“Yet Another JS Framework” isn’t so bad after all

Summary: The web is evolving. Fast. The default reaction is framework fatigue: “Another JS framework to learn? Ugh!” But there’s a hidden upside to the rapid evolution in front-end web dev, and it benefits your happiness, your mind, and your wallet.

We’re seeing rapid evolution in the web development space. Not only is JavaScript and HTML evolving for today’s needs, but numerous frameworks are popping up to leverage the new bits and help you build better web apps.

This fast-paced evolution can be difficult for web developers. There’s a never-ending stream of new things to learn, and that gets overwhelming.

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My experience In the last 2 years testifies to this: I’ve built web apps with plain old jQuery, then Knockout, then Durandal, then Angular. And with today’s announcement, I’ll probably write my next one with Aurelia. That’s 5 different libraries/frameworks in just 2 years! Web devleopment is a beautiful soup.

But this does lead to developer framework fatigue. On Hacker News today, for instance,

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Having to learn new stuff all the time and trying to keep up is fatiguing and can be overwhelming.

But there’s another side of this to consider. Rapid evolution leads to better ideas, keeps your mind fresh and your job more interesting. It gives developers an opportunity to stand out with new skills and make more money.

Better ideas rise to the top

Make no mistake: web development has improved by leaps and bounds in the last decade. Rapid library and framework evolution are to thank.

(If a crotchety developer pining away about “the good ol’ days” tells you otherwise, he’s not telling the truth. Those old days were not good. They were littered with browser incompatibilities, unmaintainable apps, no concern for architecture or testing. It was truly the wild west of coding, and it sucked.)

When I started web development, front-end JavaScript meant adding a single giant JavaScript file where you’d do your DOM manipulation and event handlers. The DOM manipulation was usually using browser-specific APIs, and the handlers were hooked up in the global namespace.

This was like the Visual Basic era: put everything into a single file, maybe even a single giant function! We didn’t care about maintainability, testing, separation of concerns.

It was a simpler time, yes, but it was also the time when web development and JavaScript received ugly reputations that persisted until only recently.

Back in the bad ol’ days, web apps themselves generally sucked, too, as a reflection of the code underneath. Great web apps like Gmail, DropBox, Evernote, Pandora…these didn’t exist because building web apps was hard. (Pandora existed…but as a plugin-based Flash app back then!)

Since then, things have vastly improved. How?

Instead of a spaghetti mess of $(“#someVal”).parent().adjacent(“<div>”+ someVar + “</div>”), we’re doing nice and clean logic on variables. Through the magic of data-binding, those variables will be displayed in the UI automatically. The code is modular: simple HTML pages data-bind to controllers containing logic. Controllers wire up to services to load data from the server. The code is arranged in modules with single responsibility, well-defined application architecture, easy to test, easy to modify and extend. This results in better web apps with fewer bugs.

Intellectually stimulating

I actually like the fact that I must keep learning.

It’s true; web development can be overwhelming with all the new technologies and JavaScript frameworks released almost monthly. (If you’re overwhelmed, remember: you don’t have to learn them all.)

But at the same time, I like learning. It keeps my mind fresh. It keeps my job interesting. I like building things, and learning new and better ways to build things is intellectually stimulating.

Consider the alternative. In a space with slow evolution, such as mainframes, there’d be practically no moving technology forward; we’d be doing the same thing for decades, over and over again. See something that sucks about your dev stack? Too bad, you can’t change it.

As a developer and entrepreneur, I want to be doing new things, interesting things, moving the software craft forward. It is a little ego-stoking to think that moving software forward actually moves technology and civilization forward, even if in a small way.

I don’t believe there’s a world in which my skills go stagnant and I still enjoy building technology. It would get old, I would grow tired of my work, become demotivated. My job would become only a means to pay the bills.

I don’t want that career. I like a career that remains fresh, regularly infused with new knowledge. That new knowledge can then be used outside of the professional realm to build your own projects of value to you, personally. (I’ve done this with Chavah, MessianicChords, and EtzMitzvot.)

“Look ma, I’m worth a lot of money”

Knowledge is power. The more I consume, the more powerful (and valuable) I become. Therefore, I am actually grateful to be in a career that requires knowledge growth.

My last 2 gigs as an independent consultant were aided by my knowledge of a single JavaScript framework. And my hack-at-night job gives me money because I know another JavaScript framework. And my startup exists because of the new knowledge I’ve learned in the last two years.

Rapid evolution demands me to acquire more knowledge to remain relevant. I’d be hard-pressed to find work if I was still building web apps like it was 1998, or worse, building desktop apps like it was 1995. (Goodbye, CListViewCtrl. No tears.)

Summary

By continually learning, not only am I intellectually stimulated, I grow in professional value. Corporations pay a lot of money to the niche few who keep their skills relevant. They stand in awe and fork over the dollars by the truckload for the magical wizards who pound on the keyboard and produce revenue-generating, business-critical apps.

So yeah, Yet Another JS Framework was announced today. And I’m OK with that.

Show and tell: Beds and services for homeless youth

Check it out! Awesome success story here: my last project, ysnmn.org, is live! It’s a place for homeless youth to find beds and services in Minnesota. Also, we made it to the front page of Hacker News!

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I’m a big fan of helping people, and I think this project really does that.

Imagine you’re a homeless 16 year old. You need food, you need a bed to sleep in. Somewhere to shower. Cheap clothing. Maybe you need medical care or counseling. Or help with parenting your child. Maybe you’re looking for a way to finish your education and get back on your feet and off the streets.

Enter ysnmn.org. You pull out your phone, go to the website. Instantly you can see shelters nearest you:

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What buses to take from your current location to get to a drop-in center:

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What food shelves are opened and what they serve:image

What phone numbers to call, where to get medical help:image

Where to find a warm bed for the night:
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Or maybe you just need to be notified when a bed for a female 16 year old becomes available:
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It was such a pleasure building this thing! Working with people who are actually doing good in the world through helping homeless youth is a big win. It’s so satisfying building something for goodness, rather than just for business. The most memorable moment on the project was testing the app with youth ambassadors; I remember one of the kids turning to me and saying, “I wish I had this when I was homeless.” Big smile right there on yours truly.

Technologically, I had a blast building the app as the lone developer! Smile This was a nice change from my previous gig. I had quit my consulting day job to take this project – working as independent consultant in the process – and being the lone developer, I was able to architect the app as I saw fit. We were required to use the Microsoft stack, seeing as how they funded development. But I was cool with that – C# is a great language, Azure is increasingly a solid platform, and TypeScript on the client was a pure joy. I would have preferred to use RavenDB over MS SQL, but aside from that, the freedom of architecture was quite liberating from previous projects working as a cog in a bigger corporate team.

It was my first stab at using AngularJS. I had built Knockout, Durandal, and classic MVC apps in the past, but this was my first stab with Angular. I liked it enough that I’ve adopted it for most of my side projects.

Many shout outs to Microsoft and their Azure group, and particularly Adam Grocholski who not only facilitated this, but also helped us secure some additional credits and put out a few fires during development, and his wife Ann Marie Grocholski who heads up one of the local youth shelters. You guys rock!

A big thank you to the Target Foundation, who helped fund this project with a generous grant.

A big shout out to DevJam in Minneapolis. They approached me to build this project, paid me a nice sum, provide great working environment, and are generally very cool people. I had a great time working with them. Special thanks to Matt Bjornson who worked with me and the shelters the whole time, came up with some great mockups for the UI, and saw this thing to completion. Special thanks to Susan Greve for recruiting me onto this project. So glad I took it!

A shout out to Twilio, particularly Kevin Whinnery, who helped us get started with Twilio and gave us a bunch of free credits. We are putting them to good use, using them to text homeless youth of available beds. Winning!

A shout out to SendGrid and their social network people. I showed them an early prototype of this app, told them I intended to use SendGrid for emailing homeless youth when beds became available. Their reaction? A big account with lots of free credits, plus a t-shirt for yours truly!

This was a great project. I hope to work on more like it.

RavenDB MVC starter kit

Looking to get started building ASP.NET MVC apps with RavenDB? Check out RavenDB.ModernMvcStarterKit. It’s an MVC template that lets users register on your site, verify their registration via email, and allows them to opt-in to two-factor authentication via email or SMS.

Modern websites need a robust identity system, where users can login, confirm their registration via email, and optionally enable two-factor authentication.

Doing this with the .NET + RavenDB stack has had some friction:

  • The default MVC template is wired to work with Entity Framework, not RavenDB.
  • Making the default template work with RavenDB is non-trivial, and requires implementing a RavenDB-specific identity provider.
  • There is no publicly-available Identity provider for RavenDB. Or rather, there are 2 available, but they work against old versions of Identity Framework: tugberkugurlu’s AspNet.Identity.RavenDB and ILM’s RavenDB.AspNet.Identity.
  • The basic MVC template from Visual Studio doesn’t implement email service or SMS service, nor UI for this or Two-Factor Authentication, leaving it up to you to do all the heavy lifting.

To remove this friction, I created RavenDB.ModernMvcStarterKit.

In a nutshell, it’s an MVC sample project that uses RavenDB as the backend, supports user registration and confirmation via email (SendGrid), and optionally supports Two-Factor Authentication via email (SendGrid) or SMS (Twilio).

This project provides:

  • A RavenDB-backed identity provider, updated to work with the latest MS Identity Framework (2.1 at the time of this writing). This is a fork of ILM’s RavenDB.AspNet.Identity provider, updated to work with email and SMS authentication and the latest Identity bits. I’ve submitted a pull request with my changes to merge back into that repo.
     
     
  • A registration confirmation system: when a user registers, he is required to confirm his registration via email. The email is sent via your developer SendGrid account. Upon registering, the user is presented with the following screen:
    The user will receive an email with a confirmation link. Following the link, he’ll be taken to this page:
     
     
  • Optional two-factor authentication: Users can optionally go to their profile page and add a phone number and enable Two-Factor Authentication:
    When the user enters his phone number, we send an SMS verification code via your developer Twilio account:
    With Two-Factor Authentication enabled, when the user goes to sign-in next time, he will first login as usual, and then be prompted to enter the 2nd form of identification, either email or SMS:
    The user will receive a verfication code via SMS or email and be redirected to the verification page:
    Upon entering the verification code, they’ll be able to sign in.

Bottom line: this is a nice way to build a modern MVC app with RavenDB. It’s all about removing friction. Smile Check out the project on GitHub.

Enjoy!

Lap Around HTML5 RAvenDB Studio

Last month, I was honored to give a talk at the very first (!) RavenDB conference, the first of many, as I believe Raven is poised for greatness as it gains more exposure and spreads its wings outside the .NET niche.

My talk was on the new Raven Studio – built from the ground-up using modern web technologies, HTML5, LESS, TypeScript – oh yes!

I hope you guys enjoy the new RavenDB Studio! It’s now available as unstable 3.0 build. Browse the code (or heck, send me pull requests) over at the GitHub repo.

Charlatan developers and the Blunt truth

Summary: A rant on political correctness in the programming world.

Ayende, developer of RavenDB and author of popular ayende.com programming blog, has been blogging the ugly, cringeworthy interviews resulting from his company’s recent hiring round.

Some developers couldn’t sort a list of strings. Others didn’t know what framework they were developing in. Aptly summing the lot, one developer with 6 years experience and a CV mentioning multi-threading experience said, "I only know BackgroundWorker."

The short of it is, we have a lot of charlatans in our industry. (See Why can’t programmers…program?)

But the comments to these posts tell a different story: bleeding hearts sympathizing with the interviewee and chiding Ayende for blogging about the bad interview.

Kelly Somers (@kellabyte), big data extraordinaire, complained:

"As an employer, I don’t think posts like this are a professional way to behave. Although they are anonymous, there is a human trying to make a living being humiliated here and I can only imagine how they might feel after having a bad interview only to then read it up on the internet in the public eye."

Patrick Smacchia, creator of NDepend, chimed in agreement,

"I am with Kelly here…You’d better mention only positive things that happen in the interview room."

“Only the positive things.” ಠ_ಠ

I have much respect for both Kelly and Patrick and the things they’ve built. However, what’s more important, a person’s hurt feelings or telling the truth?

If I was that interviewee, I’d feel bad, sure, but I’d also come to appreciate the truthful feedback. I’d want to know that I’m failing to use loops. Had I interviewed at DataStax or NDepend, I’d probably be calling them repeatedly, receiving uncertain answers about whether I’m hired or not, everyone beating around the bush and no one telling me just why it is that my calls aren’t being returned.

Contrast with Ayende’s approach, I’d just know straight up my current skills are lacking, and that I shouldn’t be advertising my many years of developer expertise if I can’t work with for loops.

When I visited Israel the other year, people were blunt, to-the-point, and honest. It was jarring, but good. Having lived in the US for my entire life, it’s been drilled into me that you never say what’s really on your mind. Criticism should be withheld for sake of politeness. If it will offend someone, nobody really tells the truth here.

Ayende’s honesty is wonderful for that reason. Yes, even if it were my code being criticized, I’d appreciate the honesty. Wouldn’t you?

I suspect this blunt honesty is foreign to most folks from the US, and is the reason some people are chiming in with bleeding hearts. They think "positive only" is better. “Think of the human being searching for a job!” But this sort of thinking is not really thinking at all, but rather emoting, thinking with your emotions rather than intellect. Compassion to the point of untruthfulness is not actually helpful to human beings.

I’d rather know the truth, even if it hurts. Wouldn’t you?

/rant

My beautiful web development soup

Summary: Web development is chaotic, overwhelming, and beautiful. How many technologies does it take to build something useful on the web? You might be surprised. Advice for developers getting into web development.


3654636770_3b1a5d470bThis week I was working on my open source startup project, BitShuva Radio. I acquired a new client this week, but this client was unique because he’s a Java developer and wanted to know how to edit the open source code for his new radio station.

As I typed out my answer, it dawned on me that the sheer number of  technologies utilized in building a useful web application is staggering. That they actually work together is a testament of the beautiful soup that is web development today.

How many technologies does it take to build something useful on the web? Here’s my answer:

  • I use TypeScript, rather than plain JavaScript, for all client-side code. A superset of JavaScript with optional types, TypeScript is a well-structured, typed language with excellent tooling. I use it for practical reasons: as the app grew in complexity, the need for a more structured language became apparent. I ported the JS to TypeScript last month, and I’m quite pleased with the results.
  • KnockoutJS is used heavily absolutely relied on. BitShuva is a dynamic single page application, meaning we’re doing lots of dynamic updates to the UI in real time. Knockout lets us make dynamic UIs very easily without resorting to tons of DOM manipulation code. Instead of DOM manipulation, Knockout lets you change your objects, and your UI automatically updates. For example, songsOnScreen.push(new Song()) will automatically show the song in the UI, no jQuery DOM manipulation required. 
  • I use knockout.postbox for decoupled pub/sub communication between client-side code components. For example, when I hit the play button, the click handler doesn’t need to know about HTML5 audio or any infrastructure concerns. Instead, it calls ko.postbox.publish(“Play”). Whoever is in charge of playing audio simply calls ko.postbox.subscribe(“Play”, …). This way, the click handler and the HTML5 audio component don’t need to know about each other. Nice and clean. Bonus: it works with Knockout observables, so you can say currentSong.publishOn(“SongChanged”) to automatically publish messages on a particular topic.
  • UbaPlayer is used for playing HTML5 audio with a Flash fallback. 
  • For styling, we use LESS, the CSS superset. We use LESS because CSS is redundant; LESS lets us use variables and functions for code reuse, but still compiles down to plain CSS.
  • jQuery is still there, but not as much as you might think. Because KnockoutJS handles the DOM <—> code interaction, jQuery is only needed in rare cases where we need special DOM manipulation (e.g. to fade in/out an element). We also use jQuery to do AJAX calls.
  • The site generally uses Twitter Bootstrap UI toolkit for styling and consistency across the UI.
  • We’re using Google Web Fonts for typography. 
  • For images like thumb-up/down, play button, etc. these are actually font characters, from the special Font Awesome web font. Because it’s just a font, they scale infinitely without losing fidelity, and you can change their appearance (size, color, etc.) using plain old CSS stylings. Icon fonts are awesome.
  • We use Asp.NET MVC Razor view engine to actually render our UI. Because of heavy reliance on KnockoutJS, Razor isn’t needed much; it’s mostly just plain HTML that is dynamically swapped in through AJAX and KnockoutJS.
  • The server code is written in C# 5 using Asp.NET MVC 4 + MVC Web API
  • ASP.NET Web Optimization Framework is used for minifying and bundling the scripts and CSS.
  • The database is RavenDB, a modern, 2nd generation document database, easily the best NoSQL database in the .NET world. I use it because it’s blazing fast and simple to just start dumping objects into.
  • ReactiveExtensions (RX)  is used on the C# server end to treat events as observable streams, which can then write LINQ queries on top of. We also use its sister project, Interactive Extensions, for some useful extension methods to IEnumerable objects (such as .Do and .ForEach).
  • To load up the whole shebang and edit the project top-to-bottom, I use Visual Studio 2012 + TypeScript tools plugin (for editing/compiling TypeScript) + Web Essentials (LESS compilation, better tooling for HTML5 web standards, and more).

Holy cow!

Here’s the final tally of languages, frameworks, and tools used:

  • 5 languages – C#, TypeScript, LESS, .cshtml Razor syntax, plus bits of plain JavaScript here and there
  • 5 UI JavaScript frameworks – KnockoutJS, jQuery, UbaPlayer, Knockout.postbox, Twitter Bootstrap.
  • 6 server-side .NET frameworks – RavenDB, MVC 4, MVC Web API, Reactive Extensions, Interactive Extensions, Web Optimization Framework.
  • 3 tools – Visual Studio 2012, TypeScript tools plugin, Web Essentials plugin.

The sheer number of tools required to really build something useful on the web is staggering. You get the sense of why desktop developers — who often work in just a single language + UI framework (e.g. C# + WPF) — are hesitant to embrace the web. It requires massive retooling.

And to be truthful, this is only my beautiful web soup. I chose C# + KnockoutJS + TypeScript + LESS, but other web devs might prefer Ruby + BackboneJS + CoffeeScript + SASS. Or something entirely different.

The great thing is, there is so much evolution going on in web development space today, and this produces unique and specialized toolsets that help move the web forward. For example, languages like CoffeeScript and TypeScript are influencing the future direction of JavaScript.

It’s a fun time to be in web development.

My advice for developers? Learn a few web technologies that pique your interest and cook up your own beautiful web soup.