Of excellence and reputation
Why I need to start a personal website — a very private review of a crazy awesome year
2013 started just normal. Almost. I spent New Year — お正月 — in Japan, together with my wife, my daughter and my parents-in-law. As a New Year’s resolution, I promised myself to do something about my physical condition, especially my weight, which had gotten out of control somehow. At that time, my life had reached a major turning point, without me being aware of it yet. A lot of unexpected occurences were just around the corner, leading me to eventually start a personal website with this very post. It is a story of opening up, of breaking cover — let’s dare looking back (this is going to be lengthy — you have been warned).
Since the beyond tellerrand conference I was thinking about organizing a meetup for Open Device Lab administrators. I had spoken to a couple of them and I realized that they all had the same questions, were facing the same challenges, but were all literally left to their own devices and had only little clue of what the other ODL admins had already achieved. It happened that I wrote an email to Marc, thanking him for his wonderful conference, and it turned out that he was also thinking about getting the ODL chiefs together around a table. After a couple of messages, we decided to jointly put our idea into action. We both knew that an ODL Admin Meetup would be a rather cosy event with only very few attendees. But as we wanted to draw as much attention as possible to the Open Device Lab matter, Marc suggested to accompany the meetup with a second, more high-profile event — and I agreed, although I had never done something similar before. I should note in passing that, at that time, I had never spoken to Marc face-to-face yet, as there hadn’t been any opportunity at his conference. To briefly anticipate, we did not meet personally until October, one day before our joint border:none event ...
About one year ago, I had never written a single Tweet. I did have a Facebook account, yes, but only because an earlier project had required me to create an app. However, I had never posted something on Facebook, Google+ or whatsoever. About one year ago, I had nothing to tell the world — at least nothing that seemed worth sharing. I was lacking my topic.
For the last 14 years, since I started my own web design and ad agency Tollwerk, my colleagues and I have always been overly busy doing that simple but solid web worker ground combat. No rocket science, nothing much to talk about. We neither took the time and energy to go out and talk to others doing the same stuff, nor did we inspire ourselves by attending conferences or alike. We were just working the hell out of us. Over the years, I've progressed through all stages of workaholism until I finally got kinda cured by the birth of my daughter in early 2011.
Real life breakpoints
In 2003 I began to work on a project that should keep me busy for more than 8 years. It all started with a friend and client asking me for a TYPO3 based online shop. It didn’t take long until I found myself developing some weird kind of CRM-ERP-Warehouse-Management-Online-Shop-Wolpertinger, soon leaving all my collegues behind and becoming the only one to fully understand what I was doing (really?). The system — I gave it the name Firelike — went productive in 2005 (and still is today, by the way; it has never been officially released though). Over the following years I constantly pushed the system forward, but at some point TYPO3 turned out to be more of a constraint than the best possible base platform. Impressed by the rise of Magento I decided to abandon the TYPO3 based approach in 2008. I restarted from scratch, giving Zend Framework a try. To cut the long story short: The new system — although improved in numerous ways and details — never gained the full functionality of it’s predecessor.
Over the years also the client’s business had made good progress and the old TYPO3 based system was bursting at all seams. In early 2012 the next system generation was still not within reach, so the client felt urged to reorient and move away from Firelike. At first, I was shocked. It felt like I had failed all along the line, although I had to admit that being the only person working on a project of this extent had been terrible for a long time (if not right from the beginning). I would, however, never have taken this step myself. It took me a while to understand that the client’s move — although being sore at the same time — somehow freed me. Of course I could have decided to continue developing Firelike on my own responsibility, but I rather chose to open up myself for new challenges. And there were.
As it happened, in January 2012 Andi — my longest-standing employee and a loyal companion for more than a decade — decided to break camp and relocate to Australia. Of course it would take him and his wife some time to put their plans into action (they finally left Germany less than two months ago), but we immediately realized that we had to go through a lengthy and exhaustive search for an appropriate successor. At that time, however, I had no idea that this was going to become the most radical moult in the history of our little company. Let’s fast-forward: Since then, three out of five members have left our team, and four new colleagues joined us instead. Never before had any long-term employee left for good, and witnessing them dropping off really made me feel awful for quite some time. Virtually overnight Jule — who had been our latest apprentice — became the longest-serving team member at my side. Still today she is the only one in our team who I know for more than two years. Believe me, changes like this can scare the hell out of you. But guess what: I’m feeling fantastic! I’m firmly convinced that, as a team, we have never been better than today.
It goes without saying that rotating a team like this automatically and radically changes the personality of the whole company.
Wind, walls & windmills
A couple of weeks ago I visited the opening party of a friend’s joint office that shares premises with a little gift shop. To my big surprise it turned out that I used to know the woman running the shop: Some 25 years ago we were both jobbing at the same clothing store. We shared a common music taste at that time and also met outside work. We had, however, lost track of each other once I quit working there.
After reminiscing about the old times she offered me a lot out of a raffle box standing in her shop. Back home I unrolled the colourful slip, which revealed a handwritten Chinese proverb that pretty much nailed what I had been mulling over for quite some time:
I've never really felt comfortable with being the boss of someone — and most likely I'm not particularly good at that as well. I always considered myself merely a rower, rather than a steersman. The events of 2012, however, left me in a somewhat undefined state: On the one hand, my almost-round-the-clock project had come to an abrupt end after many years, and I felt kinda useless and under-challenged. On the other hand, the personnel changes in our team obviously required me to redefine my own role.
During my last stay in Japan a lot of things started moving. As chance or fate would have it, we were surprised by an incredible snow storm when we were visiting Mt. Fuji, and we got trapped in that area for a couple of days. Fortunately we were lucky enough to spend that compulsory break at the lovely Minshuku where parts of the film Kirschblüten - Hanami — at least some German readers might know — had been shot. As there wasn't much we could do except wait for the roads to be cleared, I started doing things which I had never done before (or at least not for a very long time). Most importantly, I began to read. I mean, of course I was reading all the time: Documentations, tutorials or surveys — but never anything fictional or expressly entertaining. For me, reading was a means to an end. But in that very moment I had the chance to read out of pure interest — and I did. I started with absorbing Brad Frost's blog, and continued with others afterwards. While the snow was falling outside, I got deeper and deeper into these reads.
One thing I stumbled upon — again — was Sass. Of course I had some theoretical knowledge about CSS preprocessors, but I had never seen a realistic chance to make them a smooth part of my workflow. I eventually came across an article describing how to integrate Sass into Eclipse, which is my favourite IDE. With a little tweaking I managed to get this work for me — and I was thrilled. Back home I introduced this to my team — and they were thrilled as well. The Eclipse integration, however, didn't prove of much value, but fortunately I came up with a better alternative. Since that time, we’re exclusively working with Sass on all projects, and none of us can imagine switching back again.
Another one, if not the most important incident was, that I started to work on a little experiment that was dealing with navigation patterns on different devices. Unfortunately I had “only” three devices with me (my old dual boot MBP, a 1st generation iPad and my Galaxy S II), so I always had to send a message back home when I needed someone to test my results on an iPhone — not a particularly effective workflow if you consider the 7 hours time shift between Japan and Germany. I was discontent and started thinking about the possibility of a distributed, crowdsourced testing platform. Back home I told my team about my ideas. The criticism was devastating, but justified, and I got frustrated again. That very evening I read about Open Device Labs for the first time — and was immediately hooked. That was it! In a team meeting on February 26th we formally decided that we were going to found the Open Device Lab Nuremberg. Looking back, this was probably the most momentous decision of the year, as everything else evolved out of it.
In the subsequent months, my team and I spent a lot of time and effort into establishing our ODL. I was literally overwhelmed by the great support we got from everywhere around us, not least through the Open Device Lab community itself. Thanks to the help of some realy nice fellows (none of whom we had known before!), it was easy for us to catch up quickly. The most remarkable side effect of all this was that I suddenly started using social networks — most importantly Twitter, but also Facebook and Google+. Remember that I opened this article with the statement that I was lacking my topic? There it was!
All these years I had been longing for a chance to give back something to the web. I had, however, never found a topic at which I considered myself good enough for making a contribution that would be of a true value for anyone. In the Open Device Lab matter I felt for the first time that I could get some things moving, so I became active — and am still in the process of opening up.
I have always been aware that it is due to the efforts and the generosity of a lot of smart guys that I am what I am and I know what I know. Like probably the most of us, I have sucked all my knowledge our of the web, for 20 years. If nobody would have put his wisdom there, freely accessible, I’d be just a bumbling idiot. So first and foremost: Thanks for that!
Encounters and farewells
One of our fellow ODL managers, Frankfurt’s Tom Arnold, played a key role in what happened next. Without knowing that we had never been to a conference before, he asked me if we would attend the beyond tellerrand // web 2013 in Düsseldorf. At least five different Open Device Labs — including us — would be present, and he’d like to meet us in person, he said. As it was only three weeks to go, the tickets for the conference were almost sold out. Fortunately Marc Thiele, beyond tellerrand organizer and founder of the Open Device Lab Düsseldorf, supported me in getting some of the last tickets. So Andi, Ingo and I headed towards our first conference ever. And guess what? It was amazing! I won’t go into details here, but let me me just say that I felt like having a flashback into my time as a student. Not only it was super nice to meet Tom and the other ODL managers face-to-face, but it was also extremely inspiring and refreshing. I instantly regretted never having been to a conference before — and decided to change this for the future.
But there is also another observation I made at the conference, which has really irritated me a lot (and still does): There is this squad of young developers, who are all — for some magical reason — exactly 23 years old (some of them turned 24 in the meantime) and who seemingly rule the game. It’s truly amazing what some of them are capable to do. They seem to have an infinite amount of time, energy and personal capacity for being active in so many areas that I get dizzy from just watching their Twitter stream. This really makes me feel very, very old. Seriously: Where are those 15+ years gone that lie between me and the “league 23”? I mean, I didn’t pick my nose all the time. I’ve been active as well. But nevertheless, I don’t think I have ever been that capable. Sure, I should be more experienced. But in fact, I don’t really see the manifestation of this alleged advantage. There must be something else — I am certain of that —, but I didn't find it yet.
Some time earlier, in March, our little personnel merry-go-round had begun rotating. Markus had left the team after 8 years, and Ferdinand had joined us instead. He was the third new team member in less than half a year, and the personality of our team had apparently changed a lot. So we held an internal workshop in order to realign our overall priorities. Especially the new team members were surprised that we had never advertised ourselves in the past. We realized that we should eventually spend more effort in building a reputation in the outside world. Over the last years, we had definitely acquired a lot of expertise in different fields, but we had never taken any action to communicate this to our (potential) clients. As one of several measures we decided to further emphasize the personal strengths and qualities of our single team members, as this had proven a very much appreciated aspect amongst our clients in the past. However, promoting our individual personalities is not only a matter of our long-overdue and still-to-be-done new website. It could — and should — also be backed by open-sourcing our “private” engagements that go beyond our regular work. So I started publishing some of my projects on GitHub recently, and also this very website is partly motivated by that workshop. ツ
In the following weeks I carefully tried to approach our new event project. Marc was very busy at that time, working on his next conference, and I didn't get hold of him most of the time. We had not yet decided where to run our events, so I began to look for suitable locations in Nuremberg. It turned out that there was going to be the Nürnberg Web Week in October — the second of it’s kind, featuring about 30 independent web related events and likely to be the perfect context for our plans as well. In a certain way it surprised me that we had not even taken the tiniest notice of the first Web Week in 2012. When I tried to find out some details about the upcoming one, however, I soon realized that the volunteers behind it must have been in urgent need for support. Remember the workshop and our wish to build a public reputation for ourselves? There was our chance!
I got in contact with the crew behind the Web Week, most notably Ingo Di Bella, and offered our help. As Tollwerk, we agreed to redesign and relaunch the Web Week Website and to take care of all the print and advertising material that would be needed. We became the “technical partner” of the Web Week — and started the largest non-profit project of our history. From July to October, between one and five of us were more or less working fulltime for the Web Week. We built the new website and output about 20 different print and advertising items. It was truly a lot of effort, but it was also a big step for us towards an opening and public perception. It is too early to fully assess whether our engagement has paved the way for new clients or projects, but there have already been some meetings with new contacts (and others are scheduled). In any case, being an active part of the Nürnberg Web Week has been an amazing experience and of course we will be on board again in 2014!
Regarding our own events, I could convince Marc to locate them in Nürnberg and scheduled them for a date in the middle of the Web Week. In search of a name for the conference, we both agreed to border:none and committed to running it on a non-commercial basis. Since the early beginning I had an eye on the outstanding Orpheum-Lichtspielhaus in Nuremberg as a venue, but unfortunately it was uncertain for a long time whether we could get it. When I finally signed the tenancy agreement in mid of August, there were only a mere two months left for planning, finding speakers, acquiring sponsors, setting up the website and selling the tickets. Phew ... Did I mention that I had never done something like this before?
Fortunately, with Marc as a great partner by my side, we got everything right and both our events — the border:none conference as well as the first-ever Open Device Lab Admin Meetup — became a huge success in every respect (except financially). I won’t go into the details here, as I intend to cover that in another blog post sometime soon. But let me bring out my personal highlights:
- I've learnt that it’s really a lot of work to run a conference, but also that there’s no witchcraft required.
- I couldn't have done all that without Marc, especially everything around the speakers, and I'm really happy that he went for teaming up with me. He is a great partner and I'm very much looking forward to continue working with him again.
- The best about our conference was that we had truly outstanding speakers. All of them had instantly accepted, although we could just cover their travel and hotel expenses, and I'm really, really grateful for their support!
- It was an exceptional experience to get all this positive feedback and I’m feeling very honoured when the border:none talks are ranked among the best of the year. This is hugely motivating!
- For me personally, it was probably the biggest step forward in breaking cover yet. I could never have imagined that there would just pass a mere half a year between my first conference attendance and the organizing of an own one. It really felt so good to do something for the web community, finally!
At the end of October, when our events and the Web Week were finally over, it was time for coming down to earth again. Since the beginning of the year, I had been pursuing my personal search for a new orientation, giving room to a lot of experiments. In the meantime, also Andi had left the team and his departure to Australia was imminent. This was definitely a fundamental break in the history of Tollwerk. Fortunately, we had been prepared and the “next generation” of our team was at the ready for taking over.
As I mentioned before, I had started using several social networking platforms during the year, most notably Twitter, Facebook and Google+. In the beginning, I just used them for promoting our Open Device Lab and the related topics, and that turned out to work great. We got a lot of attention, which partly resulted in device contributions, so it definitely paid off. Additionally, I felt more and more like publicly expressing myself in a personal way — for the first time in my life — so I also created a personal Twitter account and started using my Facebook and Google+ profiles more actively. I also took control of the Tollwerk accounts, I created accounts for some of my side projects and for the ODL Admin Meetup. Fairly soon, I found myself procrastinating my days to death, constantly lurking for things worth sharing or waiting for feedback to come in. It was horrible. Apart from that, those platforms did in no way satisfy my urge to write things down — like this article for example. For some reason, I didn't want to confide my thoughts to those platforms.
As a DIYer and being notoriously “toolistic”, I began to think about creating a personal website or blog sometime in September. On the one hand, I felt like suffering a “social media infarct” and needed to find a more rational use for the different platforms. I started by disciplining myself and not letting me use them at any time of the day any more. I was looking for a strategy when to use them, for what to use them, and — most importantly — for what to not use them (and rather use something more suitable instead).
On the other hand, I had been mulling over creating a documentary page about some of my side projects for some time. I could fully identify with the “Own your data” discussion that seemed to gain traction at that time, so I ruled out any of the known platforms for publishing my writings. Also, I was really keen on employing some techniques that no client is ever asking us for, like for example microformats or webmentions. So I started working on this site in November and tried to put a lot of those best practices into it. In the meantime, it became apparent that self-hosting will (hopefully) be the next big thing in 2014 — Jeremy just published an excellent article on the state of play last Saturday — so I hurried to deliver in time. And — ta-da! — here it is: My first ever personal website!
I know that there will be a lot of work left when I’m going to publish this tomorrow. But in this case, I believe that even doing it imperfectly is still better than just talking about it. In particular, I would have liked to spend more time testing everything on more different devices (I will make up for this though — sorry if something doesn’t work for you yet!), and I would have liked to write more articles right from the beginning. I had to learn, however, that writing is not exactly a piece of cake for me as a rookie and that it takes me way more time than expected. I guess I will never write something as lengthy as this again — but it had to do it catch up with the present. By the way, thanks for still being with me at this point! ツ
In the medium term, I would also like to use my “new home” as the base for POSSE style outbound syndication of all my contents like status messages, images and whatsoever. Implementing this will take me some more time, though, and for the moment there is only some sort of inbound syndication of Facebook and Google+ comments as well as Tweets mentioning URLs of this domain. While I will continue using these silo services — for some time at least —, I will try to find some routine in writing. I plan to write about various — work related and not so work related — topics soon, so you should stay tuned if you like:
- Making of this website — The lessons learnt and techniques involved
- Webfont services — A subjective quality & performance field report
- Making the best of it — Getting my first pair of glasses
- Getting up on stage — About organizing and running my first event
So, what about my resolution, you ask?
There’s one last point I mentioned in the very beginning of this article: As a New Year’s resolution, I had made up my mind to take some measures for improving my physical shape and condition. Since the birth of my daughter three years ago, I had significantly put on weight. I guess this was mostly due to changing my eating habits and the fact that I quit smoking after 20 years. Well, looking back over the past year I have to admit that I failed miserably.
Obviously there is a certain tendency towards obesity running in our family, so I'm not the only one having a teeny-weeny problem with my weight. Just four days after the border:none had taken place, I met my brother, who is living in Cambridge, UK, and who had come to Nuremberg for a visit. He had lost 10 kg during the summer by going on a 5:2 intermittent fastening diet, and he was completely enthusiastic about it. I should mention that he’s a biologist working in bioinformatics, so he tends to see things from the scientific perspective rather than an esoteric one. Without going into the details of fasting, it happened on October 27th, that my brother, my father (who probably has the greatest problem of us three) and I entered a little competition: Who of us could lose the most weight until christmas by making the same diet my brother did before?
Regarding my resolution, I really hadn't expected to get something going still in 2013, and I surely wouldn't have gotten off the ground without the impulse given by my brother. In that situation — with the border:none being over and me not having any further instructions — he just hit the right nerve. I picked up the challenge — and to cut the long story short: Guess who won our little competition? We met again last week for an official weighing, and I really managed to lose exactly 10 kg so far, which is a huge success! Just to get some things straight: No, it was not hard, I didn’t suffer and I won’t regain all that weight, because yes, I changed my eating habits and will continue intermittent fasting. In fact I enjoyed it a lot and I'm feeling much, much better now! But besides all that, the most important lesson I learnt is that it’s exclusively up to me what works and what doesn't — I just have to tackle it.
Time for a conclusion
So what did this fantastic year teach me? I believe that it wanted me to open up, to open-source myself. Open Source is about doing something for the greater good, for the community, and it’s a damn good thing. I have met so many super smart guys during this year, and they are all doing awesome things. They are all into Open Source — they are the Open Source. They are excellent in what they do, they do it for the reputation only, and it was such a pleasure to meet them. I really enjoyed contributing whatever I could, and for the upcoming year, I will aim for doubling my efforts to be part of it.
Thank you for reading, thank you for starting this new project with me and thank you for being Open Source! Happy 2014! ツ