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Investing in the Future: How our team takes the time to innovate for campus

One of the challenges we at Stanford Web Services face as both a software development group as well as a client-facing web design team is finding time to create new and innovative tools for campus amidst client projects. Most of the time we are heads down, working with clients to launch scores of websites each year. So how do we approach innovating for campus?

Ever since we opened our doors in 2011, our team has taken one week about once a quarter to turn off our email, cancel meetings and sprint on campus-wide tools. During those weeks, we create new reusable solutions, research future technologies, and fix nagging bugs. These heads down weeks, or "product sprint weeks", have become a source of some of our biggest wins for campus.

Product sprint weeks lead to product improvement and popular features

New fancy tools

In past product sprints, our team created some of the tools that transformed the services and products we offer to campus. Examples include:

  • Our first Jumpstart product: a clean and easy-to-use static website solution designed to support clients with simple web needs much faster. Jumpstart Simple became the core of our Jumpstart product approach to building websites for Stanford.

  • Customize Design: an extension to our products making it possible to create a homepage layout switcher with more design options.

  • Stanford Framework's multiple design options: multiple website color palette and font options that allow clients to make websites suited to them.

  • Landing Page: a special page type with three different layouts making it easy for clients to present complex content more clearly.

Research and documentation

We've also used this time time to investigate and invest in new technologies, or improve documentation. Examples include:

  • Evaluating Drupal 8: researching the state of Drupal 8 and how we might approach adopting it.

  • Creating automated tests: building infrastructure and test scripts with the Behat testing framework to check the functionality of every module on Stanford Sites’ stack during regular security updates.

  • Redesigning the Jumpstart user guide: answering common questions and improving navigation and search options to help clients.

Fixing nagging bugs

We've also used this time to root out the source of nagging bugs or usability issues affecting multiple websites. As Jumpstart grows and supports more sites, these nagging bugs can become big pains if not resolved early. In fact, one sprint was dedicated to pet peeves that we and our partners and clients faced again and again. Bug fixing doesn't always give you the TED talk material that innovation does, but it sure makes everyone's lives better!

Best results happen with the entire team

To create the best solutions, it's important for every voice on the team to be heard and for all our unique skills to come to bear on the solutions we offer to campus. Product sprint weeks allow teammates who otherwise may not interact much on a daily basis to have the opportunity to work together on mini task forces, sharing lessons learned from multiple projects. We also make a point of spending little time at desks or in offices, instead choosing to work in a shared collaborative space so that we are working side-by-side all week long. Sharing a mission and space (and delicious snacks) boosts our team spirit, and the week ends in a fun demo day where we celebrate what was built and settle on next steps.

A one week sprint

When we have time to focus on critical issues and goals without the interruption of meetings, we get more work done more quickly, and a week is required for any substantial development to take place. Also, because we "get in a groove" the focus of the team grows along with momentum each day, so we gain more and more goodness for campus. (That said, our clients are important to us, so we wouldn't want to pause their projects for longer than a week!)

Thank you to our clients and partners!

It’s through your support, ideas, and feedback that we have driven the product improvements made to Jumpstart since its very inception. If you’d like to see something new in Jumpstart, tell us about your idea in the Jumpstart Suggestion Box. And we’ll look forward to sharing what we’ve created after our next sprint at the beginning of November.