17 Mar

Ideas to Improve Software Documentation, Raise Productivity of Mere Mortals

The explosion in the quantity and quality of both commercial APIs and open source projects is a huge enabler for digital start-ups and small businesses. Instead of painfully rolling your own version of, say, sending email newsletters or displaying a media gallery, in many cases “there’s an app for that.” However, behind the numbers, the very uneven quality of the documentation made available with said APIs, plugins, and packages, is a serious impediment to fully realizing the productivity gains promised by these vibrant ecosystems. (Wow this sounds way too much like an enterprise software whitepaper!)

Typically documentation takes shortcuts by implying bits of knowledge that the reader may not have, skipping necessary steps, leaving out important nuances, or providing incomplete and obtuse examples. These issues are compounded because of today’s development by integration more than pure coding. I’ve been thinking about how this could be alleviated. Read More

12 Mar

Why You Want to Develop in Production-Like Conditions, and How to Do it with Vagrant

Like many people developing with WordPress, I used to use XAMPP to run a Linux/Apache/MySQL stack under Windows. This beats developing directly off a remote server by a long stretch (in case anybody still does that), but it turns out to be quite a hassle as you wrestle with / vs \ in paths and other discrepancies between the Unix and Windows worlds. Developing in an environment as close to production as possible ends up being a much better choice. Popular free tools to do so are:

  • VirtualBox to run other operating systems within your own
  • Vagrant to manage development environments within VirtualBox
  • Puphpet, a wizard-like interface to help set up Vagrant through Puppet automation scripts.

Yes, these work somewhat like Russian dolls, as modern web development has a severe case of tools to set up tools to set up tools. It can get a little crazy at times, so you want to find the sweet spot where you gain efficiency without becoming a slave to your toolset (which is supposed to save you time in the first place). Getting this up and running is a big enabler for continuous integration, and why you would want to think and develop that way is the topic of a separate entry.

In this post I’ll share some practical details to contribute a little back to the open source community and not just consume its benefits passively.  The end result is a fully functional Unix environment serving a WordPress website locally on a Windows PC, across a whole local network.

This entry is written from the perspective of “Unix as a foreign language” from a Windows native. It does assume that you have read the basics about VirtualBox and Vagrant, and focuses on common roadblocks that I’ve encountered along the way. As always, the key to learning a whole new way of doing things is to break it down in small digestible chunks. Read More

05 Mar

Publishers Contributing to Open Source Projects, Maintaining APIs

I’ve put together lists of teams and people working at the intersection of news publishing, data, visualization, and online/mobile/software development to get a better sense of who talks the talk and who walks the walk. There’s a strong UK presence, while some organizations are missing that you’d expect might want to show up.

This would deserve some analysis (anyone up to datamine Open Source Report Card?), maybe later.

1. Github repositories from news orgs Read More

10 May

Zapier Devs Read My Mind, Among Other Feats

This API status meta dashboard is great, as it scratches an itch I’ve had for almost a decade. I meant to suggest to the Zapier folks that they develop exactly that, but didn’t end up sharing that thought, and here they are! Brilliant team, excellent product. Now they need to customize the datatable and RSS feed so that they can be filtered based on APIs you actually use as a Zapier customer.

18 Mar

Time to Pick Up a New Newsreader

I have been consuming newsfeeds since Pointcast (1996) and CDF/IE 4.0 (1998) so obviously once RSS gained momentum about a decade ago, I got hooked. It remains my main way to keep on top of both fresh news and background material. In recent years I tried several times setting up Twitter (by itself and via desktop clients such as Tweetdeck) but never reached an acceptable signal/noise ratio so I gave up and only check it out once in a while, certainly less than my daily RSS consumption. Read More

07 Mar

Customer Support Should Feed into Product Requests, Documentation

In our dealings with various SaaS vendors, it is interesting to see cultural differences translating into behavioral patterns. You can see from the outside which functions have heft, which ones are afterthoughts, and where are the missing integration points. A behavior that I see pretty often is a good level of quality in customer support, but a failure to properly integrate it with other parts of the company. That is suboptimal both internally for these companies, and from the perspective of the customer. Vendors miss opportunities to learn and improve, while the customer feels he’s dealing with well-meaning professionals hindered by a poorly designed organization.

In my experience two scenarios often play out that give the customer an overall “meh, whatever” feeling no matter how great the work done by support. Read More

26 Feb

Time to Revive This Weblog

Like so many people, I let my blog, which I had started relatively early at the end of 2000, fall into a state of utter neglect as various social networks took over in the late 2000s. But in the past couple of years I went through a conscious effort to improve my information diet, and that took me back to where I started: a careful selection of handpicked RSS feeds consumed via an RSS reader, many of which are blogs from entrepreneurs and interesting companies.

Despite applying the same upstream filtering to my various social media streams (i.e. I don’t follow celebrities and other noisy crap in Twitbook+), I find their information density way too low. If anything, the current crop of self-centered, ephemeral social media show the lasting value of a good blog with a purpose. Read More

04 May

Interesting Online Marketing Tools – 2010 Edition

The marketplace for tools helping interactive marketers with their tests, tracking, and optimizing, seems more vibrant than ever. More and more small companies know what the issues are and work on helping solve them. Unfortunately, tools are time consuming – it’s not copying some javascript in a CMS template that’s really the problem, it’s all the post-implementation data cleaning, reconciliation, and analysis so you can actually get value out of the tool. Also, beware of self-inflicted wounds as all these third-party javascript calls will slow down your site.

As far as we’re concerned we’re making sure we don’t just play around too much and actually fully use a tool before considering implementing yet another one. Right now we’re focused on Clicktale, mostly for its forms analytics. A bit slow but if you’re into analytics, you owe it to yourself to try it.

There are other tools that we’ve been using for a while, and yet others that we might test later. I’m sure I’m missing many but here’s a list: Read More

28 Feb

Alive and grateful

Living through a major earthquake: pretty scary.

Realizing your family, yourself, and your property don’t have a scratch: priceless.
My thoughts to the families of the deceased, wounded and homeless. Te quiero Chile.

Update three years later: I had posted this after the 8.8 earthquake on Feb. 27, 2010 in Chile. We live about 350 km (215 mile) north of the epicenter, so we felt a pretty long ~M7 earthquake on the Richter scale. Not tsunami traumatic, but definitely scary nonetheless (the noise!). This will remain a strong memory for life for sure. Oh, and the aftershocks (we’re in the upper part of that collection of 458 aftershocks, with a bunch of M5s-M6s right where we live).

07 Dec

Quick Update; ExpressionEngine Struggles

I haven’t posted on this blog for a long time, mostly because we’ve kept ourselves quite busy hunting for, then buying and renovating a house in Concón, Chile. After 5 months of remodeling, we finally moved in last month and we’re very happy to have made that choice which satisfies both our heads – we’re convinced it’s a great investment over the long run – and heart – outstanding direct view on the ocean, lots of space, our kids love it. There’s easily two or three years of additional work ahead to get our dream home out of it (and home office – did I mention we’re across the street from the Pacific ocean?) but we’re starting to be nicely settled already.

On the web publishing tech front, we’ve been working with ExpressionEngine for a bit more than a year. We like it for the most part, but still have several unresolved issues: Read More