Monday, November 15, 2010

A Year With Mark @ DevHub

Note: verb tenses might be a little out of whack, because it's kind of strange to write this the day before my last day at DevHub.

Other Note: Obviously, this is my personal blog and in no way is indicative of the opinion of either company.


I've been working on the DevHub platform for just over a year, and I've decided that it's time for me to move on. I'll be working for an educational startup, Dreambox Learning, which creates web-based math software. Specifically, I'll be working on their marketing website (the one that I linked to). I might have more time to work on other projects, but we'll see.

Why now?

Honestly, I expected to be working at EVO Media Group for at least another year, building up my "professional experience" so that I wouldn't have to go through the hell that was my last job-seeking "adventure". Additionally, I loved the work that I did - I was writing challenging code in my favorite programming language, Python, and it was being used by thousands upon thousands of people every day, on hundreds of thousands of sites. It also helps that I enjoyed working with my co-workers, even during extreme crunch time (I'll get to that later).

But there are a few things which this new opportunity will give me, in no particular order (sorry, I rather like bulleted lists):

  • The chance to work at a company where one of the primary focuses is social change. This has been one of my career goals for a while now (along with, "working for a company that primarily creates open source software" - we'll see when that one is checked off). I recently tweeted that "[t]he Seattle school district averages for 10th grade math/science proficiencies (2009-10) are <50%." As a person who enjoyed both of those subjects in school, I would love to help fix that problem. Granted, the company doesn't do high school math curricula, but giving younger students a firmer grasp of basic math concepts will surely help.
  • The opportunity to work in a larger company. Dreambox is several times larger than my current place of work, and working with more (and different types of) people is always a good learning experience, and will help me, career-wise.
  • An excuse to learn Ruby. Sadly, there aren't that many Python jobs around (though strangely, I've been getting cold-called by recruiters on a much more frequent basis lately), and it doesn't hurt to be more versatile. Particularly when I refuse to work with Java servlets, and to a lesser extent, the .NET Framework. I've also been avoiding PHP work, now that I know how wonderful Django is.
  • I won't have to do customer technical support anymore. Not that I absolutely hate doing it - I voluntarily did it for the Avant Window Navigator project for years. I like helping people, I just don't like being strongly encouraged to do so, every single day. Speaking of Awn…
  • I'll (probably) have more time and energy for side projects. So much of both of those things were taken up by work, especially during the Month of Hell™, where we were working nonstop on creating the gamified version of the site editor (and I slept in the office for a week). I've been told that the likelihood that I'll be pulling an all-nighter at my new gig is low - we'll see. But I really, really want to get back to having side projects, and possibly resuming work on Awn and related technology. At my current job, I've mainly been really worried about burnout, which was a strong factor in me putting off working on other coding projects. I really love to code, and it would be terrible if I just started hating it. (On a somewhat related note, one of the metrics for whether I should start looking for a job is when my life starts sounding like the first verse of Jonathan Coulton's "Code Monkey". Not that I currently feel like that about DevHub.)

Hopefully, the reasoning above shows that I have put some thought into whether I should change jobs, unlike what certain people (whom I will not name) have insinuated.

What did I do at DevHub?

I've been relatively quiet about what I've worked on at DevHub. You can see bits and pieces of it via Twitter and LinkedIn (not to mention BitBucket and GitHub), but I wanted to give an overall view of what I did, without violating NDAs or anything like that.

My primary focus was the application layer. As the DevHub developers page says, it's a Django-based environment. Interestingly enough, when I applied for the job, I didn't know Django at all. I was aware that it existed, and I had tried learning Pylons a few months prior (that ended badly). I did, however, know WSGI fairly well, as my URL shortener uses it. So, dealing with Python and the web wasn't a completely foreign concept to me. I would say that it's a testament to how awesome Django is, that I was able to pick it up and port the simple to-do web application that I was writing in PHP (using Doctrine as the ORM) in under a day. Of course, as soon as I was hired, I was made aware that certain major components of Django (the ORM and template systems) weren't being used, but SQLAlchemy and Jinja2 were. Which is another good thing about Django - it may be heavily opinionated, but it's not necessarily "my way or the highway".

This particular aspect is important, mostly because about ten months later, I was given the task to write a "macroframework" around this particular combination of technologies, using all of the best practices that we had accumulated since I was hired. I genuinely hope that it gets open sourced, because it's a fairly complete framework - it ports many popular Django apps, and as a good Django-based package would be, it has a lot of unit tests and documentation. In the process of writing it, I've also contributed fixes to the apps that I've ported, when I've seen areas which need improvement.

There's one other library that I wrote, which I hope will be open sourced. It's essentially a domain name parser. It can tell you whether a given domain name is syntactically valid, and provide relevant and proper concatenations of the constituent parts, such as the subdomain and the domain. It also handles IDNs just fine. It's a bit domain-specific (no pun intended), but works well, mostly due to the amount of unit/doc/regression tests I've written for it.

In late January, I was assigned the task of porting the DevHub platform from PHP to Python (as one of the reasons I was hired was because I knew both languages fairly well). And that began a six month journey, along with my co-workers (which included the other, more senior developer and two recently hired designers) where we would be working incredibly long hours, to get the new-and-improved DevHub launched in early July.

I had been doing some experimenting with PyPy, because of its sandboxing capabilities. Unfortunately, due to several factors, it was deemed infeasible to use. Since then, however, I have been keeping tabs on its development to see if any of said factors have been eliminated. Regardless of that setback, by March I had made a reasonable amount of progress on the port, and the unpaid overtime began. (Yay for exempt status¡)

In the process of porting the platform, I had to deal with a number of third-party APIs, because one of DevHub's features is that it supports a number of third-party services by default (as opposed to having to add HTML embed code given by the third-party). The quality of these APIs ranged from half-decent to just plain terrible. Mind you, I've worked with other APIs prior to DevHub (in fact, I won a t-shirt in an API contest), but they were at least decently documented and the structure made some sense. It's amazing how little thought that some of these API providers give to their users.

In May, a few things happened: The platform port was essentially complete, our hosting provider took forever to move our server instances cross-country, and it was decided that the site editor needed to be gamified. I wrote a small prototype to see how that would work. Eventually, it was decided that most of that would be scrapped and that we would be using the BigDoor API. We were already partners, so it seemed like a natural fit.

June was the aforementioned "Month of Hell™". At one point, I was at the office for 14 days straight. At the end, I began my week of sleeping at the office (AKA, "The Week of Utter Hell™"). Quite possibly, the one good thing that came out of that experience, on a personal level, was that I was given my current phone, a Motorola Droid, as recognition of how much time I spent at the office. (My boss had gone to Google I/O and had gotten one for "free", and was/is an iPhone user and thus on AT&T, so it wasn't much use to him.)

By the launch in July, I was extremely close to burned out as I ever wanted to be. Fortunately, I had made sure that I got a week of vacation in mid-July (where I would be going to OSCON, independent of the company, and also taking in some of the sights of Portland). By the time I was back to work, some people had noticed that I was a significantly different person (i.e., not ridiculously stressed out). I don't really want to think about what would've happened if I didn't take that trip at that time.

Relative to the previous couple of months, August was pretty calm. We (the company) did play a game of dodgeball with a company that we were going to partner with. For me, that just indicated that I was really out of shape. I immediately began jogging when the CEO insinuated that there may be more of these games. (To date, there hasn't been another one.)

September was pretty awesome, mostly because I was fortunate enough to go to DjangoCon. (The company paid for most of it, as part of an agreement during The Month of Hell™.) I talked to some fellow web developers, plus sat in on some pretty interesting talks. I really wish that I could have stayed for all three days, but alas. One interesting thing came out of the experience. One of the technologies that people were consistently touting as a must-use package was celery, a distributed task queue. About a week after DjangoCon, we had a big problem with a long-running task during the request process. I remembered celery, and in under a week, I experimented with it on the development server, documented the process to install the subsystem (for the benefit of our sysadmin), helped my co-worker patch the task to use celery, tested the patch, and deployed it to the live servers.

October was the month where I was both working on a client project and dealing with the decision of whether to change jobs, so I've covered most of that already. One thing that I think is worth mentioning is that I started to use code from the HTML5 Boilerplate project. I liked it so much, I'm using it in my current side project, the recently resurrected to-do app. And I plan on using it in the next job, too.

The End

And here we are, in the "present". I know it's a bit cliché, but I'd like to publicly thank the execs at EVO Media Group for hiring me 13 months ago. I really, really appreciate the amount of confidence that you have with my work, and I hope that DevHub becomes even more popular and awesome than it is now.


Braden said...

I didn't know so I looked it up and found the definition for TL;DR here:
We're gonna miss you around here.

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