Stauf's Coffee Roasters — Bryce Thornton is a Web Development Manager at Highlights for Children. He’s the founder of both OffsiteStatus and FreshNews, as well as the co-founder of ChatterJet. Outside of web development, his interests include being a family man and CrossFit.
How did you get into web development?
We got the internet at home around 1995 and it was awesome. It clicked with me like no other thing ever has, which is probably the experience most people had, unless you grew up with it. I didn’t grow up with it, so it just fascinated me to where I decided, “I need to learn how to do this.”
I didn’t know how to program, but I wanted to learn, so I majored in computer science when I went to college. The first two years I learned the basics of programming, but nothing to do with the web. I was really just itching to learn, so I took it upon myself to figure out the basics of HTML and CSS, even though CSS wasn’t much of thing back then.
In 1999 I got an internship at Marathon Oil and there was a web team there, although I wasn’t part of it, but I worked right next to them. They had one guy named Jeremy Zawodny, who was their Mr. Web Guy. His team was building all this cool stuff and I thought, “I want to be like him and do this work.”
In the evenings I would spend my time learning HTML, Perl, and Apache, so that I could run my own servers. I was one hundred percent into it and from there I just never stopped.
What languages are you most interested in now that you’re not writing Perl?
In the evenings I would spend my time learning HTML, Perl, and Apache, so that I could run my own servers. I was one hundred percent into it and from there I just never stopped.
I’m always reading about new frameworks and languages. I wish I had the time to play with them. Go in particular seems to be popular. But really, if it comes down to working on a site, I’m going to use Rails because that’s what I know and it’s still a very viable framework. It hasn’t stagnated like a lot of languages. Rails has done it right and is still innovative after all these years.
So you can get spun up quickly when you want to develop an idea?
Yeah. Rails is quick to develop in, although I’m probably rusty, so I’d need to look some things up. I really like the speed of development of Ruby as a language, which is why Rails is so great. There have been so many frameworks that have tried to emulate it. Some do an okay job, but Ruby as a language is why Rails is so great. You can make it do anything in a very elegant way with a short amount of code.
I was all in on Ruby from 2005 to 2009. I used to go to the Columbus Ruby Brigade quite often, but then I had my first son and could no longer justify going, especially when it moved from being downtown. It was super convenient because I could stop by after work. I keep telling myself that I’m going to go, but it never feels like the right time. Now my kids are sick, so I won’t go tonight.
Your wife would hate you.
[Laughing] That’s the thing. I don’t want to leave her with two kids. It’s a lot of work having two kids at home, especially sick kids.
I’m really trying to attend more tech networking events this year. I used to go to a lot of them, so I’m trying to be more diligent about making myself go. I even told my wife that one night a month I’m going to go out, which she’s okay with. But I’ve been away from home for work a lot recently, so I don’t want to push my limits because it’s not fair to her.
Let’s talk about Highlights. What’s your role there?
I’m a web development manager. I was hired to work for the Highlights brand, which is our consumer business side where we sell our magazines and merchandise direct to consumers.
I no longer work specifically for Highlights, but instead I work for Zaner-Bloser, which is a subsidiary company. We work on one system, what we refer to as our digital product delivery (DPD) platform. It’s based on Drupal and is built for schools to access all the digital products we sell. In some ways it’s like a learning management system. It’s my complete focus at this point.
What's a typical day like? Do you have any time to do development?
I’m a manager, so a typical day for me is a ton of meetings. It’s not as bad as it sounds, though. I try to only attend the meetings that I absolutely need to attend. I do make it a point to be at all of our Agile stuff: our daily stand-up, backlog grooming, sprint planning, and sprint retrospective meetings.
I was the scrum master for nine months, but we’ve since hired someone to fill that role. That took a lot of my time. I have a little more flexibility in my schedule now that I’m not as involved with the planning. If I do any development work it’s just because I want to test something out very quickly, although it’s rare for that to ever happen.
What products does Highlights have other than the magazine? There’s a surprising amount of websites too, right?
Highlights owns three other education companies: Zaner-Bloser, Stenhouse, which is a publishing company, and then Staff Development for Educators (SDE), a professional development company. All three subsidiaries are in the education market. Highlights is really focused on children, so the education market is a good fit.
The bread and butter for Highlights is the magazine itself. There’s also a more recent magazine called High Five, which is focused on younger children and has been huge for the brand. We also have a magazine for babies called Hello, which is waterproof and can’t be ripped apart. Hello launched right when I started at Highlights and that corresponded with the birth of my first child, so it was really good timing for me.
As for websites, we have almost thirty of them. There’s our main Highlights site, our various sites for all our subsidiaries, and a lot of marketing sites too.
We have one site for a product called Which Way USA. I managed the project to build the site, which is probably our most interactive, outside of Highlights Kids. It has a bunch of games that you can play to learn about the fifty states. Every month you get a new booklet that has a code to unlock a state on the website. You can then play games at various locations within that state. It’s pretty cool, although it was a big challenge for me when I started.
Highlights is doing a lot of cool stuff. We’re getting more into native apps, both iOS and Android. We have a full time app developer now, which we never had before. As a company we’re investing a lot of time, money, and energy into digital over the past few years. We’re doing it right because we know that we have to.
Which product are you most proud of?
Which Way USA was a great project. I had one developer who worked for me on that project, Brian Weaver. We worked very hard over the course of a year, without much of a project management methodology. We weren’t using Agile at the time and we didn’t have business analysts to help gather requirements. I was brand new and they basically said, “Here you go. Can you figure this out?”
We were able to launch it on time and we’ve continued to iterate on it since then. To me that was just a big win because we were scrappy. I wouldn’t want to work like that for every project, but it still felt good to launch that one. And Brian did so much good work, as did our vendor, Jersey Cow, who did all the game development.
How was the transition to Agile?
There wasn’t much in the way of oversight for project management until we implemented Agile. I had read about it, but had never done it in practice. We had some developers who were passionate about it, so they pushed hard for us to implement it. We also got a new CIO, David Blum, who felt just as strongly about it.
We had various information sessions, which was a great learning experience, and we just went from there. It was a little rough at first because I had no idea how to put together an Agile team. I definitely fumbled at times, but got good feedback, and now our team’s processes are set and we’re in a good flow.
Everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing at all times. You always know who to talk to if you need answers for things. It’s been fantastic. I wouldn’t want to do anything else unless it were similar to Agile. I just love the process and structure of it.
Let’s talk about personal projects. Tell me about ChatterJet.
I developed ChatterJet with Matt Russo, who I met through Twitter, actually. A mutual friend, I can’t remember who, retweeted Matt’s request for help with an idea he had. At the time I was open to try something new, so we met up and he explained his plan to me. I dabbled around with it and realized that I could do what he was looking for.
ChatterJet was built to help small businesses, like a coffee shop, engage with their local users. It listens for people who are talking about coffee, so that the coffee shop can reply, “Hey, come in for a discount on your next cup.” It also finds articles from around the web, which can then be posted as a link on Twitter or Facebook.
We automated that process because a lot of people who run small businesses don’t bother to do it or don’t know how. Matt was the brains behind it and planned out the whole approach, while I developed the backend.
It was a fun project, although we’re not actively pushing it anymore. It didn’t gain a lot of traction, even though it was a good idea. We had a lot of users, but we had a hard time getting good feedback from them. A common response was, “Eh. It’s okay. It’s just not what I’m looking for.” We didn’t give up on it, we really tried to get feedback.
Some users are going to get good results, but others won’t. Our system tries to use keywords and sites to find content that’s relevant to the business. For some industries it’s easier to churn out quality content, but others are going to get all sorts of content, from good to bad. Without a more hands on approach it’s difficult to ensure that they get consistently good content.
I still use it and I think Matt still uses it. We have it turned on. I get my email every day and I still find it really interesting. I found a lot of people on Twitter who I wouldn’t normally follow. I still think that it’s a viable business opportunity, but you’d really need to iterate on it to ensure that it’s a valuable service for your customers.
OffsiteStatus is a hosted status page for websites. It’s a way for you to communicate with your customers when your site goes down. The alternative is to host your own status page, but that would probably go down with the rest of your site, just by the very nature of your infrastructure. The less you’re involved with your status page the more likely that it will stay up and serve its purpose of informing your customers of what’s happening.
The idea first popped into my head when I saw that several sites I follow had one, like GitHub and 37 Signals. I wanted one for a project that I was working on and I thought, “There’s probably a service out there for this,” but I looked and I couldn’t find one. It seemed like a very obvious fit for software as a service. And trust me that I looked hard because that’s my first instinct when I have an idea. I want to find out who else is doing it and how well they’re doing it.
So I wrote it down as a note in Evernote and I sat on it for a couple of months. It kept coming back to me and I thought, “I really should do this.” It didn’t seem that difficult to implement, but of course no project seems difficult when you start. I asked a lot of people for feedback, but it didn’t really click with them, which I understand if you’ve never had customers who rely on your sites being up. If your users are paying for your service then they’re paying for your site to be up and available during the day.
I built it over the course of a few months, put it out there, and it didn’t get a lot of traction up front, but over the past few years I’ve had consistent signups. I have quite a few customers who use it, so it’s proven its value. The issue now is that there are a lot of competitors offering the same service.
A project will gain traction if you push it hard enough and are savvy enough to get it in front of the right people. I didn’t do much of that because my wife and I were having our first kid around that same time. I really think you need to put in the effort to get the project in front of a lot of people to get their feedback. You also need to reach out to the media to get coverage. It’s not in my nature to do that as a lone developer, I would rather developer another feature.
The developers of StatusPage.io did a fantastic job. They’re a Y Combinator company, so they got that whole network and the exposure and feedback that comes with it. They built a really slick product with all the features that I’ve wanted to build, but that I just don’t have the time for. A lot of big sites use them, which is a little frustrating [laughing] because I can immediately recognize their site when I see it. Props to them. They did it right.
I have thought about getting some help, but I don’t even have the time to onboard additional developers. I haven’t done a lot with the site, so it’s still fairly basic when you compare it to its competitors, but it’s also free. I’ve actually built a lot of the code for a premium version, I just have to turn it on. It will just be a slow going project for me, so long as I still enjoy doing it.
Tell me about FreshNews.
FreshNews was my first side project, so it’s got a special place in my heart. Back when I first got into the web I was looking for a project and there was no great way to aggregate news. These days we’ve got RSS readers, but back then there was none of that. I read a lot of tech news sites and I was visiting them pretty often to check for updates.
I realized that I could aggregate the updates, so I started FreshNews. I initially wrote the backend in Perl. I wanted to learn PHP, which is what I used for the frontend. I eventually ended up writing the whole thing in PHP, although now it’s been rewritten with Rails. It was a great learning experience for me to learn all of these technologies.
The aggregation piece of it was a nightmare in 2000 because there wasn’t a real RSS standard. There was RDF, which Slashdot had and it’s basically an XML feed. I didn’t know of any parsing libraries, so I just did it all in regular expressions. It was brittle [laughing] because people would change the markup that I was scraping to get the headlines. It was a heck of a learning experience.
I remember the first time I saw that someone from the Netherlands had visited the site and I thought, “Holy crap, this is amazing!” The site actually got a lot of users and it got coverage too. In 2004 it was covered on The Screen Savers on Tech TV, which I actually watched back then. I still have the clip on YouTube too.
I remember the first time I saw that someone from the Netherlands had visited the site and I thought, “Holy crap, this is amazing!”
The site has been a great experiment for me over the years. I’ve rewritten it a bunch of times because it’s a good excuse to learn something new.
What can you tell me about EventStart?
In 2008 I went to my first Startup Weekend. We came up with a bunch of different ideas, but a group of us didn’t feel great about any one of them, so we decided to do something different. A couple of the guys on the team had already bought the EventStart domain, which they had already began work on. An event registration site sounded good, plus the domain name was good, so we worked on it over the weekend.
At the end of the weekend most of the team members didn’t have the time to work on it, so after a few months it ended up just being me. I didn’t know if I really wanted to pursue it, but at the time I didn’t have any other side projects that were really interesting to me. People knew about it from Startup Weekend, so I wanted to see how far I could take it.
I worked on EventStart for nearly two years and then I shut it down. It looked really nice and functionally worked well. The biggest challenge was differentiating it from Eventbrite, which was the biggest player with all the features. Even if I had beaten them on price, it would have been difficult to get users who were more comfortable with them since they were established.
It was a great learning experience. I did a ton of development on it and I’m glad I did it. For the 2009 Startup Weekend I convinced them to use EventStart for their registration, which was cool.
Yeah, so Jason Long is a pretty important person in my history. I met him at a meetup in 2004 and he was the one who showed me Rails for the first time. That very same evening he showed me a blog where you could get live search results as you typed into the search field. It didn’t have a name since Ajax wasn't a term back then, but it just blew me away. Ajax seems obvious now, but at the time it didn’t exist!
In 2011 Jason put out a tweet asking for help on an idea he had to test Benford’s Law. I thought it was a pretty cool idea, so we built a site to demonstrate it with various datasets that we pulled from the web. We didn’t know if it would follow the law, but we wanted to see how close it would come. It turned out that most of the datasets follow the law pretty closely, which is reassuring since it’s a law.
The site is open source, so you can go to GitHub and do a pull request to add additional datasets. Most of the datasets we have were submitted by contributors. For the project, Jason was the designer and I did the development work. It turned out really well. We even got the top spot on Hacker News for a day. It was a really fun small project.
Is it hard to find time for side projects now that you’ve got kids?
My side projects have definitely been the first thing to go. Work takes priority during my day and then family in the evenings. I get home and immediately switch into dad mode until probably 9:00 PM when the kids are in bed. By that time I’m pretty tired and I just don’t have the mental capacity to focus on development.
The only time I really work on my side projects is if I take a day off from work. Sometimes I’ll go to a coffee shop and knock out some bug fixes or implement a small feature from the backlog. I still have ideas, but I just don’t have the time to work on them. I miss that, but I’m also very happy being a dad and having a family. It’s a good trade-off.
I read one of your tweets where you wrote that you had a mental dry spell after your first kid. That must relate to the exhaustion that comes with being a parent.
It does. When you’re doing a lot of work with the web your brain is just churning with thoughts. But when you’re away from it, it’s just like anything else in that you get a little rusty. I just don’t have the time or energy to really put forth that much level of thought. When the kids become more predictable in their sleep schedules I’ll have more time to start thinking about the web again.
I still use Evernote. It’s a good history of my ideas because I jot them all down in the app. I still enjoy coming up with the occasional idea and then letting it marinate in my head to see if it’s viable. I try to find someone who’s doing something similar, but if I can’t anything and the idea sticks with me, I do it. A lot like how OffsiteStatus came to be.
What are your interests outside of web development?
I am of course interested in my family and hopefully raising good kids.
My main hobby now is CrossFit, which has definitely supplanted my side projects. I love it because it’s challenging, it feels great, and I stay in good shape. I know I’ve got that hour and then I can move on with my day. For side projects you need a lot of mental ramp up to get into, which makes getting anything done in an hour difficult, especially when you want to keep going.
CrossFit is different. I feel less stressed after CrossFit and I go into work feeling great. I would recommend it to anybody, especially morning CrossFit. It just feels so good to go into work so mentally alert and ready for the day. My wife and I take turns going at 5:30 AM. We’ve met so many good friends at CrossFit because it’s a real community.
What goals do you have, either personal, career, or CrossFit?
For work I’ve got a big project to find a new platform for Zaner-Bloser to post their products on. So I’m just working towards that and hoping that it will go well. I have no plans to make a career move, I’m definitely happy at Highlights.
Most of my personal goals revolve around CrossFit [laughing]. A couple times a week I go to the gym during my lunch break to work on my squat, amongst other things. That goal drives me, so I’ve got a plan for the entire year to get to where I want to be.
Outside of that, I’d like to get back into attending meetups and networking events. I’m not doing great with that, but it’s still a goal. At least once a month I want to meet people and learn something new. I don’t want to do it just for the networking aspect.
My unwritten goals are to be a good husband and dad. It’s difficult to set anything tangible, but I just want to be there for my kids and for my wife. I think we do a good job as parents, so we’ll keep that up.