Digging deep into the core of VSN
Behind the scenes: A look into the roles of our Backend, Frontend and Apps and Tools development teams
Digging deep into the core of VSN
For some time, we’ve been wanting to give our readers, clients and the industry as a whole an insight into the background processes that represent the fundamental core of VSN; the people who work day-in, day-out to deliver innovation, refinement and constant improvement to the full VSN suite of products.
There was only one problem: it would mean we’d have to try and get our engineers to talk.
This seemed like it might be a problem not only because our engineers are incredibly busy people, but also because – if stereotypes are to be believed –engineers in general are notoriously hard to crack open; people of few words who, when they can be encouraged to speak, will quickly disappear down a rabbit hole of techno-babble and geek speak.
Our fear was – of course – misguided. Not only is this stereotype outdated in general, but at VSN particularly the type of person attracted to the role tends to be outgoing, dynamic and sociable (which is remarkable when you consider their ability to stare at screens in dark rooms for hours writing thousands of lines of code). Sure, we were sometimes baffled by their excitement over the most intricate and subtle of coding details, and deciphering programmer ‘humour’ was, well… an education. But the truth was that it was a pleasure to talk with them about their perspectives on their position within the firm, their day-to-day duties, and the things that make them tick.
What we learnt
Ultimately what we found was – rather unsurprisingly – a genuine passion and pride for what they do and an incredibly team-orientated dynamic, focused as much on soft-skills and business processes as it was on raw coding time. What results from our investigation into the ‘guts’ of the VSN operation is an interesting balance between client-based problem solving and a culture, mindset and set of processes all designed to encourage spontaneous, internally-driven innovation.
This should come as no shock to us of course – we developed the structures, processes and environment that all of this takes place in. But there can be no doubt that in gathering the information needed to present you – our readers – with an insight into the core of VSN, we also gained something ourselves; in essence, a sense of validation that we’ve taken the right approach and met the goals we were hoping to achieve for our employees, our teams, our product and ultimately, our customers.
So, without further ado, here is a brief snapshot of three of our core teams within the VSN family; the MAM gang, the Apps and Tools team, and the Frontend squad.
Our Backend Team
All of our development teams are based in San Juan de Alicante (not that anybody’s physical location has mattered much over the past two years), whilst our other support offices are based in other parts of Spain. The San Juan offices are a vibrant, dynamic place – enriched even further by a constantly revolving set of driven and enthusiastic interns.
Our backend team works – fundamentally – with VSNExplorer; our Media Asset Management (MAM) offering, and the heart and soul of our suite of products.
We had expected – when we asked them about their day-to-day activities – that they would say: ‘in the morning: we code, in the afternoon: we code, and in the evening, just for a little extra fun: we code’.
The reality was quite different. The days they described were tightly but dynamically structured; the opening moments devoted to planning and structuring the day and the next part, crucially, devoted to assessing – through a team meeting – the challenges faced the day before and the solutions available. The mid-part of the day was the conventional implementation part (see, we knew the coding had to come in somewhere), with the mid-part of the day devoted to both ‘reset’ and ‘tune-up’ (that’s lunch and admin to us mere mortals), followed by a bit more task execution.
Crucially, the Backend team were very vocal in communicating how those tasks sprung from a collective goal, rather than being individual in nature. They phrased it thus: ‘we decide and design as a team, and then we usually execute the tasks individually, and then we check again as a team that what has been decided has been carried out as expected, thus closing the team cycle’.
When it came to questions of innovation, what was interesting was that when we asked the Backend whether their day-to-day activities tended to be internally driven or client/project driven, they weren’t keen on making a distinction. ‘Clients come to us – generally – with needs, rather than specifications. So whether the process of innovation comes from assuming/interpreting/predicting a need or being told a need, it doesn’t really matter; what matters is the way that we are able to apply our knowledge and creativity to solve problems or address needs – existing or anticipated – in a way that is elegant, efficient, intuitive and effective’.
Our Frontend Team
Like the Backend team, the Frontend team described a day-to-day setup that was focused around collaboration and teamwork, and then involved breaking to perform the individual tasks that would contribute to a wider, team-defined vision.
In particular though, the Frontend team stressed the way that personal and team-based professional development time was key to their ability to innovate: not everything they performed was driven by a customer need (though by virtue of being responsible for the part of the product that clients actively look at, they are arguably subject to the ‘whim’ of customers more than anybody else!). Instead, devoting time to becoming better versed in programming languages, design concepts and new technologies was core to the Frontend’s ability to drive innovation across the board: a process of ‘continuous research and learning’.
What was interesting about the responses from the Frontend team – but indeed, from the full range of teams as a whole – was the approach to meetings. We’ve all seen the endless internet memes about the futility of longwinded, unnecessary meetings and the various strategies we might use to make them more bearable; whether that’s pajama bottoms, gin in your teacup, or the magic of the mute button so that you can have an episode of ‘Masked Singer’ running in the background. But the reality was, our teams loved their meetings! They found them productive, well-balanced, focused and key to their own individual work processes. Collaborating with others energized everybody, and the sessions allowed for real and meaningful feedback to be generated, both in terms of ‘big picture’ thinking, but also the little intricate details of code-review.
Key priorities for the Frontend team were always valuing innovation and feature-richness, whilst being mindful of the actual client need: ‘We shouldn’t create a Ferrari the craves the open road for someone who needs a small car to drive around the city center’. Cohesiveness, coherency and consistency were also the main watchwords of the process; customers should always feel comfortable and confident in their user experience, and frontend design is core to that.
Indeed, when we asked them what the main purpose of their role is, they gave us this, straight from the horse’s mouth: ‘Well, without us, VSN’s products would look pretty bad and would be very difficult to manage, wouldn’t they?’. Cocky or what!?
Our Apps and Tools Team
People tend to be pretty clear on the general nature of responsibility when you talk about Backend and Frontend development: the division of labour is clear enough. But Apps and Tools is a little more complex. Or at least nuanced. We like to think of them like the snipers in our army, working in a targeted, highly specific manner.
Understanding the role of the Apps and Tools team requires understanding the nature of VSN products in general. Our products occupy a position that almost seems to be a paradox; in their general sense they are designed to meet the needs of their market as broadly as possible – allowing users to unbox and dive in, confident that they will find all of the functionality they need, presented in a format that is intuitive and usable right off the bat. But at the same time, VSN products are highly customizable – able to gel with the existing business processes of clients seamlessly.
It’s this latter element where our sniper Apps and Tools team come in. Their ‘making things match’ can range from the highly technical – meeting the specific broadcast and ingest specifications of a client, through to introducing third-party integrations, through to more ‘big picture’ matching of business process workflows.
The day-to-day activities of the team are broadly similar to Frontend and Backend in their structure; they begin with a presentation of activities in order to review progress, address challenges and provide potential feedback/insight, and then the team moves on to the individual tasks that will contribute to the bigger project vision that is the focus of each three-week ‘sprint’.
As with the other two teams, the responses we gained from the Apps and Tools department showed an incredible respect and value of colleague inputs and the help and knowledge that they could gain from each other.
For the Apps and Tools team, ideas about innovation were again a dualistic notion; they were about making things work more efficiently and effectively– refining incrementally using knowledge based on the fundamental needs of clients – as much as they were about introducing revolutionary technological elements. And similarly, the methods for driving innovation were similar; engaging in constant professional development on both a personal level (through courses and training), and a team level (through the use of time devoted to ‘retrospectives’; meetings where individuals can present new programs, technologies or other activities and ideas to the team that they think might be valuable).
A Thank You
Having gone through all of this we’d like to offer a thank you. Actually, a double thank you. The first is to our three teams for taking the time to give an insight into what they do: we know that talking about yourself can be tough, not to mention time-consuming in a job that is demanding enough as it is. But more than this, we’d like to thank them for the work that they do and the positive attitude they bring to our operation; something that we know about day-to-day, but really, truly see with clear eyes when it is presented in these ‘big picture’ terms. Their commitment to VSN’s vision, to the notion of being a team and a community, and to constantly driving innovation and progress on behalf of our clients makes us immeasurably proud and grateful.