Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Quarter Report to my teacher at school. Draft.

I think maybe the ending needs to be touched up.



Mykola Bilokonsky

Ichimiya Internship

Spring 2005 Report

I concluded my last report with tales of New Employee seminars and cultural exchanges and speeches and all manner of responsibilities coming at me from every direction. Truth be told, March/April was perhaps the busiest I have been since coming out here. Life has since stabilized in some ways and become more stressful in others. Ever since April, with a few notable exceptions my resources have been spent almost entirely on learning web design and creating a page for Nissen. It is easier to focus with just one overriding concern on a daily basis, but all is not wine and roses and I have learned a thing or two about the difference between working on one’s personal webpage and designing a site for an international company.

But more on that later. First I’ll pick up the chronological narrative.

April

Upon my return from the new employee seminar in Kyoto, life simplified. For the first time in months I didn’t have a speech or report or otherwise drawn out project hanging over my head, so it was quite comfortable. The only extracurricular activity that demanded some preparation was a speech I was asked to give for the Niihama Guide Club’s annual meeting. I regaled them with a basic summary of and a few opinions regarding the history and culture of Ukraine – my Ukrainian heritage has proven distinctive and useful on more than one occasion out here and I have had several different groups contact me to ask me to speak to them about Ukraine. I feel like I am making the circuit of English Speaking Groups in Japan, but it works out well – I get to meet new people, research a subject that I should probably know more about anyway, and expand my cultural experiences.

Other than that, though, as I wrote above I devoted most of my time to web design. I did learn HTML about 10 years ago as a hobby, but as I have learned in the past few months things have changed. HTML alone no longer a webpage makes – I have mastered (X)HTML, CSS, gotten some general knowledge of flash and JavaScript, and in general learned a thousand times more than I ever knew I didn’t know. I have become converted through my studies to a strong belief in web standards. I have discovered a passion for keeping up to date on state-of-the-art technologies and cutting edge techniques using old technologies. I’ve learned a thousand things, and in April I spent my days creating more and more complex pages for practice. Gradually, ideas and designs took hold in my head and solidified into a general outline for the new website I was going to design. Finally, come May, I decided I was ready to put my newfound knowledge and abilities to work and design a final, not-for-practice draft of the website.

May

The bulk of May was spent in actual nose-to-the-grindstone web design. I came up with a design solution based the color scheme and basic layout of the current page but with fresher, larger images and a more streamlined look. I even managed to throw in a few little flourishes, like some rather difficult java script that allowed me to round the edges of various boxes, etc. This done, I put the design aside and turned to the content.

In contemporary web design, the separation of content and presentation is the most important thing for a web designer to understand. Old web pages written in HTML used to combine every element of what appeared on the page in one file – if you wanted a headline, you marked these particular words as, say, larger, bold and in a different font. And you did that every time you wanted a headline. Thus the content of the headline (“自動車部品”) became inextricably tied to the design instructions (Bold, Large, Font = WingDings, whatever).

Contemporary web standards teach us that when design and content are linked together a page stagnates – it becomes very difficult to change the design or update the content without having to overhaul the entire page. An excellent case in point is the current Nissen website. The preferred practice is to take the content of the webpage and put it one file and take the design rules and put them in another. Then, if you want some text to be a headline, you simply label it as a headline (this is content) and then you go to your design form and modify headlines. This way, all of your headlines can be modified with the change of one bit of code. Separation of content and presentation is essential for future updates, accessibility, easier compliance with internet search engines and a dozen other things that distinguish an okay website from a good one.

My plan, then, was to remove all of the content from the old page and put it into a word file. I would then go over it with my supervisors and we would edit it and change it and update it as needed, and I would then merge it with the design code I had waiting. All that remained was to introduce all of this to my bosses in a meeting and get the green light.

When the meeting actually happened, though, it didn’t go as smoothly as that. The meeting began and I explained that I would like some help checking the content of the website. The last time we had had a meeting they had pointed out a few flaws and things to update, which I had, so I wanted to make sure there were no other glaring flaws. When I presented the print-out of web-content with no background, no pictures and no layout, however, I was met with dubious faces. I tried to explain my rational for separating the content from the page – specifically, that the old design was stagnant and the new design not yet approved – but I think some of it was lost in my hastily assembled Japanese. Everyone was talking very quickly and looked unhappy, though I wasn’t sure why.

In retrospect, it was admittedly perhaps a bit foolish to go to a meeting with upper management and request them to go over 30-odd pages of text checking for factual errors. This had apparently not occurred to my supervisor, either, as he had helped me prepare for the meeting. The supervisors explained to me that they couldn’t just check the content, which had to be changed to webpage form and then sent out to the various people in charge of the various things I was talking about. Naruhodo, I said.

The next part of the meeting involved me introducing the new design I had come up with for the site. We gathered around my computer and I unveiled it – and received bewildered looks. “It looks like you made a completely new site,” someone observed.

This was frustrating. It dawned on me that the people in charge of my work had no idea what I had been working on for a few solid months, and I realized immediately that it was my fault for failing to communicate more closely. I was confused, though, as to why I struggle over a report of my activities every month if the people I submit it to apparently don’t read it. I had kept a running account of my monthly progress and ideas for the webpage and suddenly the individuals whose stamps appear on my report every month had no idea I had been working on a new webpage design.

So my supervisor and I explained what I had been working on and the general reaction was “Oh, okay. Well, interesting design, that’s one idea, but we can’t just change the whole site like this without lots of meetings and confirmations etc etc etc.” Naruhodo, I said.

I was asked to print up my design for consideration, and told that I should at least get confirmation for the basic structure of the page before designing a layout. Whereas the current page has “About Us”, “Products”, “Technology” and “Worldwide” sections, I had changed it to “Products”, “Technology”, “Company” and “Information” and reorganized it a bit. Realizing that it had been rather presumptuous of me to redesign the basic structure without getting express permission, I printed up my proposed changes and submitted them for approval. Once we had decided how the information was to be split up, I would modify my new design and submit that for approval and there would be happy endings all around. To my frustration, my proposal was neither approved nor denied but the individual to whom I submitted it assures me he will get to it shortly every time I follow up.

That, then, was a bad day. I felt that I had wasted a lot of time designing something that was going to get stuck in development, and I knew it was my fault for working too independently. I was faced with the thought that I would go down in Ichimiya History as one of the Bad Interns, one of Those Who Are Not Spoken Of. There are a couple, and I don’t want to be seen as a failure – so rather than getting discouraged, I made a new plan. More on that in the June section. First I would like to wrap up May (and put it forever behind me).

One day towards the end of the month, my boss asked me if I wouldn’t mind moving. Apparently, the toilet in my apartment flooded the guy two floors down every time I flushed it. Sure, said I, and preparations were made to clean up a different room in the Masaeda Apartment for me to move into. In the interim, the plan was for me to stay at Izumi Ryou – the place where interns used to live. I asked my boss, however, if perhaps it wouldn’t be simpler for me to stay at a friend’s house for the week it would take to clean up the new place. That was fine, I was told, but I would officially be in Izumi Ryou for a week. Fair enough.

So I moved in with my friend, who lives in a nice new apartment 5 minutes from the office. It was very convenient, we had a good time. A week later, I got all my stuff together and moved into my new place – only to be greeted by herds of cockroaches galloping freely across the tatami. This was shortly after my website meeting, and was the perfect thing to come home to after a particularly stressful week at work. The friend with whom I had been staying, who had come to help me move, took one look at the roaches and invited me to continue staying at her place until I could get the roach issue sorted.

I went to work the next day and asked about a roach spray or something and was told that they had sprayed prior to my moving in, but that we could spray again. So they sent one of the office ladies to the store and she came back with a big tub of something or other unhealthy for cockroaches. I took it home and used it, and the next day there were about a dozen roaches of varying sizes strewn about the apartment. I still find them under chairs and such to this day, and it’s been a month. Is this really standard living conditions in Japan? I could understand if I kept a really messy apartment and there was food everywhere etc, but this was prior to my move-in.

So, due to convenience and rapport with my friend, I basically continued to stay at hers until circumstances forced me to move back to Masaeda – but more on that in the June section.

June

The first two weeks of June saw me traveling around to various factories and offices across Japan on a fact-finding mission for the website. This was really great – I went as part of the annual safety inspection and we cruised around on the Shinkansen for two weeks. They took me to the Osaka General Office, the Molding Works, the Mie Factory, the Shiga Factory, Technocenter Tochigi, the Saitama Office, the Tokyo General Office and finally the Chiba facility. I packed my laptop, a notebook, and the digital camera they bought and prepared a set of questions I would ask at each place.

Part of my plans for the new website involved a much more detailed Facilities page. The current page has a single photograph for about half of Nissen’s facilities and nothing more than an address and phone number for most of them. I am replacing that with a comprehensive list of Nissen’s facilities sorted by department, each with a slide-show showcasing staff, location and products. I am adding general descriptions of each place, so that site visitors can learn more than that Nissen has an office that does something or other in Kumamoto. So as I traveled around, I was not only getting a brief introduction to each office but was compiling the data necessary for my website.

I returned from the last trip the night of Friday the 10th, and from June 13th had determined the solution to my website problem. I would first recreate an exact model of the current page, but instead of the archaic HTML code currently in use I would start from scratch with XHTML and CSS. That way, I figured, even if the rest of what I want to do gets caught up in the wheels of confirmation and scheduling and discussion, I could at least leave Nissen with a page that can be updated easily. It took me several weeks, but I finally created an identical-looking page with brand new state of the art code. The next step, as per the plan I created with my immediate supervisor, is to update a few key things. For example, the aforementioned Facilities page and several Products pages. I will add a page for the consignment division, and throw something up for recruiting purposes. Then when it comes time to present my work I will have a few definitive changes to show.

The very last thing I will do, if I have time, is create a new design. Since I am not starting from scratch and all of the content is already in place, and since I already have a flexible design built using the latest web standards, I can create a new design for the entire site in about a day plus an hour or two of overtime. That, however, is last priority.

So, as far as the homepage goes, here is my outlook. Worst-case scenario, I leave Nissen with a site that looks just like their old one but with an English translation and a new facilities page. It would, however, be an entirely brand new site built from the ground up with heavily commented code incorporating web standards. Translation, it would be easy for anyone to update from here on out. The current page cannot be updated – it must be replaced.

Best-case scenario, then, is that I add to this new page a fresh design that miraculously gets approved in my last month. I am not holding my breath – I now realize that such a thing must take a tremendous amount of time and that a complete overhaul would have had to begin in January or February in order to get all requisite approval and implementation by July. Fujita-san warned me when I started this that webpage design takes longer than I thought. I didn’t really listen as I have designed websites before, and the prospect of putting a new face on what is really a pretty basic site didn’t seem too daunting - but I had failed to take into consideration the chain of command and the way things are done in a large company. Lesson learned, hard way.

So that has been work the past few months. In short, I have been very frustrated. In the end, though, it won’t be for nothing as Nissen will have a page that is top of the line under the hood, even if it still looks similar on the outside. In addition, I have learned a new skillset – I am seriously considering studying design in a more formal setting. And I’ve learned a thing or two about working in a large corporation – namely, when in doubt, consult your superior.

Personal Life

On a more lighthearted side of the spectrum, I have been having a great time here, traveling and meeting people. Over Golden Week, my friends and I took a trip to Mount Aso in Kumamoto-ken. We camped, climbed the mountain, took a lot of pictures and did a lot of touristy things. It was gorgeous out there.

Later in May, my friend Tsuri Toshikazu came to visit me. I met Toshi at OSU last summer – I was his conversation partner. We became good friends quite quickly at OSU, as I introduced him to the kendo club and we would all go out together frequently. So it was very good to see someone from home during what could be called my darkest moments out here. He and his wife flew out from Tokyo and I met them in Matsuyama. We stayed in a hotel by Dogo Onsen and just chilled out for a weekend, which was a very welcome change of pace.

Between the week in Kyushu and the weekend in Matsuyama my funding was stretched pretty thinly, but I have gotten a bit better at pinching pennies and managed to avoid the dreaded week of instant ramen I occasionally run into at the end of the month.

At end of June, a just-graduated friend from OSU came out to see me. She will be here until July 13, and we are having a few adventures. We went to Hiroshima, but perhaps I should save that for my summer report so I have a few things to talk about. With the arrival of my friend came my return to Masaeda Apartment, which I have honestly grown to really revile.

Bursting pipes, flooding toilets, colonies of roaches – this really is kind of a bad place to live, and it wouldn’t irk so much except that I was told that Ichimiya Group owns other apartment buildings newer and closer to the office but that they decided not to put the interns there due to the proximity of the red light district. The moral high-ground is well and good but on a bad day I feel stuck in a cockroach farm 2 miles from work and anyone I know, without so much as the moped I am supposed to have to get around. That sucks.

Fuck, man, throw me a bone here.


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