Saturday, January 2, 2010

Advice for 6.470 Teams Using Ruby on Rails

This post contains a suggested strategy for students competing in 6.470 (MIT's yearly Web programming competition) who are planning to use Ruby on Rails.

Ruby on Rails will be covered in 6.470 on Friday. The competing back-end platform, PHP, will be covered on Tuesday. This post addresses students or teams who are considering using Ruby on Rails, but are concerned by the disadvantage of not being exposed to the platform earlier in the course.

My advice is based on my experience as a 6.470 contestant in 2008. My team won the 2nd place. The points below are the parts of our strategy that went well, and what I wish we would have done better.

  1. Don't agonize over your idea. Like in a startup, you will end up revising your idea as you learn what you can and can't accomplish in a month. Start prototyping, and start learning about the data that you can obtain.
  2. Research integration points (other sites' APIs) that you will use early. For some APIs, your developer account needs to be approved manually, and that can take a few days. It's a good idea to start as early as possible.
  3. Put your infrastructure in place. Set up version control (I recommend git, but I know svn is easy to set up on Athena). Set up story tracking (see Pivotal Tracker) so you don't forget about bugs. Set up regular meeting and coding times.
  4. Finalize your team staffing as quickly as possible. Either compete solo, or get a team of the maximum size allowed. Solo developers might impress the judges. That aside, nobody cares about your team size, and you don't want to miss the big prize because your work isn't polished enough.
  5. Set ground rules. 6.470 brings together competition, pride, and money, which are big potentials for drama. That can be mitigated
  6. Spend most of your time until Friday on the front-end. Make sure you learn HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Photoshop.
  7. Start mocking the UI using HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Get used to Firebug. Both the skills and the digital assets you'll develop are easily transferable into a Rails application.
  8. Pay particular attention to jQuery. Rails recommends Prototype for JavaScript, but jQuery is better at keeping your JavaScript out of your HTML. At the very least, you'll have an easier time learning Prototype if you know the principles of jQuery.
  9. Don't worry too much about SQL, but pay attention to database design.
  10. Think about whether you'll have testers. Our testers gave us great feedback and helped us make the site more usable. On the other hand, one of the early adopters showed us a security vulnerability by crashing our production database right before the deadline. So choose your testers wisely.
Rails is the most productive well-known Web development framework. There's a very good reason why the Rails book has a hammock on its cover. You can totally catch up with your competitors' back-ends over the first weekend.

Good luck!

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