Building a news product with agile practices: How we’re doing it

The Crunchberry Project is using agile software development practices as we build a new product for the Cedar Rapids Gazette.  On the team blog, I’ve begun writing a series of pieces detailing our process.

Part one was a brief attempt at defining agile and explaining why it’s important:

What can happen in a year?  Twitter catches on.  The stock market crashes.  Your competitor releases a new product.  A new congress is elected, and they change the laws.  It’s discovered that margarine is healthier than butter.  Your business model becomes obsolete.  And you’ve invested nine months in a product that nobody needs anymore.

And let’s just say that you’re living in a time warp, and the world remains completely static, who’s to say that you even got the requirements right in the first place?  If you’re wrong, you just invested a year of work in a system that doesn’t work for your users.

As a great Chicagoan once said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once and a while, you could miss it.”  Your requirements will change.  Agile teams are prepared for the chaos.

Part two in the series begins to explain how our team is implementing agile processes: how we meet, the weekly atomic work cycle known as an iteration, and why we think meetings are toxic.  Plus, it’s got a great parenthetical reading list:

(… If you want to do this right, read Agile Software Development, Principles, Patterns, and Practices by Robert C. Martin, and The Pragmatic Programmer, by Andy Hunt, and Dave Thomas.  Or even better, go to Ann Arbor and learn it from the badasses at The Menlo Institute.)

(Also, read Getting Real by the folks at 37signals.  Please, just trust me on this one.  It’s important.  Much more important than reading this silly blog post, that’s for sure.)

In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be sharing our design process, task and defect tracking, how we test, and lots more.  Stay tuned!

Creating community connections in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Cedar Rapids, Iowa was hit with one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history this June, when the Cedar River rose past it’s 500-year flood plain to 31.2 feet, flooded 1,300 city blocks, and put most of the downtown area under water.

When we visited the Gazette, Cedar Rapid’s daily paper a few weeks ago, the city was still soggy.  The streets were lined with discarded appliances and stacks of rotten home remains — though we were reassured that things looked *far* better than a few months ago.

A&W on Ellis Blvd. by justj0000lie
A&W on Ellis Blvd. by justj0000lie

It is in this setting that my final project at Medill began.  Our team of six budding new media journalists, under the guidance of instructors Rich Gordon and Jeremy Gilbert, has teamed up with the Gazette to create something for their community.

Our mission?  To build and strengthen connections among 20 to 35 year olds in Cedar Rapids.

Rich’s take:

The decision to target young adults was sensible, given their heavy use of digital media. Still, I think it also increased the “degree of difficulty”…. Local media companies have had some success creating online products geared to this audience, but they have usually revolved around entertainment….

This week comes the hard part: settling on the core idea for the students’ innovation. What kind of site or service will they try to build? How will this site or service connect young adults in eastern Iowa? What role will news or journalism play?

I’ve got a feeling that the next ten weeks are gonna be frantic and fascinating.  If you’re interested in following along, we’re recording our experience over at the Team Crunchberry blog.


In honor of the berry-riffic scent that wafts from the Quaker Oats plant through downtown Cedar Rapids, we named our team after a certain breakfast cereal that’s close to all our hearts.  If we can continue making champion decisions such as this one, we’re destined for success.