Digital Marketing & Communications

We've seen 1s and 0s you wouldn't believe

We can't accommodate your request right now...

📥  Communication

This week I have been the bearer of bad news too many times for my liking. If I have said "I'm afraid we cannot commit to this right now" once I have said it a thousand times.

And it's not nice.

As I've blogged previously, this year we are going to launch a new external website for the University and this is no mean feat. It requires a lot of planning, a lot of briefings and a lot of hard work. As a result we've had to get very strict on the other things we can help and support. Naturally we have to keep our systems going. We can't just stop maintaining and supporting what we have but we have to stop other development work. If we don't we simply can't move on and Bath (online) will remain stuck in a cycle; focusing on little projects rather than the big picture. We want to change that picture.

In an ideal world we'd be able to do everything for everyone but we must be realistic about we can achieve.

So for anyone I have disappointed/frustrated I am sorry. Bear with us though as we're working on some exciting projects which we'll be blogging about soon...


Fun with Scrum


📥  Development, Team

In the last couple of months we have started to use Scrum to manage our development projects. If you are within earshot of our office you will hear people using words like 'Sprint', 'Backlog', 'Velocity' and 'Impediment'. People have new titles, our clients are 'Product Owners', Phil and I have been 'Scrum Masters'. It's all quite exciting.

I've always felt uncomfortable with traditional project management but using an Agile project management methodology like Scrum eases all my concerns. It's fair to say that even if the waterfall method ever worked it's unlikely to be seen on the other side of this economic crisis, everyone needs to be more agile.

It's very easy to talk about our experience of Scrum as the process includes the 'sprint retrospective'. This has allowed us to look at how the last iteration of the project went and how effectively we are using Scrum to manage it. The Scrum Master takes responsibility for making improvements so that the next iteration is more productive.

The benefits we are seeing already are:

  • The progress of the sprint is clearly shown through the use of a burndown chart
  • The Product Owner has to tell us the priority of all the required features
  • The team are committed to the sprint goal because they plan the work that is included in the sprint
  • Any impediments to tasks are identified quickly at the Daily Meeting
  • We are starting to understand how quickly we work (our velocity) and can therefore commit to realistic deadlines

We have started Scrum with relatively little pain, this is largely because of the enthusiasm everyone has shown. That being said it's interesting to see that often the reason cited for the failure of Scrum is that the team weren't rigorously following the process. We realise we haven't got this nailed yet so our expectations have been modified accordingly.

We need to learn more about things like estimation and how to start Scrum with clients who have never been closely involved with a development project. I'm looking forward to this as I think we are already more focused, productive and working more closely as a team.

I would be interested to know how other people are project managing or their experience of Scrum.


Deploying Struts2

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📥  Development

Hello and Happy New Year to you all!

As a followup to Kelvin's post on the topic, I thought I'd expand on some of the trials and tribulations we had adopting a new Java framework.

We've been developing all our most recent Java applications in Struts2. This has brought both tears and laughter but among the biggest problems we faced was that once we'd deployed a few of our apps to our live Tomcat server we realised that we couldn't deploy new a version without shutting down the entire instance, and therefore making all our other apps unavailable at the same time. Yikes!

It turned out that Spring, which we use for dependency injection, was holding onto a couple of our jar files even when we were undeploying the application. We'd seen this on some Windows development machines before but not on Linux or our Solaris deployment machines. This time however, the problem didn't occur at all under Windows, about half the time on Linux and 100% of the time on Solaris.

The way we'd dealt with this previously was to get the Windows-based developers to add antiJARLocking="true" to a hard-coded Context in their server.xml which keeps the problem nice and localised.

That wouldn't work for our live servers since, as the documentation says, "applications that are outside the appBase for the Host will cause the application to be deleted on Tomcat shutdown." which means that for our configuration each time we stopped Tomcat would result in a number of applications being completely deleted!

We eventually solved the problem by writing application-specific META-INF/context.xml files that specified "antiResourceLocking=true". This means that we can now deploy new versions of our applications and shut down our server without it deleting everything.

This was a reasonably pesky bug to track down since of course I couldn't use my local machine (where the bug didn't appear) or any of our standard development Tomcat instances since I could very easily be deleting people's applications every time I restarted the server. Lesson learnt though and we'll be paying more attention to the deployment configurations we use in future!


A year in Bath...

📥  CMS, Communication, Development, Team, Tools

As colleagues are packing up and leaving to start the Christmas break I thought I would reflect on my first year with Web Services at Bath...

In many ways 2008 feels like the year we got our house in order. Two teams merged, one new head, continuing cycle of maintenance and support but plenty of new initiatives and plans.

We've evaluated how we work together, looked at what we can do better, where we have gaps and where we do really well.

Next year will be huge for us as we embark on the development of a new external website for the University. Plans are already underway and we're looking at significant changes with plenty of new initiatives coming to fruition. Alongside this we'll be working in a different way - using agile development methodologies to 'release early and often' - we have ambitious plans in store.

For now though I wanted to focus on 2008, to look at our achievements and reflect on our highs (and lows):

The highs

  • Development of an e-Prospectus; due for launch in January 09 - connecting with our Student Record System and allowing data to be output to create the print prospectus providing a much richer experience for the end user but also improve business processes for the University
  • Moved the majority of our Academic sites into the CMS
  • Brought in a new Web Designer - good to have you on board Liam!
  • Get Creative - it was fun, it brought the team together and it introduced us to FIKA
  • Put together (and had accepted) proposals for a new external website
  • Delivered Web Sessions to the University community
  • Moved from dSpace repository to ePrints (with the Library)
  • (Soft) launched a blogging platform
  • Developed a tinyurl and QR code generating service (with e-Learning)

The lows

  • Sadly one of our colleagues retired in April. Jacki played a key role in the website for many years and it is regrettable she is no longer in the team
  • As a new team we still have some way to go to establish ourselves and our position within the University. We believe the development of the new site will help us strengthen our profile
  • Maintenance and support of the current site has prevented us from moving on as quickly as we'd have hoped but we have new arrangements in place for 2009 to allievate this

From a personal perspective it has been a challenging yet rewarding year. I have great admiration for the team and am confident we can meet and exceed our own expectations in 2009.

To all readers of this blog, best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


Repurposing print graphics for the web

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📥  CMS, Design, Development

As part of the latest sprint for the online prospectus, we looked at the possibility of reusing the Course Structure diagrams that are part of the printed brochure.
As the old adage goes, a picture paints a thousand words (and these pictures have words on them as well, so that's probably something like a million words worth of content in each graphic...), so it was essential we found a way to use them online.

One issue we had to resolve was the legibility of the text contained within the diagrams when they were downscaled to work within a web browser - of particular concern was the fact that all the text was faced in a Serif font. A few hours of research and playing with real world examples and we came to the following conclusion: in general, there is no difference with legibility between Serif and Sans Serif fonts - it comes down to the end user's familiarity with the font and therefore their ability to 'interpret' it. Alex Poole has published a really good essay on this matter.



Testing controllers with Struts2

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📥  Development

We started using Struts 2 for the first time in our eProspectus project. In fact we're using Hibernate/JPA+Spring+Struts2.

To me, one of the most obvious advantages that Struts 2 gave us was the ability to unit test our controllers. Before now, our project architecture usually consisted of Hibernate+Servlets+JSTL JSPs. We were only unit testing our model and DAO. Though there are ways for us to unit test Servlets, it's not as straightforward as simply instantiating an action class and chucking a load of data at it. Servlets would require mocking up a request for example.

What I didn't like though, was keeping track of what parameters were being passed in and what objects were loaded in the action classes. I often fell foul of writing tests that passed and seeing errors in the web app. It was simply because the params or the objects loaded for the action classes in the tests didn't match up with the web app.

I think it's simply a reflection of some of our (my!) action classes. Not breaking the OGNL debugger console would have probably really helped. We really liked that console.

The eProspectus project was also my first opportunity to use Java Annotations. Support for annotations were provided by Spring, Hibernate's implementation of JPA and in Struts 2 action classes. Obviously, you're no longer writing XML for your most of your configs (just a couple). So there aren't masses of xml files that accompany each of your model classes for example - halving the number of files you'd have. The biggest win for me is being able to instantly see the config for a class in the code itself, rather than opening up a separate XMl file and switching between the two files. It just made life so much easier.

There was some pain in getting to grips with Struts 2, especially when we ignored the warnings in the docs that said certain features were experimental (I actually can't remember what that was now...) but we've built up a significant amount of new knowledge and I'm especially happy to have Spring and JPA under my belt.


The IWMW2008 aftermath


📥  Communication

Well, who'd have thought it? Aberdeen was hot, sunny and beautiful!

Alison, Tom and I got back to the south-west some time after midnight having spent a few days in Aberdeen at IWMW 2008. Alison's already summed up the event and Ewan's excellent keynote talk (even if it was last!) in a previous post so here's what I came away with:

DSCF3315 by mecb Firstly, nothing can replace the face-to-face experience of talking to other people doing a similar job elsewhere. I know it's a cliché to even say it these days, but although forums, mailing lists and blogs can play a part, nothing beats chatting over a drink. Ewan mentioned something similar when he spoke about getting into lecture halls to see exactly what was being taught and how - do we really expect to be able to deliver an effective service when we don't engage with our own audience as closely as possible (and that doesn't include YouTube videos!) ?

A revelation for me was putting what we're doing at Bath into a national context. It's always hard to tell from within the institution, where you have no larger frame of reference, quite how well we're performing and what the comparitive level for our service provision is - having spoken to a number of people I'd probably put us somewhere in the middle of the pack but it would be great to set some real leads - more on this in a bit.

Tom and I ran a nintey-minute parallel session where we tried to get a feel for the kinds of activities web services teams are involved in and tried to emphasise the use of third-party services both inside and outside the firewall to alleviate our workload and allow us to focus on more specialist software for target groups within the institution. We were hoping to generate a little more discussion but it was tough given that most people were exhausted from the previous day's exertions! The conversation we did have seemed to back up our suspicions, suggesting that institutional web teams might have to reposition to target multiple vertical markets inside the university rather than the traditional horizontal market.

IWMW 2008

There also seemed to be general agreement that since web software is now a commodity the quality of our offerings will have to go up in order to make to make it attractive to our audience, in particular making sure we use the ever-improving web toolkits for producing targetted web applications in a very short time frame (days rather than weeks or months). This was reflected in a discussion of the outsourcing of email to companies like Microsoft live@edu and Google Apps for Education and comparing that to our own services. Revisiting Mike Ellis' talk he seems to have found the perfect quote from Ian Rogers of Yahoo! Music: "Losers wish for scarcity. Winners leverage scale." - the days of scarcity on the web are well over, scale is here to stay - how do we adapt?


Reflections from IWMW2008


📥  Communication

My colleagues and I returned from Aberdeen in the early hours of this morning after several days talking, thinking and twittering about the web.

It was great to spend a few days away from the office and it gave us an opportunity to reflect on what we're doing in a new environment with some kindred spirits.

The highlight of the event was undoubtedly listening to Ewan Mcintosh deliver his keynote speech "Unleashing the Tribe". Many of us go to the event and talk about things we're doing in our own Universities but it was great to hear real examples of how social participation has changed the way people interact. The talk was really inspiring and gave me lots of food for thought.

Ewan confirmed my belief that the new generation give little thought to their professional identity which made me realise we need to step up a gear when it comes to educating our students. I've already delivered a presentation on this as part of our Web Sessions but I'm sure I'll be looking at ways we could work with our SU to spread the message even further.

I also found Paul Boag's "Battling Bureaucracy" parallel session extremely useful. Paul gave some expert tips about getting your message across and ensuring everyone has a voice which I'll certainly take onboard.

As for me...

I spoke about my experiences moving from Edge Hill University to the University of Bath.  It was great to get feedback from colleagues in other Universities similar to Bath and to reflect on how the fundamentals of managing a website are largely the same regardless of size, position and goal. We all wish to provide a seamless and valuable user experience and whether we're focused on recruitment or research we want to ensure users get to the information they want quickly and with no pain.


IWMW2008: The road to Aberdeen...


📥  Communication

Later today Tom Natt, Phil Wilson and myself will set off for Aberdeen to attend the annual Institutional Web Managers Workshop (organised by our colleagues in UKOLN).

I have been attending the event since 2001 and it's always a good opportunity to catch up with colleagues across the HE sector to compare stories, be inspired and to generally talk about the web.

I recall Peter Reader (former Director of Marketing and Communications at Bath) attending last year and talking of a merger between the Computing and Marketing web teams but I would never have envisaged I'd be heading up that team twelve months on.

Following a talk I gave last July I've been asked to return to reflect on my views/experiences in managing web teams in two very different Universities. Formerly the Head of Web Services at Edge Hill University, I'll be talking about my experiences thus far and answering the question "have my views about how to use the web changed now I'm in a research-led institution?"

As usual slides are available on slideshare and further information can be found on the UKOLN website.

[slideshare id=518867&doc=alisonwildishiwmw2008-1216400648157784-8&w=425]

I'm not the only one putting myself in the spotlight this year. Colleagues Tom and Phil will be delivering a workshop session entitled "What's the Point of having Developers in a Web 2.0 World?" which looks set to be interesting. Selfishly I only hope they can find a point as I'd like to keep them both on the team!

The workshop has a great line up this year. It looks set to be interesting and sufficiently controversial so I'm looking forward to lots of food for thought!


Web Preservation: should we make the time?

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📥  Communication

Last week (27th June) Lizzie Richmond (our University Archivist, Records Manager, and FOI Co-ordinator) and I delivered a Case Study at the JISC - Preservation of Web Resources workshop.

We were asked by our colleagues at UKOLN (who organised the event) to deliver a brief talk detailing our approach to preserving web resources at the University. Our initial reaction was that we had little to say. Lizzie's remit lies with the paper records and I am responsible for managing our website - ensuring it meets the needs of our users. Neither of us felt web preservation was something we had expertise in nor the time (and for me the inclination) to fully explore this.

Web preservation was something we could see as being useful (in the future) but I think we both felt it wasn't a priority.

That said we agreed to present a case study and spent some time discussing what little we did and what potentially we could do.

The outcome was very interesting.

Simply discussing preservation (from both sides of the fence) taught us a lot. We discovered the risks involved in simply side-lining it; the potential gap in University history and the benefits of embedding preservation into our digital strategy. We felt it was something worth doing but like many of the other attendees at the workshop we had more questions than answers; what to store, how to store, the list goes on...

So is it something we should make time for? Yes I believe it is.

Fortunately the PoWR project looks to explore these issues further and deliver some advice and guidance to the HE community. Web preservation is never going to be top of a Web Managers agenda (in my opinion) but it should BE on the agenda... and for me that's progress!

[slideshare id=492623&doc=jiscpowrpresentation-1214829259795008-8&w=425]