Rambling reminiscences of building the BBC’s website

Published on 19 December 2007 in , , , ,

Anyone reading the BBC Internet Blog will have noticed a flurry of posts celebrating the 10th aniversary of bbc.co.uk.

(Funnily enough 1997 also saw the ten year birthday of this very site – Planet Bods starting in around February 1997. In fact my blog was five years old as well this year. Hurrah!)

All the reminiscing has, to be honest, got me reminiscing about my old memories of working on the BBC website. For those that don’t know, whilst I have spent the last four and a half years working in the world of interactive television, before that I spent three and a half years working on the website.

I actually started in January 2000 on the very same day as Greg Dyke became Director General. I arrived at the wonderful Bush House at 9:30, whereupon I managed to sit in reception for what felt like eternity because no one was actually in the office to let me in!

It must have been 10:15 before the team assistant found me, although by that point I was star-struck having seen George Alagiah walk through the door.

I’d been unemployed for about a month when I got offered a three month agency contract as a HTML Coder with the rather pompous sounding Graphic Design Authority of the BBC’s Broadcast Online department. At the same time, I’d had an offer of a full time job with a dot-com in Bermondsy, whose name is probably lost in the mists of time (but which was amazingly similar to Alta Vista).

It had taken some time to reach that decision and wasn’t hugely sure which was the right path to take – not helped by the wonderful intervention of the rival recruitment agent telling me everyone at the BBC was really old and it was a miserable place to work. In hindsight he was clearly trying to do whatever he could for his commission, but at the time I was extremely inexperienced in how such things work, having only left university a few months before hand.

So it came to pass that I was dumped at a desk in a small room at the end of the 4th floor of Bush House’s North East Wing. The floor was jam-packed with people, and as such four members of the coding team had been put in what was later to become a studio for live chats.

It perhaps wasn’t the best way to start a job. My boss didn’t turn up until about 10:45 (sorry Nick, but I have to name and shame you here!), no one showed me where the canteen was, nor indeed where the toilet was. In fact barely anyone spoke to me at all. At 11am everyone went off to watch Greg’s first day speech on the internal TV network and I sat there reading the intranet wondering what on earth I was supposed to be doing.

Despite that rather odd start, I did end up working on some pretty good projects over the years. At the time I started in the coding team, most of the work was pure brochure-ware – static sites made by following a Photoshop file. However I ended up on one of the rare examples of a BBC application – the extensively blogged about myBBC.

This ended up opening the doors for other app work for me, including Howerd 2 – a replacement for the BBC’s overloaded message board system (called Howerd), as well as being the coder on the Project Bromsgrove – the revamp of the BBC search engine service – back in 2001, working alongside (but barely ever talking to!) Martin Belam.

The search engine was to go live with the launch of the new BBCi brand – a united name for the website and interactive TV offerings – which meant I was sat in Bush House at midnight, eating pizza and drinking Coke, waitng for the changes to happen.

2001 also saw me work with the Interactive TV department on a web on TV version of myBBC and the message boards. I also mocked up a series of games and stories using a web on TV box – early prototypes for BBCi’s CBeebies service.

I was also offered the chance to code the BBC’s interactive cable service for about six months. My experience with coding web on TV was never a particularly pleasant one, and it became the only project I ever turned down.

In 2002 I also got to do something quite different – essentially being seconded to a company called Kitsite who were working with the BBC on a content management trial. Until that point, all the BBC’s Where I Live sites were built in Dreamweaver, which was obviously not the best way to do it.

The aim was to trial the idea of using a proper system instead, so I was dispatched to work with Kitsite in their offices near Borough Market, working with them so we could build the site, and they could understand the various specific requirements the BBC had. The site – for BBC Coventry launched in April 2002, and had given me some pretty interesting trials in trying to balance off all the different needs and requirements.

Being the only person who really understood how the message boards worked, meant I kept being sucked back to that and I spent some time assigned with the Connect cluster who did community software. I spent about a week on the Single Sign-on project (at that point known as Project Fingerprint) before being sucked off to work on the Chat Production Tool – a new system to make live chats work better. There was also the Member Pages project which never got past its initial stages but which was great fun, and the chance to do my first bit of production, as the Product Manager for the new postcode box for the BBC Homepage redesign of 2002.

Back when I’d started, that would never have happened. Coder wasn’t exactly the most respected position – you were expected to “just do what you were told”. Some designers would throw huge strops if the reality didn’t match exactly what was in their PSD. However over the years that attitude had changed as some of the old TV-style producers and managers had left and been replaced by, well people who knew a bit more about it. There was a growing recognition that actually technical people actually knew things, and they had knowledge that was useful in developing products.

When Tom Loosemore asked me to look after the launch of the postcode box, he told me he didn’t care about job specs – he just wanted someone who could get their head round what was needed to be done. In just two and a half years, a lot had changed.

As a role it was to prove pretty useful in my thoughts about changing jobs. I’d already considered moving out of coding – applying for an Assistant Producer role on listings whilst I was working on the Coventry site.

I didn’t get the job, but when, about six months later, I got an interview for a Senior Client Side Developer (as we were then called) role, I eventually decided to turn down the interview, deciding instead to try and get into production sooner rather than later.

It wasn’t the best timing – jobs were scarce due to a looming redundancy round and hiring freeze. I was close to packing it in and looking outside the BBC when, in the summer of 2003, a batch of jobs came up for Assistant Development Producers.

After a torturous interview which was half an hour late (thanks to the HR rep being stuck on a train which was stuck behind a train which was on fire), held in the middle of summer in a horrible room with no ventilation in Henry Wood House, near Broadcasting House. I vividly remember the sweat pouring down my face in the interview. I was amazed when I got the job, celebrating with a couple of other people I worked with.

There were quite a few roles going, which meant I had various options on which department to go to. One was working on the new message board systems, another joining interactive TV. In the end I decided to break with the past completely – start afresh with new people. In August 2003 I left the world of online and went to TV. Same department – different floor. One of my final pieces of work was to re-do the 404 page.

My leaving the Client Side Development team was pretty muted. My final day as a CSD was hastily brought forward thanks to having a funeral to attend. I popped out for a few drinks with my colleagues before rushing back to the flat to pack. But then I wasn’t going far anyway and I’d continue to see everyone quite regularly.

Still, looking back it there were some good times, some good projects, some good people. There’s a lot of work I did back then that I remain very proud of. True, by modern standards, most of the code is now offficially deemed “awful” and thankfully mostly long gone, but back then it did what it did and looking back now, there was some good stuff in there.

As I mentioned recently, next year will be five years with the red button and it may be time for a change. Will it be a change that goes off to the interesting world of Web 2.0 with its betas and pastels? Well only time will tell!