Manage Web Projects with Sitespring

It is said that it takes a village to raise a family, and I’d say that it also takes a village to raise a Website.

Think of it: for a single Web project, you have anywhere from 8 to 15 people tightly involved with decisions that relate to design, programming, content and management. In the real world, you know that a Web project might have a deadline of 6 to 12 weeks. Any longer, and the data you’re working with may already be becoming obsolete. Sure, there are some applications you can buy to help manage your projects, but none of the "off the shelf" software addresses the specifics of Web projects. The Web is about fast, efficient and immediate delivery. So, how do you manage client expectations while keeping the lines of communication open?

This is where Macromedia steps in with their killer app: Sitespring. We already know that Macromedia produce the best Web software solutions (just ask anyone who uses Flash or Dreamweaver) and we’ve come to expect excellent software from them. However, Sitespring, unlike other Macromedia software, is not a design package. Instead, Sitespring helps control the interaction between e-business managers and their clients, the tasks and development cycle for any given project, and the version control of any file needed for a project. The final result is a complete life cycle management program that gives the right users the right content at the right time. The end result: decreased time to execution, increased customer satisfaction, and reduced overall costs for any given project, all through a Web interface.

Getting Ready, Fast!

No Web software management tool will take off unless it’s fast to install and easy to use. Well, Macromedia has these requirements covered. To begin with, Sitespring takes less than 5 minutes to install (and currently it runs on either Windows NT 4 or Windows 2000 servers). Once the software has successfully installed, a browser window will link you directly to the Sitespring administrative tools. A big bonus is that the admin tools are all managed through a Web interface! So Sitespring can be managed from anywhere, as long as you can see the Web server it runs on, whether that be the company intranet or an extranet.

The first thing you will need to do in the Admin window is set up the access rights for users of Sitespring. Sitespring has two different types of user: a client and active user. The difference is that if you have a user who will need to access the personalized features of Sitespring in order to manage projects, tasks and version control, then they’ll be classed as an active user. If they’re simply being asked to provide content and review Web projects, then they’re considered to be a client.

Client Needs Analysis

It is the role of the e-business manager or Account Executive to collect a complete business plan, or what’s sometimes known as a "needs analysis", from the client. A planned "needs analysis" will allow the Web team to gain a full understanding of the project, the scope, who the intended audience is, and who the person paying for the project is. Sitespring provides you with the tools to collect this data and store it. Using the Web interface an Account Executive for the Web group can meet with the client and write down exactly what the client’s needs are.

The focus of any Web development project should be on business needs, not technology. As we’ve seen with the advancement of the Web over the last five years, technology can go stale very quickly. Business needs, however, last in the longer term.

Sitespring makes the client’s business needs available to everyone within the development team. This is critical — at any point in time Web development team members can review this data to understand how their roles fit within the greater vision. It can help team members make sense of seemingly cryptic tasks and, more importantly, increase the flow of communication.

Tasks

Once the business needs analysis is completed, the next step lies in the hands of the Project Manager. They take the "needs analysis" and, with help from the Account Executive, break down the various parts of the project into tasks that can then be assigned to Sitespring Active users.

Each user receives their task through email and can access the details of their task through a Website. By providing two methods of content delivery, the Project Manager is able to keep the paths of communication open.

Each email provides a direct link back to the Sitespring Website. A user who clicks on this link is immediately directed back to the site. After logging in, they are presented with a Web page that’s personalized to their needs. They can choose from four main tabs: Projects, Tasks, Discussions and Reports.

As you might guess, the "Projects" tab lists the projects that the user is involved with. At any time the user can click on a project to review its documentation, including any client contact information.

The second tab identifies all the tasks involved in a particular project. Opening a task allows the user to identify what needs to be done for that project.

Communication is crucial to the success of today’s increasingly disparate development teams. The inclusion of the discussion tab allows open discussion to be conducted around a specific project. This is extremely helpful. Email can and is used to discuss projects, however, following the discussion trail for a specific project through email can be very difficult. Sitespring makes it easy.

The final tab is "My Reports". This tab is a checklist of high level reports.

A user can see what projects they’re working on, what tasks need to be completed, and what the current hot discussion topics are at a glance.

Everyone is a Project Manager

The Web does work differently: time scales are greatly diminished. For this reason, it is important that a developer, designer, or content owner (in addition to the Project Manager) is able to create tasks for a project. Consider this scenario:

A Web development team that consists of three developers (a server-side scripter, a DBA and JavaScript expert) is waiting in New York for a designer in San Jose to finish the composition for a Web page template. The Project Manager for the group knows that the developers need this template in order to continue their work. The Project Manager works with the designer, assigning them the task of creating the template.

The designer works until ten that night to complete the design (5 hours after the Project Manager has left to go home and feed the dog). Knowing that this project is on a short time line she goes into Sitespring and "checks off" her task as complete. In turn, she creates a new task for the server side developer in New York.

The next morning at 7am, the server side developer logs on to his computer from home. He sees the new task in his email with the attached Template. He immediately forwards the template onto the other two developers in New York and creates thee new tasks in Sitespring:

  1. The first if for himself to create Server Side Script to link the dynamic content on the template to content held within a database;
  2. The second task is for the DBA to create the database schema for the Server Side Script;
  3. The final task asks for the JavaScript developer to add a Pop-Up window command to the template page created by the designer.

By 8:00am EST the JavaScript developer has created the Pop-Up window in Dreamweaver and returned the page to the Project Manager for review; by 10:00am the DBA has created the simple database for the page (it turns out the DBA already had it done, but didn’t check her email until 9:30); and by 10:30 the Server Side developer has used UltraDev to create the server side script for the page.

Each member sends through Sitespring notification to the Project Manager that the tasks have been completed. The Project Manger comes in at 9:00am Pacific Time (11:00 AM in New York) and sees that not only has all the work been done, but that the process can also be tracked through Sitespring. Each team member has had to be a project manager.

Certainly this can also be done with just email. But Sitespring allows all actions to be tracked easily. This is particularly important, for instance, when it comes to seeing who signed off on sections of the project. In addition, a report can be generated for your client that identifies all the work that was done, by whom and how long it took them.

Version Control

How many times have you created a Web page, and edited that same page more than once?

Now, ask yourself how many times have you edited that Web page only to wish at some point that you could go back to the old version? If this hasn’t happened to you, then you’re perfect! If, on the other hand, you’re like me and millions of other Web developers, you’ve probably had this happen to you countless times. Sitespring to the rescue!

A fabulous new technology built into Sitespring is a version control system. Unlike WebDev or Microsoft’s Visual SourceSafe, Sitespring does not use a database method for version control, nor is it limited to text-based files. Sitespring’s version engine sits on top of the file server that hosts the files used during the development of a project. You can apply versioning to any file, including Flash movies, graphics and videos, as well as text based files such as HTML, CSS and XML.

The versioning is applied as follows:

  1. A file is created or saved to the Sitespring file server (for all intents and purposes it looks and behaves the same as any file server on your company network). Let’s imagine that the file is a graphic file called starting.jpg.
  2. The designer opens starting.jpg and makes some changes. Occasionally he saves the file.
  3. Each time he makes a save an extension is added to the file: for instance, the first four saves of the file be: starting-1.jpg, starting-2.jpg, starting-3.jpg and starting-4.jpg.

So each time the file is saved, Sitespring creates a new version of the file. This can take up a lot of space with large files such as AVI movies, so a "clean-up versions" tool is included with Sitespring to manage the versioning and storage of unwieldy files.

Versioning is a boon. Every single change can be tracked easily and efficiently. But, what makes this truly wonderful is that when the designer forwards the starting.jpg file to another user, Sitespring knows to change the ownership of the file to this new person. When ownership of a file is changed, Sitespring creates a milestone version of a master file, and these milestones indicate a completed phase of a task.

What is "Done"?

A tricky question for any Web project is to define at what point the project will be completed — when it will be "done." More than once I’ve heard people say "Tell me, what is done? Aren’t Websites constantly being added to and modified?" This is true, however without a clear definition for the end of a project, a site may never be completed.

Sitespring defines "done" as the point at which the Project Manager or Account Executive for the Web team presents the completed project to the client. Again, using Sitespring, the client can review the project and sign off. Sitespring captures the digital signature, who signed, at what time, and for which project. Only at this point can the site be moved to the staging server and onto the main production server. At this point your web project is "done."

By using Sitespring, a Web team can capture the exact needs of the customer, define and distribute the associated tasks for a project, and pinpoint the precise time at which a project is completed. This reduces the time, cost and energy spent on Web projects, while affording the flexibility and pragmatism that’s essential for Internet project management. The client will be delighted — as will you when they return for further work, or refer other clients to your business.

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