Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Sharpening the Axe!

One of the biggest dilemmas that every team starting up from scratch faces, do you invest time on things which are not getting you any learning about the problem that you are trying to solve and what the customer thinks. Over the past few months, time and again I have come face to face with this dilemma. Today, I was pondering over the choices I made and whether there was any consistency in choices. In retrospect, there have been a few mistakes, but there have been some good decisions as well.

Mistake #1: UI/CSS Framework

When I started work, my choice of CSS framework was Bootstrap. It was something I was familiar with, had good documentation and was used widely. If I would get stuck somewhere, the probability of finding an answer on stackoverflow or elsewhere was higher since so many people use bootstrap.
Instead of customizing it from scratch, I could use a freely available and customizable template. This is exactly what I did in the beginning and used the same bootstrap template in the desktop app as well as the landing page of the website.

This was a choice I should've stuck to. However, I came across a situation where I was looking for a particular UI component in react and did not find a good one which was using bootstrap (Looking back, I feel the perception of what was good was flawed.) Material UI seemed to be the rage, but in my quest to be different,  I ended up trying WinJS.react and Winstrap. This is an example of one of those classic mistakes which one makes when working alone. This was so obviously a bad choice, yet somehow I made it. Its not that I had to redo a lot of stuff. I wasn't very far in my project and the time I lost due to this was probably less than a week. But that IS A LOT OF TIME! In the end, when I came across Materialize.css I chose that and have been happy with my choice. Material design guidelines on color etc mean that my app does not look completely amateur from the design perspective.  But I do feel that sticking with bootstrap, I would have been able to get the app in the hands of the first five users quicker.

Mistake #2: Not resolving Webpack issues

Webpack is quite awesome! But to get a feel of all its awesomeness there is a learning curve. The reason I wanted to use webpack was because in my code I was using all these bleeding edge Ecmascript features which are still TC39 proposals, e.g. async/await, import etc. Thanks to Babel, this is possible. However, there way people have suggested to use Babel in Electron is to let the transpiling happen at runtime using babel-register. I continued with this approach because it resolved the errors I was getting. However, this meant that even for the most simple css change in one of my react components, I had to rerun the whole electron app.  The time taken for the app to start itself was getting larger, due to all the runtime transpiling happening every time.  What I wanted was Hot-Module-Replacement to save on the time which I was losing every time that I ran the app. Also, transpiling during runtime would make the MVP too slow on startup and was not giving the feel of a native app.

I tried integrating webpack and failed due to an error which I could not resolve nor could I find a solution on the internet. Worried that this was delaying getting the app into the hands of the first users, I let that branch of code remain and continued work on other features. I got back to that branch and fixed the issues after a full 30 days. Today, I got hot-module-reload to work as well and I can see just how much time would have been saved if I had fixed the issues earlier.

Good decision #1: Integrating flow-type and refactoring code

I did end up spending a month or so refactoring the code to use flow-type and Immutable.js. However, as the code has gotten more complicated, the investment in implementing these technologies has paid of by time saved catching bugs/errors which would have otherwise taken a lot more time to find and fix. At this stage, I have not implemented any automated testing, as that seems overkill for the MVP. But I will get to those very soon.

So the last few months have been a mix. I do sometimes get criticism that I have not followed the philosophy of "The Lean Startup", something which I myself advocate fiercely to others. My explanation for this has been that I am solving a pain point which I have. There is a minimum that I expect from my app before I give it out to other to try. Perhaps my perception of that minimum is biased, and I could have gone more minimal and learnt first hand from users. But from time to time, I have shown the progress to some of the first five users and the response has been positive. By positive, I do not mean, "Oh you are doing good", but "Oh I want that" Real feedback will only come once the app is in their hands.

I was speaking to an ex-teammate who, along with a few other ex-teammates, is working on his own startup. He was narrating how they have slowed their initial sales push because they need time to incorporate all the learning from their initial customers into their product.

I expect a tremendous amount of learning once I get the app in the hands of the initial users. Once all that feedback starts to come in, I will have to move fast. The time invested in setting up things like webpack-hot-reload or flow will pay off by allowing me to move at a faster pace when needed.

The key takeaway thought which I had today was something which I have had for years now. Invest time in sharpening the axe.

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