A Decade at the Berkeley J-School

In November of 2001, after working for several years as a freelance technology writer, I took a job as webmaster at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. I was led to a humble wooden desk in a converted boiler room, half-underground. Light poured in from a door open on to nearby Soul Road, and the sound of students yammering about engineering problems over cell phones filled the air.  Had no idea at the time that I’d be sitting at that desk for the next ten years, or that it was about to become one of the richest, most interesting periods of my life.

After a decade in that position, I’m about to move on, with extremely mixed feelings, and will be taking a job as web developer with campus’ central Educational Technology Services (ETS) department later this week. Before I go, wanted to spend a few words digesting my years at the J-School and Knight Digital Media Center.

It’s hard to summarize a decade of daily challenges in a few paragraphs. It’s equally hard to capture how journalism has changed, how the J-School has changed, how the job has changed. I’ve always been a bit of an “outsider” to the world of journalism, with more interest in building publishing systems, writing scripts, tending to servers, and tweaking the levers and dials than in writing stories or doing multimedia myself. But over time I’ve found my own, indirect path into that world – not as a storyteller, but as a systems maker, trainer, and technology gadfly.

The culture of journalism seems to be perpetually in the midst of a technology reboot – a system restart that never fully completes. Traditional journalists weaned on core research and writing skills now need to learn audio, video, and multimedia tools  – Final Cut Pro, Flash, HTML and CSS, video and still cameras, webcasting, data visualization, map mashups, animation tools, interactive timelines, infographics, and more all now must fit into the modern journalist’s kit bag — these are no longer things to be passed off to “the tech crew.”

In the mid-2000s, blogging blindsided traditional publishing models and simultaneously provided a workaround for journalists stuck in stuffed-shirt establishments. Journalists suddenly needed to be reading and posting to blogs as well as their own publications. We went all-in on blogging.  Then, just as quickly, social media became ubiquitous and nearly killed blogging where it stood — journalists had to be there too. So we went all-in on social media as well.

The world doesn’t sit still, and both working journalists and students have to run to stay in place. Old-school faculty work hard to teach core journalism, and often feel like all of this whizzy “tech glam” seduces students away from a focus on core skills. But if students don’t keep up — if they don’t stay ahead — they risk having their work marginalized or becoming invisible. When was the last time you read a news story online that you didn’t discover through a social network? That’s a hard pill for traditional journalists to swallow, but it’s the reality of the modern world (people now spend more than 40% of their online time on social networks, games, and email).

I spent those years building and rebuilding the J-School main site and intranet, creating a ton of publication sites to support class projects, coaching students in building personal and class sites, webcasting an endless schedule of public events, co-teaching multimedia skills courses, teaching my own recurring web development skills class, helping the school migrate from Windows to an all-Mac environment, building and maintaining Mac- and Linux-based server environments, talking to faculty about how the online world differs from traditional publishing, and spending late nights nursing servers straining under loads generated by our occasional successes.

Four years ago, I migrated from the role of J-School webmaster to a position with the Knight Digital Media Center, where we train working journalists in these same skills, rather than J-School students. In that period, more than 600 journalists from around the world have attended our intensive digital media bootcamps, and have taken the skills we teach back to their newsrooms. Our goal at KDMC has been to move the needle of digital literacy in newsrooms, and we’ve been successful by many measures. In that period, I kept the same desk I’d started with – KDMC’s  connection to the J-School runs deep.

Throughout the decade, journalism has been in a state of nearly continuous upheaval, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have been there in the middle of it, providing software platforms, technical training and general assistance.  It’s been an absolutely amazing process to watch, and to be a part of. I feel honored to have been a part of this stage of the school’s crazy and ongoing evolution, and will never forget how much North Gate Hall has done for my career, how many learning opportunities I’ve enjoyed, or how much fun I’ve had.

If it sounds like I’ve just described the dream job, you’re right – it’s been fantastic. We’ve had trials and challenges that don’t fit in a nutshell, but we’ve soldiered on and created fantastic programs. How many people can say it’s their job to stay on top of the latest web technologies?

I’ve enjoyed tremendous variety — one day I’m writing tutorials, the next I’m coding in Django, the next teaching a class, the next nursing a despairing server back to health, the next experimenting with some new widget or CMS, and the next writing a script to automate mass WordPress upgrades, multi-server backups or auto-firewalling spammer IPs. The J-School accomplishes a ton with limited resources, and we’re proud of that. The place is geek heaven.

So Why Am I Leaving?

The downside to working as a generalist is that there’s no opportunity to work on software at enterprise scale. We don’t do unit tests, we don’t have quality control systems, we don’t have build bots, we don’t analyze  code for optimum efficiency. We work “on the fly,” going on intuition, experience, and grit. Hell, we barely even have a real ticketing system. Just today my counterpart told me he had been asked to launch a brand new site – deadline today. That’s insane, but it’s how we roll. When a class needs a CMS to create a publication to represent their travels in Africa, we spin up yet another WordPress instance. Nothing wrong with that – we’ve chosen and evolved toolchains that let us create sites quickly out of necessity. But it’s very different from how things are done “in the real world,” where entire teams work together to build perfect sites, and have full-time designers, UX, and back-end people on staff rather than two or three guys struggling to create and maintain dozens of domains.

At this point in my career, I’m ready to stop being a generalist and to drill down. I’m ready to work with – and to learn from – a team of engineers collaborating on a single site, and to do all of those enterprise-y things that happen “in the real world.” When the opportunity to work with the excellent engineering and design team at ETS came up, coinciding with my personal ten-year mark, I made the difficult decision to leave behind the people and environment I’ve come to love so much, to get proactive and move my career forward.

Journalism as a profession attracts incredibly interesting people, and I’ve made so many deep and lasting connections during my time with the school and KDMC. I could easily have called Northgate Hall home for life. But  as sad as I am to be leaving, I’m equally excited to start working with the ETS team, who are doing world-class work on software platforms that support teaching and learning everywhere, supporting not just all UC Berkeley departments, but world-wide.

To everyone I’ve worked with over the past ten years, thanks for a fantastic ride, and for all of the opportunities that have helped to shape my career. Thanks for all of  the great conversations and arguments, the learning opportunities, the laughs and the lessons. Here’s to our many failures and our many successes. You will be sorely missed.

As Kermit the Frog said in the Muppets’ 1992 re-telling of A Christmas Carol:

“It’s all right, children. Life is made up of meetings and partings. That is the way of it.”

Or, as Captain Beefheart put it,

“If you want to be a different fish, you’ve got to jump out of the school.”

Stuff I’ve Made

Quick run-down of some of the construction highlights from my years at the J-School and KDMC:

– Joined the J-School as first official webmaster November 2001. The existing site was a pile of disorganized Dreamweaver documents, raw video files, and other crap that doesn’t belong on a production server, created mostly by students. Spent first two months cleaning up and organizing.

– First server was Windows IIS. Installed PHP and introduced dynamic template-driven publishing systems based on Smarty.

– Worked with Grabs teaching multimedia skills courses to students before KDMC was a zygote, before the bootcamps, or the Ford sites existed.

– First (static) version of our tutorials system. I remember arguing with  Grabs that there were digital media tutorials all over the net, and that we should just link to them instead. To paraphrase his response: “Ours will reflect the subjects exactly the way we teach them, optimized for journalists and their skill levels.” He was totally right – today that tutorials collection lives at the  KDMC site, is our biggest traffic driver, and has become an invaluable complement to the training our working journalists receive.

– Created first version of the school intranet with contacts database, course materials, and  interactive quiz system.

– In the Orville Schell days, created a full events database with integrated webcasting system to record and publish a living events calendar with video archives. UC Berkeley modeled their own Events system in part on ours.

– Created first dynamic tools for managing courses, instructors and schedules, replacing old Excel/PDF (!) course schedules. Later created an online course and instructor evaluation system to replace binders full of paper (which are still available for public inspection in the library, if anyone cares).

– Introduced school’s first Mac server (rosebud), setting us on the path of Unix-based hosting.

– Worked closely with sysadmin to manage conversion of all student and staff workstations from Windows to Mac. An unforgettable Summer and Fall, working closely with the school sysadmin.

– Converted old spam-ridden J-School mailing lists to real members-only lists. Still have the can of Spam on my desk that the Admissions director gave me in appreciation for eliminating list spam. Which is why it hurts my feelings when students still refer to the lists as “J-Spam” :)

– Started teaching web development courses to students – a course that has evolved more or less continuously  and now covers HTML, CSS, PHP, Javascript, and WordPress. I’ll really miss teaching this course.

– When blogging hit, co-taught a course on blogging with Grabs and John Battelle.

– Introduced Movable Type publishing platform to the school; many class sites were built on MT. When MT petered out and WordPress started to rise, converted all MT sites to WP, then built many more WP sites for classes and special projects through the years. Studiously avoided getting dragged into the campus Drupal momentum.

– Built first version of the school’s public J-Jobs database, a free service to the journalism community which remains hugely popular.

– Worked with Xiao Qiang on China Digital Times, building that site first in MT and then again later in WP. CDT became the school’s largest traffic driver and kept that honor for years. CDT has been an ongoing source of attacks and a victim of the Great Firewall of China (CDT now lives elsewhere).

– Worked with faculty to build North Gate News Online (ngno.com, no longer accessible),  the school’s first attempt to have a unified publishing system for J200 students (NGNO is the forgotten precursor to the now-successful Ford sites).

– Worked with mandric to build the first version of News21 (still visible at newsinitiative.org). Backed by a complete content management system we built from scratch, called “Mars” (everyone has to build a complete CMS at least once, to learn why it is that one should never build their own CMS).

– Purchased school’s first Linux server (“gonzo”) to run the cPanel hosting system, greatly reducing the amount of systems administration that needed doing. Converted all rosebud (Mac server) sites over to cPanel on gonzo.

– Stayed up many late nights nursing/babysitting servers undergoing denial of service and other attack vectors, fighting spam in its many guises, dealing with piles of hidden problems the school never knew about or saw.

– Joined KDMC in 2007, fell in love with the Python-based web application framework Django. Webmaster Chuck Harris took over my old role, and now runs the main J-School site and ops.

– Worked with Chuck and Milan to rebuild the J-School intranet and main site in Django, unifying all databases and systems for the first time into a cohesive, integrated system. Probably one of the most complex things I’ve ever done in software development; personally experienced more tech evolution and complexity in that summer than at any other in my time with North Gate.

– Continued the webcasting tradition at KDMC, posting hundreds of videos from KDMC’s digital media workshops over the past four years.

– Built version 2 of the KDMC site, with many new features, and integrating  Len de Groot‘s gorgeous design work.

– Worked with Chuck to migrate all sites and services off our physical servers and onto cPanel VPSs, protecting us from the risk of server hardware failure.

– Wrote dozens of tutorials and blog posts for KDMC.

– Built heaps of specialized tools for KDMC in WordPress and Django: Topic sites, custom publishing tools for fellows, program applications system, back-end tools for administering and quantifying our evaluations, a stories map for fellows, and more.

This list barely skims the surface – so much more goes on in the day-to-day, but there’s no way to sum it up in a few hundred words of course.

8 thoughts on “A Decade at the Berkeley J-School

  1. Tim Lesle

    Hey Scot,
    Congratulations! Your guidance has long been a huge help, making things like coding so much more accessible to me (your tutorials remain a go-to resource). And you’ve definitely been influential in how I think about concepts like accessibility and user experience. A loss for the journalism program, but a big gain for ETS. I look forward to hearing more about your future projects!

  2. Pam

    This was great to read — so much of our success at the J-School has been built on all of these wonderful systems you have designed for us. It’s hard to imagine what it will be like here without you, but I am excited to hear about your upcoming projects — I can understand how important it is for you to continually stretch yourself with new challenges. Please come back to visit us often — lunch in the courtyard, Thirsty Thursdays, multimedia viewing parties — any excuse, really. Maybe someday we can lure you back to be our Dean of Technology (or something)!

  3. Joanne

    Seriously Scot, are you sure you only worked here 10 years? Basement Living won’t be the same without you.
    Good luck at ETS.

  4. Molly Hastings

    I am so impressed with your intellect and writing and creativity, Scot. What a wonderful soul you are.

  5. shacker Post author

    Thanks for the great comments everyone! Gotta say, today was a weird day – nothing felt real. Bizarre to see my desk empty, to say all those final goodbyes, and to finally walk out of there. I’ve had enough time to process it now and am getting used to the idea. But starting the new job tomorrow is going to be weird, with no time to process and digest. That’s OK – you can’t step into the same river twice!

    Onward. Love to all. Miss you already.

  6. Tim

    Amazing run. Congratulations. I’m sorry we never got to work together.

    Let me know when you are up for lunch again on a Friday, and we can check out the places on the other side of campus.

    Cheers,
    Tim

    P.S. Interesting new design for birdhouse. Not sure what I think yet.

  7. Dan Hastings

    Congrats on your distinguished performance and finale at the J School, Cousin! And to think all those years we believed you were hitting the Indian Casino slots, watching the drag races at Freemont Speedway, and making up all this bee’s wax about computer crap! Glad to hear you’re getting a real job now, Slacker! Love you, Cuz. — Danbert

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