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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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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Career Day: Polygon's product team goes back to elementary school

From left to right - Jake Lear, Tyson Whiting, Jon Douglas

Two weeks ago, Jake Lear, Tyson Whiting and I were invited to represent the technology field at Ronald McNair Elementary career day in Montgomery County, Maryland. We spoke to fifth graders about our careers and the skills it takes to perform our jobs.


It was a familiar scene as we stepped through the double doors and made our way toward the office. Waves of nostalgia came rushing back -- bells rang at designated times, kids formed lines and marched like soldiers, walls were plastered with artwork. Yes, we had definitely been here before. Team Polygon was back at elementary school, but this time around, we were the teachers.

We tailored our presentation to be fun, interactive and informative. After brief introductions with details about our background and education, we transitioned into the specifics of our individual roles and emphasized that it takes each of us working together to produce a quality product. As we explained to the kids all three phases of our workflow - Design, Coding, and Quality Assurance - they were genuinely interested in what we had to say. We capped off our talk by creating a mini web page with input from the students. Bugs were purposely introduced and the fifth graders eagerly jumped at the chance to call out what was wrong and needed to be changed. The three of us had a blast selling each mistake before we fixed it up.

For 10-and 11-year-olds, these kids were pretty tech savvy. All use the internet frequently and many are familiar with current video games and consoles, including several that spoke up to offer their expertise on Minecraft and what exactly a pixel is. One girl has already committed to learning how to code and others expressed an interest in drawing and one day becoming designers. It was refreshing to see these students excited about their futures.

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Judging the World's Best-Designed websites and apps for SND

I had the honor of being one of the judges for the Society of News Design's 2013 World's Best-Designed at SND 35. This is the fourth year that the digital portion of this competition has existed and the 35th anniversary of the print portion. This year, the judges convened in Indianapolis. For me, it was a great opportunity to meet new people within our industry that work on other publications and talk about the state of design on both the web and in print.

 SB Nation won the digital award the previous year(!), so it was interesting and awesome to be involved in the process to select this years winners.

Chiqui Esteban from The Boston Globe, Kaitlin Yarnall from National Geographic and I had the task of judging the World’s Best portion of the awards. For over two days, we outlined what we were looking for, pored over entries, scoured the web for things that should have been entered and had healthy debates about defines design and who should win this prestigious award. Our judges’ statement below suggests the sort of prism we were looking through as we reviewed the entires.

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Know your competition: Finding time to digest digital storytelling across the web

Great Falls - David Zhou

Back in December, Ryan Gantz wrote an article on the Vox Product Blog about the sheer volume of incredible media being produced by our editorial staffs and video teams. He posed a great question: When am I going to find the time to read all this?

After going to SND Prototypes this past weekend and seeing a lot of the "Best of Digital Design" for the past year, I was asking myself a different question: When am I going to find the time to read the disruptive, innovative work of our peers?

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Lessons from #SNDmakes: Building a more collaborative design community

Rebekah Monson

This past weekend, the Society for News Design held an event called "SND Prototypes: The story experience" at the Ball State University Indianapolis Center. A sizable group of talented designers, developers and product thinkers arrived in Indy with great ambition: designing solutions for real-life problems that exist in online journalism and defining new story forms.

If you're interested in reading about the cool prototypes that came from this past weekend, check out Rebekah Monson's great write-up of Sluice.js or Mike Swartz' breakdown of Backstory. Additionally, the concepts have been well-documented on HackDash, the tool we used to collaborate with our teams. There's plenty of great information out there about #SNDmakes, and I'm not here to rehash that.

Instead, I want to talk about the benefits of building a collaborative design community.

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Shut up and ship it: The story of the new-look Vox Product blog

Welcome to the new home of the Vox Product blog. In mid-February, we uprooted our Tumblr and relocated to Chorus, Vox Media's modern media stack.

You may be asking, "What took so long? Why didn't Vox Product use its own platform to write blog posts?" If so, you've got a bright future as an investigative journalist. The truth is, we just needed to shut up and ship it.

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