My foray into web development

I like browsing the web. I do it a lot throughout my day.

A lot of people work hard at making the web a cool-looking place. Some sites make simplicity look so easy, that when you look under the hood, it’s all chaos and destruction, folded and crunched together, all to present something really nice and smooth for the end-user.

I’m not a developer – much less a web dev. There’s a lot to know in any field of computing – and in web it’s pretty much the most visible part of computing as a whole, since pretty much anyone anywhere is going to use a web browser to view a site at some point.

I mean, sure, we all learned some HTML – hell, I wrote some sites back in the days of Geocities, and it was awesome to learn about tiling backgrounds of animated GIFs, and when CSS came around, minds blown!

And I left that field for the frontend developers, and went into infrastructure and operations.

And as time passes, you find yourself managing a variety of systems and knowledge, and at some point, you may say to yourself, “I wish I knew how to answer this question…”

And then you write some code to answer it. Voila! You’re a developer, of sorts.

I’m a huge fan of data visualization. Telling stories with pictures dates back millennia, and it’s very relatable to most people. Recently, I wrote a tool to help myself display the dependency complexity of Chef roles, and I found that, while being very useful, the output is very limited, as it’s a static generated image, whereas we live in a web-friendly world where everything is interactive and fun!

So when I came across another hard question I wanted to answer, I thought, “Why not make this a web application?”

This time, the question I wanted to answer was: As a GitHub Organization owner for my company, what human-to-team-to-software-repository relationships do we have, and are they secure?

If you’ve ever managed an Organization in GitHub, there are a few key elements.

  1. An Organization can have many Repositories
  2. An Organization can have many Teams
  3. A Repository can have many Teams
  4. A Team can have many members, but only one permission (read only, read/write, owner)

So sorting out who is on what Team, what access they have, across many repositories, can be a security nightmare. Especially when you have more than 4-5 repositories.

During my first foray into solving this, I cobbled together a command-line tool, using Ruby with the Graphviz library. I’ve like Graphviz for years – it’s straightforward, as structured text gets rendered into a graph and then can be output to a file.

Very straightforward, has some limitations, but basically allows you to store graphs as text, and re-render them when changes happen. Basically, it’s like storing source code and not the binary output.

But since there were some limitations, and I wanted this new question to be more than a command-line tool, something I could share with the world at large, without requiring any client-side installation of any tools or dependencies.

So I spent a lot of time hemming and hawing, looking at web frameworks and trying to figure out some of them, and “how does this work?” came up a lot.

Finally, yesterday I set out to sit down and accomplish this task. I sat in a Starbucks in New York City, and had a Venti. I started banging away at about 11:30. I took a break for a refill and a snack around 1:30, and when I sat down again, I kept hacking away until 9:30pm, when I deemed completion.

The code was written, tested by me locally, pushed to GitHub, deployed to Heroku, DNS name wired up and all. As soon as I completed, I left Starbucks, and heaved a huge sigh – it was one hell of a mental high, I was in “the zone” and had been there for a long time.

You are more than welcome to browse the source code here and the finished project here. I call it the GitHub Organization Viewer, hence “GOVweb”.

I have a bunch of other ideas on how to make this better, how to model the data, which visual style to use, but I think for now, I’m going to leave it for a bit, and see what I think about it in a couple of months.

But all in all, this reinforced my opinion to never be afraid to try tackling a new idea, a new project, a new field you’re unfamiliar with – as long as you can read, comprehend and learn, the world is your oyster.