April, 2012 | Chris Page

Features, Quality, Speed – Choosing Technology

Apr 24

A few years ago, I put out a series of articles on tech forums describing some of my thoughts on building social networks, and choosing the best technology. I made some comparisons between Rails, Django, and PHP Frameworks, off the shelf CMS like Drupal or WordPress. Not all statements, I would say were accurate at the time ( I may be jaded from bad experiences ), or even today – but the general idea was in the right place.

A few years have gone by ( too fast ), and many of my philosophies have, hopefully matured, changed a little. I tend to slander technologies less, for starters, unless your Drupal, and do more looking at the problem domain and explore what technology can elegantly solve for to get me there, instead of brute forcing my favorite technology and hoping it will keep me there.

Tonight, I received an email from a fellow startup enthusiast, Michael, seeking some further thought on the matter, as he is embarking on a project. After editing my response to him, over and over, I decided, it was worth sharing.

Michael, in his quest to choose the best technology for the job, was stuck between choosing an off the shelf solution, BuddyPress or going completely custom from scratch with CodeIgniter (CI) to build a social network. BuddyPress didn’t quite have all the features he wanted, but did have some, and CI, of course, would be a mostly from scratch endeavor.

Michael stumbled upon one of my notes on the CI forums, and sent me an email asking “How does he choose which will be best?”

My response:

Hi Michael,

Thanks for reaching out to me. I have to say, I’ve received a lot of feedback on my thoughts about this, and I will first admit, I wrote that note on the CI forums several years ago, if I were to write it again, I think I could do you one better. However, I think a lot of the motivation behind it still holds true in my experience, so let me give you some of my thoughts from today, and you will have to task yourself in choosing which specific technology meets your requirement.

Lets spark some thoughts:

  • Are you hiring a team or programming yourself?
  • What types of resources do you have available to achieve a finished product ( either that be your own graphics and programming skill, friends helping, a hired team, skill level, experience ).
  • What type of timeline are you looking at?
  • If you have a hired team, do you have the budget and buffer for when things don’t come out the way you expected? Going custom can have it’s unexpected draw backs and expenditure, while an off the shelf solution might get you to market faster at the cost of not being “quite” what you want in the big picture.

All Code is Throw Away

“All code is throw away” – Peter Meulbroek. A dear friend of mine, mentor, and also former boss, taught me this concept over the course of about 3 years. It’s one of my biggest take aways from working closely with him.

Be ready to try again. To not get it quite right. To give a little, so you can take a little more.

Often, the best thing you can do, is build a beta or prototype. See if it catches. Don’t spend all your resources in one basket and hope it’s the next best thing. If you can get a prototype, you can gauge what to do to sustain, maybe pursue further investment, or decide to throw it out! Going with an off the shelf solution is often a “fast” way to go and provides this sort of testing ground with low expense. Then when the concept is proven, rewrite it on a more customizable platform with all those features you dream of, ramp up infrastructure, resources, budget, etc.

I’ve rewritten entire projects with tens of thousands of lines of code, in different technologies, languages, platforms, you name it, in some cases, 3-4 times in a year. Some of the reasons generally being:

  • the requirements evolved
  • the budget increased or decreased
  • we pulled and added features that we found more or less important
  • users hated it and nobody used it
  • users loved it so much we hit a technical wall or limitation
  • overhead was not worth investment for particular features

Famous Last Words

Think about these items, and then ask yourself what is important to you in this first iteration ( attention to the word “first” ):

  1. Features
  2. Quality
  3. Speed

Take a combination of 2, and choose which framework/platform gets you that. Then, be prepared to change your mind, evolve, and throw away a little code ( or all of it sometimes ) in favor of what gets you to the big picture in the end.

Your fellow startup enthusiast,

Chris Page