Sunday, August 1, 2010

Can you do it? A simple web app, start to finish in one week

It's useful in life to set challenging, yet achievable goals. After some recent setbacks I decided to recover my ego with this simple task: given a good, simple idea for a useful web app, go from idea to launch in one week.

I'm happy to say that I completed this goal. The result is:

Was this challenging? Of course. I intended to still do all the normal things I need to do during the week, like going to the gym and going to grocery store, and use up extra time that I would have spent puttering around doing nothing of use. I was largely able to accomplish this, but I did stay up late a couple nights. I counted two Wednesdays as one day and found bugs over the next few days, but sometimes you have to make success fit you rather that you fit success.

Several times I was set back my an unexpected obstacle by at least a day. The worst of these was WHOIS. My site is powered by Google App Engine. GAE is ideal in many ways but sandboxes you into a limited environment where the only network calls you can make are over HTTP. I had expected that someone had written some HTTP whois API that I could call to make queries. Instead I had difficulty finding any, and those that did exist were not reasonably priced for my needs since I had to make hundreds of whois queries for each name suggestion (so $0.01 per query is not going to be profitable for me, to say the least).

I ended up writing a threaded HTTP-WHOIS proxy server that I run somewhere else. This is a significant design limitation, since if it goes down the entire site is unusable. Given that both systems are uncorrelated this means of course a multiplicative increase in the failure odds (p(fail) = 1 - (p1(fail) * p2(fail)). It's also a single ugly bottleneck for all those clouded GAE instances out there, sort of defeating the point.

The frontend design also took at least 40% of the time. Design is not one of my strengths and this component of creating the site was a source of anxiety for me. Would I be able to make something passable in a short period of time? I ended up coming up with some that I liked, but it wasn't something that I felt 100% confident about in advance of doing it.

UI-wise I found that I had to rule out doing anything ambitious that I didn't more or less know how to do already in the interest of releasing quickly.

The algorithm was easy. I had this down in a couple hours. Including writing the entire bayes and markov engines from scratch. Goes to show how well I know this stuff now. I later went back and optimized it, for instance, by replacing lists of numbers with python's optimized array.array data structure.

I also cut several features that I felt 1) complicated the layout, forcing me to make decisions about the layout that I wasn't certain about making and would have fretted over endlessly, and 2) didn't add that much value at launch time. For instance, I wanted to have a sidebar that would pull in retweets from the twitter api. Sometimes it's kind of hard to think of key words when you're staring at the input box and I wanted a way for people to get ideas using examples that others had shared. Additionally people could get a little feedback reward from doing a retweet, which gives me the obvious benefit of getting exposure to that person's twitter followers. But I couldn't make up my mind as to where I would put that element so that it wouldn't be distracting for people looking at the page for the first time and I couldn't even test the feature because twitter apparently couldn't even index the name for the site. In the interest of getting a release out the door, I cut the feature.

What did I learn?

I learned that I can make a genuinely useful web app in a week.

What if I could do this every week?


  1. I'd like to hear more about the bayes and markov engines.

  2. This post is absolutely incredible. The information that you've given here on this topic is very hard to be found on the internet and yet you've given us the info. You really are a gem of a writer. And I just hope you keep working the same way! I'd like to peer more post on this. Be with us here low cost twitter re tweets

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