Java, Technology

Outsource the Scaffolding

Just today, I twittered a link to an insightful blog post, “Here’s the Deadliest Catch: Hiring an Agency to Build Your Startup”.  The title is largely self-explanatory, and I may blog my own riff on it at a later date.  Digg is often raised as a counter-example to outsourcing development of a startup, with version one developed for $200.  So how do you decide what the right balance is for you?

Ruby on Rails has this concept of “scaffolding“, which makes it trivial to get a simple web application running to perform create/read/update/delete operations on a simple business object.  So if you wanted to build a basic address book, Rails could basically create that application with a one line scaffold generate script.  It produces a simple web interface, and handles all of the database calls for you.  Java code to accomplish the same task is typically more verbose, but even if you wrote it from scratch in any language, it would be fairly intuitive for an experienced developer with no knowledge of your business to immediately understand the app and how to extend and maintain it.

At some point, almost any app becomes more complex.  The current version of Digg could not be developed for $200, and I dare say it would be foolish for someone like Digg to build an application of its current complexity completely contracted out.

I’ve been in startups all along the continuum, and made transitions between different mixes of internal versus external product development and infrastructure.  My current opinion is to outsource the scaffolding.  If you’re deploying a java/tomcat/MySQL app on a plain vanilla linux distribution, you can probably have a contract sys admin put that together for you – any other competent admin can look at how it’s configured and fix your problems.  When you start depending on all sorts of custom extensions, configurations, replication, huge scale, and/or DB sharding, it’s probably time to hire some admins that can own that custom knowledge you depend on.

The same thing goes for product development.  Are you building out a marketing web site?  An app that could be built with Rails scaffolding?  Contract it out – good contractors will realize how easy it is and crank it out for cheap (though maybe more than $200).  Most capable software developers you would hire or have hired don’t want to build or maintain that stuff anyhow.  Save internal development for the custom, proprietary stuff you need to spend time on, the meat and potatoes code that differentiates your application from everybody else’s.  The stuff that will take even a good developer more than a couple of hours to really comprehend.  Start throwing the switch to internal resources when it starts to get complicated – you’ll be much happier.  Trying to insource knowledge of a complex application that’s already been written by someone else is doable, but quite a challenge.

Atlanta, Java, Technology

The Next Episode

Back in March, I reached a decision to leave WeTheCitizens and spend some time in a contract role with Premiere. At the time, I expected that a contract gig would let me spend less after-hours time thinking about the day job, and more time on side projects and other interests. It turns out that even as a contractor, I cared about what I was working on. I consider that a good thing, we built up a good team, cranked out some pretty cool software, met some awesome people – I truly enjoyed my time at Premiere. The challenge for me on contract, was balancing life with billing more hours. In some ways, having a dollar amount directly attached to each hour of your time helps you better value your time. In other ways, it’s easy to imagine how working just a few more hours that week can earn you a shiny new gadget.

In spite of that, I was able to hatch FeatureFrame during my off-hours. It did occupy much of my creativity, and the process of building a product prototype, a pitch for Startup Riot, filing a provisional patent, designing a logo and business cards, and creating an actual business entity has been exciting, challenging, and in a twisted sense, fun. Many thanks to my Twitter posse, who often functioned as my co-founder, providing feedback and helping with decisions where I needed more than just my opinion. No I do not have stock options for any of you. Some interesting FeatureFrame news may yet be around the corner. It is still an interest and a passion of mine, and it will live on, but it’s not quite ready to be my main job.

The other thing I suspected when I left WeTheCitizens was that there were some interesting opportunities out there that weren’t crossing my inbox either because they were being filled by recruiters we’d used at WeTheCitizens, or because people generally seem to have the (often correct) impression that an executive in a startup isn’t really looking for another opportunity, at least until the startup’s been bought/folded and the earn-out is done. Being on contract actually did seem to send a clear signal, “Hey, I won’t be doing this new gig for too long, and I’ll need something interesting to do after that.”

A few moderately interesting things came and went, but one opportunity stood out, and I’m now a few weeks into my new role with Good Egg Studios. For all the times we jabbed at one of my Premiere colleagues for his work on Barbie.com, I never thought I would be working to build a virtual world for kids.  But here I am working on Elf Island.  A glance at the site and the blog should begin to make it obvious why.  This is an amazingly talented team, with the right marketing, the right funding, and the right product at the right time. The creativity and talent of the creative team is off the charts, and has combined with some talented technical resources to build a virtual world that a generation ahead of what kids are currently using.  The $2 billion valuation of Webkinz and Disney’s $700 million acquisition of Club Penguin are both examples of companies who have made this space extremely profitable.  The “secret” of Elf Island and our “play games, do good” mantra (which allows users to directly help non-profit causes) are going to be very sticky features that I think kids and adults will enjoy (even before launch, we’ve already had eager & hopeful users build us a fan site).  Our office space in west Atlanta is a win both for commute and for awesomeness – I need to take some photos, or come by and visit some time.

So that’s the news.  We are hiring a Java developer, a Flex developer, and a technical project manager (dev mgr?), so if you are somebody or know somebody who would enjoy such a role, do let me know.

Technology, Uncategorized

Create TinyURL like URLs in Ruby

Some Ruby on Rails side-project hacking I’ve been doing led me to need to generate shortened URLs.  The ShortURL gem is fine if you want to use TinyURL, Snurl, or some other external service to generate and manage your URLs, but in my case, I need to host the URLs so I can track usage statistics and redirect to a URL determined at request-time.

I wanted to avoid generating curse words, or any words for that matter, so I opted not to use vowels rather than try and figure out something more clever.  I also had no requirement to obfuscate the sequential nature of the generated value.  The result essentially converts a number to a base 54 string suitable for use as a URL parameter.

URL_CHARS = ('0'..'9').to_a + %w(b c d f g h j k l m n p q r s t v w x y z) + %w(B C D F G H J K L M N P Q R S T V W X Y Z - _)
URL_BASE = URL_CHARS.size

def generateUrl idNumber
localCount = idNumber
result = ”;
while localCount != 0
rem = localCount % URL_BASE
localCount = (localCount – rem) / URL_BASE
result = URL_CHARS[rem] + result
end
return result
end

My usage will be to convert the numeric primary key of my model objects to this hash, so that Person #1174229 could be referenced as the short url http://app.com/p?i=7sH_

Obviously, the straightforward business of inserting this value into your table, performing lookups on it, etc is omitted and should be fairly straightforward to a seasoned developer.  The function can fit almost a half-billion values into 5 characters, and doesn’t experience the stack overflow issues of some recursive implementations I found, so I think it’s pretty useful.  (7 characters give you 1.3 trillion possibilities… nice!)

I can see a pretty cool plugin being built to solve this problem… maybe I’ll get around to writing short_url_fu one of these days.

Technology

Startups & the Superhero Origin Story

Josh and I went to see “Iron Man” after Startup Riot this evening, and Josh commented how the first superhero movie is always the best.  I tend to agree, and for me, I think it has a lot to do with my love of startups (and why Superman is lame).

The superhero origin story typically follows some flawed individual who sees something wrong in the world that gives them a reason to become something great.  Startups are based on flawed individuals who see a problem and think they have a solution.  Both startups and superheros make mistakes along the way, go through awkward phases where they come to grips with their “powers”, need to reevaluate their solutions, and can emerge powerful and revolutionary.

To me, the story of a successful startup closely follows the superhero origin story.  The sequel can be done well – watching Google mess with the wireless spectrum auction was interesting, but not nearly as cool as watching them rise from nothing to trounce Yahoo, Microsoft, Altavista, and the rest in search.  The mistakes made along the way are part of the charm, and nothing will ever be as epic as their rise to fame.  Superman is lame because he’s a golden boy – he basically shows up with super powers and no real flaws.  Cheering for Superman is like getting excited about the epic rise of ESPN 2.

Java, Technology

Running Eclipse on MacBooks with Java 6

The title of this post is a bit misleading in that you apparently cannot run Eclipse on a MacBook Pro with Java 6 set as the default JDK.  Never mind that it took Apple a year and a half after the release of Java 6 for Apple to support Java 6 on OS X in the first place.  I thought Apple was “developer friendly”?  My experience on a Mac has usually been slightly better than working on a PC, except that the failings of a PC can usually be dismissed as Microsoft’s incompetence.  Apple seems to act more like a highly-opinionated jerk.

After I upgraded to Java 6 (and then had to manually change my JDK symlink even after the upgrade), Eclipse refused to start.  The system log showed:

[0x0-0xa90a9].org.eclipse.eclipse[4265]: _NSJVMLoadLibrary: NSAddLibrary failed for /System/Library/Frameworks/JavaVM.framework/Versions/CurrentJDK/Libraries/libjvm.dylib
[0x0-0xa90a9].org.eclipse.eclipse[4265]: JavaVM FATAL: Failed to load the jvm library.

To resolve the issue, I edited /Applications/eclipse/Eclipse.app/Contents/Info.plist, and uncommented this line:

/System/Library/Frameworks/JavaVM.framework/Versions/1.5.0/Commands/java

Problem solved.  Apparently Eclipse uses 32-bit SWT-Cocoa bindings, and Apple just decided that they weren’t going to support 32-bit SWT any more in Java 6, breaking any app that uses them in the process.  So the fix is to just run Eclipse under Java 5 (Java 6 projects still work in this setup).  I’m starting to lose track of the consumer-unfriendly attitudes I’ve experienced from Apple.  Their version of Java 6 is late, incomplete, and lazy.

I will declare this now – Apple is every bit as evil as Microsoft.  If Apple EVER gets the market share that Microsoft once held, Microsoft’s anti-trust violations will seem like trivial misdemeanors compared to what Apple would do with such power.  I need to gather my thoughts on this soon and elaborate on this point.

Atlanta, FeatureFrame, Technology, WeTheCitizens

Startup Riot is HUGE for Atlanta

Startup Riot will rock Atlanta on May 19th, 2008.  ~70 startups will have 3 minutes each to pitch themselves before an audience of other startups and prospective investors, employees and customers.  Bilgistic creator Sanjay Parekh has been a force in organizing this event, recruiting his high-school colleague Drew Curtis of Fark.com as the keynote speaker, and getting more than 70 regional startups signed up to pitch.

Atlanta has had several cool startup community events.  TAG‘s annual business launch competition is underway again, Atlanta Startup Weekend launched Skribit, and we have had awesome unconferences such as 2 years of SoCon and last year’s BarCamp Atlanta.

What sets Startup Riot apart is that it is ORIGINAL and UNIQUE.  I haven’t heard of ANY other cities hosting events where an early stage company can pitch their company to investors and customers for FREE.  Sanjay has certainly been working hard to make the event happen, and the costs seem to already be covered by sponsors.  It is an event I can see other cities copying, and it’s starting here in Atlanta.

Of course I have a vested interest in Startup Riot.  My previous startup, WeTheCitizens. will be pitching.  I’ll be pitching (for a whopping 3 minutes)  FeatureFrame, a video platform for independent film-makers and commercial content-producers, but I’m also interested in the community aspects.  Many, many startups that I know of will be using this event as a major catalyst for them to build their pitch and move their business forward.  I can’t wait to hear about what dozens of other Atlanta startups are working on, and for Atlanta to pioneer an event that other cities will undoubtedly look to reproduce.

Technology

RubyOnRails.org hacked?

In trying to update my Ruby gems today, I got some strange errors.  Upon navigating to the Ruby on Rails site, I saw the following:

So what’s the word?  Did the main Ruby site get hijacked or expired?  If so, this could be yet another obstacle to enterprise adoption of Ruby/Rails.

Update: This post has been posted to Digg, and comments there indicate that the RoR IRC channel has acknowledged an issue with the domain, and they are “looking into it” (i.e. – 37 Signals is calling their lawyers).