Speaker Spotlight: Austin Smith

I have to admit, I am a little self-conscious about speaking at WordCamp, having been a Drupal developer and devotee since 2007, when I moved to New York to work for The Observer. I have been responsible for Observer.com almost continuously since then, first as an employee and then as a partner in Alley Interactive.

Observer.com has been cited over and over as a hallmark of Drupal’s ability to serve complex, high-traffic sites, and Drupal served it well for over four years. But the last version of the site, built in 2009 on a radically different set of assumptions than what we face today, had deteriorated as strategy shifted and new ideas were quickly patched over old ones, resulting in unhappy users and a sluggish site that was difficult to maintain.

We picked WordPress because we needed a blank slate, because it fit the new design and content strategy very nicely, and because the commonality of its editorial toolkit meant that reporters would be more productive with less training. I have enjoyed learning and using WordPress tremendously, and I hope that Observer.com will be as much a credit to WordPress as it was to Drupal.

During my talk on Friday at Mission Bay, I will discuss the technical and business motivations for switching to WordPress. I will show off The Observer’s Compass-based theme which powers Observer.com, Betabeat.com, and PolitickerNY.com. I’ll demo our custom syndication system, and a custom admin area for managing featured articles on the site. I will also recount the many ways in which I have been punished for choosing a high-profile, high-traffic newspaper site as one of my first serious WordPress projects, including a battle with a certain caching plugin for the life of the database server, a really unnecessary core patch and an emergency plugin replacement at 4:30am on launch day.

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