State Capitol Buildings & Google: Apprenticeship Thoughts

One of the many drafts of the Mississippi State Capitol
One of the many drafts of the Mississippi State Capitol


It’s been almost two months since I’ve started my design apprenticeship at INN; I’ve had a fabulous time working in a team with people that are hard-working, smart, and generous. It’s been a lot of fun.

Here are some of my takeaways so far.

Take small steps

Learning to code and work in a developer’s environment felt daunting and foreign. I spent most of my work as a designer in print - how was I going to make that transition to web?

Mastery of any skill takes time. It’s less about ingesting as much information as you can and more about picking up bits of knowledge everyday.

Google is a developer’s best friend

Running into problems with Largo and Vagrant has been frustrating and at times, stressful. But pairing up with team members on Screenhero has taught me the importance of knowing how to Google.

Good developers don’t have all the answers, but they know how to find them.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Working remotely has its perks. As a lifelong commuter to Los Angeles, I love having the free time that would otherwise be spent sitting in traffic. But I’ve discovered that one of the cons of remote work is the awkwardness of pinging someone for help.

Not being able to physically see if team members were busy made me feel like I was bothering other people when I pinged them for help on things like error messages. But everyone on the team has been spectacularly kind and patient. RC told me something that stuck with me: It’s better to ask for help when you’re stuck than sit on a problem for three hours.

Ask for help – your team will be glad to help you.

The Mississippi State Capitol has 43 windows

So far I’ve revamped INN’s branding assets, started work on our style guide project, designed some swag, and worked on re-designing Mississippi Today. I even had my first illustration commission: illustrating a new web banner for Mississippi Today.

That means a LOT of sketches of the MS  State Capitol building. Stay tuned for a post documenting my illustration process for this project.

Until then!


75 Days to Learn and Build With the INN Nerds

Phoenix, AZ
The view from my home office when I sign-in for scrum.

My first week with INN has me reflecting on how job circumstances influence our approach to work and how we think about it.

Working remotely

My colleagues Kaeti Hinck and Meredith Melragon have some great thoughts about making remote work work and starting a job with the INN Nerds team.

Remote work has a unique set of challenges compared to office environments, but it's made easier by terrific documentation, and a friendly and welcoming team. I'm using a co-working space in my neighborhood, but I get plenty of face time with my colleagues. I've even got my own emoticon!

Working with an end date

Every job I've ever worked has come with a finite end date either at the end of a summer or the end of a semester. It changes how you approach a job.

Whenever I start a job, I count the days I have to work. This isn't an act of counting down to escape, but instead adding up opportunities. With an end date, job security is irrelevant. I'm focused on making meaningful contributions and leaving things better than I found them.

I have 75 work days with the INN Nerds this summer (70 after today). Knowing that number helps me immensely. It dictates the kind of projects I’ll pitch to my team and budget time for meetings and bugs.

Working on iterative products instead of one-off products

Prior to joining INN, all of my design and development has been for one-off products used by a single organization. It’s much simpler. One brand. One group of users. Some corners can be cut and user experience decisions are simpler.

But iterative products are much more exciting and a better investment of development energies. Each enhancement made to an iterative project like Largo helps dozens of newsrooms, and has to be documented . Building tools intended for a wide range of skill levels and organizations forces design problems to be solved more completely. The risks and challenges are greater, but so are the rewards.

Fun stuff

I pushed an initial version of NewsPub Cookbook earlier this week, a roundup of data visualization and publishing-centric development tools. It's not quite complete -- pull requests welcome!

I’ve always liked good organization-branded desktop backgrounds (the name of the team is the INN Nerds). On my personal account I use photos, but particularly doing remote work I appreciate the reminder of “where” I am (at work, even if it is on my couch) and who I’m doing it for.

David's INN desktop background (h/t Kaeti Hinck). Download

Point of View: Reflecting on My First Week at INN

The view from my remote office window.
The view from my remote office window.

Sitting down at a desk in your own home is not the traditional way to begin the first day of a new job.

As a new member of a remote team, the first few days can feel disorienting and humbling, but frequent access to my co-workers and the team's established practices enabled me to feel a part of the team immediately.

Posts, found here on the team blog, offered me guidance about remote work, insight into how the INN team works, and a template for reflection. I read through all the posts and appreciated the public record of INN's work and the team's history.

Orienting myself, with guidance and support, included slipping into the stream of both projects in process and our longer range plans.

The team's daily Scrum has been a huge help in getting up to speed, serving as a quick check-in on the previous day's work, a prompt to plan for the next and a barometer of all my teammates' projects. A few short minutes sheds light on the team's priorities and connects us together -- united by our preference for hoodies on chilly days.

A new working situation offers a fresh start, a bit like the first day of a new school year, an opportunity to consider two big ideas and themes – organization and documentation.

Decisions about how to organize communication, resources and time impact work flow and efficiency. Moving onto a new team in a role focused on supporting and documenting digital work, I am inspired to consider organization with design and functionality in mind.

I have started by thinking about existing structures and tools such as the team docs repository on GitHub.

Documentation is both a private and public endeavor. Many years as a student trained me to take copious notes. The challenge is to make them useful to both myself and my team.

As I reviewed the INN member sites using Largo, the WordPress platform that our team builds and maintains, I created a chart that identified the Largo features each member site incorporated. My intention is that the chart can be used a reference for my team and not solely a personal exercise in documenting my own exploration.

I am looking for relevant examples, templates and advice. Here are a couple that I've found helpful so far:

If you have any other favorites, please send them my way.

How We Make Remote Work Work

The INN nerds are a distributed team, which means we work in different locations and time zones and sometimes in our pajamas. Working from home full time also means we have to think intentionally about communication, structuring our days and setting boundaries around our work.

Here are a few of the tips and resources we've found helpful as we learn how to work effectively as a remote team.

Use Your Words

Remote work requires varsity-level communication. Not only do you need to keep your colleagues informed about what you're working on, but you also need to speak up about challenges and frustrations. Lacking the ambient awareness of a shared physical space, your coworkers can't see if you're struggling or confused, or if you have bruised feelings because of a miscommunication. It's on you to proactively reach out and address things sooner rather than later.

To help facilitate this sort of openness, we start every day with a short standup meeting using Google Hangouts. This allows us to review what we're working on, set priorities and address obstacles. Our weekly team meeting gives us space to discuss the bigger picture stuff, review current projects and set priorities for the following week.

We use HipChat, Google Hangouts and other tools to stay in touch throughout the day. (See the full list of our favorite tools below.)


Remote work offers the flexibility of setting your own schedule, but it also means you can feel like you're working 24/7. We think it's important to set boundaries around our work each day. Work reasonable hours. Don't send or expect responses to non-emergency email after hours. When working in different time zones, don't feel bad about reminding a team member that a late afternoon meeting in their time zone might be well into the evening for you. Taking time to not work makes our working time more productive.

During the day, it's all too easy to get sucked into our screens and not blink for hours on end. To counteract this sort of faux-productivity, we take a lot of walks and other short breaks away from our screens. Snacks and coffee are important, too.


Building habits and routines can help prevent feelings of disconnect or isolation — and feelings of wanting to stay in bed and catch up on The Vampire Diaries. The advice is almost rote at this point, but for good reason: Have a dedicated space in your home where you "go to work." Take a shower. Put on pants.

Sometimes a change of scenery can help reset your focus. Take advantage of coworking spaces in your town or the tried-and-true coffee shop work session.

And most importantly: If something isn't working, or you start to struggle with lack of direction or motivation, speak up. You may work by yourself but you're not alone.

Face Time

While we're primarily remote workers, we like to see each other's faces in person a few times a year. There are some things that are just easier to do when we're all in the same room. These IRL meetups are essential for keeping us connected us a team. We tackle long-term planning and major projects, and build camaraderie over good meals and music and conversation.

Resources and Tools

  • There are great remote work tips in this Source article by Christopher Groskopf
  • Helpful tips on remote productivity
  • The books on remote work
  • HipChat: We use this as our group chat tool and always-on back channel
  • GitHub: For versioning and hosting our open source projects
  • Bitbucket: Versioning and hosting for Largo child themes for all the member sites we host. This allows us to add devs at member organizations to a repo just for their child theme so they can commit changes to a theme for us to review and push to production.
  • JIRA: For project management, planning sprints and iteration cycles, time tracking, and service desk features
  • Bee: Combines issues and tickets from JIRA, GitHub and others into a streamlined interface. Also offers time tracking and task prioritization.
  • Screenhero: Remote pair programming software
  • Google Hangouts: For meetings and daily scrum
  • Dropbox: For file sharing
  • 1password: For password management (synced to everyone's computers/devices using Dropbox)

Also, make sure to check out our growing list of tools and services (including many of the above) that offer discounts to nonprofits.

Real Life

We can spout best practices and advice all day, but the real life application can vary drastically depending on barometric pressure, how early you woke up to a crying baby (or puking cat), and countless other variables. One of the joys of remote work is that it makes room for the realities of life. As a team, we're choosing to trust each other and extend enough flexibility that a work day doesn't have to be an immutable cage.

[Full disclosure, I wrote this post in pajamas, curled up on my couch under a blanket.]

To illuminate more of the real-life applications of remote work advice, we'll soon be launching an occasional series of interviews with remote workers — starting with our own team — that will explore how different people make remote work work: what their set-up looks like, how they structure their days, and what they do in the face of frustrations or flagging motivation. We hope to collect honest portrayals of our modern working life and learn from each other in the process. Watch for more in this space soon.

Want to share your remote work experiences? Get in touch at