A blog by the Brick Factory The Brick Factory

23 Takeaways from Drupalcon Austin

Chris, Mike, Ron, Shane, Teddy and I spent last week at Drupalcon Austin.   We learned a lot, and ate our fair share of Mexican food and BBQ.  Following is a list of our key takeaways from the trip.

(1) Drupal 8 won’t be released until sometime in 2015.  During a Q&A with Dries Buytaert and other key Drupal 8 contributors, they advised against using Drupal 8 if you have a project you need to ship in the next three to six months.

(2) In the same panel, it was mentioned that it took a year after Drupal 7 was released for the majority of contributed modules to get updated.  The goal is to cut that time in half, to six months, for Drupal 8.


(3) When Drupal 7 was released, support for Drupal 5 was dropped immediately.  Assuming funding allows, the plan is to perform critical security updates to Drupal 6 for one year after the release of Drupal 8.  This is huge, as it will give the hundreds of thousands of sites run in Drupal 6 more time to make the transition.

(4) Drupal 8 will not support anything lower than Internet Explorer 9.  This got a big cheer from the crowd.  Drupalcon attendees are not big IE fans.

(5) 12% of the 100,000 most popular websites on the Internet are powered by Drupal.

(6) Paraphrasing Nica Lorber from her content session: “Clients underestimate the importance of content and won’t pay for it.”  So true.

(7) Another tidbit from Nica: People read 20% slower online.

(8) Nica also made the point that flexibility is overrated when it comes to content.  She recommends developing structures for content with clients and sticking to it:  make decisions.  I couldn’t agree more.  On the web constraints actually help.

(9) If you want to see the bats emerge from the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, you’ll have to show a bit more patience than our Brick Factory team.  We waited about 45 minutes before giving up on them.

Congress Avenue Bridge

(10) Ron heard a lot about Docker, the open source project that containerizes applications. He wrote:  “Docker is really useful for managing and deploying applications and the software/libraries needed within the same or among different environments. Even the new Red Hat Enterprise version distribution that came out two days ago supports Docker.”

(11) Our front-end development team loved the “My Brain Is Full” session.  Teddy wrote: “This session summed up how I view web development right now. Lots of technologies sprouting up at once that are difficult to keep track of, with the hope that these front end development processes will be streamlined over time.”

(12) The “Twig Playground” session was also popular with our team.  Teddy again: “Morten DK was probably my favorite presenter because he did a good job of pinpointing aspects of Drupal theming that I don’t like and he cursed a lot. It seems that a lot of these issues will be gone once Drupal 8 comes around.”  Shane: “Twig is a great addition in Drupal 8.  This will make Drupal more secure, and it will also be more familiar to people who are switching from other platforms.”

(13) If you love music (vinyl in particular) and are in Austin, don’t miss Waterloo Records.  Bring your wallet.

Waterloo Records

(14) Many of the Drupal firms we talked to have done a full embrace of Scrum, an agile software development framework. For many this has simply become how they do their work.  I’m a bit skeptical of whether this will work for us across the board.  I tend to think that the right methodology can change from project to project.   From my conversations, Scrum seems to work best on projects with scopes that are less well defined and with clients who have time (at least ten hours a week) to be involved in the website build on a daily basis.  If you want to learn more about Scrum, check out this session.

(15) Ron and Chris are much better at their jobs than at riding a mechanical bull.  Ron and Shane are both pretty good a ping pong though.

Drupalcon mechanical bull and ping pong

(16) Great quote from Jordan Hirsch’s session on requirements gathering: “You can’t ever truly skip a discovery phase.  You end up doing it even if the client doesn’t pay for it.”  Yup.

(17) The audience shared Jordan’s pain when he talked about how destructive hidden requirements are to the web development process. Like the Salesforce integration you find out about two days before launch.

(18) I loved Adam Edgerton’s presentation on scaling a Drupal firm.  One key point he made was that profit doesn’t necessarily scale along with revenue.  A digital agency might make the same profit at $10,000,000 in revenue as they did at $4,000,000.  He mentioned that once you get over 25 people you start to need process.  At that point you are no longer a tribal company.

(19) An emerging trend is the use of Drupal as a backend system for content management with frontends that are 100% outside of Drupal.  In particular, a lot of firms are using AngularJS on top of Drupal.

(20) Chris went to a session that talked about the importance of developing processes that are non-blocking.  The web development process goes much more smoothly when folks aren’t constantly taking breaks to wait on delayed deliverables/approvals.

(21) Ron is excited about the configuration management software Ansible.  He wrote: “I was sold when I heard that it is agentless, so you don’t have to install anything on the servers. Besides that, it uses current standard protocols and syntax and can also handle app deployments. It seems like a dream come true.”

(22) I can’t say enough good things about the tacos at La Condesa.  Probably the best tacos I have ever had.  Go now.  We didn’t take picture of the tacos as we were too focused on eating them, but here are some other food porn pics from the trip.

Tacos and BBQ in Austin

(23) Drupalcon will be in Los Angeles in 2015.  We’re fired up, ready to go.


Our New Website

We quietly launched our new Brick Factory website last week.  I’m really proud of it.  I think it is a true reflection of who we are and what we do, which is tough to pull off.

When web development firms build sites for themselves, the instinct is to show off.  To overdesign.  To throw in every bell and whistle.  “Let’s implement all the ideas!”  The resulting sites often look like they are designed for other web designers/developers, as opposed to the actual audience, prospective clients.

As a firm that preaches simplicity and talks a lot of audiences and conversions, it was important that our own site reflect the work we do for our clients.  It is a real tribute to the talent of our staff that we were able to create a site that is simultaneously simple, completely unique and beautiful.

The launch of the new site also represents the Brick Factory entering its next phase.

As a group, we’ve focused the last year on getting better at what we do a little bit every day.

We’ve embraced new processes and technologies.  We’ve fixed some structural issues we were having.    We’ve invested heavily in the development of some new products we will announce soon.  All while doing some incredible work for our clients.

So please take a look at the new site and let me know what you think.  Also be sure to check back in on us, as we have some great things in store for the rest of the year.

Email Rates

Five political emails that look nothing like political emails

As someone who works in digital public affairs, I paid close attention to the emails that were sent out by the Obama campaign during the 2008 and 2012 election cycles and am now closely watching what is being sent out by  Organizing for Action.  The reason I’m paying attention is simple: the Obama folks know what works.  Years of research is behind every email that gets sent.

Since the election, emails from Organizing for America seem to have followed two general templates:

  1. Emails sent from individuals (Barack Obama, Michele Obama, David Axelrod, Lindsay Siler, etc.) are almost always text-based and extremely simple in their design.  Images are rarely included.  Very straightforward formatting.  They are made to look like the emails you receive from your friends and family.  You can see an example here
  2. In contrast, emails sent generically from Organizing for Action are extremely visual and viral in nature.  They include pop culture references, infographics and animated gifs, and usually only minimal text.  You can view examples of these types of emails below.

I’ve been particularly interested in the increased frequency and complexity of the visual-based emails.  They have much more in common with product marketing emails than traditional political ones.  I think the rise of these emails is a good indication of how competitive the battle for email opens and clicks has become. 

When you send an advocacy email today you are fighting for attention.  You aren’t just competing against the opposing political party or issue group.  Your are fighting companies like Groupon, Amazon and Gilt for the attention of your supporters. 

In the case of Organizing for Action they are also fighting fatigue.  Many have been on the Obama email list for six or seven years and have gotten thousands of email from the various versions of the campaign.  Even is they don’t subscribe, you have to think many are tuning out the emails. 

The increasingly visual and share-hungry emails sent out by Organizing for Action are an attempt to win this battle for attention.  They can’t just inform, they have to entertain a bit too.

Having gotten through the throat clearing, here are five examples of visual and viral emails sent by Organizing for Action the last few months.  Click on the title or image to see the full email.

1. Fist Bump

Not a lot of explanation required here.  This simple, e-card style email was sent out as part of a list building campaign around the President’s birthday.



2. Infographic Email

This infographic email was sent out by Organizing for Action to celebrate their one year anniversary.  The 2012 Obama campaign has used this style a few times.  I love it. 



3. Cats

As a way of connecting the Affordable Care Act with Valentine’s Day, Organizing for Action sent out an email asking friends to share kitten photos with their Facebook friends that include health care-related messages.  The actual email template is actually pretty text-based, but I included this one due to the clear attempt to leverage the Internet’s love of cats for political gain.



4. Breakfast Club Gif

In-mid February Organizing for Action sent out an email asking visitors to take a pledge that they will help spread the word about the March 31 health care coverage deadline.  If you took the pledge, you are automatically entered into a contest that would give you the chance to meet president Obama.   Organizing for Action sent out this email featuring the Breakfast Club gif below.  The email is about a contest deadline, so, presumably, the animated gif is telling you to stop what you are doing right away and enter.


5. Prince Animated Gif Email

As a way of promoting the same contest as the Breakfast Club gif, this email included not one, but two, animated gifs of Prince presumably judging you for not having taken the pledge yet.  I actually felt a bit tricked here, as upon receiving the email I had assumed President Obama and Prince would be doing some sort of joint appearance.


Why to people share?

Explaining the Upworthy Phenomenon with Science

The last few months I’ve been a bit stumped by how popular Upworthy has become.  The site attracted 90,000,000 unique visitors in November 2013, which seems completely crazy to me.

I get that the site is really good at writing headlines that beg to be clicked and shared.  I’ve clicked on a lot of them.  The problem is that 90% of the time the best part of the story is the headline.  The actual content is usually disappointing.

This purse isn’t the “single greatest gift for a woman.”  This isn’t “the greatest anti-smoking video on the Internet.”  Neither is this. And I’m all for marriage equality, but this ad isn’t one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever seen.

For me at least, Upworthy fails to deliver on what it promises.  As a result I basically tolerate it at this point.  The headlines show up in my feed, but I rarely click and never share or like Upworthy content.  I’ve been burned too many times.  I would just block it altogether, but reading Upworthy headlines is like taking a Master class in click baiting.

I’m clearly in the minority though.  While the site has experienced some traffic loss recently, it is still doing quite well and its content is shared at a much higher rate than any other publisher.

I recently came across a New York Times study, The Psychology of Sharing, that went a long way towards explaining Upworthy to me.  The whole study is worth reviewing, but I found these stats on why people share particularly relevant:

  • 68% share to give people a better sense of who they are and what they care about.
  • 84% share because it is a way to support causes or issues they care about.
  • 73% share information because it helps them connect with others who share their interests.
  • 69% share information because it allows them to feel more involved in the world.

If you look at a typical Upworthy headline you will see it checks off nearly all of these boxes.  Take this headline from today, “Dear Advertisers: Please Stop Portraying Women Like This In Adverts. Regards, Women.”  By sharing this headline, I am:

  • Saying I’m the type of person that doesn’t approve of the way advertisers portray women.
  • Showing my support for equality for women.
  • Connecting with others who support equality for women.
  • Engaging in a dialogue and feeling connected to the world.

That’s a lot to accomplish in just a few clicks.  The fact that the video isn’t that interesting or funny really doesn’t matter.

I think the other thing that is brilliant about Upworthy is that there usually isn’t any downside to sharing their content.  While there are exceptions, Upworthy allows you to take stands on topics that generally aren’t actually controversial.  By sharing the above article,  I am taking an extremely non-controversial stand (women shouldn’t be portrayed as morons in ads!) against a nameless, faceless entity no one is going to defend (advertisers).

I’m being political without the nasty business of actually getting into politics.  It is like taking a stand against cancer.

For Upworthy the message sent by the content is so great that it doesn’t matter that the content itself rarely is.


10 Tools We Can’t Live Without

Like a lot of companies, the way our Brick Factory team works has changed dramatically the last few years.   We have moved away from buying traditional software to using web-tools hosted in the cloud. In some cases we have moved from traditional software (such as Microsoft Office) to web-based tools (such as Google Apps).  In other cases we have started using online tools we weren’t even really aware we needed (Browserstack, Mockvault).

In the spirit of sharing what we’ve learned, below are ten tools we use every day to do our work.

Google Apps

Every since we started Brick Factory our company-wide email and calendar system has been powered by Google Apps.  Over the last year Google Docs and Sheets have become our word processing and spreadsheet programs of choice due to the ease of collaboration and integration with our Google accounts.  As a company with a distributed workforce, we use Google Hangouts every day for our team meetings.

Google Apps is an essential part of everything we do.


Basecamp is our primary project management tool at the Brick Factory.  We use it to manage projects internally and to share resources and collaborate with our clients.

We sort have a love/hate relationship with Basecamp.  It’s greatest strength (it’s simplicity) is also its greatest drawback (it’s too simple).  Our team at the Brick Factory consists of 20 designers, developers and strategists.  Given our diverse skill sets and personalities, it is pretty much impossible to find a project management tool that is going to thrill everyone.  Basecamp comes the closest.


As a way of filling in some of the functionality holes in Basecamp, we recently started using Workstack.  Workstack is workflow management tool that allows you to view the Basecamp To Dos for each of your co-workers on a single calendar.  It makes resource management and internal scheduling much easier, saving us time.


Planbox is an agile project management tool we’ve started using on some of our larger development projects in lieu of Basecamp.   It is a bit cumbersome for managing our smaller projects, but is great for our larger builds where we follow a more formal project management process.  If you are using agile, we would recommend giving Planbox a try.


The rise of mobile and tablets and the proliferation of browsers has made testing websites a huge pain.  Browserstack makes it easier for web developers to test the sites they are building in different browsers running on different operating systems.


Mockvault is a nifty tool that allows you to present your design comps in browser, track revisions and collect feedback.  We started using it around a year ago and love it.


UXPin is an easy-to-use tool that allows anyway to create good, professional wireframes.  Our UX and design team doesn’t use UXPin for wires, but our Strategists use it to put together quick prototypes for internal and/or client review.


For a long time we used a custom system to track our time.  At the beginning of 2012 we started using Harvest for timesheets and haven’t looked back.  It is user friendly and includes powerful reporting tools.  We looked at every time tracking solution under the sun and Harvest is by far the best for our needs.


We recently started using Pipedrive as our company CRM.  We use it to track our new business efforts and to manage our contacts. We used Highrise for years and never loved it – it didn’t fit into our workflow and was inflexible.  We then tracked everything in Google Docs for a time as well.  We started using Pipedrive a few months ago and I love it.  It is perfect for us – it has the features we need while also being extremely easy-to-use.


When you work at web development firm, managing your online passwords is a huge pain.  You literally have hundreds of passwords to track and keep updated.  Passpack is a secure way to organize and share passwords among teams.  I would guess using Passpack saves our IT team a few hours a week that would be spent helping people track passwords down.

Do you have a favorite tool we should check out?