A new beginning – Part 1: looking back at The First Post

In March 2006, I started freelancing for a dot-com startup, an eclectic online magazine called The First Post based in Kensington High Street in London. There was tons to do; the magazine had been started largely by emigres from the Daily Telegraph and other broadsheets; they had relatively little online experience but lots of great ideas they wanted to see happen. I joined the magazine full-time as Technical Director in July 2006 and we started to put in place the foundations for an ambitious CMS to drive this unique site.

It took us some time, and we had a couple of interesting learning experiences but over the course of the next 18 months we built a powerful publishing platform, using the best principles and practices we could find. For everyone involved with it, it was an awesome learning opportunity and I think we delivered something truly remarkable.

It was also a considerable responsibility – most web applications are used for a few minutes a day at most, but this was used every day, seven days a week, by 6 to 8 people all the time in the same manner as other people use Word, PhotoShop or Dreamweaver. The First Post had an extraordinarily rich and varied design which pushed the boundaries of web design as far as it could go, and sometimes further; great demands were placed on the users to publish interesting stories rapidly. The publishing platform we built contained two complete content management systems, as well as bespoke statistics, comments, ad trafficking, commissioning features and user accounts, plus much more.

The greatest tribute to our efforts was the warm appreciation we received from the editors who worked with our software every day. These were not button-pushers or database-stuffers, but all talented writers and journalists in their own right. This was my first time working in a press environment and I found that as a breed, journalists are typically intelligent, literate, witty and bright – but also cranky, sceptical, and scathing of mediocrity. If there was ever a tough crowd to please, this was it. Thing was, they loved using our software. There were lots of things for a developer to be proud of in our software (as well as plenty of dank smelly bits of code we made before we knew better – every significant project has those) but the feeling that our efforts were so appreciated remains the thing I am most proud of.

I could not have built it without the extraordinary talents and hard work of the great people who worked for me at various times, but in particular:

  • Ben Rooney, who built the first version of the Electronic Telegraph back in 1994 and is an experienced journalist as well as programmer, created the first version of the site and coded large parts of the core rendering system for the new platform
  • Steve Mason, one of the most productive developers I’ve ever worked with – without him we wouldn’t have hit half of our deadlines
  • Kris Morris, a talented musician, was our CSS ninja and worked closely with the design team to create great-looking templates for the CMS
  • Maggie Fok, an extraordinary front end developer with terrific Flash and JavaScript skills built some of our key UI
  • Andrew Hutchings, our lead developer and technical architect whose effortless mastery of PHP, MySQL and all things Linux was the reason that when the site was Dugg or Slashdotted, it continued to run smoothly under up to 30x normal traffic without the editors even noticing
  • Nick Shaw, an outstanding web designer and developer whose awesome skills run the full gamut from Flash and CSS to PHP and MySQL, was responsible for building most of the nicest bits of the CMS system; our amazing Menu Builder, for example. He now maintains the site as part of his duties in the developer team at Dennis Interactive

We must have done something right; as a consequence of the mortgage crisis in the US, in December 2007 our proprietor and sole investor sold The First Post to Felix Dennis for an undisclosed sum, and we joined his merry band at Dennis Publishing. More about that in Part 2…

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