Hi, I’m Mike.

Digital Project & Product Manager. PMP. Works in Toronto. More than 15 years of experience driving concepts to market in Web and Mobile.

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Project Managers: Don’t Fall in Love

If you manage website projects for a living, take my advice.

Never fall in love.

Of course I’m not talking about a spouse, partner, puppy, or anything else you are supposed to fall in love with. I’m talking about design. Specifically, design as it relates to the front end, UX, look-and-feel, or whatever else you want to call “how your website looks, acts and works”.

And even more specifically, don’t fall in love with those instinctual, gut-feeling, hard-to-explain design decisions you and your team have so careful made. Because your heart is bound to be broken whenever a client challenges your choices. And worse, when you are told to make changes.

But that said, don’t forget that you are being paid to deliver the best product possible. This can mean saving a would-be web design expert from themselves. Don’t be afraid to go to bat for your work, provided you can back-up your decisions.

  1. Measure everything. All the time. Numbers don’t lie, and it’s tough to argue against a design decision backed-up by stats.
  2. Expand your metrics. User surveys and observation may yield information clicks and hits can’t, especially as it relates to aesthetics.
  3. Who’s the boss? Any sentence that starts with “our users tell us” is probably the right direction and takes personality out of the argument.
  4. Remember your reasons. If you are challenged on the reason a decision was made, and you can’t recall why, you likely don’t have an argument.
  5. Use best in class examples. World-class corporations at the top of their industry aren’t always right, but they are usually doing something right.
  6. Check out your successful competition. See #5.
  7. Be clear. The spidey-sense you’ve developed over the years won’t help if you can’t clearly explain reasons behind your choices.

And of course, don’t forget to pick your battles. Because it is better to have loved and lost, than, well you know…

Beware the Secret Stakeholder

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Three months into your project and life is good.

In 12-short-weeks you turned wire-frames that started as scribbles on the back of a napkin into a bug-free website that is days from launch. You are happy. Your client is happy. (Heck, even the developers are happy!)

So that’s when it happens.

Your client … the very same client who swore up-and-down that he would be providing final approval for the project … is demanding a complete rework of the design, rendering all your front-end efforts to-date useless.

But how can this be?

Client: my boss feels like the site should be responsive. And she *hates* the purple we chose.

Enter the “Secret” Stakeholder.

The Project Management Institute defines a stakeholder as “An individual, group or organization who may affect, be affected by, or perceive itself to be affected by a decision, activity or outcome of the project.” In Agile, a stakeholder may take the form of an end-user.

Regardless.

At some point if you are working for a client, there is likely one stakeholder out there who will provide final approval for your project, and the person you think is providing final approval may answer to a higher power who REALLY will be approving – or more importantly NOT approving – your project.

So when you are making a list of client/approvers, find out:

  • Who they report-to.
  • Ask for their boss’ typical project involvement in the past
  • Is their boss hands-on?
  • What about their boss’ boss?
  • Will their signature be required on a charter or project plan?
  • Are they will to sign that they are the final approver?

Really take the time to get to know your stakeholder/approver. You will be doing them, and yourself, a favour.

Otherwise, you risk a visit from the Secret Stakeholder.

Photo Credit: Magna Magazine

The Second Coming of Steve Jobs

September, 2000

An unauthorized tell-all promises to expose mercurial showman Steve Jobs; Apple’s two-time CEO, one-time exile and the visionary who helped create the world of computers as we know it.

At 44, Steve Jobs is the old man of the personal-computer scene — old considering that before he entered the market PCs were the domain of a limited number of hobbyists and speciality businesses that sold electrodes to other speciality businesses. In an industry where deadlines, mathematics and precision engineering are valued above all else, the Apple/Jobs story is as close to myth as it gets. His will remain one of the enduring stories for future generations asking how it came to be that their lives became run by computers — and thanks to his most recent efforts — good looking computers.

The fabled story reads as follows: Jobs, then 21, with the help of partner and childhood-friend Steven Wozniak, then 26, created Apple Computers out of Jobs’ garage. Long-haired, whiskered and dressed in faded jeans, T-shirts or his trademark black turtle-neck, Jobs complemented Wozniak’s technical genius with his own visionary foresight and passion for aesthetics to deliver silicon classics such as the Apple 1, Lisa and Macintosh.

Now loved by a cult of users including schools, artsy computer-phobes and hip IKEA-savvy small offices, early generations of Apple computers combined revolutionary monitor/mouse co-operation and Apple’s ‘drag and drop’ user friendly interface. In addition to helping give Apple machines their usability, the 20-something Jobs gained computer-builder cum CEO rock-star status while quoting Bob Dylan and creating a funky work environment far before company yoga was as common as company softball.

Despite Jobs’ success and large persona, there looms a darker side — an ego and temper that would cause Jobs to lose it all only to claw it back. Enter The Second Coming of Steve Jobs — an irresistible story of unprecedented success, brutal failure and improbable success of a Silicon Valley legend. It goes where no other biography of Jobs has gone before, namely, his career after his departure from and return to Apple.

The dark side of Jobs is no secret. His legendary temper is one that leaves fans, critics and even generations of both faithfully converted and disenfranchised employees firmly on one side of the Jobs fence or the other. Author Alan Deutschman, a Silcon Valley reporter for over a decade, assembles a psychological profile of Jobs through anecdotes and interviews with hundreds of ex-employees, friends, rivals and colleagues.

Jobs was and is the kind of cool boss/cruel boss now commonplace in an industry full of entrepreneurs short on managerial experience and long on youth and brains. History may give Apple the legacy of the cool workplace with heaps of Zen, but it was also the same funky cult-like atmosphere that demanded employees work 70+ hour weeks. Jobs relentlessly drove them towards his lofty visions with T-shirts, non-existent stock options and his ability to inspire fanatical devotion.

Deutschman follows the exhausting contrasts that are Jobs beginning in 1985 when he was forcibly exiled from Apple for the reasons explored above. Jobs set out to prove that Apple was not a fluke. He began NeXT, a personal computer manufacturer, hoping to compete with the very company he once brought to glory. NeXT was an abysmal failure that left Jobs reeling and nearly broke.

Down but not out, Jobs purchased Pixar in 1986. Although the computer animation-company would later produce hits like successes like Tin Toy and Toy Story, it required Jobs’ salesmanship and business savvy to resurrect the haemorrhaging company. Financially, the success of Pixar brought Jobs back the financial wealth he once held in his mid-20s and helped rehabilitate his image.

However, it would be a reunion with an old flame that would secure Jobs’ legendary status for good. Apple is currently in the middle of a second life as a viable player in the crowded PC market, in large part thanks to Jobs. He was reinstated as the company’s CEO in 1997, and the rebirth of Apple soon followed. Jobs was the driving force behind three innovations: the futuristic, translucent blue iMac (1998), the fashionable iBook laptop (1999), and the new-age hard drive Powermac Cube (2000). The trendy design of Apple’s new look has spurned sales, and Jobs’ hardball business practices (tough supplier relations while slashing research and development) caused customers and investors to get excited about Apple a decade after the company was an industry darling.

Jobs succeeded by creating soft-edged aesthetics combined with hard-edged business practices. Deutschman succeeds not in an exploration of the Jobs myth, but rather by discovering the man behind it. As the present and future of the personal computer industry includes cool coloured plastics, school-age dictators and long caffeine-driven nights of computer coding, for better or worse, PC users and makers have both the Jobs-the-good and Jobs-the-bad to thank.

Frank McCourt: Act II

By Michael Shaye

August, 2000

Despite two tell-all memoirs, there is still more to know about Irish-American memoirist Frank McCourt. “Act II” McCourt opens up on his past, teaching, and why fiction is harder to write than reality.

It is tough to reconcile Frank McCourt, age 70, with the one readers worldwide have come to know. With no signs of bad eyes, crippling poverty or his insecure 20s and 30s, the deep Irish brogue that still inhabits his speech is the only physical link to his past. The brogue, of course, and his bestselling memoirs Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir and ‘Tis: A Memoir. McCourt’s past has helped earn him a rare double literary achievement — critical success (including a Pulitzer Prize for Angela’s Ashes) and a generation of fans who identify with the worlds he inhabited.

His past is now famous. Combined, his two books have been translated into 27 languages and sold five million copies since 1996. Angela’s Ashes is a stirring account of McCourt’s younger years spent in New York City until extreme poverty and the depression forced his family to Ireland, the birthplace of his parents, and a new life in small town Limerick. His alcoholic father ensured the family was without food and money, spending his infrequent paycheques on “the pint” and forcing the family to beg for food and shoes. It is also a youth mixed with the death of three younger siblings, the departure of his father to England during the Second World War to find work (only to not return) and a preteen delivery job that nearly ruined his eyes for life due to an untreated infection.

‘Tis strikes a lighter note, as McCourt journeys back to New York. He finds work in the front lobby of a hotel, only to lose the job because of the diseased appearance his eyes give him. After a stint in the army, McCourt returns to New York. Despite the lack of a high school diploma, he talks his way past the admissions officer and into a position in the teacher-training stream. After discovering Alberta (the blond “long-legged Episcopalian” of his dreams) he faces the resident football hero in the way of her affections and doubts about his intelligence and upbringing. As he matures and enters a teaching position, both parents make an appearance in New York, aging rapidly before his eyes.

With nearly 1,000 pages of memoirs behind them, readers should be safe to assume that they know everything there is to know about the bestselling author. “They don’t know everything,” deadpanned McCourt in a recent interview with Chapters.ca. “You tell a lot but you don’t tell everything. I’ve told what I want to tell about my family.”

McCourt chose the memoir to tell the story of his family because it comes naturally. Angela’s Ashes began as 100 pages of fiction McCourt titled “If You Live in a Lane.” McCourt explains that it became its later incarnation because “it didn’t really work as a novel.” “Fiction is harder than writing a memoir,” he says. “You have to create characters, or a composite of characters. With memoir, the situations are there and you just write them.”

With a natural humour that shines through stories of youthful poverty, hunger and unreconciled anger towards his parents, McCourt is moving on from his past. Enter Frank McCourt: Act II.

“F. Scott Fitzgerald said that in American lives, there are no second acts,” notes McCourt. “He was wrong. I’m in my second act.

“There might be a third act,” he quips, “although I don’t know what that would be.”

With his career as a memoirist complete for the time being, McCourt is ready to move from the exploration of his life to the exploration of his two loves: fiction and teaching.

His love of fiction is evident to readers of ‘Tis, where Fyodor Dostoevsky weaves his way throughout the book. Staying true to his Irish roots, he cites James Joyce’s Ulysses (“struggled through it”) and Finnegan’s Wake (“practically beyond me”) as influences, although the “crazy simplicity” of Samuel Beckett remains an unmistakable influence and favourite. He plans to read Don Quixote “very soon,” and confesses that while he is gearing up to write a piece of fiction, non-fiction still is a fixture in his nighttime reading. “I read a lot of biography,” he says, “I need hard information about life.”

If McCourt has a regret about his first two books, it is that he short-changed his time as a teacher and plans to make up for it in his yet-unnamed novel. Only able to cite Up the Down Stairs as a real front-lines look into the classroom and life of an educator, he plans to correct the imbalance. As a teacher, McCourt began at a tough vocational school on Staten Island, working his way up to the prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. He remains outspoken on the educational system in the United States and attempts to standardize its curriculum. After retiring from teaching at 60 to write his memoirs, McCourt is happy to have the best years of his literary career in front of him. Readers can look forward to exploring the rest of the life of Frank McCourt: Act II — a life that has earned him success beyond his dreams and despite his demons, peace of mind.

“God what a life,” laughs McCourt, “a hell of a life.”

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