Planning your project for “service providers”

When writing my last post on how to earn money with LaTeX I realized I actually had a lot of advice on planning and scheduling your project as well. So I will sum up my experiences with all sorts of “customers” (be it project partners or whatever you have).

Motivation

This is not to complain how horrible things are but just to sum up a few things you should take into account that an unexperienced person might not find self-evident. Seeing as my days of being unexperienced myself are not very far away, the learning process is still pretty fresh and I still remember the problems a beginner can face, so I hope to be able to provide valuable advice.

Some of the advice is copied out of the earning money post, so don’t be confused if you feel like you might have already read some of this. Initially I had wanted to extend the old article but since it already was so over-long, I decided to take this out into its own post. This is also why I will start with producing print-ready PDFs for a publishing house, since this is where I had started my ramblings in the last post.

Communication between two worlds

Your job is to communicate the technical stuff in a way which makes sense to the (probably non-technical) customer. So you need to understand their language to deduce from it what it is they want. Then, you should reformulate it in a way which is a bit more technical and “re-translate” it to them to check if you got it right. This is a necessary part because mostly, the requirements you get are not specific enough and there are a lot of decisions to be made in the process of planning implementation and acutally implementing these requirements.

Production paradigms and methodologies

In the past, people used the so-called “waterfall model” which means that they would get the requirements once from the customer and then implement them like this, working around any lack of information they might encounter. Modern methodologies lean towards shorter producation cycles where you produce a “minimal working example” fast so you can check whether this is actually what the customers want. If there are any additional decisions to be made or information missing, you re-check with the customers straightaway. You try to avoid implementing unnecessary features you think are cool but the customer didn’t ask for. For now, I will leave it with this super short info on methodologies. Maybe I will follow up here with a post of its own at some point in the future.

Pitfalls in organizing your work. On the example of producing print-ready output

Only because you know some LaTeX doesn’t necessarily mean you will know how to cater to the needs of a publishing house. Try to get the opportunity of working with them for free. Again, small publishing houses or university publishers often offer the option that you hand in the final PDF which comes a lot cheaper than having them typeset it for you. This will save the scientist in question a lot of money (500-2000€ depending on the amount of work). Offer to some university professor that you will typeset their book for free, so you will have done the interaction with the publisher at least once, have a credential to show and know what publishers want. Also, don’t underestimate how long it might take. There is a reason a job like this can pay up to 2000€. Especially scientific publications often have a million changes and corrections before they are finally ready for print.

During the process, you might realize that producing a PDF which corresponds exactly to the publisher’s criteria is more difficult than you would think. At least, that was what it was for me. I had used LaTeX and knew how to do the customizing needed to make my thesis advisors happy, but the publisher ended up wanting a million things changed I had never even dreamt of doing in LaTeX. Advisors will quickly be happy with nicely typeset output and correct citations. Publishers, however, want a very specific look. For example, the first thing I had to change is the typesetting of the footnotes which no advisor of mine had ever cared about. I had never customized footnotes before and wasn’t even aware that could be an issue. So if you haven’t done any of those things, I suggest you start reading up on them now. (An upcoming post on LaTeX for the Accidental Editor will explain all those things).

It will probably be a lot more work than you might have expected and the work might also be pretty different than what you are used to doing with LaTeX. Anticipate this (!). Publishing houses also tend to find typographical problems you hadn’t even dreamt about beforehand.

Scheduling the work

Apart from traditional publishers, I have found any customer really is like this. The version of text etc. you are handed is never the final one. You typeset it and think you’re done and only then they notice the millions of typos and so on. The first “final version” together with the preparatory and consultation meetings is half of the work / hours you need to plan for (believe me!). If have found that usually, the corrections are at least as much work as creating this “first final version” even when I had to create the whole layout and some TikZ for that first version”. Correction work after this is done will seem to expand exponentially! This is not necessarily a horrible thing if you know about it an plan accordingly. If you think like a beginner often does, however,  and don’t feel confident enough dictating your terms and communicating your needs, they won’t be met. You are likely to find yourself in a hot mess. This is great relationship advice too, by the way 😉

The first “final document” they hand you is actually the first draft

This is super annoying and I’m still thinking about how I can prevent this from happening (again) because often, it’s just due to a lack of diligence on their part. But of course, once their document is typeset in LaTeX, you are the only one who still knows how to make changes. Anticipate this and also, probably (secretly) include at least 10 hours more than you need in the fee / estimate of hours needed for corrections (even for teensy mini-projects and probably especially those as people tend to be even more careless with them). There will be many corrections to make. Should you find a way of preventing this from happening, please inform me 😉  So far I have not been very successful. People only see the typos or visual problems in the final fully typeset version. But these extra corrections you are not getting paid extra for are often what turns a profitable side job into one that’s not profitable anymore. Also, these corrections mostly need to be made instantly or last minute. So inquire about when the deadline is and make sure you are available at that time. Probably best plan to be with them at that time (the last hours before submission) and charge them for it preventively. Because you will end up having to do it anyway. Also, the more scientific the content, the more stressful it’s probably going to be.

Creating a ‘safe space’ for your work by saying “No” – Learn to be strict with your customer

Never forget that you are the last part in the food chain. Your customers will hand in the data late, like 2 hours before the deadline and you will be the one whose head is on the line, unless you set up your conditions very clearly before. If you don’t want this side job to become stressful, you need to make the schedule for them. They have no clue how long their own corrections and “completely unforeseeable” addtions will take.

Give them a deadline long before your head is on the line. Imagine you get a LaTeX error in the last minute and don’t know how to solve it. Also, to prevent this, create a minimal working example before you receive the final data (this will be in the last minute and way too late to start). Ask for a mandatory “minimal working example” and implement this right after the first meeting, so they can give feedback. They will probably want  litterally everything changed. Or, even worse, they say it’s perfect and thanks a lot. The most important thing to know is: They will akways have a millon corrections and the correction process will take at least as long as creating the “first final version”. Even if they tell you “it’s perfect, thanks so much” rightaway. Corrections will come. I have not had a single project where this was not the case. If you have other experiences, please let me know. But also from my colleagues I hear nothing else.

You need to know this and never let anything cheat you into believing otherwise. The less corrections or feedback you get after the first draft, exponentially more will come the closer you reach the “real” deadline of the project (by this I mean closing in to the actual end, after the “first final version”).

Helping the customer find out what they really want

Often customers will end up realizing that they don’t like their own idea anymore once it’s implemented. Or they might not have an idea of their own and you need to make multiple mockups until they’re happy. But the customer not having an idea of their own should never be mistaken for them happily accepting whatever result you produce. Once you have come up with an idea, they will probably tear it apart. This is not meant in an unfriendly way, but it’s just a fact that after you serve them a concrete implementation they will suddenly realize exactly what they would have wanted. Hint: It’s probably the exact opposite of what you just laboriously produced.

Protect yourself by insisting that extra features are all super difficult to implement (charge extra)

I don’t say this to discourage you but just to give a realistic idea of how it’s going to go. This is the same for any kind of work where you produce a technical implementation for a “customer” who will hand you the data to be represented. This can be an XML-based project in the Digital Humanities or a LaTeX-based poster printable. Also, another tip from the DH world: Always say everything is incredibly hard and takes super long and you are not sure if it can be done at all if people ask for extra stuff which wasn’t part of the contract before. I used to hate this and think it was a sign of  “bad service” or laziness but it’s really just a necessary precaution. You need to protect your own time or else you will end up working for free. If necessary, charge extra. This also means that you need to write down a very clear “contract” of what you agreed to do for which money. Don’t add extra goodies for no extra pay. Once you ask additional money, the feature probably isn’t all that important anymore.

Always make a first draft with (at least snippets of) real data straightaway

Be sure to make the “mockup” using their “real data”, not lorem ipsum only, if possible. Their data might not look anything like lorem ipsum. Do it right after the first meeting, so you did your part. If they fuck it up and don’t hand you any data before the deadline, this proves that you did your work and they will not be able to back out of paying you.

Some security is never a bad idea. Also, this makes sure that you get “most” of the work (maybe the first third) done early. Remember, if you are somebody who is always Mr. Last Minute, this job probably isn’t for you. The customers will likely hand you the data way too late. If you wait with the first mockup until after they give you the final data, you are never going to make it since they will want to give feedback and have changes made as well.

Specificities of the Humanities

In the Humanities, it is most imporant that you learn all the features MS Word offers and how to reproduce a Word-like-but-better look. If they are to let you use LaTeX, you first have to prove it has all the features they are used to from MS Word.

Like I complain about in my quitting word post, everything revolves around MS Word in the Humanities. This means that even if you choose not to use Word in your own private life, you will have to know how to work with it. Most importantly, how to make the best of it by extracting the data to further process it using a different data format.

Closing thoughts

So, these are some general thoughts on working as a “service provider”. The experiences are both from some contract or freelance work with LaTeX and project work in the DH. At some point, I will probably write a post specifically on DH project management as well. But for now, I just want to stress again that this post is not to bitch about anybody or to scare anybody away. I just wanted to share some of my experiences which could be useful for someone looking to get started, so they might have an idea of a few things to take into account.

So long and thanks for the fish!

The Ninja

 

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