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The Cobblers kids got some new shoes!

As the saying goes “The Cobblers kids don’t have shoes”. For anyone that doesn’t get the reference it means that when you are good at doing something for other people it is difficult to do the same thing for yourself.

Since we have spent the past few weeks putting the finishing touches on our new website, it felt appropriate to talk about the trials and tribulations that we went through.

While you would think that it would be a no-brainer building a new site for ourselves, it seems that it is easier to focus on client websites than it is our own. Dedicating the time was probably one of the most challenging aspects of this project. Our client projects also seem like more fun or interesting, sort of like when your parents come over to visit and your mom starts doing stuff around the house. It’s more interesting to straighten up a different home than your own.

Another situation that continued to pop up was how close we are with the services and messaging for the site. It is easy to drone on for hours and hours about a specific area of expertise that you have. The challenge there was to make sure that we were creating information and messaging that our customers would like to read about. That meant taking ourselves out of the designer, developer, marketeer mindset and putting on our customer caps!

We organize and manage each of our clients projects a specific way and while it makes perfect sense to do the same with Atomic, it was easier said than done. We have scheduled meetings with our clients where we discuss the project and gather feedback. This was difficult because while we are here, we tend to focus exclusively on our clients (and funny memes). Buckling down and setting a schedule for ourselves became tedious so it evolved into a structure but more casual gathering around a team member and reviewing the status and issues remaining.

Since hindsight is 20/20, Here are my suggestions for any businesses considering a new website.

  • Define your goals upfront. How will you know it will work if you don’t define measurable goals.
  • Clean house. Similar to packing your house when you move, do an audit of your existing site and decide what stays and what needs to go!
  • Don’t over complicate the content. Make sure that you have content that speaks in the tone of your brand and have a conversation with your customers.
  • Stay focused. There will always be issues that pop up but finding a way to enjoy the work and stay on task is critical.
  • Communicate often. If you have others that are involved in the project, make sure you include them and bounce ideas of them.
  • Work with a digital marketing agency like us. With our experience you’ll have a dedicated team to guide you through the process.
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5 Project Management Dos and Don’ts

Last year, I talked about a few must-have skills of great project managers. They should maintain focus and build trust among clients and those whom they manage. They should communicate well and empathize with others.

But how exactly do you do that? This month, I want to share a few project management ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’—specific actions to stick to (or avoid) if you want to win your charges’ respect. Here they are:

Do share progress with your team.

You might think it’s better if your team can just work without interruption. Or that designers don’t really need to know what coders are up to. Think again—being up-to-date on all aspects of a project can help teams really understand their roles and work toward a common goal. Don’t have time for a sit-down meeting? Try an email recap every few days, or keep everyone in the loop using an online project management tool.

Don’t shy away from sharing bad news either, like negative client feedback or a tightened budget. You can’t expect your team members to give you the results you need if they don’t know what’s going on. And who knows? Someone might come up with just the solution to get you out of a bind.

But don’t ask for updates nonstop.

While you want your project to be completed correctly and on time, you don’t want your team rushing to you with every little issue. One part of being a good manager is helping people learn to solve problems on their own. And you can do that is by not peering over their shoulders, watching their every move.

Set up a timetable for checking in with your team—say, twice a week, or as soon as a task is completed. In between check-ins, give everybody some breathing room. (If you really do need up-to-the-minute updates, a project management tool can help out here, too.)

Do involve others in decisions.

It’s tempting to keep decision-making responsibilities to yourself. You might think this will make others see you as a leader or make things easier for your team. But like sharing progress, it’s important to loop others in to project-related decisions, big and small.

Sharing decisions is a great way to earn trust among your colleagues—after all, they’re much more likely to buy in to a new idea if it’s one they helped come up with themselves. They may also have important knowledge that could help inform a choice. You’ll never know until you ask.

Don’t pass off all of the grunt work.

In any project, there’s always a task (or a few) that nobody wants. Whether it’s taking notes at meetings, photocopying files, or preparing invoices, it’s snooze-worthy work, but somebody’s gotta do it.

I’ve found the best approach is to trade off who’s responsible for these less-exciting tasks. And don’t you’re in the clear, Project Manager—show a little empathy for your team and do invoice duty yourself every now and then.

Do clearly define project objectives.

Have you ever worked on a project where no one really seemed to know what was expected of them? When people don’t know whether they’re on track or what their manager is hoping for, things don’t tend to end well.

It’s okay to give creative teams some freedom of expression. But be clear about what success looks like—before starting a project. And be prepared to repeat yourself if a new team member comes aboard. Especially when it comes to client work, project expectations can never be too clear.

Following these steps doesn’t have to mean making big changes to your project management style. But it does require commitment. Give these tips a try, and watch your team’s responsiveness improve.

Got project management dos and don’ts of your own? Let us know what you’d add to the list.

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6 Qualities of Highly Effective Project Managers

I’m in my second month here at Atomic, and I’m really starting to learn the ropes. Before joining the team, I worked for one of the largest liquidation companies in the U.S. There, I served as the client contact for questions on everything from thermostats to waffle makers.

Since I’ve had to communicate about so many different products and industries, jumping into the web design world wasn’t too much of a stretch. (I’m even starting to learn some code!)

My experience has taught me that no matter what type of project you’re trying to manage, the qualities that separate the so-so project managers from the truly awesome ones are the same. Here they are:

• Foresight. I don’t mean looking into a crystal ball—I’m talking about anticipating clients’ needs. That means doing research before your initial meeting to understand their industry, pulling design inspiration from similar sites, and suggesting ways to make their end product as great as possible—before they even have to ask.

• Leadership. This is an obvious one, but I can’t stress it enough. Research shows that we form first impressions in about 7 seconds. So make it clear from the start that you’re in charge. Projecting leadership puts clients at ease, and helps lay the foundation for a great relationship going forward.

• Organization. When you juggle as many projects as we do, you need a system. I maintain careful records of all client information in email, in folders on my computer, and in hard copy on my desk. That way, I’m never without the stuff I need.

• Communication. Being a PM is more than just making sure people meet their deadlines. I also serve as a kind of translator: explaining web developer jargon in plain English to clients, then conveying client requests back to our team. You’ve got to speak everyone’s language, and speak it well.

• Pragmatism. When you work with a team as creative as Atomic, ideas can occasionally get carried away. It’s my job to bring people back down to earth. That means keeping everyone focused on achieving milestones, meeting deadlines, and exceeding customers’ expectations.

• Empathy. Sometimes clients come to us unsure of exactly what they need. And that’s totally okay. Good PMs help clients understand their options—and don’t lose it when clients change their minds. That builds trust. And it makes communication easier when issues come up.

In fact, if I had to boil down these skills even further, I’d say they could be expressed in just two words: focus and trust. Cultivate these traits, and you’ll pull off projects with ease, whether you’re dealing with Beanie Babies, spy cameras, or golf clubs. (Trust me, I know.)

Need a web project taken off your hands? Leave it to Atomic to get the job done.

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6 Steps (and 3 hints) for Awesome Project Management

I’m this close to earning my project management professional certification. After months of study and 11 grueling tests, there’s just a final review standing between me and PMP status. So yeah, project management best practices are pretty much seared into my brain for good.

I’m going to spare you the hundred-page readings and lost shut-eye. Here are the steps I’ve learned to guarantee project management success.

• Define your project’s scope. Meet with clients to get a crystal-clear understanding of what the project should accomplish. Consider presenting a project histogram, with data pulled from similar, previous projects, to show down to the minute how your team’s time will be spent.

• Determine available resources. For Atomic, this means meeting with developers and designers, and getting clarification from our sales team on budget specs.

• Check your timeline. Our target duration for web design projects is 13 weeks. But sometimes clients need sites sooner. That may mean asking developers to work weekends. Give your team the heads-up as soon as possible, and adjust the schedule accordingly.

• Summon your team. For us, that’s a designer, a developer, and an SEO lead. Talk about expectations for the project, and decide who’s responsible for what. Address any concerns team members might have.

• Make a checklist. Here, you’ll rely on your team’s expertise. Divide the project into “programs” (design, development, SEO), and create a detailed list of what needs to happen at each stage.

• Develop a plan. Now that you know everything that needs to get done, who, and how they’ll do it, it’s time to get planning. (We like to use Basecamp for this.) Establish milestones for accomplishing big tasks. Give clients an idea of what to expect when—and if increased budget or time will be needed.

These steps will give you a solid starting plan. Now you have to actually stick to it. A few tips to aid you in your quest:

• Know that things will go wrong. Your project plan is your guide—but it’s okay to stray from it when hiccups happen. Just keep your project’s overall scope and resources in sight.

• Document everything. I mean everything. If you stray in the slightest from your master plan, write down what changed and why. This will help you convey time and budget changes to clients—and help you plan better for future work.

• Keep everybody in the loop. Monitor your team from beginning to end. And keep team members informed of the latest—successes and problems. Make sure everyone knows what everyone else is working on, so you can celebrate together when you’re all finished.

Follow these steps, and you’ll be on your way to project management success. You can take my word for it.

Got a beast of a project to take on? Never fear—Atomic’s project managers will see you through.

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Web Design Management│Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Designing—or redesigning—a site can be so much fun. (We understand. We get excited about this stuff, too.) But in discussions of content, design elements, and awesome interactive plans, it can be easy to lose sight of what should drive all decisions you make: what is your site’s goal?

As project manager, I’m reminding clients of this all the time. It’s my job to keep plans moving forward—and also on task. While this goal may elude you at times, it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with. Chances are, it’ll be right in line with the aims of your business overall.

For example, if you sell gourmet gluten-free cupcakes for dogs, you may want customers to visit your shop to admire your canine confections. If you’re a purveyor of bouncy castles for birthday parties, maybe you’d like interested party planners to call you up to check availability. Or maybe you want visitors to set up a meeting, request a quote, place an order online, or comment on your site’s content.

No matter what your purpose, you should define it—clearly—from the very beginning of a project. Make sure clients and design teams alike understand it, and know how to bring it to life. This ensures that every step, from sitemap to content placement, supports the goal you want to achieve.

If you want visitors to get in touch, place a simple call-to-action form on every page of the site. This makes it easy for readers to do what you want them to—without them having to search the site to find your phone number or email address.

(And please, please: keep contact forms short and sweet. If visitors have to spend too long trying to reach you, or don’t feel like giving personal information right off the bat, they’ll get out of there quick.)

When a site is built around a central objective, everything else just falls into place. It makes for on-task design teams, satisfied clients—and site visitors that find exactly what they need.

Are you sure your site is doing what it should? Contact Atomic, and tell us about your goals.

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Why It Pays To Be A PMP

Hey, project managers! Now that you’ve got a degree and landed a job, you thought you were done studying for exams, right? Well, if you want to stay competitive, it might be time to hit the books.

Becoming a certified project manager can give you a serious leg up. It’s good for businesses, because it shows clients that their PMs really know their stuff. And it’s good for individuals, because it can mean the difference between getting a job offer…and getting passed over for someone who did get certified.

The Project Management Institute (PMI) is the proverbial gatekeeper of this coveted resume-booster. There are a few different levels of qualification, though the distinction of Project Management Professional (PMP) is the most common and most respected in the field.

PMPin’ ain’t easy

So what does it take to become a bona fide PMP? It’s not for the faint of heart (or of wallet). Before you can even think about taking the test, you’ll need a four-year bachelor’s degree, at least 4500 hours spent leading projects, and a minimum of 35 hours of professional education outside of work.

Between registration and testing, you can plan to drop about $1500—and that doesn’t include travel to seminars, extra test-prep help—or the coffee runs you’ll make while studying for the exam. When you pass the exam (or, should I say, if you pass—less than three-quarters of applicants do), you’ll have to keep your certification fresh by logging professional education hours every three years.

Working your way to the top

It’s a tall order—but the rewards are pretty sweet. On average, project managers with PMP certification make between $15,000 and $20,000 more than those without. Certification also means membership in the PMI—which gives you access to the latest industry insights, networking opportunities, and leadership positions in local PMI chapters. It’s more than just another line to put on your resume. PMP certification shows you’re serious about your work. (Would you spend years working towards the title if you weren’t?)

I, for one, hope the PMP is worth the hype. I’m still racking up hours, and then it’s exam time for me. For a small company like Atomic, having a PMP around is especially handy, because it shows we’ve got the credentials to compete with big-name firms.

If you’re a project manager and want to get noticed, go for the PMP. It’s hard work, but the payoff is worth it. My advice: pay attention to everything. You never know what could end up on the exam.

How does an (almost) certified PMP get things done? Give Atomic a ring, and witness project management panache.

Secrets to Successful Project Management

I may be a newbie to the Atomic team, but I know a thing or two about leadership. I spent eight years in the military, first with the military police, leaving as an Army lieutenant. At my last project management position (for, ahem, the U.S. government), I was a liaison between a group of engineering students and state officials.

The engineers were brilliant—in the laboratory, they made magic. But when they had to explain their ideas to a room full of senators … well, there was a disconnect. That’s where I came in.

Communication

Some people think project managers just kick people’s butts until they get their work done—and they’re right. But the best project managers are also great communicators.

Here are some communication tips I’ve picked up:

  • Learn to read people. Take note of clients’ differing communication styles. I picked this skill up through my military police training. Body language speaks volumes; take note of people’s actions and follow their lead. Once client may want to be kept up-to-date daily; another may need no more than a call every few days.
  • Practice active listening. I learned active listening from a great book, Verbal Judo (I can hear the groan from the Atomic office now—everyone’s sick of hearing me talk about it). It’s a form of conversation that helps you engage with the person you’re talking to, often by rephrasing one of their statements in question form. So, for example, if your client says, “I think users are confused by the navigation menu,” you could reply, “So you think the structure of the navigation menu is difficult? Tell me more about it.”

When two sides aren’t seeing eye-to-eye, try, “I understand what you’re saying, but …” It lets the other person know their concerns are being heard, and lets you offer your two cents.

  • Mix it up. Try out different forms of communication, even the ones you’re less comfortable with. Practice makes perfect.

Organization

Projects are a mess of milestones, expectations, plans, ideas, people, and messages. I arrange them into a well-oiled machine that gets the job done. To stay organized, you can use sophisticated software or a good old-fashioned to-do list (I use both). Choose what works for you—just have a system.

Here are more tricks I’ve learned:

  • Automate as much as possible. For example, I’ve got my iPhone sending task reminders to my e-mail, in addition to my pencil-and-paper lists.
  • Get everyone in the loop. Try a project management system like Basecamp. The tool allows users to upload files, share a calendar, and set milestones. It’s a great way to keep communication on track.
  • But wait for the go-ahead. Make sure everyone involved is willing to use the system you’ve chosen. If you throw a system at them that they aren’t familiar with, you’re going to run into problems.

Leadership

Though it may seem obvious by now, another key quality of a good project manager is strong leadership. My time in the Army taught me firmness and compassion, but most importantly, respect.

While it’s often tricky for ex-military people to transition to the business world, I’ve made my experience work for me. Here’s what I recommend.

  • Be who you want to be. There are endless types of leaders—I’m a lead-from-the-rear kind of guy, but it’s up to you to decide what sort of leader you want to be. As with your communication style, choose an approach that fits both the client’s and the project’s needs.
  • Step up to the plate. Always let clients know that you’re leading the project—they’ll want to know who’s in charge.
  • Embrace conflict. When you’re handling multiple projects, sometimes you have to decide which one you’re going to stay late for (sometimes, the answer is both). Things may not turn out how you expect, but you’ll always learn something you can apply to future projects.

Project management is tough. But the results are worth it. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “To do great things is difficult, but to command great things is more difficult.” I try to do both every day at Atomic!

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Slurping Up Bugs with Mantis

Come with me, friend, to a day in the life of a developer.

You’re working on a new website. You’re in the testing phase. Colleagues and clients are starting to interact with the site and give you feedback.

On Monday, your client emails several change requests. On Tuesday, your designer posts a list of tweaks in Google Docs. On Wednesday, your traffic manager tells you about a few requests the client gave her over the phone. And on Thursday, your client sends an update to the email he sent on Monday.

It’s Friday, and you’re ready to start your fixes. Where in the world do you begin?

Enter Mantis Bug Tracker.

Mantis is an open-source tool written in PHP. It’s designed to help developers describe, assign, and resolve bugs. We use Mantis to avoid the situation I described above: multiple change requests, spread across different media, in no order, and with no accountability.

Instead, Mantis gives us:

  • A central web-based repository for all bugs, fixes, and updates
  • Dropdowns that let us organize fixes by category and severity
  • A color-coded status system that lets us mark fixes as new, assigned, resolved, or closed
  • A “closing the loop” feature that notifies the person who reported a bug when it’s resolved
  • A messaging system that captures all conversations related to a particular fix.

 

Organizing our quality control process in this way has had a big impact on development. Communication is smoother. Accountability and productivity are higher. And frustration is a lot lower.

In short, using Mantis has enabled a faster, more thorough, and more organized process of getting a web site or application ready to launch.

For a developer, that’s a lifesaver.

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Moving Forward, Looking Back

One of the things I love about working at Atomic Interactive is that every project gives me a chance to learn something new. That’s because the culture here is not about hanging on to old processes just because “that’s how we’ve always done things.” Instead, it’s about being open to new ideas and expanding our minds!

For me, a key part of that is going back after a project has been completed to analyze what we could have done better. Maybe we could have worked more efficiently, or used a different tool. Maybe we could have communicated more clearly with the client – or even within our own team.

Mind you, this review isn’t about finger-pointing. It’s all about understanding that, no matter how good we are, there’s always something we can improve upon. (As a dear friend of mine used to say, “the biggest room in the world is room for improvement.”) That’s especially true in the interactive environment where new technologies pop up daily. It’s our job to try them out – and if they’re promising, becoming familiar with them and adding them to our toolbox.

Sometimes being innovative means rejecting new technology. As Atomic’s project manager, I’ve started organizing all our project information in binders. Yes, I mean an ugly, old-school, three-ring binder. Of course, we use an online project management system, too – but sometimes it’s easier to grab a binder and head to the desk of a designer or a developer with site maps, wire frames or other information in hand. Hey, if a tool helps us work more efficiently, we’ll use it. Even if it’s not flashy or new.

On the other hand, if I discover that a tool is not working, I’m not afraid to pitch it. Sometimes you can get stuck trying to tweak a process to death – when what you really need to do is scrap it entirely and start fresh.

So if you see me bent over my notebook long after a project is completed, you’ll know what I’m doing. Revisiting the project one last time and refining the process that works best for Team Atomic and our customers.

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Is your website helping your business?

Often when I’m talking with a potential customer, they get stuck one question. Is improving their website really worth the investment?

They might want a good website in theory. But paying for it can seem like money spent on overhead, without much return on investment.

That’s why I help customers figure out clear business goals for their website, before they get started. Goals intended to help their business grow.

Those goals could include things like having more customers:

  • Fill out a “request for estimate” form
  • Click a “chat with a salesperson” button
  • Download a brochure, sales flyer, or white paper
  • Watch a sales video
  • Download a coupon
  • Sign up for a mailing list
  • And, of course, make a purchase!

Once we set goals for a website, its value becomes more clear. And our job as web developers also becomes clear: design a site that will achieve those goals.

We do that in a lot of ways. By creating a professional website that lends credibility to the business. By building intuitive navigation that lead visitors through a desired “path” in the site. By making contact information easy to find. By creating easy-to-use forms. And by designing effective calls to action.

The proof in the pudding is when we measure results against the goals. We can measure just about anything using Google Analytics. But we also love to hear firsthand results from our customers. Like when HotSpring told us that the majority of their sales were now coming in through their website. Or when K12 Gallery told us that online donations were starting to roll in.

From my perspective, a beautiful website is great. But if it’s not helping your business grow, it’s just so much ink on … well, a screen.