On Plumbers & Persuading Stakeholders

Just spent a few amazing days at An Event Apart Austin.  I got into many fun conversations, but I got to thinking about one in particular this morning….

I brought up the issue of persuading stakeholders to adopt certain practices with Jeremy Keith, and suggested it might be a good topic for an AEA talk.  He said at the end of pretty much every talk, he waits for the “How do I convince…” question, and sure enough he got one yesterday.  His answer was to paraphrase Andy Clarke (I think?) and say that if you hire a plumber to come to your house to fix a pipe, you don’t expect him to hold up a wrench and ask, “Do you mind if I use this one?”

I felt dissatisfied by the answer, but didn’t know why.  This morning, I put my finger on it: the metaphor is all wrong for in-house work.  If you hire a company or individual to develop your site, that’s pretty analogous to hiring a plumber.  However, if you’re a company with a team of in-house designers and developers, the metaphor is more like this:

Imagine a wealthy landowner with a team of 3 cooks, 3 maids, a driver, a stable boy, and a repairman who all report to the head butler.  It’s the head butler’s job to interpret the wishes of the landowner and convey them appropriately to the house staff.  Now, the landowner happens to know a bit about plumbing, and is very particular about using copper pipes and a particular technique of joining them.  The repairman knows this, and the head butler takes pains to remind him of it regularly.  The head butler, wanting to please, always reviews the repairman’s plumbing work, and if any new techniques are used, he becomes worried the landowner won’t approve so he makes the repairman redo his work the old way.  The landowner is busy, so the repairman doesn’t want to go straight to him to double-check the process… plus that would really peeve the head butler, which would make the repairman’s life miserable.

You get the point.  In-house developers are both plumbers and servants; we need to fulfill the needs of the company, navigate office politics and hierarchy, and practice our trade.  I actually love this balancing act, but it is extremely different from doing work with clients as a consultant.

Jeremy Keith made one other point about persuading stakeholders that I think is far more relevant for in-house web designers & devs: stakeholders will eventually come around.  Many of us had to wait for to switch from tabular to CSS layout, to move to HTML5, to have a mobile strategy, and now to have responsive design.  They’ll come around eventually; however, in the meantime, I’d like to hone my skills of presenting persuasive arguments for staying on the front edge of design and front-end development.

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