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Homemade code: Vox Media invests in its own tech through a three-day hackathon

The company cut its developers loose to build the next round of apps and tools to enhance SB Nation, The Verge, and Polygon.

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They descended on Austin in droves, excited by the promise of BBQ and fresh discoveries in technology. And then they locked themselves inside a room for three days straight.

This is not a South by Southwest story. For several days at the end of February, the developers and designers who work behind the scenes at Vox Media dove head first into code, quickly conceiving and building new products that could be put to use in places like SB Nation, The Verge, or Polygon.

It was a self-made hackathon: The product team banded together and suggested several days devoted to nothing but building. What resulted was more than a dozen projects, ranging from back-end technology like JavaScript testing tools and a system to automate advertising mockups, to features that will help in reporting and community engagement, to apps that could expand the company’s reach with new products on tablets and smartphones.

One project, Featherbottom (great name, by the way), would speed up the process of optimizing, cropping, and watermarking photos sent from photographers into liveblogs. Another, Providence, is a universal traffic tool for real-time analysis. Developers created a design framework that would allow Vox to produce tablet magazines for iPad, as well as a web app for Polygon that would bring the features of a native app into the mobile browser.

So does this mean we should expect new web apps and tablet magazines for The Verge, Polygon, and SB Nation in the very near future? Not quite, said Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff. Bankoff told me there’s nothing new to announce on the tablet or smartphone front: “We’re always exploring new ways of presenting content to our audience.”

What will we see sooner? Trei Brundrett, vice president of product and technology for Vox Media, said they plan to launch several of the smaller projects first. On that list: a new notification system that will alert readers when someone responds to a comment on any Vox site they’re having a discussion on. They’re also releasing a deep-linking tool, in the spirit of The New York Times’ Emphasis and Quora’s Embedded Quotes, that lets readers select and share specific paragraphs within a story. Others are more behind-the-scenes products that can help Vox keep the trains running on time, like Beacon, a project management system meant to keep people up to date on what other teams are working for, Brundrett said.

Building things from scratch has worked pretty well for Vox so far. They created Chorus, the company’s CMS that handles all three sites, as well as Syllabus, the lightweight systems that powers liveblogging. The benefit of homemade tech isn’t just having systems for your particular need, but that it gives developers stronger ties to the company, Brundrett said. “We’ve tried to create a culture where they are empowered to influence what we create,” he said. “The result of it is they feel ownership over it.”

Brundrett told me members of the product team came up with the idea independently, pooling the personal time Vox employees can set aside for training to use for the hackathon. The fact Vox cut a good chunk of its production staff loose to hack on internal projects — which may or may not benefit the bottom line — is a measure of the growing role of technology development in running a modern media company.

Technology is the backbone of good journalism, which helps develop audience and serve advertising that pays the bills, said Bankoff. “I have a very deeply held belief that technology has to propel a media company,” he said. Bankoff came from the technology world, having previously worked on projects like Mapquest and AOL Instant Messanger while working at AOL. Bankoff said media companies have to approach technology just like any other product they develop — invest in people who are inventive and creative. Bankoff said he’s proud of the fact that the event was self-directed from start to finish. Given that developers had freedom to make whatever they want, he’s also pretty happy they focused their attention on the needs of the company.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the hackathon took place over a weekend. The event took place during the week.

Image by Trei Brundrett used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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