Future-proof and remote-proof your site with continuous development

April 28th, 2020

Website improvements don't need to go on hold because of the pandemic. Continuous development can help your site adapt to the changing world, and build toward the future.


Unsure where to take your website with the recent pandemic? Continuous development can help you create a website that's built to help you withstand future needs, and adapt to a newly remote environment.

Recent days have ranged from somewhat odd to incredibly unfamiliar for many of our clients at FFW. Normal questions around websites or features have turned into queries like,”What’s your favorite app for keeping in touch with colleagues remotely?”. And, ”How do you get that virtual background to work so no one sees my kids running around?”

Times are changing right now, and though some of these changes are temporary, we’re likely going to see many of them stick around even after the pandemic is over. We’ll all have an interesting time explaining 20 years from now why “touch-less delivery” became a thing in the food business.

Right now, it’s clearly evident (and totally understandable) that many organizations are changing their budgets. Suddenly that next phase of development work for the website may be off the table. Or plans for a big move from one platform to another are postponed. 

And that’s okay! But it doesn’t mean you have to be stuck on your current site, unable to improve it. My focus at FFW has really come to center on working with sites that are live right now and aren’t planning a big change anytime soon. There’s definitely still plenty you can do, even if you’re not ready to bite off a big, one-time expense effort. And you can accomplish that with an agency like FFW, if you have your own dev staff, or if you choose to work with both. 

Over the years of working on Continuous Development Agreements (CDA’s) for our clients, we’ve learned some key things that can help you future-proof your site and/or remote-proof your organization -- without needing to make sweeping changes. In this article, I'll walk you through those, and also talk about what types of groups these strategies typically do and do not work for. 

Future-proof Your Site by Focusing on What Matters

Depending on how much time and attention you have from your dev staff, there are many different tiers of upkeep you can target. They all have plenty of value.

  • Keeping the budget light? Sharing developers internally at your organization? Then focus on keeping your site up to date on security first. If you are one of our many friends using Drupal and are already on the Drupal 8 platform, then staying on top of routine updates sets you up to transition very smoothly into Drupal 9, and avoid a major update or rebuild down the road. There should be some long term support options for Drupal 7 as well. Since open-source communities do a good job of releasing regular security updates, all you have to do is follow along really.

  • Do you have a decent budget? Or a developer who is a little busy, but basically focused on your website? Now you have the ability to stay on top of the little bumps in the road that come up on large, mature sites with complex user bases. Maybe you can even add the occasional feature or enhancement from time to time. This is sort of like keeping your house clean routinely. If you’re throwing away the stuff you don’t need, running the vacuum every week, and adding a new storage system as you accumulate stuff, you’ll probably save yourself the need to rip everything out of the house once a year for spring cleaning. It’s the same with websites. Tackle issues and new requests while they are small and manageable to avoid the buildup of technical debt, or a feature backlog that you end up needing to tackle with a much more time (and budget) intensive effort.

  • Do you have an existing team with cross-functional abilities already? Or are you able to put a healthy budget towards your site on a monthly basis, but aren’t ready to commit to a specific plan extending 12 months out? I love to talk with clients about having a backlog that you would (theoretically) be willing to pay people overtime to work on. Just because you can work on a lot of things, doesn’t mean you should. Using this mentality limits your backlog to a reasonable size so time isn’t wasted on low-value work. Beyond that backlog, try having your product owner and project manager keep a rough road map updated about once a month. This provides a direction for your next area of focus after you’ve burned down the existing backlog. Now you’re getting to the bigger, more impactful stuff, and avoiding using up all your capacity just chasing a crowd of less significant odds and ends. We’ve seen organizations use this strategy to rethink entire sections of their sites systematically, month over month, to the point where you can look back a year and hardly recognize the site that used to exist.

Tackle issues and new requests, while they are small and manageable, to avoid the buildup of technical debt or a feature backlog that you end up needing to tackle with a much more time (and budget) intensive effort.

Remote-proof Your Site by Being Agile

Some of the organizations that we serve have been used to all in-office work for a very long time. Their habits and routines have revolved around being able to swing by someone’s cubicle, call people together for meetings to make decisions, and work in an environment much freer of distractions. Now, as we all spread ourselves out, there can be a sudden lack of structure within which to get work done.

But at FFW, we’ve been remote from the start. Even those of us who normally work out of an office, are used to coordinating with clients on colleagues in different states… and on different continents! For working with our CDA clients, we’ve found that generally following Agile practices work well for us.

Now some people hear Agile and think sprints and stand-ups and scrum masters and process overload. Others may think go fast and change your mind all the time. While these things can be true, people who haven’t done a lot of Agile (or who have only ever done it one way) are sometimes left with a bitter taste in their mouth when they say the word. But to paraphrase the Agile Manifesto, it’s not that there is NO value to some things, it’s just that - especially during uncertain times - there is more value to some others:

  • A lot of your normal workflows and systems may not be feasible now, so why not trust the people dedicated to making your organization successful to continue their work, even if it means adjusting how you do things together?
  • Sure, documentation is nice, but sometimes it’s not as critical as rolling out a new feature you need in a timely manner.
  • Certainly now is a time where it’s important to maintain your relationships with the users and stakeholders of your web properties, rather than furiously adhering to guidelines or agreements that were drawn up when nobody was imagining a global pandemic.
  • And gosh, plans for the year 2020 have been thrown out the window for organizations everywhere while people figure out how to respond to an evolving landscape. Your road map has probably changed significantly.

Guess what? If those four points made sense to you, then you pretty much agree with the 4 values of Agile. 

At FFW, with CDAs we’re very conveniently structured to take advantage of Agile and trust the clients we work with day in and day out, release work quickly, partner with our clients, and adapting when projects change completely. If you’re trying to do the same thing in your organization, don’t worry; you don’t need to go hire an Agile coach overnight and turn your management organization upside down. Keep it simple on yourself. Have everyone brush up on the 4 Values of Agile and look for some easy ways to start following them. Yes, you’re right, there are 12 more specific principles of Agile development that I haven’t gotten into yet. And it’s true that they don’t all work perfectly with remote collaboration. I still find them pretty useful guides, though, and you’ll find that with today’s technology you can do a pretty good approximation of things like daily face to face communication. Stay tuned for my next post if you want to hear me really break things down in terms of practically using Agile principles and adopting parts of Scrum or Kanban methodologies as part of the way you get work done.

Are Agile and/or Continuous Development Right For Me?

In general, I’d like to say yes. If you have a website or piece of software that is in action right now, these ideas are probably a good fit. And if you wanted help from FFW, we’ll certainly be happy to step up. But just in case, I can quickly mention a few examples of where this all works particularly well, or where you might need something a little different. 

Let’s actually start with the exceptions to the rule:

Organizations with rigid funding structures. We’ve noticed that some of our non-profit and/or grant-based clients tend to have an easier time obtaining funding/resourcing for a predetermined set of work over a fairly targeted schedule. The looseness and flexibility of a CDA isn’t always what they need (and that’s okay, we can still help when you’re ready for your next phase of work).

Software with demands on the extreme end of the spectrum for deployments. If you have a system which needs attention on a daily basis (or even hourly) then you probably want a dedicated team of developers. If you already have that and need a pointer or a process/system to follow, look into Continuous Integration setups, where code can be deployed essentially on a whim. Some of these (like the rubber chicken method - I’m not making that up) rely on being together on-location, but the more sophisticated software systems for CI will facilitate for you while we’re all staying home. If you need help with the dedicated team part of that equation, ask us about staff augmentation.

And if you have a highly complex system that requires a great deal of regression and integration testing before conducting any releases (say anything less frequent than monthly), then a very well defined scope and timeline (including well written User Acceptance Tests) is probably the direction you need to go.

Groups who do not have clear decision makers. If you happen to have a website with tons of people who have opinions; that’s great! But if you don’t have the ability within the organization to pick through which of those items need attention sooner, rather than later, then you may want to have a dev staff which is empowered to make those determinations for themselves. Or, you may want something a little more than just CDA at FFW; like help from a Solutions Representative as well.

On the other hand, there are all kinds of organizations that we’ve worked with for ongoing collaborations that have turned out extremely successful:

  • Marketing sites that need flexibility in page building, in order to generate compelling content. The goal here is usually to engage with visitors and actively measure Key Performance Indicators. These sites often need to adjust and expand their library of page building components on the fly. Sometimes, the CDA includes participation from members of the Insight & Optimization team to help track and measure interactions between users and site.
  • Governing bodies, schools/universities, and non-profit organizations with relatively set annual budgets. They can put aside their monthly development allocation when budgets are due each year, and still know that they have the flexibility to work within a system that will let them evaluate the highest priority work on the website with every new sprint.
  • Banks, financial institutions, and other organizations that may have customer logins and data. Having the budget and the freedom of planning to be able to quickly adopt the latest security best practices from the Open Source Community is vitally important on these types of websites.

Knowing every situation is unique, we take a tailored approach to each client’s unique situation, emerging with a bespoke solution that delivers on an organization’s digital and business goals. Contact us to set up a brief initial discussion with one of our team members to learn more about how FFW can help.