Setting Up A Digital Policy: An Interview With Kristina Podnar

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Vitaly Friedman loves beautiful content and doesn’t like to give in easily. When he is not writing, he’s most probably running front-end & UX … More about Vitaly ↬

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In this new series of interviews, we try to highlight interesting people doing interesting work and sharing some of the challenges and lessons they’ve learned along the way. From privacy and internationalization to design systems and security.

The web is wonderfully diverse and unpredictable because of wonderfully diverse people shaping it. In this new series of short interviews, we talk to interesting people doing interesting work in our industry, and sharing what they’ve learned.

For over two decades, Kristina Podnar has worked with some of the most high-profile companies in the world and has helped them see digital policies as opportunities to free the organization from uncertainty, risk, and internal chaos.

Kristina is an energetic and passionate problem-solver, and we’re honored to welcome her at SmashingConf Toronto 2019 for a live session for creating and documenting a sound policy and standards, and a few tools and tactics which will help nurse your website back to health.

Vitaly: So, hello everyone. Thank you so much for joining in again. This is one of those mysterious sessions where we interview interesting people behind the scenes. I think it’s actually very important to highlight the important people doing important work just silently in the back, hiding a little bit, trying to make the world a bit better, one step at a time and, that’s important, sharing what they learned with the community, with all of us, so we can benefit from it.

Vitaly: And so, I’m very happy and privileged today to have with us Kristina Podnar who is a digital policy innovator. And, for over two decades she has worked with some of the most high profile companies in the world, and has helped them see policies as opportunities to free the organization from uncertainty, risk, and internal chaos. This is the official description. What I can tell from my side though is that Kristina is just such an incredibly positive and energetic and nice person. I’m so privileged to have you speaking in Toronto with us, Kristina. So Kristina, how are you today?

Kristina Podnar: Thanks for having me, Vitaly. I am doing really well and really excited to be here with you. You have no idea. This is sort of a pinnacle of my career and a path I’ve been on for a while. As you know, I contributed to Smashing Magazine back in 2016, but having the opportunity to be with you in Toronto is, I think, an ultimate high for me amongst everything else that I’ve done so far. I’m really excited.

Vitaly: This is so nice. I can’t wait. I can’t wait.

Kristina Podnar: Same here.

Vitaly: So, Kristina, tell me, the truth, the story, how did you end up in this mess? Every time we talk about digital policies and governance, and I heard rumors that you are going to speak about that, everybody thinks about boring stuff. Bureaucracy, slow processes, and communication issues, and maintenance problems. Messy, messy things.

Kristina Podnar: That’s right.

Vitaly: How do you feel there?

Kristina Podnar: Well, you know what, I don’t blame anybody for thinking that because that’s all that we’ve all been taught, right? I mean, we always think about policies as these 20 page PDF documents that have been signed off by legal or HR, or there somewhere on SharePoint. We have to go searching for them when we need to know something, and all we need is a yes or no answer and somebody’s saying, "No, no. Go read this document. Really, it’ll help you." And, if you are a digital, that usually means reading 30 or 40 such documents.

Kristina Podnar: I don’t blame anybody for feeling like it’s a lot of bureaucracy. It’s really, really annoying. And, it’s where I actually came from in my career. Well, that’s not true. It was a little bit of a derailment in my career, but I came from the world where we used to live in the wild, wild west. We did things like migrate new websites in HTML with having a backup, which is how I personally made sure that one of my clients didn’t have a website for nine hours. Or, we would pass credit card numbers through FTP without encryption. Right. It was the crazy days.

Kristina Podnar: And then, it seems like the world just went to this extreme of trying to tie down anybody who was doing anything creative. And, if you wanted to do a really cool marketing campaign online, it was like compliance had to sign off, and legal had to sign off, and you had to say certain things. And, by the time you got to this point where your really cool idea came out the other end, you didn’t even recognize it. It was boring and it was dull.

Kristina Podnar: And so, I lived in this world for many years, and what I discovered is it doesn’t have to be like that. We can actually have a really good balance between understanding what needs to be done to protect the business, doing things the right way in terms of laws and regulations, and yet freeing everybody to do really creative and innovative work. And so, I’m on this mission to help businesses understand that because I think far too many people come into their work job every day and they’re not happy. And, I think that’s really sad.

Kristina Podnar: So, I’m all about let’s create policies that free the organization to do what it needs to get done in digital, and let’s free the workers to be creative and innovative and not have to do the humdrum of reading these long PDF’s or putting up with red tape because digital policies are fun and exciting and enabling. They are anything but red tape.

Vitaly: But, Kristina it sounds like a magic dream. It sounds like it’s something that it’s really hard to achieve. So, when it comes to something like that, and I guess this is also something you’re going to speak about in Toronto,-

Kristina Podnar: Yeah.

Vitaly: ... where do you even start? Imagine you have this mass organization just in front of you and it desperately needs some better structure, maybe better communication. Every single company I was working within my career had communication issues, including ours to be honest for quite a bit of time.

Kristina Podnar: No.

Vitaly: So, where do you even start? What’s the starting point for you?

Kristina Podnar: So, personally what I like to do is really kind of just come into the organization fresh-eyed, and trying to understand really what are the biggest challenges. And, I’ve worked with really, really large multinationals all the way down to really small companies. And, it varies. The problem varies. But, in most organizations that I work with, what I find is people feel like they have to really control digital because it’s something new and they feel like it’s something that’s really, really dangerous and can kind of pose a threat to the organization as much as it can kind of create that opportunity.

Kristina Podnar: And so, it’s all about trying to find the pain point. So, for example, I recently worked with a pharma company, and they had this really crazy review process where it took 21 days to get content published. I’m thinking to myself that could work if it’s a really big product launch and you’ve been creating the product for years. 21 days isn’t a big deal. But, if you had like the measles outbreak in the United States, you want to act really quickly and get the information out there. 21 days is forever.

Kristina Podnar: And so, what it was is people had to go through the same pain staking points for content review over and over again and their medical signatories had to feel comfortable. They had to do these crazy screenshots of the content on an iPad versus an iPhone versus this screen, that screen. Legal had to review things. And, what we found is that we can actually boil the steps down and creates certain rules that can’t be broken and do this in a way that facilitates the content being created with awareness across the whole sign-off team.

Kristina Podnar: And so, really ahead of time, what we would do is, as content was being created, we would do screenshots with the different devices. We would make sure that, up front, whoever was in charge of the marketing campaign was following certain sort of rules and regulations and actually showing where they were getting creative or where they wanted to kind of relax some of the rules.

Kristina Podnar: And, what that meant is that there was a summary and a summative package at the end of the process that we could serve up, almost in a restaurant where you have your menu item and you check things off and go, "I don’t want the fish today, but gosh, the chicken sounds delicious." We’ll go with that really quickly and get that order in. And, it was the same thing. And so, all of a sudden we found ourselves in this crazy pharma world, which is probably the most regulated of anybody out there, 21 review day process down to three.

Kristina Podnar: But, it has to do with understanding what the expectations are of sort of this regulatory policy driven world and really making sure that as creatives we address that up front, and that we actually give everybody the ability to exhale, take a deep breath, and understand we’re doing things and working towards the same common goal, and we’re going to make sure we don’t get the company sued. But, at the end of the day, we want to have a lot of freedom. We want to make sure that it’s innovative, that it catches the user’s imagination, that we have these great digital experiences, and that that can still be done within that framework. Because it’s really freedom within a framework, if you will. And, it doesn’t have to be boring and it doesn’t have to be onerous and it certainly doesn’t have to take 21 days.

Vitaly: Wow. Now, I actually getting excited about all that stuff. That’s surprising.

Kristina Podnar: Yay.

Vitaly: I did not see that coming at all. But, I’m wondering at this point, so would you say that every single company of every size could benefit from a very clear digital governance and kind of policy? Does every company has to invest time in it, or do you see it’s more a deal for enterprise or larger level, larger size companies?

Kristina Podnar: So yes, everybody needs to have digital policies, even me. I’m an independent consultant, but even I have to comply with things like GDPR. And so, last year I actually wrote up how I did that and how GDPR applies to the gig economy. So, policies are really good for anybody, whether you’re a single consultant all the way up to multinational. The thing that’s different I think, and we have to be very, very cognizant of this because I don’t want everybody to run out there and create 300 policies. Don’t do that. That’s also wrong.

Kristina Podnar: What we have to be really cognizant of is if you’re a small startup, for example, you’re not going to have the same policies nor the same number of policies, that they’re not going to be as robust, perhaps, in terms of how you implement them, as a large multinational. And, I really wrote my book, The Power of Digital Policy, and that’s really what I focused on. I focused on how can you get this done, whether you’re a startup, or if you’re a small company, if you’re a large enterprise, and it really is about where you are in your maturity growth in terms of policy.

Kristina Podnar: So, if you’re just starting out, don’t worry about 300 things. Worry about the four things that I’m going to tell you about at the conference, right? Let’s kind of just get you started. Pay attention to the most important things and get you to the point where, for you, in terms of what you’re trying to get done, you’ve properly balanced out that risk and that opportunity that digital brings with it. Because that’s really what I want people to understand. There is no magic checklist for policies. Just because somebody else is doing the crazy dance over there with 300 policies and that’s what they need to do, the crazy dance in a happy way. That’s okay.

Kristina Podnar: But, the same thing doesn’t apply to you. You’re unique in terms of your culture, you’re unique in terms of your beliefs. You’re unique in terms of what you’re trying to get done. And so, don’t just take somebody else’s suit and put it on. It’s going to be constructive if it’s too small and too tight. It’s not going to feel good. Same thing with policies. Don’t go off and take somebody’s policies and put them on. They’re not going to feel good. We want your organization to be safe, to be productive, to do the right things for the business. But, by the same token, we want you to actually be able to get some cool things done. And, that’s really what digital policies are and that’s what I’m trying to actually get done and help everybody else do.

Kristina Podnar: And so yes, one person all the way up to multinational, everybody needs policies. What type? It depends on what you’re doing. It could be accessibility, which I know we’re going to also be covering it at Smashing and I’m excited about that. But, it could be anything from accessibility to user-generated content. It could be policy and privacy, lots of conversation around that these days. It could be about just literally who gets to select the content management system we’re going to use inside of an organization so we don’t have to have that conversation over and over again every time we have a new digital martech stack or something else we want to introduce into the organization and get something done. So, to me, yes, policies always sound boring, but the reality is they can be anything but that. And, it’s just about how we get that done and get it done in a reasonable way that helps everybody out and is in the interest of everybody in the organization. And, that’s where I see the most success.

Vitaly: I have to switch cameras now.

Kristina Podnar: Okay.

Vitaly: Interesting. And, it’s also, for me personally, when it comes to policies, I think it’s all about streamlining. So, we improved a lot of things just to streamline processes to make sure that everything is kind of clear, what is following what, kind of how do we move from a to b in a very predictable set of steps rather than chaotic, just throwing everything in the air and hoping that something will stick. And so, this was actually very helpful and it was very informal in many ways. Would you say that a policy has to be kind of stated on a piece of paper or in a document? How do you document it? How does it manifest itself?

Kristina Podnar: So, it’s interesting, I actually spent a year thinking about all of my experiences in terms of what works best in an organization and size, industry, et cetera. And, what I found is policies do need to be written down somewhere, right? Just because most organizations, no matter how small you are, there’s always somebody new jumping onto the team, or somebody’s leaving for maternity leave and so somebody has to step in, et cetera. So, it’s important to document things.

Kristina Podnar: Now, I think, especially if you’re in a small organization, you’re part of a smaller team, you don’t need to have a really formal template. You can even write on the back of a napkin if everybody can see that napkin in the lunchroom and knows where to find it. So, I don’t think we need to get stuck on this is the template, this is the format, although in a larger organization that does help.

Kristina Podnar: What I think we need to really focus on, and this is where policies get the bad rap, policies are not just about how we document things and that’s sort of old-world thinking, right? That’s how we did things 25 years ago. We wrote it on a piece of paper and it’s in a file folder over there. But, here we are in the digital world, right? We’re trying to make these really great user experiences online, but what we forget to do is the same thing for our internal friends and colleagues. And, that’s really what I think we need to be doing around policies.

Kristina Podnar: We need to be making policies and documenting them in a way that’s easily accessible by everybody and it fits into what you’re already doing. And, that’s what I see work the best. If you want people to do certain things, for example, around content creation and they’re in Drupal, honestly just create a little checklist that they can actually link to from Drupal, and understand quickly these are the things I should be paying attention to. Don’t make them quit their day job and go looking for guidance because nobody wants that. Right?

Kristina Podnar: Or, if in a really large multinational, like we just deployed a chat bot that is really great. It actually tells marketers real time what they need to be thinking about and what they need to be doing in terms of that campaign. But, what’s really cool is it remembers and builds on top of itself over and over again. So, if a marketer is focused, for example, on Asia Pacific, we already know you’re focused on Asia Pacific and so all guidance we’ll ever give you is in the context of Asia Pacific and you can get that real time. We remember last time you did a campaign, what you were trying to achieve, and what your performance objectives were. And so, if they’re the same ones, we can just track that going forward and narrow the amount of guidance that you have to think about or even do.

Kristina Podnar: And, what’s really great is if you do this in the right way, it doesn’t just empower the designer, the marketer, or the developer, the content strategist. It really also helps your vendors and agencies that you bring on board. Or, if you’re a part of an agency and you’re coming to the table, imagine how cool when somebody brings you on board and says, "Hey, I want you to do this for me. Stand up this new website." And then it’s like, ta-da. These are the things we expect you to do and this is how we’re going to measure you when you’re done. I mean, that’s great. You already know how high you have to jump and what you have to achieve, and that allows you to focus on the things that really matter, in where you have that freedom and creativity without having to worry, oh no, are they going to tell me at the last hour my website has to be accessible and I haven’t built it that way. It’s like, man, nobody wants to go back to step one.

Kristina Podnar: And so yes, it’s about documentation, but more than just write it down on a piece of paper, although that can certainly work. It’s about doing it in the context of your culture and how people want to be delivered that information, and treating people who are going to consume this information like they’re actual users because they are.

Vitaly: Oh, this sounds like... I’m so happy now. I’m so happy.

Kristina Podnar: Oh good.

Vitaly: So, if you had to sum up what you’re going to cover in 40 or 45 minutes at this madness show called SmashingConf Toronto, how would you sum it up? What is it all about in maybe 40 seconds or less?

Kristina Podnar: Sure. So, you know what, all of us collectively, even if you’ve only been in this field for a few years, have contributed to a big mess. The mess has been underway in 25 years. It’s not going to get cleaned up right away, but we can make a huge difference in terms of what we do, cleaning up the messes, and making our life easier and more fun. So, we’re going to play doctor and patient in this session. We’re going to have some fun and hopefully make it funny as well. And, we’re going to literally go through how can we diagnose some of the illnesses that our organizations have, some of our projects have, and make sure that we give the right medicine, the right Rx, the right policies so that we can enable ourselves to have fun, be creative, and balance out that risk and that opportunity that I keep talking about.

Vitaly: Wow. I have a question for you.

Kristina Podnar: Sure.

Vitaly: Kristina, are you planning to run for President? Because if you do, I think you have very good chances of winning.

Kristina Podnar: Oh, thank you. I don’t know about that. But, you know what, and I shouldn’t say this publicly, it’ll be an interesting scene in the United States in terms of who’s going to run and where the bar is. And, I’ll let everybody decide on where they fall on that one.

Vitaly: Yes. So, maybe the last one, can you maybe share some insights with us about what you’re working on now, and also what excites you the most in this vast worldwide web of ours? Is there something you’re particularly interested in? Or, if you look into GDPR and all of this stuff, and I know that there is a law coming in California next year.

Kristina Podnar: Yes. CCPA.

Vitaly: Yes, exactly.

Kristina Podnar: January 1st, yeah.

Vitaly: Oh, January 1st. Here we go.

Kristina Podnar: January 1st, yes. Here we go.

Vitaly: What are you kind of looking forward to? What is something that really brings you to life or keeps you awake at night?

Kristina Podnar: Okay. So, two things. I’m working on something really fun right now, which I love. I’m actually becoming a spokesperson for this really small company in the United States. They are active in every country in the world with the exception, I think of Cuba and maybe Iraq. And, very tiny company, really small staff, not a lot of money. They’ve decided to become GDPR compliant, but get this, they’re applying GDPR principles to everybody, that’s their customer or consumer or prospect around the world, and they’re applying the same principles to everybody who works for them. Which is a huge order.

Kristina Podnar: And so, for me, it’s really fun. It’s really energizing. It’s a little bit of a proof of concept because GDPR inherently conflicts with other regulations around the world and other things that we try to do in terms of best practice. And so, I’m kind of taking this as an extreme case and an opportunity to do a proof of concept and see how do you do this in a practical way, and what does an organization do when there’s actually a conflict? Right? Where do you decide to kind of go in terms of your practices? So, that’s really something that gets me up in the morning and I don’t even need coffee to get started. I just go.

Kristina Podnar: And, in terms of what keeps me up at night, I think it’s this entire notion, what I call, the perfect storm of where we are right now. We have a situation where there’s sort of the crazy dance going on in social media, right? We have the opportunity for violence to be streamlined in social media. We have politicians using social media as a platform, claiming that they have First Amendment rights in the United States, of freedom of speech on a private platform, which is just crazy. We have users getting really upset around privacy and all of the privacy laws you just mentioned.

Kristina Podnar: So, I see this as the perfect storm, and what keeps me up at night is are we going to take this as an opportunity and make the best of it, or are we going to just passively sit by and not contribute, in which case the perfect storm will pass. And so, I hope that all of us step up and play a role because we have an important one to play and it’s a little bit more important than we probably realize. So, I hope we all engage in that.

Vitaly: Yeah. Well, so that sounds very exciting. So, with this in mind, thank you so much Kristina, for being with us today. I can’t wait for Toronto.

Kristina Podnar: Me either.

Vitaly: It’s coming up in just a few weeks from now, like six weeks or so from now.

Kristina Podnar: Yep. Countdown’s on.

Vitaly: This’ll be the first time where we actually finally meet. We have many friends in common-

Kristina Podnar: That’s right.

Vitaly: ... and so I can’t wait. So, thank you so much, Kristina.

Kristina Podnar: Same here.

Vitaly: Everyone, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m looking forward to the next little sessions about people behind the scenes and all of that. And, with this in mind, signing off. Kristina, any last words you want to share with the audience to kind of send a message out there?

Kristina Podnar: I’m bringing cookies and I’ll leave it at that.

Vitaly: Oh, wow. If that doesn’t work, I don’t know what will.

Kristina Podnar: Sounds good.

Vitaly: All right, thanks everyone. Thanks Kristina, and see you next time.

Kristina Podnar: Thanks Vitaly. Take good care.

That’s a Wrap!

We’re looking forward to welcoming Kristina to SmashingConf Toronto 2019, with a live session on digital policy, how to set up one, and how to solve some of the issues most companies are struggling with these days. We’d love to see you there as well!

Please let us know if you find this series of interviews useful, and whom you’d love us to interview, or what topics you’d like us to cover and we’ll get right to it!

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (ra, il, mrn)