Building Big Things Building Big Things May. 11th, 2017 Chris Devidal
We are web builders.

Building Big Things

May 11th, 2017

When I was in high school, I took a job as an assistant to my friend’s dad — a general contractor (GC) who built large scale custom homes. In my naivety, I always imagined GCs as people who swung hammers and banged houses together with nails and boards. I imagined him showing up to a job site, throwing on a tool belt, and leading a crew of workers into battle, General Patton style, barking orders and yelling directions. What I was surprised to learn was that his job involved a lot more of a cell phone than a hammer, and more careful diplomacy than screaming and yelling.

“I’m reminded almost everyday of how similar building big websites is to building big houses.”

He was the “big picture” person, responsible for having knowledge of the project—from the initial sales process to warranty claims years later— and responsible to the customer for delivering the home on time and on budget. He had to coordinate with the right subcontractors, experts, and inspectors to arrive on time, do quality work, and ready the project for the next step of the build. I learned that GCs are not just “lead” construction workers or expert craftsman, rather, they are expert communicators, project managers, and coordinators.

In the years since, I’ve had several different jobs, but in my current role as a Project Manager, I’m reminded almost everyday of how similar building big websites is to building big houses.

Motivations and Subjectivity

The similarities between building houses and building websites start with need: clients are unhappy with what they have, they need something that meets specific needs for certain people. It’s not uncommon for people to express their wish list for their new house—or website—based on what they hate about their current one. “There’s not enough space in the kitchen, the top nav menus are ugly, there’s nowhere for people to sit, the page load times are awful…”

“There’s not enough space in the kitchen and the top nav menus are ugly.”

There’s also a lot of subjectivity when it comes to replacing your existing house or website with a new one. Common client questions often include:

  • “What’s the biggest and most-awesomest that I can get for my $250,000 budget?”
  • “I need it to have X, Y, and Z, and it needs to cost less than $$$.”
  • “I honestly don’t know what I need, but it’d be great if you can help me figure it out and tell me how much that would cost.”

In our role as GCs/PMs, we shepherd people through this process, working with designers and architects to create realistic solutions that fit the client’s needs, and manage the planning of  the process in order to get it done on time.

Plan Early, and Communicate Often

On both physical and digital projects, change is inevitable. There are things that happen that your team has to adapt to, or client needs that evolve over time and have to be addressed.

For example, in a building project, a customer might suddenly realize that they want an additional electrical outlet on their island so they can use their mixer there. In the blueprint phase, it’s as easy as taking pencil to paper and adding the outlet. In the middle of construction, it becomes much harder, but is still possible. But by the end of the build, even a small change involves a huge amount of labor to undo and redo things that weren’t planned for originally. Digital projects are exactly the same way; change is inevitable, but additional cost, time, and labor can be saved by planning early and minimizing those last minute scope changes.

“By the end of the build, even a small change involves a huge amount of labor…”

Additionally, being “project-aware” at all times reduces both surprises the need for do-overs. Meeting with clients daily to show progress and communicate changes eliminates big surprises—imagine the difference between visiting your construction site every day, vs. showing up once every couple of weeks.

The Right People At The Right Time

As a GC/PM, a project’s success depends on having the right people on the project at exactly the right moment. It also requires foresight into how the unexpected can disrupt the rest of your project, and ways to overcome that. It is important to recognize individual skill-sets and strengths, and to not be afraid to bring in outside specialists when it makes sense.

“…knowing your team’s strengths is critical to a project’s success…”

A framing carpenter and a trim carpenter might initially appear to both be people who join wood to other wood, but the former is a specialist in large, heavy, engineered structures, while the latter is an expert at detail and aesthetics. Just like how a one frontend engineer might specialize in site building and another might specialize in theming and CSS, knowing your team’s strengths and having clearly assigned roles are critical to a project’s success.

The Process of Moving

While it’s always exciting to finally “be in the new space,” moving itself is never fun. Whether you’re doing it yourself (manual migration) or hiring movers (automated migration scripts), it’s still a huge amount of work. Staring at the pile-o-crap you’ve already got and figuring out what’s worth saving and what should be tossed or replaced is a time consuming process. Communication is also critical here, to ensure that things arrive in the right place, and that you don’t end up with a sofa in your bathroom.

“Be specific (but realistic)…”

Wrapping It Up

While the process can be long and daunting, you rarely meet people who’ve built a custom house that say “This wasn’t worth it—I wish I had stayed in that tiny apartment instead.” The same is almost always true for websites, and the effort that’s put into design and development usually pays off tenfold in the coming years of continued use. Be specific (but realistic) about your needs, find a good partner to build it, and communicate constantly throughout the build. I promise the end results are worth it.

Comments