Month: January 2009

Working in Hard Times: It's the little things that make you great

Budgets are shrinking. Resources are tight or shrinking. In a recent post, I discussed how ideas that I had been a proponent of for 2-3 years suddenly became extremely valuable to companies during the downturn of 2001-2003.
This downturn is a different beast. This means that you will need more than basic technical smarts to get through. To survive in the world of e-commerce for the next 18 months, here are some strategies you should take to heart.

  • Clean up the cruft. Development and infrastructure changes are going to slow during the downturn – accept this. So do a code audit. Make sure that your applications aren’t calling files that no longer exist. Get rid of (backup and archive or Sarbanes-Oxley will bite your butt) old directories or application code that is no longer supported or maintained. In other words, do your Spring cleaning.
  • Take care of the annoyances. In the rush to get code out or fix issues, little things that could help your site are often overlooked. Take the time now to optimize your images, minify your JS files, ensure your CSS files only contain styles that you use. Tune your SQL queries. Optimize your app code. All those things that got lost in the rush to get stuff out the door. As Microsoft and Apple have realized, people want performance, not more features.
  • Make your site Browser Neutral. I work for a firm that allows me to view various sites with different OS/browser combinations easily and recommend to clients that they do the same. I hang my head when I look at my own blog and realize that it is not Browser Neutral. Take some time to investigate to how to eliminate this frustrating annoyance that makes people cranky and doubt your technical savvy.
  • Get to know your visitors/customers. Unlike a ‘real’ store, you can’t step out onto the floor and talk to customers. But you can do this far more easily in today’s world than ever before. In the past, visitor analytics would have been the extent to which a company would have gone to determine information about their visitors/customers. Today, Twitter, Facebook, and all other manner of social sites make listening and talking to customers much easier. Just remember to be real.
  • Get to know the people you work with. Just like getting to know your visitors/customers, you need to spend some time getting to know people in your organization. I know this sounds like manager-speak, but if you have contacts in Finance, Product Management, Operations, Admin, you are more likely to be able to more effectively due your job. If you understand the ebb and flow and stresses that are going on outside your little enclosed silo, you can place things in a larger perspective. While social-networking may work here, be careful to back it up with face-to-face contact.
  • Get to know people! I made a number of contacts in the last downturn by taking my key interests (Web compression, Web caching) and turning them into sites, published articles, and one failed conference appearance (contact me if you want to hear more). Over the years these contacts have had me comment on their posts, edit their books, and keep them up-to-date on where I think the latest trends are headed. Going into this downturn, I have a whole group of new contacts that I am building on to do the same things. People aren’t bad, they’re just misunderstood.
  • Read the fine business plan. I know these things are evil. They are in horrible management-speak. So don’t read it that way: Active read it. Make notes in the columns. Turn it into a MindMap (that’s what I did this year). Extract the meaning of what the goals of the business are and how the Web site fits into it. If you understand what the rest of the business is doing and what their challenges are, your problems will have context!
  • Know what the next big thing is. While the objective of the organization in a downturn is to try and be more efficient with fewer resources, remember that you have to take time (whatever you have left) to know what’s coming next that could affect your Web site. Read the tech news. Understand the fundamentals that are driving the latest ideas. Keep on top of security. Sometimes a side-project that uses a technology that is new can become a bigger part of your site when resources free up.

I know these are general, but when this downturn started, I looked back on what worked for me during the last downturn. These are a few of the things that got me through, kept me busy, and helped me make an impact on the company and industry I am in.
These things also don’t hurt your reputation, as you become known as someone who understands the industry, the business, and the customers.

Web Performance Concepts: The Series

Over the space of two years I have created a series of posts that explore the analytical and statistical concepts that compose the foundation of a solid Web performance strategy.

These mark my attempt to move from a purely technical analysis of providing a solution to the problem at hand. These posts move my approach to one that examines the issues from a higher perspective, one where I can place the singular issues that face people in the areas of Technical Operations and Business Operations into a cross-industry, global Web performance context.
These posts highlight some of the core concepts which need to be re-examined, especially within the reality that faced by all online businesses right now: tightening budgets, static or contracting staffing, and the need to not lose the performance edge.

I hope that these nine posts help you reconsider how you examine Web performance data when you are trying to maintain and grow your business in these troubled times.

  1. Web Performance, Part I: Fundamentals
  2. Web Performance, Part II: What are you calling ‘average’?
  3. Web Performance, Part III: Moving Beyond Average
  4. Web Performance, Part IV: Finding The Frequency
  5. Web Performance, Part V: Baseline Your Data
  6. Web Performance, Part VI: Benchmarking Your Site
  7. Web Performance, Part VII: Reliability and Consistency
  8. Web Performance, Part VIII: How do you define fast?
  9. Web Performance, Part IX: Curse of the Single Metric

A Brand is not a Conversation

Brand and Branding are tossed about as sterile concepts that people want to dissect on a repeated basis, as if a deeper understanding of the words themselves will allow a view into the soul of a people.
When I step back and examine these concepts, free of involvement in the world of Brand creation and propagandization, Branding and Brands degenerate to the most basic definition of the terms: the painful act of marking an object as something you own.
Viewed in this way, Branding is painful, permanent, and performed against the will of the object/being being inflicted with the Brand. It is a one-way act. A Brand is forced on a being/object, without any opportunity for a reciprocal act.
Corporate Branding is the same. Branding is not a conversation. As I have said previously (here), a Brand and the act of Branding is read-only, closed-source. The Brand is shaped and formed to uniquely identify its owner, and then it is placed with pride wherever the Brand-owner sees fit.
While a Brand is owned, and Branding marks those objects as belonging to the Brand owner, it is not a conversation. Reputation is a conversation. And conversations that occur about Brands seal their Reputations.
Wear your Brand. But then talk about it with others. You may find that the Brand is not what defines the company to the people who see it.

Web Performance in Hard Times

In the end, it’s all about performance. And when times get hard and budgets get tight, performance should be high on the list of online businesses.
The issue that I see when I work with online firms is that the first item to be on the chopping block is the performance budget. Performance appears to be equated with expense.
What name I have in the arena of Web performance that I do have I made during the last economic slowdown in 2000-2002 by writing and evangelizing some very simple facts:

  1. HTTP compression is easy to set up and can reduce the bandwidth that your text files require to download. This is even more important as more and more companies build complete applications in Javascript.
  2. Allow others to cache what is cacheable. Offload your site to edge and corporate servers, and let them do the heavy lifting.
  3. Enable HTTP persistence. Fewer TCP connection requests make downloads run more effectively and take advantage of the benefits of the efficiencies of built into TCP.

Steve Souders’ book reminds people that designers can help this process by designing a proper page. Andy King’s book (my review) reminds people that Business and Technical Operations need to work together to reach the same goal.
So, rather than seeing this time of contraction as a challenge, take it as a chance to solidify your performance position. Retrench, re-examine, and reveal your performance issues. Integrate Web performance into the day-to-day operations of the entire business, and work within your current configuration.
The companies that learn to work more effectively and efficiently with a reduced budget and fewer people will come out on the other side as those poised to take advantage of the opportunities that are still out there.

Methodology Before Measurement

Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.

Galileo Galilei

The greatest challenge facing companies today is not finding ways to measure performance. The key issue is one of understanding what should be measured and validating that there is agreement on what the purpose of the measurement is.

Organizations are complex. And with complexity arises the need to gather data for different purposes. In my series discussing Why Web Measurements?, I broke organizations down into four groups, each one having distinctly different needs for measurements and data.

While this series focuses on Web performance, the four categories (Customer Generation, Customer Retention, Business Operations, and Technical Operations) can be broadly applied to all aspects of your business.
In each of the four categories, whether it is for Web performance or financial analysis, determining what and why to measure is a critical predecessor to the establishment of measurements and the examination of data.

2009 will be a year of reflection and retrenchment. Companies will be examining all aspects of their business, all of their relationships with vendors, all of the ways they measure themselves. The question that must be asked before succumbing to the rushing panic of cost-cutting and layoffs is: Do you fundamentally understand why and what you measure and what it is really telling you?

Branding, Authority, and Reputation: A Parable

On a fine July day, a local man runs into a neighborhood bar carrying a stack of pamphlets, and wearing the hat announcing a new service. His beaming smile and easy attitude made the rest of the patrons want to listen to him.

“I have seen the greatest new thing in the history of our species,” he started. “A man in this very town has created a simple potion that, when taken once a month, allows your teeth to gleam, your farts to smell like rainbows, and gold coins to appear instantly from your fingertips!”

The crowd surged around him, listening to his spiel. They were spellbound, and chattered amongst themselves enthusiastically.

Then a local Man of Prestige entered the bar and listened for a few minutes. He shouted down the smiling pitchman and, with a sarcastic sneer on his face, said, “That’s Crazy Joe’s stuff isn’t it?”

The crowd stopped shouting and started murmuring.

“Crazy Joe has been tinkering in his garage for years,” the Man of Prestige started to say, not repressing his mirth. “One of his potions turned his dog into a three-legged, one-eyed rabbit with a rat-tail. His family has left him, and he is living on hand-outs.”

The Man of Prestige made his final point: “Why would you by something from a failure like Crazy Joe?”

The murmur had turned into a beehive buzz. Then someone shouted, “Look! It’s Crazy Joe!”

As Joe walked into the bar, expecting the welcome of a returning hero, he was met by jeers and shouts of derision. The crowd occasionally looked to the Man of Prestige to ensure he was still laughing.

“Drinks on me!”, Shouted the Man of Prestige, and the crowd followed him to the other end of the bar for their free gift for believing in his opinion.

Joe was near tears. His pitchman was in shock. After a moment, Joe spoke up. Looking at his pitchman, he said, “C’mon. I’ll buy you a drink.”

They sat at the empty end of the bar as the Man of Prestige regaled the crowd with tales of himself and his ventures and investments. They watched in disgust for a few minutes, then Joe ordered two shots of scotch for each of them.

A few seats down, two strangers from another town sat. They had no idea who the Man of Prestige was, or why he was so quick to dismiss this great idea. They sat, quietly watching Joe and his pitchman shoot down their drinks, take one more forlorn look to the end of the bar, and get up to leave.

Then, they watched in incredulous disbelief as Joe create three solid gold coins from his index finger to pay for the drinks.

The strangers gaped as Joe and the pitchman walked out, then looked back to the gabbling madness surrounding the Man of Prestige, all of whom were oblivious to the great thing that had just happened.

The strangers jumped from their stools and ran off after Joe and the pitchman, pulling money from their pockets as they ran.

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