My Sandbox Projects


Image Credit: 100kr

I have learned almost everything about computers and technology by doing small projects. This may be in tandem with someone else, or something I want to figure out on my own, but usually is the result of a need to learn or understand a new technology.

I can remember the deployment of Palm Pilots with dial-up modem attachments to an entire floor of private wealth management financial folks back when I worked over a summer at DLJ Asset Management. I knew nothing about RAS servers or deploying hardware to 200+ people but I figured it out in a trial by fire scenario and got the job done.

That is why I continue to have and work on what I call my Sandbox Projects.

Some of them are full blown websites that I test things out on, while others are half baked ideas that do not have anything but a few pages of notes behind them. Each has its own reason for coming into existence, but more importantly each has an impact on how I look at the world and interact with technology.

Most of the time I start a project to learn something about an area I do not know enough about or think I can come up with something interesting that does not currently exist. Call it an entrepreneurial bug – I enjoy working on small projects to see where and how they get traction.

I recently wrote about web services and know I have a lot to learn which is why I have outlined some areas I am focusing on right now:

1. Scaling
Issues of scale affect companies in both the real world involving human capital, as well as within their technology growing a service. I want to understand some of the constraints put on a service by growing at a large scale and what infrastructure needs are necessary to handle growth. It is certainly a predicament that every company wants to be in, but understanding the groundwork and foundation for setting things up right from the start is important to know. Many times I have heard that this is in fact impossible, but what steps can be taken to avoid the known pitfalls.

2. Deployment
What are the best services and software to use to get something up and running and delivering on your value proposition from the start? Too many times have I heard stories of people having to tear things down to rebuild from scratch because they didn’t think through “one key element”. Mapping out a plan to avoid these problems I feel can only be done by launching something real and in the marketplace with real variables in play.

3. Launch
With more outlets to submit an idea too than is possible by one person – what are the best for a small company or entrepreneur to use? PR firm vs. In house vs. Intern vs. Nothing? What is the best way to do outreach and interact with the very people you want writing about and covering your technology, product, or solution

4. Project Management
What are the best tools for the job? I have used Basecamp, Active collab, and tested many MANY otheres. How is the process different using one system over another? Why use a system at all? Why does it seem like you need to use a project management system just to choose a project management system in the first place??

5. Technology
With an array of options to attach any given problem what are the top items to look for in choose a platform. One area I do not know enough about is Ruby on Rails and running a full scale application within a Ruby environment. Most of my projects to date have been PHP based, using MySQL DBs, or simply HTML or Javascript. As knew technologies come up its good to know the strengths and weaknesses of each.

6. Hosting
Definitely a combination of everything above – I have used many web hosts over my career on the web and have a lot of experience with both shared hosting and virtual dedicated hosting environments. Using things like cPanel, custom control panels, Plesk and the like I feel I know how to control and manage a number of sites in one server. I have never had an actual dedicated machine but perhaps that will come in time.

7. Analytics
I feel very versed in this area due to my background in search marketing. Through my own sites or client sites I have had the opportunity to work with almost every analytics (if not all) systems out there. From enterprise level accounts on Omniture to deploying Google Analytics to my own site I have seen with and pivoted data from many sources. The interesting thing here is that this is one area I feel has become a commodity because of the vast features of free services like Google Analytics and Sitemeter. The one area I would love to gain knowledge in is real time analytics to see what is happening on a site in real time. Knowing where and when problems arise usually can be tracked down in your analytics platform which is why having multiple systems up and running is a good idea.


Image Credit: Wildcat Dunny

I have yet to find out if any of these will produce a serious return but they certainly put some extra lunch money in my pocket and have given me the experience I need to provide solid opinions on bigger projects. As I said before it is always good to learn something by actually doing it – and web applications are no different. You can only learn so much in hypothetical situations or from reading about them in a textbook or case study situation.

In the future I hope to share more of these projects and of course master some of the items listed above.

[hat tip to Adam Singer for some help with this post]

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