I am rebuilding my site

Warming up the engines

Ok, this one was long overdue. Rebuilding my site has been on my to do list since forever. No matter how many times I tried to do it, I failed. It was the only project that I have continuously postponed in the last ten years or so.

Something needed to change, so I took a coaching approach. I coached myself.

How do you help a client to break the pattern? As always, you cannot solve it if you don’t see it. First, you help them to see that pattern.

Coach: Dan, help me with a piece of information, please. How many times did you try to build your site?

Client: I don’t know, man. I lost count of them. Perhaps six, but it could have been as much as ten times. Ten frigging times.

In a real-world situation, I would have kept helping my client deploy his thoughts for a while, but for the sake of simplicity, in this post I will cut to the chase and go directly for the kill:

Coach: Can you recall the context of your attempts? How did they unfold?

Client: It was almost the same every time. While I was doing something – usually learning something new – I had an idea about a product, a web page or a mobile app, which could help me and others a lot. Where to put it? Sure, on my site.

Coach: And your site was…?

Client (exploding): Not ready at the moment to receive the product. If I had wanted that product, I would have had to rebuild it.

Coach: What kept you back? You are a developer, why did you not simply rebuild your site?

Client (making a miserable face): I am a developer, that’s right, but do you know how many things you have to put into a site? Let me tell you, with bullet points, what I did not know, and I still don’t:

  • What needs to be on the front page? A parallax effect? And what pictures would be representative for:
    • Agile and professional coaching,
    • software development,
    • writing,
    • the books I read, games I play, the hobbies I have?
  • Should I use it as a commercial tool? Should I give it a suit-and-tie look or should I go for a more casual appearance?
  • What should I place in the site’s footer? I have no idea what needs to go there. The sites I have studied for inspiration have a lot of shiny things there!

Coach (scratching his head): Wow, that’s a lot…

Let’s play a game. What would be your next question to the Client if you were the Coach? He wants to rebuild his site, but the uncertainties he has hinders him in achieving his goal.

I am rebuilding my site

Searching for energy

In a previous post, I was the coach, and at the same time, the client. A bit of schizophrenia, if you ask, but for me, it worked perfectly.

Being able to access the coaching toolbox, to feel how a coaching question impacts my client’s feelings, his thoughts too, has been proven to be invaluable since I started my coaching practice. As Pinocchio had his Jiminy cricket, wherever I go, I carry the coaching voice with me. One hundred years ago, they would have locked me away for “hearing voices”. Today, a thing like that might even look cool! And you can get rid of your Spotify subscription too.

Going back to our client. There was a major dissonance in his speech. Did you spot it?

Coach: With your permission, I would like to go back to the need of rebuilding your site. You told me that it usually appeared whenever you were learning something new. Can you give me an example?

Client (eyes sparkling): Oh, yeah! I can give you the last one. As I was trying to memorize the declinations for the Russian adjectives, I realized that I could transform the Excel file I was using into a very nice product, a tool that might be used by other people as well.

Coach (making a neutral face): An Excel file?

Client: Yes, this one. If you get it right, the cell becomes green. If not, it displays the correct answer in the grey area. Just imagine what a specialized product might do! To be able to play with thousands of similar combinations.

The coach smiles, then moves in for the kill. Can you say what is he going to do next?

I am rebuilding my site

Taking an Agile approach

This was one of those times when being the coach, and the client too, has paid off extremely well. When I have heard myself enumerating all those questions for which I did not have an answer yet, I felt immersed in a very deep state of desperation:

  • In order to have a decent site, I need to be able to design one. I know a couple of things about modern trends, but not enough. More study is required – at least two or three courses about web design, web development, usability, and very important, how to choose a good color scheme (you may laugh; I know I did it when I heard myself).
  • Then I need to be able to build a WordPress theme from scratch, so I need to learn that too.
  • Then I need to find some good pictures for the home page and for the articles. That’s even more wicked. What looks relevant today, becomes out of tune and dull the next time when I look at them! What should I do?

I could have asked a professional web designer to build me one, but, as an Agile Coach, I have learned that bringing a technical expert does not help when the product vision is still unclear.

It was an interesting case. I am an Agile Coach. Helping people solving this kind of challenges is how I earn my living. Was I acting like an Agile practitioner? Definitely not, and that was something that needed to change immediately:

Coach: Dan, how would you change your approach if this project would be a professional, not a personal one? Let’s say it belongs to one of your teams that you are currently coaching. What would you do differently?

Client: Now that you mentioned it…

There was something in my speech that grabbed my attention: instead of placing my focus on the content – the bread and butter of a blog – I was focusing mainly on the outer shell. I was building a very customized face for some data which I didn’t have. Best case scenario, I was heading for a great deal of rework.

Romanians have a saying: “Să faci ce zice popa, nu ce face popa” – do what the priest says, not what he does. I remember coaching product owners and teams to go live as fast as possible, with just a Minimal Viable Product, but it’s not as easy as it looks, is it? You know that you can do it better, and having people interacting with a thing that looks only half baked, hurts your feelings. “Let’s wait another sprint. Let’s make the MVP just a little bit better” becomes the word of the day. Before you know it, “as fast as possible” becomes “already too late”. Not good.

So, I decided to use my own advice. I am going to archive the old site, install WordPress from scratch on my domain, and then I will start writing all the articles which are happily zooming in my mind, asking to go out.

The next articles in this category will be notes and scribbles from the trenches: challenges, solutions, lessons learned. Wish me luck. I am going in!

I am rebuilding my site

Going Live

It happened! Ladies and gentlemen, we are live! All the (necessary) ports are opened. Domozină, m-auzi?1

So, I gathered all my courage and I pressed the button. Between us, there were a lot of buttons to push in order to make the change, but it sounds more literary this way. A high stake and a smart villain would have been nice too, but more on this subject in a future series.

While I was adding articles to the site, I saw that the latest ones were shown first. Not good. At least in this moment, I see my blog as a collection of series, which means older posts should be displayed first (FIFO). Seeing the last episode of Games of Thrones before the one where “the winter is coming”, would be less entertaining to say the least. But WordPress didn’t get the memo, so by default it displays the latest articles first.

I found how to change this behavior here:

Long story short, I installed a plugin – Code Snippets – and I added copy-and-paste a piece of code.

It’s an interesting feeling. Suddenly, I feel the urge to finish it. Next post is going to be about planning and priorities.

Fun fact

Domozină, can you hear me? That’s something a Romanian might say when checking a possible unreliable communication channel; most probable, a landline phone.

Sebastian Domozină was a well-known sports commentator renowned for his unique style and his fast-paced commentaries. During the communist era, electronic equipment used by the state-owned radio service was not of the best quality. Sometimes it stopped working right in a middle of a hot moment. Imagine the commentator speaking faster and faster, the tension building up to the high heavens, then… nothing. Just silence. After a second or two, the unsure voice of the guy from the studio would be heard: Domozină, can you hear me?

I am rebuilding my site

Planning and priorities

When it comes to reaching objectives, there are two kinds of people: those who make plans and those who actually reach them. Most of the time, who does one, doesn’t do the other.

That’s a bold and maybe a controversial statement. We need someone to contest it. Let me introduce to you a well-known Romanian character: Mr. Gică Contra!

Gică is a diminutive from George. “Contra” means against. Combined, they mean ” Gică Who Is Always Opposing”. You can – and you will – meet this guy especially during the technical meetings. He is the one who has a problem for each and every solution.

Let’s invite him to temporarily take the floor.

“How can you say that?” explodes Mr. Gică Contra, immediately taking the opportunity. “It’s preposterous! A plan helps you reach your destination. Without one, there is no journey, just an aimless series of movements!”

Actually, no. What does that is the act of continuously planning, finding the next best move in an everchanging context. Adapt and survive.

The words of military generals are an interesting thing. They tend to provide a tried-and-true approach, as they belong to the winning side. The others, usually don’t get quoted the history books:

Plans are nothing. Planning is everything

Dwight Eisenhower


A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week

George Patton

It makes sense. The more time you spend planning, the less time you have for the actions you must take in order to achieve your goal.

It took me a while, but I discovered that knowing just the next two actions I need to take, puts me in control. It helps me fight procrastination. What do you do when you are not prepared yet to do something? A plan!

Going back to my site, the next two things I need to do are:

  • Draw a Balsamiq mockup for the home and the post page.
  • Set up my working environment.

Normally, setting up the environment should be first, but somehow, I don’t feel so. Perhaps my brain needs to see, from a visual point of view, where it needs to go. I’ll leave it this way.

I am rebuilding my site

The conceptual mockup

Allegedly, a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s true, but you know what is worth a million words (sure, besides a thousand pictures)? The ability to enter the picture, to play with its content.

Even before I started coaching teams to work in an Agile manner, I had a thing. You may call it curiosity. I would call it obsession. Like some alchemists before me, I was searching for a Philosopher’s Stone. I didn’t want gold – Bitcoin might have been trendier – but the ability to turn an idea, no matter how foggy it was, in an immediately implementable product. Yeah, when you put it like that, the gold version starts looking achievable by comparison.

I haven’t found it yet, but along the way I understood that while buttons, actions, animations are important, the actual content trumps them every time. In order to create a link, you need to have a “click here” piece of text:

Coach: What information will be displayed on this page?

Product Owner: The annual profit and loss structure. And when you click on a category –

Coach: Besides the profit and loss structure, what else?

Product Owner: Hmmm, the aggregated figures for the last three years would be nice too. And when you select one of the previous years, then it expands and –

Coach: And what else besides the aggregated figures?

Product Owner: That’s an interesting question. Now that you’ve asked, I think that […] would be a nice addition too. It will definitely enhance the added business value of this product!

In fewer words:

while(what_else() != “”) keep_asking_what_else();

There are a lot of specialized mock-up tools on the market, I know, but for the early stages of a product, I prefer using Microsoft Word. It works with hyperlinks and this is all I need for the moment.

The process of building a conceptual mockup is simple. First, I write the page name and I make it Heading 1. Then, I write a short description about whatever it’s going be there. It doesn’t need to be a brilliant piece of literature. Poor grammar and bad spelling are welcome. Most of the time this material will be discarded as you advance to the next level: a low-fidelity visual mockup. When what_else() returns false, I start linking together the information I have uncovered. This is the moment when making the page titles Heading 1 pays off. You can easily reference them:

The name of the game for this phase is: “As fast as possible!”. Don’t insert tables, even if you see them in your mind. Just list the columns, adding meaningful explanations as you go. If you can grab a screenshot instead of entering some text, do it without thinking twice. Remember? As fast as possible!

As a personal experience, for a medium-complexity product, I usually finish the conceptual mockup in less than an hour.

You can find the complete conceptual mockup of this site here: docx and pdf.

I am rebuilding my site

The home page mockup

The dreadful moment has arrived. It’s here. I am looking at the Balsamiq window and I feel devoid of energy. All my shiny ideas are gone. All I can do is stare at this blank page:

Do I need a parallax effect? If so, what might be a relevant picture, a relevant text? Or maybe a full-page carousel would be more appropriate. Yes, but they tend to perform poorly on mobile phones, so I need to design two different versions: one for laptops and desktops, and the other for small screens.

Luckily, I am familiar with this state of mind. I have encountered it many times while writing my books. I think it’s called “the blank page syndrome”.

It happens, to me at least, when I lose my focus. When, instead of looking towards “who”, “what”, and “why”, I switch too early to “how”.

It’s going to sound idiotic, but why do I need a home page for my blog? Why not leave it blank?

We live in a very fast-paced world. When addressing someone, we have just a couple of seconds to engage their attention or to lose it. Some studies say ten to fifteen seconds. Based on my browsing habits, I would say it’s more like two to four.

This is why I should have a home page. I have two seconds to engage my reader. How should I do that? “Show them it’s about a journey!” says a little voice inside my head. “People love journeys”.

The muse is back! Suddenly, I can see the whole site, at least it’s very first version. I don’t have a logo yet, but I decide that I can live without it for now:

I like it. When scrolling, it tells a story about the things I do. The excerpts, besides being appetizers, offer an important piece of information: how long it will take to read that article:

That was nice. It took me something like 40 minutes to make the mockup in Balsamiq, the defogging time included. Now, because I can see it, I can feel how it flows from the reader’s perspective. It’s something that, at least in my opinion, every product owner should be able to do. It has nothing to do with “IT” or programming, but with the ability to visualize the product. Using Balsamiq, or any other tool of this kind, is no more complicated than making a presentation in PowerPoint.