Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Review of the “Database is Your Friend” Workshop by Xavier Shay

August 23, 2010

Xavier ShayThis Saturday I had the privilege of attending Xavier Shay’s “Database is Your Friend” workshop right here in Kansas City. It explores the enterprise domain of high-traffic, mission-critical databases in Rails. At $350, the price tag trumps just about every regional Ruby or Rails conference I’ve heard of. It was worth the price, and more. It would have been well worth the expense of travel and lodging if it had been out of town.

I’ve never had such a thorough learning experience. Xavier had a git repository setup with several branches of a basic Rails app, which we all cloned. He would give a 10-15 minute overview of a difficult concept, then we would checkout a given branch, and spend about 20 minutes completing whatever part of the code Xavier had omitted. We used test-driven development much of the time, which forced us to fully understand the cause and effect of each technique.

Xavier was in constant motion, visiting each of the six students to ensure everybody got it. After all, the exercises themselves were mission critical, because the following lessons built upon them. After experiencing this, I wonder why all teaching isn’t done this way. The “Long Lecture, Here’s Your Homework, Now Get Out” system I remember from college could benefit a lot from this.

It’s obvious a lot of love went into the design of the workshop. The flow was so natural that several times, one of us would ask a question and Xavier would answer that the next segment addresses it. The result was a natural progression of solving more and more complex problems.

If you struggle with (or wonder about) data integrity and high-traffic database issues, take the opportunity to learn from Xavier Shay on his current tour.

PS –

While this workshop is definitely worth travelling, I didn’t have to. Wes Garrison of Databasically, who helps organize our monthly Ruby meetings, took the initiative. Xavier normally attaches his workshop to conferences, but Wes looked at the schedule and saw that Xavier had a small gap between his Chicago and Austin dates. Wes offered to arrange both travel and lodging for Xavier, who luckily agreed to squeeze another workshop into his busy schedule. Wes, thank you.


We are all a bunch of whiny…I’ll say “babies”

June 2, 2010

Right now as you read this, there are enormous supercomputers flying in space above your head. They beam signals to your TV whenever you ask for one (or more) of thousands of video streams. They talk to each other and figure out your exact location on earth, down to something like a million gabillionths of an inch, so a handheld device more powerful than most of our first computers can direct us to the nearest Taco Bueno.

“Well, sure, the Frinkiac-7 looks impressive, don’t touch it, but I predict that within 100 years, computers will be twice as powerful, 10,000 times larger, and so expensive that only the five richest kings of Europe will own them.”

-Professor John I.Q. Nerdelbaum Frink, Jr., circa 1977

You might laugh, and you should. This quote is from the Simpsons back when they still had something funny to say. But it’s also based on the real beliefs of the time. And why not? It’s nothing short of astounding that technology has led to quantum leaps in ability while also lowering power consumption, size, and price.

Given that many of our grandparents started life without TV or indoor toilets, we should be blown away by this unprecedented level of technology – but we’re not. Most recently, this has manifested in the new AT&T pricing for their data plans. To boil it down as simply as possible, you now get 2GB of data per month for $25, a few dollars less than the old unlimited plan. You also get a slight discount on additional GB’s of data at $10 each. Remember when just a 10% overage on mobile minutes used to double your bill? I do too, it’s called “three years ago”.

Still, many people are furious. As one astute writer points out, Netflix streaming will quickly exceed the limit. Are you freaking kidding me? Just because Jobs and Company made a device that makes wireless HD video possible, doesn’t mean the rest of the tech world has to make it practical. If I start selling mail-order swingsets, fully assembled, are you going to post angry tweets to FedEx for charging a small fortune for shipping?

I say if you want to tie up the bandwidth equivalent of dozens of phone lines for 90 minutes to watch the zany antics of Ferris Bueller on your daily train commute, you should expect to pay more than the guy next to you just checking e-mail. It is a luxury. According to AT&T’s numbers, 98% of users fall under the 2GB limit. For their reward, they’ll get a $5/month price break. It’s only fair that the other 2%, the bandwidth junkies, start paying their own way.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m nothing but obnoxious toward companies when I feel they’re out of line. When AOL went out of its way to only show you its version of the internet in the late 90’s, that sucked. When Apple makes you buy a proprietary video adapter that adds 30% to the price of getting an external monitor, that sucks. Just ask my friends, I never shut up about it.

Of course if you want to pin companies as being “greedy capitalists”, then you have a beautifully capitalist solution – don’t give them your money. I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t bitch – just switch. Then go camping for a week, to get a small taste of life just a couple generations ago.

Organic Search Engine Optimization

January 18, 2010

I don’t make my living as an search engine optimization expert, but I’ve been a web developer since 2000. I’ve watched with morbid curiosity as the SEO trainwreck has unfolded and evolved over the last decade. If that sounds boring, understand that shows like Desperate Housewives were not yet available for people who enjoy watching the self-indulgent suffering of others. I’ve gotten off-topic, slightly.

Bad Search Engine Optimization

A client recently brought in other contractors who professed to have the keys to SEO gold: keyword meta tags, and url redirecting. To be fair, they weren’t hired as SEO experts either – they’re good at their primary jobs, and were trying to help out with the information they had. Unfortunately, that information was about 10 years out of date.

I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that there are no shortcuts to effective search engine optimization. None of the big three search engines (Google, Yahoo, and MSN/Bing) use them, and they make up 93% of the search engine market share.1 Google2 and Yahoo3 have both stated that they stopped using them, and MSN never did.

Why? Because if you give people an easy way to tell you what their site is about, and how relevant it is, everybody is going to say their site is the source for a thousand different things. In fact, that’s exactly what happened, which is why keyword meta tags stopped being effective long before search engines officially pulled the plug.

Good Search Engine Optimization

Good SEO is organic. Most of it just happens naturally if you’re doing what a good site should – providing quality content that people would be interested in reading. It happens a little better if you’re aware of a few things first. If there are certain key phrases everyone is searching to get to sites like yours, you should mention those key phrases in your content. Don’t overdo it, because Google and visitors know the difference. Also, you do get a boost in rankings if other sites link to yours. Finally, search engines will list you higher if searchers actually click the link to your site in their search results.

Here is my cost-effective guide to good search engine rankings. I’m sure professional SEO experts (the rare good ones) have a few more tricks up their sleeves, but these basics will get you farther than you’d think, for free.

  1. Research. Signup for Google AdWords and build out a campaign as if you were going to advertise. When you pick the keywords you’d like to sponsor, they’ll show you how popular those terms are. You want to gear your site toward the most popular search terms that are relevant to your site.
  2. Description Meta Tags. Use the description meta tag. It won’t help your search engine ranking, but it will tell people why they should click your link after searching.
  3. Add Content. Make a regular habit of adding content to your site. Strive for 1-2 pages of relevant content per week. This is why blogs do so well in search engines – they’re constantly growing in relevant content. If you do nothing else, add to your site’s content frequently!
  4. Encourage Links to Your Site. You can ask the webmasters of other related (noncompeting) sites if they’d be interested in exchanging links to each other’s sites. This really only works between legitimate sites. “Link farms”, networks of sites setup just to link to each other, are ignored by search engines at best, and penalized at worst. Also, if your content is relevant and worthy, other sites will begin linking to you without asking.
  5. Be Creative. My client and I realized they’d been sitting on a goldmine of content. They’d built a 100+ page reference guide for their industry, but it was a members-only resource. Soon it will be public, drawing in people who would have never heard of their site otherwise.

That’s it. Nothing beats having a rich site, full of content people actually want to read. There are no shortcuts, because any “trick” is abused to the point of nullifying the effect. It’s organic search engine optimization, and it works.


  1. ComScore – reports on search engine market share
  2. Google Can’t Be Gamed – an article and video of a Google engineer explaining for the record that keyword meta tags don’t matter.
  3. Yahoo Search No Longer Uses Keywords Tag

There Are No Cheap Ruby on Rails Experts

January 15, 2010

One of the most important factors in hiring a Rails developer is hourly rate. Within reason, you want to hire the highest priced developer you can afford.

We’re trained from youth to be bargain shoppers. This is largely because we live in a world of commodities. A commodity is something you can buy from multiple sources, and be fairly certain that the quality will be the same. A Ford Mustang will be exactly the same no matter what dealer you buy from. Even the cheapo espresso maker at Walmart ($30 and worth every penny) comes with a minimal expectation of quality, because you can return it otherwise.

The world of service is an entirely different ball game. Granted, some technology platforms are so saturated with developers and certifications (Microsoft, I’m looking at you) that you can often brow-beat a bottom dollar price out of a reasonably competent developer. Ruby on Rails works a little differently. The better the developer, the higher the demand for their services. And thus,

One of the most important factors in hiring a Rails developer is hourly rate. Within reason, you want to hire the highest priced developer you can afford.

What is a good rate? This can be a touchy subject, but I’ll give you my honest opinion. If you’re looking to hire a contract developer for anything less than $50 an hour, you’re not going to get your money’s worth. If you’re paying $25/hour or less, your developer is learning Rails on your dime. An exception would be someone who is already gainfully employed elsewhere, and wants extra work after hours. They’re less picky because it’s not their primary income, and they may even be trying to break into freelance with lower rates. If you’re willing to work around their schedule, you can sometimes get a good deal.

For the rest of us who need work done on a firmer schedule, and the ability to communicate during office hours, any developer charging less than $50/hour is usually struggling to get work in the door. Expert developers are typically in higher demand, and fetch rates up to, and above, $100/hour. Of course, all of us have lowered rates to fill up billable hours, but that’s not something you can count on when hiring a developer.

You can’t afford not to…seriously

I know it’s cliche, but it’s true. A good rails developer will pay for themselves. I’ve done more than one rescue project where the original developers were cheaper, but couldn’t get the job done. And typically, a well qualified developer will pay for their higher rate because they simply get the same work done in less time.

Price is definitely not the only consideration. But a low price should be a very low priority, while a higher rate is often a good indicator of a higher-caliber developer. Another is their expertise at Test Driven Development, and you can read my page about automated testing in rails to learn how to spot the pros. Finally, ask for the usual – code samples, recommendations, and examples of working sites.

In summary, price should definitely be a factor, but in both directions. Filter out the hourly rates you can’t afford, but also filter out developers with rates significantly lower. You’ll have a better product for a lower price as a result.