Episode 273  on July 30, 2018Behind the Screens

Behind the Screens with Jeff Vargas

Senior Director of Technology for USA and Syfy, Jeff Vargas talks managing two high-traffic TV brands, how NBCUniversal has adopted Drupal as its go-to CMS, and what the heck is a library card?

Transcript

Chris:
On this episode, I'm going behind the screens with Jeff Vargas, Senior Director of Technology for USA and Syfy. Jeff, tell us a little bit about yourself and what's going on over there with USA and Syfy.
Jeff:
Hi. Longtime listener, first time caller. Working with USA and Syfy, our main sites are Syfy.com and USANetwork.com. The main purpose for both of them is the ingestion of video metadata, video content for all of our shows. Particularly for Syfy, the extra component it has is the blog content that we get from the SyfyWire staff, and that's all of the focus of the genre, movies, books, any cons that are going on. We just did a huge wrap up of the Chicago C2E2 convention. We just did Emerald City last month, and we are, as always, going to be at San Diego ComicCon, which is the Superbowl for us.
Jeff:
NBC loves Drupal. We've been using it for several years, and standardize across the company on it. So for any of the sites you go to, whether it's the Today Show, whether it's Telemundo, it's going to be a Drupal site. Syfy.com has done several projects the last few years, actually with Lullabot, upgrading Syfy from a legacy version of Drupal to Publisher 7, which is the customized Drupal 7 version that NBC uses internally. We've redesigned Blastr.com, then we merged Blastr.com with Syfy and rebranded the whole site, so it's been an exciting couple years just working with Drupal, working with Lullabot, and learning a lot from other people about what makes their sites work better, how to optimize for SEO, how to optimize for page speed, things like that. I guess the great thing is it feels like we've never stopped learning.
Chris:
What is your role, senior director of technology, what is your role within these brands, or within USA and Syfy? How does that play into the website and the product?
Jeff:
My role is a bit of ... I'm going to stand next to the developers, listen to what they're talking about, watch what they're doing, and make sure that that's the right path for us. I'm going to talk to stakeholders and get an idea of what it is that they're looking for, get an idea of what the roadmap is, and if there are any other big mergers. If we're going to merge another site into Syfy, I need to know that more than six months out. It's a little bit of everything. I don't get to do as much development as I used to, or as I'd like to, but I am usually the person who, once something isn't working, if any of our developers aren't available, I'm the one who's digging into the code to find the problem, and if I'm not reaching out to somebody else within the company, just other friends and other colleagues, including former Lullabot teammates, who might know more about it than we do.
Jeff:
A lot of what we do is really focused not just on the content, but on the genre and on the fans. We really want to make a pleasant experience for them. Thinking about how that is going to work best for them is something that we spend a lot of time thinking about, whether it's editorially how do we want to present content to them, or whether it's for our editors, how are we going to make it easier for them to enter that content to begin with? A lot of what keeps us up at night is not really making sure that the site's up, that's usually covered by another team, but are we doing enough to keep our audience engaged? That's something I worry about on a day-to-day basis, and that's something we're always trying to improve and learn about.
Chris:
Yeah. It's sounds like a trick trying to keep all those brands together, and maintain ... So it's not a multisite, it's different instances of Drupal, and you're standardizing certain pieces across all those brands, across all those sites. What's been a big challenge for you to try and keep all that together, to keep a sane ecosystem, I guess, for lack of a better term?
Jeff:
Really trying to not minimize the complexity, but just to understand it, because there's, in certain cases there's no way you're going to minimize complexity, but you have to understand it, otherwise it goes from just being complex to being chaotic and complex. We have different needs on the Syfy show side than we do on the SyfyWire editorial side. We've kept those content types, for those two distinct focuses separate. There are specific wire content types that none of the Syfy show staff is going to touch, and there is content types that the show staff is going to use that have no bearing, and won't show up in any of the SyfyWire content. But, that being said, we do look at ways that we can minimize things, because at the end of the day we want to give the editors tools they need to get their work done, but we don't want to give them too few options, and we don't want them to drown in too many options.
Jeff:
Right now, part of what we're doing is trying to simplify things for them, so that it gets easier and quicker for them to enter content, and it gets easier and quicker for them to spot if they're missing some key piece of metadata, or some key asset. Really, among the brands, USA has a different focus than Syfy, and the two of us have different focuses than other brands within NBC Universal, but we do share a lot of common knowledge. Whether it's, "Hey, how are we going to change the database character set so we can accept emojis?", because off the bat none of us can do that, so that's something I learned here this weekend from a colleague of mine, so that's something we're going to look at doing in the next few months.
Chris:
So there's a lot of communication between the brands, between your team and other teams about how to get these things done, and use the same modules and same common tool sets.
Jeff:
Yeah. A lot of best practices, and a lot of, "This is what happened and these are the scars that I have, so next time don't do that," or, "Next time, ask these questions." That's been really helpful because if it's switching to a new video player that we're all going to eventually use, but some brands will go first, it's great to know what problems they encountered, so that if we run into similar situations, we can raise a ticket and point the support staff in the right direction without having to wait for them to sort of debug it themselves and get down that funnel into this is where the problem is.
Chris:
Yeah. Many brands in the NBC Universal realm are using Drupal, mostly Drupal 7 now, is that right?
Jeff:
Yup.
Chris:
Is there a plan, or do you have a strategy amongst them to try and get some of those sites up to Drupal 8?
Jeff:
Individual brands are looking at their own plan and roadmap for Drupal 8. I think one of the key bridges that will make that feasible for someone is being able to access our video repository. We all use the same system. It's MPX system from the platform, and once we have a layer there where we can actually communicate with it, we can get the metadata, we can send metadata to it, then that will make it easier for everyone to go up. I know other brands are looking at doing that now.
Jeff:
Having just finished the merger of SyfyWire and Syfy together, for us it's something we're going to look at later down the line. Other brands, including USA, we're looking at making the editorial experience better for them, making it a stronger system, and making it simpler. I mean, there're a lot of editorial tweaks we can input that would just make it cleaner, that would make it nicer, and make it more user friendly. I think as we sort of learn what doesn't work, and maybe what is painful for us, rather than rebuilding everything right now in V7, they're being put into project plans for things that we'd like to do, as well as move up to D8. That make sense?
Chris:
If you could give one piece of advice to somebody who's maybe got a similar landscape in front of them, a number of sites that all need to be migrated up, or that are complex and sharing components amongst different groups, any sort of challenge or advice you might give to somebody who's facing something like that before they dive in headfirst?
Jeff:
I would say don't be intimidated by the complexity. People often assume complex is bad, and simple is good. I think anyone who's worked in web development long enough knows that the simple solution, quote unquote, is usually something that is great for the immediate term, but long term it's not going to suit your needs. You don't want to get into a situation where you make everything work on a simple platform and then you start to outgrow it, and you start to see limitations, and you're like, "Damn, now I have to spend more time taking the path I should have taken anyway, which is going with something more complex."
Jeff:
Even though Drupal might be complex, the great thing is there's a great community, so there's always someone you can reach out to, whether it's on Drupal.org, or whether it's from different agencies, or even in our case, especially in our case, internal teams. Having the ability to talk to the Bravo team or the Telemundo team is great, because we can share certain things that we're doing. Even though my needs are different than their needs, there's a lot of stuff that they've done that is somewhat common. Whether it's learning whether to use field collections or not to use field collections, or getting an update on caching and how best to handle that so that you don't have stale assets all the time, that's something that a lot of us have learned just in communication with team members, colleagues, and strangers we meet at meetups or at DrupalCon.
Chris:
Absolutely. Let's take it and flip it a little bit here. We've talked a lot about the work. I want to know, if you woke up tomorrow and the internet was gone, what would you do?
Jeff:
I would probably get a library card, because everything that is on the internet may not be in the library, but there's going to be enough to keep you busy long enough so that you don't panic. By the time you do panic, maybe you've read 20 years worth of books.
Chris:
Yeah. If the website's down, you got to wait for somebody else to check it back in before you can check it out.
Jeff:
Exactly.
Chris:
Nice. I know you've been around Drupal for a long time now, so you're pretty well versed in the mythological space. Everyone's got a spirit animal, but I want to know what is your spirit module?
Jeff:
As I was saying before, I don't know if it's my spirit module or just my angel and savior, but just flushing caches. We have a manual purge component that we use that really saves the day for us, because it's tricky working with editors, and they want instant gratification. "I just changed something, why am I not seeing it on dub dub dub?" Being able to purge it for them, being able to go into Akamai and manually purge individual assets for them, that's the thing that keeps all the anxiety at bay. It's really purging. It's that Acquia Purge module that we use, and we configure to work with Akamai as well.
Chris:
Nice. The purge module. I like that one, that's a new one.
Jeff:
It's all about the purge, which will be coming to a network, USA/Syfy Network, soon.
Chris:
Ah, so a little plug in there, too.
Jeff:
Just a little one.
Chris:
Nice. All right. Finally Jeff, is there somebody that you'd like to say thank you too, or share some gratitude with, that gave you a boost when you needed it, or an inspirational story?
Jeff:
An inspirational story. A lot of times, it's almost daunting, and I remember listening to your talk at DrupalCon earlier this week. You were talking about imposter syndrome. It was a common theme among a couple of other sessions as well, and you do feel like, "I don't know anything," and as much experience as I have in web development, I often feel like I don't know as much as everybody else that's working around me, or everyone else that's working on Drupal. It gets to be a little frustrating, but at the end of the day I'm definitely not an expert, I'm not Dries, but I do have a certain skillset that works well for Drupal and for technology in general. That is something that you just have to recognize that even if you don't know it, you can learn it. Even if you're not an expert, and you're never going to be an expert, there's a lot of things that you can still learn and contribute. That has been very helpful.
Jeff:
I think one of the best people to help out on things back at NBC was Eric Duran, who's also former Lullabot. He was a great resource for us, and he's a super smart guy who, whatever your question is, he's seen it, he's done it, he's probably patched it, so he was our source to go to. He was super helpful with that, and at no point did you ever feel you're an idiot when you're talking to him. He's also a great guy to hang out with at the cons, because he knows where all the good swag is. He can point you in the right direction.
Chris:
That's great. That notion where you can talk to somebody that you know knows way more than you do, but you don't feel like an idiot, they don't make you feel like an idiot talking to them. That's a great quality, and I think one that goes a long way around here at the DrupalCons and the Drupal community in general. Everyone is very helpful and supportive that way.
Jeff:
Absolutely.
Chris:
That's great. Well Jeff, thank you very much for taking a few minutes. This was wonderful.
Jeff:
No problem, any time.
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