Vax ’14: The Things We Built

Here's the thing about a hack week: at its most basic, it's really just a decision to set an artificial deadline on making the things your team has been dreaming of for a while. A really harsh deadline, for sure, and one that isn't backed by any serious driving need. It's not like the end of a political campaign where you sprint as fast as you can to the finish line because there's no second chance. It's not part of a business cycle, holiday season, or year-end close out process. It's a simple call made together by a team: "Hey, let's make some things."

We've done this before. You can learn about what Vax is and why we do it here. And this is where we keep all the photo documentation of all the late nights and glowing laptop screens.

Vax '14 was a short, but fun-filled and inspiring week. Many people met for the first time, others hung out and worked together for the first time in months. But at the end of Friday, as we all boarded our trains and planes home, what we were really left with was proven concepts, validated theories, and many completed projects. Not everything that we worked on is a finished product (and some may never be!) but all the learning we did will inform the work we do in the future. So without further yack, here's what we made:

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Vax '14 Day 3: The Empire Strikes Hack

By day 3 of Vax, the principles of "Less Yack, More Hack" had become merely a starting point for the crew who rallied in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to build internet. That rallying cry was but a foundation upon which these makers were constructing an immovable digital fortress of hack. An awe-inspiring bulwark against the endless hammering waves of yack. A monument to hack so grandiose that it warded against not just yack, but even sleep.

What I'm saying is that by Thursday, everyone was pretty tired but they kept working on their projects and it was great.

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Meme generation made easy

Vox often use images on social media to give users more context than a normal tweet or Facebook post. We found that if we added a quote or interesting fact to an image that more users would share it. But having designers craft each image every time we wanted to do that was a huge time suck. Continue reading…

Vax '14 Day 2: Less Yack, More Hack

Yack 'n' Hack

Chief Product Officer Trei Brundrett kicked off Day 1 with a talk unofficially dubbed, "Less Yack, More Hack." After updates on current, non-Vax projects and a discussion of some internal business stuff, everyone did indeed get right to hacking.

However, more than a few members of the team have never experienced a Vax before, so we pulled them away from hacking for just a little bit more yacking.

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Vax '14 Day 1: So you want to have a hack week

Trei Brundrett kicking off Vax '14 - Lauren Rabaino

Vox Product has shipped a lot of things in recent months. This time last year we were boasting about our 3 awesome verticals — now we're repping 7. We built snazzy features for holiday product coverage; supported editorial staffs at E3 and WWDC; and built beautiful apps for fans to follow the Olympics, the World Cup, and all kinds of playoff action. Eater's making its way over to Chorus. We even made an emotionally challenging chat client migration from Campfire to Slack.

Team Product has been crushing that work from across the country, heads-down in our various teams, chatting and Google Hangouting as necessary. But at least once a year we like to get everyone face to face for some good old-fashioned hacking. This is a group of people who thrive on crazy ideas, moving fast, and leaning on each others' strengths to put out the best products possible. We also like to see each other and hang out. Thus, Vax.

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Nine weeks to launch Vox — it’s easier to go downhill than up

On April 6th, Vox Media’s chief product officer Trei Brundrett tweeted out a screenshot of an email I sent him a little over nine weeks earlier. The subject line read: “PROPOSAL: timeboxed hackweek-style approach to initial Project X launch.”

He tweeted that screenshot just a few hours after we launched a new website called Vox — formerly Project X — Vox Media’s seventh brand.

Vox took nine weeks to plan, design, build, test, and go live (six weeks from the time development began). By comparison, the initial launches of The Verge and Polygon occurred about eight months after the respective editorial leads joined the company.

Why did we launch on that sped up timeline? It was an experiment for our team and our company, driven by our desire to get a product into users’ hands early, some constraints we could not change, and our enthusiasm for approaching a familiar problem in a new way. We don’t yet know for sure if it was the right decision, but here’s how we sped up the process, focused the scope, and shipped a site fast.

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How to use Google Docs to make it look like you know what you're doing

Article Goal

Here we outline a few best practices for document organization, including many specific to Google Docs, that may help you become a better communicator and collaborator. We incorporate essential business terminology in order to convey our depth of experience. We encourage further lighthearted conversation on this topic with the larger Media Tech Internet Cloud Community in the comments below.

Pro tip: this article is also available as a Google Doc you can duplicate and upon which you can comment.

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From Monolith to Rocketship: Upgrading Chorus to Rails 3.2 and Ruby 2.1

Screen_shot_2014-05-28_at_5.59.19_pm_medium An illustration of what has changed for Chorus since our last Rails upgrade.

Chorus is the platform that Vox Media runs on, and it's also the primary piece of software that Vox Product works on. It's mostly a single Ruby on Rails app, currently weighing in at around 81,000 lines of Ruby (including tests).

Chorus was conceived in 2007, and at that point it was running Rails version 1.2. When code bases and teams are small, upgrades are easy, and it stayed current for a long time. But as both company and product team growth accelerated, upgrading under the hood components fell to the side as other projects were prioritized.

Specifically, this means we were running Ruby Enterprise Edition 1.8.7 and Rails 2.3 from July 2010 until April 25, 2014, when we simultaneously upgraded Ruby to 2.1 and Rails to 3.2. There is lots of excellent existing literature on upgrading Rails apps, but we wanted to talk about some of the techniques we used to enable other Chorus projects to be actively developed and deployed to production while we worked on this upgrade.

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