nick fisher

To Do to Done: Jank ‘n’ Drank

Scheduling time for Medium’s non-urgent tasks.

Medium is a detail-oriented platform, but Tuesday nights in the office feel particularly fastidious. Tonight, on a Tuesday evening in July, Dustin Senos adjusts the position of the Twitter share button at the bottom of posts. Pete Davies creates a GitHub issue about rogue keystroke behavior in the Medium composer: the command+right arrow shortcut moves the cursor down a line rather than to the end of the current line. The notification goes out and someone shoots back, “Does it really matter?”

Any other day of the week, the response would be, “Not enough.” Except on Tuesdays. Tuesday evening is Jank ‘n’ Drank, a stay-late night dedicated to the idea that maintaining balance at a startup sometimes requires carefully structured binging.

Emphasis on “carefully structured”: this is not your World of Warcraft-and-pizza basement coding binge. Jank ‘n’ Drank is a proactive way to cross off the list tasks that are never urgent enough to address immediately but are significant enough to nag at you, throwing off equilibrium. Tuesday evenings are set aside to get Medium’s house in order.

Elizabeth Ford, the engineer behind Jank ‘n’ Drank, is a stickler about what, precisely, qualifies as jank. She uses a matrix, developed by Dr. Stephen Covey, to identify the jank sweet spot in which “high importance” meets “low urgency”:

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The motivating idea behind Jank ‘n’ Drank is that “critical activities,” by nature of being essential to product performance, will necessarily get done, but “important goals” can languish indefinitely at the back of your mind and the bottom of your to-do list. Jank ‘n’ Drank is all about important goals.

According to Ford, who came close to dubbing the Tuesday night sessions Work ‘n’ Twerk, “jank” is a very specific category: “Long-standing bugs, slightly broken user experiences, processes that could be automated or improved, visual imperfections in the product, development environment annoyances, hacky code that’s on the verge of causing that one bug, again, and other tasks clinging to the bottom of a to-do list.”

This definition means that Jank ‘n’ Drank projects are, by nature, forgettable tasks. When jank is pure, it improves the Medium experience in subtle but not insignificant ways. The next day, for example, email design looks nicer, but it might be difficult to identify how. A trusted tester system magically appears, allowing friends and family to try out new features. A bounty system set up by Ford allows employees to offer bounties for resolution of specific jank: a Fill This, Intern mug in exchange for generalizing infinite scroll or two packs of Tattly tattos for halting the recording of read stats on drafts.

Photo by Nick Fisher

Occasionally, deadlines and mission-critical work trump jank. Non-jank projects, however, aren’t encouraged if they can be avoided, so Tuesday evenings gear up with a lot of self-policing. “Is it jank?” one engineer asked another over phở on a recent Tuesday. Meanwhile, a product design group finished their Vietnamese, holed up in one of the glassed-in conference rooms with a few Anchor Steams, and made colorful mayhem of a whiteboard. Outside the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows, Chad Rhyner dragged Medium’s videopresence robot past, announcing, “Just performing some robot surgery!”

Is there heavy drinking? Not really. Jank ‘n’ Drank is more “jank” then “drank.” There’s dinner, which is usually heavy on the vegan options, and some people grab beers from the fridge and the occasional glass of Scotch as 6:00 in the evening turns into 9:00 at night. The round room, a communal space that hosted a meditation session earlier in the day, becomes a refuge for lively, exploratory product discussions or heads-down, quiet coding. Email inboxes fill up with GitHub notifications that bugs have been fixed and tests written. By 10 p.m., a handful of engineers might retire to one of the conference rooms for some high-spirited and well-deserved NBA 2K13.

Tuesday night commit messages are tagged #jankanddrank. At Medium’s Friday afternoon meeting, the Jank ‘n’ Drank report credits participants, announcing the tasks that moved from “to do” to “done” on the company’s collective list. Like picking up a week’s worth of dry cleaning or culling out the closet for Goodwill (or aligning that Twitter button just right), it always feels pretty good.