After very careful consideration, I have decided to resign from my job at the Idaho Statesman effective September 19th. I have thoroughly enjoyed the challenges, triumphs, and camaraderie during the past 17 months. For a lifelong news junkie such as myself, working for a newspaper has been a unique experience that has caused me to grow both personally and professionally. There are a lot of genuinely dedicated people at the Statesman and what they do day in and day out is really something to behold. I will miss working here and cannot help but feel that my work is unfinished.
I didn’t intend to leave the Statesman any time soon, but a local company began to pursue me about a month ago. After a lot of back and forth via e-mail and a couple of interviews, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. In addition to that, this company is an excellent fit for me as far as the development team, the tools and languages they use (LAMP stack with Zend Framework), the projects in the works, and the corporate culture. They’re also extremely profitable with very impressive year over year revenue growth. It may seem like a strange choice to anyone not familiar with the company, but I am very excited to say that I will start work on September 22nd as a software engineer at Bodybuilding.com.
Their consistent focus on customers and investment in employees really won me over. A prime example of the character of their employees and the unwavering commitment they have to their customers can be seen in their response to Tropical Storm Fay last week. This is not a one-time incident, but an integral part of the culture and values of the company. In addition to a strong customer focus, they invest heavily in their employees with excellent pay, benefits, and perks that encourage and reward a healthy lifestyle and professional growth.
I’m sure I’ll have much more to share about my experiences at Bodybuilding.com in the coming months. In the meantime, I have a lot of projects to wrap up at the Statesman. And I need to hit the weights pretty hard in the next three weeks to prepare myself for the new employee orientation. I hear it involves lots of shaving, fake tanner, body oil, and a Speedo. Nah, I’m just kidding of course. At least I think I’m kidding…
April 16th marked exactly one year since I started working at the Statesman. It seems like just yesterday that I was observing six months. Time flies when you’re juggling a dozen projects and multiple deadlines. I can’t say that I’ve learned too many new things in the past six months, but I have deepened my knowledge of topics that were already in my bag of tricks. And of course we built and/or launched some new features.
Shiny, happy features
These are just the highlights of the past six months. Obviously we did a lot more than four things, but a lot of it was behind the scenes. For example, I set up a new Web server and moved ten of our external sites over to it. You didn’t notice? Perfect. Anyway, the high points were:
- More blogs (up to about 15 now)
- New site search (powered by Planet Discover)
- New events calendar (powered by Zvents)
- Assorted Yahoo! stuff (part of a new partnership)
On the horizon
The next three months or so will be extremely busy with at least four sizable projects in the works as well as a dozen or so little ones. There’s never a dull moment at the Statesman. Sorry, I can’t say anything more about the upcoming stuff until it launches. You’ll just have to stay tuned.
It’s no secret that many newspaper companies are struggling to adjust to changes affecting the industry. Some of these changes are cyclical while others are sadly systemic. I often joke that we share a morbid problem with tobacco companies: our customers are dying. The obvious difference is that newspapers don’t kill people, but we still have to find new readers somehow. A lot of very savvy people are working on these problems day and night, but the outlook still isn’t too good in the near term.
The Statesman (like many McClatchy papers) has undertaken some cost cutting measure in the past several months. The paper is narrower now and has fewer pages to save on newsprint. During the current hiring freeze, several people have left the newsroom and not been replaced. Recently we’ve seen a couple involuntary layoffs. While I’m confident that we will emerge from this in a strong position, I’m not sure what the company will look like or how many people will be left. At least for now, I feel like my job is safe. However, in these turbulent times I’ll close with a classic Magic 8 Ball response: “Ask again later.”
One thing I’ve noticed in all of my Web jobs (four so far) is that my job title does not even begin to capture what I actually do. I imagine this sort of thing is somewhat universal and definitely not limited to Web work, but I’ll focus on that since it’s what I know.
So what do I mean by “slash and learn”? Let me illustrate by example. My official job title is Web developer. A far more accurate job title would be the following:
See all those slashes? Some people would recoil in horror at a list that long, but I actually enjoy the mix of responsibilities. I love to pick up a book or tinker with a new technology to add another slash to my unofficial job title. Slash and learn, baby! I suppose it’s no accident that I’ve gravitated toward smaller shops where I can take on a lot of different challenges. Constant learning is a plus in my book and so I love what I do.
There is a downside of course. Most notably I don’t consider myself a true expert at anything that I do. Some of this is probably due to relentless self-deprecation and being my own worst critic (aren’t we all?), but I really think there’s some truth to it. The good thing is that whenever I reach the limits of my current knowledge of some topic, I usually know somebody who can take the baton (or at least point me in the right direction).
If I worked at a large company, I would probably end up specializing more than I like. However, I appreciate the people who do work at those large companies because they’re usually the specialists I turn to when I get stuck. All my friends at McClatchy Interactive certainly come to mind.
So what’s your official job title and what would be the unabridged version?
Following is a recap of my experience so far with Twitter. Hat tip to Dr. Seuss…
I will not Tweet them here or there
First off, I should probably come clean and admit that I was an ardent detractor of Twitter for a long time. Sure I read about it and poked around a bit, but my initial exposure left a sour taste in my mouth. It seemed absolutely pointless, a complete waste of time, and I simply didn’t get it.
Try it and you may, I say
So I ignored it for months until it started coming up in online discussions of new media and how newspapers could go out and meet their potential audiences on sites like Twitter and Facebook and somehow drag them back to their newspaper websites (probably kicking and screaming). Cha-ching! Massive traffic guaranteed. Well the jury is still out on that count, but the discussions did prompt me to give Twitter a fair shake. And I must admit that I like it AND I think I get it now too.
And I will Tweet them anywhere
My impression of Twitter so far is that it’s like a virtual happy hour. People talk about work and official stuff to some extent, but they also discuss their families, sports, the weather, and all sorts of other topics. It’s an interesting window into someone’s life. And as Katie pointed out, it blows chain of command away. And that’s a great thing. (Howard is my “Twitter buddy” too.)
Thank you, thank you Sam-I-am
My thanks to Tac for leaving “Do you Twitter?” as his Gtalk status message for weeks on end and getting me to thinking about it. And thanks to Ryan for blogging about the relevance of Twitter to newspapers and making all of this loosely “work related” (kind of).
These days I’m following 26 people and most of them are following me back. Many are McClatchy folks in various locations, some are Boise technophiles, and others are friends I’ve met along the way. I also got the Idaho Statesman on Twitter a few weeks ago.
So if you’re not a “Twitter gitter”, give it another look. Feel free to follow me while you’re at it. Happy Twittering!
Well, we met our deadline yesterday and launched (drum roll…) the new Northwest Ski Map. It was a fun project using an external data feed of 28 resorts from the Idaho Ski Areas Association, the Google Maps API, and the Zend Framework. It came together rather quickly, but I think it turned out pretty well. Now I just need to get out there and do some skiing myself.
You can definitely count on some more mapping projects in the future. We’re just scratching the surface at this point.
My job lately has been an interesting mix of grunt work and cool new stuff. The former is inescapable and has to be done, but I obviously enjoy the latter a bit more. One item I’m relishing is finally getting my hands dirty with the Zend Framework. A little background first…
The writing on the wall
I’ve been programming in PHP for more than five years and I’ve coded some rather large projects completely by hand and from scratch. I sort of take pride in that I suppose, but I also realize it’s not a very sustainable way of working… especially in a fast-paced environment like a newspaper. Sure, I’ve built up a library of reusable functions and classes, I have my own standard file structure and naming conventions… the whole nine yards. But my own methods have a couple of significant drawbacks. The first problem is that things start to get unwieldy when a project grows to about 30 or 40 different views. This may not be a problem on most projects, but scope creep is always lurking and software has a tendency to expand over time. The second problem is that my methods are rather ad hoc and difficult for other people to fully grasp without a lot of time spent getting up to speed. This is probably very similar to how I feel when I inherit somebody else’s wacky code base.
A better way
So I started looking around for something that would be more scalable and that would adhere to some widely accepted architecture… probably MVC. At the same time, I didn’t want a solution that was all-or-nothing. On small projects I wanted the freedom to cherry pick what I needed from a framework and jettison the rest. Obviously that disqualified most of the usual suspects like Ruby on Rails, Django, CakePHP, Symfony, etc. I decided to give the Zend Framework a spin and see what I thought.
Last week I started testing the waters and using a few classes like Zend_Config, Zend_Db, Zend_Mail, and Zend_Validate. My original intention was to dip my toes in the water, but I ended up just going ahead and jumping in with the full MVC framework and the whole shebang. It’s a relatively small project (for now) that is completely scoped out and technically very feasible. The deadline is Thursday (yeah, this week). Despite my 5+ years with PHP, I’ve never done anything with an MVC architecture so I’m reading pages and pages of documentation online and figuring it out as I go. Fortunately the docs are good and the ideas are fairly intuitive once I get my head around them.
It’s strange to feel like a newbie again, but that’s what Web programming is all about: constant learning and adaptation. Stop learning and the Web world will pass you by in a hurry. Anyway I should have quite a bit more to report later this week. Wish me luck. If nothing else, it will be educational…
I actually received the “thanks, but no thanks” e-mail a couple days after my previous post, but have been too busy to mention it. I knew my application was a longshot, so I’m not too terribly crushed by this. And I have so much going on already that maybe this is a good thing. Anyway, there it is. It was worth a try at least.
A couple weeks ago, I received word from the Knight Foundation that my News Challenge proposal is “progressing to the next round of judging.” For those who don’t know, the Knight News Challenge is a contest that awards grants for “innovative ideas using digital experiments to transform community news.” Please feel free to read more about the News Challenge and have a look at last year’s winners.
Being plugged into the new media blogosphere like I am, I’ve already heard of other applicants being asked for proposals more than a month ago. My modest proposal is “not at that stage, yet.” I’m not quite sure what this means, but I’m guessing that I’ve been placed in some sort of pool of alternates just in case there’s any money left over after funding the top projects. Naturally this is quite all right with me as I felt all along that my application was a long shot at best. Although I’ve worked in Web development for more than five years, I’ve only worked in journalism for about seven months… and I’m not even a journalist! We’ll see what happens.
It occurs to me that somebody out there may actually be curious about my proposal. I applied for the minimum – a $15,000 blogging award – to blog about “creating a virtual community united by a passion for Malawi.” Here is an excerpt from my proposal:
Third world countries around the globe are slowly entering the digital age. One of these countries is Malawi – a place where I lived for two years as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer. Internet access is becoming gradually more commonplace and several Malawians are now blogging from within the country as well as from elsewhere in the world. In addition many travelers and expatriates (including current Peace Corps Volunteers) are blogging about their experiences in Malawi. Thousands of other people around the world – Malawian and otherwise – seek out current information on the country each day.
As it currently stands, no central online meeting place exists for the many people blogging about Malawi and those simply seeking out information. I plan to use open source software (primarily Drupal) to create a central meeting place anchored by forums, but also including blogs, photo galleries, videos, links, news summaries, and maps. With the exception of the forums which will be hosted on the site, the other information will be imported and aggregated via RSS using a collection of external sites. This “mashed up” data will be gathered from individual blog feeds, Flickr and Picasa tags for photos, YouTube and Metacafe for videos, del.icio.us for general links, Google News for news summaries, and Google MyMaps for personalized maps. All of these services are relatively mature with stable API’s. The aggregation of relevant data from so many external sources will add significant value to the site with very little impact on the bandwidth and disk space needed to serve the site to visitors. The main source of disk space will be the Drupal database holding all of the forum data.
It is my sincere hope that this approach will succeed in building a thriving online community of people passionate about Malawi and that it will be easy to replicate and apply to other third world countries in the future.
There’s quite a lot more in my proposal, but that should provide the gist of what I’m looking to do. It’s a project I would love to take on, but I really need the funding in order to invest the amount of time it would take to have a chance at succeeding. I’m not sure when I’ll get another update from the Knight Foundation or what the news will be, but I will be sure to let everyone know. Thanks for reading.
I’ve been researching the wild world of domaining in recent months with an eye toward dipping my toe in the water and seeing what happens. I’ve been using the free tools over at Domain Tools and reading several related blogs like Frank Schilling and Dominik Mueller. In fact, this recent auction results post from Dominik should give you an idea of the potential that exists in this field. As you can see, generic words and phrases are all the rage and the prices are staggering if you’re just finding out about it now.
Yes, domaining is going mainstream in a big way these days and I’m looking to capture a small piece of the action. Last night I bought ten domains through GoDaddy purely as an investment. I already owned about half a dozen assorted domains including the one you’re reading and a few that I plan to develop, but this is the first time I bought for the sole purpose of domaining. This particular batch of domains has a common theme and it’s something that happens in April. That should be a big enough hint for everyone.
So my strategy right now is to hold them until about February and then get a sense of what they’re worth. I may choose to auction some or all of them at that time or just hold them for another year. Between now and then, I’m researching the various domain parking services looking for the best fit. Yeah, I’m perfectly capable of building ad-supported sites on these domains myself, but my time is valuable these days so I’m going to leave that aspect of things to the pros.
One thing I love about domaining is that individual domains with good potential can be bought for a few bucks from a registrar. I also appreciate that brainstorming, trend spotting, and just plain language skills are critical to making good purchases. It’s hard work and takes some time and imagination, but it’s also fun.
It kind of strikes me as the 21st century equivalent of panning for gold. The equipment and techniques are a lot more sophisticated, but the process is very similar. We’ll see if I actually find anything valuable.
Yesterday marked six months since I started my job at the Idaho Statesman and I must say the time has flown by. I have probably learned more about the news business than I have about Web development, but I fully expected that to be the case early on. That’s not to say I didn’t learn some new Web tricks though. I’ve mastered many of the ins and outs of the McClatchy Interactive publishing system that runs our main site and I’ve also picked up the basics of Drupal development for our new Voices community site. In addition, I have scratched the surface of jQuery and dabbled a bit in the Zend Framework for PHP. My Linux and MySQL skills are being used every day, but I don’t think I’ve really learned anything new in those areas.
I want to thank the Academy
I’d like to share a list of accomplishments for the first six months. Please bear in mind that most items on this list were a group effort not just within our online team, but also involving the staff at McClatchy Interactive, our resilient vendors, and often my counterparts at other McClatchy papers like Anchorage and Fresno. Don’t worry. I’ll spare you the “shoulders of giants” speech. Here is the list:
- E-mail newsletters (via ExactTarget)
- Mobile version of our site (via Verve Wireless)
- Brand new Boise State Football section front (mostly Bob here in Boise)
- Story commenting (based on Drupal module from Anchorage)
- Blogs and forums (Drupal)
There were many other smaller projects that I worked on, but these are definitely the highlights. Story commenting has probably been the most interesting for all of us. We launched the feature about six weeks ago and we have roughly 6,500 comments on 1,000 stories by 1,400 different people! This is far more than anybody expected and the pace is still increasing each week. It is not without its challenges, though. I have created a rudimentary profanity filter using regular expressions, we are employing Drupal’s spam module, and a healthy dose of human moderation is also in the mix to catch the innuendos that computers can’t identify. For the most part people have behaved, but the conversation does get heated quite often and many of our reporters have had to become a little more thick-skinned. Overall, though, it’s been a huge success.
And now the music is playing
I should wrap this up. I will probably make these updates more frequent – every three months seems reasonable. We have quite a lot on the horizon including a new search plugin, user submitted photos and video, and several custom mini-sites that I’m not at liberty to discuss until they launch. I would hate to tip off the competition. So look for another round-up of Web news in January if not before.