Freelancing Gods 2014

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19 Oct 2011

A Sustainable Flying Sphinx?

In which I muse about what a sustainable web service could look like – but first, the backstory:

A year ago – almost to the day – I sat in a wine bar in Sydney’s Surry Hills with Steve Hopkins. I’d been thinking about how to get Sphinx working on Heroku, and ran him through the basic idea in my head of how it could work. His first question was “So, what are you working on tomorrow, then?”

By the end of the following day, I had some idea of how it would work. Over the next few months I had a proof of concept working, hit some walls, began again, and finally got to a point where I could launch an alpha release of Flying Sphinx.

In May, Flying Sphinx became available for all Heroku users – and earlier today (five months later), I received my monthly provider payment from Heroku, with the happy news that I’m now earning enough to cover all related ongoing expenses – things like AWS for the servers, Scalarium to manage them, and Tender for support.

Now, I’m not rolling in cash, and I’m certainly not earning enough through Flying Sphinx to pay rent, let alone be in a position to drop all client work and focus on Flying Sphinx full-time. That’s cool, either of those targets would be amazing.

And of course, money isn’t the be all and end all – even though this is a business, and I certainly don’t want to run at a loss. I want Flying Sphinx to be sustainable – in that it covers not only the hosting costs, but my time as well, along with supporting the broader system around it – code, people and beyond.

But what does a sustainable web service look like, particularly beyond the standard (outmoded) financial axis?

Sustainable Time

Firstly (and selfishly), it should cover the time spent maintaining and expanding the service. Flying Sphinx doesn’t use up a huge amount of my time right at the moment, but I’m definitely keen to improve a few things (in particular, offer Sphinx 2.0.1 alongside the existing 1.10-beta installation), and there is the occasional support query to deal with.

This one’s relatively straight-forward, really – I can track all time spent on Flying Sphinx and multiply that by a decent hourly rate. If it turns out I can’t manage all the work myself, then I pay someone else to help.

It certainly doesn’t look like I’m going to need anyone helping in the near future, mind you – nor am I drowning in support requests.

Sustainable Software

Ignoring the time I spend writing code for Flying Sphinx (as that’s covered by the previous section), pretty much every other piece of software involved with the service is open source. Front and centre among these is Sphinx itself.

I certainly don’t expect to be paid for my own open source contributions, but it certainly helps when there’s some funds trickling in to help motivate dealing with support questions, fixing bugs and adding features. It can also provide a stronger base to build a community as well.

With this in mind, I’m considering setting aside a percentage of any profit for Sphinx development – as any improvements to that help make Flying Sphinx a stronger offering.

(I could also cover my time spent on Thinking Sphinx either with a percentage cut – either way it would end up in my pocket though.)

Sustainable Hardware

This is where things get a little trickier – we’re not just dealing with bits and electrons, but also silicon and metals. The human race is pretty bad at weaning itself off of limited (as opposed to renewable) resources, and the hardware industry certainly is going to hit some limits in the future as certain metals become harder to source.

Of course, the servers use a lot of energy, so one thing I will be doing is offsetting the carbon. I’ve not yet figured out the best service to do this, but will start by looking at Brighter Planet.

From a social perspective, there’s also questions about how those resources are sourced. We should be considering the working conditions of where the metals are mined (and by whom), the people who are soldering the logic boards, and those who place the finished products into racks in data centres.

As an example, let’s look at Amazon. Given the recent issues raised with the conditions for staff in their warehouses, I think it’s fair to seek clarification on the situation of their web service colleagues. And what if there were significant ethical issues for using AWS? What then for Flying Sphinx, which runs EC2 instances and is an add-on for Heroku, a business built entirely on top of Amazon’s offerings?

I could at least use servers elsewhere – but that means bandwidth between servers and Heroku apps starts to cost money – and we introduce a step of latency into the service. Neither of those things are ideal. Or I could just say that I don’t want to support Amazon at all, and shut down Flying Sphinx, remove all my Heroku apps, and find some other hosting service to use.

Am I getting a little too carried away? Perhaps, but this is all hypothetical anyway. I’m guessing Amazon’s techs are looked after decently (though I’d love some confirmation on this), and am hoping the situation improves for their warehouse staff as well.

I am still searching for answers for what truly sustainable hardware – and moreso, sustainable web services – financially, socially, environmentally, and technically. What’s your take? What have I forgotten?

12 Mar 2009

Link: How-To Setup a Linux Server for Ruby on Rails - with Phusion Passenger and GitHub - Hack'd

Can skip some of this thanks to Sprinkle, but it's a useful reference nonetheless.

30 Jan 2009

Link: Derek Powazek - Programmers are Tiny Gods

"If you give a programmer a problem with parameters, they’ll apply every bit of genius they have to solve it in the best possible way. If you tell them how to do it, you’ll suffer the wrath of an angry God."

30 Dec 2008

Link: So you want to be a consultant...?

"You must give the customer The Warm Fuzzy Feeling"

23 Oct 2008

Developer Ethics

A quick question to fellow coders…

Unsurprisingly, there’s a dearth of Ruby developers in Cambodia. I imagine the situation is pretty similar in other developing nations. PHP and Visual Basic seem to be the common languages in the small tech community here.

I’m currently working on building a website for one of the local NGOs here – and of course, Rails is my preferred framework. But looking forward, I don’t wish to be providing ongoing support for the site – and the client shares that sentiment. So to make it easier for local developers to take over, should I be considering using PHP for the project instead?

I have offered to help the IT guy at this organisation learn Ruby, but he won’t be there forever as well. And they’re a small NGO – they don’t have the cash to throw around hiring super-skilled developers. The project itself is pro-bono.

So, what would you do, given the circumstances?

(And for the record, it’s very likely I’ll stick with Ruby – using the Radiant CMS – but I’m interested in others’ opinions.)

29 Apr 2008

Link: DanNorth.net » What’s in a Story?

Good overview of BDD, especially in relation to stories (feature in rspec)

21 Nov 2006

Link: Ruby Classifier - Bayesian and LSI classification library

25 Oct 2006

Link: Memoirs of a Bystander: Visual Studio.NET development on OS X w/ Parallels

11 Oct 2006

Link: TextMate Cheat Sheet for Ruby and Rails developers

02 Oct 2006

Link: Tender Love Making » Blog Archive » New Ruby BetaBrite - 0.0.2

29 Sep 2006

Link: InfoQ: Why Would a .NET Programmer Learn Ruby on Rails?

16 Sep 2006

Link: RailsConf Europe Notes: Dave Thomas Keynote (On Risk)

04 Sep 2006

Link: Another Day In The Code Mines: Now they have two problems...

22 Aug 2006

Link: Unobtrusive Javascript Rails Plugin

16 Aug 2006

Link: Source Control HOWTO

16 Aug 2006

Link: Coding Horror: Source Control: Anything But SourceSafe

13 Jul 2006

Link: Prototype 1.4.0 Documentation

28 Jun 2006

Link: [Ruby is the] Glue that doesn't set

20 Jun 2006

Link: Registering an Application to a URL Protocol

Surprisingly clear and short description on how to add a new protocol handler for Windows.

13 Apr 2006

Link: gotAPI.com :: API lookup service

helpful reference to a stack of apis

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About Freelancing Gods

Freelancing Gods is written by , who works on the web as a web developer in Melbourne, Australia, specialising in Ruby on Rails.

In case you're wondering what the likely content here will be about (besides code), keep in mind that Pat is passionate about the internet, music, politics, comedy, bringing people together, and making a difference. And pancakes.

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