When budgets get tight, it can be difficult to provide adequate training
for your staff. Over the last couple of years, I’ve found some ways to
provide some training even in the face of a shrinking (or non-existent)
If you still have some budget, but maybe just not as much as you are
accustomed to, look to smaller regional conferences as an alternative to
the larger national ones that are in major cities. If you’re fortunate
enough to live in a city where a conference is being held, you might get
out of having to pay for travel at all. This past year, the excellent
No Fluff Just Stuff
conference made a stop in our town, and I was able to send two
developers plus myself to it for a fraction of what it would have cost
to send them away somewhere and pay airfare and hotel on top of the
conference cost. I personally attended the Windy City
Rails conference this year which was a
single day for only \$150. While the smaller conferences may not have
all the speakers you would get at a larger one, I’ve been really
surprised at the quality of the speakers that these conferences draw.
My team has done this for the past year or so. I buy a copy of a book
for each person, and we meet once a week to discuss a chapter at a time.
Have people take turns leading the discussion. My experience has been
that these are most productive if you tackle a topic that your team
agrees is currently a pain point, as they can take the information they
learn and apply it to their current project. We’ve read through The
Pragmatic Unit Testingin
and are going to move on to Don’t Make Me
Hashrocket has actually taken this a step further and broadcast these
It’s become commonplace for conferences to record their talks and make
them available online for free. Additionally, a number of larger user
groups do the same. There are a nearly endless number of videos on a
wide variety of topics that are available online. Pick a video (maybe
two if they’re short), watch it as a group, and then discuss it
Here are a few sources I like:
Peer to Peer
We’ve done this even before our training budget shrank. Have people take
turns presenting on a relevant topic that they are passionate about.
This works well on a few levels: those listening get to expand their
knowledge, and those presenting will often develop a deeper
understanding of their topic. If a presentation is used, post it
somewhere so that people who join the company later can benefit.
So what have I missed? What do you do to keep your skills current when
you can’t get money for training?
Inspired by Mike Gunderloy’s recent blog
decided to put together a list of the tools I use, both hardware and
I use a Mac at home and a Windows laptop at work; I plan to cover the
Windows tools in a later post.
- MacBook Pro
My primary computer is a late-2007 17” Macbook Pro with 2gb of RAM
and a 160gb hard drive. I love this laptop, but I made two mistakes
when buying it. First, I should have gone with the higher
resolution display. If you’re going to have a 17” laptop, you should
have as many pixels as you can. Second, I way undersized the
hard drive. It was larger than the one in the laptop it replaced,
but since I have the three most adorable kids ever, I take a lot
more pictures and video than I did previously. This has quickly
filled up the hard drive, to the point that I’ll need to replace it
with a much larger one next year. To sum up: when buying a laptop,
get the largest hard drive and the most pixels you can afford,
unless you need ultra-portability.
- 24-inch Dell Monitor
Looks nice, and very affordable. Mine was refurbished. The picture
quality isn’t bad, but it’s one of their very low-cost displays and
is of lower quality than the rest of the line (I didn’t know this at
the time). If I was a graphic designer or professional photographer
I would probably care more. Since this primarily displays a code
editor, a terminal window, and a web browser, I don’t really
- Apple Extended Keyboard
These are the legendary Apple keyboard you’ve heard about, and the
hype about them is true. I bought a couple of them gently used from
EBay and then scrubbed them with a brush and some dish soap to clean
them up. Paired with a Griffin ADB to USB converter, they work
very well. I’m a sucker for the old-style keyboard action.
- Mighty Mouse (bluetooth)
A lot of people hate this mouse, but I don’t understand why. It’s
solidly built, confortable, and has that cool little ball on top.
That said, I’m a keyboard junkie and avoid the mouse when I can.
- Time Capsule
This serves as both wireless router for the house as well as the
backup system for both laptops. I don’t have an off-site backup at
the moment, I need to look into that.
- Cambridge Soundworks Speakers
I really wanted the Klipsch computer speakers, but they’re more than
I want to spend. These sound good, and cost me only a little over
I learned programming with an IDE, but I learned to edit text
with Emacs. I’ve been using it for 10 years or so now, and it would
be difficult to switch. Every few years I have some brief dalliance
with another editor (the last one was Textmate, when I bought my
first Mac), but I always return to my first love. What emacs lacks
in style, it more than makes up for in substance. In one window I
can edit code, run shell commands (or a shell, for that matter),
edit files on remote servers, and much more. It’s endlessly
scriptable and insanely powerful. The fact that it’s cross platform
helps as well. My emacs configuration, which works the same (with a
couple of minor exceptions) on all the platforms I use it, is
located on Github
I really want to like Firefox, but it’s just too slow. Safari is
quick, stable, and includes all the features I want.
- The Hit List
Even though it seems to be the popular thing to do these days, I’m
not on a continual quest to find The Ultimate Todo List App. I got
The Hit List as part of a MacHeist software bundle, and it
works well. I mean, seriously, what do you really need in a todo
list application? I can make items, I can check them off. The rest
It’s not perfect, but I can talk to people on pretty much any IM
network out there.
I used Twitterific for a couple of years, both on the iPod Touch and
OS X. Frankly, it was left to rot, with no updates for a very
long time. When Tweetie for the iPhone came out, I bought it
immediately and after using it for 10 minutes, concluded that I
wanted it for the desktop as well. I got my wish, and I’ve been
happy ever since.
I do not read as many feeds as I used to. I mean, I subscribe to a
lot, I just don’t read them that often. My thoughts on why are
When I do read feeds though, this is the app I do it in. I like that
I can navigate everything with the keyboard and send things to
Evernote and Instapaper easily.
I can’t remember all the passwords I create, or often even the
account names (sometimes it’s a username, sometimes it’s an
email address…). 1Password remembers them all for me and enters
them for me automatically as well.
I use Evernote to track all the little bits of data I accumulate:
code snippets, blog posts, how tos, meeting notes, PDFs,
presentations, etc. I like the fact that it syncs with other
computers, and it’s search works very well. I hate the way it
captures web pages though, it destroys all the formatting. Yojimbo
gets this right. It’s PDF viewing isn’t all that great either
Skype works great if everyone is on a fast network pipe. It falls
down spectacularly if anyone is on a slightly flaky network
connection, like say a cell network connection. I use Skype mostly
for after hours deployments (group voice call), and video chats with
I use Keynote for creating the occasional presentation and Pages for
creating things that require more formatting than a text document.
Numbers is the coolest application I almost never use.
I always have a terminal window open. Always. Usually more than one.
Photoshop is awesome, but it is both expensive and far more
complicated than I want. I am not an image editing guru, I really
just need basic capabilities. Pixelmator provides that - it’s
Photoshop for mere mortals.
It’s got an amazing spam filter and supports IMAP and POP out of the
box (Yahoo still charges for this, for reasons I can’t comprehend).
I use the online client almost exclusively.
- Google Docs
I love being able to create spreadsheets and easily share them with
my better half. It does basically everything I need a spreadsheet
app to do, and it does it well.
- Pivotal Tracker
Oh, how I love Pivotal Tracker. It’s a simple but powerful project
management application that lets you keep track of features, bugs,
and chores. I keep all my side projects in here, under a seperate
account from the one I use at work. Any application I’ve built is in
here as a seperate project (this blog, for example). Any time I
discover a bug, or think of a feature I want to add, I can throw it
in here under the appropriate project and it will be waiting for me
when I have time to work on it. It’s nearly perfect.
I read. A lot. Instapaper lets me capture things that I want to read
later, and conveniently strips out all of the formatting for me. The
iPhone application is great as well, I can carry reading material
with me anywhere.
I’ve been hosted with these guys for a couple of years. Fast VPS
servers and great uptime.
So that’s what I use to do what I do. If you’ve done a similar list, add
a comment below with a link. Or if you have a recommendation for
something to replace one of my tools, I’m always looking for cool new
Generating semi-realistic test data for an application can be a pain. If
the data already exists, as in the case of an upgrade to an existing
system, you can generally create data based on the existing database.
But what if you need a large sample of data for a brand new system? If
you have simple data requirements, there are some Ruby gems that can
help you out. Faker is one such gem,
which lets you generate realistic names, addresses and phone numbers.
But what do you do for things that are a little less typical? Things
like scores, ratings, ages, dates, etc. I needed to do this recently for
a prototype I built of a system to generate letters. Here’s the Rake
task I ended up with:
This script adds 1000 records to my database that are representative of
what real production data would look like. The quantity of data is
obviously easily adjusted up or down as needed.
This is just a standard rake task that you can drop inside lib/tasks.
Most of this is fairly standard ruby code and not very interesting, but
lets look closer at what makes this work.
The first portion of the script does some setup work, deleting existing
data. Then it sets up a series of arrays for the values that will be
used for individual fields. For example the volumes variable:
volumes = (8000..100000).to_a
This creates an array of integers containing every number between 8000
and 100000. Response rates and variances are set up similarly, as are
the client names.
In the loop that generates the actual data, we then call the
rand() function on these arrays to select a value from our
range. This function isn’t a standard part of the Ruby Array class, it’s
actually added to the class by
Using this method makes it very easy to generate test data within
predefined acceptable ranges.
For another take on this topic, see the EdgeCase
I’ve been a bit heads-down lately, working on a super-secret project in
Ruby. More on that in the near future, but in the meantime I wanted to
share about a few things that I’ve started using.
When I started my new project, I wanted to try one of the new testing
frameworks for Ruby. The problem is there are a number to choose from.
What to do…
I settled on Shoulda. I
wish I could tell you that this was a rigorous process, that I evaluated
each framework carefully, learning about each one’s strengths and
weaknesses. I did not, I cheated. You see, a while back, Josh Susser did
just that thing. He called it the The Great Test Framework
He settled on Shoulda, so that’s what I went with.
Shoulda is developed by Tammer Saleh of ThoughtBot, who have a number of
other really nice projects.
Shoulda’s tagline is “Making Tests Easy on the Fingers and Eyes”, and it
lives up to that goal. It has a very nice syntax for developing tests,
including a complete set of macros for testing controllers and models.
It’s a joy to use. Here’s what it looks like (both samples taken from
the Shoulda README :
Here’s a sample of the ActiveRecord macros in action:
So what’s the big deal? Well, it’s easier to read for one. Instead of
horrendous method names like test_should_do_this_but_not_that, you
get to write English: should “do this but not that”. The macros in
Shoulda also let you test your models and controllers easily.
Pivotal Tracker is an Agile project management tool, developed by the
folks at Pivotal Labs. It lets you create
projects, track release, stories, and defects. The beauty of Tracker is
it’s all-on-one-screen user interface. It lets you see everything at a
glance, and even provides keyboard shortcuts for common tasks. I’m not
alone in my admiration of Tracker, it seems to be extremely popular
among the Rails consulting shops (Hashrocket,
While Tracker is powerful enough to be used for large multi-developer
projects, it also happens to be perfect for managing your side
projects. Enter the features you want, organize them into releases, and
just click start to begin the first one. Click finish when you’re done,
and move on to the next one. Easy peasy. Did I mention it’s free?
Be sure to check out the
screencast, which gives a
nice overview of the application.
John Nunemaker is a prolific Ruby and Rails developer, as witnessed by a
quick glance at his Github page. One of
his most recent projects is HTTParty, which makes it dead-simple to
consume REST apis using Ruby. Here’s what it looks like:
HTTParty automatically detects whether the response is JSON or XML and
parses it appropriately. It really doesn’t get much easier than that.
There’s also a nice command-line app bundled with the gem that lets you
call RESTful web services easily from the command-line, with a few more
bells and whistles than curl.
Sinatra is a great, compact web framework similar in concept to Why the
Lucky Stiff’s Camping framework. It makes it trivial to create a web
application in just a few lines of code. It was originally written by
XXX to allow for creating lightweight web services, but has since become
quite popular as a web framework to use when Rails might be overkill.
It’s easy to create simple test applications for libraries, but also
robust enough to create full-blown websites with. Check out the Sinatra
website and the Sinatra
book for more details.
What tools have you discovered lately?
We are headed toward a time where the workings of government are much more visible to the American public.
Through things like the Freedom of Information
this information has technically been available for some time - but
not in a form that is easily consumed. This is starting to change.
The emergence of open APIs that provide access to information about how
the government is operating is a massive step in the right direction. It
will, I hope, bring forth a new wave of websites that mine the data that
these web services provide, and expose it to the world. Voting records,
government expenditures, bids, and bill details all need to be made
available for anyone to consume.
Here are a few of the APIs that I have come across. Some are available
from the government themselves, others are from third parties.
This API, part of a growing set of APIs from the
Times, let’s you program
Congress. Well, not exactly:
The initial release exposes four types of data: a list of members for
a given Congress and chamber, details of a specific roll-call vote,
biographical and role information about a specific member of Congress,
and a memberâ€™s most recent positions on roll-call votes.
Our database contains House votes since 1991 and Senate votes since
1989. House members are from 1983 and Senate members date back to 1947
This API provides information about campaign contributions for
The Sunlight Labs API provides methods for obtaining basic information
on Members of Congress, legislator IDs used by various websites, and
lookups between places and the politicians that represent them. The
primary purpose of the API is to facilitate mashups involving
politicians and the various other APIs that are out there.
This site, another project of the Sunlight
Foundation tracks word frequency from
the congressional record. Most frequently used word: Proposed.
One of the few official government APIs, this allows you to find out
where your money goes:
Have you ever wanted to find more information on government spending?
Have you ever wondered where federal contracting dollars and grant
awards go? Or perhaps you would just like to know, as a citizen, what
the government is really doing with your money. The Federal Funding
Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (Transparency Act)
requires a single searchable website, accessible by the public for
free that includes for each Federal award:
1. The name of the entity receiving the award;
2. The amount of the award;
3. Information on the award including transaction type, funding
4. The location of the entity receiving the award;
5. A unique identifier of the entity receiving the award.
The Republicans are ahead of the Democrats on this one, but I would
doubt we’ll have to wait to long to see them follow suit. This site is
similar in concept to the Times’ Congress API mentioned above (though
obviously only for the Republican members), but provides some additional
information that the Times does not.
This is only a sampling of the APIs that are available, and hopefully
this is only the beginning. I’m optimistic that both the government and
third parties will provide more of these, and that groups will make use
of this information to expose the inner workings of the government to
the people who elect them.
Are their any APIs that I missed? Are there any sites that are using
this information in interesting ways? What do you want the government to
make easily consumable that it isn’t today?