Let’s Us Do Our Jobs

MODX has a WYSIWYG editor similar to WordPress and Drupal. You don’t need to know HTML to make updates. MODX doesn’t have a page view like Cascade, but you can click on the preview button to see exactly how it looks on the live site. It’s intuitive, but might take a bit of time to get used to. If you’re not comfortable using MODX, let us take care of the website updates so you can focus on more important strategic communications such as promoting our diversity, our centers, and our faculty as well as getting our rankings higher, which have always been a high priority on the Dean’s list.

Drupal was on the table for us about five or six years ago when the University went through a complete redesign. They made it mandatory to migrate to Drupal as well as to use their templates, but they backed away. We didn’t want to move into Drupal because we didn’t want to lose control of our site and to be stuck with their templates. We didn’t want to use Drupal because it is a developer-oriented CMS. In fact, the user interface in Drupal is even more complex than in MODX. In addition, Drupal renders tons of JavaScripts and HTML junks; therefore, the performance is slow. Even WordPress, now comes with its own block editors, is doing a horrible job of spitting out HTML markups. Out of the three content management systems, MODX is the only one that renders semantic, well-structured pages.

MODX does a decent job of accommodating non-technical users. The former Associate Dean for Library & Technology used to make changes on the site without knowing HTML. The library staff members are using MODX to make updates and they don’t know HTML. The current Associate Dean for Library & Technology used to make updates as well, but now she has higher priorities in her new role. I am sure the Associate Dean for Admissions can do it as well once she understands how MODX works, but she has more important priorities. She sends us updates so she can focus on recruiting students.

The Web Content Specialist and I work inside MODX everyday and we prefer using the blank editor to make sure the HTML markups are clean, organized, and readable by humans, browsers, and search engines. For us, the blank editor is much easier and quicker than the WYSIWYG editor. So please let us take care of the small updates so you can focus on marketing strategies such as improving our social media engagements, creating new videos to attract prospective students, and writing new featured stories.

I don’t have any concern about MODX security. As I pointed out in my comparison between MODX and Cascade, we have been using MODX for over 15 years and we have not run into any security issues. Like Cascade, MODX is hosted on the cloud and is protected by WAF (Web Application Firewall). In addition, we use CAS Authentication to protect the manager’s side. With two layers of protection, I have no worry about our site getting hacked. In fact, security is what sets MODX apart from WordPress and Drupal. When I first took on this job, I didn’t like MODX and wanted to switch to either WordPress or Drupal. The more I worked with MODX, however, the more I appreciated its flexibility and reliability. MODX is not as popular as WordPress and MODX, but its security is top-notch.

CMS Comparison: MODX vs. Cascade

Our website has about 2,500 pages, which included approximately 1,900 public pages. Most pages are straightforward, but a handful of pages are dynamic, including the directories for faculty, staff, and administrators. The faculty working papers are also managed dynamically with the ability to filter by authors and dates. The course descriptions are dynamically generated.

Here are the breakdown costs between the two platforms:

MODX CMS

  • Cloud subscription: $1,595
  • Custom domains (up to 25): $55
  • Uptime+: $900
  • CDN & WAF: $240

Annual cost: $2,790

Cascade CMS

  • Cloud subscription: $20,000
  • Optional cloud development instance: $6,600
  • Annual maintenance fee: $1,750
  • Public server: $5,400

Annual cost: $33,750

Initial costs for Cascade CMS

  • Quickstart implementation package: $21,000
    • 120 hours of professional services
    • Homepage
    • 2 internal page types
    • Newsroom implementation (individual news page, monthly and yearly index pages, syndication on the homepage)
    • Emergency alert banner implementation
  • On-site training: $10,000
  • Professional services (40 hours at $200 per hour): $8,000

Initial costs: $42,000

Total cost to get started (not complete migration): $75,750

Cascade CMS claims that many schools had switched from WordPress and Drupal to its platform because of its security features. Fortunately, MODX CMS has a solid record on security. Our site has been powered by MODX CMS since 2006 and we have not run into any security issues.

Clearly, I don’t see any advantage, benefit, or reason to switch from MODX to Cascade unless we have $72,960 and laborious time to waste.

Ten-Year Service Award

I managed to miss the 2022 University Day Service Awards ceremony yesterday. Blame it on the midterm election. Today I received a thank-you ecard from Provost, Executive Vice President & Professor Mark R. Ginsberg:

I want to express my appreciation for all you have done for Mason and congratulate you on your recognition of service. Your talents, efforts and contributions have helped Mason’s success, and the entire Office of the Provost takes pride in your accomplishment and commitment to excellence.

There goes my decade of service at George Mason University.

Questions About Cascade CMS

The Law School website is powered by MODX for over a decade, but we’re exploring the possibility of migrating over to Cascade CMS. I am tasked with looking into Cascade. I reached out to a formal colleague who used Cascade CMS in the past to get some technical assessments. Although he hadn’t used Cascade in two years and things might have changes, he gave me some invaluable insights. Here are his answers to my questions.

What was the experience working in Cascade?

Generally, not good.

What parts of Cascade worked well?

The fact that it’s a static CMS means when there were issues with the server it was on (assuming a separate server than the websites) or with the Cascade, sites were still up.

What parts didn’t work so well?

  1. Velocity scripting which I think overall is hard to work with, it was even worse since Cascade would only expose a subset of its full functionality.
  2. Because it’s static, when there were global changes requiring all pages to be published, Cascade could crash mid-publish or block other jobs in the publish queue. Not that you can’t set up global regions like headers, footers, nav etc., that can be published easily using server-side scripting (on you to do), but if you update templates you need to publish all pages with that template.
  3. Pages viewed inside Cascade are not forms (as you would find in WordPress/Drupal) but actual pages that needed styling. This was the only preview available and it was difficult match what was inside Cascade with the actual published pages.
  4. Unless content was generated internally it wasn’t available inside Cascade. You may have systems that cannot be incorporated into Cascade because it uses a scripting language instead of a fully-featured language like PHP that WordPress and Drupal use.

What did you wish they had?

  1. I wish they offered what I built. A headless version that allowed dynamic templating.
  2. Pre-built, plug-and-play modules for common needs of and EDU.

What made you switch to Drupal?

  1. Dissatisfaction with how non-standard Cascade is.
  2. We had to do a lot of custom scripting in Cascade and support was difficult to get because of that.
  3. We asked for new features but getting them implemented was at Cascade’s whim and on their timeline.
  4. The Drupal community/ecosystem is much larger.
  5. PHP is a standard, object-oriented programming language that many more people know (vs Velocity which is just scripting and no one knows)
  6. Drupal is open source
  7. You’re more likely to be able to hire people who are skilled in Drupal vs. Cascade (same for consultancies)

Anything else you would like to add?

I made Gamut for many reasons but Cascade’s shortcomings were a major factor. I’m not sure if Cascade has gotten better in the two years since I last used it but I would be cautious about needing too much customization and using a non-standard tool.

Follow-Up Question

The primary reason we’re looking into migrating to Cascade is the ability to edit the actual pages inside Cascade. What are your thoughts on that?

If that’s the only reason, I would reconsider. You’ll lose a lot to gain a little. Is triggering a preview button too much effort? Or, I know, inside the CMS looks pretty then? We never had a one-to-one correspondence to what was actually on a given page. There were sections/pages that couldn’t be represented in the CMS because the content came from external systems. We also intentionally hid content from almost every page (footer/sidebar/etc) because it was uneditable except by our office. And I know we had issues maintaining parity with CSS between the internal Cascade view and what published pages actually looked like.

Cascade’s Performance

In addition to what have said above, I found a few concerns on performance Cascade’s users have shared:

The one thing that can be challenging is the speed of Cascade. The more complicated you design your page, the longer it takes for cascade to load the page for display, and edit.

I dislike how much clicking is required to publish a change. The submit option is great when making big updates, but when making small changes to many pages on a site, it takes forever.

The downside to Cascade is the amount of resources needed for a fast implementation. It is resource-hungry, and if your websites get too large, you will definitely notice some speed and efficiency hits to your self-hosted solution.

Eleven Years at Scalia Law School

Today marks my 11th year working at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School. As Director of Design and Web Services, I wear many hats, but my main focus is the law school website. It feels as if I had adopted and raised my own child and watched it grow from a toddler to a teenager.

When I first inherited the site from my predecessor, I had never worked with MODX before. The site was still running on the old codebase from MODX Evolution. To familiarize myself with the platform, I ripped the site apart and built everything from the ground up. I cleaned up the back-end codes and made sure the front-end markups were well structured. At the time when responsive design was still new, I implemented responsive layout starting with mobile first and progressive enhancement.

All the work I put in from the start had paid off in the long run. As the site grew over the years with countless iterations and several redesigns, the solid foundation on the backend, the clean markups on the frontend, and the visual presentation never spawned out of control. Under my watch, I maintained and nurtured every part of the site. I valued our visitors and respected their privacy. I pushed back when being asked to implement third-party trackers, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google. I enhanced the user experience based on user studies, accessibility guidelines, and usability recommendations. I improved the design with new technologies such as CSS Grid and web fonts. I worked with developers to upgrade from MODX Evolution to MODX Revolution. I worked with the MODX team to migrate to MODX Cloud.

The site had been through different visions from three deans. The first dean and my supervisor gave me the freedom to shape the look and feel of the website. The second dean entrusted me to build a branding system for his vision: Learn. Challenge. Lead. Based on the University’s branding guidelines, typefaces, and colors, I implemented bright colors, bold typography, and inviting graphics. The site was vibrant and distinctive, yet still compliant with the Mason branding. The third and current dean wanted to tone down the look and feel. We went through several redesigns and ended up with what we have now.

Designing and developing the law school website has been not only my profession, but also my passion. I loved the web when I first discovered it many years ago and that love hasn’t changed. Between my professional and personal projects, I want to continue to make the web a better experience without tracking, wasting time, and frustrating users. my hope is to continue to maintain and to grow the law school website for many years to come.

The Case for Refreshing the Mason Brand

The Mason brand has served the university well. It communicates our key brand messages including academic quality, innovation, diversity, entrepreneurial spirit, and accessibility. Mason is evolving, but its visual identity is dating. To be a competitive school, Mason should consider refreshing its brand. The Mason visual identity needs to be simplified and unified.

The current University Logo is too complicated. The full lockup takes up too much space, especially when it is combined with a unit name (Antonin Scalia Law School). Although the M alone has some issues with the quill, it has the potential to carry the Mason brand like the swoosh for Nike, the apple for Apple, and the Siren for Starbucks. When the University Logo is simplified, the unit name could be better unified and balanced.

The Mason typefaces are over the place and they show no personality. The unit names are set in TheSans and that’s it. I don’t see it being used anywhere else. Myriad Pro and Minion Pro are the primary typefaces. Adobe Garamond and Helvetica Neue were thrown into the mix for no apparent reasons. Myriad and Minion are well-designed typefaces, but they are ubiquitous. They were designed to be neutral; therefore, they lack personality. Anyone who uses Adobe products would have access to these two font families. In fact, they are the default fonts for graphic tools including InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop. I have been noticing universities, such as Northeastern University and The New School, commissioning their own typefaces. I wonder if Mason would invest in custom typefaces to give the brand a unique typographic voice.

As for the colors, I would like to see the change for its primary colors or the expansion beyond the green and gold. Here are the notes on colors according to the brand guidelines:

Use Mason green and gold as the primary colors in your layouts.

Use secondary colors in combination with our primary colors to express the many facets of Mason.

Do not use secondary colors alone or as the primary color in branded materials.

Apparently we are not adhering to the guideline because the green and gold are so hard to work with.

Interview Questions

I found Sam Daugherty’s questions to ask during the interview process to be helpful; therefore, I wanted to repost them here:

Task-related Questions

  • What is the skills gap you’re trying to fill?
  • What are the ideal skills or experiences for someone in this role?
  • What does the day-to-day look like?
  • What are some high-level problems I’ll be working to solve?
  • What are the backlog problems I’ll need to solve?

Job-related questions

  • Is this a backfill position or a growth position?
  • What does success look like in this role?
  • What does collaboration and communication look like on your team and between teams/departments?
  • What is the average timeframe allotted to research/design a solution?
  • What is the makeup of the team and how are tasks divided?

Long-term questions

  • What kind of growth opportunities are there?
  • Where do you see this role/team in 3 years?
  • Are there opportunities for mentorship?
  • Do you see the team growing and what sort of growth do you expect?

Company questions

  • Describe the culture of the team and the company for me?
  • What made you want to work for [company] and what’s kept you here?
  • How often do you have to work late, on weekends, or feel compelled to respond after hours?
  • What does taking time off look like and are you expected to respond to messages during vacation?
  • Are there opportunities to travel and meet the team in person (if remote)?

More tips in the comment section from Jared Spool:

If you open with “When you hire the right person to join your team, what would y’all be able to accomplish that you’re not accomplishing right now?,” you’re showing that you’re very interested in the team’s success. It gives you an opening for many of the follow-up questions.

Chances are, from the answer, you won’t even have to ask many of them. For example, you’ll likely learn if the reason they’re hiring is that there’s a skill gap or that they’re just shorthanded. You’ll learn if it’s work on the backlog or if these are high-level problems being solved (or high-level problems on the backlog).

You can even ask what they’ve tried in the past to accomplish these things and explore what didn’t quite work out. That’ll give you good insights into the history of “how did you get to this moment” (something that lots of folks forget to ask about), which can be quite telling about how the team and organization works.

With every follow-up question, you can mentally build up a case as to what’s in your history that would make you an ideal candidate. You can wrap things up with a summary of that.

Self Review for 2021-2022

It’s the time of the year when I dread the most. This year, I have a new supervisor and I also have to review the Web Content Specialist who is reporting to me. I am not good at writing review of my own performance, but I am just going to plow through it. Here we go.

Job Function 1

My main responsibility as Director of Design and Web Services is designing, updating, and maintaining the main law school website.

  1. The contents on the main school website are being updated on a daily basis. I work closely with our Web Content Specialist to make changes according to requests. We also make sure the contents are accurate and accessible.
  2. I make incremental rather than drastic changes to the design of the main law school website. The small changes improved the user experience without catching the users off guard. Redesign is in progress and it is being rolled out in components.
  3. Maintaining the backend server is the crucial responsibility in this role. Keeping the technologies up‐to‐date is essential in longevity as well as security. I implemented content delivery network (CDN) to speed up the site performance and web application firewall (WAF) to prevent hacking attempts.

Job Function 2

My second responsibility is maintaining a network of websites for the Scalia Law community. The WordPress Multisite is powering almost 50 sites ranging from intranets to centers to institutes to faculty members to student organizations to marketing sites. We let stakeholders updating their own sites, but we assist them when they need new functionalities or troubleshooting WordPress issues.

Job Function 3

As Director of Design and Web Services, I serve the Law School community with their websites, print marketing materials, and content updates. I work with outside agencies and vendors on their behalf to make sure they have all the resources (web servers, social media access, analytics) to do their job.

Accountability

  • I take full responsibility for my role in keeping our web presence attractive, up‐to‐date, accessible, readable, and secured.
  • I take my supervision responsibility to make sure we’re on the same page. For example, our HTML markups and coding must be cleaned, organized and readable. Our content on the web must be clear, accurate, and error‐free.
  • I take full accountability in all of my areas of responsibility in order to meet the mission and goals of the law school and university.

Collaboration and Civility

  • I work closely with everyone at the law school as well as colleagues in the University to provide the highest services to meet the Mason standards.
  • I am a team player and I always listen respectfully to others.

Self-Development

  • I always seek to learn latest web developments.
  • I continue to hone my writing skills.
  • I reach out to colleagues within our department or the university for projects we can collaborate.
  • I always stay on top of new technologies in my field.
  • I seek out new, exciting projects, which benefit the law school and also enhance my self development.

Diversity and Inclusion

  • As a minority member, I understand the important of inclusive and diversity.
  • I listen, respect, and contribute to diversity and inclusivity.
  • I have a strong and deep understanding of the value of diversity and models inclusiveness in working with our diverse staff and all members of the law school and university community.

Leadership

  • I encourage my web developers and content web specialists to reach their goals. In addition to the work for the law school, I encourage them to take on projects that will help them grow their career.
  • I provide leadership to the law school community in my areas of responsibility. I make sure that my goals for the school’s websites and print projects align with the goals and mission of the law school and university.

Mentors and Coaches

  • I am always opened to help others who need feedback on graphic design and web development.
  • I continue to update the web design and development blog to provide in‐depth documentation on MODX and all of the special features that I have implemented over the years.
  • I also encourage the staff who work for me to contribute to the blog, which allows them to improve their analytical skills.

Stewardship

  • I look for resources offered by the university before considering outside vendors.
  • I maintain confidential information related to work.
  • I maintain the highest integrity in his work and interactions with others and adheres to law school and university core values.
  • I hold myself to the highest ethical and professional standards and encourages and inspires others who work with me to do the same.

Director of Design & Web Services

I updated my bio for on the Law School website

Donny Trương leads the Scalia Law digital experience with the focus on accessibility and usability. He takes the helm of the Law School content management system, MODX, to ensure security and scalability. He took the initiative to recode and redesign the main Law School website from the ground up with the mobile-first approach when responsive design was still in its early stage of adoption.

Trương has spent over a decade at Scalia Law building the brand, transforming the user experience, and improving the backend codes. In collaboration with the university information technology services, he heads the WordPress Multisite project for the Law School community. Since launched, the WordPress Multisite platform has powered over 50 sites ranging from research centers to economic institutes to student organizations to faculty personal websites. In addition to digital designs, Trương extends his creative services to print materials designing brochures, postcards, large-scale banners for the school departments including admissions offices, research centers, institutes, and events.

With more than 20 years of designing and developing web experiences, Trương has a deep passion for typography. When the web began to support typefaces beyond the system fonts, he could not find much resources for designing with web fonts; therefore, he wrote Professional Web Typography to fill the void. He also recognized the missing diacritics for Vietnamese in typefaces. As a result, he published Vietnamese Typography to expand language support in type design. Since the release of the web book, he has been working with type designers and foundries around the world to include Vietnamese diacritics in their type families.

Trương received an MA in graphic design from George Mason University School of Art and a BA in digital art and multimedia design from La Salle University. When not designing digital experiences, he enjoys ice skating, rollerblading, and skiing with his family.

Full-Screen Banner

As I am working on the redesign for Scalia Law website, I am doing some research on the top-ranking law schools to see what they are up to these days. I checked out Yale, Stanford, University of Chicago, Columbia as well as our peers including Wake Forest, OSU, and Georgetown. The trend I am seeing is that every site uses a full-screen banner on the homepage.

We were not using full-screen banners because they required large images. We had three or more rotating banners, which tripled up our homepage loading time. If we wanted to take the full-screen route, I suggested that we only load one banner at a time, which is what I am seeing on these sites. They are moving away from the slider. I proposed that we load a different banner each time someone visits our homepage.

To perform a random load, I searched up MODX and I could not find anything simple like a PHP random function. Then I came across the &sortby=`RAND()` parameter from the getResources extra. Here’s the code for that:

[[!getResources? &parents=`12345` &tpl=`RandomHomepageBanner` &limit=`1` &showHidden=`0` &includeTVs=`1` &tvPrefix=`` &sortby=`RAND()`]]

I showed the mockup and it was approved. I implemented it on our homepage. Somehow a full-screen banner made our site more “modern.”