Guest post on TechCrunch: Full-Stack Web Team

I had my first guest post on TechCrunch last week! Here’s an excerpt:

There is often confusion about the various roles of a web engineering team. I have had to explain, even to technical recruiters, the differences between these roles and that the lines that separate them are often fuzzy. I thought I’d share the framework I like to use to evaluate whether someone is a good fit for a startup’s technical team.

In a startup, you can’t afford to have people who are only able to do one thing. Someone could be adept at writing HTML/CSS, but if they don’t have a great eye for design or know JavaScript well, it’s just not worth having them on the core team. Similarly, somebody who knows a little bit of everything but isn’t advanced in anything will just drag the team down.

The size of the company or startup will determine how many different hats each engineer must wear. Many startups get off the ground with a single founder who does a little bit of everything until he or she can grow the team. It’s also possible to outsource some roles completely. Just as cloud-hosting providers such as Amazon Web Services have drastically reduced the need for hardware/network engineers in web startups, platforms like Heroku take it further and (for a price) can reduce sysadmin and DevOps work almost entirely in the beginning.

In pretty much every case, when a startup grows, people will inevitably start specializing. Even those rare gems, who in the early days can spend the first half of the day in Photoshop and the second half scaling a database, will eventually specialize at least somewhat. If you’re hiring well, you’ll always find someone who can outperform you in at least one area.

I’m a big fan of “full stack” people and think specializing too much, too early, is a bad sign for startups. At Elastic, each of our engineers has written CSS and done database/server management. It’s good when a problem arises for there to be more than one person capable of fixing it. That said, I’m spending the bulk of my day writing in JavaScript/Backbone.js because I enjoy it much more than a coworker who’d rather be in Python as much as possible. That’s healthy and it works.

You can read the rest over there.

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Launched Close.io – sales communication software

I just launched a website for Close.io, the product we’ve been working on at Elastic for the past few months.

Go check it out: http://close.io/

We’ve built this as “sales communication software”, which we believe didn’t really exist before. CRMs (salesforce.com, I’m looking at you!) are inadequate because they are more like databases of contacts than software that really helps you do the selling. We’ve trying to change that by making your sales phone calling and sales emailing experience tightly coupled with your lead data (CRM).

Would love to hear any feedback you have about the product!

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Mac Software I Use

I just got a sweet new MacBook Pro Retina – way faster than my old MBP. I wanted to do a clean install rather than restoring from a TimeMachine backup, which meant reinstalling software and manually transferring stuff over that I really needed. I kept a list…

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Quick notes from Startup School 2012

I got to go to Y Combinator’s Startup School this year and had a great time. Between the reception dinner the night before and the day of event I got to meet a lot of great people and reconnect with some I’d met in the past or only talked to online. Most of the speakers were really good.

I took some very brief notes during some of the talks of the 1 or 2 things that stuck out to me as either surprising, motivational, or instructional.

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Stripe CTF 2.0 – Web Security

I did Stripe’s Capture the Flag 2.0 this year, “a security contest where you can try your hand at discovering and exploiting vulnerabilities in mock web applications”.

It was a lot of fun. Some of the levels were quite challenging and I had to figure out how to actually implement an exploit vulnerability that I’d only read about in passing before. Each level makes you both a) figure out what the vulnerability is, and b) actually exploit it. One thing that the Stripe guys did a nice job at was spreading out the challenges between PHP, browser JavaScript, node.js, Python, and Ruby, so that developers from any one language wouldn’t have an advantage.
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Objective Process for Product Reviews

I watched Jeff Veen’s “Designing for Disaster” talk (below) and took away a couple of parts that I thought were really good. Some notes:

How to do Product Reviews (can be design, product, process, anything) — making an objective process out of something that is very subjective.

  • Optional attendance, but mandatory participation (keeps everyone focused)
  • Not a forum for expressing opinions
  • Rather, a place to solve problems.
  • Define in the beginning if session is supposed to be divergent or convergent.
    • Divergent -  I want as many ideas to solve this problem as possible – let’s talk about everything; brainstorming
    • Convergent - Evaluating feasibility, acknowledge constrains. Drive towards consensus.
Driven by Purpose
  • Measure momentum in days (weekly checkup of progress)
  • Measure projects in weeks (figure out pace, when we will go out with the next thing)
  • Measure priorities in months (“we’re going to focus on performance and distribution in Q2″)
  • Measure vision in years (“organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible”)

 

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Uploading static assets (CSS/JS) to S3 for CloudFront CDN

For a new Backbone.js + Flask project I’m using grunt + grunt-contrib, RequireJS’s r.js, Flask-Assets / webassets for static file (LESS/CSS, JS) compilation. But I needed a good way to get my nicely optimized static files onto a CDN and serving proper HTTP headers.

Using the excellent s3cmd tool, here’s what I came up with.

This example will break for browsers/proxies that don’t support gzip, but this is fine for my needs. Any other solution would either require a custom origin web server or writing different filenames in HTML depending on the request coming in. But since I want to use S3 as my origin this is the easiest/simplest solution.

Since all assets are “built” with a md5 version number hash in the file name, I want far futures headers to cache permanently.

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PhilFreo.com v3 (and past versions)

I setup my first personal webpage (philfreo.com) in 2004 when I was in high school. It’s had some server-side includes and a tiny amount of logic written in ASP. It looked like this:

I redesigned it once in 2006 during my Yahoo! internship, and it looked like this:

And there my website sat from 2006 until 2012. That’s forever in internet years!

So here we are in the summer of 2012 – time for a redesign! Nothing too fancy, just clean up the styles to be more modern and representative of the current web. It should tell people about the 2012 Phil Freo rather than the high school or college version of me. It should no longer focused on my freelance website design (where I once dominated SEO for terms like “gainesville web design” and “jacksonville web design”) and now more focused on my work with startups, modern full-stack web development, and my blog.

You’re probably looking at the new site now, but for archival purposes, here are some screenshots:

Homepage:

Blog article page:

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How to upgrade MacPorts to OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion

This weekend I upgraded OS X from Lion to Mountain Lion. Documenting steps I had to do to get all my development environments working with MacPorts.

Steps:

  • First installed the latest XCode via the Mac App Store
  • Downloaded/Installed Mountain Lion
  • Launched XCode one to so I could agree to license, etc.
  • MacPorts also requires the XCode Command Line tools which are a separate install. Inside XCode preferences: “Instead, they can be installed optionally using the Components tab of the Downloads preferences panel as shown in” (source)
  • Had to run “sudo xcodebuild -license” after getting “Error: org.macports.build for port libunwind-headers returned: command execution failed”. Run this, scroll down, type agree.
  • sudo port selfupdate
  • sudo port upgrade outdated
  • Everything finished and worked properly except MongoDB. Currently there’s a bug and the easiest/best work around seems to be just manually installing the latest stable OS X version from http://www.mongodb.org/downloads and manually copying the binaries into /opt/local

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Why is this so hard… Apple

It’s 2012 and the web and mobile devices are capable of amazing things, which is why it’s so surprising to me that some of the simplest things are still so hard.

I’ve got the latest iPhone with its 8MP camera and HD video camera, complete with iOS 5 and I pay for extra storage on iCloud. Apple’s supposed to be the best at designing simple user experiences across hardware and software – and I believe they are.

So when I want to take a bunch of photos and videos that I took from my iPhone and share those with some family members, it should be simple right?

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