For those of you who didn’t make it to Rails Underground in July to witness my mind-blowing talk, Launching Ruby on Rails projects , it appears that Skills Matter has finally posted a video of it online. :-)
The sound levels are really low… but hopefully you’ll find it helpful.
You can also view the slides.
Earlier this week, we published Episode 3 of the Planet Argon Podcast. In this latest episode we responded to one of the ideas someone in the audience asked on this brainstormr, which was, “How do you manage bugs?”
We had a round table discussion about how we classify and prioritize bugs with our clients, ticketing systems, and other tools that we use to streamline this process.
On a recent trip to Las Vegas, I picked up The Four Hour Workweek for my Amazon Kindle to read on my flight. When I came back from my short vacation, I decided that I was going to change how I approach email on a daily basis. In my position, I receive a lot of business-related emails on a daily basis, whether that be from employees, clients, or potential clients. A typical day would consist of me trying to get a few tasks done while keeping an eye on any new requests. This resulted in a lot of context-switching and my days were extremely fragmented. Our team had started an experiment where we’d track all of our time throughout the day on printout. Our goal was to log all of our start/stop times for each activity and also capture each interruption within those time windows. After just a few days of doing this, I was noticing how much time was being spent on emails each day. I also noticed that it was rare to have a full hour of uninterrupted work on a single activity. Aside from distractions that you’d typically find in an office environment, email was keeping me from attaining the level of focus that I was seeking on my work.
So, using some motivation from The Four Hour Workweek1, I opted to come back to the studio and change my behavior. That morning, I emailed my entire team and my clients to let them know that I would only be checking my email at 10am and 4pm each day. I explained that they could call me at the studio if there was something that needed my urgent attention. Admittedly, I was nervous as I hit send. What was I getting myself into? What were my clients going to think? Would they think that I’m just an unorganized mess?
Three weeks later…? It was one of the best emails that I’ve sent in ages.
The Results… (so far)
Here are a few realizations and conclusions that I’ve been able to attribute to this change.
My World Didn’t Collapse
Before I made this decision, I came up with a lot of excuses for why this was a bad idea.
- I might not respond fast enough to a new sales lead
- A client might forget and send me an urgent request via email
- Insert any other reason related to you just not following up quick enough…
In three weeks, none of these things has bitten me in the ass. It hasn’t been perfect, but I don’t believe that it’s had any significant impact that outweighed the benefits.
Less Time Spent on Emails
I spend less time on email than I did before. Why? I don’t treat email the same way that I used to. As a result of approaching email differently, I noticed that I am now more likely to keep my emails short and sweet… and most importantly, to the point. One of the great things about Gmail is that it’s made it easy to have conversation-style emails with people, but it’s also made it too easy to have conversations with people. I now realize that so many conversations that I would participate via email would entail single sentence questions/responses with similar length follow-ups. Each time you come back to that email, your attention is on that conversation and those can eat up a lot of time if you’re not careful.
So, now that I’m checking email twice a day, I tend to write only what is necessary to move the conversation forward until the next time I check my email. As a result, email conversations are slower now, but they aren’t taking as much of my time. The benefits have outweighed the negatives.
More Focus Time
Since this change, there has been a handful of days where I have been able to focus completely on a single activity (task) for over a hour at a time. My record was nearly three hours one morning early last week. Unfortunately, I completed the task I had budgeted five hours for was finished in less than three. ;-)
I’m able to do this more now because I’ve been able to release my check-your-email-again-just-to-be-safe demons. I’ve been able to trust my system and I’ll share some tips on how I eased myself into this.
More focus time has allowed me to spend less time working on individual tasks because they are subjected to nearly as much context-switching.
More Creative Time
Another benefit that I’ve seen since this change is that with this time that I’ve salvaged, I find myself with more time to be creative. I haven’t pinpointed what the reason behind this is, but I do feel like I’ve been more creative the past few weeks than I have been for the several months prior. Perhaps it’s just a side-effect to altering my workday… or that I don’t feel like a victim to the INBOX… or that it’s been extremely sunny in Portland… or that I’m more aware of how I’m spending my day.
Whatever it was, it started within days after I implemented this new approach to managing email. I’m happy to attribute it to this for the time being. ;-)
How I Did It
Here are a few things that I did to start this process. Credit is due to Tim Ferris for suggesting most of these and here are some of my further thoughts.
List Your Excuses
Chances are, you don’t have as many as you think you do. I started with the critical ones and really weighed the pros/cons. It’s safe to use the, “Will anybody die if I do this?” question to help you respond to each of these. You can be a little less cynical and ask yourself, “Will we go out of business if I do this?”... or “Will we lose client X if I do this?”
Then ask yourself, “Is it unreasonable for me to do this?” If the answer to, “will we lose client X if I do this?” and this don’t match up, you might want to re-evaluating your client roster. If your clients are reasonable people, they’ll see that there is value in this that will benefit both parties. As I mentioned, just remind them that they can call you if there an urgent request. If they abuse this, straighten them out or it’s time to re-evaluate your client roster.
It’s not unreasonable to protect your time as much as possible, despite how much they pay you.
Set a Time (use a calendar reminder)
You can’t just say, “I’m only going to check my email twice a day.” There isn’t any way that I would have been able to honor such a commitment. “When exactly?,” is the obvious response to that.
I set a scheduled event on my calendar that happens everyday at 10am and 4pm. I have a 15 minute notice on that event so that I’m reminded that it’s time to wrap up what I’m working on. When I have a conflicting meeting, I will just reschedule my email for another time of the day. The time is visible to all of my teammates and my clients know when I’ll be catching up on email.
Why did I chose 10am and 4pm? Well, I start my day at the studio at 7am. This allows me to have up to three hours of time to focus on getting other things done before tackling email. Why 4pm? This is a hour or so before I leave for the day. Email isn’t the first or the last thing on my mind at each ends of my workday.
Communicate the Change
This will not work if you don’t set peoples expectations. If people are accustomed to you being extremely quick to respond to emails and you change your behavior all of a sudden, you’re going to freak them out. Let them know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and you might even encourage them to consider it too. More often than not, everyone you work with is feeling overwhelmed and wants more control over their day. Send them a link to this post. ;-)
It all comes back to managing their expectations.
Quit Your Email application
Seriously, quit that application when you’re not using it. In fact, quit any program that is open when it’s not related to the activity that you’re focused on. For email, we use Gmail for domains and I run it through Fluid. This means that at 10am and 4pm, I launch the Fluid app and start working my way through emails. Once I get through my inbox and finish what I need to handle right now, I quit it.
Also… disable email notifications. They aren’t worth it.
I’ve been practicing the habit of keeping my INBOX empty for nearly a year. Everything gets labelled, organized, and archived properly once I open up each email. Some stuff gets sent to Highrise to respond to later while some emails get an immediate response.
One of my favorite things about maintaining Inbox Zero and checking my email twice daily is that when I open up my email client, I’m faced with a list of nothing but unread emails. Since I know they’re all unread, I can start at the oldest and move my way through them, one by one. When I get to the end of that list, I’m almost done. I then fire up Highrise to see if there is anybody to get back to today. If so, I fire off those emails and close off those tasks. Once I have both lists completed, I’m done.
The one thing that I’m working on the hardest right now is not cheating. I’ve caught myself a few times. I’m waiting in line at the coffee shop and I pull out my iPhone. Out of habit, I launch the Mail.app and find myself looking at incoming emails. You might argue that if you’re not in the middle of something, it’s a good way to feel useful, but I’m sure that there are other things you can be tackling. Your email will be there at 10am… I promise.
The biggest problem with cheating is that if you see that someone responded to something you sent in your previous email, it’ll force you to make a decision. a) do you look now? or b) look later? If you choose b, your brain is going to be wondering what she said. It’s can really bug you for a few hours. Trust me. :-)
It’s only been three weeks since I adopted this and I know it’s far from perfect. However, I assure you… it’s been worth the self-proclaimed risks. I enjoy my email time more than I used to. As I mentioned earlier, I like being presented with a healthy list of unread emails to work my way through. Sometimes it takes only five minutes to get through them all, sometimes a hour or more if I have a lot of people to follow up with.
It’s been a fun ride so far and I’m sure that there are many more challenges ahead, but I am planning to stay on course. Who knows, maybe I can move to once daily after a few months?
As if delivering projects wasn’t hard enough. Delivering projects on time is even harder. As practitioners, we’re all responsible for measuring up the obstacles in front of us and are accountable to those measurements. At least, we should be.
One of those measurements is time. Time is a funny thing. People have a lot of interesting things to say about time. Some say that it’s one of the most valuable things that we have… but I’ll avoid diving into a philosophical discussion for now.
What I wanted to talk about was project estimation. Specifically, estimates for deliverables. For the past several years, our team has put a lot of effort into becoming more accurate in our time estimating skills. Despite analyzing how often we over and/or underestimate the time each of us believes it’ll take to complete a task, we find ourselves coming back to the drawing board.
A few things that we’ve learned.
- Tasks that we believe will take a few days/week/more to complete are often underestimated
- Tasks that we believe will take less than a few hours are often more accurate or overestimated
- Too many tasks were completed with a bigger budget than was necessary (lower ROI)
- A lot of time was spent working on requirements refining to get better estimates
When we began to step back from this and look for patterns, we found that several of the tasks that we would budget hours for (versus estimate hours for) were proving to be more accurate. This approach is most commonly known as timeboxing. With timeboxing, we can place a dollar value on a specific task and work within that constraint. For example, with our clients, both parties can come to the conclusion that, “we believe that it’s worth up to $800 to implement this new functionality.” With that, we’re able take that dollar amount and figure out how many hours to box ourselves within.
The underlying question to our client with each change/feature request is, “How valuable is this to your business at this point in time?” Whereas, with a typical approach to time estimates, a client comes to you with a list of changes/features and you provide them with time estimates. “We estimate that it’ll take 6 hours at $200/hour for feature X and we’d do it like this…” The client will have to evaluate your estimate and figure out if it’s worth $1200 and make a decision. They can respond with, “no, that’s too expensive, can we do it for less?” The following steps would entail your team trying to find ways to reduce your estimate.
While these two paths might seem very similar, it’s been my experience that the standard approach to estimating takes more time for negotiating the terms of the agreement.
However, with timeboxing, you are asking your client to provide you with an initial budget. This will completely change how you respond to the feature request. When you have a timebox, from the moment that you begin to evaluate the request, your brain will add the necessary constraints to keep things within scope.
Through this process, we’ve revamped our estimating process so that as we’re building our iteration costs for clients. For each deliverable, we break down a series of objectives/tasks and apply timeboxes to each of those while knowing what the budget is for the deliverable as a whole. Usually, the deliverable is directly related to the request that came from our client with a budget. The process is completely transparent and our team is responsible for working within those constraints.
..and as we’ve learned from Ruby on Rails, constraints can be extremely beneficial.
While I don’t have all the answers yet, my goal is to share some of my experiences and lessons on the topic. I’d love to hear about how you’re adopting timeboxing in your project planning and estimating process.
Anyhow, just some thoughts that I wanted to share. More to come…
Read Related Articles
As mentioned in a recent post, I’m hoping to share some lessons that were learned throughout the process of launching a client project. Over the past few years, we’ve been part of several dozen client projects and the big launch date is always an anxiety-filled, yet exciting point for the client and our team. I wanted to provide a quick list of a few the things that our team considers vital before launching that next big project. While most of these things might seem obvious, it’s still good to cover the basics and I hope a few people find it helpful.
Our company has been offering Ruby on Rails hosting for nearly four years and a few years longer with the PHP5 and PostgreSQL world. Given that, we’ve seen customers come to us at the last minute before they launch and wanting to get things setup and deployed right away. Quite often, this is their first experience deploying a Ruby on Rails application and there has historically been a semi-steep learning curve to do this. It’s really encouraged that you get this stuff figured out ahead of time. If you’re lucky, some hosting companies might offer cheaper plans so that you can begin to get things setup a few months or ahead of time and upgrade your plan prior to the big launch. This is how our Rails Boxcar hosting plans work.
We’ve seen a lot of customers avoid engaging with a hosting company more than a week or two before their launch because they want to reduce their monthly expenses, but the reality is that if you end up saving yourself a few hours of work by not scrambling at the last minute to get things setup, the hosting costs will pay for themselves. Several of our customers have learned this the hard way and as a result, this has resulted in extra stress that might have been avoidable if things had been ready earlier on.
The basic process that our team is to get a real deployment environment setup as early in the design and development process as possible. Often times, this will be 4-6 months before launch on larger projects. In our process, we aim to have a staging environment that mirrors our production environment. We tend to use a Boxcar Lite plan for our own client projects and get the deployment process working and automated. When it’s time to launch, we can easily upgrade the Boxcars with more resources to one or more Plus plans.
If you’re in the market for a hosting company, do keep us in mind, but if we can offer any advice, be sure to find out how you can scale upwards to meet your initial 3-6 month growth targets. Don’t worry about planning too far ahead in the future, until you see how traffic picks up and how the application and databases perform, you’ll be spending a lot of time guessing without data. If you’re new to this and aren’t sure, I’d encourage you to speak with a Ruby on Rails deployment specialist.
A few things to consider here:
- Get your Capistrano or Vlad deployment tasks setup early. Make sure everything works and set it up to work with multiple deployment environments. (staging, production, etc.)
- Use the HTTP Basic Authentication, which is available in Ruby on Rails to keep peeping toms (competitors, search crawlers, spammers, etc.. ) out of your project while you’re deploying to your staging environment. We tend to give out a
.htaccessuser/pass with this method to the stakeholders so they can access the site whenver they need to.
- Get your automated tasks (cron jobs) setup way before launch. Verify that things are working here at the right times
- Extra-credit: Check server time settings to make sure you’re not running big tasks at time periods when heavy traffic is expected
- Make sure your hosting provider has monitoring setup. It’s good to gauge uptime % from launch
- Extra-credit: Setup your own monitoring with Pingdom or similar service to make sure you know when things are down. (You can audit your hosting provider this way!)
There are a handful of really great hosting companies out there for Ruby on Rails. Be sure to do your homework early! This isn’t something you want to do at the last minute.
Reminder: Keep your project releasable at all times.
Search Engines and Analytics
Before the big launch, be sure that you have outlined a consistent pattern for managing the HTML page titles on each page. Getting targeted traffic to your new web application is (usually) vital. Our team has adopted a basic pattern that we use throughout the application. This way we don’t have to go through at the last minute and figure out where titles are and/or aren’t being set.
In a previous post, I shared a basic plugin that our team uses on projects to manage page titles on a view-by-view basis.
Additionally, be sure to take advantage of using descriptive permalink URLs.
Another tip is to setup your application with analytics (google analytics is free!) If there is one thing that I wish we had setup from day one on every project in the past, was a set of conversion goals. So, be sure to get into your analytics account and prepare your application so that you can track these goals from the moment your application is launched. Collecting as much data about your visitor’s usage habits is going to help you in the coming weeks and months as you tune things based off of feedback and this data. Also, after you begin to introduce changes, you can analyze these metrics to verify that you’re improving things and not the opposite.
So, be sure that you are doing the following:
- Have implemented descriptive page titles and urls
- Are ready to track your site visitor’s usage habits from the starting gate
- Conversion goals for obvious things like: sign-ups/registrations, viewing your product tour, contact requests, etc.
When Things Go Wrong / Tracking Exceptions
What happens when things go wrong? We’ve been amazed by how many projects we’ve seen have been in production for months/years and lacking something that seemed so obvious. Exception notifications! All too often, we’ve seen teams totally unaware that things were failing for their customers and not being reported to anybody. The easiest way to track exceptions in the past was to use the exception_notification plugin that the Rails team manages. You can have this plugin send your development team emails with a backtrace and all the goodies that’d normally show up in a 500 error. At a minimum, you should be using something like this.
- Tip: Make sure your hosting environment can send out emails! (otherwise, you’ll never know about these problems…eek!)
However, in the last year, the Rails community has seen two options, Exceptional and Hoptoad introduced for managing exceptions. Our team has only used Exceptional so far, because our good friends at Contrast invited us to be early beta-testers for their new service. We love the Exceptional’s integration with Lighthouse, which is the bug/issue tracking application that we’re currently using. With Exceptional, our team is able to search through and track exceptions in our application and have a good meter on the overall health of our application. This solution works so much than the email-based approach because we can track which exceptions have been opened and sent to Lighthouse and if they’ve been closed by someone already.
I’ve heard great things about Hoptoad as well, but have yet to test it out. Would be interested to read a comparison between the two and am curious if there are other services for this currently.
Non-default 404 and 500 pages
Honestly, this is one of those things that we tend to forget about until the last minute. When you’re launching a new project, you’re bound to have a bug and/or a few broken links not accounted for. What you want to avoid is having your customers end up on an unhelpful page that looks like this:
It doesn’t take too long to put something together that is a bit more helpful for your visitors.
So, do yourself a favor and add a ticket for your designers to design a custom 404 and 500 pages to replace the defaults that are provided by Ruby on Rails in
Hold your client’s hands
If you’re working with startups, do remember that this is quite possibly their first launch. It’s important to remember that they’re going to be going through their own spectrum of feelings and it’s our job to help get them through the process with an eased mind. Show them that you have things covered, that things are ready to go, alert them when things pop up… in a nutshell. Keep them informed about the challenges and do what you can help to manage their stress. If they’ve just contracted you for an extended period of time to help get their big idea designed and developed, remember that this launch is just the beginning of the race for them. They have a big journey ahead of them and you just helped them get their new car engine built. Make sure they know that things are likely to breakdown along the way, need to be refueled (refactor! refactor!), and need service repairs. The worst thing you can do is set the expectation that nothing will go wrong once their application is released into the wild. They need to budget for this early on so that they can pace themselves after launch. (this is a big topic definitely worth of it’s own post)
Just remember that this should be a big celebration for your team and client. Remember to celebrate! (and then follow it with a retrospective)
As mentioned, these are just a handful of things that we have learned to avoid overlooking (through trial and error). I’m hoping to share more thoughts on launching in the near future and would love to hear from all of you on things that you’ve come across. What works? What doesn’t work?
What is on your checklist for launching successful projects?
It’s hard to deny that I’m insanely proud of the team at Planet Argon for bringing our client’s business idea to reality. We’ve been enjoying keeping up on how the press is responding so far since they’ve launched. I expect that they’ll do well with their business endeavor and look forward to helping them evolve and expand.
I’ve been asked to share some stories and lessons learned throughout the project. Given that we tackled a lot on the Interaction Design side of things in addition to relying a lot more on some of the advanced features of PostgreSQL (we’re dealing with a TON of data here), we have things to share. So, stay tuned as I’ll be highlighting some of those lessons over the coming week(s).
Additionally, if you’re looking for a team to help you execute your next big idea, give us a call!