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Channeling Eileen

It doesn’t take long working in this industry to recognize that quality of product is what really matters for a successful career. Quality is what separates us. It’s what allows one agency to charge $350 an hour for a programmer and another only $20. It’s how C league developers and B league developers and A league developers exist.

So, what is quality? That’s the million dollar question, right? For the purpose of this article let’s just say it’s going through the site and making sure nothing feels “off” about the project. Be as honest as possible and ask yourself if what you’re seeing should change in some way. Then change it till it does feel right. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. And repeat again until everything feels “right”.

Us developers (and by this I mean anyone who works on a website/project) are only as strong as our portfolios; it’s in our best interest to have a strong history of work that’s worth pointing at for when the next job comes along. This is our business. But actually achieving quality is a real pain in the ass without a good Web Producer on your team.

Not always but, for the last 5 years or so, recognizing a good Web Producer for what they are has been a constant. I used to hate them. Passionately. They seemed so unnecessary and in the way when I was first confronted with one. But I was young in my career, crazy over confident (even arrogant), and, honestly, I didn’t know any better.

I first met Eileen Jackson around 2004 when I was hired at a web agency in Los Angeles as, I kid you not, IT Manager/Programmer. (Once upon a time some agencies actually thought mixing the roles like that was a good idea. It. Is. Not.) I’d been working at the agency for a couple months, just doing grunt level administrative programming like utility scripts to shuffle files around servers and monitor the network, and my boss finally trusted me enough to build an actual client project.

So I was teamed with Eileen and some talent from Creative to build out a promotional blog for a TV show (which was promptly cancelled after 1 season) that was built on pMachine as the platform.

I understood the role of Creative, that was obvious (create the pretty), but, at first, I had no idea what Eileen did. I assumed she was some sort of project manager or copywriter, but why we’d need a constant person to keep track of progress and work on content was beyond me. I didn’t get it.

I didn’t understand that Eileen was a Web Producer. If you don’t know what that is don’t feel bad. I didn’t for a long time. At the time though, Eileen was like an over attentive project manager that was constantly asking questions that, I felt, were none of her business. Up to that point I had never had this level of oversight into my work, especially from a civilian, and I really didn’t handle it well for far too long.

I could go into a couple thosand words about how much Eileen and I fought tooth and nail, each thinking the other was an unprofessional ass, while we both had the best intentions for the project. In hindsight, it’s one of those face palming moments that only youth and ego could create. So much unnecessary pain.

It took me far too long to realize the secret of a good Web Producer: they make us programmers and designers look good. That’s their job in a nutshell. They oversee every aspect of a project and ensure a level of quality that’s just not feasible without someone in that role.

Someone on the team needs to take ownership of the project. Someone needs to be there to look over everything and say “That’s not good enough” when it’s called for. Someone needs to be the client advocate. That’s the role of a good Web Producer.

For those reasons I’ve developed the opinion that a Web Producer is the single most important role for a project where quality matters. A Web Producer, in my experience, works similarly to how you’d expect a movie Producer to work; they make the engine hum smoothly for everyone.

They handle coordination between the team, the bosses, and the client and makes sure the team is as insulated as possible from the bosses and client. They are masters of Quality Assurance (QA) and know the technologies and techniques in order to achieve a high level of quality. They will call you on your BS if you try and pull one over on them. And, a really good Producer, can motivate the team to create “awesome” when others would have called it a day, building passion for a project that transcends the paycheck.

Sure, you can build out quality projects without a dedicated Producer but at the least you need someone, anyone, on the team to take on that role with a project. Someone on the team needs to think about all these things.

With a good Producer, the production team (coders, designers, writers, etc.) will have little to no contact with the bosses and, especially, the client. The Producer acts as a filter for all of that and lets the team create instead of administrate. There’s no reason for a programmer to have to sit through a meeting to let the boss know that they’re still working on things and all that’s involved. A good Producer makes sure that rarely, if not never, happens.

Eileen was very good at that. I can’t tell you how many times I’d walk past the conference room and see her in there only to have her call me in later to her office and disseminate what that was all about. Instead of a 4 hour meeting I’d get a 10 minute breakdown and list of todos. And this was when I’d moved up to Director of Technology where meetings were the norm for most in such a position. It was pretty awesome.

Now that I’m no longer working with Eileen day to day I do think back on the lessons she taught me quite frequently. It’s pretty much a constant where I wonder “What would Eileen do here?”. Is this good enough for her?

If you’re trying to build a successful career it’s crucial that there be someone on the team (even if it’s you) who takes on the role of the Web Producer. Very, very, important. I don’t care if the client/project doesn’t have the budget or if “it’s too hard”. If you don’t I promise a downward spiral of mediocrity and a career of irrelevance.

Eric Lamb is the developer of professional and enterprise grade ExpressionEngine add-ons. Founded in 2009 Eric’s company mithra62 aims to be a leader in ExpressionEngine add-on development and has a reputation for stability, usefulness, and being highly configurable.

Posted on Jan 03, 2013 by Eric Lamb

Filed Under: Life as a Web Professional

Natetronn16:47 on 01.03.2013

It’s probably been 2 years now so, I don’t fully remember this story though, I will tell it anyway:

Sometime around when I first met Eric, I was helping him make a decision about which support tool to use for and his ExpressionEngine add-ons. He ended up going with the Devot:ee forums, which was probably my least favorite option at the time and out of what seemed the blue he told me I would make a good “Web Producer.”

I didn’t really know what he was trying to tell me because I didn’t fully understand what a Web Producer even was or did to be honest. Part of me remembers saying thanks for the “compliment” being the polite chap that I was raised to be (insert laughter here) though, at the same time I was feeling like I had just been insulted to a most certain degree.

In my mind I was thinking: “Did this dude just call me a critic, a middleman, a non-producing egotistical know it all that needs to be right all the time and push back for the sake of pushing back?”

I was insulted because however I viewed the “title” of web producer, even my own warped perception of the job, I knew he was right in a way; and I didn’t like it!

Many of our conversations since that day went down like this:

E: Nate, can you try out this new add-on of mine real quick and tell me if you find any bugs?
N: sure, no problem…(time passes by)
E: what did you think?
N: I like it!
E: cool!
N: though, can you add this such in such feature?
E: why?
N: having that would make it awesome!
E: no one has asked me to add it so, why would I?
N: because it would make it awesome.
E: I don’t know dude…
N: your going to release this knowing that adding this one tiny extra little thing would make it awesome but, your not going to because it hasn’t been requested? That’s like releasing something half finished and slightly less awesome no?
E: (IM goes silent)
N: umm, did I say something wrong? (and I go about my day like nothing even happened)

As you can see I was pushing Eric to do something he didn’t want to do, even something which might have not been a requirement for release and quite possibly a waste of time. Also, I know there is something which I will coin “change log perception” and over time a dev needs to have made changes to it as to give off the perception that a project is being worked on and updated on a continual basis so, adding my feature request during beta would most definitely be unnecessary, I’m sure.

(Change log perception should happen naturally over time of course and I’m not suggesting to fake it if it sound that way.)

These conversations were only between Eric and myself so, there wasn’t a boss on the other end. With that said, I’m not really sure if my pushing would have even happened in the first place. I could see how adding a feature for the sake of awesomeness might not go over well with the jefe unless previous pushing returned something like a Webby award, for example.

Speaking of Webby Awards, both Eric and Eileen have been on teams which have won industry awards like the Webby. If you look at Eileen’s resume you will see she deserves this article and at the same time you will see that Eric wasn’t insulting me when he said I would make a good Web Producer rather, he was insulting Eileen!

You see, Eileen is a professional, she manages to bring out the best in clients, the jefes and the production team in a way that I don’t think I could ever achieve. She is able to separate ego from self. I on the other hand am in fact just a critic. That original quote I made about being a non-producing egotistical know it all is really just my ego living vicariously through people like Eric hoping to somehow have a piece of their pie as fear has eaten all of mine.

Fear and Ego isn’t even in Eileen’s vocabulary, I’m sure. Even as I write this I try to not make it about me and only about the article itself though, I can not!

Thanks for the compliment Eric though, I hope you’ve learned after 2 plus years of critique and my pushing that I am not cut from the same cloth as a professional Web Producer such as Eileen.

Will I be able to change? Possibly. Will it happen over night, most likely it won’t though, articles like this which explain the positives of specific jobs within our industry give me something to shoot towards and bringing to light people like Eileen Jackson only give me hope that with hard work, maybe even a slight attitude adjustment, that one day I too could become a great Web Producer.

Thank you for that!

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