Cupcakes and Project Management

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ISITE Design's own Natalie Williams compares the similarities of managing web projects, to making cupcakes.

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  • Hello everyone, good afternoon. My name is Natalie Williams and I’m a project manager here at ISITE Design. It’s lovely to be with you here today. My personal passion for cupcake creation came a few years ago when my signature chocolate chip cookies started turning cakey. If you’re like me, there are only a few worse things in the world than a cakey cookie. At that time, cupcakes were starting to take off, and I decided I’d learn how to master them. In one afternoon. I purchased pans. I purchased frosting tips. The whole kit and caboodle. I was fully invested. My first day conquering the kitchen wasn’t a disaster. Cupcakes made, I invited friends over and we casually dined. Just friends, sitting around a table—nothing too fancy. For the size of the group, for the first-time-spur-of-the-momentness of it all, that attempt wasn‘t too shabby. BUT. In time, as casual dining gradually turned into catering fundraisers for charity and ::gasp:: the all dreaded weddings, I learned a few things. I got better. Each project was a bit more organized and a bit less stressful than the last. Each project was more successful. I can say my professional path as a project manager in this web development and digital strategy space has charted a similar course. My formal schooling in Public Relations became that cakey cookie. The internet was starting to take off, and I decided to get involved. I’ve been in web project management since I graduated from school—the early “not too shabby” projects were the training ground that would, through practice and hard work (and sometimes long hours), would eventually lead to successful digital projects. So today! Seeing the parallels between web projects and baking cupcakes, I pass on the tips, tricks, and advice to help each of you in your own project management.
  • If I were to step into my kitchen and have someone tell me “Nat, make me 10 cupcakes. Or 125 cupcakes. Or 300 cupcakes of three varieties of cake and two kinds of frosting. “ Well? That person would be up a creek. If forced to immediate action, I might be able to spread some peanut butter on crackers for that person. How do you avoid this kind of situation with your boss or with a client?
  • Before you even think about putting on an apron, planning is key. How big is the event you need catered? Are you being asked to bring a treat to the PTA Meeting or to cater a Kardashian wedding? Then, entertain grand ideas in the brainstorming phase. Ask blue sky questions – “When you close your eyes, what kind of cupcakes do you see? How are they arranged and presented?” Engaging in this kind of activity typically surfaces the most important success factor for your stakeholder. So your bride doesn’t care what kind of cupcakes she has as long as they’re 10 varying shades of pink. Or no one will be eating the cupcakes—they’re for decoration only. These are important things to know. I’d wager there’s not a person in here who’s been involved in a project of any size, in any industry, where ANYTHING GOES. Blank check! Endless time! Not everything can be done. It’s just not feasible. There’s only so much budget for ingredients. There’s only so many cupcakes that can be baked in one day before they turn stale. The event only needs x number of cupcakes. Once you’ve decided how many cupcakes to make, it’s time to sort out the details of recipes and flavors. WRITE IT DOWN. True web and kitchen wizards can develop on the fly, true, but an understanding of what’s to be baked will save the sanity of mere mortals like us. Finally, do the calculations to build a comprehensive shopping list. Make it, and then check it twice. Don’t cut corners to save time because you’ll only end up back at the store. From personal experience I can tell you there’s nothing worse than being mid-baking and realizing you forgot to purchase sour cream, or you ran out of cupcake liners. (4:30)
  • In August of last year, I catered cupcakes for my sister’s wedding here in Portland. It was my first full scale job—and by job I mean “non profit, free labor.” At the end of the day, the cupcakes were beautiful. Delicious. A true hit for the end user. But I’ve got to tell you, the process to getting them completed was a NIGHTMARE. Not the actual act of baking—because inanimate objects are pretty consistent in how they behave AND can’t write emails—but everything related to how those cupcakes were created was DRAMA. I swore I’d never do it again but I found myself less than 4 months later agreeing to cater a cousin’s wedding. I decided that I absolutely had to change my process.
  • For my second wedding, I decided that we needed a clear line of command. Both our bride and mother of the bride here are terrifying, right? But they each have a different kind of crazy in their eyes. Which one scares you more? The screaming in your face bride? Or the sneaky sweet passive aggressive second-guessing comments mother-of-the-bride? As early as possible in the planning stages, figure out who’s decision trumps who’s. When in doubt, figure out who controls the money. Then, on the ground, who’s making the day to day/ minute to minute decisions? At that second wedding, I wised up and told every well meaning sister, aunt, grandmother, mom, cousin, who popped into the kitchen with a GREAT IDEA very sweetly, but very firmly that I appreciated their input, but in order to deliver on time, on budget, and as originally outlined, the train had to keep rolling as is.
  • The day before my sister’s wedding, she plops down letter molds and edible wax – she wants initials on the cupcakes. Yes, she was my sister, and yes I wanted her to have the wedding of her dreams—but at that late stage of the process, there was no way I could deliver on time for the reception with that change. Cooler heads prevail when presented with logic, so go ahead and use it to your advantage.  My second wedding provided quite the challenge as we were to prepare 250 cupcakes in a 12 by 12 foot kitchen. In 15 hours. With one oven. Six feet of counter space. DOES THAT SOUND LIKE A RISK TO YOU? On my cont’d quest to make the process easier this second time around, I threw some flags. Arrangements were made to bring in a 12 foot folding table. A schedule was worked out with other folks needing the kitchen. It was definitely a challenge, but ignoring the issues wouldn’t have made them go away—the cycle of disaster simply would have repeated itself.
  • Cupcakes – AND WEB PROJECTS – are timely tasks that can be rather exhausting. But you know what? Both tasks are underway because they’re filling a need somewhere. No one bakes cupcakes to throw them away—and no one creates a website because they have spare money to burn. Light and happiness and joy exist on the finishing end of both kinds of projects—so get excited!
  • It was easy to commit myself to making good cupcakes because I loved both my brides. I was invested in the outcome—in the success of the project and the happiness of my stakeholders--so I owned the project. There were a few key factors that contributed to our success. Projects take longer than you think. Things will go wrong. You’ll get sick of the sugar in your kitchen and crave something savory. Decide BEFORE you start to make the experience positive. Throw your flags and plan for the higher stress moments—but keep perspective. Attitude from a leader can work miracles. I’ve seen it happen in both professional and personal tasks. For Wedding #2, I enlisted my sister Mallory to be my sous chef on Team Cupcake. We made shirts we wore during the big baking event. I had food brought in to give us the savory fix. We did cupcakes from 8pm-130am and frosted the next day from 7-11am. The hours were long, but we managed to laugh and encourage each other. We also provided a unified front in keeping my mom out of our hair. 
  • A quick note before we step into the kitchen. This cupcake “cake” was assembled at the Simthsonian in Washington for President’s Day. Each cupcake, though individually decorated, supports the vision of the larger cake. For comparison’s sake, let’s liken this President Obama and Lincoln cake to your business’s goals. ALL GOALS, not just the digital ones. Assume each cupcake is a project or initiative within the organization. Can you tell which ones are digital? You can’t, because each cupcake matches the theme and blueprint of the larger picture. Your digital projects should be the same way. One bright green cupcake with flowers, though pretty and appropriate in certain situations does not support the big picture here, and may in fact detract from it. Likewise, I would never bring flan to wedding where I’d been asked to make cupcakes. A) It doesn’t fit the theme and B) I mostly just hate flan.  (10:00)
  • That all being said, we’re prepped and ready to go. I’ve learned through my experience with both cupcake AND web projects that each component of a cupcake serves a very important, and needed! purpose. Let’s for a moment, pretend that this cupcake you see right here is a new website you’ve been tasked with managing. The breakdown you’re about to see is based on a highly scientific survey of one. As you listen, form your own opinions on the anatomy of a cupcake. Feel free to disagree with me about the elements—just promise to find me later and tell me what you think and why.
  • The “cake” part of the cupcake is what keeps it from being a “frosted brownie” or a “frosted eggroll”. The cake is the engine that powers your site or the vehicle to getting as much frosting as possible into your mouth.
  • Every cake starts as batter. For both cupcakes and back-end development, there are at least three options. Something out of the box (something you buy at the store and prepare exactly as directed), something out of the box with customizations or added features (a lemon boxed mix with added pudding, a cream cheese filling), or something completely from scratch. A good cupcake is measured by how well it hides which type of batter it came from. True story! I’ve made all three types of batter, and there’s a time and place (and pros and cons) for all three. Likewise, a visitor to your website shouldn’t have any idea how it was built. Now that I’m a “professional” cupcake maker, the mistake I see most amateurs make is overfilling the cupcake tins. Resist the urge to cram more into your development than is needed. Yes, it looks like more can fit, but what’s your end game? Overfilling causes the cake to spill over the sides of the liner and detracts from the overall appeal. Lastly, let’s talk about cook time. There’s an acceptable span of time – in the 12-14 minute range for baking the perfect cupcake. Yes, it’s still technically considered a cupcake if it’s only in the oven for 6 minutes; but taste is going to suffer. SOMETHING always suffers when things are rushed.
  • The cupcakes in this photo are ones I made for a multiple sclerosis fundraiser. Plenty of variety, but all are on a chocolate or vanilla base. A cupcake without frosting looks naked the same way a site looks without front end styling. As you can see both here, and the 7million cupcake photos tagged on Flickr, there are limitless ways to frost and decorate the visible parts of your cupcake.
  • The very color of your frosting says something about the cake on which it’s housed. Like websites, a user should be able to tell quite a bit about what they’re going to taste based on what they see. In this case, you SHOULD be judging a book by its cover. Is your design classic? Quirky? Sophisticated? Sleek? Please please do not say like Apple. Have you carried your design theme throughout your entire project? Do all of the components fit together?
  • In my expert cupcake opinion, overall presentation (or user experience if you waill) accounts for half of a cupcake’s appeal. If you were allergic to sugar, I’d wager you’d still be able to look at this photo of cupcakes and project that they taste great based on how they look alone. If I hadn’t taken the time to decorate the table, or appropriately fill my tins, or carefully frost, would I still believe that?
  • I pulled this image from an unnamed cupcakeary advertising on Groupon. Maybe I’m a snob, but I don’t think this looks like a good cupcake. True, I’m not a huge fan of cranberry cherry, but I’m willing to admit when a cupcake looks good and someone might find it tasty. The overall presentation and creative organization should allow the user/viewer/site visitor to remove flavor preferences (subjectivity) and acknowledge the at the very least, the basics of presentation are covered and a cupcake LOOKS like it could be good.
  • If I asked you to hold a cupcake in your hands—to feel its heft, smell it and taste it—you should be able to answer the following questions. Does this cupcake deliver what you expected? If it looks like chocolate, is it chocolate? It’s just as easy to frost a cupcake with mashed potatoes as frosting you know. Does it make sense? Look at that frosted apple. It makes no sense. You will continue to please your users as you deliver both what you say you will and what they expect you to. There’s a reason that vanilla cupcakes with vanilla frosting and chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting continue to be bakeries highest selling cupcake. There’s comfort in the familiar; and it’s better to perfect a basic than go out on a limb with a cupcake that sounds good on paper but has rarely been executed well.
  • Cupcakes are a hands-on messy project. During the life cycle of a cupcake, your hands are constantly touching messy things. You’re cracking eggs, or filling tins with batter, or prepping frosting bags. True, I could have worn gloves or taken extreme measures not to get my hands dirty—but I’dve lost valuable time—and time means money. Commit to getting your hands dirty…and keeping them that way.
  • If it’s as something as crazy as bacon, FINE. Bacon!
  • As a baker, I know my limitations. This bride wanted some kind of formal cake to cut into. Frosting cupcakes is something I understand. Frosting an intricate cake? NOT MY BAG. The price I paid to outsource that cake was both worth the mental rest in hiring a professional and also assured the end product would LOOK professional.
  • Once you find success, don’t be afraid to share recipes. How much you share or who you share with is up to your discretion, but I’ve learned that holding the keys of success close to your chest keeps you on the hook to doing more. Wouldn’t it be nicer, easier, and better to teach a man to fish than by always doing the fishing? Don’t be invited to parties because you’re the only one who can bake.
  • Cupcakes and Project Management

    1. 1. Make managing web projects a piece of cake Make managing web projects a piece of cake Natalie Williams | ISITE Design | @NatAttack
    2. 2. Before you step into the kitchen Before you step into the kitchen
    3. 3. Plan your menu <ul><li>Size of event </li></ul><ul><li>Dream big </li></ul><ul><li>Pare back based on constraints </li></ul><ul><li>Feature matrix shopping list </li></ul>
    4. 4. Avoid getting egg on your face
    5. 5. Determine your stakeholders <ul><li>Who’s the client? </li></ul><ul><ul><li> vs </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Who’s actually calling the shots? </li></ul>
    6. 6. Risk mitigation <ul><li>Don’t be afraid to push back or say no </li></ul><ul><li>Throw flags </li></ul>
    7. 7. Get psyched Get psyched
    8. 8. Invest to own <ul><li>Resolve to make the experience positive </li></ul><ul><li>Motivate your team </li></ul><ul><li>Have fun along the way </li></ul>
    9. 9. Just a smaller piece of cake
    10. 10. Ready. Set. Bake.
    11. 11. A foundational support
    12. 12. Development <ul><li>Batter options </li></ul><ul><li>Fight the urge to overfill </li></ul><ul><li>Time in the oven </li></ul>
    13. 13. A quick and helpful tip
    14. 14. Cleanliness! Control!
    15. 15. Front end design
    16. 16. Frosting <ul><li>Color </li></ul><ul><li>Consistency </li></ul><ul><li>Technique </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Inside out </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Outside in </li></ul></ul>
    17. 17. It’s all about the packaging
    18. 18. Proof?
    19. 19. Presentation <ul><li>Does it deliver what you expected? </li></ul><ul><li>Does it make sense? </li></ul>
    20. 20. Plan on getting your hands dirty
    21. 21. Give the people what they want
    22. 22. Turn to professionals when needed

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