The Power of Programming

I’m in the middle of working on a major revamp for SportsLizard.  As of a few months ago this wasn’t in our plans, but the major failures of new sites by industry incumbents Beckett and Tuff Stuff, combined with the urging of a few SportsLizard “fans”, inspired us to reconsider the opportunity at hand to leverage the existing SL community to expand our presence and really take on the big boys.  I can honestly say I’ve never been more excited about a business opportunity.  It should only take me a few weeks to complete the programming, the marketing will all be free viral stuff, and the site maintenance will continue to be almost nothing (a few hours a week).  Needless to say, the potential benefits are huge while the downside is almost non existent.

I decided to take a wholly fresh approach to the design and programming.  I wanted to take the extra time to learn and implement new CSS and design skills, and also to efficiently organize all of the code.  Aside from a relatively tiny site like Music Alerts, this will be the best overall job I’ve done with the entire site development process.

In doing so, I got to extensively look over a lot of the PHP code I wrote in April 2007 when the price guide portion of the site was launched.  It really is truly amazing what a year and a half will do to your skills.  Every file I open I think to myself “why did I do it this way?”.  While adding features, I’ve proceeded to write cleaner, more organized code.  Many pages have gone from 1,000 lines of code down to a few hundred while increasing functionality.   At some point in the last year or so, there was a shift in my development skills from simply being able to do almost anything, to being able to do almost anything in the most efficient way.  When I say most efficient, I mean less lines of code and more organization, while factoring in user interface, SEO, database design, and scalability issues.

If you constantly attack learning with a passion and are never satisfied with where you’re at, you’ll be stunned at your growth.  Just like we micro innovate as a company, you can improve your skills dramatically by getting a little bit better each and every day.  In our “want it now” society that’s not really a sexy proposition, but it works.

When SL rolls out in a few weeks it’ll be the first complete example of a site I developed at this level of programming.  And while this could bring in some great supplemental income for us, the true benefit of these skills will come in 2009 when Mike and I tear apart the shopping cart platform we built for Detailed Image and Tastefully Driven and rebuild it from scratch.  It’s good now, but we want better code, better organization, better UI (including useful AJAX), and a better back end.

The benefits of such a platform for our company will be huge.  It’s not just about increased sales or better shipping efficiency.  It sets the system up to be completely scalable.  The shipping system will be so easy to understand that any warehouse employee can fulfill orders successfully.  The inventory system will be so well organized that our first warehouse manager will be able to jump right in and manage our 30+ vendors.  The programming will be so well organized and documented, that any good programmer will be able to understand the structure immediately.  So by 2010 when we need two or three dedicated programmers, we can hand them this beautifully developed cart that they can dive right into and grow and expand.  If one programming issue impacts both sites, they will only need to change the code once to deploy it onto both sites.

All of this leads me to the (somewhat long-winded) point of this post:  if you really want to innovate on the web, if you really want to bootstrap an online company, you need to learn how to program.  Pick up an introductory PHP/MySQL book.  Learn HTML and CSS.  Get a solid understanding of Javascript, XML, and eventually AJAX.  Learn the basics of running a server.

This didn’t happen to me overnight.  Most of it – especially the server stuff – happened because of need and not because of desire.  But every single bit of it was worth it and I’m glad I learned it.  Because it gives me power.   Any website that I can dream up, I can create with $10 for the domain plus my time and the space on our server.  How cool is that?  I don’t need to search for a programmer.  I don’t need to try to convey my ideas to someone else and have things get lost in translation.  I can just do it and see the vision unfold.   Every idea I’ve had that I really wanted to do – SportsLizard, iPrioritize, Music-Alerts – I’ve done.  How many people can say that?

And even if you eventually end up passing on your programming to employees as we plan to do, it’s still a huge business advantage.  You can communicate better with your programmers and other managers because you truly know how things work, what can and cannot be programmed, and the difficulty involved in getting a feature programmed and deployed.  Understanding your technology inside and out helps you with your marketing efforts, and it helps you with your customer service.

When it comes to web business, programming skills really do equal power.  So young entrepreneur, instead of writing long winded business plans or reading more generic business books, I suggest forking over $100 on programming books and some web hosting.   Trust me, it will be one investment you won’t regret.

5 comments on The Power of Programming

  1. Eric says:

    Long time follower, first time poster. Any suggestion on some recommended reading materials for php/mysql etc.

  2. Nev says:

    100% agree that programming really helps. However I can’t program AT ALL. In fact I can barely write HTML.

    However I am pretty proficient with every program that helps me make webpages (Frontpage, Dreamweaver etc….no jokes please) and can at least edit and understand programs, Java scripts and such.

    I’m also pretty good at specifying exactly what I want by making mock-ups in Photoshop, so when I do need programming done, I can get it done at a reasonable cost.

    Although I’ll never be able to make a fully custom eCommerce store like you. I’ll always have to rely on pre-existing software…there’s some benefits and drawbacks to both.

    The proliferation of apps is definitely helping out though.
    Example: on HouseOfRave.com I had a really crappy search function that was pretty much useless in the way it displayed results and the results it fetched.

    No way I could change it myself, but Google luckily has SiteSearch for $100/year, and searches have been up substantially since its (very easy) installation. It also returns exactly what you want on every search.

    …but yes, I do agree that if you really want to innovate on the web, it’s best to be a programmer yourself.
    -Nev

  3. Adam McFarland says:

    @Eric – thanks for reading and for commenting. Always nice to hear from new readers. There are obviously a ton of great resources out there, but I’ve really become a fan of the O’Reily “Head First” books http://oreilly.com/store/series/headfirst.csp. I’d start with HTML, CSS, and XHTML, and then move on to PHP/MySQL and then XML, Javascript, AJAX. I think that’s the best order to go in from a business perspective. Once you have the database stuff down and understand HTML, you can start to build almost anything.

    I picked up a handful of AJAX books a while back and I thought that the O’Reily one had the best information and was the easiest, most enjoyable read. If you’re looking for quick free online tutorials, I like Tizag http://www.tizag.com/.

    Hope that helps. Email or comment if you have any specific questions and I’m always happy to help.

    @Nev – definitely, I agree with you completely. There is a ton of existing software out there and if you learn how to install/customize it you can largely avoid needing to learn programming skills while still having the chance to build an innovative biz. However, you also have exceptional photoshop skills (better than anyone on our team from what I’ve seen) and can clearly modify code when needed, so it’s not like you’re totally in the dark. If you’re resourceful and good at business, you’ll find a way even if you don’t want to learn to program (or struggle to program – I’m not so naive to think that it’s something everyone will just “get”).

  4. […] SportsLizard revamp that I’m working on now, it would have gone a lot differently.  For one, it would have been programmed a lot worse and probably taken twice as many hours of work to get the same result.  In my head I think that […]

  5. […] designer.  My graphics skills and CSS skills are a lot better than they were a few months ago.  I upped my PHP skills as well.  I’m really happy with how the new-and-improved Price Guide came out.  So again, […]

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