My day job – Part 1: Buses, Oil, and Peter jackson

This is a bit of a divergence from what I normally post, so if you’re not interested, feel free to skip it. I’m just taking a moment to talk about some of the work I do at my DayJob[tm].

For those who do not know, I am Chief Technologist (formerly Senior Interactive Developer; formerly Web Developer) for a smallish communications firm in my home town, Milwaukee, WI. Basically, that means that if the company, or any of our clients, wants to do something cool with “technology,” I’m involved. Technology is in quotes here because it doesn’t really mean much by itself… a sharpened stick is “technology.” Here, we’ll say that technology refers to computers, electronics, the Internet, and makin’ stuff. I’m also involved in tactics and strategy for the company and several clients. It’s all very interesting work, and I can’t actually talk about all of it, but here are a few pieces I find notable:

Milwaukee County Transit System website

I’ll make no claims on the design or content, but there are a few elements of this site that I think are sort of brilliant. First, if you saw the old site, you would be suitably impressed. Second, the main navigation, where we decided to include more than just links to pages in this element; We included a full list of all the routes in the Routes & Schedules menu, and we included the standard fare costs in the Fares & Passes menu. We knew from the analytics that these were key site elements and made the (still somewhat risky) choice to get them right into the menu. Both of these choices, especially including the Routes links, were huge successes, and are very well used site features. We also added the Trip Planner to the home page; This is really useful and well-used, but not that interesting. It’s basically a gateway to Google Maps/Transit.

The individual route pages are fun, too. I AJAXed them up so that only the required information changes when you use the on-page navigation (Weekday, Saturday, etc). The route tables come to us in a pretty ugly format, but through the magic of CSS and some sweet, sweet JavaScript, they come out looking pretty dang good. These pages have a few other cool things that people may not notice:

  1. There is a notification near the top of the content that tells you when a route was last changed, when it will be changing, and/or provides a link to the upcoming changes.
  2. If there are service alerts on a particular route, a service alerts box is displayed with all the relevant information
  3. These pages are automatically imported from data and assets that MCTS provides. The actual content chain is as automated as is possible, and moves along very smoothly (nice work, Tom and Dale).

This site even has a site-wide alert system that the client can use if something huge is going on. They used this last winter when we had all that snow and all routes were running 20-30 minutes behind. It was awesome. This site is also setup such that we can add in more server resources when we see traffic spikes (as would be the case if all the busses were running 20-30 minutes behind).

On top of all of that the site in nearly 100% compliant with all accessibility guidelines… I believe the only things out of compliance are a few of the client-generated PDFs. This was a fun site to work on, and it’s full of little things that make a big impact.

Moore Oil

This site is not particularly notable on its own, but we got to do a bunch of new things with this one. This was one of the first sites we built on Telerik‘s Sitefinity CMS after switching from the Worst Content Management System Ever, Ektron CMS 400.Net… blech… terrible…

Sitefinity, even in version 3.7, which we used for this site, was a dream compared to the pile of poorly implemented garbage that Ektron provides (I’m still a bit angry at the amount of time I spent working on Ektron’s CMS, if you hadn’t guessed… sorry). Additionally, this was the first site we built with HTML 5 and it included support for video on mobile devices (including iPad and iPhone… nice work Ben). This site also saw the first version of our History module. This module is part of our new approach to development, and has continued to be developed over 3 later sites.

Working on this site also meant we got to tour these guys’ facility, and to meet with all of their senior people. I refered to these guys as The Uncles, as being in a room with them was just like being in a room with all of my mom’s brothers… a bunch of gruff, stocky, German and Polish men with dirt under their fingernails. It was one of those situations where I got to be the “garage guy” at work, instead of just the “technology guy.” A good client, and the start of a number of new things for the company.

Ok, one more…

Thomson Reuters Research and Development

This is the other of our early Sitefinity sites, and its development overlapped the Moore Oil site. From the development side there is not much to talk about here. From the business and process side, though, there are a few items of interest. This was the first time I flew out to a client’s offices to pitch a project. I’d travelled for working sessions, and project kick-offs, but never for the pitch (unless you count driving to Madison). This time, I flew out to somewhere on the east coast to pitch this website development project… and we won it!

In the design and implementation, this was the first time I deferred to our user interface designer on user interaction decisions, My general approach is the same as with pretty much everything: If you can convince me that your way is better, I’ll stop arguing for my way (or, as I like to think of it, “Let’s do it the best way we can”). Apparently, this make me an ass, but I figure that if you can’t explain why another way/idea/tool/approach is better, then it’s not better. Either way, the designer was new, and I didn’t want to scare her away, so I didn’t argue too much.

This project also let me meet a really interesting guy named Peter Jackson (not that Peter Jackson, but someone much more interesting). I only got to work with him for a short time on this project, but he did some really cool work before he died this past August.

That’s the day job… at least part of it. We’re also doing some mobile site and app development, and designing and building a new, top-secret, hardware installation. I’ll post about those things another time, though.

Lavender Gooms, G-Force, and Imhotep

The Internet is full of crap… sort of. I guess it’s not entirely full yet:

Longbranch Pennywhistle

full – adjective – completely filled; containing as much as is possible;

So, not full, but it’s got to be getting close. Having been online for a long time, and having contributed a fair few properties of real use, I figured it would be ok for me to add a little crap. It’s a pebble in the ocean, really.

Generally I’m not a fan of television programs, or television personalities, or television in general. There are shows, however, that I’ve found interesting for one reason or another. I usually pick up shows after they are released to DVD, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that once I pick up a series, I want to see it through to the end. Obsession is too strong a word, but not by as much as I’d like.

One program that I actually watch within a week of it’s airing (or whenever it gets to Hulu) is Psych. It’s nothing special, really… sort of a buddy/detective program. The thing is, it’s absolutely packed with one-liners, throw-aways, and clever little bits. One of these clever little bits revolves around constantly introducing the straight-man (Dulé Hill) with different name (see the title of this post).

So, the Psych Wikipedia entry, about an hour of messing around, and we have

The Burton Guster Name Game!