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Columbus Give Camp

This past weekend I, along with around 50 other local geeks, volunteered three days of my time to build web applications for eight different Columbus-area nonprofits. Columbus Give Camp is based on a similar series of events in Michigan. The Columbus Give Camp was hosted by Quick Solutions, who, conveniently, are located five floors above my own office. The event was a huge success. I’m particularly proud of the work my team did, taking the project from nothing to live and in production in just a few days work.

The Give Camp organizers found charities who needed web development donations and split the registered developers into teams based upon skill sets and organization needs. I was assigned to the team for the Shiloh Family Institute College Choir Concert Series, a small organization which sponsors a series of gospel choir performances once a year. They needed a web site to promote the organization, list upcoming events, allow their patrons to register for e-mail alerts of scheduled concerts, and think their donors. Critically, the site had to be easy to maintain for administrators without computer expertise. My team included Brahma Ghosh, Brian Jackett, Joel Broughton, Joseph Ours, and Peter Vasys. Prior to the start of Give Camp, Brahma, the project manager, met with representatives of the organization and produced a mockup of each page we would build in the site.

We decided to build the sites using (non-MVC) ASP.NET, because that was the "least common denominator" of the skill sets of our team members. The requirements for the site specified displaying 10-20 concerts and around 10 sponsors. In view of the tiny data set and the emphasis on ease-of-use for the folks who will be maintaining the site, we decided against using a database or off-the-shelf content management system. Instead, we built the site such that the content areas would simply be editable in a WYSIWYG editor if you are logged into the site. So the site maintainers only needed to be instructed as to how to log in, and the rest is obvious.

Here is a part of what a logged-in user sees on the site homepage; you can compare that with the production site in order to see the difference.

WYSIWYG editor on site home page

WYSIWYG editor on site home page

At the beginning of Friday night, we met our clients, discussed the requirements for the project, settled on which technology we would use to build the site, and got to work. One of the first things we needed to do was to register a domain name and secure hosting so that the site could go live on Sunday. Also, we set up a Subversion repository on assembla.com. Then we split up the work and started writing code. The project manager created a solution for the project and checked it into subversion. I started creating repositories for the data which would be editable on the site. Because each dataset would only hold 10 through 20 records maximum, we decided to use XML files instead of a database to hold the data. Performance is not a problem with such a small dataset, and using files instead of a database allows non-technical users to easily move the site from one hosting provider to another. Also, we used the repository pattern, so it’s possible to switch out the storage without changing a line of web client code in the event the site ever grows beyond its current scale. The first thing I did was check in the public interfaces for the repositories so that the people creating the web pages could start work before I was done with the implementation. Other team members created web pages, started the site design, and began implementing a Google Maps feature on the "upcoming concert" page.

We wrote unit tests for all of the repositories in the site. In view of the very short amount of time we had to develop the site, that might seem surprising. In fact, however, writing unit tests allowed us to test the repository functionality before the web pages which used the repositories were finished, so even though it was a little extra work, it improved our ability to work concurrently.

I went home to get some sleep around 2 a.m. Friday night, but some people worked through the whole night. The Give Camp organizers supplied us with food, caffeine, and entertainment. I spent most of Saturday implementing a feature to allow the site maintainers to add and remove sponsors, including a feature to upload sponsor logos and thumbnail them to the correct size for the site. By the end of Saturday, just after midnight, all of the major features of the site except for the Google Maps were working, and we were down to fixing bugs and typos. A pleasant surprise for me was that the food provided was consistently good and occasionally even healthy; the Give Camp organizers had recruited some local restaurants as sponsors, and a grateful charity brought in some large containers of fruit.

Incidentally, there are some photos of Give Camp on Flickr.

We spent the first half of Sunday cleaning up defects, and the second half testing and fixing typos in the content. Some of the other team members implemented the Google Maps feature in two different ways in order to be sure that we would have at least one which worked before we deployed the site to production.

At 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, all eight teams presented their work. There was a real diversity of projects. In our case, we built a simple site from scratch and finished it the same weekend. Other teams added new features to existing sites. One team was given three or four different sites using different technologies with the instructions to make them have a common look and feel. Every one of the clients appeared completely delighted with the end results.

Whenever I read "studies" which claim that the majority of software projects fail, I have to balance these claims against my own personal experience, which demonstrates that projects can be successful even with very little time and team members who have never spoken to each other before the instant the project begins. So why did this project work out so well?

  • Our project manager did excellent work up front with the client, so we knew exactly what we needed to build.
  • The client had a good sense of priorities for the project.
  • The team was highly motivated. We were all participating by choice. The Give Camp organizers kept the emphasis on fun. The deadline was challenging, but realistic.
  • The Give Camp organizers did a great job splitting up the teams. We had people with project management skills, design skills, and development skills.
  • We used off-the-shelf functionality where appropriate. For example, the mailing list registration is handled via the MailChimp API. The map feature is done with Google Maps. Event photos are hosted on Flickr. We used their API to show a single image when there was only one image of an event available, and a slideshow when multiple images were available.
  • We built only what was needed. Using an off-the-shelf CMS would have delivered more features, but at the cost of being difficult for the client to maintain, both in terms of the user interface and a database on the back end. The client made it clear that ease-of-use was paramount, and we stuck to that.
  • There was no dead weight on the team. A single, unmotivated developer can slow down an entire team. Since everyone was there by choice, and everyone was qualified for the work, we didn’t have to deal with any problem team members.
  • We had our choice of technologies, so we could choose a platform with which everyone on the team had at least some familiarity.

Give Camp was the most fun I’ve had coding in some time, even though (non-MVC) ASP.NET is not my preferred platform. The emphasis on fun, the opportunity to try things outside of my comfort zone, and the excellent team atmosphere made it a great experience.

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