What I have been up to

Mon 12 December 2011

The last 11 months have been quite hectic. Mainly, I bought a house and moved into it with my family, I got a new job as the senior programmer in a small web agency and finally, I sneaked in some side projects that were important to me.

This blog post is the first part, from January to July, of an almost exhaustive recap of what I have been programming this year.

First, in January and already detailed on this site, there has been populationpyramid.net, a website allowing you to browse the population pyramids of all the countries in the world, based on the United States data. This was my first incursion in the open data world, and a first attempt at making data visualization in HTML5.

Then, at the beginning of February, I became the IT manager of a small web agency in Brussels: "my media is rich". My duties include system administration, technical architecture, lots of development and globally, technical lead in all software matters. The first thing they had me doing was an iPad application aimed at the Brussels car show. A 6 days deadline for a commercial project on a platform I had never programmed on before, that is the kind of challenge I like to take on (at a bit of expenses to my sleep and family, I must admit). I finally got that one off the ground and learned quite a lot in the process about how web agencies are working (in a very industrialized way, with well defined position: the designer, the motion designer, the project manager, the programmer, the commercial). It was quite interesting. You can see the app here.

The one point that has been obvious from the start there, was that I enjoyed the change to small, well defined projects that those companies churn out, by opposition to the never ending projects I have been working on before, either at the university for my research or the projects I had in my previous company. I had the feeling of getting things done, without too much meetings or email exchanges.

Next up, I had to realize some websites for big clients of ours like http://www.bfoskodarally.be (my first use of Django in a team, with a customized admin aimed to be used by a client) and http://www.generousdays.be, which is now offline. I learnt quite a lot about javascript with those projects.

Then came a very nice challenge. I had to realize one of the fist viral marketing campaign on LinkedIn for Audi. This gave the Audi A6 Challenge. The concept was quite simple: we had to create a "Hot or Not" on LinkedIn, meaning that any user would have to vote repeatedly on two of his/her LinkedIn connection to decide which one they thought as the best professional.
There is a lot to be said about this project. We got quite a bit of attention, even from the people at LinkedIn (if only to inform us about some rule trespassing that we had unwillingly been doing). I liked this project because it was the first time that I got to really work with an API of a social network (the kind your keep hearing about all the time). I was happy that we managed to create a system where the contest was still winnable by lots of people by the end. There is indeed a risk in such contests that a few people take the lead in the beginning and then get unreachable scores, preventing other people to take part. I used a variation of the ELO score used in chess, where people lose more points when losing against somebody with a lower score. This prevented people to get away too fast. Furthermore, we managed quite efficiently to shut down cheating, which is a tough problem for every contest on the web as I have discovered. There are lots of sites for exchanging cheats in such contests (like this one). Finally, the user interface and design were quite polished, which again was a big change of focus from my previous jobs.

Following that, I had to implement a small iOS application for stands on the Carrefour Running Tour Except for the tight deadline again and the fact that I learned to hate iTunes Connect, not much to say about this.

During those months, from february to july, there were three side projects

  • In April, I helped a bit to enhance the Django development dashboard, by proposing to add some sparklines (the yellow lines on the site), and implementing them using raphael.js. This forced me to delve into Jacob Kaplan-Moss's code (one of the creators of Django), where I could pick a few interesting tricks. In the end, I submitted a pull request that got accepted, which was important to me, as my first participation to a preexisting open source project, even if in the end, Jacob did not keep much of my code anyway (for good reasons). I have to participate in such projects again. I was very enthusiastic about this.

  • At end of May, I was contacted by Jonathan Van Parijs, who organizes the Hack Democracy meetups in Brussels to take part, on the computer front, to a participatory democracy experiment, the g1000. I will not delve into the ideas of the initiative, which are well explained on the site. They asked me to help for the creation of their website using a yet to be defined Photoshop design… In two weeks… In my spare time…
    Let just say that I did not get enough sleep again during those weeks, but I fortunately had help from Jonathan and my awesome colleague, Christophe Gérard (he's freelance now, hire him). This project, not excessively complex, was executed using Django again, but in the process, I have been forced to enhance my Photoshop slicing and css skill a lot.
    From this experience, I keep lots of good memories.
    I will especially remember the long hacking nights with a sense of purpose and in the end the launch of the site at midnight on the 10th of june, from my nephew's room (we were invited to his mother's birthday), with loud basses coming from the party downstair, using my android phone tethering connection because nothing else was available. The opening of the site at midnight had been announced in newspapers and through a press conference and so, we had an expecting audience that brought us some hundreds of visits in the first two hours. A nice, memorable launch.
    Later on, the site has been updated a lot, and in the end, after the main event, it has already got around 150 000 visits. Not too shabby for such a subject, but I must say that the event got a lot of press coverage, even internationally. Technically, the site has been hosted on a 10€/month cloud server at Rackspace, using nginx, mysql and memcached and we never had any performance hiccups at anytime.

  • The third one is not a programming project. At the end of june, I took two evenings to write down what happened to my significant other when her gmail account had been hacked. This gave the previous blog post If I wrote it, it is obviously because I thought this could have some interest, but I was definitely overwhelmed by the reaction. I submitted it to Hacker News before going to sleep and it raised to the top spot on the front page, where it remained for almost a day bringing around 35000 visits in one day. There were lots of interesting comments (notably, the top one, from the well-known Matt Cutts). On the technical side, this blog is hosted on a shared server at djangohosting.ch and it never got unresponsive. This leads me to wonder which kind of traffic you need on a rather static site to have performance issues. I still do not have answer for this…

In part two of this recap, I will talk about the rather big projects that happened in the second part of the year, and about what's next (with a surprise!).

(To Be Continued...)

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