Programming

Build a web app fast: Python, HTML & JavaScript resources

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Wanna build a web app fast? Know a little bit about programming but want to build a modern web app using two well-supported, well-documented, and universally accessible languages? You’ll love these Python, HTML/CSS, and JavaScript resources.

I’ve been sharing these documents with friends who ask me, “I want to start programming and build a web app, where do I start?”. These resources have also been useful to existing programmers who know C, C++ or Java, but who want to embrace dynamic and web-based programming.

Python Resources

Python is the core programming language used at Parse.ly. It also happens to be a quickly-growing language with wide adoption in the open source community, and it is a very popular choice for web startups.

I’ve written a blog post with some original materials for learning Python, import this — learning the Zen of Python with code and slides.

This is a good starting point, but you may also find these resources very helpful:

  • For absolute beginners, “Learn Python the Hard Way”. This teaches Python using a series of programming examples, but it really assumes you have no programming background whatsoever. After going through the examples in LPTHW, it may be a good idea to supplement your understanding with Think Python.
  • For existing programmers, “Dive into Python 3”. This teaches Python from the starting point that you have already programmed in a mainstream language like C or Java, and want to know what makes Python really cool/good. Similar audience to my “Zen of Python” slides. Note that this tutorial teaches Python 3, but most people still use Python 2.7. See Python2orPython3 on Python wiki to see the differences.
  • For advanced programmers, “Python Essential Reference, 4th Edition”. Unfortunately, this book costs money, but it’s basically the best book on Python on the market, and it’s very up-to-date. It’s very dense and weighs in at 717 pages, so this is only for those who want to go deep on Python.
  • For cheap advanced programmers, “Official Python Tutorial”. Though the Python tutorial doesn’t have the best narrative style nor the best real-world examples, for advanced programmers, it will teach the reality of the language in a comprehensible way. And, it’s free.

HTML/CSS Resources

In order to build up web applications, you’ll need to write your front-ends in HTML and CSS. These technologies have evolved over the years, but the basic principles remain from when they emerged nearly a decade ago. HTML is the markup language of the web, and you’ll see a lot of tutorials refer to HTML4, which is basically the markup standard all web browsers and websites work off. Don’t be confused by the HTML5 moniker, which often refers to much more than simply the markup — usually, it’s referring to a set of JavaScript APIs that are becoming standard in browsers, along with enhanced audio/video support and a few new “semantic markup” tags that have been added.

Since HTML is basically useless without CSS, you can get by with a short tutorial on HTML and then more advanced tutorials on CSS styling. Here’s what I recommend.

Learn the basics of HTML from MDC’s Introduction to HTML and Wikipedia’s page on HTML. This is a rare case where using Wikipedia is actually a perfect way to get the right background because half the battle with understanding HTML is understanding its history.

An excellent new guide to HTML & CSS together has been published by Shay Howe in 2013.

These look like a great first stop.

You can also use these dedicated resources for CSS specifically:

  • For absolute beginners: Use W3C’s official tutorial on Starting with HTML + CSS. This was written all the way back in 2004, but provides the basics with screenshots and real code examples, so is a great way to get started.
  • For existing programmers: Mozilla has done a great job putting together a quick and readable tutorial that gives you the basics at a glance.
  • For advanced programmers: You’ll want to buy the best book on the subject, CSS Mastery. It has the best explanation of the box model and browser rendering engine’s that I’ve seen, and covers all the edge cases nicely.
  • For cheap advanced programmers: You’ll need to look over the MDC (Mozilla) CSS Reference. Pay particularly close to articles on the Box Model and the Visual Formatting Model.

JavaScript Resources

Aside from Python, every Parse.ly engineer also knows JavaScript, even if it is only begrudgingly. For better or for worse, JavaScript has become the world’s most popular programming language.

JavaScript is definitely the language of the web. It is also a language that has, over the last few years, developed a nice bit of great documentation for learning the language. Here are some resources you can use to get up to speed:

  • For absolute beginners: “Eloquent JavaScript” introduces you to both modern programming techniques and JavaScript at the same time. It is thus a great book for beginners. There is also a print version available.
  • For existing programmers: The Mozilla Developer Network (MDN) contains the web’s best and most official documentation of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. This guide, “A Re-Introduction to JavaScript”, presents the language to an audience that already knows how to program, and focuses specifically on the “gotcha” parts of the language.
  • For advanced programmers: A must-read is the short (but costly) “JavaScript: The Good Parts”. Douglas Crockford basically reintroduced the world to JavaScript as a modern programming language. He is a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to programming style, but this makes sense since he is also the author of JSLint, an important tool used in JS development for static code checking.
  • For cheap advanced programmers: Douglas Crockford, author of the above “Good Parts” book, has also given a series of public video lectures on JavaScript at Yahoo! headquarters. These are freely available online and actually present much of the same content in “Good Parts”, just in a condensed form. Warning for the cheap: though the videos are very good, the book goes into more depth and spends less time on the history of the language. Also, Matt Might’s JavaScript, Warts and workarounds is an excellent summary to some of the most important “bad parts” of JavaScript.

JavaScript “frameworks”

Though knowing JS is important to do anything web-facing, you can also leverage some frameworks to help you out. The ones I recommend are the venerable jQuery JavaScript library and the Twitter Bootstrap HTML/CSS/JavaScript components. See:

jQuery adds common utilities for DOM manipulation, server requests, basic animations and dynamic CSS. Bootstrap builds on jQuery and adds a common, simple UI component library using pure HTML, CSS and JavaScript. This provides a grid system for layout; nicely-designed stylesheets for typography, tables, lists, and buttons; JavaScript components that add dynamic behavior such as tabs, dropdowns, modal dialogs, navigation bars, and more.

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Clojure as a mind expander

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

I made one of my New Year’s resolutions for this year to teach myself Clojure in my spare time. There were a few reasons for this. First, I realized this year that I have been dabbling and/or programming for nearly a decade, with Python as my preferred language throughout that time period.

Python is an unbelievable language. What astounds me even more is that it is still improving. Python 2.x/3 and the entire open source community of library implementors that surround it are bringing more and more useful utilities into the fold of the language. It has stood the test of time in a serious way. It has proven that simpler languages can be better. Personally, it has served as my salvation from the tar pit that is the Java ecosystem.

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Fully Distributed Teams: are they viable?

Monday, May 14th, 2012

It has become increasingly common for technology companies to run as Fully Distributed teams. That is, teams that collaborate primarily over the web rather than using informal, face-to-face communication as the main means of collaborating.

This has only become viable recently due to a mix of factors, including:

  • the rise of “cloud” collaboration services (aka “web 2.0” software) as exemplified by Google Apps, Dropbox, and SalesForce
  • the wide availability of high-speed broadband in homes that rivals office Internet connections (e.g. home cable and fiber)
  • real-time text, audio and video communication platforms such as IRC, Google Talk, and Skype

Thanks to these factors, we can now run Fully Distributed teams without a loss in general productivity for many (though not all) roles.

In my mind, there are three models for scaling number of employees in a growing company in the wild today. These are:

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Speed and lightness

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Last week, I decided to give myself the present of a 512GB SSD drive, which was available at a nearly 25% discount on NewEgg for a limited time.

The price-per-gigabyte for SSDs has finally fallen to nearly $1/GB, and the rewrite cycle problems that used to afflict these drives is now becoming a non-issue with the Linux kernel’s TRIM implementation and the updated firmware on these drives.

So, I took the plunge. My main development workstation was a Thinkpad T400, maxed out to 8GB of RAM, and with dual 500GB platter drives (via Thinkpad’s excellent Ultrabay extension). I was running Ubuntu 10.10 for a long time. I timed the SSD purchase with the release of Ubuntu 12.04 LTS — 10.10 no longer being supported, I figured I’d do a clean install on the new SSD and clean up my development workstation for the first time in a couple of years.

A couple of things occurred to me in this process. First of all, since 2009, I have moved more and more of my data into cloud services. I have moved the lion’s share of my “business and personal documents”, including photos, into Dropbox with my 50GB account. And I have moved my truly old files and digital keepsakes into NAS drives that I host in my little server room at home.

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On multi-form data

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

I read an excellent debrief on a startup’s experience with MongoDB, called “A Year with MongoDB”.

It was excellent due to its level of detail. Some of its points are important — particularly global write lock and uncompressed field names, both issues that needlessly afflict large MongoDB clusters and will likely be fixed eventually.

However, it’s also pretty clear from this post that they were not using MongoDB in the best way. For example, in a small part of their criticism of “safe off by default”, they write:

We lost a sizable amount of data at Kiip for some time before realizing what was happening and using safe saves where they made sense (user accounts, billing, etc.).

You shouldn’t be storing user accounts and billing information in MongoDB. Perhaps MongoDB’s marketing made you believe you should store everything in MongoDB, but you should know better.

In addition to that data being highly relational, it also requires the transactional semantics present in mature relational databases. When I read “user accounts, billing” here, I cringed.

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XDDs: stay healthily skeptical and don’t drink the kool-aid

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

On my LinkedIn profile, I list one of my skills as “thought-driven development”. This is a little tongue-in-cheek; software engineering over the last few years has developed a lot of “XDDs,” such as test-driven development, behavior-driven development, model-driven development, etc. etc.

“Thought-driven development” doesn’t actually exist, but by it, I simply mean: perhaps we should think about what we’re doing, rather than reaching for a nearby methodology du jour.

In my last job, a colleague of mine used to also joke about “design-driven design” — perhaps the ultimate play on the XDDs since it is also a strange loop.

All this is not to say the XDDs aren’t useful — they definitely are. A lot of them have spawned entire groups of cross-platform open source projects. I am all for anything that makes the adoption of XYZ best practice easier for my team. But these techniques often require some lateral thinking to get to any real benefit.

When evaluating technologies like this, you have to take each little community with a grain of salt. Almost every programming framework / methodology / etc. that exists portends to offer some order of magnitude increase in software reliability / developer productivity / whatever else. And almost all, if not all, fail to do so, in practice.

Here is one anecdote to illustrate the point. From 2006-2008 at Morgan Stanley, the entire corporation was obsessed with Java’s Spring framework and its core “architectural pattern”, Inversion of Control. I can’t even begin to explain to you the number of man-hours that were wasted re-architecting existing, working software to meet this chimerical conception of component decoupling. I even contributed to this, urged by the zealots and their blind faithful. All of the reasons seemed great: decoupling code, using more interfaces, allowing for easier unit testing, being able to “rewire dependencies” and use fancy technologies like “aspect-oriented programming”.

Even Google got swept up in the madness and developed their own, competing framework called Guice. And in the end — after all that work — my diagnosis is that IoC is basically a non-starter, a complete waste of time.

A complicated framework that morphed into a programming methodology, developed exclusively to work around some annoying limitations of the Java language. Since it was applied without thinking, now everyone’s Java code has to suffer, and you can hardly pick up a Java web application today without being crushed by the weight of its IoC container’s XML configuration files. (Nevermind that most other communities, such as Python’s and Ruby’s, have hardly a clue what IoC is all about — a good enough indication that it is a waste of time.)

Every framework and approach should be judged on its true merits, that is the true cost/benefit analysis of applying that particular technology. Will it save us time? Will it simplify — not complicate — our code? Will it make our code more flexible / adaptable? Will it let us serve our users and customers better?

I regularly go back to old classics like the Mythical Man-Month to remember that nothing we do in software is truly new. I highly recommend you read it, and also its most famous essay, “No Silver Bullet”.

tl;dr stay healthily skeptical, don’t drink the kool-aid.

8 years ago today, I wrote this in a bug report

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

Me: Thanks so much for your fix to my issue. My friend, who majors in business, once told me that I should no longer major in Computer Science because “programming is like banging your head against the wall repeatedly, but with less reward.” I find that to be a rather rash dramatization, but I know in dealing with bugs as subtle as these it may feel that way. I hope at least the end-result is rewarding for you.

Programmer: Are you a Computer Science major? If so, don’t let your friend discourage you. Just ask him about “head banging” when those business majors find that their product development and marketing efforts fail to work after spending millions of dollars.

Me: Yes, I’m a CS major. And you’re right — the reward is great in software, and the cost of building an useful product is relatively minimal. That is one of the reasons I chose this path. It’s why I love helping out honest, intelligent developers such as yourself in any way I can. I have found that hardworking CS majors who are not only better programmers, but more often than not better thinkers and better managers — if you’d give them the chance. I am happy in my decision, and still have that naivete that perhaps I can change the industry a bit, shake things up, come up with an idea that changes everything, innovate in whatever way I can. Big aspirations; we’ll see what happens. For now, I’ll just keep respecting the good software I find in the world, such as yours.

The C++ trap

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

I came across this wonderful piece of historical retelling by David Beazley, one of my favorite Pythonistas and the author of Python Essential Reference. Here is a man who conquered C++ in just about every way, but ultimately found himself trapped in its byzantine complexity, only to escape by way of Python.

Swig grew a fully compatible C++ preprocessor that fully supported macros. A complete C++ type system was implemented including support for namespaces, templates, and even such things as template partial specialization. Swig evolved into a multi-pass compiler that was doing all sorts of global analysis of the interface. Just to give you an idea, Swig would do things such as automatically detect/wrap C++ smart pointers.It could wrap overloaded C++ methods/function. Also, if you had a C++ class with virtual methods, it would only make one Python wrapper function and then reuse across all wrapped subclasses.

Under the covers of all of this, the implementation basically evolved into a sophisticated macro preprocessor coupled with a pattern matching engine built on top of the C++ type system […] This whole pattern matching approach had a huge power if you knew what you were doing […]

In hindsight however, I think the complexity of Swig has exceeded anyone’s ability to fully understand it (including my own). For example, to even make sense of what’s happening, you have to have a pretty solid grasp of the C/C++ type system (easier said than done). Couple that with all sorts of crazy pattern matching, low-level code fragments, and a ton of macro definitions, your head will literally explode if you try to figure out what’s happening. So far as I know, recent versions of Swig have even combined all of this type-pattern matching with regular expressions. I can’t even fathom it.

Sadly, my involvement was Swig was an unfortunate casualty of my academic career biting the dust. By 2005, I was so burned out of working on it and so sick of what I was doing, I quite literally put all of my computer stuff aside to go play in a band for a few years. After a few years, I came back to programming (obviously), but not to keep working on the same stuff. In particularly, I will die quite happy if I never have to look at another line of C++ code ever again. No, I would much rather fling my toddlers, ride my bike, play piano, or do just about anything than ever do that again.

From this Swig mailing list entry.

import this: learning the Zen of Python with code and slides

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

It’s hard to find me gushing more unapologetically than when I talk about the virtues of my favorite programming language, Python.

Indeed, my life for the last 3 years has been dominated by the language. In many ways, pursuing a startup and enduring the associated financial hardship was partially because I had become frustrated with using Java in my full-time work and wanted to convert hobby projects I was building outside of work hours into full-fledged projects.

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Upcoming: standing desk setup, Python training, Groovy/JavaScript articles

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

I’ve been quite busy with work lately, so haven’t had time to send a few posts toward my blog. However, I have been working on some spare time and work-related projects that I’d love to share with everyone here.

Among them:

  • Lifehacking through standing desks. I have created a standing desk setup for my home office, and my investors in Parse.ly have created a healthy startup office in NYC. I have some thoughts about this as it applies engineering and hacking to the thing many of us do most: sit in a desk chair all day.
  • 2-day Python Training Course. I have created a 2-day Python training course that helps existing programmers learn Python by comparing it very directly to languages they may already know, like C and Java. I gave this course to a group of government employees a few months ago. It has some interesting characteristics: I designed the whole course using ReStructured Text (ReST) and compiled it into a web-based presentation. This means that the entire course has the potential to be “open source” — exercises, slides, and all. I plan to release this to the public. For now, I am just clearing a few of the images I used in the course to make sure I don’t inadvertently infringe copyright. After that, I will open to the public.
  • Groovy/JavaScript articles go public domain. Some articles I wrote for GroovyMag and JSMag last year are now able to be published in the public domain. These include one about RESTful services with Groovy, one that talks about functional programming with JavaScript, and finally one that discusses a design for “metagrids” in ExtJS 3.x. I will put all three articles up on this blog once they are reformatted.

Stay tuned!