Post-mortem report of my free online dating service; Part 1 of 2

I registered the domain for my free online dating service, DiveIntoThePool.com, in October of 2007. I decided that along with making my first real startup that I would invest money in that it would be a good idea to do in a language I didn’t already know (ASP.NET), with a database I wasn’t familiar with (MSSQL) and on a platform I had not deployed anything on before (IIS6).  My thinking was that along with creating this sure fire website that I could make money though advertising off of I would try and learn as many things along the way as possible. I worked on this project in my evening times while also supporting a medium-core World of Warcraft habit. When I say something took days of research it’s real time passed after work, WoW and a little life.

I had modest goals to measure the success of the site. My first goal after launching was to make more money than I spent in hosting and advertising. After that I wanted to invest all actual profits back into the site so it would continue to grow. I pictured a power point graphic of exponential growth and with a little patience I would be rich!

I broke the site down into smaller and smaller chunks and for every small milestone or functionality I completed I patted myself on the back. Milestones such as getting Visual Studio Web Express to pre-compile DLLs so I didn’t have to place source files on my webserver, which I had none setup at the time, or migrating my new found zip code database from MySQL to MSSQL. Every step I took involved several days of thinking and research.

I swear it wasn’t intentional but I felt like I put as many technical obstacles in between myself and launching the site as possible. I vividly remember spending several evenings, days I felt like, trying to decide on which source control solution I should use. I kept hearing Git this and Git that at the time but it took me a while still to figure out there was no easy way to run a Git server on my home Windows machine. I finally settled into VisualSVN and celebrated when I checked a file in from my laptop and got latest from my desktop! I was on my way.

I stressed over membership and security for a long time as well. Don’t store passwords in plain text, watch out for all user input and SQL injection worries. I had created a pretty full registration and login web of pages before I even thought about creating a admin interface for my users. That’s no problem I thought at first, Visual Studio Web Express came with this very helpful ASP.NET Web Site Administration Tool that I found out, after several more nights, couldn’t be installed remotely on my newly acquired shared hosting environment. Screw it! At that point I had a text file of SQL scripts I was running to do development work that ended up being my “admin” interface to the site.

I had been using my free time since registering the domain working on the site and learning C# but by December 2008 I still seemed far away from launching anything I was proud of. I was doubting my plans and if I didn’t do something drastic soon I would never launch the site. In January 2009 I quit playing World of Warcraft, I disbanded the guild I had put together, transferred onto another server and kept no ties to anyone I knew. Even my real life friends didn’t know where my characters went. Shortly there after I actually canceled my accounts. Suddenly I had all the time in the world during my evenings to work.

Within 5 months of cutting out video games I was able to launch the site in May of 2009. I actually did a soft launch first, running through all of my test cases a few times just to check for any obvious bugs. All of my testing, research, learning and code was live. It took me far to long to get here I told myself and I knew that the hardest hurdles were still to come. No one knows me, I have no track record of success, how on Earth am I going to get people to sign up or even visit my freshly unwrapped free online dating service.

Continued in Post-mortem report of my free online dating service; Part 2 of 2 to read about the end of DiveIntoThePool

Weddingtracker launched!

Weddingtracker launched on June 12th around 2:30PM CST and it has been about 8 long months of development and battle to get it out the door. With over 18,000 lines of code, over 400 files and 64mb in size this has been by far my most complicated Flash project ever. You can see the 13 template files in action on the Weddingtracker sample sites page. We did not design the sites so be sure to look past the front-end user interface when continuing through this post. I want to detail some of the finer points of the production and elements that I am happy with.

The entire project was coded using ActionScript 3.0 and the underlying framework that was used was PureMVC for Flash CS3. It was very stable once we got comfortable with working in its rather verbose arena. Each of the components that made up a users website existed in external files. Template layout, page type content, template colors, menu types, custom media display files and embedded font resource files. All of this makes for an extremely extensible code base that will allow for much more complicated designs without endangering the underlining controller code that sets up how the user interacts with the different pages.

All of the colors and text formatting are loaded in from CSS files that are defined in the initial XML file loading process. These CSS classes are accessed by the different page type controllers when they format themselves. Placeholder movieclips are used in the template resource files to define the location and size of the page type elements. The first class in the CSS files defines a list of used embedded font files required for accurate rendering. These font files are loaded from external SWF files and then registered to the Flash application for usage on embedded TextFields. Many of the ideas that made up this runtime font loader came from this post Runtime font loading with AS3 Flash CS3 not Flex.

I think that this code base is a great start to what could be an excellent product with some more attention to the design and user interface components. I expect to be working on it for the next couple of weeks for post launch issues and into the future when new templates are designed. All of the work over the last 8 months will be extremely helpful when it comes to fixing bugs or making improvements in the future.

I wanted to say thank you to everyone who helped code this impressive project and see it through launch. Susannah was with me in development from the very beginning and the project would not have launched without her help. Andres and Hal came in at the end of the project and worked two weekends in a row to get the template css and skin files setup for me while I finished the components and Susannah worked on custom template elements. I am already looking forward to my next major project but needed to reflect on over half a years work and a successful launch. Congratulations to everyone who worked on this project in the .NET development, all the HTML and CSS work and thank you to the IT project manager for being there from beginning to end of the marathon project.

New Portfolio Site Launch!

I launched my new portfolio site for Barrett Sonntag Online and wanted to talk a little on the technical aspects of the new all Flash site. After doing my analysis on the World of Warcraft website (worldofwarcraftcom front and back-end analysis) I wanted to see what it would take to combine a little JavaScript, HTML and Flash to create a SEO compliant full page Flash site. I have been shy about using full page Flash since getting my name listed in the major search engines, Flash is notoriously bad at SEO because it’s content is not usually indexable.

I wanted Flash to take the content straight from the page it was loaded it, to make it’s containing page have the XML data it would load. JavaScript provided the method required already, innerHTML. The innerHTML functionality works to take a HTML DOM elements subnodes and copy the structure and body text as a string. It worked great in Firefox and Safari but IE was screwing with the output forcing element names to uppercase and stripping quotes (“) from attribute values. Flash choked on this malformed XML data and I was stuck. I looked for a couple hours for how I could remedy IE’s nasty way of handling innerHTML and decided to sleep on it after posting on a popular online forum WebDeveloper.com. I didn’t get the answer handed so much as the path shown when I woke up the next morning, regular expressions. You can see the thread and my terrible but working solution http://www.webdeveloper.com/forum/showthread.php?t=182391.

With the IE innerHTML issue out of the way I was able to move on to the design of the site. Multiple columns with minimum wide items that auto adjusted just like inline elements in HTML. I don’t envy web browser developers this was no easy task. The next issue I ran into was setting up the Actionscript 3.0 event MouseWheel.MOUSE_SCROLL to fire allowing for the rows to move via the mousewheel or trackpad scrolling. It worked wonderfully in all browsers on my PC and failed completely on the test Macs I had access too. Lucky for me someone had already done the footwork and setup a JavaScript function that told the Flash file when the MOUSE_SCROLL event was being fired since Firefox and Safari on the Mac were not. Gabriel is to thank for this wonderfully easy to setup solution you can find on his site http://blog.pixelbreaker.com/flash/as30-mousewheel-on-mac-os-x/.

I am extremely happy with the outcome of this site as it is that full page Flash I was hoping for while still allowing search engines to see the full content of the site laid out in divs using class and id attributes.