Monthly Archives: September 2016

Starting a todo app: part 2, technologies

Last week, I wrote about my desire to make a todo app. this week, I’m going to talk about the technologies I’m using and what I think so far.

Currently, I’m building this app on the following technologies:

  • C#
  • Asp.net
  • Azure
  • DocumentDB
  • Xamarin

Notice any pattern? I am a giant Microsoft shill. My career focuses on Microsoft SQL server and Power BI, so It’s in my best interest to learn surrounding technologies.

Of course Microsoft keeps doing weird things like including Git in Visual Studio, or putting SQL Server on Linux. So the surrounding technologies get a big broader these days.

C#

I really like C#, but I don’t feel like I “get it” just yet. I think it’s clean and understandable as a language, but it feels like 80% of the language is learning about random libraries and classes. And if you don’t know that Microsoft.Azure.Client.Document.UriFactory exists and you need it, then you are out of luck. It just doesn’t feel as discoverable as it should.

In contrast, when I worked with Python, I felt like everything was laid out in orderly modules and it was easy to fit it all in your head. When they said the batteries were included, I felt like you could count all the batteries.

Maybe the work I did with python was just simpler, maybe C# has a richer set of standard libraries. I’m really not sure. I just wish I knew when C# would really click for me.

Asp.net

I’m really excited that they combined Web Forms, MVC and WebAPI into one project type. You can even gracefully add them after the fact. However, your Global.asax.cs may look like this as a result.

image

I can’t say I have a good idea when to choose between one or the other within a project. It seems like 3 very different modes of working and routing.

Azure

Azure is to today what virtualization was 5 years ago. The cloud is just going to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger. If you aren’t learning about it now, you are going to be very remiss about it 5 years from now.

Unfortunately most of us don’t have a need for cloud hosting. You probably don’t have a need for your own personal Azure Active Directory or Hadoop Cluster. So a lot of times, that means doing projects and labs to learn it preemptively. If you are waiting until it comes up at work, it’s going to be too late.

DocumentDB

DocumentDB is… interesting. Brent Ozar mentioned that he is using NoSQL for a new project. He picked Amazon DynamoDB over DocumentDB. I’m picking DocumentDB as a way to learn Azure.

So, why go the NoSQL route? Partly it’s something new to learn, but there are a couple of advantages. I think Document databases when you want to store lists of things or hierarchical data. In my app, I have lists for times of day, task categories, and tools/contexts. I want to be able to do filtering on these things, which can be clunky in SQL.

Things I like

Some other things I like so far are the dynamic schema, dynamic serialization, and TTL. Normally I appreciate have a well-defined structure to my data. However, this is a design that’s constantly evolving and changing. It’s hard to plan it up front. With Document DB, I can add a field to my model class in C#, set a good default, and that’s it. Now I have a due date field

The other thing I like so far is the TTL feature. I can mark completed tasks with a ttl of a week. Then, if I don’t touch them for  a week, they will self-destruct. That is a really cool feature.

Things I don’t like

One of my big pet peeves with DocumentDB is that collections are billing containers not logical containers. This to me just seems silly. If I want to have different types of objects, such as summary data, I have to store them all in the same place or pay 2-4x as much. That approach feels really messy.

Another thing that’s an issues is case sensitivity.  Because it’s a dynamic schema, if I get a column name wrong, it won’t tell me I screwed up. So I have to remember if my columns start with a capital or not. Also, if I do a contains I have to get the case right for that as well. This is more of a mindset shift than an actual issue with Document DB.

Finally, because it’s JSON there isn’t a date standard. C# does a great job of serializing and deserializing things. However, if I want to store the dates in a human writable way, I have to find another option. For all of my pure dates I’ve been using an integer for now. So September 11th would be 20160911. It requires an extra step to convert or add days to a date, but at least it’s easy to edit. Additionally, because it’s an int, it allows for range filtering.

Xamarin

Xamarin technology is pretty exciting. I absolutely love the idea of being able to write C# and deploy it to a bunch of platforms. It’s especially exciting because my phone is a great place to run a todo app.

That being said, if understanding C# is difficult, then understanding C# that’s a thin wrapper on Java is even worse. I am finding the learning curve on Xamarin to be a bit difficult.

Starting a personal todo app

Todo apps and gamificiation

Todo apps have been done to death. If you go on Google Play, there’s at least 200 of them. There’s even a website that uses todo app tutorials to compare Javascript frameworks.

Still, I’m a huge fan of David Allen and Getting Things Done. I love the idea of tracking all your “open loops” and the next action on everything. I love the idea of context aware lists that take into account location, time and energy.

I’m also a huge fan of gamifying your life. If video game developers can use psychological tricks to get me to play more video games, why can’t I use the same concepts to get me to be healthy and accomplish more.

A great example of this is Beeminder. It’s this really cool application where you set a goal and track the goal on a daily basis, sometimes automatically. If you don’t meet it, they take your money, and then restart with higher stakes. I love it. If there was a single startup idea I wish I had thought of, this would be it.

The problem with Beeminder is you either need to pick just a few simple goals, or you need to guarantee you have an even workload. If your day-to-day has a lot of ups and downs, it can be stressful.

Finally, I like the idea of externalizing my executive function. I seem to run into the problem of having to many things I want do to, have trouble choosing, and do none as a result. It’s very frustrating. If I can outsource that analysis paralysis, I think I would get more done.

The idea for the app

This is actually the second time I’ve tried to make a todo app. The first time had more of a gamification feel and I called it EugeneQuest. I figured if I was going to be paying someone to motivate me to do things, why not pay myself. It worked out decently well, but I mostly broke my addiction to Magic The Gathering by accident.

Despite how that went, it’s still really important to me to have personal projects. I think personal projects are the best way to learn and I’m desperate to learn C# and Azure. So I’m trying again, but focusing more on filtering tasks by time and energy. So far it seems promising.

Next week I’ll talk about the technology I’m using and what I’ve learned so far.