My Year in Review: 2011

Series: reflections December 26, 2011

This post is mainly for my own benefit – I am repeatedly surprised by the phenomenon of gradual improvement and taking an hour to summarize my year always makes it clear how much I have learned and grown as a developer.


My first full calendar year working at SEP was quite eventful. I spent the first 9 months continuing work on a long-running web application for an aerospace client. About half of the time I was working on new features in the ASP.NET MVC part of the app and the other half was spent fixing “short term high visibility” bugs. This meant digging around in legacy Perl code and spending more time going back and forth with the client to gather requirements.

I was getting anxious to leave the land of Perl and as the team dissipated until more work packages were approved, I spent a short period on internal projects.

For a week I was doing discovery work and researching SMS technologies for a project that would help a non-profit in South Africa collect medical data for impoverished children. I ended up recommending that the organization partner with a local group that already had a solution for logging data with text messages.

I spent another week trying to port an internal web app from Rails 1.X all the way to Rails 3. It proved to be very difficult, as the combination of my lack of legacy Rails knowledge and a weird deployment environment (MS SQL Server + Windows box) were too much to overcome in a week. I tried to lay the groundwork (adding a Gemfile, getting the database adapter working) so someone else could try to pick up the effort in the future.

I was pulled back onto billable work in September and joined a team of four on an Android project in the medical space. Having never done Android development, it was both exciting and frustrating to dive headfirst into a greenfield project. Within the app, I’ve focused on integrating a Javascript charting library, as well as generating static reports that the user can email to themselves or their healthcare provider. Three months into the project, I think I’ve gained a solid understanding of the ‘Android Way’ of doing things - especially tasks like background processing and service binding.

I was fortunate enough to spend a day doing Story Mapping training with Jeff Patton and got to apply my newly learned abilities when doing a project estimate for a local bio-chem startup.

A coworker and I took a week to build an iPad-friendly interface (with jQuery Mobile) for a section of an existing application that was well received by the client and is going to bring in one (if not two) projects for the iPad next year. I was involved with the client meetings to discuss the goals and requirements of those projects, giving me more insight into the work pipeline before it hits the Kanban board.

I helped organize SEP’s first internal Startup Weekend that was held this past summer. Around 15 developers came in and built prototypes for three products in a single weekend. While none of the projects really took off this year, some were put into the internal project queue and have had more exploratory work done on them. Another Startup Weekend is scheduled for February 2012 and I’ve made it a personal goal to get at least one of the projects launched to the public this time.

I participated (sometimes too much in my opinion…) in two book clubs at work: one for Rework and one for The Passionate Programmer.

I got over my irrational fear that I needed to be an expert to present information on a topic and gave five brownbags talks over lunch.

With the help of some friends at work, I started a weekly Blog Battle with the goal of getting more engineers at SEP to start writing in a technical capacity. A group would decide on a title and then the participants would write a post about that title, with the contents up to each person’s own interpretation. This friendly competition ran for five weeks and had over 20 posts submitted.

I didn’t achieve my (albeit ambitious) goal of “leveling up” to Software Engineer 2 by the end of the year, but I made good progress and, assuming I get some opportunities to demonstrate competency in a few key areas, I should be able to do it in 2012.



I became a regular attendee and contributer to the Indy ALT.NET group. I gave four mini-talks (15-30 minutes): writing with Markdown, Dive into Node.js, Javascript visualization libraries, and design shortcuts for weekend projects. The group is rebranding to Indy Software Artisans and I am slated to give a talk early in 2012.

Personal Projects

Bibliotechnical - Status: abandoned

My first stab at building something for public use. The idea was to build a technical book aggregator that ranked books by metrics other than number of copies sold and star ratings. I would rank books on things like shelf life, practical vs theoretical, target developer skill level and use recommendations from Stack Overflow, Hacker News and Reddit. I would monetize using affiliate links. The main issue was that I had no idea how to rank the books that I hadn’t read so I just deferred that until the last moment – but once I reached the point when I needed to solve the problem, I still didn’t have a clue how to tackle it and lost interest.

LandingPad.rb - Status: shipped

I extracted the landing page that I built for Bibliotechnical into a separate project. I didn’t understand why developers were paying money to other startups to create a ‘viral landing page’ when it is pretty simple to make your own. I open sourced my simple version that collects email addresses or Twitter handles which can be deployed to Heroku in just a few minutes.

Netflix-it-now - Status: Works on my Machine!

Weekend project that I threw together with a friend. We were lamenting over IM one night that it was dumb that Netflix had an “Add to Instant Queue” button, but only for movies that were available to stream. If there was a movie that was only available on DVD, we wanted an option to notify us when it became available for streaming. We threw together a basic Sinatra app and browser extension to solve the problem. It worked well enough for our own use, but we didn’t want to deal with support or making sure user data was absolutely secure so we never released it to the general public.

Lanyon - Status: shelved

I wanted a way to write posts for my Github Pages-powered Jekyll blog when I wasn’t on my main machine. The idea was to add a single page to my blog to write a post and then, using Javascript to make calls to the Github API, generate a new commit and push it to my repository. I got it working but I hasn’t happy with the authentication options: Github supports OAuth, but not a client-side flow. So this project is shelved until that gets sorted out.

Abe - Status: shipped

“Abraham Lincoln? Isn’t he the President who…” – A stupid one-page app based on a long-running inside joke. Pointless, but fun to make.

CloutBout - Status: demoed

A fantasy football for Twitter app I built with some friends at the SocialDevCamp Chicago hackathon. The idea is to apply fantasy sports-style scoring to Twitter: so you get points for tweeting, hash tagging, posting links, etc. I think it’s a neat idea and we won a prize, but no one on the team had the time or desire to take it anywhere past the hackathon.

Dasher - Status: ongoing

I’ve been working on and off with two coworkers to build a company dashboard with information that engineers might care about – data like upcoming developer events, build server status, and a diagram of what projects everyone is working on.

Morale - Status: shipped

By far, my most successful side project of the year. I built a Rails app to track developer moods over the course of a project with a simple daily email. I wrote about it in more detail here. It’s been used at work for around two months across three projects and feedback has been positive. I am presenting the app to the whole company at a status meeting in January. I’d love for it to be used company-wide and I think it will be a big help in gauging employee satisfaction.


I made a bigger effort to add content to my blog this year. I wrote 21 blog posts and posted reviews for eight books.

I’ve been floored with the success of some of my posts on Hacker News – it is really exciting to see your blog make the front page and to read all the comments from other developers. The coolest event for me was when someone else submitted a post I had written and it hit the #1 spot for a few hours; it was an awesome feeling to have someone else like my post enough to want to share it with others.

Between the seven posts that got over 15 points on HN and a bunch of long-tail searches for github API and startup weekend tips, my blog traffic blew past any expectations I had.

Not bad for a random developer in Indiana!

Closing Thoughts on 2011

It’s hard to see your own improvement – your day-to-day performance doesn’t seem to be any different. On the internet, it seems like everyone is doing cool stuff all the time and you are falling behind. You aren’t alone, I get this feeling all the time; we are always our own toughest critic and usually the last ones to praise ourselves.

Just remember that it only takes 365 people (out of the millions of developers) with a single neat project to fill the pages of Reddit and HN for a year. Keep that in mind the next time you feel bad about “never producing anything”.

Take an hour this week to look back at your own year’s accomplishments and I think you’ll find that you’ve done and learned more than you thought.

Have a safe and happy New Year.

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