This is a place to consolidate all the hard-won knowledge I’ve accumulated over years of getting into projects that were bigger than expected, taking on responsibilities that were over my head, and cobbling together solutions from elbow grease and sheer dumb luck.
Why did I build this site?
For seven years, I’ve been the marketing coordinator and then chief operations officer for one of the largest family law practices in the southeast. When I was growing up, my dad (a lawyer) always told me I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up, as long as I wasn’t a lawyer. Needless to say, he wasn’t thrilled when I went to work for one, but unlike a lot of law practices, this one was fairly well ahead of the curve and put a big focus on marketing and web presence, so instead of being relegated to ordering business cards and updating letterhead, I started out recording podcasts, managing WordPress sites, and running around town shooting videos for an email auto-responder sequence. As I got better and my responsibilities increased, I started managing the operations of the company and spearheading bigger projects – managing the administrative staff, moving from one PEO to another, moving our landline system to a VOIP provider, developing web apps, mobile apps, leasing office space, leasing equipment, etc.
After a while, I decided to start working on my own projects and hiring virtual employees and contractors to build everything from software to websites, and helping others get their web presences up and running. The thing is, outside of some basic HTML and CSS I picked up along the way, and lots of hours spent poking around with Adobe products, I never learned how to do any substantial programming or design. I used to see this as a big disadvantage, but I started to realize that with the ability to hire experts with a few clicks, my basic knowledge in all these fields made me substantially more effective in managing the projects and gave me the ability to tackle much larger projects that I had imagined. I firmly believe that the new valuable expertise is that of knowing how to envision, hire, manage, and assess. You don’t need to know how to program, or build a website, or design a logo, or set up a server, or administer a phone system. Things that used to require deep research and investigation are now available as turnkey services. The value comes in knowing how these fit into what you’re trying to accomplish, how to get them done on any budget, and most importantly – how to launch your project.
In the beginning…
When I was in high-school, I convinced my parents to get me a “Learn C in 21 Days” book, because I really wanted to learn how to program. Six months later, I don’t think I had even made it to chapter 2. For years, I blamed my meager intellect for never making it happen, but I think learning to program is a lot like learning math, where a bad experience early on can really sour you and make you doubt yourself for years afterward. Needless to say, I kind of suck at math too.
When I went off to college (2001 -yikes!), I found myself with a lot of free time – I didn’t even need to show up for class and I could still make A’s! That was one of the many perks of majoring in Advertising. My nuclear engineer roommate actually had to go to class. He was also good at math.
While goofing around in my dorm room one day, I found a blog engine called Blosxom that ran on my Mac. It was a basic perl script that just output static HTML files, but that made it easy for me to upload everything to the free 25mb of hosting that the college gave to each student.
I started to geek out over this thing and wanted to be able to change the look of the blog, so I reluctantly dipped my toe into the then still somewhat new waters of CSS. I couldn’t get very far with CSS without knowing the basics of the HTML it was impacting, so I started combing through the tutorials at W3Schools until I could build my own webpages.
The basics of the web
As projects came up in advertising classes, I was always the one in the group who could put together the presentation, layout the collateral materials, and patch together the websites to make ours stand out. Keep in mind, this was before google docs, before youtube, hell – Facebook was still just a goofy site where you could see what classes other people were taking, and only available to students.
During my last two years of college, I got a job at a very small local advertising agency. Again, I didn’t really know how to make good looking graphics, layouts, or webpages, but I knew what sucked, and the stuff I made was better than what they had been making before, and I was making websites for real businesses. I took the tricks I had learned by view-source-ing pages on CSS Zen Garden and applied them to sites for everything from pest control companies to seafood wholesalers.
Emboldened by the progress, and unaware of the gulf between hacking a few HTML files and building an ecommerce site, my boss told me he had told a local office supply company that we would build them an online system where university staff could go and order business cards, letterhead, and envelopes on the approved university template. “You know how to do that, right?” he asked me. I told him “no, but I’ll figure it out”. The next day, I bought a book on PHP and MySQL and made it through about 2 chapters in a few days. I hardly knew anything, but it was enough to stitch together a working system and the clients were happy.
The problem was, I always felt like an outsider – I had no training, no coaching, and I was too dumb to figure out that I could attempt to learn things properly with guidance – I had just cobbled together little bits of design and markup knowledge from random tutorials on the internet and too many hours spent in the college computer lab. And despite delving into the nitty-gritty for a few weeks every time I had a wild hair to take on one of these projects, after neglecting it for a few months, I didn’t remember much of it.
Jack of all trades, master of…
For a long time, I felt like this put me at a disadvantage. I thought that the only path was to find your niche in the process and become an expert. I wasn’t a programmer, I wasn’t a designer, I wasn’t a marketer, I wasn’t a sysadmin. I knew bits and pieces of each of these, but I couldn’t come up with a web app from scratch, or make a logo that didn’t look like a 3rd grader drew it in MS Paint.
But once I was thrust into the working world, I found myself responsible not for individual parts of a project, but for the entire thing. All of a sudden, this shallow but wide pool of knowledge was a huge advantage. Knowing the basics of how sites were built and a high-level overview of server side scripting made managing websites and hiring contractors much easier. I could tell when developers knew their stuff and when they didn’t. I wasn’t afraid of investigating libraries and packages that might be useful in our projects and suggesting them. I could tell designers exactly what we needed based on the criteria of our use cases. Making more useful mockups was way easier and cut the back-and-forth (and cost) of projects substantially. Having the big picture in my head and knowing how the pieces fit together made planning projects easier, since I could tell what options would result in integration and compatibility problems down the road.
And that’s what this site is about – building up the skills needed to get your projects off the ground. When you know the basics of how software is built, you can spend less money and take less time. When you understand what kind of contractors to hire for writing, or SEO, or virtual assistant duties, you don’t have to do all the grunt work yourself. When you have a decent grasp of how all the pieces of your project fit together, you don’t have to be an expert – you can get the right experts to make your product better.