Blog of Rob Galanakis (@robgalanakis)

Too ignorant to know better

My first big python project last year was yet another feed aggregator (taogreggator). Before I started, I looked around at what other aggregators were available, and wasn’t happy with any of them in terms of features, complexity, or trying to get each working.

Of course, 9 months later, that project is dead and I’ve successfully got the python ‘planet’ module up and running at www.tech-artists.org/planet.

Note, this blog post probably reveals what a big programming phony I am ;) Remember though that this sort of thing is well outside my usual domain of expertise.

So what happened? Why did it take so long to realize I was doing something stupid, regroup, and adopt something that actually works?

I was too ignorant to know better. Well, to be fair, I didn’t undertake this project out of hubris or to build something better, I built it mostly as a significant project I could train my python skills with.

I’m not interested in why it failed. There are 100 reasons why it failed, none of them unexpected or interesting. I’m interested in why I undertook it in the first place and took so long to trash it.

1. I didn’t know anything about the web

I still know barely anything, but trying to take an existing package and get it running was incredibly difficult, because I was so out of water. I didn’t even have the vocabulary, and was unfamiliar with everything I was supposed to do and the concepts of how things worked. My own project allowed me to get into it gradually.

2. Too inexperienced to know the challenges ahead of me

It wasn’t actually that difficult to get the app running locally. I even opened up a router port and ran my PC as a server, for remote connections. But I had an Ubuntu server to deploy to, and know nothing about Linux. I had never created a web app before. So at every step, I thought I was almost there. Every known was an unknown unknown to me, because I had no idea what to expect.

3. Too inexperienced with the commandline and the python environment

I talked about it in my Relearning Python series. When I started out, I didn’t really get how python works, because I came from .NET where I didn’t have to worry about any of that. I have a much, much better understanding now, and the environment is one of the early things I teach any new python programmer, because once you start importing code, or writing complex scripts, you need to know how it works. I didn’t understand the environment so I had a very difficult time getting any third-party systems set up.

4. Pythonic is more than a coding style

When I came to python, I was indoctrinated in the ways of a .NET programmer. It took me a long time to understand that ‘pythonic’ applies to more than just lines of code. It has to do with how you run your entire application. The way I run planet I’d consider entirely pythonic- I have a very thin script that generates and uploads some files. The planet module itself is pythonic- there’s some straightforward documentation, commented ini files, and templates, and you’re supposed to customize things and build a few wrapper scripts to run the stuff you need. This looseness was foreign, as I was more used to a much data-driven, rigid way of customizing an app. Being data driven is not great in all circumstances, especially when developing frameworks and apps like this, where the programmer is the user. When I saw what I ended up with with planet, I was embarrassed with how confusing my design was (though, to be fair, it had more features planned). Without understanding how I should use modules like planet, I couldn’t use them. Such basic stuff is not covered in a readme.

So, several weeks ago, I finally made an effort to deploy my custom aggregator on an AWS windows server. I still couldn’t get it working. And I was having even more questions about why I did stuff a certain way (I don’t think the code or design is particularly bad, but it made it difficult to use on a server). It was a huge failure. So three days later, after an awful day at work, I regrouped, and spent the entire evening figuring out existing aggregators, and after struggling with various ones, chose ‘planet’, and got pretty much everything working.

The lessons are pretty clear. You need some minimum knowledge to be able to make an informed decision. Attempt something of a very limited scope to give you that knowledge before making your decision. You will have plenty of options to reinvent the wheel when you know what you’re doing. On the other hand, if you’re pursuing a project only for educational purposes, do whatever you want :)

Next time I’m going to follow some tutorial end to end. It was fun hacking away on something way too complex, but I failed to deliver a server to the community, and, tbh, the time could have been better spent.