Stepping outside the Ars Orbiting HQ for a brief moment to take a space selfie.

The tools and tricks that let Ars Technica function without a physical office

Technology

Stepping outside the Ars Orbiting HQ for a brief moment to take a space selfie.
Enlarge / Stepping outside the Ars Orbiting HQ for a brief moment to take a space selfie.

Aurich Lawson / Getty

We’re running a new series on Ars over the next few weeks about “the future of work,” which will involve (among other things) some predictions about how folks in and out of offices will do their future officing. To start, let’s take a tour of the fabled Ars Orbiting HQ—because we’ve learned a lot about how work works in the future, and we’d love to share some details about how we do what we do.

Ars bucks the trend of most digital newsrooms in that we truly are an all-digital newsroom. While we have mail stops at the Condé Nast mothership in New York, there is no physical Ars Technica editorial office. Instead, Ars Technica’s 30-ish editorial staff work from their homes in locations scattered across the country. We’ve got folks in all US time zones and even a few contributors in far-flung locations across the Atlantic.

Marshaling this many remote staffers into a news-and-feature-writing machine can have its challenges, but Ars has operated this way for more than twenty years. We’ve gotten pretty good at it, all things considered. The main way to make it work is to hire self-sufficient, knowledge-hungry people, but another major part of our remote work philosophy is flexibility. Not everyone works the same way, and remote work should never be treated like a one-size-fits-all, time-clocked job. Also, tools matter—you can’t expect people to do collaborative jobs like writing and editing without giving them the right hardware and software.

The mothership

Ars Technica has been around for a while—the site was started in 1998, which is several epochs ago in computer time. As founder & Editor-in-Chief Ken Fisher added writers to the staff, the model he followed was to treat Ars almost like an institution of academia, with “professors” (the writers) functioning as dedicated subject-matter experts who undertook their own research and story development. This is a model the site retains to this day; while there is obviously central oversight, writers generally are expected to be the experts in their areas, to find most of their stories, and to manage their own output.

Much of the early Ars staff had academic backgrounds not in technology or even in journalism, but in the humanities—and this influenced what has become the traditional “Ars style.” “It was not an MBA-driven place with ideas about ‘productivity’ and ‘management,'” says Deputy Editor Nate Anderson of those early years. “It was something that smart people loved doing, and they went out and did it DIY-style, pursuing their own interests and finding places where those overlapped with reader interest. I’d like to think that this produced some of the ‘humanity’ present in Ars, even as it produced good results for a site that survived many ad-driven downturns and industry shakeouts.”

After operating independently for a decade, Ars Technica was acquired by Condé Nast in 2008, marking a major change to the business side of the site. Editorially, our culture and practices remain largely unchanged, but sales, marketing, HR, and legal are now handled by Condé Nast teams. They’re passionate about the things we are not passionate about, which works out really well for both of us.

For our sister publications, Condé manages the technology choices for its brands, including everything from the publishing system to the OS and browser versions sitting on someone’s desk, but Ars maintains our own publishing system, hardware, and communications. We do this because we believe the experience translates to a degree of expertise and because we love to tweak, optimize, and then tweak some more.

For editorial staff, our technology choices cater to employee preference. In days gone by, that might have meant Thinkpads and Palm Trios (shudder), but these days the majority of the staff are on Macbooks of one flavor or another. (Of course, if a staffer wanted to use their self-built God Box, that would be fine, too, as long as they follow some basic security best practices). But, Ars has no official operating system—Senior Space Editor Eric Berger rocks out with his Chromebook, and if I told networkmaster Jim Salter that he had to use nothing but a Mac, I’m pretty sure he’d sneak into my house and murder me in my sleep. Our only concern with the hardware we use is that it be secure and up to date.

Daily drivers

Here’s a brief run-down of the tools and applications Ars uses to get work done.

For official communications, where it’s important to have a record, Ars relies on good-old email. Email absolutely has a place in the modern office, and attempts to work without it are often based on bogglingly wrong-headed misunderstandings of what email is for and why one might use it, as seen in comments like this:

Slack affords levels of inclusion and transparency email simply doesn’t. With email the original author gets to pick who is included in the conversation and whose voices won’t be heard. That’s not the company we want.

Away CEO Steph Korey

Though ancient in Internet terms, email has yet to be dethroned as the most accessible and extensible way to send on-record communications between folks in the same office. It functions the same way as memos did in the old days (though you may be forgiven if you’ve never actually seen a paper office memo—I’m 41 and I’ve never seen an actual paper memo in my whole career, unless you count an emailed memo that someone printed out). Unlike instant messaging or hosted platforms like Slack, email is the one piece of messaging technology that you can reasonably expect to work pretty much anywhere and under pretty much any circumstances. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s an asymmetric tool that you can deal with when you have time—there’s no mental pressure to deal with an email the instant it comes in. It’s perfect for compartmentalized discussions that don’t need to happen live.

We used a locally hosted Exchange SBS and then managed Office 365 email for a number of years, but with so many staffers preferring Macs, and with Outlook for Mac being what it was, we eventually decided to save money and migrate to GSuite. Condé Nast as a whole followed suit about a year later, and the jury is still out on whether or not everyone in the building thinks Gmail is utterly terrible or amazingly great. The answer to that seems to depend on how much one likes Outlook. GSuite provides a bunch of other collaborative tools that we use, too—most notably Sheets, which I’ll get to in a moment.

For our primary “office” environment, we (along with most other media companies in the world) use Slack, the collaborative work tool that everyone loves to hate. Slack is where we discuss story ideas, workshop headlines, ask for help or a quick edit, and dodge work by sharing dumb gifs with each other.

Because there’s no substitute for talking to your coworkers, Ars staffers also all have Polycom voice-over-IP phones that support 3-digit extension dialing via OnSIP. We also have a couple of conference bridges that we can dial into and use, both for meetings between staffers and also for conferencing with outside sources.

Obviously none of us would have a job for very long if we didn’t actually, you know, write stuff, and that’s where the content management system (CMS) comes in. Every news site uses some manner of CMS—it’s the thing that you put stories into so those stories can be published. Since 2012, Ars has used WordPress as its CMS. It’s not terribly obvious, since we’ve done a fair bit of customization, but you are indeed reading a WordPress site right now.

Finally, a word on security. Ars Security Editor Dan Goodin is a staunch advocate for two-factor authentication (“2FA” for short) everywhere you can get it, and we believe in practicing what we preach. Ars mandates the use of 2FA on every system we use where it’s available. Our preferred 2FA solution is Duo, which provides push notifications for 2FA prompts and also supports hardware tokens like Yubikeys, if you’ve got them. Duo has a very good WordPress plugin and can also be used to provide 2FA for ssh logins and sudo on a variety of Linux distros. (Duo is priced per user account, and it’s free if you need fewer than ten accounts. I’ve been using the free tier to protect my own servers at home for years, and I’m very happy with the service.)

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