159. Special Guest

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: The northerners are back with special guest host Sarah Parmenter.

On this week’s show: The northerners are back with special guest host Sarah Parmenter. We answer your questions on how to quote for projects and whether using off-the-shelf software is wrong and we have a chat with Sarah on her experiences in the industry and the difference between developing for clients and developing for yourself.

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Our first story for is a new product by the guys over at Litmus, you may have come across their Browser and Email testing apps before and they’ve just released a new Mac app called Alkaline, this is a Mac front-end to their online browser testing suite and lets you test your website designs across not only 17 different Windows browsers which they mention on the site, but also all of the Mac and Linux browsers that the online Litmus services test against.

Alkaline grabs screenshots of your site rendered in all major browsers, the number of which depends on your chosen pricing plan, It’s free to test against IE7 and FF2 and if you need to test across all browsers, it’s available under the standard Litmus pricing plan which offers both individual and team monthly subscriptions, and a handy day-pass if you only do this kind of testing every now & then. Litmus also stores a history of your screenshots so you can see the evolution of your design and also reports your HTML and CSS errors.

There’s plugins available for Textmate and Coda, and you can preview the sites right inside Coda 1.6’s preview window, however because Alkaline grabs screenshots of your pages it’s not possible to do any live updating of CSS and see the results in all browsers.

Paul at Litmus also informed me that throughout April, they’re offering full access to the Litmus service for free on Weekends, so on Saturday and Sunday you can test across all the browsers (using Alkaline or the Litmus site) and all the email clients, even if you only have a free account.

16 design tools for prototyping and wireframing

It’s no secret that prototyping or wireframing can really help in the overall design process, and there’s now a wide range of tools on the market that aim to help you in this process. A recent Sitepoint article lists 16 of these tools and rates their usefulness.

The list of tools is good, convering favourites such as Omnigraffle, Axure and Balsamiq to other applications which can be used to wireframe such as Powerpoint or Keynote. If you’ve not looked into these kind of apps before then do check it out, they also lists the price of the apps so you’re sure to find something within your budget.

10 Lessons every freelancer should learn

If I remember rightly, I came across this link from one of the people I follow on Twitter and it covers some killer tips on how to be a better freelancer, covering everything from self promotion, organising your workflow, finding time for your own projects, keeping motivated and how to charge appropriately, this is a must-read for anyone considering freelancing, or indeed those already in the freelance world.

Some great tips come in the way of keeping customers happy and generating repeat business and I’d like to squeeze in a forth link here to another Sitepoint article (sorry) which covers how to upsell additional services to clients as a freelancer you should be looking at maximising the amount of money you can make from each project through added services, whether it’s packaged services such as hosting, logo design or business cards.

I don’t really freelance but I do manage a couple of small sites I built on a freelance basis, and I get recurring revenue by hosting them on a small reseller account. I’ve also been able to tempt the customers into paying for a years hosting rather than a monthly cost by rounding the amount down to an even figure, which while it’s only a couple of pounds cheaper, always got chosen.

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Interview: Sarah Parmenter on the difference between developing for clients and developing for yourself

Ryan: OK, so onto our interview section and what we are going to do today is an off-the-cuff interview with you, Sarah, er, so for people who don’t know who you are, er, do you want to introduce yourself.

Sarah: Sure, my name’s Sarah, I’m based in Leigh On Sea in sunny old Essex and I own a company called ‘You Know Who Design‘ that’s been going for about nearly seven years now, um, and I just do web development and sometimes I dabble in a bit of graphic design. Um, when I started off when I was younger, it was more graphic design than web but now it’s purely web and, er, yeah, it’s what I love doing.

Ryan: Right, OK, and we think a good topic to have a chat with you about would be the difference between developing for clients and developing for yourself.

Sarah: Yup

Ryan: So, er, let’s start off. Do you give yourself time to work on personal projects?

Sarah: I do, but not as much as other people do; whenever I see on Twitter, there’s a lot of people who have a lot of personal projects on the go and it generally tens to be on a Friday as well (all laugh), you see Twitter on a Friday, generally full of people, um, doing their own stuff but I tend to, if I’m doing something I tend to, maybe, give myself a couple of hours if I’ve got a spare, if I’m waiting for a client to get back to me on something and I can’t proceed with anything. I put client work first, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but that’s the thing that pays the bills, so, um, they always come first and if I’ve got a bit of downtime, I’ve always got projects that I want to work on, but possibly haven’t got the amount of time to dedicate to them as I’d like. I think it’s probably the case with everyone.

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. You get some time, don’t you, through work?

Paul: Er, well we did sweet talk our boss into giving us 5% time, which was supposed to be like Google’s 20% time, where they get a whole day to work on personal projects, if it benefits the company.

Sarah: Really?

Paul: Yeah, well we got, like an afternoon on a Friday, which is kind of sidelined at the moment.

Ryan: To spend in the pub (laughs)

Paul: That’s personal projects, I’m sure. No, it’s kind of sidelined at the moment, we’ve got some major projects on which are taking up all our time with some heavy deadlines, so we’ve had to shuffle that. Hopefully we’ll start to get that back over the summer and work on some cool stuff instead of the business stuff.

Sarah: I think it’s rea
lly difficult, because obviously your client stuff does have to come first, and even if you’ve dedicated an afternoon or a couple of hours, if something comes up that morning, or if you’ve got a problem that needs sorting, unfortunately, it’s just the way it is, your client work has got to come first.

Paul: Yeah, pays the bills.

Sarah: I mean, a lot of personal projects, a lot of people’s personal projects, do end up very lucrative for them, and you could argue that it’s just as lucrative to just go along with your own personal projects, but I think in general, most people would find that their client work would, er, would have to come first.

Paul: We’re trying to convince our boss to let us build, er, an iPhone app

Sarah: Really?

Paul: and sell it on the app store. He’s not having none of it, because we’ve told him we all need iPhones to test it on, he just won’t buy them for us.

Ryan: and a mac to develop on

Paul: a Mac to develop on, yeah. For some reason, he’s not warming to the idea.

Ryan: he can’t understand the thirty grand, you know, outlay to…

Paul: We’ll easily make that in a day on the app store (all laugh), I keep telling him this.

Sarah: the app store!

Paul: Yeah, the app’s 50p, you know…

Ryan: Er, completely sidetracked there, erm. What differences do you find, er, between developing for clients and developing for yourself? What major differences do you find?

Sarah: I find, when I’m doing stuff for myself, I’m actually a lot less decisive on stuff. I sort of, because I’m immersed in, maybe my own branding, or sometimes it’s really good to look at it from an outsider’s point of view. If you’re doing stuff for clients, I think sometimes it’s easier to look at stuff and go ‘well, that needs to go there and that needs to be there to catch someone’s attention’ or you need to move that or make that a different colour, and when it’s your own stuff I think you tend to be either really creative and you don’t really care if you get stuff wrong, or if, do you know what I mean? It’s more, sort of… the boundaries aren’t there, you’re not time-constrained, there’s no brief, you just go off on one, doing whatever you want, whereas with client stuff, there tends to be a bit more, erm, what’s the word, consistency across everything, and I find, personally, when I’m doing my personal stuff, I could sit in front of Photoshop pushing something from the left-hand side of the screen to the right-hand side of the screen for two hours, wondering whether it looks right or not, whereas if it’s a client site, I think ‘right, I have to make a decision on this – where would this go, or where would it be best placed, and you make a decision and you move on, because otherwise the more time you, you take going backwards and forwards is, er, less money that you’re earning, so I think I tend to be more decisive with client work and with my own I tend to be a bit more, erm, easy-going and, er, possibly a bit more creative, in the sense of trying things that I haven’t tried before. Erm, yeah, I think it’s just good to be (pause – all laugh).

Paul: I think personal projects give you time to play with the stuff that you wouldn’t normally risk putting into a client’s site, things that might take you a week to figure out.

Sarah: That’s what I, sorry a man just walked past my window in a pair of shorts, as I was answering that question, which completely put me off,

Ryan: Was it an ugly man, or a good-looking man?

Sarah: No, he was an old man.

Ryan: Oh, right. OK

Sarah: I wondered if he had dementia or something, and he thought it was summer.

Paul: Was he in just a pair of shorts?

Sarah: Yeah

Ryan: A pair of shorts and a smile?

Sarah: No, and a newspaper.

Paul: Strategically placed.

Sarah: It just completely sidetracked my thinking pattern, then.

Paul: That’s OK.

Sarah: Oh, sorry.

Ryan: Where were we? So, which do you prefer, developing for clients, because obviously you’re doing that every day, or do you prefer developing for yourself?

Sarah: I actually prefer developing for clients, erm. I prefer getting a brief and thinking ‘right, how can I best interpret this brief, and get the objectives that they want, er, they want to get out of this website, how can I do that in the best possible way?’ Whereas, I think that when you do stuff for yourself, you don’t necessarily write down a brief as strict as you’d get when a client is sending through something. So, I, I actually prefer developing for clients, I really like, I don’t, I really like doing all the end, getting to the end product with a client. I think I get more satisfaction out of that than I do when I’ve done it for myself, because I still look at it in a very critical point of view, I still think, ‘oh well, maybe I could make those buttons a slightly different hint of green and it will look better’; whereas, with client stuff I think it’s just all about decision making, I think you tend to make more decisive decisions with client work than you do with your own. You think of your own as an ever-ongoing project that you can forever tweak and make changes to, whereas with client stuff you, once it’s live, it’s pretty much. You might get to update…

Ryan: Yeah, it’s difficult to come back, isn’t it?

Sarah: Yeah. Exactly. So I much prefer developing for clients, when they’re nice clients!

Ryan: Yes, we only like the nice clients.

Sarah: Yes, we all like nice clients.

Ryan: But do you think personal development time is important, do you think it’s important to develop your own projects?

Sarah: Yeah, I do I think it’s important from the sense of being, when I personally do lots of my own stuff, I find that I tend to be a bit more, erm, creative, in the sense of I’ll try stuff that I might think ‘oh, that’ll look awful, I won’t bother doing that for a client site’, but I might try it and actually surprise myself and think ‘oh no, actually, that’s a really good technique to use’ or do something a bit different because you’re not constrained by time when you’re doing stuff for yourself, necessarily. But I think, I do think it’s really important to do your own, your own thing, because I think it’s also a learning curve, you might try out different systems to use, you might decide to learn something, you might decide to use something like, if you’ve never used WordPress, you might decide to go and bolt WordPress onto your site just to see how you get on with it, you might try different apps. I think it’s important, because it frees the mind to use other things that you might not necessarily get to use when you’re in an office environment or, or perhaps even day to day because you don’t have the time to learn it, so I do think it’s important, but I don’t think it’s the, er, the be all and end all of everything.

Ryan: I think, er, a good tie-in question, not specifically about developing for clients and, er, yourself. Erm, keeping it with blogs and stuff, do you allot yourself a, like, time to read your feeds and, er, things like that, and to keep up with them, because I’ve been so busy in the last two weeks, my feeds have just gone like – you know when Google Reader says ‘1000+’ and that’s it, it’s just stopped counting, it’s gone ‘look man, give up on these feeds, you’ve passed a thousand.’

Paul: You need to declare feed bankruptcy, I think.

Sarah: I tend to do this really annoying thing, where if someone posts a good link on Twitter, I’ll open it up in a browser window in a tab, and then if someone else posts, I’ll open that in another browser tab, so I’ve got about 100 tabs open in Firefox that I never get round to, to looking at, which slows the whole thing down and end up having to then bookmark them in a little folder called ‘Interesting Links’, that I never get around to reading.

Ryan: When you look back, they’re four years old and completely out of date.

Sarah: Yeah.

Paul: The shocking thing, because I do the research for the, the Boagworld news and push it all through the links, I probably churn through 150-200 feeds a day (Sarah: gasp), which is so many feeds that I haven’t got time to read them, which is shocking; I get so much information, so many good things that I’m pushing out to other people, that I just don’t have time to read them, there’s too much information.

Sarah: Do you skim-read them?

Paul: I do, I skim-read, I usually read the first few paragraphs, just to see what the article was about, clip out the interesting bits of text for the previews and then send it on it’s merry way out of Twitter and then I’ve written a function that, every time someone clicks a link on Twitter, it kind of lets me know, tracks back and so I can see, right, which… and I watch it, I’ve got live stats and streaming on one of the spare monitors, so as this link goes out onto Twitter, I can see it being read, so I can actually what’s actually what the people are reading, what’s been interesting that way, instead of me thinking ‘that’s genius, we’ll use that on the show’. It’s actually kind of crowd-sourcing information like this.

Sarah: Yeah, that’s a better way of doing it, isn’t it? It’s more productive.

Paul: Yeah, but I do the same, it’s like something I really want to read, I’ll open it in a tab and I’ve got the permatabs thing on Firefox, so I’ll set it so that I can’t delete it until I’ve read through it, but usually it just ends up there for weeks.

Ryan: I tag them in Delicious, so I’ve got like tutorials and stuff that I think ‘oh, that looks fantastic’ and I’ve got a ‘to try’ thing, which is slowly increasing in number and I never sit down and have a go through the tutorials or anything like that.

Paul: Yeah, I think the key is to follow a few key, key things and not try and follow too much information, and then just look at what everyone else around you, the people that you respect, in what they’re sending out and try not to get overwhelmed because there’s a lot of information out there.

Sarah: Dead right, there’s so many, it seems to be a new thing on Twitter to actually post those sort of links, day in, day out, which is really handy because there’s a lot of people who have a lot of good stuff on Twitter.

Paul: Oh twitter.com/boaglinks is the premier source of all this information, of course.

Sarah: Of course! (all laugh)

Ryan: Er, OK, so I think the final question to you, then Sarah, is, erm, what inspires you to pursue your personal projects?

Sarah: Erm, oh, that’s a difficult one. I kind of get inspired in strange places, when I came back from the Future of Web Design and Future of Web Apps, I kind of get inspired by other people, not necessarily the apps that they’re producing, or work that other people are producing, but I sort of feed off other people’s energy, strangely. If other people come away from something really, erm, excited about something, I tend to think ‘oh, yeah, that sounds like a good, like when Adobe Air came out, that was a kind of a buzz around that for a while and it got me thinking ‘um, what can you develop with that that would, you know, might be interesting to other people or that other, that other web designers might want to use?’ but that’s kind of what happened with my own app, Olive, it’s kind of on the backburner at the moment, but there was a problem that came up at work and it was coming up time and time again and I thought ‘there must be something out there that actually addresses this issue of, of erm, client management, so went around, couldn’t find anything and then ended up building it, and it was actually built more for me, rather than other people and when I sent it out to a few people, they really liked, and got into using it and, erm, it’s just kind of handy if you build something that’s, that’s great for you, but equally other people find interesting as well. It’s, erm, it’s a win-win, really. I mean, I use it all the time, and there’s other people who do as well, bu
t at the moment it’s, er, needs a lot of updating, because I’ve been so busy with client stuff, but maybe I should have put that first, but clients pay the bills unfortunately.

Ryan: Absolutely, absolutely. I think I, erm, I think I overthink things, so I think to myself ‘oh, I’d love, love for this to exist’ and then I think to myself ‘I could spend the next three years developing that’ and, and someone would do it better than me, you know and just finding time as well.

Paul: Yeah, I think it’s right what Sarah says, you’ve got to scratch your own itch, you’ve got to find something that you would want to use so much that you would spend that amount of time to build it, and then if it’s for you, it doesn’t really matter that much if no one else wants to use it because it does something that you want it to do.

Sarah: Exactly.

Paul: And it’s a learning process, you can choose any language. If you want to learn a new language, if you want to learn Django or Python or something, you could build it in that, just to learn that language, erm, and then send it out in the world, see if people use it.

Sarah: Exactly, that’s kind of what happened. I was learning quite a bit about Ruby at the time, because Olive, Olive’s built on the Ruby on Rails platform and it was so interesting just to get an insight into how different developing with Ruby is compared to PHP. That was just worth it in it’s own right, really because I find that I learn much better with real world examples rather than looking at a load of code. I find that if, if I ever get something like that, I have to take it apart, almost, and then try and work out how to put it all back together so that it works. I think I learn better by doing that and a lot of people do. If you going on to any of the tutorial sites now, there tends to be a lean towards developing an app or something small; I think on the Nettuts at the moment, website – do you guys know that one?

Ryan: Er, yes.

Paul: Yes, ah the Nettuts, oh yeah.

Sarah: Yeah, there’s a, there’s a sway towards actually building like login systems from scratch and things like that on there, where it’s actually showing you the code and then showing you how it works in real world situations which I think is really good, for me, I don’t know about you two, but I personally prefer picking stuff apart (laughs).

Paul: Yeah, absolutely. I usually start at the very lowest common denominator, like a user access system, and I’m learning CakePHP now which is, kind of a Ruby clone for PHP and instead of using their in-build methods which will do it all for you with build this, just write these classes and it’s like ‘No, it’s like the most basic thing I can do in this language, let me learn how to do it’, and I’ll learn that way.

Sarah: Yeah, yeah, that’s, I think when, erm, when I looked at using Ruby for, er, for Olive, I didn’t build it, it was built by a guy, a brilliant guy, Adam Cooke, but I was still really interested to know how it would work and how Ruby is different and the first thing I did was built a, erm, a basic recipe, sort of database thing with, it was off of a tutorial site and I think it’s great if it gives you just a little bit of insight into something that you might not have already realised or known about building your own stuff, then I think you have that sort of passion to go forward with it, you have that confidence to then think ‘oh, well I’ve done that tiny thing, maybe I can do something else with it. Whereas, if you’re doing it for clients, you don’t, you wouldn’t really venture into using another programming language that you weren’t comfortable with on a client site, unless you were a bit silly.

Ryan: Absolutely, absolutely. Paul told me a really funny thing, in between, er, when he told me he was learning CakePHP. He said, I’m trying to remember what it was that you told me, it was ‘if Ruby’s French, CakePHP is French with an English accent’

Paul: Yeah, its kind of the same, just not quite as elegant.

Ryan: Yeah, I thought that was fantastic, that was so fantastic, I made it into, I have some rotating quotes on my web-site, and that made it into my quotes, that was fantastic.

Much thanks goes to Simon Douglas for transcribing this interview so quickly!

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Listeners Questions:

Is Using Off-The-Shelf Software Wrong?

Jon Writes:

I guess my question is about the use of off-the-shelf software. I must admit I feel slightly uncomfortable using it at all. As a decent sized agency of 9 people, with our own very capable developers, I can’t escape the nagging feeling that we are “cheating” slightly by using an off-the-shelf platform at all. Although we adhere strictly to licensing requirements, most of our customers do not know that their stores are powered by what is essentially a ready made system, which we then skin, configure and populate.

What are your views about off-the-shelf stuff and the pros and cons of using it on client work?

Thanks and keep up the good work!

I think the main source of your discomfort is the fact that your clients don’t know you are using off-the-shelf software for their projects, which raises the question why not?

Your clients have approached you to provide them with a service they cannot perform themselves. Whether that is building a system from scratch or integrating and customizing an third-party system to meet their needs, you are still the expert.

There are very powerful off-the-shelf e-commerce systems, blog engines and CMS’s that should be thought of as weapons in your arsenal rather than “cheating”. Explaining to your clients why you are going to use a particular system for their project can be hugely beneficial. It shows that you don’t want to waist their time and money re-inventing the wheel.

Therefore, the pro’s are:

  • It meets there project aims
  • You are experienced with the system
  • It’s supported by a third-party team of developers who are dedicated to that one product and includes a vast community of other users who support each other
  • It can be implemented in a shorter period of time than building from scratch (i.e. cheaper for the client all round)
  • It’s a tried and tested system (You could even give your client a list of other successful companies that are using it)
  • It is also more than likely that a third-party product that has been around for several years is a more reliable and robust system than the one you develop in a couple of months.

That said there are always inherent risks in using anything third-party, whether it be API’s, frameworks, libraries or software and I have a general rule of thumb that I try to always adhere

Don’t implement something you don’t understand!

If it breaks, it costs you time and money to fix the problem, and that’s once you’ve diagnosed what that problem is. The longer it takes you to fix the higher the risk that your client is going to lose confidence in your ability to deliver.

So take the time to do some dissecting and learn how to use your tools as fully as you can prior to implementation.

How do you price and quote different projects?

Jamie who’s just started up his own web development company is having trouble working out how to price and quote different projects and wonders if we have any tips that we’ve found helpful when quoting for clients?

One of the hardest things when starting out, and even for established businesses is finding your feet with pricing. I think the biggest lesson I learnt is not to under-quote just to gain the business, even though you are in need of clients. It makes no business sense to work for peanuts, you’re better holding off for a client who respects the work you do and pays honestly for that work rather than being a design machine churning out work just to make ends meet.

The other important thing I learnt in my first year of business is, clients who barter with your prices are generally bad news. We’ve all heard it, “if you can do this one at x-amount we have plenty of other work in the pipeline we want to use you for” – while this sounds tempting, 9 times out of 10 the promise of the further work never comes off, even if it does they would normally expect further work at the “cheap” price they paid you before, as you accepted it so you must be happy to work for that right? Wrong.

I always find it helpful to ask the client for a ballpark figure prior to laying out the full proposal, this negates you wasting time putting together the proposal of cost plus terms and conditions only to find the client wants to build ebay on a budget of £300.

I also find ballpark figures helpful because I find it easier to provide the client with options, even if they have a relatively small budget there is normally still something you can do, even if it is very basic – but it gives you a starting block to explain if their budget was a bigger they could bolt on a CMS system or have a better shopping cart, then explain the benefits of those. You’d be suprised how much the budgets are then increased by.

It’s all about providing the client with the best solution for their project at the end of the day, and if you think the best solution would be bolting on Expression Engine or the like, you need to give the client the choice to do this and expand their budget if necessary rather than cut them out of the equation because of it, it’s all about educating the client.