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Failing with software and how it can be fun. March 24, 2009

Posted by gcorbin in Commentary.
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Several months ago I had the experience of pitching the design for an elegant marketing web site to a group of old school farmers. The need for such a tool was advertised in my local town newspaper. The group of local farmers coordinates a local farmers market that runs from spring to fall every year. They were given a small grant from the state government to help improve the farmers market. So, I decided to give it a shot. My first instincts were to determine what the requirements of the web site were to be. I emailed the individual that posted the need for the web site, looking for a meeting to discuss requirements. I was told all the information that I needed was posted in the request for the web site. See the notice below:



Carver Reporter –


Thanks to the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, the town of Carver was awarded a grant of $4,000 to help promote the Farmers’ Market through an official Web site and accompanying brochures.


With the recent economic crisis in the state, further grant monies may not be available for upcoming seasons, and thus the Carver Agricultural Commission (AgCom) is looking to utilize this grant to the fullest extent. The grant monies must be used within a certain timeframe or they will be lost.


The grant parameters are specific in that $2,000 is allocated for Web site development and $2,000 for the brochure. The AgCom is looking for help from the community. Residents who have experience and creativity in either or both of these areas are encouraged to apply to the AgCom with design ideas and proposals.


“The Farmers’ Market has become a key economic and social component of the town. The brochure will help the town advertise next year’s market and may help with fundraising, getting new venders, etcetera,” Director of Planning and Community Development Jack Hunter said. “The Web page will allow online updates and interactive approaches to the market for next year, as well.”


Hunter said customers could access online farmers’ market coupons through the site, as well as notify them of upcoming specials and events such as the pony rides, hay rides or the Fall Harvest Festival. Web access has proven to be a valuable marketing tool for communities that have farmers’ markets.


AgCom members felt that keeping the work local for a local community market was important and hope to receive interest in developing the tools from several Carver residents.


The deadline for both proposals is Monday, Nov. 10. Interviews will be scheduled for the Nov. 17 AgCom meeting in Meeting Room 4 at the town hall.


Wow, not really much to go on. I pulled the following points from the notice:


Functional Requirements


1. “The Web page will allow online updates and interactive approaches to the market for next year, as well.”


2. Customers could access online farmers’ market coupons through the site


3. Notify users of upcoming specials and events such as the pony rides, hayrides or the Fall Harvest Festival.


Non-Functional Requirements


1. The web site should prove to be a valuable marketing tool for communities that have farmers’ markets.


My next step was to research other sites that were designed with farmers in mind. After I spent a few days researching this, I felt I was ready to draft a proposal. In my proposal, I outline the details on how the site could be laid out, what functionality it could provide, how people would find the site, how it would be maintained and updated, what technologies would be used and what documentation I would provide. The full proposal can be found here. Any way, I felt that I’d covered everything needed. The last step was just to pitch my proposal and hope for the best. I had no idea what other professionals would be applying for the same project so I did my best to cover everything I could.


The day of the proposal came. I was asked to give my pitch in front of about 16 local farmers and others at the town hall. All was going well, until I started with my written proposal. It was then that I discovered that no one in that room had ever seen my proposal. I was thinking how could this be, I emailed it to the head of the market and asked him to forward it to all that would be interested. I later found that he never forwarded it because none of the local farmers in that room had regularly used email accounts. They all had ones that were setup by the town for them, but it was very unlikely that any of them knew how to check it. It was Ok, I had printed out several copies before the meeting and I could just hand them out. So, I continued to give pitch my proposal and I spoke about all the items in it and covered everything I could think of. I was extra careful to make sure I used as many laymen terms as possible, keeping my audience in mind. So after speaking for about 30 minutes, I final started to get some feedback in the form of questions. First question was what is a URL? Ok I said to myself, these are farmers and I missed that one, I should have used the term web site address. As more and more questions came in, It quickly became obvious that most of these farmers had no idea about what it took to build a web site never mind the reason it would take 2 months to do it. After all, its just words on computer screen, what’s the big deal?


Any way, once my painful proposal was complete, I was asked to sit in a waiting room while they listen to other proposals, just incase questions about my proposal came up. I learnt that there was only one other proposal they had to review. After that was complete we were both thanked for spending the time and sent on our way. Later I came to learn that the second candidate was an active member within the community and was well known and liked by all the local farmers. I should have guessed based on all the laughter I heard while waiting for the second proposal to complete. In any case, I never heard back from the committee. I did email them as a follow up, but still have yet to hear anything. So, whether I lost the project due to small town politics or failing to convey a technical topic to lay people, I’ll never know. After this experience, I can’t help to remember that old saying “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know!” In any case, I view it as a very positive experience. It helped me grow as a professional and learn some painful lessons of politics at very little cost.


In case you were wondering, the web site that was proposed still has not been built. Last I heard, they decided to scrap the project and go with printing flyers instead. I guess we can add this one to that list of 95% of all projects that fail.