Solve the problem to succeed

Filed under: rants,web development — jaydublu @ 8:20 pm

A piece by Raphael Pontual in this months .net magazine led me to think about what it is I do, and how I expect to compete in a marketplace filled with those who spend far more time than me keeping up with current techniques and technologies.

I’m only just starting to really get into jQuery and design patterns, and I have to make an effort not to keep reverting to old tried and trusted old skool strategies that have worked for me in the past.

The piece I believe was more aimed at design, but a relevant excerpt is: “It might seem crazy, but the older and busier you become, the less time you have to find out about the latest trends and adapting to the new graphics software. Meanwhile, there’s always a new generation that spends hours learning everything about the latest creativity suite.”

I’m a developer, not a designer, but I get what he’s saying, that successful professionals concentrate on identifying and solving problems, rather than just throwing gadgets and glitz at a project. A design for the sake of it is nonsense, it has to solve the problem, and the best solution is often the simplest whether it uses the latest whizzbang2.0 bling or not.

A good friend Sujvala kindly left a comment on an old post of mine ‘I want to be Clarkson‘ and one opinion he has is that I have an ‘infantile enjoyment of new toys‘ yet I’m ‘old enough to keep the safety catch on whatever is being tinkered with‘. I really like that.

Yes I do like toys, especially well thought out ones, but there’s a big difference between a toy and a tool. A tool has to earn a living.

The challenge when developing for the web, or making a fibreglass mould, or fitting a satellite dish (or most of my other previous employments) is to identify what it is you’re trying to do, what the challenges are, and what the most appropriate methods are to solve those problems.

Tried and tested (and safe) often beats bleeding edge, although you always have to be open to the idea. As Confucius said “It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.

Old Skool Rulez

Filed under: life,opinion,web development — jaydublu @ 4:36 pm

As posted earlier, I’m going back to my roots after 6 years in the relatively comfortable life of an employee of a large agency, and specifically as someone who has had a sabbatical from mainstream development whilst managing a team of developers.

Now I’m back on my own again I’m reviewing my skills and experience, the current state of the industry and best practice, and sorting my tools and techniques out ready to get busy (hopefully).

It’s amazing how much has changed in the intervening years and yet how much is the same. Packing up my desk and hunting down the books I took to Soup, many are well thumbed from regular use despite their age they are still relevant. I’ve also been compiling a wishlist on Amazon of titles bought for the company library that I will want to get copies of, but to be honest there aren’t many essentials – good references for PHP, MySQL, CSS, Apache, JavaScript etc. But even then can be found online – it’s much easier to type http://uk.php.net/explode to remember what order to pass parameters to explode() for instance than to find the book – but I digress.

I’ve been rebuilding a few sites I first built oh-so-many-years-ago – one was even still using Dreamweaver Templates <hangs head in shame> – but they are still doing the business for the owners and all they want is a quick design refresh and a bit of new content. “Oh, and while you’re at it could you just add a news section we can update ourselves?” So the quandary begins – how much do you reuse and how much do you rebuild, and what technologies do you use?

Perhaps unlike many working by themselves on ‘smaller’ sites, my recent background has exposed me to all shapes and sites of web content delivery technologies, from full on Enterprise level Content Management Systems such as Vignette and Stellent, other commercial ones like RedDot, or open source ones like Drupal or Joomla! or in between like Expression Engine, and then of course there’s all the custom applications that get written for specific applications, or reusable frameworks and libraries that can give advantages in rapid deployment / development.

And then there’s the platform to build on – once is was a choice of flat html (with some help from Dreamweaver perhaps) or Perl (or the new kid PHP) or ASP. Now there’s all the Java based technologies, Python based (I still reckon Zope should have become more mainstream) ASP.NET, Ruby on Rails, and of course my old favourite PHP is going from strength to strength. And it doesn’t stop server-side, with the advent of AJAX and frameworks such as jQuery, so much more can be done on the browser.

I understand and buy into Standards Compliance, Accessibility, Search Engine Optimisation, Usability and all the other buzzwords. I’m able to gather requirements, write specifications, manage projects and carry out quality reviews. I’ve been involved in projects that have been great successes, and others that have spectacularly failed, enough to know how to avoid the pitfalls.

But does all that knowledge and experience help in my current situation and perhaps give me an advantage over someone only just starting in the industry? It’s a mixed blessing because although I rarely have to say “I have no idea how to do that or what’s involved”, the opposite is also a problem because I know of perhaps too many possibilities and alternatives, and how things could be done ‘properly’.

As a little aside, I’ve often observed that any sort of development or design or construction or problem solving that is done in a constrained environment is likely to have a much more creative and pleasing outcome than if done with the luxury of infinite possibilities – it makes you focus and think and consider relative merits of alternatives with a clearer vision of the ultimate goal rather than being dazzled or distracted by niceties.

So how have I tackled these rebuilds? Well the Dreamweaver Templates site is hopefully a textbook example of how to use PHP to make a relatively simple brochureware site more maintainable. The templating features of Dreamweaver (ah yes, I remember them well!) have been replaced with PHP includes – so common elements like html <head>, top level page layout, navigation etc. are all shared. A ‘page’ is represented by a PHP file which sets variables such as page title, navigation state, calls the relevant includes for the top of the page, have the body content hard coded, then calls the footer includes. The one dynamic page is the news section which calls content from a MySQL database, with a little utility script allowing the client to manage news stories.

Why didn’t I use my first project as a freelancer again to flex my muscles and show off all my skills? Because the requirements didn’t need it. This application is beautifully simple, very easy to host and maintain, blisteringly fast, and hopefully will go another five or six years before its next rebuild. Any half competent developer could look at the source and figure out how to make any changes within minutes of getting access to the source. And it only took a couple of days to complete – including me trying to come up with some sort of new visual design and I’m no designer!

This approach has been used by me and my team for many years with great success, from small 6 page site to large corporate sites for FTSE100 companies. If it meets all key requirements what’s the advantage of making life more complicated? Admittedly the finer details of how to implement it have changed – using css for layout rather than tables for instance, good clean semantic markup, secure against XSS and SQL Injection (hopefully) and obscuring email addresses from spambots, with a sitemap.xml and Google Analytics tagging, and it’s all under version control …

I’m starting planning a much bigger site that needs more content management, and have reviewed several frameworks and applications to make life easier, but have still settled on the approach above with one small change – using Smarty to separate logic from presentation, and moving more of the content into the database. But it’s still clean, simple, fast and reliable.

KISS – if it’s getting too complex it’s probably wrong.

OpenSocial

Filed under: opinion,rants — jaydublu @ 6:18 pm

opensocial.jpgI finally found an hour or two to read a bit more into OpenSocial – the innovation (?) promoted by Google to ‘make the web more social’.

On the homepage is a nice link to a 57 minute YouTube video – that I couldn’t get enough bandwidth to stream acceptably, so I watched the chunks – all six of them – and I’m feeling not very well.

How corny could they make this presentation? Initially I was put off by the symbolism of the fires, and the play on ‘open’:

“We believe this format of bringing developers together in an intimate setting to work collaboratively in the open, is the best way to engage with the developer community”

In other words, they approach a select few ‘partners’ and say ‘we’re going to make this big announcement – jump on board or miss the wagon!’ They make it look cosy by doing the presentation outside, but I doubt there was anyone in the ‘audience’ not part of the launch, and I’m surprosed they didn’t sing any songs – there was enough of a dance.

Google are starting to get on my nerves a bit – you can’t help but see them everywhere, and I’m getting a bit suspicious of motives.

I like the idea of OpenSocial – if I get it right – it’s like the Facebook developers platform, but open so anyone can use it. Great. But they seem to have gone a bit further by putting JavaScript gizmos and methods on top. Not so sure. I’m not a fan of all this Ajax – it too often is bling for bling’s sake and gets in the way of sensible functionality.

I’m not totally anti the rich user experience – times I’ve seen it done well it is neat, but it can be overdone, or inappropriately applied. Much like technology as a whole. I’m a KISS person myself.

So perhaps I should just concentrate on the Data APIs and concepts, and not get put off by the ‘shiny’ distractions.

Anyway, back to OpenSocial – it seems to have a good amount of adoption by the PR – if there’s a critical mass it might take off. But I remember a similar hubub around OpenID and that one has gone quiet.

This open stuff is great for developers perhaps, but isn’t everything ending up looking the same? Yes MySpace jumped in because they’ve been hurt my the Facebook API no doubt. And all these business networks are all like LinkedIn – where’s the USP? They’ll all end up like Ning where it’s who’s using an application makes it stand out rather than the application itself.