(A.K.A. Project Fingerspitzen)

Being digital is a mindset not a technology. ~unknown

My role as Head of Digital at University of Surrey came to an end 10 June 2014. It was immensely enjoyable for the most part. I worked with a talented team of permanent staff and some awesome contractors: @leisa, @katetowsey, @anna_debenham, @demotive, @dotton, @stewsnooze, @sophiedennis, @toni_ixd. And I worked with a leadership team that empowered me to go-ahead and make stuff happen. Towards the end of my tenure though, there were some frustrations, I’ll describe these later.

Do some web stuff…

In February 2012 I got a call from Surrey’s VP & CMO; would I be interested in doing a bit of contract work at the University? There was wide-spread dissatisfaction with the way was being run and that stakeholders weren’t getting the attention they needed or delivery they demanded. I saw a great new challenge, I’d never worked in HE. And working “client side” would mean opportunities to “DO” rather than “smile and wave” in consultant fashion.

On arriving at Surrey I met with the then “web team”. They weren’t best pleased to see me. Was I their nemesis? There were changes coming. A mixed bag of welcome ones and otherwise.

Long story short, I re-structured, found a larger workspace, found a digital designer, found some discarded office furniture, arranged the desks so that people faced each other, and importantly, upgraded equipment across the team, regardless of seniority. Everyone received the highest spec laptops I could get my hands on plus big screens — purchased, followed by permission to do so. This is what I most enjoyed about working for Mike; the freedom to get on and make things happen.

Early on their was a tussle with colleagues; go with Leisa Reichelt and build an internal digital agency, or select an external agency. One quoted us £75k to do a UX study and supply 5 photoshop templates! And no mention of RWD anywhere. All options were duly investigated and I’m pleased to say I got my way. This was the single most important decision I made and I want to thank my colleagues for backing my judgement.

Project Fingerspitzen began and there were some early posts to start conversations.

Getting Leisa onboard was a bit like moving off-grid and finding a nuclear power-plant in the back yard! I cannot emphasise enough just how much was achieved over and above what might have happened had we gone with an external agency. That route would have meant working with great smarts but we wanted skills that would endure beyond an initial engagement.

And then there’s the issue anyone working in HE knows about: fiefdoms, machiavellian game playing, wilful disagreement, dislike of change and most common of all: wall-to-wall digital experts with access to reams of personal opinions; summoned at will and presented as facts whenever debate demanded. Having real digital expertise onsite meant entrenched views could be slowly but surely overcome. Some examples: everyone wants a slice of homepage pie; every Tom, Dick and tree-planting Harry! Another was an almost universal view that web pages mustn’t scroll. A view fresh out of 1998 and defended with extraordinary vigour?

Real data enabled us to remove barriers and overcome fears: we have to build a responsive website because…. And heatmaps powerfully demonstrated why some homepage content or navigation item was literally a waste of space. That said, focus on the homepage was hugely distorted. As Matt Farrow, lead developer at Surrey says: “Google is your homepage.”

Digital natives play nicely

I’ve noticed something about talented digital folk: they’re always willing to teach or somehow impart know-how when the opportunity arises. Surrey’s VP & Registrar, was always willing to listen and question to further his understanding of an issue, concept or new technology. This approach, coupled with his ability to ask really good questions made him an ideal Chair. And when he did, meetings were typically great opportunities to exchange views together with healthy debate.

Soon after Leisa, Kate Towsey joined. Kate brought with her a practical approach to content strategy and content modelling. Another learning for me: lorum ipsum has no place in digital design. We worked with real content and prototyped using working code. No wireframes, no photoshop mock-ups, all of which obscure the real nature of responsive web design and make testing with real users a little too abstract.

Research completed, Toni Kim — Surrey’s lead digital designer, created and documented a visual language. That was a farsighted move and served to obviate a thousand questions later on. It was used in the development of, MySurrey and MyGuardian mobile apps, projects that followed a year later. The visual language can be found at

Anna Debenham and Mat Johnson worked on front end development. Mat on “swooshy stuff” and Anna on HTML/CSS. This included unknotting the Rhythmyx CSS mess (Rhythmyx continues to deliver legacy content) and aligning presentation standards between the old and new to reduce visual-arrest when switching between the two. David Otton and Michael Nowicki did Drupal development magic. Stewart Robinson designed the Drupal infrastructure, set-up Varnish and Percona Cluster. Sophie Dennis joined towards the latter half of the project and marshalled activities in the direction of a minimum viable product. Her focus drove us to a successful completion and delivery 28 Feb 2013. Sophie wrote this post and included a storify too. It was great to read it again.

Getting Drupal into Surrey

I started in February 2012 — mid-financial year which meant scraping-together a plan to get some budget and then waiting till July for funds to be released. In addition to agency or contractor expenditure, we’d also need an enterprise search engine and a CMS.

Surrey mainly used Rhythmyx, Percussion’s elderly CMS, which although powerful served pre-baked HTML. And it was only publishing content updates every seven days! Content contributors found it difficult to master and I’m sad to say that while we sped-up publishing to 24hr delays (wow!) the majority of Rhythmyx users find it too difficult to do so.

Possible candidates were EPiServer and Sitecore, however the team were not .NET trained. The developers were competent PHP coders though and this together with my want to build a self-sufficient team meant Drupal was the obvious choice.

My IT colleagues were less than impressed at the prospect. Having visited the weapons cupboard of shock-and-awe arguments, FUD-bombs designed to scare the executive board into seeing things their way, they launched their first salvo. Open source poses an unacceptable risk to the stability of our operation. Interesting.

COTS or Open Source?

At the time of Surrey’s selecting Rhythmyx, I was Director of Products and Services at Immediacy, one of the 3 CMS vendors competing for Surrey’s business. The other contender was Morello from Media Surface. 3 commercial off-the shelf (COTS) contenders. Where are they now? Rhythmyx is in maintenance only with all future development investment being sunk into Percussion’s new product CM1.

Media Surface purchased Immediacy, parked its products and eventually sold out to SDL Tridion. Neither Immediacy nor Morello products exist now.

Drupal on the other hand thrives amid a vibrant open source community, v8 is eagerly anticipated and it’s well supported. There’s a vast talent pool of contract developers and support and maintenance contracts are available to meet the demands of IT folk.

Between Feb 2012 and June 2014, we delivered!

Standing on the shoulders of a team of digital experts, an atomic team. All of whom are expert in their own fields. I’ve seen, great UX, design, content strategy/design, development. Between us we created this list of stuff:

  • Subject navigation (Study)
  • Discover Surrey (Explore)
  • Features
  • Content taxonomy
  • New products: Subject pages, UG, PG, Welcome, Clearing, Academic Profiles
  • New CMS (Drupal) included Jenkins, Percona clustered MySQL
  • New Hosting, support and maintenance: Acquia
  • Visual Language and online documentation (
  • Code development and management including, peer review, configuration and release management
  • Funnelback search engine
  • Reduction in use of Oracle Portal with plan to decommission
  • Agile (Kanban) project process
  • Surrey Health Partners
  • Vet School website
  • Daphne Jackson Trust
  • Micro websites (iGrad, NSS)
  • Research framework
  • Hobsons CRM to Drupal integration via Hobsons API
  • A Digital Strategy (more on this below)

The Digital Strategy

In a word my digital strategy was: Personalisation. Any university addresses the needs of a broad and diverse set of audiences. Current students need far more than a digital newsletter. Engaging a student involves transactions such as: reading lists, timetables, events, library books ordered, fines paid, accommodation booked and paid for, and all from one account! There are many other significant audiences to cater for, significance not being determined by numbers only. Wealthy alumni being a great example of a small but important group.

Personalisation means the information and tools you or I experience depends on who we are and what we want. And delivering this type of experience takes a dynamic production of content. It requires content relationships that are defined by an ontology. It requires a CRM with a working, documented API that can record preferences and provide authentication services. And it needs an IT strategy that underpins the personalised experience aspiration. It is IT that has to deliver connectivity to backend systems, an identity and access management system to control who sees and/or updates what and a set of agreed delivery dates to enable the close cooperation of IT and Digital development activities.

Perhaps the biggest change required in Surrey’s IT organisation is the need to become “more digital”. Digital is a mindset. And IT needs to get onboard, fast.

Suffice it to say I failed to persuade Surrey to be more digital. Cash needs careful management these days in any HE institution and unless you can put a figure on a project and give it a delivery date, you’re not going to get your funding. A better approach might have been to agree a percentage of annual operating budget?

Like what you read? Give John Goode a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.