I’m Over It, Now What?

It’s taken me a really long time to figure this out: web development is just not my thing. It used to be, but I’ve realized over the past couple of years that I enjoy data science and digital marketing (and not so much web development). I really am over combing through code and updating people’s contact information every day. My brain needs more exercise. Soooo, what do I do?

Several of my friends have jumped the higher ed ship & have started their own web businesses. I would like for consulting to be my full-time job, but I am scared to take the leap, mainly because of insurance and other benefits. The people I know that exited are happy and they seem to be successful. I am afraid that I won’t be able to find enough work to say adios right now.

Please, let me know about your experiences. Are there things you checked off the list of to-do items before you did your own thing? I need some advice!

A Higher Ed Web Redesign and a Space Shuttle

This is the first post in a series about lessons learned from the 
latest higher ed web redesign that I survived. What worked, what didn't and what I'll do differently next time.

Three! Two! One! Launch! Holy Crap! Hold your breath! Breathe! Celebrate! Hold on for the ride!

I’ve seen one space shuttle launch. The summer of 1994, the space shuttle Columbia launched from Kennedy Space Center, it was one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed. When I hear the word “launch” it’s the first thing I think of, every. single. time.

How does that July day have anything to do with websites? I’m the kind of geek that ponders these types of things, so hang with me.

Team
It takes the perfect team of astronauts for a successful mission. After years of college education, if someone is chosen to be an astronaut, they go through 2 years of intense training and then months of specialized training for a specific mission. A team that is completely in sync for a mission is critical for success.

Please, college admin people, do not put the responsibility of the most important piece in marketing your college on the shoulders of one poor soul! I am blessed to have a great team and support. I’ve been the lone wolf, make the investment in a team!

This was the first redesign that my young (and awesome) team had the pleasure of being a part of, and I learned a lot about myself – especially improvements I need to make in my style of work (remember, I’m used to being the wolf), leadership, project management, stress management, and communication. You name it, I learned I needed to adapt and continue to improve myself. I’m working on it!

Preparation
Fabrication of the Columbia space shuttle started in 1975 and it did not launch with humans aboard until 6 years later. Thank God, it doesn’t take this long to create a website, but my point is that NASA never flung a spacecraft into orbit as quickly as possible and that should never be the case with an extensive redesign of a large website. No, there will be no lives lost if a website sucks, but it WILL crash or never get off the ground without a plan. Time wasted, money wasted, potential students lost. Patience, Jedi friends. Do or do not, there is no try.

The planning of a web redesign is the most important (and longest) phase. No, we aren’t talking rocket science, but you have to have a strategy and goals.

  • What do you want your web visitors to ultimately do?
  • Who the heck ARE these people visiting your website?
  • What do they want to do?
  • What are they having trouble doing?
  • What roadblocks stop them from completing their goal and yours?
  • Is the technology you are using helping you? Do you have the right CMS?
  • What content works, what content is useless?

Yes, many times this phase is the hardest to explain to people who aren’t doing the actual work. Get ready:

“What does it LOOK like?” (Answer: A bunch of spreadsheets, some flowcharts, some documents, scribbles, maybe a box?)

“What have ya’ll been DOING?” (Answer: Stuff no one wants to do, hear about at this point, or attempt to understand. The important stuff- getting ducks in a row so that we can explain the plan and execute it. Who, what, where, why, how, when….)

The best thing we did this go-round: We had analytics, concrete proof and answers to the who, what, where, why, how and when.

Google Analytics – I personally prefer 2 years of analytics (GA or whatever) from the retiring site to work with, but many times you won’t have this luxury. If you aren’t actively using and understanding your web analytics, start NOW. Don’t know where to start, or are completely overwhelmed or lost? – Hire a consultant to help. We hired a consultant to audit said retiring site, help us tie analytics to dollar signs, and help communicate why our site sucked and what we needed to do about it.

Another thing we did right: We used our inbound marketing platform to ask our users questions and to create personas of our visitors to map the journey they take when they come to our site. We also used heatmaps and session recordings to try to understand how we could simplify the road map to the visitors destination. A year or so of this kind of thing produces HUGE AMOUNTS of useful data that takes a lot of time to tie together and make sense of. It’s worth it, don’t fling a shuttle into space before it’s ready!

Prep for launch day and the following week is something we should all start thinking of faaaar before it happens. Yes, a strategy for issues is great, but ya know that saying about the best laid plans….yeah. There will be surprises and people will freak about change.

Lesson learned: Astronauts go through intense training and mental preparation for the confined area that they will be in, dealing with motion sickness and feeling horrible because our blood apparently does weird things when there’s zero gravity, and countless other things that will challenge their minds & bodies. I’m pretty sure all the prep in the world doesn’t feel like it’s done much good at certain moments to the brave men and women who have been and are high above the earth.
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I can’t count how many launch days I have survived, you get MAYBE 15 minutes of celebration and pride, and then the motion sickness starts. I will never get used to launch week and it’s hard to prepare teams who haven’t been through it before. When you have a huge site that gets millions of visits and you change it…hold on to your seats!

5076525237_83a53e29fa_zThe pressure of handling emails, office visits, the people who are difficult on perfect days come out of the woodwork because you’ve given them something to be difficult about…it’s not fun. Criticism by people who truly believe there was a magic wand that changed the site overnight are tough, and they’ll never understand the work it took, the time put in, or anything else…they want their button back where it was and they want it NOW! Eventually it settles, it’s really ok if the button is in a different place, you fix the surprises (it sort of feels like you have a gun to your head while you do it), and the change becomes normal.

Soooo much preparation! If you’ve seen a shuttle launch, even on tv, have you thought about what the team behind that launch had been doing up until that moment? The plans, the tests, the problem solving, the changes, the failures…all before the launch and the actual mission…crazy. We aren’t astronauts, but I want to hug one. If you work in higher education and your college has recently launched a new website, hug your favorite web person the next time you see them.

 

Why I Choose to Work at a Community College vs Private Sector

photo of a roll of cash, money isnt everything, do what you loveIt’s no secret that someone with programming, data science, web development, marketing skills & experience could make much more money in the private sector, working anywhere other than a state funded community college, or any state job. I get asked all the time why I choose to do what I do where I do it when other opportunities arise with alluring salaries.

There are several answers that I usually give, the first being that I could never use my skills or talents to help sell a product or service for a company who’d do anything to make a sale or a profit, not caring about anything else or the people they sell to. Not my thing. It’s a requirement for me that whatever I do with most of my time HELPS people.

I tend to have a different view than most, of what I can accomplish using the information I can gather for marketing efforts, web development and other uses across the college. I don’t do what I do for the money, I do what I do to help people who aren’t aware of the programs and services we offer that can better their lives and the lives of their families. If someone needs a GED, we can help and we can help them get into the workforce quickly, many times at no cost. I use my skills to make people aware of opportunities and to help figure out what workforce needs are out there, and what programs our students are looking for – even if we don’t have them. I do what I do to HELP. I know I’ll never be rich & that’s ok.

I was a victim of the “I have no idea what I am doing” student loan trap when I went straight to a university from high school – young with no clue and with little access to anyone who did have a clue! For the love of all that is Holy, I want to save anyone I can from needless debt. We offer all of the core courses needed for someone who wants to go to a 4 year college and they’re guaranteed to transfer. Why pay twice as much (or more) at a university when you can get what you need and save money? Time travel, please? I wish I knew then what I know now.

Today, web, data and programming work hand in hand in everything from marketing to business intelligence. In higher ed, it’s traditionally been difficult to measure marketing success, workforce needs, student and program needs, etc. Marketing budgets (as well as all public college budgets in general) have not risen much, if at all, in many years. Although some schools across the country are at least partially funded based on student success, enrollment currently drives our budget. Our college is extremely affordable, we don’t fish for veterans just for their GI benefits or take advantage of students, like I once was, with no clue about the cost of college – we’re all at work for the success of our students. I honestly get angry when I see fancy commercials for proprietary schools that exist to make money and take advantage of people in any way possible to bring in the dough. I want to help keep community colleges able to compete with the proprietary schools that invade communities with their insane marketing budgets. We can’t compete with that kind of money, but we can use what we have in smarter ways than they do. I like to figure all of that out, it’s like finding the golden needle in a haystack. It’s like a chess game and when it works, a win feels good.

Sometimes community colleges get a bad rap. Some people think they are for people who can’t go straight to a 4 year college, or call them “13th grade”. After my educational experience, I wish I could’ve seen the future and had known that the smartest choice I could’ve made would have been to get every course I could take at a CC before heading to get my bachelors and eventually, my master’s degree. I pay the price for being young and dumb every month when I make that student loan payment!

I have worked at a public university, the workplace is completely different. I felt like I had a lot of freedom, but I was also lost in a crowd, a cog in the wheel. Even though I work for a large community college, most people know each other. When I have an idea, it’s heard, I don’t have to get lucky (or use 3 wishes) to get people who can help in the same room. I have access to the people that listen, get behind the good ideas and help make them happen. That’s rare. Hello, my lone wolve clan, you can’t change things alone.

Where I work every day is a community, it’s a family, and it is rewarding. Yes, like any job, there are times you forget that- days that suck, days (or months, or years) that are really stressful, times when you feel like you’re spinning your wheels, times when you feel like no one gets or cares about what you are doing, days when gray hairs grow immediately in mass quantities . News Flash – I’ve been doing what I do for a lot of years, in a lot of places….all of those things are part of work, even when you work for yourself. During those times, I try to remind myself WHY I do the job I do. I hope that colleagues and other people in doing this work, can remind themselves of our why: to help people, to improve our communities, our state, the economy in general, but most of all to give people a chance to make better lives for themselves through education.