Hackdance & Second Government

Dru and I participated in Hackdance this past weekend. It was a 48 hour hackathon at the Deer Valley Lodges in Park City as a part of Collective's Disruptfilm event at Sundance Film Festival. From the site:

Hackdance: the first celebrity-driven social impact hackathon kicks off on January 16th, & you're invited to take part in this historical event! Your mission: partner your tech skills w a celebrity passionate about changing the world to design apps/hacks that use technology to create social impact.

We took school and work off on Thursday and Friday, not quite sure what we'd gotten ourselves into. Dru brought her product management and design skills to the game and I came in with my iOS and Android background. The event started with the celebrities sharing their ideas for social impact. There were a lot of good ideas, including the use of Plexi APIs for reporting and preventing cyber-bullying, an ambitious but thoughtful idea for virtual second government, and a movement for improving the Plant-a-Fish donation collection, among other ideas. Dru and I liked a few of the projects, and ended up joining our first choice with Alex Ebert for the idea of Second Government.

Dru and I teamed up with two "serial hackathoners" who were invited out from Silicon Valley. I think they've done something like 15+ hackathons in the past year, placing top 3 in over half of them. It was pretty cool getting teamed up together...until I realized how serious about hacking they were. With no hackathons under my belt, my most similar experiences were the BYU Mobile App Competition and Startup Weekend. Joining with a team of hackers was quite an adjustment.

The main difference was that both the mobile app competition and SW had an end goal to build a complete product or business, not just put something together for demo purposes. We had significantly different theories on how to tackle the weekend, but overall ended up with a pretty good balance. We ended up creating a semi-functional Reddit- and Stack Overflow-inspired website and iOS app, featuring proposals for governmental change and a system of comments and upvotes.

The goal of the platform is to provide an open system for proposing governmental change without all the bureaucracy and pessimism. Ideas are then voted, vetted, and refined, with the most popular suggestions rising to the top. While most people don't bother voicing their opinions on government because of little hope it will ever be heard, SecondGov provides the platform to test out ideas in a virtual world without the worry of what can or can't be accomplished. Ultimately, proven, popular ideas from SecondGov can be taken (with their tens or hundreds of thousands of upvotes) to the real government to make real change happen.

The team

The team

Alex, who won a golden globe for best original score just last week, was awesome to work with. He was definitely the most hands-on and supportive of the celebrities from my perspective. He spent a lot of time working with us on the direction of the app, design, and prepping for our pitch. Plus, he's an artist, a writer, and a performer... he knows how to make a point with some conviction.

Dru making an awesome face

Dru making an awesome face

Our pitch to the judges went well. We definitely bit off more than we could chew by working on a web app, iOS app, exploring a virtual reality platform, and trying out a pre-release iOS motion-tracking SDK by Plantronics in the two days. Our demo included a piece from all four, but my personal favorite was the Plantronics concept headset. We used it in conjunction with the iOS app to view proposals hands-free and upvote or downvote them with a nod or shake of the head. It wasn't necessarily a cornerstone piece to the premise of SecondGov, but it was fun to work with one of the hackathon sponsors and brought a little wow factor into the pitch. I'll post a video later if I get my hands on it.

Pitching to the judges

Pitching to the judges

The result was awesome. We won first place for social innovation, including a 5k cash prize and a 10k investment from the Sorenson Global Impact Investing Center.

Alex sharing the vision

Alex sharing the vision

Awesome projects from every single team. Other final products included a Google Chrome extension for reporting cyber-bullying, YoungStarter, improvements to the Plant-a-Fish donation system, Rah Rah's tech truck, a SHFT mobile app, and a Lead and Pledge movement to end domestic violence.

Related links

Finding the Right iOS Dev

Over the past few weeks I've had a few friends and colleagues ask me about the iOS developer interview process -- both on the interviewer and the interviewee sides. Having sat on both sides of the table, this post is a collection of thoughts on how to find the right developer for the job. I should note that these opinions are entirely my own and are completely subjective.

First, I think there a few things to consider before diving straight into interview Q&As -- there's a lot more to it than just rattling off a list of Objective-C programming questions found from a Google search. Yes, that can help you find smart engineers, but it might not get you the whole picture. Here are a few main points to consider when looking at a candidate:

  • Published work
  • Knowledge of Objective-C and Cocoa Touch
  • The right ratio of hackerness vs convention-use
  • Online reputation*
  • Overall tech savviness

Published work

You'll want ask for examples of published work. While at Cocoa Camp last summer I noticed several things that Apple looks for in a perspective engineer. Here are two from my notes:

  1. Someone who is driven to learn - and ship.
  2. Someone who has an obsession with creating - and delivering.

There are lots of extremely talented computer scientists and web developers in the world, but it takes a unique blend of hard-skills and finishing ability to make a good iOS developer. While pet projects are nice, that alone shouldn't impress you. Half-baked ideas are just that, half-baked, and not something you want to publish as your company's next app. Looking at the candidate's apps on the app store will tell you more about their experience level than their resume ever could. If their work was written as a team effort, ask them which pieces they developed or what percentage contribution they made to the overall app.

Knowledge of Objective-C and Cocoa Touch

You'll want to be sure the person has a solid understanding of programming principles, design patterns, Objective-C, and the Cocoa Touch frameworks. The depth of knowledge and understanding required will vary depending on the experience level you're looking for and how much you want to pay, but here are my suggestions for a good junior-level iOS developer.

  • MVC pattern - Ask the candidate to include an example or explanation of how they've used it in an app. 
  • Protocols and delegates - Ask the candidate "why are delegates protocols?" (and not normal classes). What I would look for is that the candidate can explain that protocols are more flexible than a normal class, because they can be implemented by any class, allowing for greater reuse. If they can explain this to you, in addition to the general idea behind the delegation pattern, that's a good sign.
  • Strong vs weak pointers - What's the difference? When would you use one vs the other?
  • Check out Ray Wenderlich's post on iOS interview questions.
  • Any questions specific to your project, code base, or existing development team that can help determine if this person is the right fit.

Hackerness vs Convention-use

I'm not sure what else to call this one. Objective-C is a very convention heavy programming language. If the candidate is a recent transplant from another development stack or a hobbyist iOS developer turned professional, they may not have fully embraced the Objective-C way (no ill-will towards these groups, I came in with almost exclusive Java/Android experience when I started with Objective-C). There are always opinions when it comes to code formatting, design patterns, and naming conventions, but with iOS in many cases there is a recommended best practice that should be followed.

You might be thinking "so what if they do it their own way, so long as it works" (especially if you're just looking for a temporary contractor). Wrong! No matter how small you think your project will be, there are going to be changes to be made down the road. And who's going to read that code? It might be the original developer, or it might not. Use of conventions allows for easier readability and better maintainability, and will lower your switching costs if the original developer doesn't work out or decides to suddenly leave for another gig.

If you yourself have a good knowledge of iOS development, brush up on your Cocoa Coding Guidelines and ask for a code sample. Look at things like use of class prefixes, method names, constants, and categories. Ask the candidate about software design. Do they design their code for personal use, quick-and-dirty, never to be touched again, or do they design their code with reusability and efficiency in mind. One of the best signs of a modern programmer is that they design their code -- internal and external -- as if it were an externalizable service - taking a page of Amazon's book. A code sample can also be useful to see their design style and identify particular areas of focus (e.g. networking, UI, data persistence, animations, etc).

Online Reputation*

I put an asterisk next to this one because I think this might be the most debatable point. For me personally though, I give bonus points for active use of GitHub, StackOverflow, App.net, and Twitter (unless its to manage a Biebs fan handle). Open-source software is huge both in web and mobile. If the candidate is familiar with pulling code off GitHub (properly attributed of course), it could definitely come in handy in the future. Better still if the candidate has contributed to open-source projects or created one of their own.

Completely on the other side of the coin, I know several excellent developers who don't care much for social media or personal branding. It's no knock on them, it's just not in their interests. That's fine too, just be aware of it and make sure the candidate is a good cultural fit for your team. e.g. if you're launching a social network for chihuahuas and the candidate isn't active on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, it's probably not the best fit even if they are extremely smart.

Overall Tech Savviness

Lastly, and you've probably done this by now, Google search the person's name and see what turns up. In emails or an interview ask them what they like about programming, iOS, and technology. You know this, but design is HUGE in mobile app development. It should be a big deal to the interviewee. UI/UX will make or break your business, so make sure you value this appropriately. I love that in a mobile developer job posting for Alpine Replay, their "next steps" are simply:

  • "Send us an email. Please include some of your sample work, a collection of your favorite designs (not yours) and whatever else you feel may be applicable."

A savvy design enthusiast who's up on the latest trends and upcoming iOS 7.1 or iOS 8 features could help take your app's user experience to the next level.

Disclaimer

All the suggestions in this post are personal opinion. Any and all of it should be adjusted to fit your needs and your team's culture.

Growing Pains is Making a Comeback

If you know me personally, you probably knew that I worked on an app called Growing Pains for last year's BYU Mobile App Competition. It's a photo journal designed to help you easily capture photos of your growing child. The interface is designed to allow you to quickly browse through and see your child's growth over various time periods (ideal for newborns and toddlers -- or puppies). While Growing Pains was a success in the competition, winning over $2000 value in awards and placing 5th overall, unfortunately it has not yet seen the light of day.

A partner on the project and I have been talking recently about bringing it back to life, and last week while at Cocoa Camp Apple challenged us to bring our own ideas to work on, so I did just that. On Monday of last week I ctrl+shift+N'ed a new project in Xcode and started clean. Did this for several reasons, firstly, because Cocoa Touch changes so much from year to year that I'm sure our existing code base would require some amount of updating to get in line with the latest conventions and best practices. Secondly, and the bigger reason, is that while SDK changes have been semi-significant, changes to iOS design patterns have been EXTREMELY significant. Take the example below.

You've probably seen and heard all about iOS 7, so I'll save my personal thoughts on the change for another discussion, the important points to note are the focus on simplicity, utility, and depth. With the greater population generally familiar with smartphones, as an app designer & developer I can now eliminate the use of some of the more cutesy effects that previously communicated "tap here", "I am a menu", "this is a button", and so on. Apple has also stressed depth in the new design, despite it looking more flat than before. By adding blurs, realistic motion effects, and new levels of perspective, iOS 7 is inherently more realistic than before, albeit far less skeuomorphic.

Growing Pains is now undergoing its own transformation from the old world to the new. Here are a few of the design concepts for the new UI, shown alongside the original designs. Please feel free to jump in if you have any thoughts or suggestions. These designs are being iterated on almost daily at this point.

 

What do you think? Are there any elements of the old design that you like better, or feel are missing in the new versions? Is it any more or less intuitive than before?

Maybe Microsoft is doing it right. Or maybe they're not.

Dell Venue Pro, running Windows Phone 7.5

Since I first began seeing concepts of Windows 8 I kept thinking, huh, maybe Microsoft is onto something here. Despite being both an Android and an iOS fanatic, I have been impressed with the Windows Phone OS since trying out Windows Phone 7.5 from Dec 2011 - March 2012 on an extra Dell Venue Pro my dad had available. The hardware was...a brick... to put it nicely, but the OS itself was excellent. 

Over the last 18 months I've found myself continuously (and to my friends' amusement) defending Windows Phone as a viable mobile operating system, and, as an extension, defending Windows 8. I've gushed over the Lumia 920, HTC 8X, and now the Lumia 1020. I almost bought all three of these devices on numerous occasions (just ask Dru). While I maintain that Windows Phone is a great OS, I'm coming to terms with the idea that maybe Microsoft isn't doing it right and that they did in fact jump the gun on the idea of the convergence of the desktop and the mobile experience. Since MS's release of Windows 8 there's been talks of how revolutionary and visionary it is. Ahead of its time. Some referred to it as showing that Microsoft had not only caught up to Apple and Google, but far surpassed their ability to deliver innovative products that end users didn't even know they wanted until they tried it (take the iPad for example).

Well, after a year of saying to myself, yeah, maybe they did get it right, maybe Windows 8 isn't as radical as all the critics say, maybe we will all be using touchscreen desktop computers in a couple years, I'm now saying maybe not

The truth is that the people don't want the same experience on a tablet as they have on their desktop or laptop. Sure, they like familiarity, but at the core a user's interaction with a tablet and user's interaction with a desktop computer is just different. And people are fine with that. The design of an application on the desktop environment is (and should be) vastly different than the tablet and the phone representations of that same application. Probably one of the best examples of this is the Day One app for iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Ask any active Day One user if they'd like to combine either the iPhone and iPad experience or the iPad and Mac and they'd look at you like you were crazy.

Day One for iPhone, iPad, and Mac

Further evidence that people just don't want to merge desktop computing and mobile computing... look at this Acer commercial comparing their 8" Windows tablet to the iPad mini. This is my opinion, and I bet some Windows 8 fans view this commercial as a win for Acer and Windows 8 Pro, but firstly, who wants to play Halo on a tablet (not that they even look like they're actually playing...)? Don't get me wrong, I love iPad games... Plants vs. Zombies vasebreaker endless mode... that'll keep me busy for HOURS. But I don't really care for the idea of getting a dumbed down PC gaming experience on my iPad. Maybe if the entire game was reimagined for iPad, and it really was just a distant relative of Halo, but the ability to run full-fledged PC games on a tablet just doesn't do much for me. Okay, next flaw in the video, of all the things you can do on a tablet, why show someone accepting changes to a Word doc? I mean, seriously, of all the things I've used a tablet for (thinking my Kindle Fire, Nexus 7, and iPad), I have never once wanted to accept changes to a reviewed Word doc. And if I did, I wouldn't want to be using the traditional Word app to do it (see all those tiny touchpoints?!).

UPDATE: I hadn't done my research on Halo Spartan Assault, and it looks like it very much is  the Halo experience reimagined for touch. That's cool. What I was trying to get at is the idea of playing traditional PC games on a tablet running Windows 8 Pro.

What I'm getting at (and have probably repeated 20 times by now) is that I no longer believe that we are heading in the direction of an integrated desktop and mobile computing environment. Those who never got on the Windows 8 bandwagon are probably thinking, yeah, knew that all along. But for those who have seriously entertained the idea of everything converging into a single, universal experience, either the timing is wrong or the implementation is wrong. Either way, maybe Microsoft isn't doing it right after all.

Ditching mySQL

As a java/OO developer first (web later), I got my start with databases by setting up a couple wordpress blogs, mostly simple UI stuff, but configuration and a few other cases got me into phpMyAdmin and MySQL. I wouldn't be surprised if this was the case for hundreds, or thousands of others. I don't -- or didn't -- mind MySQL so much because honestly it got the job done for those simple blogs and it was easy to get going. However I will say that now that I am surrounded by "production-level" projects, i.e. projects at work that affect millions of users and backends for my own mobile apps, I am extremely concerned about the performance, consistency, (over)complexity, and maintenance of my databases. I've gotten familiar with postgres, and while not fully understanding all its benefits over MySQL, it works great, feels sexy, and posts like this have pushed me to make the move.

Also, using frameworks like Ruby on Rails I feel abstracted far enough from the database level that the change really wasn't too difficult. It makes me wish I hadn't used MySQL in the first place, and started with SQLite because of its support on mobile devices, or Postgres.

Mobile App Competition Results

timeline.png

This post is long in the coming... actually should have been written at the end of November.  Brief recap about Growing Pains and how it took home some awesome awards in the BYU Mobile App Competition.  We had big plans for Growing Pains, but at the time of the submission deadline we were probably only 40-50% done with our first iteration feature set. I honestly was not expecting to take home much from the competition.  The one award I was fairly confident about was the best Ruby on Rails backend, mostly because I was guessing that we were one of the only RoR backends.

My sister Kandace and I were there and were pumped when they announced Growing Pains as a top-16 semifinalist out of 25, with a guaranteed $250 cash prize.  Dru couldn't make it because it was during the day and she would have to miss work.  All 16 semi-finalists gave a 2 minute demo and presentation on their app, which was exciting for me.  I've never made a pitch to 500 people before.

Then the awards... Kandace and I were super stoked when the first award they gave out -- BizVector award for business potential from MokiNetworks -- was given to Growing Pains!  $100 gift card.  Sweet!  Next up the finalists.  Again, the very first app they announced (which just added to the excitement and surprise) was Growing Pains, 5th place with a $1000 cash prize.  Other top apps included a couple games and 2 business productivity apps, with a top cash prize of $3000.  We also won the Ruby on Rails API award, which was a iPad for each team member.  In total we came away with $2100 in awards and prize money, plus a heavy dose of validation and encouragement about our idea and the direction Growing Pains was heading.

finalists.png

We've continued working on Growing Pains and recently started beta testing with couple family members.  If you're interested in giving us some pre-release feedback - let me know!

iOS Final Exam

In 3 hours do: 1) download and parse json for version number and location of zipped sqlite db file 2) if first time or newer version than previously downloaded, download zip using a progress indicator 3) save zip to device documents folder 4) decompress zip file and save 5) delete saved zip file 6) open connection to db, query last updated time and display

Recommended frameworks: afnetworking ziparchive sqlite

and the result.... http://screencast.com/t/UXm4kHuMnuq. i didn't have time to make it look pretty, but I finished all 6 tasks. it took every minute of those 3 hours, but I'm pretty proud of it. :0

Tablet or Laptop

A past professor recently asked island (the information systems forum/community I participate in) whether he should get a tablet or a laptop for his teenage daughter.  She's been asking for a tablet, and he wants a solution that will work for her for both play and for school and homework.  It's an interesting question and very interesting topic since laptops and tablets are accepted for use in many high schools across the US.  When I was in high school (2001-2005) using a laptop at school wasn't even a consideration.  I wonder what kids will have in 30 years...

Here are my recommendations at around the $300 price:
  1. Nexus 10
  2. iPad 2
  3. Windows Surface (with condition)

The Nexus 10 is going to be pretty ideal for this situation.  I think a high schooler can very reasonably do their studying and homework on a tablet, with the exception of research papers and essays.  For those he or she may need to use the family computer (or at least a keyboard dock), but I wouldn't consider that case enough reasoning to go with a laptop instead of a tablet, especially if they're already wanting a tablet.  I have a Nexus 7 and I really like it for reading and for taking notes.  I love Evernote because it's on every platform I could dream of using (web, iOS, Android, Amazon, OS X, Windows, and even Windows Phone, but not Linux AFAIK).

As another option I think you can get a 16GB iPad 2 in that price range, which would be a great choice as well.  It also wouldn't be brand new, which may or may not be important to a parent.  I know some would rather their teenagers have a older generation version of a project than something fresh off the shelves.
About the Microsoft Surface... if it were 1 year from now, I would recommend getting a used Surface.  It would definitely have all the windows based functionality that someone could need.  However because it just was released Friday and its price point is $499, I don't think it's a good option today.  But it's worth mentioning.

Cow Tipping Updates

cowtippingicon

I decided to put a few hours into my very first Android app, Cow Tipping, over the weekend (originally released 8/1/2011).  If you haven't seen it before, the gameplay consists of tapping on cows repeatedly to make them tip over, trying to tip as many as you can in 20 seconds.  It was a pretty fun first-timer project for me, and since pushing out a bug-patched version 2 last fall, it has now gone untouched for 13 months. After getting familiar with my old code again (which included a lot of "huhs" and "why in the worlds"... n00b mistakes), I started getting pretty excited again.  Believe it or not, Cow Tipping has averaged about 1000 downloads a month since its release, totaling nearly 14,000 total downloads today.   While the app itself doesn't provide much value to anyone, really, and only sits at about 1700 active installs, I started to imagine the possibilities if I invested some time into adding new modes of gameplay or some system of levels.

Screen Shot 2012-10-16 at 9.00.47 AM

Screen Shot 2012-10-16 at 9.00.47 AM

I decided to give it a test run by adding a "Frenzy Mode" in addition to the classic gameplay.  In frenzy mode, cows tip over with a single click, as opposed to the variable number of clicks in the original release (random number between 2 and 5).  Took me about 5 hours to clean things up, add the new gameplay mode, update the high scores screen, and add a Twitter share.  I pushed out the update Monday night at about 7 PM and noticed it live at 9 PM. If it goes well then maybe it'll be worth adding more levels.

Get Cow Tipping on Google Play!

The iPhone 5 - What's Missing?

iphone-5-white-black-back-featured-360x360

The iPhone 5 looks awesome.  Some very exciting enhancements. My wife got hers the first day they shipped and loves it.  But for me, I have to admit I feel like it's more of the same.  The new screen size is exciting, and I'm really glad they decided go bigger, but aside from that just about everything was "expected."  Don't get me wrong, I don't think they need to go and reinvent the best-selling product in the world every year, and I really don't mean to disrespect the iPhone, because I am convinced it will be an enormous success, but personally I'm not yet convinced that this is my new phone.  Not that I buy into the Android argument that this and that feature have been on Android for months or years, because I do think Apple does a fantastic job of taking existing technology and integrating it in ways that are much more intuitive and user friendly.  Maybe it's just the buzz surrounding the iPhone is wearing off for me.  In any case I'm looking forward to all the new phones coming out this fall. Particularly hoping to test out the Lumia 920, HTC 8X, and hopefully a new Google branded Nexus device in the next 2 months.

Use LogCat to Debug for Android

To use LogCat you need to import the Log library in the java code import android.util.Log;

Then, where you would normally print something, replace “System.out.println(“HERE”);” with:

Log.d(“LOGCAT”, “HERE”);

Now when you run your app on the emulator or a device it'll print out to logcat, which can be viewed right in Eclipse (might need to go to Tools and click LogCat or something similar) or in the terminal in the directory where the android sdk has been installed, in the <sdk>/platform-tools/ folder.

Run adb logcat from that directory location to view the logs.

This prints out a log of everything that's happening, so if it's on the phone there's probably going to be a lot of stuff going on continuously, which is why it's helpful to use good tags so you can just browse or search for "LOGCAT" and you'll find what you're looking for.