SkyscraperPondering on a Twitter that I posted recently, it had me think; why does it take exponential effort and time to get ‘simple’ stuff completed on big sites such as Yahoo!.

Looking around London and most other cities, skyscrapers are everywhere, out of necessity, due to the race for space. So the end result for this competition for land is often elegant structures with solid foundations, designed to last, designed to cater for many people. A perfect analogy (in my mind) for how to explain intangible websites.

There has been much discussion on the subject of scaling websites, something becoming increasingly relevant with the advent of sites such as digg.com, stumbleupon.com, delicious.com that allow small sites to rapidly shoot to success with relative ease.

The social web is exploding, causing sites that embrace sharing, entity connections, open services etc. to take scaling seriously. Scaling is the art of ensuring your service/website will remain performant and available to every user and consumer service. This article, however, is not about scaling, but it is a look at the differences of skyscraper sites vs. personal blog’s and company brochureware sites (studio sites).

Background on Skyscraper sites

Creating components of a skyscraper website takes a huge amount of time, money and resourcing. A component may come in the form of an article page, widget or homepage redesign and may take months to reach a production ready state. There is a good reason for this inefficiency and it comes from enterprise organisation traits. Building sites to serve millions of users has taken much inspiration from the traditional enterprise software world through having to be agile, organised and technically superior from the competition.

For most departments or domains within these huge website companies you will find a vast array of employee positions. A typical website or service within the skyscraper organisation would consist of the following roles:

  • Product Manager
  • Program Manager
  • Engineer
  • Web Developer
  • Architect
  • Quality and Assurance

There are many more intricacies behind this setup which could include additional roles such as database experts, infrastructure, security, SEO, process etc. but for engineering and demonstration purposes, this model will be sufficiently accurate.

If you take a step back you can tell that involving this many people for every product will inherently incur inefficiencies over a single all-round developer. There is good reason for this setup, though; every member of the team will be highly skilled and recognised in their field of expertise, leading to world class teams. World class teams create world class results, something that world class companies demand to stay competitive.

What constitutes a skyscraper site?

We are talking about the sites you should all be familiar with: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Ebay, MSN, Amazon, Wikipedia. Sites with reach to hundreds of millions of users every week.

The Joys of building skyscraper sites

Building large sites is for the most part a privilege, something to aspire to if you are involved in any way in developing websites or software. Here are just some of the highlights of working for one of these large sites:

  • Audience reach
  • Cutting edge technologies and techniques
  • Team of elite colleagues
  • Great prestige

Pain points

Building websites with so much public exposure can bring pitfalls in working on these sites including:

  • Politics involved at most stages of development
  • Slow turnaround in projects through the vast considerations in delivery
  • Narrow range of expertise exercised

The studio site

This is the site you go to to find information in a specific domain, a company, service, product, place or person, for instance. These sites are usually served to at most a few thousand users per month. You will normally find studio sites being produced by web agencies or individuals.

The love for developing studio sites

Studio scale sites can be really enjoyable to develop. Here are just some of the plus points:

  • Quick turn around in developing websites
  • Overall control over the site(s)
  • Ability to diversify skill sets and projects

Downsides to working on studio sites

Generally speaking it is hard to flaw working on studio sites. You have the ability to move away from what does not work for you, they are usually quick to complete and once a development framework has been established you can reap the rewards of efficiency and concentrate on spending your time on new initiatives. Issues can arise when working for small, dynamic, young agencies where clients could be pestering and site design requests can be annoyingly denting for your portfolio.

Respect to the Skyscraper Organisations

Building large scale websites is a joy. For myself the main experience has been working for the company itself. Yahoo! treats their staff amazingly. We are all encouraged to aspire to be better at what we do, to have an open attitude and simply enjoy what we do. Yahoo! is by no means the only great employer in the web sphere, Microsoft and Google among others are renowned for their employee development, appreciation and respect. Probably one of the driving forces towards creating world renowned and respected websites is through their number one assets, their employees.

In Summary

If you are in the business of building websites and you are not happy with what you are doing consider the flip side industry of your work, for example, if you build skyscraper sites, consider working for an agency to gather more freedom and control in developing studio sites.

So, if you are observing skyscraper sites wondering why it takes them so long to release products, think for a minute that they may just be frantic behind the scenes trying to ensure they release a secure, pleasing, rock-solid world class website.