Help me build a bot* to take my job
Brian Boyer, visuals editor at National Public Radio, once gave some great advice on how to approach a project. “Build for use, refactor for reuse”: Humans are bad at predicting things and technology changes rapidly, so you’re often better off just solving the problem at hand.
That advice has served me well in managing projects from Digital Hunter Gatherer, a reporting series on the multi-billion dollar data brokers industry back in 2013, to our most recent series on the upcoming Brexit referendum.
I’ve done this so many times now that it really is time to refactor for reuse. So here is my goal: I want to create a tool that will help other Financial Times editors do what I have become quite good at: running series and managing projects. I will produce this tool in three months’ time, by July 19.
This tool should be a newsroom resource for editors when they are put in charge of running a series or project. It should guide them through the process, ensure they enlist and notify the right people, and make sure that sufficient time is allocated for each part of the process.
This tool should establish best practices for running a series, standardise the production process, and encourage a project management culture. It should obviate the need for each editor to re-invent the wheel every time.
It should make editors’ lives easier, not more complicated. It needs to be very easy to find and incredibly visible. It needs to be intuitively and obviously useful because this will never work if its use is enforced or mandated.
I hope this tool will help my colleagues and be of lasting value to the newsroom, but there is a personal motivation for why I’m doing this as well. Creating this tool and convincing editors to use it will reduce my workload because the alternative at the moment is for me to personally get involved to help. It will also be my first significant achievement and ‘deliverable’ in my new role as special projects editor of the FT.
I have a plan for how to do this. Writing this document is part of step one.
Set out the goals, scope and measures of success
Brainstorm ideas and research existing solutions to similar problems
Prototype and test
Repeat step 3 as necessary until I can narrow down the possible solution to one
Rollout: evangelise, educate and cajole
Evaluate success or failure, and list next steps (additional features, improvements)
Resolve continuing maintenance / end of life issues
But it’s by no means a done deal. My inertia and laziness might get in the way (though probably not after I declare a deadline in such a public manner), I may get caught in analysis paralysis. I may simply not be good enough to find a good solution. I could get sucked into other work. I may fail to secure help and support from my colleagues, and even I do and make this tool, maybe no one would use it or find it helpful.
Some of these obstacles can be overcome by having the right skills and knowledge. Probably the most important is a correct diagnosis of the problem: what issues do other FT editors actually have when they are asked to run a series or a project? How can I use UX or design principles to make the tool useful? Can I learn from games tutorials or app onboarding experiences? How do I do user testing through the process? Depending on what the eventual format, execution might require technical or coding skills. Finally, how best to communicate the value of the tool to our editors?
Fortunately, there are people and groups who could help me with this. FT editors, my prospective users, sit right next to me at work. I’m combining forces with the FT’s editorial technology team, which is responsible for creating newsroom tools and improving workflow. Our data analysts could help me turn my goals into key performance indicators and metrics so I’ll be able to evaluate success or failure afterwards.
I’m sure there are other resources within the FT I could tap. But crucially, I believe there is a wealth of knowledge about this outside the FT. I can’t be the first person ever who has tried to solve this problem.
So, I turn to you, dear reader: Got ideas? Suggestions? Tips? Places for me to look to? People I should speak with?
I am on firstname.lastname@example.org and I would love to get your help.
* Might not actually end up being a bot
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