Here’s a good tip for anyone out there hoping to make it to the top without much effort; you can become a Managing Director in just 1 day so long as you have access to a debit card and £12.
The gov.uk website makes it really easy to start up your own Private Limited Company in a step-by-step tutorial that explains all the technical terms to you as you go along. In just 15 minutes and with just £12 you can have your own separate legal entity for conducting business that provides you with limited personal liability. Then you can call yourself a Managing Director 😉
Obviously this is not the actual use-case and wouldn’t actually fool anyone but it is a nice way to illustrate just one of the ways the United Kingdom is the 8th best country in the world in which to do business according to the World Banks “Doing Business 2020” rankings.
Having spent the last 2 years running defty day to day I had been wanting to fill in the missing piece of the puzzle — registration. Recently I have been considering doing some contracting and consulting alongside trying out some business ideas of my own so now seemed like the perfect time… and for £12 and 15 minutes of effort, why not?
After leaving DriveTribe I took on my first role as CTO at a start-up called Defty. As employee number 1 I took on the task of hiring the Engineering and UX/UI team, deciding our technical strategy and setting up quality assurance systems in addition to developing the platform itself. In this blog post I will show what we built before Defty was unfortunately shut down for commercial reasons.
A great site in 20 minutes for £20
Deftys target audience was small and medium sized businesses, particularly those that you can imagine being on your local highstreet, who needed a web presence but perhaps didn’t have the skills in house to get online or simply didn’t feel like they would get enough value from an expensive solution.
Existing solutions made building a site relatively simple but had a few downsides that put small business owners off; they didn’t help with writing content, only worked from desktop computers and supported a myriad of options which sometimes resulted in confusing UIs — particularly for those small business owners who didn’t consider themselves technically savvy.
We wanted to make it possible to build a great single page website in 20 minutes or less — regardless of any existing technical knowledge — from any platform, including mobile phones. This was important as in most developing economies access to mobile phones is much higher than access to desktop machines and even in developed nations it would allow small business owners to work on their site between dealing with customers.
Finally, we wanted our solution to be economical, most fish and chip shops aren’t going to see a return on investment from a £100 website as only locals are likely to use them but they have a much better chance of returns from a £20 site.
The first step of building a website on defty was internally referred to as “initial questions” or more often simply “IQ”. In order to generate the user a site tailored to their specific needs we ask a number of questions and stored their results. The cool thing about IQ was that the questions a user was asked depended on the answers they had already provided, so in a way it acted as a decision tree with side effects along the way.
Based on the answers provided we generated a site that we hoped would satisfy most of the users needs and only require a few copy changes to be made manually. Had we launched we would have tracked which changes a user made to their generated site to try and improve IQ for future users.
Once we had enough information to generate a site we placed the user in to our website builder. The builder itself allowed users to change any aspect of the site we had generated for them including colours, fonts, images and content.
Like everything we built this worked on any screen size from mobile all all the way up to ultrawide monitors. Users could hit preview to see what their site would look like from a mobile phone, tablet or desktop regardless of what device they themselves were on.
All the sites we generated for users were entirely static and hosted in S3 and made available to the world via the Amazon CloudFront. This meant there were no expensive services or databases to keep live and maintain for each individual website and would have allowed us to host sites for mere pennies per year.
Theres no use in having a good site if potential visitors cannot find it. To this end we also made it easy to purchase domains.
Suffice to say the intricacies of dealing with The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Extensible Provisioning Protocol (EPP) and all the various registries is outside the scope of this blog post, but it was an interesting challenge and it was interesting to peek behind the curtain of how this pillar of the internet works.
As well as the two major product features of site building and domain purchase and management we of course built all the surrounding infrastructure too. Authentication, organisations, checkout and billing, an activity feed, password reset flows, continuous integration, an entire admin dashboard and all the rest.
I would like to thank the wonderful team I had at defty for all their hard work and I wish them the best of luck in the future.
Unfortunately it took 2 months to make that 90p!
Since Rob and I rebuilt CS Blogs in 2016 neither of us have really done a lot with it. Whilst I am accountable for some of the 3,000 monthly page views the most I have done with it operationally for some time has been to ensure that the servers & domain keep being paid for.
I think that at some point because of this I started seeing CS Blogs as an expense which I should try to break even on despite the fact that it started as a labour of love.
To try and recoup to small amount of money I throw at it each year I thought I could simply include the Google AdSense Auto Ad script and let that take care of monetisation.
Auto Ad itself is quite nifty and takes all of the effort out of adding adverts to your site whilst still giving you enough flexibility to tailor them to your content and audience. However, just plugging in adverts was somewhat low effort and so unsurprisingly didn’t yield good results. I would go so far as to say that adding adverts was a negative as it didn’t cover the CS Blogs bills but did have a negative impact on the user experience.
To put the matter right I have now removed all ads from the platform and will be taking another look at ways to improve both the software and the reach of the platform (perhaps by marketing directly to Computer Science departments around the UK).
If you’d be interested in helping with these efforts please get in touch.
I’ve spent much of the last year thinking about how to improve the user experience of a product I have been working on (more on that in future post).
One of the most important things to consider when crafting a user experience is the context in which the user interacts with the product.
A prime example of why context is so important when designing a product is the electric hob built-in to the counter top of the kitchen in my flat. One of the choices that the manufacturer would have had to make was what form the buttons would take — unfortunately they didn’t take the context in which the hob is used into account and therefore made the wrong choice.
On first look the hob is quite stylish — but let’s be honest, its a hob — and features touch buttons for the power button and heat selection. Whilst the touch buttons are quite attractive, and easy to clean, they fail to register touches most of the time. Not ideal when they manage the heat being applied to boiling pots of water. But why is this?
Touch buttons fall into two broad categories, capacitive and resistive. Resistive touch buttons use the pressure of your finger to register a touch whilst capacitive touch buttons measure the electric field generated by your finger.
The hob manufacturer opted to use capacitive touch buttons for the hob. What they failed to take into account was that capacitive touch buttons register for any conducive material including one which is often found in kitchens — water. This means that the situation in which you want to affect the heat quickest, e.g. when the pot overboils, you cannot! Sometimes you continue to be unable to use the button even after it appears to be dry, it is incredibly sensitive to water.
This means that whilst the product looks fit for purpose and likely works well in a situation in which there are no spillages (for example in the manufacturers R&D facility, or the shop in which it is demonstrated to customers) in real life it causes a lot of unnecessary problems and is a regression from hobs that had physical buttons.
I hope this blog post comes to mind when you are next making decisions around the user experience of a product you are working on and you remember to imagine not just the user using your product, but the context in which they do it and what they are trying to achieve whilst using your product.
During my time at DRIVETRIBE I primarily worked on a feature called MyGarage which allows people to upload a complete history of their vehicle ownership as well as their dream vehicle and any vehicles they have for sale.
Each vehicle upload consists of an image, make and model. Optionally a user can add the model year, year of purchase and a text description. Uploaded vehicles can be liked and shared by other users, and they can comment to ask questions or provide opinions. The makes and models can be from a list of known brands or a user can input a custom value if they have something particularly rare.
The feature has two main benefits, one being that users enjoy the feature and spend a lot more time on the website if they can interact with their own garage and comment and share other peoples. Secondly, DT gets access to a wealth of data about its users; such as how often they get a new vehicle and what they would really like to buy in the future.
I worked on the front-end portion of the feature on DTs responsive website such that it worked both on mobile and desktop browsers. The front-end was written in React and utilised the very cool Styled-Components library, which I enjoyed using.
One of the most exciting parts of working on this project was that it was announced to the world by James May of Top Gear and The Grand Tour fame. A competition was also ran where a user could win (a model of) their dream ride and the winner was announced by Richard Hammond.
I hope a lot of people get a lot of enjoyment from this neat feature.
I was invited to talk at Tech Days Online at the Microsoft Reactor in London today on the topic of Microservices.
Rather than a presentation format the talk was as part of a conversation moderated by Christina Warren, Senior Cloud Dev Advocate for Microsoft.
Being live on Channel 9 — Microsofts online TV channel — was somewhat nerve racking but I think it went quite well and I enjoyed the format.
Thank you to everyone involved in the production, I had a lot of fun!
In my blog post about DevOps I argued that a good Software Engineer knows not only about his code, but about how and where it is going to be ran. In the past I have been guilty of having an idea which service I might use to run a particular application (usually Microsoft Azure as I get big discounts as a former MSP) but not having had a full idea of the exact environment said application will execute in.
Recently I have been treating infrastructure as a first class citizen of any project I work on using the process of code-defined infrastructure. Instead of manually provisioning servers, databases, message queues and load balancers — as you might do when using the AWS Console or cPanel on a shared webhost — I create a deployment script and some configuration files. I have actually banned myself from manually creating new instances of anything in the cloud, in order to avoid unwittingly allowing any single instance to become a Pet.
Defining the infrastructure required by any given application in code has a few advantages:
- If someone tears down an environment by mistake we don’t have to try and remember all of the configuration to relaunch it. We have it in code.
- We can easily spin up new environments for any given feature branch rather than being stuck with just “staging” and “production” environments.
- Infrastructure changes show up in version control. You can see when and why you started shelling out for a more expensive EC2 instance.
- At a glance you can see everything an application requires and the associated names. This makes it easier to be sure that when you’re deleting the unhelpfully named “app” environment it won’t affect production.
- Scripting anything you can imagine is a lot easier, such as culling servers with old versions of an application programatically.
Introducing code defined infrastructure on one of our greenfield projects at PepperHQ has already paid dividends and the team has a desire to back-port the infrastructure management scripts and config files I developed to other services.
I developed the system with the idea of a git commit being the true “version” of a given application and that all infrastructure associated with a given version should be totally immutable. In order to deploy a new version of our new greenfield system you don’t upgrade the application on the server, you create a whole new environment with the new version on and then delete the old one — or keep it around for a hot swapping back in the event of an issue.
The infra-scripts also allow you to see what is live identified in a way useful to developers — by commit id and message. Other features include turning any environment into “production” or “staging” by updating their CNAMEs through AWS Route 53. When using the
yarn terminate to kill a particular environment checks are ran to ensure you’re not deleting “production” or “staging”. The scripts are developed in TypeScript using the
aws-sdk npm package.
Whilst this approach does require some more up-front investment than just manually creating environments as and when you need them, I recommend any developer writing systems people will really be relying on at least investigates this approach as there is a very quick return on investment. Some more out of the box solutions you could look into are Chef and AWS CloudFormation, though I ruled out using these for Pepper based on our internal requirements.
The idea of DevOps — short for developer operations — being a discrete role in Software Development doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. As I have had quite a few conversations about this in the past few weeks I felt it might be useful to get my thoughts written down.
The original concept of DevOps as a culture of continuously automating, improving and monitoring all stages of the Software Engineering process is great, and I believe it will only become more important as businesses move toward using a whole host of micro services rather than singular monolithic systems.
However, in recent years the term has been, in my opinion, bastardised to describe a new type of job role which sits somewhere between a Software Engineering generalist and a SysAdmin. What does the day-to-day responsibilities of a “DevOps Engineer” consist of? It’s somewhat hard to say because, as is usually the case in technology job titles, there is no hard-and-fast definition (What’s a code wizard again and how is that different from a code ninja?). However, in my experience and from what I have read online in job listings they usually develop and manage deployment pipelines and cloud/local hardware infrastructure as well as monitoring services and applications for errors and performance issues.
I have always felt that one of the markings of a good Software Engineer is their ability to understand the entire lifecycle of their application, from developer experience at the time of initial development through to deployment and ongoing monitoring & maintenance. Looking at any one stage of the lifecycle in isolation means that easy wins are missed; for example writing code so that it is easier to maintain in the future or selecting a stack which can be bought to life quickly to enable more fine-tuned scaling. In the worst cases that I have personally witnessed developers have created a fragile, complex mesh of services and infrastructure rather than simplify and improve things knowing that it will never be them that is woken at 3am to fix it — it’ll always be the DevOps guy.
In short, the most obvious issue with having DevOps as a discreet role is that it encourages, and in some cases mandates, “chucking things over the fence” — in other words solving problems by making them someone else’s. That’s no way to run an effective engineering team and means that the DevOps engineers often get the short straw.
Software Engineers are in the rare and enviable position of being able to produce their own tools — most farmers can’t build their own tractors and most pilots can’t build their own planes — and are the people who know exactly what tooling and processes would enable them to work faster and smarter in their day-to-day roles. They should use this position to enhance their own productivity and build & maintain better services.
One downside of requiring all engineers to understand the operations aspect of their code is that the knowledge of what tools and best practices are available needs updating frequently as the industry moves forward at an ever-faster pace, but this is true of all aspects of our jobs as Software Engineers. The correct solution is to make each engineer the master of their own destiny regarding deployment and maintenance and provide them with time to learn and develop their skills in this regard.
I originally started this blog post intending to write about something else, so I hope this will at least be of use to someone (even if it is just me referring back to it at some point in the future)