This is the new year: A look back, and a look ahead

With the new year in full swing, the team reflects on 2015 highlights and what lies ahead for 2016.

Picture of Keith Durrant

By Keith Durrant, CEO

January 14, 2016

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Ed. note: This post was updated on Feb 4 to include QA milestones by Director of QA, Artur Cygan.

It’s a new year, and time for reflections and resolutions.

2015 was a milestone year for us, and in many ways a rebirth. We turned 15 and made a lot of changes at ecentricarts, the biggest of which was saying goodbye to waterfall and hello to Agile. This switch marks a fundamental change to how we approach building websites and applications, helping us provide greater value to our clients by allowing us to embrace uncertainty and complexity to get to market faster.

2015 saw us continue our commitment to our clients’ success in the digital space. We worked with fantastic, forward-thinking organizations such as The Canadian Red Cross, Shred-it, the Arthritis Society of Canada, Curbell Plastics, the YMCA of Canada, and Bell Media. (Stay tuned for new site launches in Q1 of 2016).

We’re also blessed with a great ecentricarts team. In 2015 we added additional design, development, and QA resources. We’ve also added to our strategic services by hiring a full time content strategist. In 2016 we’ll continue our evolution as a full-service digital agency and look forward to growing our team.

And what would a New Year’s post be without a prediction or two? Here are some of the trends we expect will be dominating our conversations this year:

  • Mobile, mobile, mobile - The stats don’t lie. Some of our sites have 50%+ of visitors coming from mobile and tablet devices. Regardless of industry, your site must be mobile-friendly.
  • Site Performance - With the increase of mobile traffic, site speed is of paramount importance. Visitors don’t want to (and won't) wait on a slow site, and performance improvements can have real and measurable results on conversions. We’ve gained a lot of knowledge in this area, and our team would be happy to talk to you about how site speed can be improved.
  • Marketing automation - We’ll continue to see the increasing adoption of web technology to drive digital objectives. This past year we’ve implemented the Kentico Enterprise Marketing solution on many of our projects. Features such as content personalization, a/b testing, campaign management, and drip marketing allow you to take a metrics-driven approach to improving KPIs.
  • Content strategy - If your website isn’t achieving its goals, content is often a good place to start. Talk to us about putting together a unified content strategy that works across channels, meets business goals, and services users.
  • eCommerce - Look for anyone who’s selling products or services online to move into or expand their presence the eCommerce space.

I’ll turn the remainder of the post over to the ecentricarts team, so they can tell you about their department-specific 2015 highlights and 2016 goals.
 

Stephanie

Project Management (Stephanie Allen)

The project management team did a lot of evolving in 2015. Highlights include:

  • Cross-departmental teams - We formed new project teams to better collaborate and be more efficient with our people planning for project work.
  • Weekly status and bi-monthly deep dives - Since we no longer sit together as a department, we introduced a weekly status meeting and bi-monthly deep dive meetings for us to connect and share our successes and learnings.
  • We all got scrum certified - We led Lunch & Learns to share our knowledge and help the agency move to Agile process.
  • We did more Lessons Learned - One of the key benefits of working in a more iterative way is we accomplished our goal of doing more Lessons Learned, something we could now do with each Sprint Retrospective.

After all the change in 2015, 2016 will be about working toward perfecting our skills. Some goals:

  • Evaluate our customer service methodology - We know to be successful, we need to continue to keep customer service top of mind.
  • Create more consistency - Now that we're all working in Teams, we have an opportunity to be more consistent in our communication and task management approach.
  • Maximize our time - Spend less time on task management and more on strategic planning.
 
Ann, Jen, Michelle

Content/User Experience/Design (Ann Buechner, Jen Michie, Michelle Claessens)

2015 was a big year in the Strategy and Creative Department, which saw us expanding and adding to our capabilities, while establishing and improving process — particularly as it relates to the implementation of Agile. A few highlights include:

  • ecentricarts.com - After a long gestation, the new, improved, rebranded ecentricarts.com went live!
  • Revamped marketing and social strategy - We’ve increased our online presence and shared our new brand with the world.
  • Agile - We moved to an Agile, team-based approach.
  • Better brainstorming - We implemented a collaborative approach with clients during the brainstorming and research phases of projects, which has led to higher quality work.
  • Public speaking - We improved our presentation skills with a series of Lightning Talks (short presentations on a topic of interest to the presenter). Topics included: space, changing a bike tire, agile design, and — ironically — the fear of presenting.
  • Becoming T-shaped - We endeavoured to become more T-shaped and grow our creative capabilities.
  • Content strategy - We added a content strategist to our team to help our clients ensure their content reflects their business goals and users’ needs.

2016 is already promising to be just as exciting and fast-paced as the last. Some goals include:

  • Creative process - Continue to evolve our creative process, including formalizing how design fits into our Agile methodology.
  • Spread the word - Socialize our creative process more among the agency, and start to see it in practice.
  • Go full service - Strengthen our abilities as a full service marketing agency by offering new services like content strategy, and adding new team members.
  • Blog more - Become more active on the ecentricarts blog (starting with this post!).
 

Front End Development (Sarah Pengelly)

2015 continued to push the front end landscape in the industry and here at ecentricarts, too. Here are our highlights:

  • Workflow automation - We adopted workflow automation across all projects, standardizing on grunt.js and then gulp.js as the tools of choice. Using a consistent toolkit across projects created efficiency and better collaboration for front end developers.
  • Front end performance - Performance became an important measure of success at ecentricarts, mirroring industry trends and consumer habits. With mobile as many users’ primary point of interaction with the internet, the FED group takes responsive design and performance seriously. Inspired by industry experts such as Lara Hogan, who wrote the great Designing for Performance, Tim Kadlec's articles on performance budgets, and Paul Irish's articles, we made performance a priority. In 2015 we embarked on our first project with a performance budget as a deliverable. We carefully considered every element on a page, asking ourselves whether the content and functionality was worth the bytes, supported the primary business goals, and met users’ needs. We were incredibly lucky to have full client buy-in and collaboration (Thank you, Canadian Red Cross!). Using a performance budget as part of our toolkit resulted in a great responsive redesign with the metrics to prove it.
  • Team building - With ecentricarts’ move to Agile team-based project development, the FED group was feeling a bit out of sorts. We used to sit together, happily collaborating, sharing ideas and knowledge. We didn't want that feeling to die so we made an effort to share the knowledge outside of our daily work. Lunch and learns, monthly FED department meetups, and drinks on patios helped preserve a venue to share and learn.
  • Accessibility - We bookended the year with a renewed dedication to Accessibility. Three champions of accessibility (Steve Kerr, Stephen Belyea, and Kim Collins) stepped forward to lead, guide, and educate all disciplines in the agency. They formed EAT (ecentricarts Accessibility Team) with a mandate to improve ecentricarts knowledge and commitment to accessibility as an organization. Weekly meetings and cheat sheets on common topics were the order of the day. We had a great start and look forward to continuing our commitment to creating accessible products in 2016. A11y all the way!

2016 will see us continuing to refine and perfect our tools and processes:

  • Responsive design - We’ll be looking to further refine our toolkit, and defining our standards will be part of 2016. We will resume the hot debate on what js framework is best: Is angular overkill? Can we use knockout? What about ember? or should we just write some vanilla js and be done with it?
  • Optimizing performance - Measuring our performance with tools such as webpagetest.org will become mandatory, not just that nerdy thing I do whenever we launch a site.
  • HTTP/2 - It's on the horizon and will impact how we build sites in 2016.
  • New tech - We’re looking into onboarding new tech, such as: Foundation 6, Bootstrap 4, Gulp, the latest WordPress release that uses REST and react.js, angular 2.0, ECMAScript 6. It's going to be exciting and accessible 2016 for Front End Developers. WOOT!
 
Michael

Backend and Tech (Michael Kinkaid)

2015: 

  • Re-evaluating process - Because Agile methodology is about delivering value to clients right out of the gate, 2015 saw us focusing on how we work with clients, both in terms of interactions and actual deliverables. Here, for each part of the project puzzle, we asked a simple question: Does this thing that we do, or make, return actual value to the client? If yes, then we kept and refined it. If no, then we just stopped doing it; no sacred cows. For example, that exhaustive and often unread technical specification that was delivered in planning, or worse yet, was actually out of date before a line of code was written? Gone. Dead. We replaced it with “just in time” documentation delivered iteratively and only covering what it must.
  • Reducing technical debt - Delivering value in an iterative process requires that the team runs like a well-oiled machine. In 2015 we started a process whereby we identified and reduced technical debt (time spent tending to the machine, rather than building features that deliver the actual value).
  • Focusing on Web API and custom services to feed the front end - This approach, which is focused on service oriented architecture with REST, is now the defacto way to build functionality that can be used not only by the website, but also by mobile apps or third party consumers. Complex search or browsing with smart, context aware facets and filters became “a thing” in 2015. The solutions that the application developers came up with are themselves services that we can reuse and extend on future projects.
2016: 
  • Building process and tools to continue to address technical debt - We’ll be looking at implementing things such as:
    • Standardizing with GIT
    • Retooling for better continuous deployment
    • Optimizing our existing continuous integration processes on TeamCity
    • Reducing the time spent feeding the Kentico beast by using their new CI module and hopefully the Kentico Compare tool
    • Potentially optimizing our infrastructure with Azure and Docker to speed up aspects of Dev-Ops that are a bit slow right now
  • Consolidate and reduce the number of internal tools - Being geeks it’s only natural that we want to use the latest online service or fancy product to get our work done. Unfortunately, this means we’re now using too many tools internally. We’ll be consolidating and hopefully reducing the amount of tools we use for things such as project management, HR, time tracking, etc. We will continue to look for cloud-based solutions, as on-premise solutions cause too much of a maintenance overhead. Cleaning house will reduce our “agency debt” and free up even more time for what matters: delivering value.
  • New service offerings - We’ll be extending our offerings in a variety of areas such as CMS, digital marketing, and eCommerce. We have our eyes on some new platforms and services, which we think align well with the types of solutions we create.
  • New platforms - I expect new platforms to be part of our service offerings in 2016. This will bring new APIs and development models for the application developers to sink their teeth into.
  • Even more integrations - We will continue to meet and integrate with those platforms that our clients bring to the table. Enterprise integration is one of our specialities and I see bigger opportunities this year, especially with eCommerce platforms and services.
 
Artur

Quality Assurance (Artur Cygan)

2015 was a year of establishing a strong foundation through working on individual projects while embedded in select teams.

  • Transition to Agile Methodology – We supported individual teams as we transitioned to an Agile, team-oriented approach. We kept teams mindful of QA best practices when defining what "done" meant on each project and to each team.
  • Improved delivery management – Our "first small, steady steps" approach involved giving high priority to the transition from development to test phase. Key to this was getting what we needed to do our jobs effectively, with minimal pain and maximal efficiency. We implemented essential checks, such as standardized build release notes and very basic practices on defect reporting and workflow.
  • Preventative QA – We continued our established practice of getting involved in the project life cycle as soon as possible, assisting with requirements gathering and providing requirements analysis and gap analysis. We moved away from the traditional, narrow definition of QA as "defect discovery" and towards "defect prevention"; we also sought to ensure QA became a process, not a task. Consistent development, implementation and maintenance of quality assurance all had "preventative testing" as the main goal. 
  • Risk Management - We continued with agency-wide education about what Quality Assurance can and cannot do – its potential and its limitations. We tore down myths and misconceptions that may still exist regarding the role of QA in product development. We increased understanding of what is needed to create an optimal environment for an efficient and successful QA Cycle. Namely, actions or inactions will impact the probability of product releases with fundamental flaws, thus diluting user experience. QA is another resource to better manage this risk.
  • Building the team with the required skill set – It’s been a long time in the making but it finally feels like the QA team has the personnel and skills to meet challenges agency-wide and get away from the project by project approach. We are very excited about the year ahead!


 2015 was about building a solid foundation, and in 2016 we plan to build on that and cultivate a culture of continuous improvement through more collaboration, feedback, analysis, and fine-tuning.

  • Consolidated Reporting and Sign-Off – The ability to provide standardized reports on various projects and teams is an essential tool in spotting gaps and identifying areas of improvement, while also providing necessary performance and progress metrics.
  • Consistency and Project Coverage – Empowered with a robust QA team, we're in a better position to work on the entire project lifecycle while providing consistent and reliable support to each team; however, we want to retain QA team flexibility to enable us to support and advise each other on every project – no silos.
  • Continuous process improvements – We'll keep working on development and training of team members with a common sense approach as our guiding principle. It's very easy to get caught in the moment, but we have to always keep the overall goal in sharp focus. “Quality is a journey not a destination” was a phrase I often heard when I started my career. Our aim is to port this mindset across all teams.
  • QA Role – Stick to the path of moving away from the traditional understanding of QA as test-centric and move towards a new understanding of risk management, putting it front and center in the delivery process. The best way to ensure a good quality product is to build it right the first time.
  • Automated Tests – We'll use automation to improve consistency and range of regression tests on carefully selected projects, and choose tools that will best suit Agile teams.
  • Test Plans as the project center – Test plans (defining, maintaining, and sharing) on each project are a main goal this year.  While some view test plans as an unnecessary expenditure, in the long run the consistency they provide is crucial to the success and integrity of project delivery. This year our goal is to make sure that test plans are not only created, but also shared and collaborated across each project team.

 

And away we go

As you can see, 2016 promises to be a busy year for us. We’re looking forward to seeing what it has in store. No doubt, it’s going to be an exciting ride.