Internal Tools and Infrastructure

By Alex Muller

At everywhere I’ve worked so far I’ve been disappointed by the tools available to employees to help them do their jobs better; put simply, I think every company I’ve been a part of could have benefitted immensely from a simple MediaWiki install.

Obviously I’m aware that the lack of such a setup stems from a people problem rather than a technical one, but it needn’t be a people problem. If there’s an argument that can be made against the following setup, I would love to hear it:

To pick on MediaWiki specifically: it is so good at handling all this kind of stuff, with a visible history with each change attributed to users. I’ve never come across an employee both malicious and stupid enough to bother messing with this theoretical open wiki and doubt I ever will. And if such a person did exist, they should be handled exactly as though they’d scribbled on the walls.

This is so appealing to me because I’m the kind of person who loves to read things. I really enjoy poking through obscure documentation, and if I have the ability to fix a typo easily, I’ll do it. On Wikipedia you might describe that kind of person as a WikiGnome. People should be encouraged to edit and to make a mess, because for every well meaning employee who adds something useful with bad syntax, there’s somebody like me who will make it neat. Win-win.

This isn’t a technical problem. The software exists, and it’s really good. And it shouldn’t be a people problem either.

At this point, I’m probably just rehashing things that people smarter than me have said before. If I was creating a company I intended to grow from scratch, here’s how I’d start:

  1. A MediaWiki install as detailed above.
  2. Internal services for employees have sane domain names with one internal TLD: http://calendar.muller/, http://wiki.muller/, http://mail.muller/, etc
  3. Have an external domain that points to the same place, but only for services you want available externally:
  4. No, your department doesn’t get to buy a domain name, hire a designer/developer and host a WordPress site just to show the rest of the company how great you are. Use the wiki.
  5. Have well publicised places for employees to help you run your company better (Running a news site? Can Finance employees easily report typos? Why not?!).

A more concrete example

When I’ve got a few minutes in between work here I might pop on to The Times site, see what’s going on and find an article that takes my fancy to skim.

I did that the other day and found a pretty bad typo in an article, a remnant of an editor suggesting a text change that somehow made it through the CMS (part of the article text read “<NO1>10<NO>ten-month [sic]”). What were my options at that point?

Why is there no third option? Why is there no issue tracker for employees to report problems, especially public-facing problems that make the company look less impressive at its core job?

I’m not picking on The Times or The Sun here, just using them as an example I’m familiar with: I’ve never seen this done well anywhere, but would love to hear about examples.

And if there are any good resources about internal tools and infrastructure (perhaps even long-form articles or books?), I’d love to hear about them.

Written on Tuesday 30 April, 2013