Read my latest article: Six days to complete the Rails hosting survey (posted Thu, 24 Apr 2014 14:36:00 GMT)

Managing your Life the Agile Way in 2009

Posted by Sun, 28 Dec 2008 21:20:00 GMT

We’re just a few days away from 2009 and it’s that time when we all start looking back at the last year and set goals for the coming new year. I felt like sharing some of my thoughts on how I’m aiming to approach the new year.

Historically, I’ve never been a huge fan of New Years Resolutions because my attempts were always too big to successfully measure. The goals themselves weren’t poorly thought-out, it’s just that it’s really easy to make a list of personal targets, without putting a lot of emphasis on how you’re going to achieve them. The biggest trouble that I’ve had with goals is allocating enough mental energy for implementation planning. (if only I had someone to and wireframe my life…)

Due to this, New Years Resolutions haven’t been a huge success for me. I’ve found it much too easy to pass the buck onto the usual suspects, which consist of: lack of time, energy, too much work, general life changes, health, etc.

So, for 2009… I’m going to try something different by focusing on a set of best practices that I can use on a daily-basis. I suppose that my main goal is to not place too much emphasis on any specific targets and instead place the responsibility on myself to follow these best-practices and see what good (or bad) comes of it.

By rephrasing my internal conversation from, “What did I achieve this last year?” to “Am I doing things the best that I can?” I am confident that the answer will usually be, “not likely.” I do believe that through this subtle change in context, I’ll be better apt to self-evaluate how (and why) I am doing the things that I do and refactor accordingly. If we’re not consistently Refactoring ourselves (as we do with our code), we’re going to retain a lot inefficiencies in our personal and work lives, which make it difficult for us to quickly respond to changes and opportunities.

Our life (personal and work) is just another project that we manage. Much of methodologies that we spend learning about and adopting can easily be translated to these other areas of our lives.

So as I brace myself for 2009, I find myself asking, How can I lead a more Agile life?

I’d love to hear how you’re adopting best-practices inspired by Agile methodologies in your life and I promise to share mine over the coming year.

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Rails 3 and Merb

Posted by Tue, 23 Dec 2008 22:55:00 GMT

So… Rails and Merb are going to be merged into Rails 3. (link)

Has hell frozen over?

(it has in Portland the last week)

I’m curious about how the revised core team will incorporate the library-agnostic view points into Rails without increasing the complexity for configuration. For example, being able to use a different ORM is great, but at the same time, one of the things that I have really liked about Ruby on Rails was that it did make decisions ahead of time for you. Conventions over Configuration and all that jazz. While they intend to keep these defaults, I really wonder how much more configuration will be involved. Be that as it may, Rails and Merb are run by some of the best developers I’ve ever known… so I am sure these decisions will not be made without some deep consideration.

Rails application don’t all look and smell the same, but it’s nice to know that there is consistency across all of our client applications. What I’m concerned about (from an efficiency standpoint) is that this could lead to project-diversity at the cost of experimenting. Pre-Rails, the development teams that I was a part of was constantly trying out new libraries from client project to project, but this came at a huge cost. We weren’t able to leverage our experience with previous projects like our team does with Ruby on Rails currently. (hell, I even helped write two different ORMs in the two years before Rails for PHP… and still wasn’t satisfied)

But, this isn’t so much a technical problem as much as a people problem. The thing is… is that Rails helped solve a people problem with a technical answer. Having testing, consistency, and other best practices built-in did the world a huge favor. ...and all it took was someone like DHH to throw his opinion out there and stick to it. It took me nearly a full year to really embrace a lot of these conventions, but in the end.. it paid off.

While I do feel that it’s in developers best interests to try out new approaches, I just don’t think it should be on your clients dime. This was part of the reason why I quit my last job to start Planet Argon full-time. I really wanted to get away from that cycle.

Since we (Planet Argon) adopted Ruby on Rails four years ago, we’ve been able to build off of every project we had worked on before. We since adopted things like RSpec and JQuery, but our team decided on these changes after someone took the initiative to experiment with these on internal and personal projects. Having this foundation has freed up a lot of our time to focus on other issues as a team, like Interaction Design, Usability, and client collaboration.

As far as Merb itself, I honestly haven’t tried to do anything with it since about 0.2/0.3. I gave up quickly though because the documentation didn’t help me get anywhere and my time is valuable. I’ve since seen that documentation has improved drastically, but I haven’t been able to prioritize the time needed to really play with it. With Merb being merged into Rails 3, it means that I really should spend more time exploring it as we might be able to leverage some of it’s benefits without as much of an investment.

Much of the lack of great interest in Merb was because I felt Rails had consistently provided our team with a solid foundation for a majority of our internal and client applications. The old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Not to say that others haven’t expressed a lot of excitement about Merb and it’s benefits, I just didn’t see there being enough of a productivity gain to warrant the time investment required to really learn and use a new framework… and the one thing that I have had trouble with was that it didn’t sound like Merb encouraged a default set of libraries. I could be totally wrong, but that’s been the perception I’ve had based on how it was branded.

But… the best part about this for you, me, and the Rails community? Is that I don’t need to register robbyonmerb.com anytime soon. ;-)

I hope that you’re all having a great end to 2008 and am excited to see all the energy in the Ruby/Rails/Merb community. I suspect that between these two (now-merged) teams, we’ll have an even better platform to develop web applications on. I believe this is great news and I’m all in favor of seeing the Ruby community conquer these challenges that lay ahead.

Anyhow, I’m just thinking out loud. What are your thoughts?

RailsBoxcar.com 2.0

Posted by Thu, 18 Dec 2008 05:55:00 GMT

In case you missed the tweet from Alex ...

Twitterrific

Our team just designed, developed, and deployed a new site for, Boxcar, our streamlined deployment environment for Ruby on Rails applications.

Boxcar

Feel free to take a tour to learn more about our product plans, which currently start as low as $59/month.

If you have a project that you’ll be launching in the coming months, get in touch with us. :-)

Launching Ruby on Rails projects, a checklist

Posted by Mon, 15 Dec 2008 01:28:00 GMT

Since publishing this article, I have given a talk on this topic at Rails Underground 2009. I invite you to checkout the slides.

As mentioned in a recent post, I’m hoping to share some lessons that were learned throughout the process of launching a client project. Over the past few years, we’ve been part of several dozen client projects and the big launch date is always an anxiety-filled, yet exciting point for the client and our team. I wanted to provide a quick list of a few the things that our team considers vital before launching that next big project. While most of these things might seem obvious, it’s still good to cover the basics and I hope a few people find it helpful.

Hosting

Our company has been offering Ruby on Rails hosting for nearly four years and a few years longer with the PHP5 and PostgreSQL world. Given that, we’ve seen customers come to us at the last minute before they launch and wanting to get things setup and deployed right away. Quite often, this is their first experience deploying a Ruby on Rails application and there has historically been a semi-steep learning curve to do this. It’s really encouraged that you get this stuff figured out ahead of time. If you’re lucky, some hosting companies might offer cheaper plans so that you can begin to get things setup a few months or ahead of time and upgrade your plan prior to the big launch. This is how our Rails Boxcar hosting plans work.

We’ve seen a lot of customers avoid engaging with a hosting company more than a week or two before their launch because they want to reduce their monthly expenses, but the reality is that if you end up saving yourself a few hours of work by not scrambling at the last minute to get things setup, the hosting costs will pay for themselves. Several of our customers have learned this the hard way and as a result, this has resulted in extra stress that might have been avoidable if things had been ready earlier on.

The basic process that our team is to get a real deployment environment setup as early in the design and development process as possible. Often times, this will be 4-6 months before launch on larger projects. In our process, we aim to have a staging environment that mirrors our production environment. We tend to use a Boxcar Lite plan for our own client projects and get the deployment process working and automated. When it’s time to launch, we can easily upgrade the Boxcars with more resources to one or more Plus plans.

If you’re in the market for a hosting company, do keep us in mind, but if we can offer any advice, be sure to find out how you can scale upwards to meet your initial 3-6 month growth targets. Don’t worry about planning too far ahead in the future, until you see how traffic picks up and how the application and databases perform, you’ll be spending a lot of time guessing without data. If you’re new to this and aren’t sure, I’d encourage you to speak with a Ruby on Rails deployment specialist.

A few things to consider here:

  • Get your Capistrano or Vlad deployment tasks setup early. Make sure everything works and set it up to work with multiple deployment environments. (staging, production, etc.)
  • Use the HTTP Basic Authentication, which is available in Ruby on Rails to keep peeping toms (competitors, search crawlers, spammers, etc.. ) out of your project while you’re deploying to your staging environment. We tend to give out a .htaccess user/pass with this method to the stakeholders so they can access the site whenver they need to.
    • Rails documentation on HTTP Basic Authentication: view docs
    • Watch a Railscast for using HTTP Basic Authentication: watch screencast
  • Get your automated tasks (cron jobs) setup way before launch. Verify that things are working here at the right times
    • Extra-credit: Check server time settings to make sure you’re not running big tasks at time periods when heavy traffic is expected
  • Make sure your hosting provider has monitoring setup. It’s good to gauge uptime % from launch
    • Extra-credit: Setup your own monitoring with Pingdom or similar service to make sure you know when things are down. (You can audit your hosting provider this way!)

There are a handful of really great hosting companies out there for Ruby on Rails. Be sure to do your homework early! This isn’t something you want to do at the last minute.

Reminder: Keep your project releasable at all times.

Search Engines and Analytics

Before the big launch, be sure that you have outlined a consistent pattern for managing the HTML page titles on each page. Getting targeted traffic to your new web application is (usually) vital. Our team has adopted a basic pattern that we use throughout the application. This way we don’t have to go through at the last minute and figure out where titles are and/or aren’t being set.

In a previous post, I shared a basic plugin that our team uses on projects to manage page titles on a view-by-view basis.

Additionally, be sure to take advantage of using descriptive permalink URLs.

Another tip is to setup your application with analytics (google analytics is free!) If there is one thing that I wish we had setup from day one on every project in the past, was a set of conversion goals. So, be sure to get into your analytics account and prepare your application so that you can track these goals from the moment your application is launched. Collecting as much data about your visitor’s usage habits is going to help you in the coming weeks and months as you tune things based off of feedback and this data. Also, after you begin to introduce changes, you can analyze these metrics to verify that you’re improving things and not the opposite.

So, be sure that you are doing the following:

  • Have implemented descriptive page titles and urls
  • Are ready to track your site visitor’s usage habits from the starting gate
    • Conversion goals for obvious things like: sign-ups/registrations, viewing your product tour, contact requests, etc.

When Things Go Wrong / Tracking Exceptions

What happens when things go wrong? We’ve been amazed by how many projects we’ve seen have been in production for months/years and lacking something that seemed so obvious. Exception notifications! All too often, we’ve seen teams totally unaware that things were failing for their customers and not being reported to anybody. The easiest way to track exceptions in the past was to use the exception_notification plugin that the Rails team manages. You can have this plugin send your development team emails with a backtrace and all the goodies that’d normally show up in a 500 error. At a minimum, you should be using something like this.

  • Tip: Make sure your hosting environment can send out emails! (otherwise, you’ll never know about these problems…eek!)

However, in the last year, the Rails community has seen two options, Exceptional and Hoptoad introduced for managing exceptions. Our team has only used Exceptional so far, because our good friends at Contrast invited us to be early beta-testers for their new service. We love the Exceptional’s integration with Lighthouse, which is the bug/issue tracking application that we’re currently using. With Exceptional, our team is able to search through and track exceptions in our application and have a good meter on the overall health of our application. This solution works so much than the email-based approach because we can track which exceptions have been opened and sent to Lighthouse and if they’ve been closed by someone already.

I’ve heard great things about Hoptoad as well, but have yet to test it out. Would be interested to read a comparison between the two and am curious if there are other services for this currently.

Non-default 404 and 500 pages

Honestly, this is one of those things that we tend to forget about until the last minute. When you’re launching a new project, you’re bound to have a bug and/or a few broken links not accounted for. What you want to avoid is having your customers end up on an unhelpful page that looks like this:

The page you were looking for doesn't exist (404)

It doesn’t take too long to put something together that is a bit more helpful for your visitors.

AlphaClone — Page not found

So, do yourself a favor and add a ticket for your designers to design a custom 404 and 500 pages to replace the defaults that are provided by Ruby on Rails in public/.

Hold your client’s hands

If you’re working with startups, do remember that this is quite possibly their first launch. It’s important to remember that they’re going to be going through their own spectrum of feelings and it’s our job to help get them through the process with an eased mind. Show them that you have things covered, that things are ready to go, alert them when things pop up… in a nutshell. Keep them informed about the challenges and do what you can help to manage their stress. If they’ve just contracted you for an extended period of time to help get their big idea designed and developed, remember that this launch is just the beginning of the race for them. They have a big journey ahead of them and you just helped them get their new car engine built. Make sure they know that things are likely to breakdown along the way, need to be refueled (refactor! refactor!), and need service repairs. The worst thing you can do is set the expectation that nothing will go wrong once their application is released into the wild. They need to budget for this early on so that they can pace themselves after launch. (this is a big topic definitely worth of it’s own post)

Just remember that this should be a big celebration for your team and client. Remember to celebrate! (and then follow it with a retrospective)

In Conclusion

As mentioned, these are just a handful of things that we have learned to avoid overlooking (through trial and error). I’m hoping to share more thoughts on launching in the near future and would love to hear from all of you on things that you’ve come across. What works? What doesn’t work?

What is on your checklist for launching successful projects?

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AlphaClone on PostgreSQL and Ruby on Rails

Posted by Fri, 12 Dec 2008 14:23:00 GMT

tour-ss-full-berkshire.jpg (JPEG Image, 370x713 pixels)
Earlier this week, our team launched a client’s project into the public. We began working on it early this year and it was quite an endeavor for our team. The company that we helped launch is AlphaClone, a premier stock research and portfolio simulation service for individuals and professional investors alike. Clone, backtest and track over 230 top fund manager portfolios. More than 15,000 pre-generated clones and nearly limitless possibilities based on your own custom groups of funds. Take a tour of AlphaClone…

It’s hard to deny that I’m insanely proud of the team at Planet Argon for bringing our client’s business idea to reality. We’ve been enjoying keeping up on how the press is responding so far since they’ve launched. I expect that they’ll do well with their business endeavor and look forward to helping them evolve and expand.

I’ve been asked to share some stories and lessons learned throughout the project. Given that we tackled a lot on the Interaction Design side of things in addition to relying a lot more on some of the advanced features of PostgreSQL (we’re dealing with a TON of data here), we have things to share. So, stay tuned as I’ll be highlighting some of those lessons over the coming week(s).

Additionally, if you’re looking for a team to help you execute your next big idea, give us a call!

Interviewed by Database Radio Podcast

Posted by Thu, 11 Dec 2008 17:46:00 GMT

Bob Zurek, the Chief Technology Officer at EnterpriseDB interviewed me a few months ago for their new Database Radio podcast. It finally was published last week. Bob and I had a nice conversation about PostgreSQL and it’s community, our use of PostgreSQL with Ruby, Ruby on Rails, and development tools/methods.

Database Radio | EnterpriseDB

You can listen to the podcast mp3 and/or read the transcript.

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