Mental health in web development

HTML code with mental health class names

Back in November (21–22) 2013 I travelled to Dublin to TerminalFour‘s annual global user conference t44u at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. TerminalFour develop the web content management system that we use here at St Andrews: Site Manager, often simply referred to as T4.

This was the third or fourth event that I’d attended and was by far the most enjoyable for me, not least because we were located in a rugby stadium rather than a brewery. The last few conferences had been hosted at the Guinness storehouse… and I don’t drink alcohol (largely thanks to an inherited kidney disease). I was, however, brought up in the Scottish Borders where we do play rugby. A lot.

It was also, as promised, the most hands-on conference to date. One of the main focuses of the event was about unleashing Site Manager’s potential. You can view the mind maps I created, on Flickr (Thursday and Friday). There were sessions about content strategy; existing, new and future Site Manager features; platform as a service; mobile web and responsive web design; web search; and more than one presentation about novel ways of using Site Manager to edit and manage content, and quickly create new sites.

Christopher Murphy

The session that touched me the most, however, was the keynote talk by Christopher Murphy (@fehler on Twitter), an academic, writer and designer based in Belfast; he is one half of the Web Standardistas and now a volunteer with Prompt, an organisation with a remit of starting conversations about mental health in the technology industry.

His talk had me in tears, at one point, to be honest.

Christopher shared with us, at times with a lump in his throat and a pause or two to re-gather his composure, that on 21 May 2013—only six months before—he had found himself waking up in hospital. The day before Christopher had attempted to kill himself.

If I remember correctly, his wife had returned home, found him, called an ambulance and here he was now, lying in a hospital bed, ‘feeling exhausted, disorientated and ashamed’.

Over the next half an hour Christopher shared with us something of what had brought him to this the lowest point in his life: an unsustainable schedule of demands and responsibilities of writing and talking, teaching and supervising, designing and creating. He felt like life was out of control, and at his lowest ebb he saw only one way out which very nearly killed him.

Filled with remorse, Christopher resolved to do something about it. He began looking into what had led him to this point, he began to explore and understand the mechanics of the mind. Later he also decided to share some of what he had learned with the tech and web communities he was a part of; which is what brought him to be standing before us, laying himself bare and sharing something immensely personal with us.

(You can read Christopher Murphy’s very moving article on 24 ways: Managing a mind.)

Pace of change

Christopher touched on the “relentless pace of change” that we experience in the web development industry. Not that long ago it was enough to have a firm grasp of HTML and CSS, and a smattering of JavaScript and PHP to get you into the industry. But these days you can’t go two months without a new browser version being released, the specifications for HTML5 and CSS3 seem to be in continuous flux (did anyone else implement the <hgroup> tag only then to discover just months later that it had already been deprecated from HTML5?), then there is now Sass, and Less, and Stylus to help us with CSS production, we have Node and NPM, Grunt and Yeoman. All these things to supposedly make our lives easier, and yet somehow at the same time making things increasingly complex at best and unnecessarily anxious at worst. And what about PHP libraries, JavaScript frameworks, text editors, IDEs, new graphics formats like WebP? Where does it stop?

I have a constant gnawing feeling that I’m always behind with my skills. But where do you start? And as <hgroup> has proved, will what you learn already be out of date within the year?

Status anxiety and imposter syndrome

Christopher spent much of his talk speaking about two pressures in particular: status anxiety and imposter syndrome.

Status anxiety is “an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser.” Imposter syndrome, he said, is far more widespread than you’d imagine. It is defined as “a fear that one is not as smart or capable as others think”. It’s a fear that one day you will be ‘found out’ by them, even though you don’t exactly know who ‘they’ are, or what exactly they will find out.

To be honest, I feel a combination of both these fears almost every time I have to visit the systems team. “They must think that I’m an idiot for not knowing this,” I find myself saying inside my head. But why?! Server configuration and administration aren’t my specialities or responsibilities. I’m going to ask for their expertise and advice to help me complete a particular task. But I still beat myself up a bit about it if I’m not careful.

Mental Ill-health

Why does mental ill-health still carry such a stigma? Clearly there is an element of fear involved, and labels such as ‘psycho’, ‘nutter’, and ‘loony’ don’t help, but not every case of mental ill-health is as extreme as psychosis, schizophrenia, or personality disorder. Mental ill-health symptoms can include:

  • Feeling sad or down.
  • Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate.
  • Excessive worries.
  • Withdrawal from friends or activities.
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stresses.
  • Significant tiredness.
  • Sleeping problems.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced some of these symptoms at least once in their life. We don’t give people grief for catching a cold or a tummy bug, or if they break their leg. We don’t blame them in the same way that I’ve heard people with mental ill-health blamed: “Well, it must be his own fault for catching that common cold! He should have prevented it!”

What nonsense! That doesn’t help anyone.


After my dad died in 1998 I got really depressed. Everyone could see it, apart from me. My GP wanted to put me on anti-depressants; I couldn’t see why, so I refused. But my days were bleak. I couldn’t see a point in anything.

“Why should I do this or that… I’m going to die in the end, so what’s the point?” That was the conversation in my head most of the time.

It was actually getting involved in web development that helped pull me slowly out of that quagmire. It offered me a way to express myself and to be creative. It was something that didn’t require me to work with other people if I didn’t want to, and to collaborate with others when I did. For me it worked. It was a lifeline, and after seven years I moved into web development full-time.


My most recent and sustained experience of what must surely fall under the umbrella of mental ill-health has been parenthood. I have twin boys (5) and a singleton (3). It is getting easier now; and if not easier then it is definitely getting different.

I’ve spent much of the last 4–5 years in a state of constant exhaustion and sleep deprivation. At times I’ve found it difficult to concentrate. There have been days when it has felt as though my thoughts were literally falling out of my head. I had to write everything down and schedule every piece of work in my Outlook calendar so that I could remember—even mid-task—what I was supposed to be working on.

I had a constant headache for four months a few years ago. I thought there was something wrong with me! Well, there was: I wasn’t getting enough sleep. Some nights my boys were awake every 15 minutes. And I only know that because we kept notebooks to record everything that happened, who had been fed/changed/medicated and by whom, otherwise we couldn’t remember from hour to hour.

I’ve not heard many people referring to those first few years of parenthood as a period of mental ill-health, but it definitely is. I experienced every one of those symptoms in the list above. I do feel like a stronger person for having gotten through it, but damn! that was hard, really hard.

And now…?

I was really pleased that Christopher Murphy talked about this whole topic at T44U. I’m glad there are organisations like Prompt and discussion boards like Devpressed that raise these issues within the industry and offer support.

I don’t have an answer, but I do know that stigma and blame don’t help. As a web industry we need to keep talking about this more openly. We need to let people know that it’s okay to talk about it.

People, it’s okay to talk about it!

Just like that.

T44U 2013 conference in Dublin

Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin—Venue for T44U 2013

Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin—Venue for T44U 2013


On Wednesday 20 November 2013 I flew from Edinburgh to Dublin for TerminalFour’s (T4) sixth annual global user conference, T44U.

Or as I preferred to call it: T44Me.

While there were more attendees this year than any other—demonstrating amongst other things TerminalFour’s growth over the last few years, particularly in the education sector—there were fewer from Scotland than in previous years. Seven Scottish universities use Site Manager (SM), and were represented this year by (as far as I remember) Abertay Dundee (1 attendee), Dundee (7), St Andrews (1), Stirling (1); unrepresented were Abertay Dundee, Glasgow and Glasgow Caledonian.

These are my highlights of the talks over the two days.



Over the last 12 months TerminalFour’s strategy has focussed mostly on two things:

  1. Outbound sales activities, particularly in the education sector in the English-speaking world. Of their new clients 53% are in the USA, 14% in Australia and 11% in the UK.
  2. Digital engagement integrating different systems using Site Manager as the hub, e.g. search, mobile, social media, course searches, etc.

Treasure chest

A large portion of the morning was given over to demonstrating a number of SM features, some new, which some users may not be aware of. I’ve emboldened those that might benefit us here:

  • External Content Syncer (content to external databases or CSV files, for example, to import data into Site Manager, or migrate data from one content type to another within SM).
  • Keyword search (demonstrated in a course search section of the website)
  • Hierarchy builder (import site structure from an Excel file, available in SM 7.4.3).
  • Newsletter integration using “auto-mirroring”.
  • Improvements to publish and preview (cache handler and changesets).
  • PHP access control (using PHP and the T4 user groups to restrict access to sections).
  • New PHP calendar (this looks very useful).
  • New personalisation options (e.g. use of GeoIP to display different content to users depending on their geo-location).

Clarity Grader

Fergal McGovern from Clarity Grader gave a very interesting demonstration of their product which checks to see how clear and consistent your web content is, then gives it a grade accordingly.

Hook, line and syncer

Maurice Ryder from University College Cork showed us how he has been using External Content Syncer to point SM at itself to migrate content from one content type to another as they’ve been simplifying the way they use SM. He also shared some of his experience of working on a responsive web design (RWD).

The fundamentals of digital engagement

Simon Nash, a strategist and marketer from Reading Room gave a fabulous and inspiring talk about digital engagement. Customers are now hyper-connected, using multiple devices to connect to the web, he said. We need to adapt or die. We need a strategy. Give them something:

  • Interesting
  • Useful
  • Helpful
  • Relevant

He talked about how engaging with people works best using a storytelling narrative (conversational, content and narrative led). He spoke about the importance of ‘slicing and dicing’ on spreadable formats: a multi-channel web; the importance of structured data and he touched on schemas, meta data and Twitter cards. “How do people move between online and offline?” he asked. We need to tap into that. Understand your audiences and develop a coherent strategy.

I could have listened to him all evening, to be honest. He was fascinating.

Update: You can read Simon’s blog post about his talk on the Reading Room blog: Five key challenges facing digital professionals in 2014.

Our T4 wishlist

In the evening I was able to speak with Paul Kelly (T4 senior software architect) and Mary Ryan (T4 product manager) for about 30 minutes to discuss a few suggestions about how SM might be improved for both the average user and administrators. I felt it was a valuable discussion, and they were certainly keen to listen and receive my short document of bullet-points which we have compiled over the last few months.

I also got a private demo of SM version 8. T4 have employed a UX expert to work with them on improving the product, which is very encouraging.


Platform as a Service

TerminalFour spent 30 minutes describing the benefits of their Platform as a Service (PaaS) package. This offers a cloud-based stack (SM, MySQL, Apache httpd, Java, PHP) for running SM. They tend to use RackSpace as a host. This tends to be: 1 x CMS cloud server, 2 x Web cloud server, 1 x Load balancer, hosted in a choice of data centres located in the USA, UK or Australia.

Prospectus Editing Tool at the University of Bristol

Mike Jones gave a presentation about how they are using SM for editing their university prospectus. Interestingly he’s written his own frontend which uses to the SM API. The driver for this was that they didn’t want to have to train 100+ staff members to use SM. (A comment there, perhaps, that the usability of the SM frontend needs to be dramatically improved.)

High turnover of research and conference websites at the University of Newcastle

Paul Thompson and Mike Sales gave a most impressive demonstration of a SM ‘broker’ they wrote for which automates a number of common tasks they are asked to carry out, such as create a new sub-site, batch create new users, move a site from dev to live, bulk create training sites, etc. Some of these tasks can now be done in only 2-3 minutes rather than 2-3 hours. A tremendous time-saver!

This was one of the most talked-about presentations of the two days.

Mental health in tech

Possibly one of the most inspiring talks, and certainly the most moving, of the two days was given by Christopher Murphy (@fehler on Twitter) about mental health in tech.

I want to write and reflect on this talk more fully in a future blog post.

Web search

In the final session of the morning Brian Colhoun from T4 asked why is web search often left to the end of a web project? A site is only as good as its content, so considering search should be integral to any content strategy.

SM version 8

Unfortunately I missed the afternoon session as I needed to leave for Dublin airport and my flight at 16:50. That final session of play was dedicated to looking at the next version of SM, plus the future format of T44U.


An interesting thread through many of the presentations from universities was about their using SM as a data repository and publishing engine to output the same data in multiple formats, and how so many have written their own frontends to interact with the data, to avoid the default user interface.

I certainly found this a far more valuable and practical experience than my last visit to T44U a few years ago. I’m encouraged by the direction that Site Manager is heading, particularly now that T4 are taking usability for the average user more seriously.

T44U – TerminalFour global user conference

Last week saw the annual T44U conference take place in Dublin. T44U is an annual event run by TerminalFour. It is designed to allow users of the content management system, Site Manager, to share their experiences with each other, to meet the staff of TerminalFour and to input into the future development of Site Manager.

This was my first time at T44U. Last year Gareth and Chris went. As we operate a strict rota system in the web team, it was the turn of me and Steve to make the sacrifice and spend some time in Dublin. Gareth made do with his T44Us conference, which he has told me was a roaring success.

The Gravity Bar at the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin

The Gravity Bar at the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin

Site Manager version 7

The morning of day one was a good opportunity to catch up with the latest developments in TerminalFour and Site Manager. There are lots of promising improvements in version 7. Although we feel that some elements of the interface could still do with some improvement, there have been some promising changes in this area. Chief among them is the WordPress-style dashboard with customisable widgets. I particularly liked the sound of the new chat feature, which could allow you to work collaboratively with another Site Manager user.

Worryingly, I have heard some grumbles that version 7 runs rather slowly on Internet Explorer 8. That would be a problem for us. However, we were surprised to learn that almost half of T4’s customers are now using version 7. Given the improved features that are available, we are now considering upgrading sooner rather than later.

New features

One major new feature that many of our users may be interested in is direct edit. This allows users to update content in preview mode. Hopefully this will make it easier to update content, although I feel there is still scope for great improvement in this promising feature.

The introduction of a pagination navigation object and custom fulltext filenames are other exciting feature that I can imagine making great use of, particularly in news sections and the like.

Powerful-looking personalisation features also seem promising and we are interested to learn more about that as we assess version 7 in the coming months.

Focus groups

For me, the best part of the whole event was the focus groups that were held on Friday afternoon. I found it hugely useful to participate in these group discussions about certain features of Site Manager.

TerminalFour staff seemed really receptive to my ideas, particularly on navigation objects. I think there is great scope to simplify the process of creating navigation objects. Site Manager users from other institutions also frequently report that they are creating several navigation objects that are very similar to each other over and over again.

Thinking about ways to possibly prevent this and to simplify the process of creating navigation objects in general was an interesting puzzle to think about. I think in our discussions we came up with some good ideas about how to make this features more user-friendly as a whole, and I look forward to seeing if these ideas can filter through to become real improvements to the feature.

I also took part in discussions about publish states. This is a more complex issue than I first thought! It is a real can of worms, but despite the complexities I think something resembling a consensus was reached as to how this aspect of Site Manager should be improved.

The Guinness Storehouse

View into the "pint glass" from the Gravity Bar

View into the "pint glass" from the Gravity Bar

The venue was the Guinness Storehouse. Not only is it one of Dublin’s top tourist attractions, it is also an impressive conference facility. Unfortunately the room on day one was a bit too small. The ceiling was so low that it was quite difficult to view the presenters’ slides.

However, that was soon forgotten as we were taken on a tour of the building at the end of the day. It is a cleverly designed museum. The building was redeveloped about ten years ago, and has been designed to look like it has a giant Guinness pint glass in the middle of it!

Once you reach the top, you are challenged to pull the “perfect pint” of Guinness. You even receive a certificate upon completion. I cannot express the deep privilege I felt upon receiving one of these certificates, which are no doubt extremely rare.

Then it was up to the seventh floor and the Gravity Bar. Going up the lift, you emerge out of the top of the giant pint glass. It is quite a dizzying sensation to suddenly be surrounded by spectacular views of Dublin, seven storeys up. The views from the Gravity Bar are astonishing.

In there, we were treated to excellent Guinness-based food (in the form of beef and Guinness stew, and a Guinness chocolate mousse!) and even more excellent Guinness-based booze (in the form of Guinness Guinness). Sadly the music, although good, was a bit on the loud side. This made it rather difficult to do much in the way of talking. So it was just as well the plates of beef and Guinness stew kept on coming.