Betwixt Code and Music

2020: Year in review

January 01, 20219 min read

I am historically not great at looking back at what happened in the past. Entries like this one in the record of the World Wide Web are my attempt to force a bit of focus on what happened and how to learn from it. I will mostly ignore the overall craziness of the year 2020 for the citizens of our planet, but only mostly.

2020 in our family

It was tough to not see family so much, same as reported by most poeple, I suspect. During the school year I needed to keep our 8-year-old daughter on track in school, which can be a challenge. Like me, she gets constantly distracted by the new and exciting, but we must learn those multiplication facts regardless! My wife works as a librarian in an elementary school, so she has to be around some adults and students each work day. Thankfully her five Covid tests were all negative, mostly sinus/allergy-related issues that manifest as Covid symptoms. Our two older children are in high school. They are doing most classes at home via Zoom. The only class they attended in person was band every day for first period. They were also in marching band, which was very different this year. Our kids’ school district decided to not attend any band contests and only travelled to in-district football games. This did allow us to go to six football games this year, an odd affair of people cheering on the student athletes and performers while all wearing masks and quite far apart in the stands.

Most importantly, no one in our house became sick, to our knowledge. We have all had some days where we felt crummy, but I chalk that up to being a human in any year. We are looking forward to hugging family members again in the future!

hugs and kisses - image courtesy of freepik.com

hugs and kisses - image courtesy of freepik.com

Blog posts, etc.

In 2020 I wrote four blog posts. 2019 produced the same number — consistency! I have so many blog posts written down in my head, but I need to make more time to form them in this space. I have learned a metric ton in my five years on the job as a code slinger. I could share more of that knowledge with others through this space. 2020 will bring a redesign of this space, too. The underlying tech will change with a bit of a return to basics under the hood.

Side business: Presto Assistant

In August 2018 I started organizing a side business with some former music teacher friends that would become Presto Assistant. This is a web app that will help fine arts teacher organize inventory, library, uniforms, payments, and more. We had big plans for Presto in 2020, including launch and potentially going full-time on it. However, the shift to working-from-home made this really tough to accomplish. 2020 was decicedly NOT the year to increase the amount of financial risk for our partners, either. In the before times, I could do my full-time gig’s work at the office, and do coding for the side business at home. Now there is little difference in how those two types of work look. This makes it tough to work on the side business stuff at home.

To counteract this, our Presto Assistant team now works on Presto code and business stuff starting in the 5 o’clock hour each morning while everyone in our houses is fast asleep. We have a short daily meeting at 5:45am to stay on the same page. Sometimes we sleep a bit longer and meet at 6:00 am, though!

In 2020 we did some great work, too. We have a solid business model, and our documents are in order. We understand the market and have a plan on launching that we think will benefit us well as we work on switching to full-time Presto Assistant in the future. We also know how we will support the app once users begin logging in every day. We have many ideas to help fine arts teachers get and stay organized. We really want to make life easier for them all. The future is bright!

ReactJS Dallas User Group

The ReactJS Dallas group is approaching five years in early 2021. During the social-distancing era, we went online and made all of our monthly meetings work. We also recorded all of them. Unfortunately I am still sitting on all of the recordings, which need to be turned over to someone who can produce some fit-for-YouTube videos from them.

In 2020 we added another organizer Joe Warren (check out his blog). Joe is a wonderful man who I met at a coffee meetup a lifetime ago. He later worked with me at Call-Em-All as a full-time front-end intern. Now he works on the front end at USAA. I am thankful for his help and guidance. It’s a bit much to steer a 3000-person meetup as a volunteer. I need to do better at asking for help to keep the organization running!

React Podcast Discord community

After several Twitter mentions by the aforementioned Joe Warren, I popped into the React Podcast Discord server to see what Michael Chan a.k.a. chantastic was doing with this space. I found a tiny community very similar to our ReactJS Dallas community. It was honest and inclusive. I love to be around authentic people, so this was a huge boon to me in late 2020. The format of the space is to listen the podcast released each week as a group with a running chat about what we hear. Then we turn on the cameras and have a face-to-face chat about all of it. Two of these events also featured the speaker from the podcast hanging out with us: Henry Zhu and Cassidy Williams. Partially due to the nature of all that happened in 2020, several of these discussions were really deep and left me thinking about bigger questions long after my time in the Discord server with these folks.

Michael has some really cool plans for this space for 2021. I am excited for his vision to take shape this year. I hope to be part of more of these events in 2021 and to drag along several more of my co-workers from Presto Assistant and Text-Em-All!

React Native and Continuous Integration

Most of my daily work at Text-Em-All in 2020 revolved around React Native. We hired our first project manager, and he jumped into the product team for the web team and the mobile team. As soon as he started I spent a lonnnnng time on Continuous Integration (CI) for the mobile app (like months and months — it was a lonnnnnnnng time). I learned a ton about the different processes available in CI through our company’s CircleCI plan. (I also implemented more basic CI via GitHub Actions on the Presto Assistant web app.) I was likely a constant source of frustration for our project manager because my own estimates of working in CI were unknowable. It always feel like any one command I try will make the Android smoke tests succeed in CI. Any second now!

That project is on the bleeding edge of multiple technologies, all of which only really work in CI when implementing a sort of Rube-Goldberg Machine-like set of commands. At the end of the summer I was able to jump back to legit coding which helped me stay sane for the rest of the year. Just like my side business, we are so close to launching the mobile app for Text-Em-All. It’s going to be great to let our customers use this app soon!

Shipping

I am a fan of “let’s get it out there and iterate”, but I don’t live in a vacuum. I have to make decisions in line with my team in order to ship the highest quality product to our customers. That being said, very little of the code I wrote in the entire year of 2020 made it in front of the intended customers. The Presto Assistant app was slowed by general pandemic times, our internal focus on extra security measures (a good call always!), and responding to beta testing feedback. The Text-Em-All mobile app was slowed by React Native’s complexity and spending time on things unrelated to shipping the code (see former comments on CI, which is such a good idea, but not absolutely necessary). My only code to make it out to the world was my blog and a handful of small improvements I made on the Text-Em-All web app. That means 2021 will be FULL of shipping code. I am ready to go! 🔥

Learning

I love to learn new things. It inspires me and excites me. In 2020 my pal Ben Myers from the ReactJS Dallas User Group redesigned his blog using 11ty (pronounced “eleventy”) for the rewrite. Ben provided his thoughts about it here. This motivated me on several levels. Learning a bit more about 11ty, I can see the power and the simplicity of it all. I long for a way to make content in the simplest way that also works well for the greatest number of users. 11ty seems to fill that role. I purchased the course Learn Eleventy From Scratch by Andy Bell on the advice of Ben. I have gone through the course two full times. Andy has SO MUCH to teach me in there! I also joined Andy’s Piccalilli Membership program to support his work.

Ben’s website is also so him. I have a latent “creativity” in me to make pretty things and things that I like. However, I struggle with getting that creativity to manifest in any tangible assets. My mother was a gifted visual artist and so is my 15-year-old daughter. My medium is “pixels”, so I am learning a bit more about SVG and animation on the web in 2021. On the final day of 2020 I purchased an Adobe Illustrator subscription. My aim is to both play around with it to learn about the tool but also to work through tutorials and build experience on a tangible project. I hope my blog post for “2021 in review” lets me espouse a new-found knowledge of how to work with SVGs and animations like a boss. 💪

Progress

I don’t usually report on metrics like these because I think it’s generally not considered very polite in American culture. I probably won’t bring it up any other time. My former career had me working as a band director with a focus on percussion. This SCV YouTube video is similar to what I would work on with my students, albeit a much less-complicated version. I myself played the quads in a many-years-earlier version of that teacher’s group. Needless to say, teachers are paid far less than they should be for the amount of work and time it takes to be great at the career.

After five years in my new career working for the same company the entire time, my family is in a better financial position. Five years in, my retirement acount is 2.5 times higher than my teacher retirement account was after 13 years. My take-home salary is much higher than my final salary as a teacher. In 2020 the leadership at Text-Em-All made an effort to establish norms for titles and career progression. I ended the year with the title Senior Software Engineer and also Technical Lead for the front end. All of this is not to boast, but rather to say that it’s neat what can happen with hard work, constant learning and growing, and working for a company that invests in its most important asset — its people.

2021 Questions

  • Will Mike stay fit this year?
  • Will we be able to hug people from other households again?
  • When will Presto Assistant launch their web app?
  • When will the Text-Em-All mobile app be ready for users?
  • How will the Mathew household handle the oldest child going off to college in all this?

Answers to all of these questions (and more) will be coming in next year’s “2021: Year in review” post. See you then, folks! 😇

Happy New Year!

Stay safe, wear a mask, and keep learning, people!


Michael D. Mathew.

Written by Mike Mathew who lives and works in Dallas building useful things. Sometimes he tweets.

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