End of 2012 Review

At the end of a year I like looking back and seeing what I’ve accomplished and what new technologies I started working with in the year. Here’s a little summary.

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Manage GitHub Issues milestones in Trello

In doing product management on an engineering-led project, GitHub Issues rock. The killer features are that it’s a) really simple, b) tightly integrated with code (you can reference/close issues via commit messages), and c) facilitates discussion of issues just like it does of code.

What GitHub Issues suck at is being able to get a high-level view, where you can see more than 30 issues at a time, and broken out by milestone or by person. (You can only filter to see issues for one milestone or one person, but not easily move multiple issues between them.)

I’d really like to see a Trello-style interface for managing GitHub Issues. Some very limited integrations exist, but what I’m looking for would let you quickly move issues around between milestones. This would help plan a product roadmap and be able to visualize what the upcoming milestones look like in one place.

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How to unit test AJAX Requests with QUnit and Sinon.JS

We write QUnit tests for Close.io, a big Backbone.js app, to help avoid introducing bugs. Pretty quickly when testing front-end JavaScript code you’ll have to deal with how to test asynchronous callbacks and especially code related to AJAX/XHR requests and how their responses are handled. Here are some basic examples of how to use Sinon.JS to handle this.
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How to allow direct file uploads from JavaScript to Amazon S3 signed by Python

On Close.io we originally implemented Filepicker.io to allow for file uploads while sending emails. While it was a quick way to get started with file uploading initially, after several minutes of downtime of their API and then an unannounced change in their JSON response format, I was reminded once again that you shouldn’t to rely on small startups for critical parts of your tech infrastructure.

There’s nothing wrong with filepicker.io if you want to use a lot of their features, but in our case we just needed to allow simple uploading of files to our own AWS S3 bucket. Here’s how:
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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.

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!

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”)


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.

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:


Blog article page:

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.


  • 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

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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Two Years at Quizlet

The last two years (2010-2011) I spent working at Quizlet were an incredible learning experience.

Like I did in Jan 2010, I wanted to reflect on some of the technologies I learned and things I did over the last 2 years…

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Behind the scenes look at my work at Quizlet

I just wrote a pretty in-depth article on the Quizlet Blog: “How We Do Product Development at Quizlet: An Inside Look at the Making of Speller” which describes the process of how Andrew and I created “Speller”, the latest study mode on Quizlet.

…a behind the scenes look at how we created Speller, our engineering challenges and processes, and how we obsessed over the user experience and the educational experience.

Includes some technical details of how we programmed it (mostly JavaScript), the text-to-speech, development process and usability testing, and lots of screenshots of the different iterations we did in order to get the UI right.

It’s a little long, but hopefully worth the read!

Wedding Website & Invitations

I launched my first new website in a very long time, and also designed some matching print work. This time the client was tougher than usual. But she was also cuter than usual so it was worth it…

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Honestly.com – Not acting so honestly

I hate to have my first blog post after over a year be a negative one, but I feel like these guys need calling out.

I recently received an email from a company, Honestly.com, that got me quite curious. I looked up the website to see what it was all about, and I saw that they are a way of reviewing former/current coworkers and business partners. Their tag lines are “Get the inside scoop on your potential boss, coworkers, or business partners.” and “Candid community-created reviews of business professionals.” I sort of expected them to be a more extensive version of CubeDuel (which was quite fun for the first few minutes), but with full reviews rather than just ratings…

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New Job with Startup: Old School Industries

I just accepted a full-time position at a small startup in San Francisco as a lead Developer and Product Manager.  The company is called Old School Industries LLC and is a combination of two businesses: Quizlet and Collectors Weekly.

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Technologies I’ve worked with in 2009

One benefit of doing freelance development work is that I get the opportunity to get involved in many different technologies and frameworks in a short amount of time.

Since the year is over… here’s a quick list of 15 technologies/frameworks that I got to learn in 2009 alone, during my last year in college.

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Book Review: “jQuery 1.3 with PHP”

I was given another book to review, called “jQuery 1.3 with PHP”, so here it is.  The book is aimed at beginners or intermediate developers wanting to learn how to “enhance your PHP applications by increasing their responsiveness through jQuery and its plugins“.

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Graduation thoughts: best classes at UF for Computer Engineering

In three weeks from today, I will have graduated, with honors, from the University of Florida with a B.S. in Computer Engineering (software emphasis) and a minor in Business Administration.  Overall, I’ve had an incredible college experience and have learned a ton, had some great experiences, and built relationships with a lot of really great people.

I thought it’d be worth mentioning the classes at UF that, looking back, had the greatest impact on me.  I’ve taken a bunch of classes over the past 4.5 years, but these were the ones that I really can appreciate the most…
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Largest website width to support 1024×768 resolution

Currently, web designers are advised to support browser resolutions of widths 1024px and greater based on current browser usage data. The idea is that you want your site’s design to look good, and not require a horizontal scroll bar for those users. But screen resolution and browser width are not the same thing, because of browser chrome, scroll bars, and because many users browse without their window being maximized.
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ExpressionEngine: “Freo Add-on Installer” makes installing add-ons a breeze

I wrote my first module for ExpressionEngine, called “Freo Add-on Installer”, with the aim of saving EE developers a lot of time.  Here’s what it’s all about.

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Book Review: “Magento: Beginner’s Guide”

I was given a copy of a book called “Magento: Beginner’s Guide” to review, so here goes.  Overall, the book does a good job of giving a high-level walkthrough of all the different aspects of running a store with Magento.

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