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README.md

Snippet Server

This server supports writing and reading weekly snippets -- status updates -- for a group of people.

When I joined Khan Academy, my first project was to write a version of the weekly-snippet server I had worked with at Google. Years later, with the help of many other intrepid Khan Academy employees, it's ready for the world!

While there are many snippet systems out there, this one is optimized for simplicity (also, free-ness). For instance, it prefers single webpages with lots of info over paging, queries, or fancy javascript. Filling out a snippet involves writing into a textbox: no fields or text editors or other barriers to productivity. (Markdown is available for those who want nice formatting.) This makes it easy to learn and easy to program with.

What are weekly snippets?

A weekly snippet is an (ideally) brief description of what you did the last week. To give an idea of 'brief': the snippet-entry textbox is sized for 4 bullet-point entries, each 80 characters or less.

Your snippets are visible to everyone else on your email domain. (So my snippets are visible to everyone who logs in to KA snippet server with a @khanacademy.org email address.) Depending on your configuration options, they may also be visible to everyone else on your server.

Why have snippets?

Different people might have different purposes for weekly snippets:

  • Instead of a weekly standup or other meeting where everyone shares what they've done in the last week, they can just read (and write) snippets.
  • Managers can read snippets of their direct reports to make better use of 1-on-1 meetings.
  • You can look over your own snippets when writing a self-evaluation or applying for a promotion, or when you have any other need to remind yourself what you've worked on.

I've found this last reason is particularly compelling. I also use snippets as a simple "time and motion" study: when I have too many things to put into snippets one week, I know I'm being spread too thin!

Another benefit of snippets is serendipidous helping: by reading someone's snippet, you may discover a task or problem they're working on that you can help with, that otherwise you would never have known about.

What are snippets not good for?

Some people go into a snippet system with unrealistic expectations and are disappointed.

  • Snippets do not work well for large groups, say over 100 people. If you have 1000 people using your snippet server, it is neither practical nor useful to read through everyone's snippets every week.

  • Snippets are, by design, a low level tool: they show you trees but not the forest. The snippet system does not support "rolling up" groups of snippets or having team-based snippets (though certain individuals could certainly choose to have their own snippets refer to a team's progress).

  • Snippets do not provide context. If you don't already know what someone is working on, their snippet may well be more confusing than enlightening.

At Khan Academy, the entire company uses one snippet server. The snippets are divided into various categories, some functional, some project-based. I like to skim over the snippets for people in unrelated categories such as "facilities" or "recruiting." I read more closely the snippets in projects I'm interested in but not working on, such as "mobile." And I read most closely the snippets of people in my own project or closely related projects.

How do you use the snippet-server?

After setting up your settings, to control things like how public your snippets are and whether you want to use plain text or markdown, there are only two web pages: the one where you write your snippets, and the one where you read everyone's snippets for a week.

The administrator can set up the system to send you reminder emails to write snippets, or to email when snippets are ready for a week. (The snippet server can also use chat systems for this.)

System requirements

The snippet server is built on top of Google AppEngine, and uses Google services for authentication. To use it, you need to clone the snippet github project and then upload it to your own appengine instance. (It uses few resources, so Google's "free tier" would work fine.)

The people using your snippet server must log in using Google (aka Gmail) accounts. The snippet server works particularly well with companies that use Google Apps for Work.

Access control

When a snippet server is first set up, the administrator restricts it to specific domains. (The Khan Academy server, for instance, is restricted to @khanacademy.org.) If you want to create a snippet on the server, you must log in via an email address from one of those domains.

You can set your snippet to be either "public" or "private". "Public" snippets are visible to everyone who has access to your snippet server. "Private" snippets are visible only to people on the same domain as you. So if you logged in as jane@example.com, only other users at example.com would be able to see your Snippet.

Email and chat

The snippet server integrates with email, HipChat, and Slack.

It can send individual emails to people who have not written a snippet for this week, reminding them to do so. (Users can turn this feature off in their preferences.) It can also send an email to all registered users, at 5pm on Monday, to say snippets are ready.

It can also send reminders and ready messages via chat. (In this case, the reminder isn't individualized.)

Installing and administering the snippet server

To install the snippet-server you will need to download the Google AppEngine SDK

Second, you will need a Google AppEngine project set up where this code will live. You can create one at https://console.developers.google.com: click on "Select a project..." in the top navbar and then "Create a project."

You will then need a name for your AppEngine project. Let's suppose you call it mycompany-snippets.

After you have those pre-requisites, you can deploy this script in two easy steps:

    git clone git@github.com/Khan/snippets
    cd snippets && make deploy APP=mycompany-snippets

Your app will then be available at mycompany-snippets.appspot.com.

If you get an error like 'appcfg.py: not found', it means you need to add the appengine-SDK location to your $PATH.

Adding administrators

By dint of creating the AppEngine project, you are an administrator of that project, and thus an administrator for the snippet-server as well. In fact, the only way to be an app administrator is to also be an administrator of the AppEngine project. You can add administrators at https://console.developers.google.com/permissions/projectpermissions?project=mycompany-snippets.

Everyone who is an administrator on the underlying Google AppEngine account is also an administrator of the Snippet Server.

First-time setup

When you log into the snippet server for the first time, you will be brought to the 'global settings' page. Fill out these settings and click 'Save'. Most are self-explanatory. The hostname is probably pre-filled to be mycompany-snippets.appspot.com, but if you have set up a CNAME (snippets.mycompany.com) you can use that instead.

Once you have clicked "Save", you will be prompted to fill in your own user settings. This is the first page your users will see, when they first log in, as well.

Once you've entered your user settings, you'll be taken to the page to enter your first snippets!

Deleting users

At any time you are logged into the snippet server, you can get to the global settings page by clicking the "app settings" button in the top navbar. You can modify the global settings there at any time. You can also click "delete or hide users". This allows you to delete users who are no longer part of the snippet server. You can also hide users.

"Deleting" a user in the snippet-server has some non-obvious semantics:

  1. Deleting a user does not cause their snippets to be deleted. (Neither does hiding a user.) Old snippets will still be visible.

  2. Both deleting and hiding a user means their name will not show up on subsequent weeks' snippet reports. This is useful for saving screen real estate.

  3. Both deleting and hiding a user means they will not receive weekly reminder or reporting emails from now on.

  4. Here is the difference between deleting and hiding: when you delete a user, the next time they log into the snippet-server they will be prompted to re-enter their user settings. When you hide a user, the next time they log into the snippet-server it will automatically use their pre-existing user settings.

As you can see, hiding and deleting are almost the same thing. In my own use, I use "delete" when full-time employees leave Khan Academy, and "hide" when interns end their internship (since we hope they'll return!).

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