This blog has moved. I’m now over at debuggerdotbreak.judahgabriel.com.
See you there,
This blog has moved. I’m now over at debuggerdotbreak.judahgabriel.com.
See you there,
Summary: A modern dev stack for modern web apps. See how I built a new web app using RavenDB, Angular, Bootstrap and TypeScript. Why these tools are an excellent choice for modern web dev.
Twin Cities Code Camp (TCCC) is the biggest developer event in Minnesota. I’ve written about it before: it’s a free event where 500 developers descend on the University of Minnesota to attend talks on software dev, learn new stuff, have fun, and become better at the software craft.
I help run the event and this April, we are hosting our 20th event. 20 events in 10 years. Yes, we’ve been putting on Code Camps for a decade! That’s practically an eternity in internet years.
For the 20th event, we thought it was time to renovate the website. Our old website had been around since about 2006 – a decade old – and the old site was showing its age:
It got the job done, but admittedly it’s not a modern site. Rather plain Jane; it didn’t reflect the awesome event that Code Camp is. We wanted something fresh and new for our 20th event.
On the dev side, everything on the old site was hard-coded – no database – meaning every time we wanted to host a new event, add speakers or talks or bios, we had to write code and add new HTML pages. We wanted something modern, where events and talks and speakers and bios are all stored in a database that drives the whole site.
Taking at stab at rewriting the TCCC websiite, I wanted to really make it a web app. That is, I want it database-driven, I want some dynamic client-side functionality; things like letting speakers upload their slides, letting attendees vote on talks, having admins login to add new talks, etc. This requires something more than a set of static web pages.
Additionally, most of the people attending Code Camp will be looking at this site on their phone or tablet. I want to build a site that looks great on mobile.
To build amazing web apps, I turn to my favorite web dev stack:
this.itemText = "zanzibar";
I find these tools super helpful and awesome and I’m pretty darn productive with them. I’ve used this exact stack to build all kinds of apps, both professional and personal:
And a bunch of internal apps at my current employer, 3M, use this same stack internally. I find this stack lets me get stuff done quickly without much ceremony and I want to tell you why this stack works so well for me in this post.
I’m at the point in my career that I don’t put up with friction. If there is friction in my workflow, it slows me down and I don’t get stuff done.
RavenDB is a friction remover.
My old workflow, when I was a young and naïve developer, went like this:
This went on and on. It wasn’t until I tried RavenDB did I see that all this friction is not needed.
SQL databases were built for a different era in which disk space was at a premium; hence normalization and varchar and manual indexes. This comes at a cost: big joins, manual denormalization for speed. Often times on big projects, we have DBAs building giant stored procedures with all kinds of temp tables and weird optimization hacks to make shit fast.
Forget all that.
With Raven, you just store your stuff. Here’s how I store a C# object that contains a list of strings:
Notice I didn’t have to create tables. Notice I didn’t have to create foreign key relationships. Notice I didn’t have to create columns with types in tables. Notice I didn’t have to tell it how to map codeCampTalk.Tags – a list of strings – to the database.
Raven just stores it.
And when we’re ready to query, it looks like this:
db.Query<Talk>().Where(t => t.Author == "Jon Skeet");
Notice I didn’t have to do any joins; unlike SQL, Raven supports encapsulation. Whether that’s a list of strings, a single object inside another object, or a full list of objects. Honey Badger Raven don’t care.
And notice I didn’t have to create any indexes. Raven is smart about this: it creates an index for every query automatically. Then it uses machine learning – a kind of AI for your database – to optimize the ones you use the most. If I’m querying for Talks by .Author, Raven keeps that index hot for me. But if I query for Talks by .Bio infrequently, Raven will devote server resources – RAM and CPU and disk – to more important things.
It’s self optimizing. And it’s friggin’ amazing.
The end result is your app remains fast, because Raven is responding to how it’s being used and optimizing for that.
And I didn’t have to do anything make that happen. I just used it.
Zero friction. I love RavenDB.
If you’re doing .NET, there really is no reason you shouldn’t be using it. Having built about 10 apps in the last 2 years, both professional and side projects, I have not found a case where Raven is a bad fit. I’ve stopped defaulting to crappy defaults. I’ve stopped defaulting to SQL and Entity Framework. It’s not 1970 anymore. Welcome to modern, flexible, fast databases that work with you, reduce friction, work with object oriented languages and optimize for today’s read-heavy web apps.
In the bad ol’ days, we’d write front-end code like this:
Then, we discovered JQuery, which was awesome. We realized that the browser was fully programmable and JQuery made it a joy to program it. So instead of doing postbacks and having static pages, we could just update the DOM, and the user would see the new email address:
And that was good for users, because the page just instantly updated. Like apps do. No postback and full page refresh; they click the button and instantly see the results.
This was well and good. Until our code was pretty ugly. I mean, look at it. DOM manipulation isn’t fun and it’s error prone. Did I mention it was ugly?
What if we could do something like this:
No ugly DOM manipulation, we just change variables and the browser UI updates instantly.
This is data-binding, and when we discovered it in the browser, all kinds of frameworks popped up that let you do this data-binding. KnockoutJS, Ember, Backbone, and more.
This was all well and good until we realized that while data-binding is great, it kind of sucks that we still have full page reloads when moving from page to page. The whole app context is gone when the page reloads.
Enter AngularJS. Angular makes it a breeze to build web apps with:
Angular also add structure. You load data using service classes. Those services classes are automatically injected into your controllers. Your controllers tell the service classes to fetch data. When the data returns, you set the variable in your controller, and the UI automatically updates to show the data:
Nice clean separation of concerns. Makes building dynamic apps – apps where the data changes at runtime and the UI automatically shows the new data – a breeze.
We can instead write concise and clean, intellisense-enabled TypeScript like this:
Ahhh…lambdas, classes, properties. Beautiful. All with intellisense, refactoring, error detection. I love TypeScript.
You don’t need to drink $15 Frappamochachino Grandes to design elegant UIs.
We’ve got code at our disposal that gives us a nice set of defaults, using well-known UI concepts and components to build great interfaces on the web.
Bootstrap, with almost no effort, makes plain old HTML into something more beautiful.
Add a Bootstrap class to the <table> and it’s suddenly looking respectable:
A plain HTML button:
Add one of a few button classes and things start looking quite good:
Bootstrap gives you a default theme, but you can tweak the existing theme or use some pre-built themes, like those at Bootswatch. For TwinCitiesCodeCamp.com, I used the free Superhero theme and then tweaked it to my liking.
Bootstrap enables these components using plain HTML with some additional CSS classes. Super easy to use.
Bootstrap also makes it easy to build responsive websites: sites that look good on small phones, medium tablets, and large desktops.
Add a few classes to your HTML, and now your web app looks great on any device. For TwinCitiesCodeCamp, we wanted to make sure the app looks great on phones and tablets, as many of our attendees will be using their mobile devices at the event.
Here’s TwinCitiesCodeCamp.com on multiple devices:
This is all accomplished by adding a few extra CSS classes to my HTML. The classes are Bootstrap responsive classes that adjust the layout of your elements based on available screen real-estate.
RavenDB, AngularJS, TypeScript, Bootstrap,. It’s a beautiful stack for building modern web apps.
TwinCitiesCodeCamp code is on GitHub.
Last week I sent the dreaded, “I’m going out of business” email to clients of my BitShuva Radio startup:
A few years ago, I wrote a piece of software to solve a niche problem: the Messianic Jewish religious community had a lot of great music, but no online services were playing that music. I wrote a Pandora-like music service that played Messianic Jewish music, Chavah Messianic Radio was born, and it’s been great. (Chavah is still doing very well to this day; Google Analytics tells me it’s had 5,874 unique listeners this month – not bad at all!)
After creating Chavah, I wrote a programming article about the software: How to Build a Pandora Clone in Silverlight 4. (At the time, Silverlight was the hotness! I’ve since ported Chavah to HTML5, but I digress.)
Once that article was published, several people emailed me asking if I’d build a radio station for them. One after another. Turns out there many underserved music niches. Nigerian music. West African soul. Egyptian Coptic chants. Indie artists. Instrumentals. Ethiopian pop. A marketplace for beats. Local bands from central Illinois. All these clients came out of the woodwork, asking me to build clones of my radio station for their communities.
After these clients approached me – with no marketing or sales pitches on my part – it looked like a good business opportunity. I founded BitShuva Radio and got to work for these clients. I had founded a startup.
But after almost 2 years, making less than $100/month on recurring monthly fees, and spending hours every week working for peanuts, I’ve decided to fold the startup. It wasn’t worth my time, it was eating into my family life, preventing me from working on things I really wanted to work on. So this week, I cut the cord.
Along the way, I learned so much! Maybe this will help the next person who does their first startup.
Here’s what I learned:
When I acquired my first client, I had no idea how much to charge. For me, the work involved forking an existing codebase, swapping out some logos and colors, and deploying to a web server. A few hours of work.
I dared to ask for the hefty sum of $75.
Yes, I asked for SEVENTY-FIVE WHOLE DOLLARS! I remember saying that figure to the man on the other end of the phone – what a thrill! – $75 for forking a codebase, ha! To my surprise, he agreed to this exorbitant charge.
In my startup newbie mind, $75 seemed totally reasonable for forking a codebase and tweaking some CSS. After all, it’s not that much work.
What I didn’t understand was, you charge not for how much work it is for you. You charge how much the service is worth. A custom Pandora-like radio station, with thumb-up and –down functionality, song requests, user registration, playing native web audio with fallbacks to Flash for old browsers – creating a community around a niche genre of music – that’s what you charge for. That’s the value being created here. The client doesn’t care if it’s just forking a codebase and tweaking CSS – to him, it’s a brand new piece of software with his branding and content. He doesn’t know what code, repo forking, or CSS is. All he knows is he’s getting a custom piece of software doing exactly what he wants. And that’s worth a lot more than $75.
It took me several clients to figure this out. My next client, I tried charging $100. He went for it. The next client $250. The next client $500. Then $1000.
I kept charging more and more until finally 3 clients all turned down my $2000 fee. So I lowered the price back to $1000.
Money is just business. It’s not insulting to ask for a lot of money. Change as much as you can. Had I knew this when I started, I’d have several thousand dollars more in my pocket right now.
When I built my first the first radio software, Silverlight seemed like a reasonable choice. HTML5 audio was nascent, Firefox didn’t support native MP3 audio, IE9 was still a thing. So I turned to plugins.
Over time, plugins like Silverlight fell out of favor, particularly due to the mobile explosion. Suddenly, everyone’s trying to run my radio software on phones and tablets, and plugins don’t work there, so I had to act.
I ported my radio software code to HTML5, with Flash fallbacks for old browsers. KnockoutJS was the the new hotness, so I moved all our Silverlight code to HTML5+CSS3+KnockoutJS.
As the software grew in complexity, it became apparent you really need something more than data-binding, but Knockout was just data-binding. Single Page Application (SPA) frameworks became the new hotness, and I ported our code over to DurandalJS.
Soon, Durandal was abandoned by its creator, and said creator joined the AngularJS team at Google. Not wanting to be left on a dying technology, I ported the code to Angular 1.x.
Shortly after, the Durandal author left the Angular team over issues with the Angular vNext design, and founded Aurelia.
If I was continuing my startup today, I’d be looking at riding that wave and moving to Aurelia or Angular 2.
What am I saying? Staying on top of the technology wave is a balancing act: stand still and you’ll be dead within a year, but move to every new hotness, and you’ll be forever porting your code and never adding new features. My advice is to be fiscally pragmatic about it: if your paying clients have a need for new technology, migrate. Otherwise, use caution and a wait-and-see approach.
Applying this wisdom in hindsight to my startup, it was wise to move from Silverlight to HTML5 (my paying clients needed that to run on mobile). However, jumping around from Knockout to Durandal to Angular did little for my clients. I should have used more caution and used a wait-and-see approach.
My startup grew out of clients asking for custom versions of my radio software. “Oh, you have a Pandora clone? Can you make one for my music niche?”
Naturally, I spent most of my time building custom software. They pay me a nice up-front sum ($1000 in the latter days), and we go our merry way, right?
Turns out, it’s a terrible business model. Here’s why:
Clients continually want more features, bug fixes, more customization. I charged that $1000 up-front fee to build a custom station, but then would spend many hours every week responding to customer complaints, customer requests, bug fixes, performance fixes, new features. And I didn’t charge a dime for that. (After all, the client’s perspective was, “I already paid you!”)
In hindsight, I should have built a customizable platform, ala WordPress, in which potential radio clients could go to my website, bitshuva.com, spin up a new radio station (mystation.bitshuva.com), customize it in-browser, let them use the whole damn thing for free, and when they reach a limit of songs or bandwidth, bring up a PayPal prompt. All of that is automated, it doesn’t require my intervention, and it’s not “custom” software, it’s software that the client themselves can customize to their OCDified heart’s content.
Had I done that, my startup probably would be making more money today, maybe even sustainably so.
Bottom line: Unless a client is paying for 25% of your annual salary, don’t go follow the “I’ll build a custom version just for you, dear client” business model. It’s a fool’s errand.
I’m a people-pleaser. So, when a person pays me money, I amplify that people pleasing by 10.
“Hey, Judah, can you add XYZ to my radio station this week?”
“Judah! Buddy! Did you fix that one thing with the logins?”
“How’s it going, Judah! Where is that new feature we talked about?”
“Hey Judah, hope it’s going well. When are you going to finish my radio station features? I thought we were on for last week.”
I wanted to please my precious clients. So of course I said “yes”. I said yes, yes, yes, until I had no time left for myself, my sanity, my family.
A turning point for me for over late December, at my in-laws. I was upstairs working, rather than spending the holidays with my kids, my wife. “What the hell am I doing?” The amount of money I was making was small beans, why am I blowing my very limited time on this earth doing *this*?
You see why folks in the YCombinator / Silicon Valley startup clique put so much emphasis on, “You should be young, single, work exclusively on your startup, all-in committal.” I can totally see why, but I also completely don’t want that lifestyle.
Maybe if I had followed YCombinator-level devotion to my startup, it would have grown. But the reality is, I value things outside of software, too. 🙂 I like to chill and watch shows and eat ice cream. I like to relax on the couch with my wife. I like to teach my son how to drive. I like to play My Little Ponies with my daughter. I like to play music on the guitar. I like to work on tech pet projects (like Chavah, MessianicChords, EtzMitzvot).
The startup chipped away at all that, leaving me with precious little time outside of the startup.
On a more positive note, running a startup taught me all kinds of things I would have never learned as a plain old programmer.
When I launched my startup, I was mostly a Windows desktop app developer (i.e. dead in the water). I didn’t know how to run websites in IIS, how to work with DNS, how to scale things, didn’t understand web development. I didn’t know how to market software, how to talk to clients, what prices to charge, didn’t have an eye for “ooh, I could monetize that…”
Building a useful piece of software — a radio station used by a few thousand people — forces you to learn all this crap and become proficient and building useful things.
In the end, getting all retrospective and and hindsight-y here, I’m glad I took the plunge and did a startup, even if it didn’t work out financially, because I learned so much and am a more rounded technological individual for it. Armed with all this knowledge, I believe I will try my hand at a startup again in the future. For now, I’m going to enjoy my temporary freedom. 🙂
Thanks for reading.
Summary: With the departure of Microsoft’s CEO, what does the future hold? Irrelevance, unless a visionary comes to change course.
Microsoft’s original vision — a PC on every desk and in every home — was a grand, future-looking vision. And Microsoft succeeded, that old vision is today’s reality; everyone has a computer and Microsoft is largely to thank for that.
But today? Microsoft’s Ballmer-guided mantra, "We are a devices and services company", is not a grand vision. From the outside, Microsoft appears to be directionless, reactionary, playing catch-up.
Directionless: What’s the grand Microsoft goal, what are they trying to achieve? The answers seems to be the mundane business goal of selling more copies of Windows. OK, that makes business sense in the short term. What about the future?
Reactionary: Microsoft got a PC on every desk. But instead of pushing computing forward via the web & mobile devices, they’ve been reactionary: letting these revolutions happen outside the company, then retrofitting their old stuff to the new paradigm.
Catch-up: Microsoft had a PDA, but never advanced it; it couldn’t make phone calls. Microsoft won the browser war, then did nothing; it couldn’t open multiple tabs. Microsoft had a tablet, but never pushed it to its potential; it never optimized for touch.
Instead, Microsoft stagnates while a competitor steps in and blows us away with PDAs that make phone calls, tablets that boot instantly, app stores that reward developers for developing on your platform, and browsers that innovate in speed and security and features. Microsoft continues to play catch-up, when they should be leading technology forward.
Microsoft needs a grand vision and someone to drive it. They need a forward-looking leader to drive this vision. If they want to be a devices company, innovate with hardware – maybe flexible, haptic displays for Windows Phone, for example. The huge R&D budget — $9.4 billion in 2012, outspending even Google, Apple, Intel and Oracle — could play into this.
Will the next Microsoft CEO be a forward-looking tech visionary? Microsoft is headed towards consumer irrelevance and business stagnation. I’m convinced it will arrive at that destination unless a future-minded visionary reroutes the mothership.
Just finished giving this tech talk:
It may sound grandiose, but it’s essentially true: developers have a superpower. We’re the inventors of the modern age. We have a unique power that is new to humanity: we can build useful things and instantly put a thousand eyeballs on it. All for about $0 and very little time investment.
(My startup company, BitShuva internet radio, was the product of about a weekend’s work, where I churned out a minimally viable product and published it in 2 days. The net result is several radio stations across the web and a few thousand dollars in the bank.)
The things we’re doing with software are diverse and jaw-dropping:
Software is doing that, and more: giving us turn-by-turn directions, driving our cars, winning Jeopardy!, challenging Chess champions, letting us communicate with anyone in the world at anytime…the list is staggering and is only increasing.
And we, software developers, are the ones who make it all happen. This bodes well for our careers.
Building software is a superpower that shouldn’t be wasted building CRUD apps for insurance companies. That may be necessary to pay the bills, but developers should build their side projects to advance their goals and tackle the things they want to tackle.
Build your side project, build what’s interesting to you, build what you think the world needs. If nothing else, you’ll expand your horizons. And if it works out, you might just have contributed something useful to the world and even made a little money on the side.
Looking for good software & technology conferences in 2013? I did a bit of scrounging around, talked with some colleagues, and came up with this big list of 2013 dev conferences, ordered by date.
Author’s note: I attended the spring <anglebrackets> in April, and it was positively fantastic. Highly recommend this conference.
If you’re into futurism and technology evolution, The Singularity Summit might be for you, with speakers like Ray Kurzweil and Peter Norvig. The dates for 2013 are yet unannounced.
As for me, I’m headed to anglebrackets/DevIntersection in April. This dual conference will host speakers like Scott Hanselman, Phil Haack, Damian Edwards, Elijah Manor, Christian Heilmann. Should be a blast!
Know any good conferences not listed here? Let me know in the comments.
Summary: Joining the Twin Cities Code Camp leadership team. Being interviewed by Mike Hodnick, a well-known Minnesota developer and Code Camp leader. We talk software, the future, code camps, and, of course, llamas. If you find this amusing, you may want to follow up when the tables are turned and I interview Mike.
Who are you?
I’m Judah Gabriel Himango, I work for Avtex. I like programming. I like thinking about technology futures and the evolution of software. But mostly I like programming. Creating things is fun.
What are you most excited about in joining the TCCC leadership team?
The existing TCCC leadership is composed of some of the most well-known, respected names in the Minnesota software community. If I surround myself with excellent people, I might trick people into thinking I’m excellent, too.
Why is TCCC a great event to you?
Code Camp gave me perspective on the Minnesota dev community. Helps you see the broader picture, outside of your little technology ghettos and outside your company. I love talking with nerdly folk; with them I am in my element! 🙂 Really, the reason Code Camp rocks is the people. You get to talk to other devs you’d normally never be exposed to. Good networking comes out of that, but it’s not all about career — it’s good to pick other people’s brains, hear what other people are building, expand your own ideas and horizons. Code Camp does that. Oh, and the tech presentations are fun, too.
Llamas or Alpacas?
In my last Code Camp talk, I built, in front of a live audience, Twin Cities Llama Radio. Oh yeah! May the llamas reign forever and ever.
As a programmer, what is your technology comfort zone (what do you typically work with)?
Oh man. I typically work web dev these days — everything is moving to the web. But, honestly, even though I’ve done web dev for 2 years, I’m not really comfortable, in fact, I feel inadequate. It’s like I should really know more than I do, and someday, somebody’s gonna find me out and expose me as an imposter. Even in my talks, I preface my them with, “Hey, I am not an expert! Forgive me for blatant factual errors. But listen to me anyways.” 🙂
But, yeah, web dev is where I’m working now, where I think the most innovation is happening, and where I’ll be for the foreseeable future.
What is a hidden gem of programming that you think every programmer should know about, but most don’t?
Distributed map/reduce function in Erlang. Yes, Bob, I did.
Do you contribute to any open source projects?
Yeah, I’m a big believer in open source, honestly. I’ve contributed to some libraries I’ve found useful, such as HtmlAgility Pack, RhinoMocks, Lucene.NET, and Ninject. I’ve also created a few open source projects for my own stuff, like Chavah Radio. I’m currently in the process of launching a startup, and my main product will be open source as well.
Second try: llamas or alpacas?
Alpacas are llama-wannabes with an inferiority complex. Also, did you know *anyone* can start a Alpaca farm? That’s what an infomercial told me. I mean, are Alpacas so depraved and needy that they resort to late night infomercials? Llamas, dignified and honored as they are, would never stoop to such a low.
Five years ago, did you see yourself doing what you are doing now?
No way! I was really sheltered, actually. I was at a small company writing software; they treated me really well, and I have fond memories of my time there, but I was kind of living in a technology ghetto, ignorant of the state of technology, jobs, and trends in the industry. Code Camp helped me break out of that and see the broad software community, engage with other software people, exchange ideas. Since then, I’ve started speaking at software conferences and user groups, growing my skills, expanding my horizons. I think the last 5 years have been awesome, I’ve advanced myself professionally, I look back and am astounded at how far I’ve come. (Woohoo, go me! :pats self on back:). I’m looking forward to the next 5.
Why does a mouse when it spins?
LOL. At first, I read that, and I was like — wait, is that a typo? OH LOLZ HE MADE A MISTAKE!!111 But then I Googled it, and now I see the light and higher the few. Probably the same difference as a duck, one has wheels. Yee-ahhh!