2013 – a retrospective

The kind of fast-paced, “just get it done now” work we do tends to be very day-to-day. You toil the days away, immediately switching to the next task, and never feel like you’ve learned anything. In a healthy Agile tradition, I would like to reflect on the past year and acknowledge the learnings, keeping things in perspective for those moments where I feel I’ve accomplished nothing. Here are some of them for posterity:

  • First MVC JS app in Backbone.js. Since then iterated for close to a year on our existing teacher dashboard. Now using Backbone + LayoutManager to implement the student MVC app for Chromebooks, directly replicating the iOS experience. Really fortunate to be able to chat with folks of the caliber of Tim Branyen and Samuel Reed when it comes to getting some Backbone coaching.
  • Got a lot more intimate with JS, CoffeeScript and functional programming in the process. Interesting foray into the require.js / AMD territory with hand-rolled build scripts etc. Dropped that in our latest app, but will eventually slowly build back up a very simple minimalistic pipeline with grunt.js.
  • Lots of time spent on CSS and layout work. Good chunk of time working with boostrap 2.3.2 and bootstrap 3.0.x on both responsive sites.
  • Wrote first unit test suite in JS thanks to buster.js. Actually extremely pleasurable, somewhat close to the testing experience in Clojure.
  • Started working with Clojure half-way through the year. Still very much of an ongoing project, S. Halloway claims it takes at least 18 months for alien superpowers, so I still have plenty of room. Migrated Parse.com-based backend to our Ring app, rewrote all of our clients to use the new REST api instead of Parse’s libraries. Lots of tests on all levels of granularity. App is continuously being refactored as I discover new simpler and more elegant techniques. Infinitely grateful to the folks in #clojure, especially bitemyapp (Chris Allen) for the torrent of tips.
  • Finally got some time re-visit the Dragon Book and put some of that to use for our tentative math interpreter with Clojure + instaparse.
  • Lots of ops work. Never touched a “datacenter” previous to this year, was always hiding behind something like Heroku. Started with AWS EC2, not using any of their convenience services, feeling pretty comfortable with it now. Initially started CM with Puppet, didn’t like it. Switched on Ansible, no headaches whatsoever now. Switched traditional EC2 to a VPC. The system was all Internet-facing for a while, I had to figure out how to setup a VPN for the first time, which was fun. Now all office machines are on VPN and have direct safe access to the datacenter.
  • Lots of Postgres work. Anything from deployment, to administration, to fine-tuning for performance for the given machine. That one was a BIG book, which I still reference every time.
  • Good progress in my understanding of computer networks, still a work in progress. Recently had to setup a DNS server at the office for our Chromebook to be able to reach the sites hosted on my dev machine. Networks is such a good skillset to have when doing ops work, debugging connectivity in various locations such as our school networks.
  • Plenty of Linux administration work. Again, still very much a work in progress. Lots of time spent on bash and Linux/UNIX tools and utilities. Running Ubuntu full time on all of my machines now, including home. Got very comfortable using tmux, and recently switched from Unity to xmonad so that the mouse is halfway useless. Tiling window managers are awesome, but do require some configuration effort.
  • Lots of practice of XP and other Agile practices with a small team. Good experience with cherrypicking which practices to follow and when. Right now the engineering efforts at Front Row are still very manageable, but we’ll need to step things up a bit once more people hop on board and chaos ramps up.

Looking back this has been a pretty fruitful year. Here’s what I hope to work on in 2014:

  • Would be interesting to pursue the interpreter-building route a bit more, see where that goes. Still very interested in getting more practice with building languages.
  • More Clojure work, of course. The language and the ecosystem are like chess: the pieces are very simple, but I can see this taking many years to master.
  • Would love to experiment with Haskell for some internal low-pressure tools, build some experience before considering it for production.
  • More work with scaling out the system. Right now our load is very humble, partially thanks to how the API was designed. If we do our job well at Front Row, then it will be time to start engineering for a more interesting load.
  • More depth with anything infrastructure-related such as Linux, network administration etc.
  • More opportunities to release some of our tools as open-source. I recently put out an early alpha of a Mixpanel client library for Clojure, so I’m hoping to release more of these tiny helpers as I get more experience with designing quality libraries that others actually want to use.

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