Startups are built with both Undone and Unsung Engineering

For me, web engineers are the magicians behind the curtain. That can mean not-a-lot of glory.

But for engineers like myself, undone engineering is more painful than unsung engineering.??One of the most difficult aspects of being a good engineer is knowing when to sacrifice good engineering. ??Startups, are by definition, challenging the established way of doing business, so the established way of doing great engineering sometimes isn’t good enough to survive. ??

( Although this is a topic pretty well covered in writing about startups , I try translate the constraints of a startup into what a priority list for technical leadership might look like. )??

Everything in a startup changes fast.??Engineering is managed chaos.??There are new team members, new customers, new data, new open source libraries, etc. Good engineering can accommodate change, but usually change is unexpected. As a side effect, the non-technical team begins to depend on the shortcuts, and the shortcuts begin to show their weaknesses. The design team has new ideas, and you can’t say yes as often as you used to.??

But you survive.??

Here are the priorities I use to keep everything moving for a web application startup (follows an 80 / 20 rule pretty well):

  1. protect the data (files/database, etc)
    1. back it up
    2. make sure data is valid (ideally some smoke tests, unit tests, regression tests on the data layer of an application)
    3. back it up
    4. source control with easy to understand policies and branching
    5. back it up
    6. automate backing it up
  2. fix problems with the user experiences
    1. small visual problems can make people … disgusted. Fonts, cross browser issues take a lot of time, but matter to people who expect things to work.??
    2. client (browser) speed – a small javascript issue can cause a page load to appear to take 5 seconds. Perceived performance is all that matters.??
    3. fix display issues – if they think data is lost, then it is??
    4. integrated QA team – make everyone on the team test the site, but not their own work.
  3. make coding fast
    1. establish team communication that makes product iteration rapid
    2. use frameworks, existing but stable libraries (open source so you can fix critical problems yourself)
    3. keep version control and deployment as automated as possible for the whole team
    4. write easy to understand code
    5. document code and best practices (wiki style)
    6. track problems (bugs and backlogs)
    7. write test code (on critical areas)
  4. housekeeping
    1. refactor
    2. cleanup
    3. more test code
  5. new features/ scaling/performance??- probably the most fun for an engineer, but last on the list. This has been the hardest for me. ??Engineers need to think about scaling when the system is architected…. maybe. But when you have just a 10 customers and the entire database fits in memory… why worry?
    1. database ??- a typical bottleneck. NoSQL and distributed architectures are making this easier
    2. separate web server from application layer. Concentrate core application logic into languages that are better suited for scaling and concurrency issues
    3. load balance, messaging queues, etc

Because of the list above, not every engineer out of a great tech school or amazing high tech corporation adjusts to startup life well. But when the above begins to pay dividends, engineers appreciate the big picture.

The divorce: Adobe Vs. Apple

Apple and Adobe are both claiming a moral high-ground.

At first Adobe was the bad-guy for allegedly blocking further development of open standards like HTML5 and not opening up Flash.

Now, according to Adobe, Apple is the bad guy for not including flash and limiting development options for the iPhone (and iPad).
These are sad times because many are feeling like children of divorcees. Adobe and Apple have long provided shelter for creative geeks. Now the shelter is a crumbling, confusing world. Business and technology, especially when mixed, are sufficiently complex as to seem like magic. No magic here. Each company is changing, and getting over each other. Sorry lads. While tech-magic is love (translate: we will pay for magic, but nothing else) the magic eventually fades. The beginning of the fade is what I’ll call the magic line – the line between illusion, and disillusion. Adobe’s magic may be disappearing.
Is Adobe keeping up with demand for product improvements? Certainly, with software like Adobe’s, it is extremely difficult to sustainably write such complex software that runs the same, and well, on platforms you don’t control.
Perhaps, Apple has more power and responsibility than it realizes. As leaders in tech, Apple straddles the most thorny complex issues like copyright, DRM, hardware, open source; as both an under-dog and monopoly of tech.
There are reasons for the divorce, but they may not matter.

Open source, open platforms, and open standards are really the only sustainable way forward.

I say this not to take sides. As developers and creatives we must make choices that protect our future. Protect does not mean “defend”. Protect here means “ensures sustainable happiness for all involved”. Our destinies are already intertwined, but intertwined should not feel like a lock-in, trap or prison. Freedom can co-exist with interdependence.

At the least – businesses come and go, but openness wins.

 

 

 

Thank you XEROX (for not Patenting the GUI)

Dear XEROX (PARC),

Thank you for not patenting the Graphic User Interface.

Conventional wisdom has been that XEROX missed out on a huge opportunity – and maybe that’s true. However, maybe Microsoft and Apple (and Linux for that matter) would have never been such great successes. Maybe we would all have had to wait for the Newton or the IPad before the innovation could have been surpassed.
Windows 7 was not my idea.

Soliciting Advice: highly concurrent, available, non-blocking server

I’m seeking feedback on a language or platform for a highly reliable and low latency web service / application.

Assumption

Bottlenecks in a web service are usually related to data retrieval and storage, and eventually bandwidth and latency. 
Highly concurrent, lightweight threads provide options for reliability, load distribution, and perceived performance that would otherwise not be available. 

General Requirements 

  • Easy to use (build, deploy, monitor)
  • Plentiful external, stable, pre-integrated Libraries
  • Use case: distributed, non-blocking web services
  • Quite a bit of message and job queueing 
  • multiple databases , caching

Top candidates

Very incomplete list of pros and cons, but some of my thoughts, highlighted. 

  • Scala
    • pros
    • cons
      • new language syntax, paradigm learning curve
      • doubts about JVM memory efficiency and stability as resources are constrained
  • Server Side Javascript – via  node.js  
    • pros
      • redis integration for caching
      • fast, lightweight, easy language. 
      • some custom js would be portable to browsers (coolness)
    • cons
      • very new
      • performance
      • not as many external libs?
  • Tornado
    • pros
      • Python
        • as many libs as Scala
    • cons
      • narrower use cases
      • performance

 Would love comments, but a more complete list is presented in a survey:

Field Collapsing in SOLR

Field Collapsing
Field collapsing allows something akin to a “group by” in SOLR, so that the number of results returned reflect a logical grouping rather than another total.??
Faceting can be used in conjunction. Facet counts reflect subsets within results, where-as collapse counts are group by counts.
This means that Field Collapsing could be used for certain analytics, as well as the common use-case of nesting and grouping results. To use effectively, I found it helpful to “pre-collapse” certain fields, so that a new, unique string was created that could be used to easily group, since I believe you can only field collapse on a single field. (If I’m wrong, please let me know!)
Special Setup
This assumes you are or will be running a development version of SOLR (trunk via SVN).
Field collapsing is not yet available in SOLR trunk and you must apply a patch file to SOLR and build again.
If pulling in from trunk, download the patch found at https://issues.apache.org/jira/browse/SOLR-236 in to your solr source code directory.

wget https://issues.apache.org/jira/secure/attachment/12440108/SOLR-236-trunk.patch
patch -p 1 -i SOLR-236-trunk.patch

And rebuild using supplied Apache Ant scripts.
Read more on these sites or in the comprehensive “Solr 1.4, Enterprise Search Server” page 191.
Why SOLR
SOLR has a been a great tool for BetterLesson.org. Because our primary database is MySQL, we looked at around 8 full-text indexers – but the two finalists were Sphinx [1] and SOLR. Sphinx had very tight integration with MySQL, so the learning curve seemed less. ??SOLR required a JVM, an app server, and quite a lot of configuration.
When we were deciding, an excellent SOLR book came out just when we were choosing. Further the SOLR IRC channel and mailing list for SOLR are friendly and quite active. We even had the option for commercial support through Massachusetts’ own Lucid Imagination. So I dove in.??While the configuration is non-trivial, but the configuration parameters have proven very powerful.??
More background:
I had written a half-dozen or so custom faceted search interfaces – almost entirely using MySQL, and even one used Sesame (an RDF store – and it eventually worked pretty well). Skipping the stories of pain, confusion and suffering on the road to enlightenment – SOLR has been great.??Used extensively at Netflix.com, Zappos.com, CitySearch.com, Reddit.com, Wego.com, Whitehouse.gov, Drupalgardens.com and others [2], ??supported by Apache, based on Lucene, SOLR provides a scalable, distributed search and has good data import from MySQL, including delta queries.
[1] – Sphinx is used by Craigslist and http://www.sphinxsearch.com/powered.html

Why I’m starting a personal tech blog

Note – I’ve merged a couple of blogs and this post was from another site.
Welcome.

 

Supercalafragilisticexpialadocio.us is for technologists, like myself, who enjoy the challenges that come with taking interesting ideas and bringing them to a wide audience.
Currently I’m the CTO of a “lean” startup – http://betterlesson.org.

 

The work I’ll be posting is done in the context of startups. Startups are great. The definition l’ll use of “startup” is informal. By my definition, a startup is the adventure of working to make a sufficiently new idea self sustaining.

 

Building a laboratory and having a fair shot at a large audience is no longer a barrier to entry.** Often, technologist’s education is almost entirely from peers on the Internet – piecing together technology that yesterday may have been out of reach.  With low barriers to entry comes a tremendous amount of competition.  What differentiates is not only technical skill, but ability to successfully navigate the technology world. Propaganda, pain, tunnel vision, and joy dot the fast-changing technology blogosphere. Execution is tough when the more ambitious ideas you have would be obsolete by the time you finish them. When do you keep exploring? When do you settle on a technology and dive in?

 

I plan to dive into technology specifics, so this post is to set the tone. If I stray from my own ideas, tell me. I need your help.

 

  • Technology alone is not enough:
    • Make sure you love something you consider to be not technology. Loving code and assembling lego blocks works for some of the best – but for mortals, having other interests can serve as a compass to guide the “why” you do what to do.
    • Courage is not only in tackling cutting edge technologies, but also in shepherding the transition to new technology for the larger world we serve. Yes, I believe that world domination is a goal of every startup. But domination means we want to serve as many people possible, and do it well. “Don’t be evil” is a mantra I reflect on in this context.
  • Be open:
    • Isolation is dangerous. Open source, open communities, and open style of development keep you healthy. Some “enemy” may occasionally out-calcuate you because you showed your hand. But you’ll lose a few games of poker in order to win the innovation game. Chances are if your idea is something some one _can_ steal simply by sharing the idea with them, then some one else is going independently invent it anyway.  Don’t live in fear that some one might be doing something newer or better.
    • Your reputation is important, but if some one can trash your idea easily it’s either because the idea is actually bad, or they are simply wrong.
Looking forward to sharing the adventure.

 

Cheers,
Jonathan

 

** at least with sufficiently modern computer and a high speed internet.