Thursday, November 24, 2011

Code Academy: Week 7

A couple of weeks ago I came across a site out of Detroit that allowed anyone to enter in an idea for the redevelopment of Michigan Central Station. I liked the idea and decided it'd be a good exercise to try to build a similar site as practice for what I've been learning in class. Detroit Pays Off was born (more on the idea at some other point).

The actual rails coding was really easy. There isn't much to the site, just a model for the posts that includes the idea, the posted on date, and the number of votes, but because I wanted to share the site here, I spent a lot of time last week taking my first stab at the frontend coding of a site - mainly CSS and a few cool effects written with javascript/jquery.

I basically just stole Tumblr's colors and layout as a model for the CSS coding and messed around with different divs and options until I managed to get things where I wanted them. Much easier said than done but it was a worthwhile endeavor. I have a much greater grasp of what CSS is and how to hack something together that looks somewhat presentable. As for the javascript/jquery, I spent just about all weekend working on getting three very small effects working. You'll notice the first one when you click on "Submit Your Idea". Oh yeah! You saw that animation slide? Took me all day Sunday to figure that out. The other two were somewhat less difficult, you can click on the hand and it counts a vote without refreshing the page, and when you enter in a new idea it fades in as the newest idea submitted. You'll have to submit an idea to see that last one so don't be shy...submit!

I'm pretty critical of how things have turned out and what still needs to be done on the site (for starters, I hate how the submitted ideas section is laid out in a table, and I'd like to add comments and the ability to sign in with Facebook), but being able to do this on my own has been awesome. Just a few weeks ago I would have seen the Talk to The Station site and been frustrated that I couldn't build a similar site without resorting to a pre-built WordPress theme. Now when I come across any site or idea, I can just create it myself.

Have any ideas for a website/web app? Send 'em over...I'll build it.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Code Academy: Week 6

We're half way through the very first Code Academy program. It's surprising how quickly the weeks are passing and even more surprising how far we've all come along since that first week. Our progress has never been clearer than last night at 5pm when we presented the result of our work during the Startup Weekend we had just completed.

There are startup weekend events throughout the country and they all function pretty much the same. You start on Friday at 6pm. Those who are interested, pitch various ideas for businesses or web applications and after all the pitches, the attendees vote on their favorites. Through either one or two rounds of voting and questions, the list of ideas is whittled down to the winners and then teams are formed around each idea. At that point, once the teams are created, you have until Sunday at 5pm to work on the idea and try to get it launched over the course of the weekend. Our Code Academy startup weekend worked in this fashion, and since we're all at least novice developers at this point, our projects were very much functioning web applications by Sunday.

A Code Academy startup weekend in week one of the program would have looked something like this - 
  • Powerpoint presentations with slides on the market potential, a SWAT analysis on the idea, and a summary of competition.
  • Wireframes of the web application
There's certainly nothing wrong with this work and, in fact, it'd be smart to do that for any idea, but a Code Academy startup weekend after week six looks a lot different. It looks real. We can build shit. Real, functioning applications. To see the ideas that were decided upon on Friday come to life through the weekend and result in fully featured websites by Sunday was really special. Very motivating for the next half of the program and a very good reminder of how far we've come in the first half.  See for yourself at two of the sites that were built in just 46 hours:

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Code Academy: Week Five

I can't specifically pin point what finally became clear this week, but by Monday afternoon while still working on the application we had built the week before, a lightbulb went off and things started to click. During the first four weeks, I understood each individual concept on a fairly superficial level, but it turns out that a somewhat superficial understanding isn't all that useful in programming. Trying to orchestrate your web pages, controllers, data models, and browser requests with code requires an understanding that allows a programmer to see how everything works together, and looking back on where I was last week versus where I am now, I think it was this deeper understanding that was missing. I understood the various parts in isolation rather than in the context of how everything was working together, and it wasn't until the lightbulb went off on Monday that those same isolated parts became one - a beautiful application with several moving pieces working together to output exactly what I was telling it to do.

The lightbulb continued to burn bright this week and I've surprised even myself with what I've been able to accomplish on my own. In thirty minutes I was able to rebuild the same application that took me two days last week, and after conquering that, filled with confidence, I started to tackle two of my own projects - an application for learning about and exploring city neighborhoods and an application to submit and vote on ideas. This new ability to turn a vague idea and a blank screen into a functioning application is empowering and exciting. The whole world opens up with possibility. New apps, new ideas, new things that I CAN BUILD.  The work involved is creative, satisfying, frustrating, simple, complex, beautiful, and fun. I've found myself not wanting to do much else this past week but build. The lightbulb came on this week. I don't think it's turning off anytime soon.