It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At no point in time during my journey to becoming a full-time pancake artist did anyone ask, “Hey, do you know anything about web development?”. Yet, here we are, 6 years into a being a professional pancake artist and 3 years into being a full-stack developer.
I’ll take a brief pause to explain what exactly a full stack developer is for those who aren’t aware. Feel free to skip this next paragraph if you’re “in the know”.
Let’s rewind a bit… Oh, how about two decades? First off, gross. Second, teenage me is just starting to dabble in web development. Just like every other teenage nerd at the time I had a couple of Geocity sites, though I eventually graduated to Angelfire, which, much to my surprise, still exists. Even more to my surprise, one of my old websites does as well, a harrowing trip back into early 2000’s web design and the guild I used to run on Everquest. The pre-World of WarCraft MMORPG, a game referred to by many as “Evercrack” or “Foreverquest” as, just like every other MMO, it has no defined end. As a matter of fact it is designed explicitly to keep you playing as much and as often as possible. I eventually had to quit cold turkey… Twice. Video game addiction is a hell of a thing, not something that’s talked about very often, but it is very, very real. However, that’s for another blog post, and I’ll just say that everything turned out OK and I simply can’t and won’t play MMORPG’s anymore.
The long and short of it is that I’ve been dabbling in web development off and on for around two decades, I don’t think there’s been many moments in my adult life where I wasn’t maintaining a personal page, though that was all it ever was, just a rag-tag, barely know what I’m doing, thrown together page for my own projects.
So what changed? Well, much to my surprise, I became co-owner of a professional pancake art company, and part of being a co-owner of a small business is that everyone gets the joy and responsibility of wearing many, many hats. My official title on my email signature is “Chief Plate Spinner”, and beyond being a pancake artist I also handle all of our web development, designed & built our livestreaming & recording setup (Hank built the studio itself, props to our resident “house-bender”), designed our live event lighting and camera setup, maintain our file server and editing PCs, set up wholesale agreements, handle manufacturer communication, shipping logistics and anything else that needs done that I can do. It is a long list, but I’m far from unique in that regard, everyone here is spinning as many plates as humanly possible. I’m also a perpetual tinkerer, things can always be improved, and I enjoy trying to figure out how, so a lot of times when people ask I like to say that I’m the Dancakes R&D department. 🙂
Okay, 500+ words in and I haven’t really explained the journey. I’ve been told my stories tend to meander, so let’s focus. How exactly did the responsibility of Dancake’s web development fall unto me? Simply put, our old website was adequate but riddled with issues that were not an easy fix. Extremely slow load times, no integrated store, a custom built CMS (it’s not 2005, just… don’t), being walled off from our analytics, among other things, and we had no tangible way forward without a ridiculous amount of billable hours or hiring someone new and starting from scratch (also very expensive). I had brought all of these issues up, and for a while we were trying to work with our previous web guy to try and iron out some of them. At one point Dan even asked me if I would be interested in doing a new website, to which I promptly replied, “No”. I knew if I took it on it would be a huge time suck (and I wasn’t wrong), and I also knew that, while I knew just enough to throw together a personal site for myself, I really didn’t know what I was doing. So I hoped against hope that we could get everything ironed out and I would simply help point us in the right direction, while someone who actually knew how to, metaphorically speaking, drive, got us there.
Obviously that didn’t happen. At a certain point it became apparent to me that the current situation wasn’t something I would be comfortable with going forward. So I did what any sensible person would do, installed WordPress on my personal file server and started creating a new website for Dancakes on the sly. The one thing we did control was the domain name, so moving to a new site was as simple as changing the DNS settings, no one outside the company needed to know until it was done. I tinkered away for a few months until I managed to get something that I didn’t think was terrible, tossed it up on Google Cloud and at around 2AM on whatever night it was, changed the DNS over to the new site and…. Realized that it wasn’t working.
Here’s the thing, every website I had built before this was on what’s called a “managed host”, which means they take care of the complicated bit of setting up the web server, you just have to worry about building the actual site.
This time around I decided not to take that route, I decided to go the full VPS (Virtual Private Server) route. Which, in a nutshell, means that the job of making sure when someone types Dancakes.com into the address bar actually gets to Dancakes.com is 110% up to you. No big deal, right? I had been tinkering with Raspberry Pi’s for a while, had my own headless Debian server (same as our VPS) at home, basically, I felt like I kind of knew my way around Linux at that point. Looking back now I realize exactly how little I knew, and hopefully in 5 years I’ll look back at now and realize exactly how little I know, but I digress, I had obviously botched our Apache configuration. Luckily, even though my Linux terminal skills were lacking, my Google-Fu was not. A few hours of manic Googling, trying this and that and this again just incase I finally managed to get it all up and running. Only about 5 hours of total downtime, and at a time when very few people visit the site. Not too bad, right?
So that’s the end of our story, I got the new website up and boom. All done.
Oh wait, I forgot, that’s literally just the beginning.
If I thought the amount of hours I put into before we launched was nuts, well, hold onto your butts, cause it’s about to get crazy.