Engine Room Live 2017 – The Low Down

This year we held our third ‘Engine Room Live’ conference for the Product & Technology teams at the FT. It being the third time we have held this we had some previous learnings to bear in mind. The ‘original’ Engine Room committee decided it was time for ‘Gen 2’ to have a go at organising the event, for a fresh take on some hardy matters. So, with minimal hand holding and a solid process in mind, 12 people raised their hands..

Step 1. Make a plan

Our new planning committee held its first meeting all the way back in June. The first thing we did was pick a date. We scanned our diaries and set our sights on a time post summer holidays and the mad rush month that is September at the FT. We stumbled upon Friday 13th October. Were we asking for bad luck? Could this be a complete disaster? Never ones to be swayed by superstition we settled on it. Having four months to plan ahead we kicked back on our metaphorical laurels safe in the knowledge we had more than enough time to plan every minor detail. Then Summer happened. Our team of around 12 helpers steadily diminished as people went on holiday, were pulled in to pressing projects and one volunteer even went to the extreme length of pregnancy to avoid further involvement (just kidding, that would be terrible grounds for creating a new life). We sent out a google form with a few suggested topics and asked people in Product & Technology teams to pick the subjects that appealed the most to them.

Step 2. Easy pickin’s

Post-summer break the ‘survivors’, now a measly 4-5 people, reconvened to discuss next steps and pick our panel topics. The favourite topics, by a landslide, were product goals, Agile project management, what we choose to measure and tech culture at the FT. One topic which was a close runner up was ‘How can we learn from failure?’ which is good food for thought. Maybe this is a topic we can pick up at next year’s Engine Room Live..

It was settled. We had our panels and now looked to the task at hand; finding willing panelists and panel moderators. We sent out a call to arms and were lucky enough to receive some replies. With a bit of prodding several more volunteers appeared from the wood work. Good stuff. We had everything in place panel-wise.

Step 3. Don’t forget the snacks

The most vital part of planning any event is providing a delicious incentive for guests to attend. Conferences have t shirts. The oscars have lavish goodie bags. We had PIZZA and BEER. Two traditional tech staples. This year’s Engine Room Live also included highly requested soft drinks and some lighter snacks so as to be inclusive for those who do not drink alcohol or would prefer a healthier option.

Step 4. Audience participation on the sly + the best quotes of the day

We wanted our audience to feel included in our panels without the interruption and hassle of microphones or catch boxes. Nobody likes microphones, the poor mic runners have to dash to make sure questions are heard without having to be repeated, then the microphone will inevitably squeak and crackle for the first 5 seconds of use leaving the speaker overly self aware of their own voice so they start using a warped tone and begin to audibly question their whole existence. Not fun for anyone. To avoid this shy introvert’s nightmare we used slido which allows audience members to ask questions anonymously, or by name, from their phones or laptops.

Our panellists and moderators were all excellent. Here are some of the top quotes of the day:

  • “I read a blog post on how to be a moderator so that’s why I’m so great at this”
  • “Instagram’s that photo app.. Right?”
  • “We’re a news company.. In case you didn’t know”
  • “It was the hoodies in the garage, not the suits in a meeting room!”
  • “You could say that a group of 12 men could have figured that out but actually, they didn’t”
  • “It’s not offensive because penguins aren’t a marginalised group”

Step 5. Humble brag

We had a great turnout with over 200 members of staff attending in person or via livestream throughout the day. This was an excellent example of grassroots engagement, staff were actively participating either on stage, as audience members or by asking questions to panels.

Step 6. What did everyone else think?

The week after the conference the committee sent out a form requesting feedback from attendees. 83% rated the event as 8/10 or higher on satisfaction level. Aim to please!

Lots of people complimented the frank, impassioned discussions that happened and how panels felt ‘honest’. A new joiner commented that they found the conference ‘refreshing’ for its openness. Another person noted the panel on tech culture was ‘one of the most interesting explorations of the subject I’ve experienced’ and they were happy to see debates not dominated by the ‘usual suspects’. Several people commented that they were pleased by the ‘inclusiveness’ and diverse perspectives showcased.

On the flip side one person thought the panels were too long and would’ve preferred more, shorter panels. One person felt there were too few senior faces in the crowd, although they applauded the senior team members who moderated or participated as panellists. Finally, one person’s only negative suggestion was to ‘be less nice to each other’, which I personally wouldn’t call a sign of defeat.

We also asked people if anything ‘unexpected’ happened. The responses were very interesting. Some people were pleasantly surprised at the discussions which took place. One other unexpected aspect which surfaced was the candidness of our panellists and their willingness to talk about deeply personal experiences within the workplace both at the FT and previous jobs.

Step 7. So, what did we learn?

Here are some takeaways from my perspective:

  • We have a great culture of respect, openness and honesty in FT Product & Technology
  • Some people here will go the extra mile to help others without expecting anything in return
  • Apps like Slido are a great way to encourage and enable smooth audience participation
  • People are motivated by a combination of product goals, their managers, teams, personal objectives and remuneration
  • It is really interesting to hear diverse viewpoints and learn about others’ take on subjects such as goals, how we work and what we choose to focus on
  • Inclusivity means including everyone in the conversation and the implementation of change

If you are a member of FT staff you can watch the panel recordings on Workplace by following the links below:

‘Are people motivated by product goals?’

‘Do we only measure things which are easy to measure?’

‘Are we actually ‘Agile’ and does it matter anyway?’

‘If you could change, and keep, one thing about FT tech culture, what would you choose?’

Until next time..

Serverless meetup at the FT

The FT hosted it’s second London Serverless meetup on Wednesday 11th October.  Around 60 people from across London came to hear about Serverless in the FT’s Conference Suites.

What’s serverless? Serverless is the aggregation of third party services (e.g. data stores), including ones that run simple business functions (Functions As A Service, known as FaaS).  AWS Lambda is one of the best known of these.  See; Serverless Architectures from Martin Fowler for more. Although it gets it’s name from not involving servers directly, everything runs on third party servers underneath…

At this meetup Yan Cui, Senior Developer at Space Ape Games spoke about “Lambda stories from the trenches“ where he described some of the problems they have faced and gone on to solve running their Mobile games platform on a Serverless Architecture.  Yan is a prolific blogger, check out some of his posts here; https://hackernoon.com/@theburningmonk

Ant Stanley then did a live demo of the new serverless framework (https://arc.codes/) released recently by Brian Le Roux and his team at Begin. A great framework if you’re focused on using serverless for websites or chat bots. Ant also over-ordered far too much pizza and drinks…

We have another Serverless meetup due on 15th November – please sign up here if you are interested in watching this area evolve.

Tuning Varnish Cache

The FT recently sent me on a Varnish administration course run by Varnish Software; based just around the corner from our London office.

Varnishing the floor.

It was a brilliant two days of learning all about Varnish cache and the VCL language, making good use of The Varnish Book for course material.

Here are some tips on tuning Varnish cache that we discussed during the course. Continue reading “Tuning Varnish Cache”

The case for accessibility

FT.com for everyone. Always.

At the Financial Times we’ve recently released a new version of our website, FT.com. “Next FT”, as we’ve come to know it, is now the default experience for our users, and so far it’s proving to be a great one: It’s faster, it’s nicer, it’s better; a success across the board [1][2]. Yet there’s an aspect of our new site we have largely overlooked: accessibility (a11y).

The new FT.com
The new FT.com

In this post we will explore what web accessibility is, why it’s important, the current state of accessibility at FT.com and the work we’re doing to improve it.

This will be the first of a series of posts that will document our progress on web accessibility at FT.com. Continue reading “The case for accessibility”

The Year of Lightning

Approximately a year has passed since Salesforce announced the new Lightning experience. And what a year for Salesforce! At first I thought ‘this is going to take a while, there’s going to be a learning curve, probably known bugs to deal with’, we tentatively started switching on the New Lightning Experience to play around with the new User Interface. In a short while we tested some visualforce pages embedded in the new Salesforce application. Finally, this summer we made the leap to building the first Lightning components and Lightning application.

Lightning Components framework is a set of out-of-the-box components build on the open source Aura framework. Developers can utilise Aura to build their own custom components and extend framework. The key here is that Lightning Components are client-side based. Lightning Components Framework has an event driven architecture and relies mostly on Javascript on the client side to manage the UI and application data. Hence it is much better performance wise as opposed to Salesforce classic technologies that rely heavily on the server. You can find more information by visiting these links:

Lightning Components Framework: https://developer.salesforce.com/docs/atlas.en-us.lightning.meta/lightning/intro_framework.htm

Open source Aura Framework: http://documentation.auraframework.org/auradocs

the-flashOne of my favourite series as a child was ‘The Flash’. He could miraculously find himself from his home dressed in pyjamas, down the street in front of a shop window within seconds. When I built my first Lightning app this year, the images from ‘The Flash’ running around with the speed of light immediately came to my mind. Three words: fast, simple, beautiful. No wonder they named it Lightning. Continue reading “The Year of Lightning”

Adventures with Neo4j and Timetrees

Update:  Since writing this blog I’ve learnt that there may be a better approach to this problem. These days, Neo4j allows you to make indexes on numeric properties and run range queries that use the index. We can take advantage of this for dates by storing them as millisecond timestamps, allowing us to perform date range queries without the need to maintain a time tree.

If you’re aware of this and still vaguely interested in time trees from an academic point of view, by all means read on 😁.


The new and improved FT website, launching 5 October, has many exciting and engaging new features, one of which is the subject of my own team’s focus: myFT.

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-20-15-43

Continue reading “Adventures with Neo4j and Timetrees”

The Data Platform: moving from Buckaroo! to building with Lego

buckarooo
The game centres on a model of a donkey named “Roo” (or “Buckaroo”). The mule begins the game standing on all four feet, with a blanket on its back. Players take turns placing various items onto the mule’s back without causing the mule to buck up on its front legs, throwing off all the accumulated items.” – Wikipedia, Buckaroo!

Swapping Mortarboards For Motherboards

Fresh faces in FT Technology – Our rotating graduate scheme

mortarboards
Over the past year we’ve been working hard to establish a graduate recruitment scheme for Technology. We’ve taken on grads in the past but in defined roles and wanted to focus on broadening our scope to help talented people get into technology and experience the range of disciplines across engineering.

Continue reading “Swapping Mortarboards For Motherboards”