By William Roboly, guest blogger
In the winter of 2010, my career took a shift for the better. For nearly ten years I had had a career as a freelance web developer. As such, I accepted all sorts of work, from small business websites to enterprise level projects all the way through to online brochures and single page portals. No job was too big, no job was too small. But all the jobs had something in common: I had to manage and deal with the entire project from start to finish. I handled PR, sales, invoicing, development, timelines, client interface, and implementation. All this required bottomless cups of coffee, a touch of hope, and a lot of self-discipline. Although all of it was quite fun and challenging, by 2010 it was time for a change. I had just been closing off three projects, each with their unique approaches to problem solving, but all of them needing my attention on numerous levels. It was daunting, exhausting, and frankly, I needed a respite from all the hats I wore. So, on a warm day in March, I opted to accept a job with the Government of Canada. Everything was about to change. This job simplified my job title by allowing me to focus on one thing – building a User Interface (UI) for Public Works’ Acquisitions Branch.
My role coming on the Public Works project was to provide polish. I was to give the site the look and feel which would make it purr when users used the application. But this is where I got in a bit deeper than anticipated. I came in to theme a Drupal 6 website. Once I became part of the development team, however, we ended up doing much more. We evaluated the Drupal installation, reviewed the codebase, and identified the pitfalls which the developers had fallen into. We refactored a huge number of lines of programming to decouple some of the hardcoded output. This way flexible theming could occur.
From specific to general
When I first started the work I was mostly doing what was necessary to get the User Interface developed. For anyone who’s done any Drupal work with 6 they will know how much of a beast it is, particularly when you keep in mind WCAG standards (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines). Of course, as a Government of Canada site, we were also building a site with multilingual requirements. Stacking those on top of what is already a challenging API (application program interface) can lead to unexpected challenges. Furthermore, the Government of Canada has its own usability and accessibility standards which added even more conflicting rules and overlapping needs against Drupal’s framework. In the months that followed, my role on the project shifted from being a graphic designer and theme developer to a senior level Drupalist. We brought someone else on board to start developing the theme to ensure it remained consistent with other Government of Canada sites. My energy now focused on the configuration and architecture of the site to improve the prototype and move it out of its reactive approach to a more agile and proactive enterprise-level solution. As the project went on, rather than simply dealing with the interface, I began working with all the various points of input and the outputs. This meant getting a grasp on the entire programme’s nuts and bolts. It also meant I was starting once again to generalize my skills as they were applied across the entire programme as opposed to a specialized area.
More challenges unfold
Our very small team of developers had to meet the challenges of a site that was operating live. As page views were increasing per minute and the content was growing by leaps and bounds, it was imperative that we continue to improve and expand the site’s functionality. At the same time, we had to be mindful of not falling into a never ending cycle of bug fixes or scope creep beyond our means. Over the course of the next two years, what started as a small Proof of Concept, went into full Government wide production. It was a huge success within the Government and naturally, that meant the site came under all manner of scrutiny. In the wake of the spotlight came a new round of changes as even our latest processes and business strategies had to adapt to new methods. Eventually, we undertook a full paradigm shift in how we presented our work and how we navigated the development of the website.
Strength through teamwork
Over those three years I went from independent Drupalist for hire to a government employee, but when the department reorganized, I wasn’t going to be able to stay on. It was at that point that Askari Solutions picked me up allowing me to continue on the project. Since being with Askari we’ve expanded the website, added new services, and removed outdated ones. Additionally, the whole while we’ve had to adapt to changing ecosystems, advancing technologies, changing standards and three changes in the look and feel of the site. With each iteration, the team has become more capable of dealing with these variations and adoptions in technology and business processes. There have been some rough patches as we had to learn how to deal with external pressures and the influences they can have on a small team of developers and managers. That said, each new hurdle has given us extra tools for approaching other challenges. As the old adage goes, “you learnmore from your mistakes than successes.” While successes are undeniably preferable, we have learned a lot over these years. The final lesson in all of this is that expectations may convince us that we are about to head down one particular path but reality might lead us elsewhere. The only constant throughout is change; being able to adapt as those changes occur is likelier to ensure your relevance on any project or team.
These days I’m focused on all of the activities you would expect working on a Government enterprise system. We continue to be in the limelight but now it’s from the relative safety and security of a group that has my back so I can comfortably venture forward. For those who might be curious, you can surf on over to the buyandsell.gc.ca site and check out what we’ve been able to achieve. It may not look like much, but believe me, under the hood of this website is an enormous effort to keep information flowing, content growing, and people working from all over the country. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, not the least of which is to contribute to a more open and transparent government. It takes a lot of effort to make something seem simple.