thoughtwisps One commit at a time

notes on a conversation with the nyt

The acronym - NYT - means ‘now’ in Finnish and that’s how I’ve come to think of this digital place - the ‘now’. It’s usually the first thing my trigger happy muscle memory punches into the URL bar once the morning caffeine kickstarts the neurons and sometimes the last thing I scroll before I call it a day in the digital universe.

A long time ago, on a Finnish forum, someone lauded the visual design of the NYT website - the old school page that looks like someone simply lifted the front page of a newspaper and crammed it into bits of JS, CSS and HTML- one of the best visual designs ever. The poor guy was flamewared out of the thread. I do remember thinking how boring all that black and white was. Why not add some geocities colour schemes while you’re at it?

Of course, what did I know. At this point, the most advanced web development my friends and I were doing was pasting source code snippets from other websites to create virtual kennels and stables -remember those? Yeah. This makes me sound like some relic in the museum of the internet and indeed, at times I do feel like one. In fact, I still remember the time before the search engine monopolies, because for school assignments my classmates and I collected lists of various search engines and what was best for what type of searching. I still remember that Vivisimo - the search engine aggregator was a thing.

But back to the black and white. Tonight, I attended a WWC London meetup to hear from the tech and digital teams at the New York Times. The crowd was treated to visually stunning presentations from the T Brand team and to some powerful (black and white - just like truth ought to be?) marketing campaigns that were launched last year and this year. Two years that the microhistorians of my time will surely pin as the two most troubling times to run a major US newspaper. Among the presentations was a walkthrough of an investigation into a phishing campaign, an interview with the NYT interactive team about coding live websites to track results from the Olympics and a conversation with the NYT CTO Nick Rockwell.

Someone from the audience asked about ‘boring vs exciting technologies’, which was a nod to the famous Etsy blog post that makes the case for building tech stacks out of conventional, well tested technologies that have known unknowns. Rockwell answers that the NYT team does a bit of both, but that letting smart, capable people experiment with new tech is a key in keeping them engaged. I can see the merits in the views of Rockwell and the Etsy engineers who advocate for boring tech. It’s fun to play with new languages and frameworks, but sometimes I feel that the tech industry as a whole is too in love with what Martin Thompson, in his GOTO Copenhagen 2017 keynote ‘Engineering You’, calls ‘intellectual masturbation’ - trying out new ways of solving the same problems without going back to the basics. Sometimes this results in people trying to cajole every single problem a customer or a client has into something that can be engineered using the developer’s favourite framework without properly understanding what the original problem was. First look at the problem, its constraints, its end users and operators, then choose the tool that optimizes for a good experience for as many of these stakeholders as possible. In the end it’s always about making tradeoffs, but I know that I would trade ‘having fun with a new framework’ for ‘I know exactly how this thing I developed behaves when prod stack is on fire’ any day, especially the day when I am on early morning support.