally. The nature of any good project is to be iterative and flexible to reach the most compelling solution, and both the UX and UI shift as these changes inevitably occur. I think there's a lot of value in being able to step back to look at something you've done, and say, "This isn't working as well as it could. Let's figure out a different way!"
Break It Down Now!
Erika, Senior Account Manager
I'm not quoting Tears for Fears, I'm talking about problems. Big, meta-level problems can seem insurmountable, but I've learned that even the biggest issues can be broken down into smaller digestable bits. It's an iterative process, but if you start compartmentalizing aspects of a problem, they become easier to solve as you go along. Sometimes you have to take that 1,000 foot view to see the bigger issues, but when you can break down those massive issues and chip away at them, resolution is far more attainable.
Creativity on Demand is Odd, but Possible
Julia, Creative Director
Most designers need some version of a creative zone, the elusive bolt of inspiration, some nebulous and un-pin-downable moment that may or may not arrive on any given day, to create something that works and is beautiful. X number of days to do that, go! It seems impossible, creating a compelling visual scheme and with the precious few days eaten into by so many layers of consideration—movement, endless screen sizes, technical tie-ins, etc. etc. And yet, unique and beautiful visual language emerges from the team, time and time again. How does it happen? Magic.
Approach Design Trends with Caution
Eric W, Senior Art Director
Design/UX trends come and go. What’s currently hot today can quickly become outdated tomorrow. Apart from the pitfall of creating overly standardized websites that lack imagination, trends, in some cases, can adversely effect performance as well. This is not to say that all trends are bad. There are some conventions which come to fruition out of necessity which solve real problems. Each and every project comes with its own set of challenges that cannot be solved with a one-size fits all approach. How we approach current trends and best practices should be considered in the context of the audiences we want to reach and realized in the measurable strategic goals we are trying to achieve.
Use Newer Tools When They're Sharper
David, Senior Developer
Tradition and a seeming lack of time to investigate new tools, processes and technologies can actually cost you time in the long run. Don't be afraid to try new ways of doing things just because you've always done them a certain way or because it would take some time and effort to apply them, but also be careful not to force yourself to use tools or processes that aren't truly better suited than your current ones. Keep evaluating time spent trying something as you go along and how close you think you are to benefiting versus how much benefit there will actually be. Cut and run if it's not working out.
Be Kind to Your Future Self & Document Today
Ryan, Senior Developer
Over the years I have gotten into the habit of forcing myself to write clear and comprehensive documentation for the projects I'm involved with. These can be aspects like descriptions of all technologies used, project "bee stings" for developers to be aware of, challenges when creating the solution, etc. It may take a little extra time, but the future me is always thankful to the past me for the proactive effort.
Ami, Marketing & New Business Manager
It doesn't just feel good, but it's actually imperative to your success to take breaks. Self-care is extremely important and can come in many forms—eating a snack, taking a walk around the block, listening to your favorite song, getting a massage; the list goes on! No one will book a meeting on your calendar for you to take care of yourself—you must figure out the self-care routine that works best for you. If you don't take time to do this, you will resent your deliverables, clients, project teams, and supervisor. Your productivity level will actually decrease, and most importantly, your emotional state will suffer. Research also shows that staring at a screen for long periods of time causes eye strain and interrupts your natural sleep cycle. Ideally, your self-care routine involves some time away from the screen.
Code It for the Long View
Dave, Senior Developer & Lead Architect
How much of our time is spent bug fixing? Wouldn't it be nice to have that time to devote to new development? But where do the bugs come from? Were they from shortcuts we took when we didn't feel we had the time to do it right? Why didn't we have the time to do it right? Was it because we had a long queue of bug fixes? Hmm...this cycle is not only due to time constraints, but also due to the level of attention we bring to our problems. The constant barrage of small emergencies distracts us and disrupts the mind's ability to focus on a well crafted solution. So do yourself (and your coworkers) a favor. Take a deep breath and do it right the first time. Picture how requirements might change and allow future developers some flexibility. See where other areas of the code might share functionality and break that out in a service method. Take the time to put in the null checks. We'll all be happier in the end.
Test, Test, & Test Again
Katie, Director of Digital Strategy & UX
You know what they say when you "assume." No adage could be more applicable to the practice of UX. While we're experts in our field, and have been around the block more than a few times, every client is different and every client's users are different. Add in the complexity of constantly changing technology and the resulting shifts in mental models and it's impossible to accurately predict user orientations and expectations. It's crucially important to build in the time and budget to test assumptions, prove out theories, and explore new approaches with real people. Doing something quickly and doing something correctly are not always same. Testing might seem to add a lot of time and money to a project, but ultimately, you'll come out ahead. And once you have a solid, highly-usable product, keep testing and refining. Digital success is a journey, not a destination.
It's All Guesswork, & That's Okay
Kevin, Technical Director
Large Web projects are extremely complex; trying to estimate how much time and how many resources it will take to achieve success can be daunting. You don't have all the information you need to put together an estimate, but you'll NEVER have all the information you'll need—you won't get all that information until you actually complete the work. When inexperienced developers are asked to put together an estimate, it's common that they'll push back, saying they need more details in order to estimate. They say, "I don't have a crystal ball." They say that they'd just be guessing. That's exactly right! An estimate is a guess, albeit one that should be guided by knowledge, experience and foresight. If you break down a complex problem into smaller parts and get confident doing lots of guessing, you'll be surprised how accurate your estimates will be.
A Little Help Goes A Long Way
Eric S, Office Manager
Pitching in and a sense of humor are key in our busy industry! Helping each other out with project tasks, lending your coworker a hand, or just being an always available resource for each other makes what we do all worth while. And every once in a while we all need to release some steam. Trying to make each other laugh to show the humor in a situation never hurts—a good pun is always fun!
Plan Before Execute
Eugene, Senior Developer
Whenever I have an idea for a new project, it is always tempting to jump in feet first and start building it out. This often leads to wasted time, hair pulling, unnecessary code, and most definitely re-work. To avoid this, the most important thing to do is clearly define up front, what it is you are making. Once you know what you are making, you can begin to design it out. How is the project going to be implemented; what components are needed; how will they work together; what resources are needed; etc.? After you have a clear idea of what you are making and how you are going to do it, building the project will be a lot smoother.
Keep An Open Mind
Josh, Director of Account Management
When you are used to a particular way of working, it’s easy to reject new processes that are unfamiliar. We all have our own way of doing things, and different companies have their own processes and approaches. I have seen this happen with new Project Managers coming into TBG over the years, who instead of adjusting to a new process or way of doing things, try to run their projects using a methodology they’re used to. At TBG we have processes to add clarity and structure to projects, but we are never content to "just do business as usual." We know in our industry, to get the best results internally and for our clients, and to ultimately thrive and survive, we have to constantly be open to trying new approaches to our work and to evolve with the times and technologies. Ongoing assessment of processes and methodologies is time well spent; continuous process improvement is essential to build efficiency, maintain a quality product and stay competitive in the market.
The Flexible Office
Audrey, Manager of Quality Assurance
Today "the Office" is no longer just the physical space occupied by our desks, meeting rooms and where we interact with our coworkers. Even at TBG, its definition has expanded beyond a single space and the brick and mortar boundaries that once defined it, to a more flexible—and somewhat paradoxically—connected environment. Nowadays, we are working closely and seamlessly with team members close and afar—some only a few steps or miles away, others in far-flung locations in other time zones. And yet, we are ever more productive, we communicate well, and we get things done as a team! Tools like Slack, video conferencing, file sharing, or even email if we want to go waaay back...have positively transformed our day-to-day operations. Being able to work from almost anywhere allows us to break the constraints of traditional workflows and helps us be more creative. The digital nature of our work, coupled with the creative aspect that’s required, lend themselves naturally to operating in a workspace that transcends the tangible and flourishes in the online space, making the flexible office a critical part of doing work in the digital age.
Let It All Go
Our industry is fast-paced and demanding. It requires individuals who are masters of their subject matter but are also excited to grow and evolve with the ever-changing world of the Web. Dedication and drive are always important; individuals who are passionate and curious will bloom and thrive. If you love problem-solving and enjoy finding your groove in the challenge of continuous change, this is the industry for you! All day, every day, we synthesize information, analyze situations and decipher nuances to inform our approaches and recommendations for projects and tasks of all sizes, shapes, and shades. TBG-ers are perfectionists by nature; we want to do our best work and also deliver the best we can for our clients. The pinball-game-and-pogo-stick nature of this industry is often at odds with our perfectionist natures. Flexibility and a sense of humor are key; best laid plans will need to change. Control what you can control; don't stress about what you can’t. Have faith and confidence in yourself, your project teams, and management that you will work together to find a solution to even the gnarliest problem. Learn to be a good communicator: be a strong leader but an even better listener. If you have a clear and coherent plan, let that be your guide, but be prepared to change it as needed, often in real time. If you look at a job as just a job, it’s going to become a grind, and you won’t set yourself up to do your best work for yourself or your project teams and clients. Love what you do, love who you work with, love where you work. Embrace change! Thoughtful change can bring enlightenment and growth. And at the end of the day, let it all go, and just breathe.
Take the Short Long Path
Motty, Senior Developer & Lead Architect
While it is definitely quicker and more 'agile' to build an application the easy way by narrowly 'fulfilling' requirements and not thinking ahead, many years of experience tells us that this usually backfires. It is worth investing the extra time to make an application scalable and flexible. While you can never predict future requirements, making architectural decisions that allow for easy growth and extensibility is a critical step in robust development. Ask questions like, does this data need to be possibly consumed elsewhere (SOA architecture / WebAPI)? Are my classes and methods abstract enough that they can be reused elsewhere? Have I thought about testing, logging, exception handling? Can the client in the future easily modify critical business logic variables (avoiding hardcoding)? Think big picture and the slighly longer path is actually the shorter one!
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