September 19, 2018

The “Tech Stack” Trap

Summary: There are numerous ways that workers in today’s digital world wind up using the wrong tools and systems. But it all adds up to one thing: Their jobs are harder. There’s friction and lost opportunity along every step of the way, distorting not only the process, but also the outcomes.

I’ve been the dismayed observer of workgroups being gifted digital tools that are totally wrong for their jobs… and I’ve watched in amazement at the lengths these same users will go — out of frustration — to create clever hacks and workarounds.

My perspective comes from a career in the creative industry (here, and here) prior to moving over to tech/telecomm — but the problem pervades every industry.

One cause is a lack of structure… actually, no structure at all. Users confront a mess of scattered applications (email, spreadsheets, files on a network drive) that evolved and mutated over the ages. I jokingly call this a grassroots tech stack — cobbled together by people just trying to get through the day. Definitely not the result of any systematic approach.

Another cause might be a tool that simply has the wrong focus. Software systems acquired for some specific original purpose are then deployed across the enterprise in ways that would make even the creators of the system cringe.

At my place of work, we use an industry-standard software bug tracking system to manage our creative projects — from intake, project management, and task assignment, through creative development to stakeholder approvals and delivery to the offshore content integration team. Across town at one of New York City’s most esteemed museums, my friend there tells me that the exact same software is used for all kinds of amazing things including… when you need to ask for a new light bulb. And also sometimes for bug reporting.

(Check out my post on configuring Jira for creatives.)

I witnessed an accounting system that was designed for tracking inventory in a factory environment dropped onto an entertainment organization where nothing happens in a straight line — and especially not in the content production arm of the business where chaos reigns. The system didn’t just land with a thud. Howls of rage were registered on the far side of the Hudson River. Peace was eventually restored once Stockholm Syndrome set in.

We got here… how, exactly?

The reasons for a mismatch between whatever digital tools a company takes on, versus actual user needs, are many and varied.

Legacy systems: Software systems or tools have been in use for so long that the working teams accept it as normal or even think it’s great. While the business changes around them, the downtrodden users clack away at these legacy systems, falling farther and farther behind the times.

The False God of Standardization: Desktop software is sometimes viewed as a fixed one-size-fits-all tool or suite of tools. In reality, software designed for one business purposes might not be so awesome for other specialized tasks. Isn’t it obvious that there’s virtually zero overlap between the power users of Microsoft Office and the power users of Adobe Creative Cloud? Meanwhile, the organization erects obstacles against anyone who might want to explore alternative tools to find different and possibly better ways of working.

When IT and Biz Go Shopping: The groups in charge of technology or budgets can be isolated from the front lines of the business. As a result, they don’t understand the users’ unique needs or idiosyncrasies of the working groups. In the name of “single platform” or whatever, they’ll deploy a system that’s 80 percent good enough. But totally miss the 20 percent causing all the headaches for the end users.

Scope Creep: Tech systems can be acquired for one specific initial purpose and then spread across the company becoming adopted by unrelated teams. The new teams have to adapt their processes, and hack the tool, just to make it barely functional.

My grandfather, a master craftsman and cabinetmaker, said: “Never use a wrench if you need a hammer.”

The right tool for the job

Digital tools, whether desktop or server-based software, need to be purposefully designed for the activities and needs of the business units and working groups.

This reminds me of a bit of advice from my grandfather “Mac” Gepford — master craftsman and cabinetmaker: “Never use a wrench when you need a hammer.” (And he always took care of his tools, carefully brushing and oiling each one before putting them away at the end of every day in his workshop.)

In other words, if the tools don’t help… they hurt — dragging the work down and adding friction and distortion to every process. This was true in cabinetmaking. And it’s doubly true of modern digital tools.

End-users, rise up!

Business units and working groups must learn to exert their influence when it comes to the digital tools they use. They need a seat at the table during the discovery and evaluation phases, before the software or systems are purchased. In a better world, they would be able to go out and acquire their own tools. But the best way to make this shake out in your favor is if you have the means and the fortitude to develop tools of your own. This is the hard but also the glorious road.

(By the way, I’m a big champion for building such tools — because so often the use case is unique, or the available vendor solutions just haven’t caught up to the needs.)

Do you want a fighting chance at getting the tech you deserve? Then you’ve got to understand the players within your organization — find out who acquires the technology, and why. I’ll be sharing a few thoughts about the dynamics in this space, in an upcoming post.

Bottom Line: Technology that’s foisted on users can lead to a culture of disempowerment and acceptance of baked-in friction. Hacks are invented just to get the work done — but it distorts the process. Do I have to say it? This is not good.

July 15, 2017

Killer Ops: The Tech Stack

About the Killer Ops series:

How can creative teams increase their Value Proposition? How can they become better strategic partners in the organization? Following the entrepreneurial model of Product Development, creative teams – and organizations – can learn to think and act like a startup, to develop a framework for continuous innovation, improved operations, and greater success.

What This is About: Analyze your creative Tech Stack by studying your current needs and existing tools, and mapping your toolkit ecosystem.

Why it Matters: A Tech Stack Canvas is a powerful way to analyze your core needs and evaluate your digital toolkit, using four quadrants. This visualization will structure your thinking about the Tech Stack you need to thrive — helping with your decision-making and your business case when the time comes to fight for better tools.

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April 1, 2017

Conferences: Creative Operations Exchange

Creative Operations Leadership is Essential

by Kevin Gepford

When I joined AT&T’s digital creative team in the fall of 2016, my job title included a couple of words that even four years ago you didn’t hear very much. Those words were “Creative Operations.”

Change has happened quickly. Creative Ops, as a management concept, is popping up on online jobs postings and LinkedIn. This is definitely a trend — more and more creative organizations are devoting strategic leadership resources to getting the work done smarter and better.

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March 3, 2017

Killer Ops: Empathy Maps

Empathy Maps

by Kevin Gepford

What This Is Gleans the juicy parts from your interviews to show what challenges your team, and what they see, think, feel, and hear.

Why it Matters Brings home the pain and aspirations of the people you work with and shows you the things that your Future Creative Ops might be able to resolve.

You’ve done the same during your interviews and persona development — uncovering numerous pain points within your team. Product Managers put a lot of effort into learning more about their customers to glean insights about their pains, needs and problems. This brings focus to the development of their product or app.

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January 18, 2017

Killer Ops: The Power of Personas

Power of Personas

by Kevin Gepford

What This Is: User personas are composite profiles that represent clusters of users.

Why it Matters: Personas humanize the key themes across our creative work group, while stripping out the distraction of real identities. Personas capture the needs and behaviors of the people in our team, and also help inform your department direction and strategy.

Our journey of applying the methods of Product Management to Creative Operations continues with personas. Every app developer on the planet does this. I’m using personas during my current development project to create a centralized workflow system for the digital marketing group at AT&T.

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December 19, 2016

Killer Ops: External Interviews

Series - A Farther Look

by Kevin Gepford

What’s Special About External Interviews? We’re getting the expert views of people outside our business workplaces.

Why External Interviews Matter An outside perspective will help give us context, inspiration, and confidence.

Research conducted within your team and organization will reveal a lot of great insights about how the place is actually functioning, and what your team thinks about ways to make things better.

Now, you need to get out of the building!

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October 4, 2016

Killer Ops: Internal Interviews

Series - A Closer Look

by Kevin Gepford

What’s Special About Internal Interviews? The focus is inward — a deep dive with your team and people from the groups you serve and support.

Why Internal Interviews Matter These help us get a clearer picture of our team’s workflow, environment and needs.

There’s a ton of reasons why start-ups and new products fail. But a big one is a poor understanding of the market and the needs of the potential users. Creative Operations teams needs the same level of attention, and research, rather than just running on autopilot.

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September 18, 2016

Killer Ops: Minimum Viable Product?

Series - Minimum Viable Product

by Kevin Gepford

How does Creative Ops define MVP? Validating an idea by identifying the smallest things that could be done to get results.

Why it Matters By starting small you test your ideas, as well as gain momentum, experience and credibility in your quest to make a bigger difference.

Product Managers talk about Minimum Viable Product as a way of building a prototype with just enough features to gather validated learning about the product and its continued development.

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August 12, 2016

Data and the Power of DAM at Comedy Central

DAM at Comedy Central

by Kevin Gepford

Digital Asset Management at Comedy Central got its start as a grassroots initiative, and over the years had steadily grown in size and usefulness while never quite achieving institutional legitimacy.

One day I realized I was tired of explaining to our creative and business managers – every year – why investing in our Digital Asset Management system was so important. I needed to figure out how to present my case for DAM in a way that made sense to them.

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August 2, 2016

Comedy Central Uses DAM to Find the Funny

DAM at Comedy Central

by Kevin Gepford

Digital Asset Management was one of my early initiatives at Comedy Central, and it’s remained one of my all-time favorite projects there.

Comedy Central’s DAM system was originally created by — and for — the print design team. The initiative started small, but it grew to serve additional teams across the larger creative workgroup. Over the course of a decade its reach eventually expanded to serve a broad swath of users across Viacom’s corporate enterprise — users who have come to depend on it for ready access to a collection of more than 50,000 of Comedy Central’s branded digital assets.

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July 13, 2016

Killer Ops: Your Business Model

Series - Business Model Design

by Kevin Gepford

What’s the Business Model Canvas? The Canvas is a one-page template that lays out both what you do, and how you go about doing it. It documents existing business models — or helps develop new ones — and provides a framework for you to design, challenge, invent, and change.

Why it Matters The canvas forces you to distill everything you do down to its essence — and create a document that visually explains it. The template works for businesses and start-ups, and also for teams and departments within larger organizations.

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June 16, 2016

Killer Ops: SWOT Analysis

Series - SWOT

by Kevin Gepford

What’s SWOT?: SWOT analysis is a framework for doing research and formulating a business strategy. It analyzes strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and can be applied to existing businesses, teams and departments, and new business ideas.

Why it Matters: This is essential for developing your group’s Value Proposition. Insights from your internal research are synthesized to map ways to improve operations, use resources more efficiently, and anticipate risks to your group and its success.

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May 7, 2016

Killer Ops: How to Make a Plan

Series - Make a Plan

by Kevin Gepford

What This Is: A results-oriented series of steps to flesh out an idea and carry it to the finish line.

Why It’s Important: Winging it is not a business plan.

Let’s take a look at each step from a Product Management perspective, and apply it to Creative Ops.

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April 30, 2016

Killer Ops: First Steps of Discovery

Series - First Steps

by Kevin Gepford

What This Is: Put on the thinking cap and come up with broad ideas about how to improve Creative Operations.

Why It’s Important: Without a plan, we won’t know where we’re going.

The opening act for Product Managers is The Big Idea — to conceive… to dream, to imagine, and to form a plan.

It’s also the first step for Creative Operations managers who embrace the challenge to improve the productivity of their creative staff through better tools, systems, and methods.

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April 25, 2016

Killer Ops: What Can We Learn from Product Management?

Series - Creative Ops Can Learn from Product Management

(This Article is First in a Series)

by Kevin Gepford

As a Creative Operations leader you see your team struggling on a daily basis to get the work done, in an environment that sorely needs a makeover.

The creative workplace is largely reactive — lurching from crises to crisis, shooting at everything in sight, rushing to meet deadlines, and driven by creative visionaries with their mercurial ways.

We need to make some changes in our approach. As the Grail Knight said to Indiana Jones in “The Last Crusade”: It’s important to choose wisely.

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March 31, 2016

How to drive creative work forward and build a 3.0 version of your creative ops ninja team

DAM NY 2016

by Kevin Gepford

In just a few weeks, the 2016 Henry Stewart DAM NY Conference will feature an all-new Creative Operations track. I’m thrilled to return as a speaker.

For the last two years at the conference, I’ve talked about Comedy Central’s digital content hub at — first as a case study focusing on the benefits our system offered to our creative team. Last fall, at the Los Angeles conference, I dove a little deeper into our strategy and development process, and the business benefits of the in-house product development of our solution to address several core creative operations needs.

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February 12, 2016

The Evolution of Comedy Central’s Creative Content Hub

CC Share - Evolution

by Kevin Gepford

This is a tale of two departments that tore Comedy Central’s digital creative content hub in half.

I jest! We’re comedy natives — no drama for us!

A core goal of CC Share (the name of our content hub), was that it should serve the needs of two separate business units that each needed a way to manage multimedia content. We started out thinking we could solve everything with a unified code base. But when that strategy hit a wall, we pivoted to a multi-tenant platform that gave us more flexibility to create a focused and unique interface for each group.

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January 22, 2016

Dragon Wranglers of Creative Ops

Dragon Wranglers

by Kevin Gepford

The New York City MTA recently rolled out an innovative awareness campaign involving thousands of subway posters to enlighten straphangers on how to comport themselves when riding public transportation. Oh, it’s also posted in five languages, just to make sure the message gets through.

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January 11, 2016

Creative Ops: Digital Tool Ad-Hockery

Ad hockery

by Kevin Gepford

Great creative work can’t get produced without a great design team.

But success depends on a lot more than just those endpoints. It also hinges on how the great work gets produced.

I’ve always been interested in the middle part — the work-in-progress and the way the media is managed. A major facet of this is technological — what tech gets deployed, and how it’s managed, and ultimately used, by the creative team.

There are a couple of ways that a fail can happen. It might fail by neglect — by the organization ignoring the problem and doing nothing. But also, the organization might identify the needs but take the wrong action and end up with bad technology.

This post is about the first: Neglect.

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