Cyber Ninja Summer Camp visits Vox Media

Last week Vox Product hosted nearly 30 impressive young women from a Girls Inc. summer camp. They toured the Vox Media DC office and bombarded a panel of Vox Media employees—including front-end engineers Ally Palanzi and Guillermo Esteves, designer Ramla Mahmood, front-end designer Alisha Ramos, SB Nation social media editor Michael Katz, and Vox engagement editor Allison Rockey—with tough, thoughtful questions about their day-to-day experiences in the fields of technology and media.

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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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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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How to set up a private WebPageTest Instance on EC2 to measure front end performance

A WebPageTest waterfall graph from testing www.vox.com

Like a lot of the web development community, Vox Product has been increasing its focus on the front end performance of our sites. In order to improve, we must first quantify what "front end performance" means to us, and have a repeatable way to measure it so that we can tell if we are really improving or not.

While attending Velocity NYC last October, WebPageTest.org was repeatedly brought up as a the best way to start measuring front end performance. Their Speed Index metric was exactly what we were looking for - a number to represent how fast a user feels like a page is loading.

Jonathan Klein gave a talk titled DIY Synthetic - Private WebPageTest Magic, which convinced me that a private Web Page Test instance was what we needed. Our needs are probably a little different than most, because we wanted to run tests against the home and article pages for all of our networks (at the time, Polygon, SB Nation and Verge) for both desktop and mobile sizes. Testing all these variations with multiple runs to ensure accuracy would easily put us over the public API limits, so we started looking into setting up our own instance.

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Chicas Poderosas: Mentoring the next generation of 'powerful women' in tech and journalism

Chicas Poderosas

I'll admit it: this harsh DC winter definitely influenced my decision to go sunny Miami; the promise of 80-degree weather was hard to ignore. That, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to spend four days immersed in storytelling with women in journalism and tech at the Chicas Poderosas conference, held on April 18th-20th at the Univision office and on the campus of the University of Miami.

Chicas Poderosas is an initiative started last year by ICFJ fellow Mariana Santos who wanted to create a community of Latin women journalists and connect them with people working in technology. By pairing enthusiastic Latina professionals with mentors, Mariana has used the formula that has worked well for many top media companies which is "the magic" that can happen when editorial and product teams work together closely.

Chicas poderosas literally translates to powerful women - the mantra of this organization

As a female designer at Vox Media, I was invited to come as a mentor alongside others from NYTimes, OpenNews, BBC and The Guardian to name a few. All these mentors hold various roles in the technology field, working as designers, project managers, developers and more. There were around 100 attendees participating who had traveled from various countries in Central and South America, making for a very diverse audience. Our time over the four days was split - when we weren't listening to guest speakers, we took part in a hackathon.

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