A List Apart

Rachel Andrew on the Business of Web Dev

You Can’t Do Everything

A note from the editors: Today, developer extraordinaire, author, and speaker Rachel Andrew joins our crew of talented columnists. We're excited to be sharing with you her savvy insights on the business of web development.

You can do anything but you can’t do everything
David Allen

In any given day I can find myself reading up on a new W3C proposal, fixing an issue with our tax return, coding an add-on for our product, writing a conference presentation, building a server, creating a video tutorial, and doing front end development for one of our sites. Without clients dictating my workload I’m in the enviable position of being able to choose where to focus my efforts. However, I can’t physically do everything.

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I’m one half of a two-person web development business—the team behind the little CMS, Perch. I’m also an author and speaker on subjects that range from CSS to technical support, and I enjoy all of it.

When we were a service business, what I was actually working on was largely dictated by the requirements of our clients. Whether they wanted to pay me to build servers, manage projects, or write code didn’t really matter. I was exchanging my time for money, doing a range of things I enjoyed. Now that we’re a product company, my greatest challenge is working out where I am best spending my time, while avoiding falling down a rabbit hole of interesting things I have discovered while performing some other task.

The quote that I opened this column with reflects the dilemma I seem to face daily. I can choose to place my attention anywhere. But if I dart around between tasks, none of them get my full attention. At the very least, progress on everything becomes painfuly slow as I spend an hour on one thing and two on another, inching them all forward. I can’t claim to have the perfect solution to managing this problem, but I have started to develop a process for deciding what needs to be done, and whether I am the best person to be doing it.

First and foremost you need to identify what needs doing. I am a great fan of Getting Things Done and regularly review our business and my personal goals, and the tasks that will go into meeting them. Once I have a list of tasks, I can assess them against the following criteria:

  • Am I the only person who can do this?
  • Does the business or product benefit from me in particular doing this?
  • Is this a task I really enjoy doing?
  • Will I learn anything new by doing this?
  • What am I not doing if I choose to do this?

Am I the only person who can do this?

Things that fall into group one, the things that only I can do, need investigating. It isn’t ideal for any business to have things that only one person can do. It might be that I need to deal with that task today, but how can I make it so that in the future someone else could? Until the middle of last year, our accounts were a case in point. Although we had an accountant do our end of year tax returns, I was the only person who fully understood the complex processes developed to deal with the many incoming small payments for Perch licenses. Taking on a bookkeeper meant I had to formalize and document all of those processes. As a result I don’t have to do the day-to-day books, but perhaps more importantly the business isn’t reliant on knowledge that is only in my head.

Does the business or product benefit from me in particular doing this?

It can make sense to keep some tasks internal. I wouldn’t completely outsource our technical support, or our social media activity, or even our marketing. The public face of our product is very much about us being a small, friendly business. Our customers get to talk to us, the product developers; we share their frustrations and they help us decide on where to put time into new features. There may well be real reasons to keep certain tasks as a role of the core person or team, even if they would seem straightforward to outsource.

Is this a task I really enjoy doing?

Running a business can involve hard work and long hours. If you feel you have to outsource bits of your job that you love doing because it makes most sense as a business, you may end up pretty miserable. For those of us running small software companies, it’s likely we have ended up here because we like to code. So it’s important to me that I spend some of my time actually writing code—even if it might be more sensible from a business perspective for me to just manage other people who are writing code.

I believe that our products and businesses are better when we love being involved with them. To have a successful business, it’s likely that you will always have important things to do that you find less enjoyable than designing or writing code, however I don’t think we should be beating ourselves over the head. Doing what we love is really what has been behind the success of our product. It is completely ok to hang onto some tasks because you simply enjoy doing them.

Will I learn anything new by doing this?

I might really enjoy a particular project, but I find a helpful way to decide if I should do something or contract it out is to see whether I will learn anything new by doing it myself. For example, I have just sent out a sizeable chunk of front-end development. It is a rebuild of an existing site, and I think there are lots of practical and performance gains to be had by rebuilding it. It would have been nice to have done that work myself, but I wouldn’t have learned anything by doing it. Therefore I made the decision that this would be a good piece of work to outsource to a contractor. I can manage that project and make sure that I’m happy with the end result, but I don’t need to actually write the code.

Our business benefits by us having knowledge and understanding. I’m currently spending quite a lot of time learning about automation (using Puppet) and modern ways of managing systems while rebuilding our infrastructure. I could have brought someone in to do this work for me, and may well do so in future. Yet by updating my systems administration skills, I’m ensuring that within the business we maintain a good level of knowledge about our infrastructure.

What am I not doing if I choose to do this?

As part of a tiny team of two, I’ll always have a number of tasks on the go. Ultimately, choosing to take on one task means not doing something else. It might be another task in the business that gets pushed back. It might be personal things like exercise, or spending time with family and friends. To be able to understand the implications of selecting one thing to work on over another, you need to have a really good overview of all the things that are trying to get your attention.

Having clear business goals and objectives in the first place can make this decision-making so much easier. When you find yourself in the position of being able to do anything, it is so easy to run around picking up tasks and trying to do everything. The trick is to take that step back; to see where you can be more strategic with which tasks you tackle and which you delegate. This approach can help you be far more productive and give you space to enjoy the work you are doing while meeting your business goals.

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