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Intro to AI Webinar

When we first announced that Sidecar would be rebuilding our platform from scratch, we were so excited by the reaction we heard from other associations thinking through the exact same problems. 

A few of you even reached out wanting to hear more about the project (let us know if you would, too!), and we ended up on calls learning a ton about how other organizations are tackling the problems we’re facing. 

But we also did a lot of sharing, too, and one of the common things we’ve been asked about has been how we’re keeping this complicated of a project (there are multiple teams across multiple companies working to create the new Sidecar platform!) together and running smoothly. 

The truth is, sometimes there are bumps in the road and we’ve had many intercontinental Zoom calls to chat about who’s responsible for what and how the final product should work seamlessly together. But we’re also focusing on some core ideas — what we’re calling our core principles in this project — that are driving us forward. 

You can think of the core principles as operating similarly to an organization’s core values: These are the ideas upon which we make our decisions, and if we hold ourselves to these standards, then we’ll have achieved what we set out to in the first place. 

Why we’re rebuilding our platform 

We’ve written before about the decision to rebuild the Sidecar platform, but it really comes down to a couple of key issues. 

As Sidecar has grown, so, too, has the complexity of our business. Our membership currently includes access to our professional development platform built exclusively for association professionals, and it includes our step-by-step courses, webinar and event replays, eBooks, tip sheets, a community forum and discounts on future events, workshops and bootcamps. While we have traditionally offered membership to individual association leaders, we recently started offering our membership as a team subscription. We have big plans to add to that capability in the future. 

All of this means that things are getting more complicated, and the usual membership tech stack wasn’t cutting it anymore. We had to build our own. 

This is something we’ve heard from association professionals, too, including one leader at a professional society we chatted with recently. As he told it, “A customized AMS turned into handcuffs.” 

The new platform will allow us to own all of our audience data in one centralized location while being able to plug and unplug best-in-class platforms as our needs change and grow. For now, that means using a CRM like Hubspot, a virtual event platform like Airmeet and an e-commerce tool like Shopify.

Why a big project needs principles 

Still, it’s not easy to dismantle an existing tech stack and create its replacement without some common ideas grounding everyone who has a hand in the action. 

That’s where the principles come in. Like an organization’s core values, they tell us how to make decisions around this massive project. 

To provide Sidecar with a tech platform that can fuel its next phase of growth, we’re building an architecture that focuses on these principles:

User Experience Above All – The Sidecar user is of far greater importance than the Sidecar staffer. This isn’t to say that our internal users on the platform aren’t important — of course we are! — but we want to flip the usual script that has an organization thinking about how internal staffers are interacting with a system first and how a member interacts with it second. Today’s audience demands a seamless, friction-free experience, and we won’t get that if we’re focusing on our internal staff needs first.  

It’s also an important concept because the new edition of Sidecar will knit together many different platforms, but to our end-user, the experience should remain seamless. Audiences today don’t differentiate between things like online communities, events, membership, learning, and so on. To them, interacting with a platform should all feel like one brand, and the expectation is that it is simple, connected and smart, meaning content of all types is linked together and well curated. And, increasingly, the expectation is of personalized recommendations.

Open – We want the Sidecar data platform to center around the idea of data ownership by the company, and not to have our data locked in any particular system. This allows us to remain unmarried to any particular CRM or AMS; instead, we can use what’s best when it’s right for how our company is operating. An owned data set give us:  

  • Leverage – We’ll be able to use best-in-class platforms from widely available commercial applications like HubSpot for marketing automation, Shopify for eCommerce, and so on, using world-class apps to deliver a completely different level of experience than any association-specific tech vendor can usually provide. 
  • Flexibility – We’ve all seen how a technological pillar today can be outdated tomorrow. That’s why we want to be able to plug and play other systems over time. While HubSpot is where we’re leaning today for marketing automation, that could change in a couple of years. Rather than requiring the kind of “open heart surgery” dismantling we’re having to do now, we want the replacement of a system to be like snapping in a different Lego block. It might still take some time and care, but the architecture will be designed for that kind of change.

A sub-component of this principle is the idea that systems should change out regularly. That it isn’t a bad thing, and with the ever-increasing pace of change in the tech world, you need to be good at it. This reduces vendor dependence and creates more organizational freedom. 

The principles in action

Based on these principles, as our base, we’re architecting a platform that has the following components:

  • Open Data Architecture – We are implementing Sidecar’s instance using Azure Cloud and using the Azure SQL database, but it is intended to be something that would work on any data repository.
  • Flexible Data Modeling – Data is changing rapidly and will do so even more quickly in the coming years. We need a flexible data model that can evolve quickly without turning into a pile of junk. We’ve architected a way of ensuring data integrity and dramatically reducing DBA overhead in managing a constantly changing data model.
  • Integration Bus – Rather than a hub and spoke mindset, the integration architecture is all about a bus architecture that has standards, interfaces, messaging and so on to create scalability, redundancy and standards to easily snap things in. Think protocols and interfaces, sitting on top of some very well-worn software from major players to actually execute queuing and other parts.
  • Data Standards – for the “common” data models like CRM objects and our LMS, we are building some open standards for our needs and we think they could be of value to others.
  • CMS-agnostic Reusable UI Widgets – Rather than having “content sites” and “functional sites,” we’ll be able to take any functional widget and drop it into any page, on any site, anywhere.

What’s next for the new platform

We are still in the early stages of building this architecture for Sidecar, but we expect updates in the coming weeks and months. 

Our first goal is to build something our company can use and to share it with other companies in our family of businesses (we have 19 right now, but we’re always growing!). Beyond that, our plan is to give all of this IP away by turning it into an open-source software project to share for free with the entire world, kind of like how WordPress is freely available to use.

We have no idea how popular this type of architecture will be or how many association folks will find open-source appealing, but we figured we could do some good by contributing our IP to the conversation, and hopefully, others can contribute to the project over time.

Chelsea Brasted
Post by Chelsea Brasted
May 19, 2022
Chelsea is a local reporter in New Orleans for Axios, a new media company.