Getting Stuck on Tools

Uploaded to Flickr by tanakawho

I have a confession to make. When I start a new work or freelance project, I often become obsessed with the search to find the perfect tool to help me get the job done. For some reason, I love the process of researching, testing, and comparing software and web applications and I jump at the chance to learn, explore, and experiment. I know it benefits me in the long run, but it can be quite time consuming and wasteful at the time. And to be completely honest, it’s one of my favorite and most justifiable ways to procrastinate.

An Example

So I’ve got a business idea I’ve been kicking around for awhile that I finally want to start working on. I’ll need to have a website up and running eventually, but there are plenty of more important things that need to get done in the mean time. Still, I find myself drawn to the search for what might be the best content management system (CMS) for my perceived needs. Here’s a rundown of some of the packages and tools I’ve considered, and why.

  • WordPress: I considered WordPress briefly, as it is a really great blogging platform. It’s got basic CMS capabilities for managing a site, but not enough flexibility for what I’m thinking of doing.
  • Movable Type: I’ve got years of experience with Movable Type, since I use it to manage the back end of this blog, as well as a couple others. Movable Type 4 introduced some really good CMS features, so this one is a real contender.
  • MODx: I use MODx to manage a couple of websites at work, and while I was initially very excited about it, I grew tired of installing plug-ins and hacking PHP code to get things to work the way I wanted. While I know this one is capable, it’s not high up on my list.
  • ExpressionEngine: Years ago I used an older version of ExpressionEngine to manage my church’s website. The site was a mess behind the scenes, something I partially attributed to EE’s design, but I know realize I simply didn’t know what I was doing. Based on PHP and MySQL, it’s both a strong blogging engine and content management system. It’s also the only commercial software on my list that charges for a license.
  • TYPOlight: This one came up during my search, but I haven’t really invested much time looking at its details. It looks promising though.
  • Drupal: Drupal seems to be the heavyweight PHP-based CMS. It has tons of features and is very extensible, but seems to have a big learning curve.
  • Django: I’ve even considered building my site’s back end myself using a popular web development framework called Django. I’ve been wanting to learn the Python programming language for some time now, and this would give me the perfect excuse. And since Django was initially built to manage the Lawrence Journal-World website, I’m sure I could get it to do pretty much whatever I want – at least after I teach myself Python and how the framework itself works…
  • Ruby on Rails: I’ve built a couple of web applications using the Ruby on Rails development framework, so the though of using it for my site has also briefly crossed my mind. Deployment is still painful compared to PHP or Python applications though, so I haven’t given it serious thought.

The Point?

My point is that it’s often easier to us (me) to feel like we’re (I’m) making progress on a project by diving into a fun but trivial part of it instead of doing the real and hard work. In my case, while my business website’s content will be extremely important in influencing potential customers to go with me instead of someone else, the content management system will have little bearing on how many customers I’ll get and how much money I’ll make.

Sure, I can make an argument that a framework like Django or Rails will give me maximum flexibility in workflow and integration with 3rd party tools and services, and that it’ll give me a competitive advantage. It’s not the core of my business idea though, so the more time I spend on peripheral activities means less time I have for real business development.

Still, I think it’s a very grey area. Researching and trying content management systems, billing and invoice apps, and wikis isn’t the same as writing copy for the website or doing marketing, but it’s still a hell of a lot more productive than reading digg or RSS feeds on Google Reader. That’s how I justify it, anyway.

An Animated Holiday Greeting from Idea to Reality in Less Than Two Weeks

Greeneye e-Manifest

I don’t think I’ve officially mentioned this on my blog before, but one of the two businesses I helped startup is a company called Greeneye e-Manifest. What we do, in a nutshell, is make very easy for Canadian trucking companies to submit an electronic manifest of what’s in their trailers, and where it’s coming from, and where it’s going to. We have a website where they can create and send these documents themselves, or we’ll do it for them from a fax or a phone call.

So, anyway, we’ve had a pretty good year with Greeneye, and now have upwards of 750 trucking companies as customers. We wanted to send out a little thank you to each of them, but wanted to do something a little different than the traditional Christmas card. So, two weeks ago, we came up with the idea of doing a little holiday cartoon. One of our guys found an amazing Flash animator named Vlad Kolarov who said he’d be able to get us a finished product in less than a week. Once we got the thumbs up to go ahead from our owner, three of us had a complete storyboard for the animation drawn up on a whiteboard in less than an hour. Then, I sent a quick design spec for some promotional graphics to Casey Jelinski, a freelance designer we’ve had the pleasure working with on a number of our marketing documents. After a few revisions from both Vlad and Casey, I had the final pieces in my inbox this past Monday.

During all of this, I worked on the landing page where this animation would live, as well as the design of the email we’d be sending out. I signed up for a great web service called MailChimp that would let us easily send out our greeting to customers while minimizing the chances of it getting treated as spam. It also produces some really nice reports that give all sorts of stats on the number of people clicking through the email to our website. I highly recommend it.

After lots of testing and tweaking, I had everything finished and ready to go about 3:30am Thursday morning. MailChimp started sending out our greeting at 9:45am Thursday, and since then, it’s been fun watching the reaction. You can check it out for yourself by visiting this page: Happy Holidays from Greeneye e-Manifest.

This whole process highlights one of the many things I love about working at a small business: We had an idea, and we executed it in less time than it would take someone at a corporation to even get approval for the project. It sure helps to be working with great people and flexible freelancers!

Coming Up for Air

Life has been chaotic so far this summer, and I have a feeling it’ll be staying like that for quite awhile. There are a lot of things going on, such as working my butt off to graduate in August, starting up and growing a business (sorry — I still can’t announce it on the internet. Ask me in private, and I just might give you some details.), spending time with Casey and Kael (now 20 months old), and perhaps biggest of all, awaiting the eminent arrival of baby #2.

Today is Casey’s due date, and neither of us expected we’d actually the baby would wait this long (Kael came almost a month early). So, we’re all ready to spring into action in a moment’s notice for when things start to happen. Thankfully, our local hospital now has free WiFi, so expect to see some updates shortly after the new Baby Berbs decides to make an appearance.

Keep an eye on my Twitter page for breaking news, and on my Flickr page for the latest photos. And who knows — if I manage to get some good video we want to share, keep your eyes on my Vimeo page too!

Blog Recommendation: Brazen Careerist

Though I didn’t have much time for blogging last week in between work and life, I wanted to pass along one of my favorite new blogs to you. It’s called Brazen Careerist, by Boston Globe columnist Penelope Trunk.

Penelope offers lots of great career advice to readers, especially those on the early end of their work life. She reminds us often that life is more than just work, that failure isn’t such a bad thing, and that the old rules of jobs and careers are changing as a new generation of college graduates enters the workforce.

I hope to find some more time to write this week, maybe even finally about my career and job as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. It’s just not quite time yet, so I apologize for the false start. It’ll be soon though…

Revealed Soon: What I’ve Been Working on the Last Year

I’m excited to say that very soon I will be finally be able to tell you all where I’ve been working and what I’ve been working on for over a year. It took a lot longer than any of us expected, but all of that extra time means a product that is beyond anything we ever imagined a year ago.

So, please stay tuned. I can’t wait to fill you in on the details!

Unrelated: Several people have been looking for my contact info on this blog to reach me directly. That was an oversight on my part – I never intended to make it difficult to reach me. I’ve now posted an email address and phone number at the top of my homepage sidebar. So, go ahead and send me some email, or leave me a voicemail!

Merry Christmas From the Berberichs (2006)

Here is our Chirstmas card and letter for 2006. Enjoy the holidays!

Merry Christmas - 2006

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year from the Berberichs!

Our family saw many changes in 2006. From a growing boy, to a career change, to a new home, we have a lot to share with you.

Kael is growing up faster than we ever imagined. He loves playing with his toys and reading his books. His big animal book is his favorite. Kael celebrated his 1st birthday on November 3rd and is anxiously waiting for snow so he can finally use his new sled.

This was Casey’s first full year as a stay-at-home mom, and she has enjoyed it very much. In addition to keeping Kael out of trouble, Casey is involved with a Bible study at church, helps out at AWANA on Wednesday evenings, and is a discussion leader at MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers).

Jason made a career change in February after working for the state of North Dakota for almost five years. He’s now with a very small start-up company in Grand Forks where he is getting software ready, writing computer programs, designing websites, and doing some marketing and strategy. He’s enjoying it a lot, and is looking forward to the day when he can actually tell everyone where he works.

In May we finally ended our days of apartment living when we moved into our new house in Thompson, a small town just south of Grand Forks. We’re all enjoying the extra room and the big yard, and it’s nice to know we won’t have to move again in a year or two. We have a guest room, so if you’re in the area, feel free to stop in.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! We hope to keep in touch in 2007!

Making Web Forms Easier to Use

I’m always excited to read or hear information that challenges conventional wisdom, so I really liked this article that arrived in my RSS reader this morning: Label Placement in Forms. In it, results and recommendations of a web form eyetracking study are given.

Eyetracking records the movements of users’ eyes as they use a website, giving designers a clear picture of where people focus their attention, and for how long. It all has to do with something called a saccade – the small, rapid movements our eyes are continuously making. If the duration of a saccade is long (over 500 milliseconds), it indicates that more mental processing is required. Since the motto of good web designers is “Don’t Make Me Think“, the less energy needed, the better.

The surprising results of this study have to do with what’s usually an afterthought on most websites: the position of form labels. Most of the time you’ll see a label to the left of a text box, sometimes above it. It turns out that changing the location makes a huge impact on the length of saccades and the amount of thinking needed.

To read the results, you just need to know that each eye movement is numbered in order, connected to the following one with a line, and is bigger or smaller depending on its length.

Eyetrack results of left aligned form labels

Eyetrack results of right aligned form labels

Eyetrack results of form labels above inputs

Notice the sharp decrease in the number of saccades and their durations between the first example and the following two. This means more information is being obtained in smaller amounts of time, which translates into increased ease-of-use and faster completion times.

This eyetracking stuff has been around for a few years now. It’s really cool, and gives us usability data that’s almost impossible to get otherwise. It’s still pretty expensive though, since special equipment is necessary to properly record the eye movements. I’m guessing this will continue to get better and cheaper over time, hopefully soon. I’d just love to be able to get this same data by using a built-in iSight camera or a cheap webcam mounted above a monitor.

Why you should be a Pragmatic Programmer

Let’s face it: The barriers to becoming a programmer are extremely low. Whether this is a good or bad thing is debatable, but an almost infinite number of internet resources means that anyone with the time and desire can learn pretty much any programming language. This, my friends, is a problem.

You see, a lot of the programming tutorials and examples on the web just plain suck. Sure, you’ll become a programmer, but chances are you won’t learn how to become a good programmer. The difference between an average programmer and a good programmer (and a good and great one) is significant, usually brining dramatic productivity increases (and bigger salaries to boot).

This was a stuggle of mine for quite a while. I really wanted to do the right thing when coding, but I didn’t know the practices of good programmers, or what good code looked like. This finally changed last summer when I read The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master. David Thomas and Andrew Hunt really know their stuff, and give you almost all of the high level knowledge you need to be a successful programmer.

Even better though, they’ve baked the same pragmatic philosophy into the entire Pragmatic Bookshelf. You can learn how to really program Ruby, kick ass with Rails, get agile, or actually ship a product. Whatever it is, you’ll learn it, and you’ll learn it the right way.

So, if you’ve been programming for a long time, or just getting started, the Pragmatic Programmers have something on the bookshelf that’ll help you out. Take a little while and look around!

MODx: A Different Kind of PHP CMS

Right now I’m in the middle of designing a website for one of the new businesses. It’s work that I enjoy very much, giving me the chance to stretch the creative side of my brain and apply my knowledge of branding, marketing, accessibility, usability, and most recently, search engine optimization.

During the initial design round, I started off putting everything in static HTML pages. The advantage to this is that it’s easy to work with locally on a laptop (no webserver required) and you can quickly make changes to a document and its style sheet and then instantly see the results. The disadvantage is that changing anything in the page layout template requires you to go into each page and save the changes. This practically erases any time savings from working in any given individual document.

So, I quickly found myself in a dilemma. We don’t have enough web pages to justify setting up Drupal or me hacking something together in Movable Type, but manually managing the ones we do have was painful and time consuming enough for me to spend some time looking for a better solution. I turned to del.icio.us for some suggestions, but only expected to find the usual suspects.

Thankfully, I came across a content management system I’ve never heard of before: MODx. This blurb on the home page instantly spoke to me, giving me hope that there just might be a good solution to my problem out there:

MODx is the alternative to hacking blogging tools and other tools to death, extended learning curves, and changing your workflow to fit software that just doesn’t quite “get it”. MODx allows you to focus on usability, design, content and building great sites, not on the tools that build them.

OK, so it sounds good, but does it deliver? I’m happy to say after a week that so far, it actually does. What makes MODx a good fit for me, and this site in particular? Here’s a short list:

  1. It’s got really good support for web standards, letting me be anal by validating all our pages against the XHTML 1.0 Strict definition.
  2. It lets me decide how I want my URLs to look, so I can have www.example.com/products/product1/ instead of www.example.com/index.php?category=3&page=1 (again with the anal thing).
  3. Since MODx isn’t specifically designed for blogging, I don’t need to do a bunch of work arounds to get a regular website working in it.
  4. MODx has a really nice administrator interface on the backend for managing everything
  5. The developers have thought of non-technical people too, giving them easy to use text editors to add and change content without needing to learn HTML.

It’s important to note that MODx is still in active development, with a v1.0 release still on the way (hopefully sometime soon). There are some rough edges and some quirks, but the current version (0.9.2) does a pretty decent job of running our site. If you’re interested to see how MODx works, you can try out an online demo over at OpenSourceCMS.

Who knows, this may even be the firest open source project I actively contribute to!

Tuesday Afternoon Random Topics

Here is some quasi-random about what I’ve been up to lately. Just to warn you, it’s going to be all over the map!

We got back late last night from a long weekend in the Wisconsin Dells. We stayed at the Wilderness Resort with some friends, and had a good time (minus the injuries). Pictures (not of the injuries) will follow soon.

I received some inspiration in the mail today in the form of Seth Godin’s Small is the new Big. Check out his blog post that inspired the title (and which might inspire you too!)

Small is the New Big

If you read this blog in a newsreader via RSS, you’ve probably noticed some new stuff showing up lately. Because blogging time has been tight for me lately, I’ve decided to share the stuff I’ve been bookmarking at del.icio.us. I tag a lot more stuff than I have a chance to write about, so it’s a good opportunity to see what’s getting my attention on a daily basis. And who knows, maybe you’ll find something cool in all that noise.

Casey has been keeping things adventurous lately by trying lots of new recipes. Now I can say that I’ve had curry, hummus, and lots of other great stuff I’ve never tried before!

Waiting” pretty much sums up work right now. We’re still not open for business, but we’ve had some tangents and side projects come up, so we’re actually working on a second business right now that we’re going to push out the door sooner rather than later. Needless to say, I’ve got plenty of things to keep me busy.

I’ve been doing some of our web development at work for the last several weeks (fun stuff!), so I’ve suddenly become very interested in search engine optimization (SEO), otherwise known as “getting ranked higher in Google”. Don’t be surprised if you see me tagging a lot more bookmarks “seo” in del.icio.us in the near future.

My beloved Razr has started letting me down on a regular basis by turning itself off whenever it likes. I put a call into Verizon today, and a new one should be on the way to our house right now. The downside: I’m 99% sure the replacement will have all of the bluetooth features disabled, just like Casey’s.

Tomorrow night Casey and I are going to see Cirque du Soleil’s Delirium in Grand Forks. We’ve had tickets since May, so we’re really looking forward to the show!

That’s all for now. Check back again soon for baby pictures and more!