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How I became Giulio’s hero

"Florent is my hero". This exclamation, published on 2 July by my colleague Giulio on Facebook, went straight to my heart. What a professional and personal achievement for me… You're jealous? I understand. But I'm not selfish, so here is how I became Giulio's hero. May it inspire you!

I would advise first to have a look at www.epnewshub.eu, the new, innovative online platform developed by the Parliament. It gathers in almost real time all information published by EP actors (MEPs, political groups and the institution) on websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. This is basically what it is about in this post as I've been in charge of "leading" this project.

#1 Following an intuition – that is not yours

It all started with an idea of our Secretary General, the overall boss of the Parliament's administration. "I had a dream… I saw MEPs' websites, Facebook and Twitter gathered in one single page on the web". We were asked to elaborate on that. That was the starting point of an amazing experience of more than a year…

#2 Making a benchmark

A benchmark always looks good and serious. Don't be too naive: you won't need it because your project is anyway unique, with specific constraints. But you're a civil servant with a hierarchy that may not understand what you do. So please do a benchmark (the word itself sounds serious), find a lot of useless examples and tell people you will get inspired by them. To look even more professional, hire a consultant to do that. Nobody will then dare to tell you've spent public money in an irresponsible way.

#3 Mandating an agency

I first thought it was the simplest solution. Que nenni. Don't underestimate the time, commitment and self control you need to handle relations with an agency 1,000 km far away. It's not related to whether the agency is good or not. It's a structural problem. You understand the political constraints; they understand the technical constraints (and not vice-versa). And those are not only different, they are often in contradiction. Not to talk about the budgetary aspects, etc. But I don't want to scare you off – you'll see by yourself if you are one day in such a position.

#4 Choosing the right approach

The agency developed three different concepts for what was already called the Newshub: a classical/simple one, a more comprehensive one and an amazing, limit-pushing, innovative one. We then had to make some recommendations to our high ranking hierarchy. If you are one day in such a situation, don't be naive about the choice that will be made. Institutions instinctively go for a more conservative and basic approach. It's disappointing at a first sight, but I was delighted afterwards when I saw all the unforeseen problems that arose during the development phase. I can't imagine the nightmare if we'd chosen a more radical option.

#5 Learning the language of the techs

Communication is key. Perseverance too. It takes some time, but one day I woke up thinking in terms of data base, servers, Solr Index, Liferay system, fetching process, Javascript and Python, backend, Jira tickets. I was on the right track. I still felt lost in all that, but I was not the only one. Techs were lost too. That's the fun part of the job.

#6 On the highway to hell

The big test was the bug fixing phase. To be honest, it is not totally over yet – and it started three months ago. The title above speaks for itself. It takes long, it's annoying, it's complicated but it's crucial.

#7 Presenting how an intuition was turned into a web application

A web project is like life. You have ups and downs. This is an up (for a down, see #6 above). Our Secretary General was very happy about the final prototype we showed him. We got a green light to go live. We went for champagne afterwards with Steve and Thibault, enjoying this great feeling of having done a good job and being thanked by our highest hierarchy.

#8 Passing the ACTA test

The difference between a great, innovative and well-perceived product and a sensational failure that is perceived as a waste of public money is often thin. When we launched the EP Newshub, we were for a couple of days on a narrow path leading to the peak, but close to the precipice. The big test was the vote on the anti-counterfeiting agreement ACTA in the plenary. The Newshub encountered the day before some capacity issues that lead us to deploy a more powerful version during the night. It was a bet – and we won. The online activity of members knew a peak around the ACTA vote, and everything behaved perfectly on the Newshub. We even read with satisfaction a blog from Ronny Patz, whose critical eye is quite well-known in the EU blogosphere: "At a first glance, it looks very intuitive and easy to use. And I don’t know when I have used the word “intuitive” in the context of websites from EU institutions for the last time…!" From such an intransigent person, that is a good sign.

#9 And now?

Now I'm Giulio's hero, and I start wondering. Is being a hero not something quite common? Shouldn't I try to go further and become a superhero?

Let's try. Back to work. Back to the fine-tuning of the Newshub. Back to new challenges.

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