Creating an app or a plugin for an existing software platform can be a great project to learn and improve our coding skills.
When following courses and tutorials by listening, watching, and even copying code, we usually follow a happy path to build something relatively simple. We risk an illusion of competence and fall into tutorial hell, which means overestimating our own achievements and missing out on gaining professional experience.
Moving past tutorials, we should build something on our own, something that does not have a ready-made solution to look up, something that creates unexpected problems to solve. A small idea of our own, something that seems useful or interesting to us, a small personal project, also known as a "side project" because it is beside our regular job.
Moving Past Tutorials: a course on problem solving for programmers
Ali Spittel ・ Feb 18 '19 ・ 2 min read
Creating apps or plugins to learn and show
Many side projects end up as unfinished ideas, and even if they don't, they're just some piece of code that you have written. Writing an app or a plugin to be released in an official app store sets a goal to achieve.
A goal to achieve
To finish and release a plugin, we have to
- build something that's at least a little bit useful,
- understand the rules and requirements,
- meet the quality standards,
- have somebody else review and approve our code, and
- maintain our code to ensure compatibility with future software releases.
Then we also have a proof of our work for everyone to see. Wonder why you should trust my work? See for yourself! Still not convinced I did it on my own? Study my commit history, read my comments, follow my blog posts. I value privacy, but I have nothing to hide as a professional developer.
My own learning path as a developer
Long ago, after having done some hobby programming on home computers and learning the basic concepts of computing with a programming language called BASIC, I had some halfhearted attempts at learning Assembly and C. I also wrote some shell scripts in MS-DOS, before Linux made it possible to use Bash scripts on personal computers.
Fullstack dev using PHP
WordPress and Magento sparked my interest in PHP. Later I focused on Java-based e-commerce frameworks, XSLT-based middleware, and React-based front-end development for some years. As our smaller customers kept using WordPress and Shopware, I built plugins to connect our software to both, which made me rediscover PHP and modern front-end development without the popular React framework.
Shopware is an open source e-commerce platform built on top of the Symfony framework. Anyone can develop an extension (themes, plugins, apps) and hope to get it released on the official marketplace. Anyone can also watch all their developer tutorials for free. I decided to go one step further and enroll for a paid certification exam.
Inspired by my own requirements
As a side project of my side projects, after switching from VisualStudio Code back to PhpStorm as my default editor, I did not want to miss a colorful light theme that I had just discovered, but there was nothing like it yet, so I started to build my own theme for PhpStorm (and all other JetBrains IDEA editors).
Despite being an unfinished copy of a VS Code theme, and despite the incomplete documentation and my lack of Kotlin experience, my plugin was approved and is now available as an official theme, Cute Pink Light Theme, and has actually been downloaded by other users.
Upcoming themes and plugins
Why not make a theme for Shopware out of it? I'm not sure if that's original enough to get into the store (and I'm quite sure it would get rejected as a WordPress theme), but that would be an easy start to actually develop something again.
I have unfinished ideas for plugins measuring websites and shops to help improve performance and sustainability. A possible first step would be adding an automated analysis to the back-end, similar to Google Site Kit's PageSpeed / Lighthouse integration for WordPress, but with a more ecologic and IndieWeb focus.
Learning in public
DEV has inspired me to show my work and share my ideas without waiting for perfection. Open source is all about collaboration, even more so if we want to improve the way we work and how our products impact our society and environment.
So if you want to copy my idea to measure a site's sustainability, which is not that original in the first place, feel free to do so! I am open for collaboration and constructive criticism as well.
Personal project roadmap
ingo-steinke.com is my portfolio website using JAMStack and modern CSS (see What's next in CSS). That's finished in a "version 1.0" way, but I have to keep the content up to date, and I would like to refactor my project, make it more modular and maintainable by using components, BEM class names, and automated testing.
fractal-build-example is a base to build reusable web components organized and tested in a design system, but currently rather a first proof of concept from the time when I was evaluating fractal as an alternative to PatternLab. I should update my example by building some more complex use cases like we would see in a real world project, and maybe I could try Codecept as an alternative to Cypress here.
open-mind-culture.org is a WordPress blog, currently using my own child-theme and ready to use upcoming WordPress plugins.
shop.fraktalisman.de is my demo shop for Shopware 6 development, and IngoSDev6CertPrep is my current learning project.
The "MERN stack"
Work in progress
Writing helps me organize my ideas, explaining what I learned improves my understanding of stuff, and releasing unfinished work even offers the chance to have someone else point out mistakes and misconceptions.
Last but not least, publishing creates a public backup of my work. No need to rely on local files, remember my login to cloud storage and keep my notebooks in a safe place. I could let go of all of that and I'd only have to google my (nick)name(s) to rediscover my previous work.
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