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Website technology success part 1: the people

By admin   25 November 2008 5:55pm Europe/London

img_5358_sm-medium1Attending my first Board meeting as the new General Manager of IT at Lonely Planet in April 2007, a board member and key shareholder representative demanded I provide a concise non-technical summary of our failed project to develop a large scale website for Lonely Planet. Filling in my usual IT professional’s thoughtful pause, he proffered: “C’mon – did we buy the wrong thing, or did we just hire muppets?”

My answer shall remain confidential to protect the innocent.

Twenty months later, my single greatest reflection on the first release of the new Lonely Planet website is that its primary technical success can be attributed to the quality of the people who worked on it. Software choices – sure, they played a part. Methodologies like Agile – confidence boosting but not paramount. Hardware platforms – well, without web acceleration we’d have a fairly porridge-like user experience! But #1, the people.

As you would expect, a large team worked for a number of months on the new site. And also as you might expect, as much as I would love to give them accolades in public, I’m unlikely to call them out by name as I have worked in the recruitment industry, and know how useful these kind of blogs can be for headhunters! They know who they are.

The biggest risk that BBC Worldwide took as the new owners of Lonely Planet was choosing to back the  enormous leap forward in IT capability that would be required for the Melbourne IT team to pull it off, let alone run the world’s largest travel community online. Projects since 2006 had been small and focused – teams of 2-3 java developers, using the opportunity to hunker down and try out Scrum methodologies as a more fruitful process of software development.

We now needed to upgrade our infrastructure, services, project delivery, content management and software development capability at the exact same time as building the new site. This has meant endless training, cross-skilling and mentoring on a large scale whilst also cutting code.

In addition to the BBCW team members who lent considerable heft to the strategy, design and business leadership of the project, we had a handful of people who had toughed it out from the days of our failed 2006 web project; we had lots of people new to Lonely Planet; and a number of key partners working onsite with us.

Our own team was the core of the effort – developers, project managers, Linux gurus, designers, UI developers, DBAs, architects, business analysts, testers and program management. We all know how things of this scale get done – long hours, huge commitment. Along the way the team overcame some mind-boggling technology dead-ends; and delivered some world-leading and elegant technology components that are crucial for getting Lonely Planet’s wealth of content into a form suited to a website.

A small group of contract professionals joined us as itinerant expert labour – providing much needed skills in testing, development and design. To be honest, it was hell trying to hire in the Melbourne market after Christmas 2007, and we were driven to the conclusion that longer term we were better off making some big calls on larger services firms with skill in the fields we needed.

We chose our major external partners carefully and their contribution was significant – bringing levels of savvy in subjects ranging from software development to hardware configuration that were world-leading.

The benefits of being part of a global IT-savvy organisation like BBCW were definitely felt, as we were able to tap into their talent pool for everything from architecture to project management and user design. In my own case, while I skived off for open heart surgery in April, the organisational gaps that event created were back-filled smoothly by a terrific senior delivery manager from London.

All our partners, large or small had one common characteristic – they sent their best people to our organisation, and we are grateful they did. The result speaks for itself.