“Hackathons aren’t all about winning”, I said, clutching our giant trophy in one hand and a jubilant glass of cava in the other.
One enduring impression I have from my childhood is Star Trek fans, whether in “Galaxy Quest” or on “The Simpsons”, is of nerds constantly asking questions while citing specific season and episode numbers.
In that time before cheap broadband, I remember always thinking this was the ultimate touch on that stereotype — not only are such characters asking incredibly nerdy questions, but they’re doing it in the utterly nerdiest fashion possible! Like, there has been so damn much Star Trek over the last nearly-fifty years, who can even keep track of what season anyone is on, let alone which episode in the season it is? And then being able to cite specific details? What nerds¹!
Science fiction on network television exposed this idea really well. I started watching “Star Trek: Voyager” late at night during high school when it was on Fox 32 Rochester — and only on Fox 32 Rochester (I grew up in Saskatchewan, can you tell?). Before HBO really revolutionised the idea of watching TV — turning watching a series more into an experience akin to consuming a really long movie — the only way to really get into a science fiction show was to start at the point you were presented, try and eke out whatever connections you could, but ultimately just jump into the deep end. It could be any episode, in any season. Of course, you could just wait patiently until the series reached its conclusion and the rerun cycle started afresh, but that could take forever. As a curious viewer, there really wasn’t any way you could start at the beginning. I, always the fair-weather Trekkie, found myself constantly ducking in and out of the show, always having a decent idea of what was going on but never really having a clue about how a particular episode contributed to the show’s overall arch². That isn’t how television works anymore. We stream entire seasons and can view any episode we wish, at any time we wish. There is absolutely no reason to jump in the deep end anymore. The idea of “binge watching” TV shows (such as is even encouraged by Netflix through releasing entire seasons of “Orange is the New Black” or “House of Cards” all at once) further cements this idea of watching shows sequentially. Even if the average “House of Cards” viewer might not be able to immediately cite exactly what occurred in s02e03, they probably have a pretty decent recollection of what happened in what season, or at least how many episodes each season has. While being able to cite specific episode numbers indicates a viewer is particularly passionate about a given show, it’s no longer a behaviour confined to science fiction nerds. And science fiction nerds, having predicated as a culture this more contemporary approach to consuming media, are no longer nerds. They’re just science fiction viewers (Though I’m sure many would still self-identify as nerds, such I do). The implosion of high and low culture through the medium of television has simultaneously both raised and lowered the bar to considering yourself a “nerd” with regards to a particular show — lowered, in that anyone can now consume television content with the same ferocity as the science fiction crowd, but also raised it, given this normalised behaviour means there aren’t many ways in which passionate viewers of shows can depict themselves as being more passionate than others (Cosplay and attending conventions come to mind).
In a way, we’re all Star Trek nerds now. And that’s probably a good thing — writers can craft television in a much more authoritative capacity now, it’s no longer just about making a show run as long as possible.
Pretty much exactly one year ago to the day, I started my current job at The Times and Sunday Times as a newsroom developer. If unfamiliar with what that actually entails, it means I work within the newsroom on quick turnaround, content-centric features for our digital platforms.
In that time, I’ve participated in three hackdays, reimagined how WordPress can work, helped with the creation of an insane number of amazing projects and upped my development skills by several orders of magnitude.
In reflecting, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned in my first year developing for national newspaper:
This phrase is generally used to argue the important of substance over flashing bells and whistles, but from a news development perspective, it really means “You won’t have anything finalised until the very last minute.” While my team has worked hard to educate the rest of the newsroom that moving things around in HTML is much more difficult than in InDesign, and have pushed to finalise content earlier in the development process, it’s somewhat of a difficult proposition in an industry where editors have always had the ability to modify anything up to the very last minute and ultimately need final sign-off.
Given this, my team has constructed various content management systems, ranging from Tabletop.js-based Google Docs-fed endeavours to front-ends for WordPress and Django. This allows the front-end development to be done independently from content management, though it does tend to add a degree of complexity to the final project. Luckily, we’ve standardised our approaches somewhat in the last couple of months and using these is a progressively more straight-forward endeavour.
Or, "The likelihood that you forget to add analytics code to a piece before launching it is directly proportional to how long you’ve been working on it." Without the constant vigilance of folks like Nick Petrie and Joseph Stashko, I’d have done this at least half a dozen times by now. The sole way to combat Ændrew’s Law of Google Analytics is to make adding analytics code the very first thing you do after generating the scaffolding.
There’s a saying within software development, “When all you have is a hammer, the temptation is to see every problem as a nail.” As a PHP developer, the extra effort required to get a Python or NodeJS-based webapp running seemed incredibly disproportionate to the benefit. Now that I’ve deployed a good many such webapps — and appreciate that Drupal isn’t the solution to every complex web-based programming problem — I now do very little PHP development.
I love playing with *nix as much the next person, but not anticipating deployment issues (and budgeting time accordingly) is a sure-fire way to cause yourself stress close to deadline.
This goes beyond just knowing where to upload something, however. Given the aforementioned point arguing the importance of getting deployment correct the first time, knowing how your codebase will scale with increased traffic is vital. Are your REST services stateless? If so, load balance them and host the front-end code on a CDN. Can you cache responses from an API if they’re similar? If so, do so. Even though my team never actually touches the main website code for thetimes.co.uk and sundaytimes.co.uk, knowing how it interacts with Akamai has been utterly instrumental in keeping everything ticking along nicely.
Finally, never assume anything in testing is consistent in production. You can’t just look at your testing machine and assume everything will be the same when finally surfaced in the iPad app or within an iframe. A project is not complete until it has been tested in production on multiple devices. My team has setup a device lab for just this purpose, to ensure we have a wide array of platforms to test content on before signing it off.
Lastly and most importantly, what separates news development from simple web development is that you’re dealing with the first draft of history, created by incredibly talented people who care passionately about the work they do. Being able to work with such people is, without a doubt, one of the biggest highlights of the job. No, not all of them have written HTML since age eight, and yes, you’ll probably have to do some hand-holding. But the effort that takes is incredibly rewarding, and there’s nothing more exciting than feeling like you’re contributing to the ongoing evolution of the industry as it moves increasingly digital.
This perfectly captures how I feel: “WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”
/* by jhovgaard */
Apparently I’ve had this tumblog for five years. I’m celebrating by making the theme less of a ball-ache to look at.
You’re welcome, twenty-odd followers!