DemoCamp Ottawa

I’ve decided to take the plunge and demo one of the Rails applications I developed at DemoCamp Ottawa on Sept 29th. Why am I doing this? I’m probably going to ask myself that question for the next 14 days! But what I really want to do is get more involved with the start up community in Ottawa. I’m also looking for people to assist with this project and any other projects people have thought up but really don’t have the resources to do by themselves – think of it as a kind of like a “start up co-op”.

The point of this exercise is really to have some fun cutting our teeth launching a startup – then we’ll see where it goes from there. My application (in its current state at least) is nothing to write home about but then again it actually works – my family uses it all the time. It needs a registration system, some good design work and some marketing. Oh yeah, some advice from someone who has actually launched a successful start up would be nice too! If anyone can help in these areas come to DemoCampOttawa10 and let’s talk!

I’m told by Ian Graham at The Code Factory that DemoCamp is fun, friendly and very informal and a great venue for exactly what I’m trying to do. Let’s hope he’s right!

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The challenges of implementing collaboration tools

Much has been said for using the Web for team collaboration. But actually putting this technology into practice is a lot harder than it sounds. For example, I’ve had a lot of trouble convincing my staff to use Basecamp. I manage a geographically dispersed department within a large corporation that has number of cost reduction projects underway. Basecamp seemed like the perfect fit.

My motivation behind using Basecamp (which by-the-way is an amazing product) was to use the Messages forum to reduce the amount of email and provide a record of discussions, to introduce some simple project management, to provide a central place to store our files and to use the Writeboard to collaborate on important documents.

After having implemented Basecamp for a month I found that most of the staff were not logging in or participating in the discussions. While some of my team saw the potential for the application others complained that Basecamp added to their workload and that its easier to collaborate using email.

I used the Basecamp forums to find out if others had experienced the adoption challenge and if they had any advice on how to overcome it. I received a lot of advice. Later, I held an evaluation session with my staff and the outcome led me to a few conclusions:

  1. Basecamp (and other collaboration tools) work better on projects rather than daily activities.
  2. The sooner you get all of your projects into the collaboration tool the better.
  3. Everyone with a significant role on a project needs to use the tool (this was a bit of a challenge in my organization since not everyone wants to use the application and they don’t all report to me)
  4. Management derives the most immediate benefit from the collaboration tool because all the projects are nicely tracked in one place.
  5. Staff with minimal project activity view collaboration software as ‘just another tool they have to use’.
  6. Many staff are worried about the security.

To address some of these challenges I’m now switching to our corporate SharePoint (WSS) site. WSS solves a few of the above mentioned challenges:

  • WSS is obviously secure because the server resides within the intranet;
  • WSS is linked to the company directory (plus WSS is the company standard) makes it easier to include anyone on a project, regardless of whether they report to me;
  • Document storing, sharing and workflow work quite well.

That being said, it’s still hard as heck to try to get others on board for any WSS capability other than shared documents. Employees are hooked on email, and that’s that. And while SharePoint is highly configurable, it’s not as easy to use as Basecamp. Add to these challenges that the majority of the employees within an tradition corporation are not typically “web savvy”.

I believe the key is to integrate the use of collaboration tools into your processes, provide the prerequisite training and then enforce the use of the application. Once that’s done then I’ll circle back, find out who’s using it (and why), who’s not (and why), and just keep at it.

If you think deploying a collaboration application in the Enterprise is simple – think again!

Online Training in the Web 2.0 World

I’ve spoken to a few people lately about how you can use the Web to provide online training or perhaps just to market yourself. I usually start by providing a few great examples, and then I talk about screencasts, sharing presentations and screencasts on the web, and wrap up with a discussion on providing live demos remotely.

Some Great Examples
A company called Commoncraft has an amazing knack for explaining things in plain English using simple videos and podcasts. Scroll down to the bottom of their web page and you can see some of their work. What I like about their work is that it’s simple, production costs appear to be low and it’s really inspiring. Hopefully we’ll see lots of other startups doing freelance work like this. Another great example is the use of screencasts for training: check out this Basecamp demo.

Doing it yourself: Screencasting
Here’s a link to a “Screencast” on how to make (what else but) “Screencasts”! The screencast is from Peepcode. It’s for the Mac but I’m sure there are also lots of screencasting applications for the PC (although I would still recommend the Mac!). Screencasts combine screen shots, diagrams and voice overs to teach a topic. You can pause, try out something, and then continue. By the way, I highly recommend spending the $9 for Peepcode’s Screencast video.

Sharing videos and screencasts
Slideshare provides a great way to share presentations and Slidecasts on the Web. You can upload PowerPoint or Mac presentations. Many people also use YouTube to share their videos as long as they’re short.

Live demos
The next best thing to in-classroom training is live demos. One tool that you might find useful is Webex. Webex let’s you share what’s on your desktop screen with whomever you wish. You can essentially use this application to do live training remotely. There are many other services/applications that do this such as Microsoft’s LiveMeeting. What’s nice about this kind of training is that you can bring up different applications, share slides, and answer questions in real time.

This is a pretty quick overview. Take some time to look at some of these sites and get a feel for what’s possible. Likely, the web-based training you select will combine several of these methods. If you come across any other neat applications or examples of Web based training drop me a note.

Moving hosts

I’ve temporarily moved this blog to WordPress. I will soon be setting up a rails-based blog on my new webhost. Stay tuned.

Update: I’ve decided it’s easier just keep using wordpress.com.  I’m too busy writing real Rails web apps to be messing about with a Rails-based blog.

Stylish Rails

Scaffolding in Ruby on Rails 2.02 is very simple to use and a great time saver. However, the views that are generated are very, um, well they’re just plain ugly. In addition, they’re not very accessible to users with older browsers or that use assistive technology.

Of course everyone that codes in Rails is an expert in CSS of has access to a professional web designer who can clean up those ugly and inaccessible views really quick, right? Well, not in my one-man show. And all of the reference material that I’ve read on Rails skips over the part that explained how to make your views presentable, usually by simply stating: “Magic Happens Here”. So I learned styling the hard way – by reading everything I could get my hands on.

In this post I’m going to demonstrate how to apply simple styling to scaffold generated views using CSS. I’ll demonstrate how to markup and style a simple form layout that includes a border with a legend and right-justified field labels. Sure, there are plugins you can get to help you out but what fun would that be? Besides, everyone has their own style.

I will be referencing the excellent SitePoint book The Art and Science of CSS. In particular, Chapter 5: Forms, written by Cameron Adams, provides an excellent step-by-step tutorial on creating attractive and accessible forms.

Note that I’m assuming you already know how to use the Rails 2.0 scaffolding feature. If not, there’s lots of material out there that can get you up to speed.

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Fun with Ruby and Rails

My interest in web development started when I had a idea for a social website based on the Google maps API. While I had some programming experience it was drastically in need of a major update. I’m still in awe in regard to how much a web developer needs to know. I quickly discovered that I not only needed to learn HTML and CSS but also Javascript, Unix, Subversion, hosting, APIs, text editors and so on. As if that wasn’t enough I added the fantastic web framework Ruby on Rails to my list of things to learn.

While I never really got my Goggle application of the ground (but I will one day), I did finally get my first Rails application up and running: giftmylist.com. It’s very basic (it’s only designed for my immediate family to use) but it’s functional.

I plan to use this blog to record my journey as I discover the wonderful world of web 2.0 development with Ruby on Rails and Javascript, sprinkled with a little HTML, CSS and who knows what else.

Enjoy!