Rails experiences: Things I learned from project O

Rails is awesome. We built a workflow/reporting system for ~120 users using Rails 3. My part of the project came to about 468 hours, or roughly 60 workdays (~ 3 months), and I worked with another developer who also put in around the same number of hours. We worked with a graphic designer, a CSS/HTML developer, a tester, a project manager, and the client, and we put together a surprisingly large set of functionality.

It’s amazing how quickly the site came together. I built a simple prototype to help the other developer get started with Rails, and we fleshed it out with the client’s input while waiting for the creative design. I started with web_app_theme so that we could have a decent-looking interface for starters. When the client approved the graphic design, another developer sliced it up into HTML, CSS, and images for us. I took those, converted them into HAML and ERB, and we were off and running. Every weekly sprint meant a chance to show off useful functionality and get feedback. It was awesome.

We were initially worried that building all the UIs from scratch in Ruby on Rails would mean taking up more time because we couldn’t use CCK or Views to quickly throw everything together. It turned out that HAML, partials, and semantic_form_for made the forms and reports easy to do. Filtering reports was straightforward with ActiveRecord and scopes. Because we built the screens ourselves, we didn’t have to fight with Views or CCK for the last 20% of tweaking, and I didn’t have to kludge any SQL queries (yay, no views_pre_execute!).

I was working on a Drupal project shortly before this, and I spent some time supporting the Drupal project during this one. Rails made my brain much happier. I felt that I could organize my code more cleanly, and I could test it more thoroughly, too. I didn’t have to fight so much with other people’s modules or themes. I like Drupal, and I’m still looking forward to doing more projects with it. But I wouldn’t mind working on more Rails projects, and I’m glad I’ve got Quantified Awesome as a personal project.

Drupal does many things better than Rails. Drupal modules tend to be more mature and better-documented, and it seems like there’s been more work on scaling Drupal. Internationalization is also more straightforward in Drupal, although Rails I18n is easy to use once you’ve gotten the hang of it. Drupal module dependencies seem a little easier to sort out, too. But Rails is fun!

Tests will keep you sane. This was the first project where we invested in developing a large suite of automated tests. We used Cucumber for high-level tests and RSpec for everything else. The tests caught many regression errors we might have otherwise missed. Test-driven development was fun, too, because the tests gave us tangible progress and simplified checking.

There were times when I gave in to the temptation to commit without running the tests, and I almost always regretted them. (Particularly after friendly finger-wagging from the other developer!)

Issue-tracking rocks. We’ve liked using Rational Team Concert in the past. Getting an externally-accessible instance was complicated, so I set up a Redmine issue tracker as soon as we started the project. We used Redmine to plan work, track bugs, and even collect feedback from the client. As of the time of writing, we had created 766 items and closed 683 of them (89%).

We started with story points, but didn’t end up continuing with them for the rest of the tasks. When we needed to prioritize, we estimated the hours required for each task in order to help the client decide. That worked out quite well. I haven’t tracked item-level time spent, but that seemed to be roughly around my estimates.

I now estimate more time than I used to, because I’ve started factoring in both writing and running tests. It’s a little strange being the pessimistic estimator instead of the optimistic one, but it’s good for the project.

Selenium is great for screenshots, too. Not only is Selenium good for automated browser-based testing of web pages, but it’s also a handy way to capture screenshots for documentation or demos.

Lotus Symphony and Microsoft Word don’t get along. We wasted a few hours trying to update the user guide with the new screenshots, only to find out that the PDF still got screwed up because I didn’t have the fonts the client used. Those fonts were part of Microsoft Office and weren’t on my system. The client took care of updating the user guide so that she could format it the way she wanted, and we focused on code.

Plan with the end in mind. Short projects mean that milestones can sneak up on you before you notice. Half-way through the project, we realized that the project end date was coming Really Soon Now, and we scrambled to put together a launch plan. We wanted to launch a few weeks before the end of the project, to give people time for feedback and updates. That meant that we needed to send pre-launch e-mails one week and two weeks before the launch, which meant… that we needed to start sending those e-mails within a week. Fortunately, the client, IBM PR, and everyone involved managed to get it all sorted out, and we launched.

I like launching. I would like to do more of it. We don’t do it nearly enough on short projects, but these projects are much more likely to launch if we’re around to help with the transition than if only the client is there.

On a related note, I get antsy about adding new functionality before the end of a project. This makes sense, of course. I don’t mind adding new reports and other reading-related functionality, but workflow tweaks are scary. When we’re planning future projects, we can consider similar risks for late-project tasks.

Things I want to improve for future projects:

  • More Rails! More!
  • More automated tests
  • Track time estimates and actual time in order to improve estimation accuracy
  • More launch planning
  • More blog posts about what I’m learning
  • Optimization

Things I want to reduce on future projects:

  • Avoid documentation formatting problems – I guess that means Microsoft Office when working with clients who use it
  • Must not give in to temptation to skip tests