I’m leaving the Guardian. It’s a sad time for me, but also one of great pride because I’ve got a chance to look back on eight years of digital growth and recall some of the wonderful things we’ve done…
I introduced agile development to the Guardian team in 2003. I was not particularly an advocate of agile before then, but I saw it addressed many of our needs — the need to continually evolve our technology, to spread knowledge within the team, to deliver more predictably, and more.
But I couldn’t have done that without the trust and support of Liz Sarginson and Stephen Dunn, who were the ones who brought me into the organisation. I pitched it to them, and they could have said no. Or they could have said “Yes, but”. But they didn’t — they gave me their trust and support, and we made it work, although it was difficult — particularly for the developers, who need to deal with then-challenging ideas such as test-driven development with legacy code, and pair programming.
The trust they extended to me then has stayed with me since, and it’s something I try to remember when people come to me with their ideas now.
It was the development team that identified our greatest challenges and convinced me that we — or, rather, they — could take them on. Those challenges were eliminating our most resource-draining legacy systems.
The first was updating our CMS tools to work in a more modern browser. At the time the tools were tied to Netscape 4, which came out in 1997. The project turned out to be much bigger than we’d guessed, because our own tools weren’t documented and we kept finding obscure features which seemed essential for someone, somewhere. But we managed it without compromising our ability to deliver shorter-term, more immediate things along the way.
The second was eliminating a database table. The table itself was originally introduced as a simple performance optimisation, but it had grown unexpectedly over the years, and it fired so many triggers that it was now making some of our tools so slow as to render them useless. But references to the table were scattered all over the vast codebase. It was the work of months to eliminate all references to it and finally to drop it. But we did it, without impacting any other work, and we popped a champagne bottle open when our DBA successfully typed DROP TABLE… and the prompt returned without complaint.
The third was the elimination of our legacy CMS engine, which ran our site’s thousands of templates and scripts. Over the years it had been configured and customised far beyond the vendor’s expectations and no longer fitted their roadmap. Also, it denied us reliable release mechanisms and modern version control for the code we put in it. We replaced it with an open source alternative which still ran the same templates and scripts. The migration was gradual, steady, and every step had a rollback plan.
…and building castles
After slaying those dragons of the past we were able to build for the future. We took on our biggest ever project, dubbed R2, to rebuild and redesign guardian.co.uk. It introduced much more flexible templates and content management for the editorial teams, more flexible advertising options for our commercial teams, and more modern technologies and processes for the technical team. It lasted two and a half years, delivered new code into production reliably every fortnight, peaked at over 100 people, and came in on time and under budget.
It was also designed and built with technical integrity: our mantra was to be “of the web, not just on the web”. In the many months that followed we released a full-content API, a plugin framework, a new commenting system, and innumerable other products and features, large and small.
It’s the people, stupid
But beyond all the things we did, it’s the people I will remember with greatest pride. It was the team that stepped up to the mark and slayed the legacy dragons; it was people across the organistion who made our major rebuild and redesign a thing for the future; and it is trust and strong relationships within and without the technology team that allow ideas to continually flourish.
All long-standing media organisations face an uncertain future. If any of those can see it through then it’s the Guardian, primarily because of its incredibly talented people.