Sitecore Interview PING Works' Peter McCowatt - the Forgotten Art of Website Governance

Posted on May 25, 2016 in General ,  Press Releases  | No comments

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Recently PING Works' Business Development Manager, Peter McCowatt, sat down to chat with Sitecore APAC's Vice President, Steven Goddard. 

The two covered off on a range of topics that play into the digital landscape, including bringing back the forgotten art of website governance.

You can read the full interview below.


As part of our Partner Series, I’ll be speaking to some of our key Australia and New Zealand-based digital partners to get an insight into life as a Sitecore partner.

This month, I sat down with Peter McCowatt, Director of Business Development at PING Works, to discuss digital maturity, website governance and the importance of choosing the right partner for the job.

Peter McCowatt 
Peter McCowatt, Director of Business Development at PING Works

Steven: Thanks for joining me, Peter! Usual drill; if you could please tell me a little about your role at PING Works, that’d be great.

Peter: No worries, Steven! So, PING Works has now been working with Sitecore for about six years.

In our previous incarnation as 5 Limes, we’d done a lot of design UX and delivery for a number of key clients, including Nestlé and Panasonic. When we merged with Suede Digital four years ago, it was a really nice way to blend our backend and technical capabilities with classic agency design and UX capabilities.

That's how PING Works was formed and we’ve basically continued down the same path of either offering a complete solution for clients, based upon a classic digital agency structure, or using UX and user-focused methodologies.

Steven: Great- so six years as a Sitecore partner? What drove the decision to become a partner?

We’d already been delivering projects on other .Net solutions, and it fitted nicely into our holistic Microsoft stack direction, so it was a logical connection when we became a Sitecore partner. 
We're very much .Net focused and are integrating that into other parts of the Microsoft stack, including Dynamics CRM and now with the hosting that we're providing under xDB with Azure.

Steven: You said that Sitecore was a superior product compared with other solutions that were available, when you first became a partner. What was it that made it stand out as being superior?

For me, it's the thoroughness and completeness of the platform; it really does allow us to do whatever we want.

Sitecore is a complete toolbox and, from a development perspective, we want to be able to do what we need to do, to be able to pull things apart and rebuild or build it to purpose, rather than being constrained by what the technology tells us we can do. 

That's probably one of the biggest advantages that we've seen from Sitecore, compared with a number of the different CMS platforms. Some of the biggest platforms in the marketplace don't allow you to get under the hood and pull out components or enhance things; we've done that for Dynamics CRM connectors and SharePoint connectors and all sorts of things. It gives us a greater amount of flexibility, from a technology perspective, and it also delivers on the front-end personalisation and engagement automation capabilities.

Steven: Have you worked with many customers who have made the transition to Sitecore from another platform? What are the biggest advantages they usually see?

We've transitioned quite a few customers across from various technologies and the benefits have been tremendous: they've got much greater control over the whole authoring process, better language control and the personalisation capabilities are hugely exciting for them.
We do find that many customers aren’t digitally mature enough to really understand how they can leverage a lot of the personalisation capabilities within the Sitecore platform. In these cases, our work is more about helping customers to understand how they can grow, but also how they can get a better understanding of who their clients are, why they're coming to the site and where they're going. We help them to gain that analytical insight and then take them on a journey from there.

Steven: Sounds like you’re doing some great work with customers. So what do you feel sets PING Works apart from its competitors?

We’re very proud of the fact that we have two Sitecore technology MVPs on our team (Richard Hauer and Gareth Goodman). We're heavily focused on doing things properly and really making sure that the Sitecore platform performs as it's meant to.  

We have the depth of skill and knowledge about how to really make the Sitecore platform work and how to fully integrate it into the customer’s business.  It's that ability to deliver from a technology perspective that's really stood the test of time for us.

Steven: Do you think that customers are beginning to become more informed, when it comes to what they need to look for in a digital partner?

I think it’s definitely starting to permeate through to Sitecore customers that getting the right partner can make or break a project.  

If you purchase a complex platform, like Sitecore, you need a partner who knows how to set up the framework correctly in the first place. 

We've seen a number of incidences in the past where a customer has selected the Sitecore solution specifically because one of their key goals was to enable personalisation, but then discovered that their website hadn’t been set up to allow any personalisation at all. It’s essentially resulted in us having to completely re-engineer the website to allow personalisation.

Steven: So what would be your advice to a prospective customer, looking to choose a Sitecore partner? What sort of skills and experience should they be looking for?

I’d suggest doing appropriate reference checking. If an agency says that they’ve delivered a certain number of Sitecore implementations, talk to the people who were actually involved with the implementations. That way, you can really understand how well they delivered it and whether that platform is now extensible or whether they've ended up with a very bog standard implementation of Sitecore, without all the features turned on.

It's such a new environment and, while people get the general idea of what the platform is, they necessarily understand how to set it up effectively. For example, Sitecore on Azure can offer customers incredible cost and efficiency savings- but it can also become very expensive if you don’t have if properly configured or understand how to maximise the consumption of the Azure hours. This is the sort of insight an experienced Sitecore partner will be able to offer.

Steven: Absolutely! PING Works has fully committed to Sitecore and, as you mentioned, has two MVPs on the team to prove it. How much value do you think that holds with customers?

It definitely holds value but, again, it still comes back to the level of maturity. If the customer doesn’t understand what it means to be an MVP or the difference it can make in terms of bringing experience and insight to a project, then it doesn’t hold value. The challenge for us is trying to get that message across and provide evidence as to why having two MVPs gives us an edge on Sitecore implementations. 

Steven: Obviously we work closely with PING Works, to promote its Sitecore expertise. In fact, PING Works Chief Technology Officer and Sitecore MVP, Richard Hauer, recently co-authored a Sitecore on Azure whitepaper with Sitecore’s Partner Business Development Manager, Jerry Norman-Nott.  How much of an advantage do you feel PING Works gains from working closely with Sitecore?

There's no doubt we get a lot of benefit and there's a lot of flow-on from the relationships we have with the Sitecore team. In fact, the Sitecore team will often put us forward when customers are experiencing problems trying to deploy xDB or trying to migrate to the Azure environment; these are areas where we've carved ourselves out as being highly capable. 

For example, for one of our major customers, within the automotive industry, we’re managing the environment for all of the Sitecore instances within the customer’s framework and providing governance to all the digital partners involved in that project. So while we're not actually doing development work, we're providing the governance over how those projects are created within Sitecore; how they're managed within the customer’s environment and how they get migrated from a UOT process to a production environment.

Steven: That’s really interesting; could you explain a little more around what that workflow looks like, in terms of working alongside other partners?

Sure. The customer in question engaged another digital agency to do their website build, so we provided that agency with the definition of how to conduct the build, to ensure that what they built worked within the customer’s environment.

You can't just build a project and hope it’ll all run within that same environment; there's a lot of governance and control that needs to be defined, relating to which versions of Sitecore should be used, which versions of plugin code, along with a definition of how items are stored in media libraries, and so on.  

We provide governance to that partner as to how they need to start the build and then, when they release code to us, we carry out an overarching QA of the code to make sure it doesn't break the environment before we actually deploy anything into the customer's environment.
We're effectively the gatekeeper for the customer’s production environment.

Steven: How common is it for customers to have that level of governance in place?

Again, it keeps coming back to maturity; often customers don’t understand the need for governance until the project trips over and they realise that there was never an agreed structure outlining how the environment should be built.

Steven: What sort of problems do customers encounter when don't have governance in place? What are the worst examples you've seen?

Peter: Well, the worst case scenario is that you can't actually deploy the coding back into the environment. We’ve seen cases where an entire site has been developed for a customer, but that site then can’t run within the core framework. Components have been chosen and used across the site that simply aren't compatible with the rest of the Sitecore instance, so the code can't be rolled back into that environment.

The whole governance process needs to be managed, otherwise things just won't work or, worse, you’ll deploy code back into the production environment and break other sites.

Steven: Wow, sound expensive!

It definitely can become expensive when things go wrong. Governance is becoming a bigger part of our business as customers begin to realise its importance. We’re also helping more customers to manage consumption of their Azure servers.

Microsoft Azure is great because you can dial it up, dial it down and run it accordingly- but there’s a lack of understanding within the industry as to how the optimise the platform. Like everything else, if you don’t use it the way it was designed to be used, you don’t see the benefits; with Azure, customers need to understand their usage in order to scale it up and down, otherwise they lose any cost savings.

For a number of our customers, we try to suit what's actually happening in their environment; so if we've got a lot of authors doing a lot of editing then, prior to a release, we'll turn the wick up on the authoring environment so that it performs much better; then wind it back down again once the work is complete.

Steven: Okay, last question.  What do you enjoy most about working with Sitecore?

The Sitecore stack has been built on the understanding that different organisations need adaptable solutions; that's by far the biggest benefit of the Sitecore platform, in my opinion.

On a personal note, we work with some great guys at Sitecore and we like engaging with them. Richard and the guys here can easily have a good, open and frank dialogue with both the local and overseas Sitecore tech guys about features and functions; everyone's open and receptive to ideas, everyone's open and receptive to actually sorting out problems.  

We’ve worked with a lot of CMSs in the past and, if you encounter a problem or have a question to ask, you fire off emails into a black hole and you really don't know who's working on it, or even if anyone’s picked it up.

Not only is there always someone available to actually speak to us at Sitecore, but they also know us well enough to respect our level of experience and come back with highly detailed responses or suggestions. We recently experienced an issue with a customer environment, but we called Sitecore and, together, identified the problem and worked it out. That’s a true partnership.

 PING Works partner summit
Networking and enjoying the 'MVP treatment', at Sitecore' ANZ's Partner Summit 2014 in Sydney. 
L-R: Jerry Norman-Nott (Partner Sales Manager, Sitecore), Richard Hauer (CTO, PING Works and Sitecore Technology MVP), Peter McCowatt (Director of Business Development, PING Works) and Colin te Kempel (Senior Solutions Architect, Sitecore).

You can read the original interview on Sitecore's own blog here