Thursday, July 12, 2012 | 4:03 PM
Hi there! My name is Peldi and I am the founder of Balsamiq, a small group of passionate individuals who believe work should be fun and that life's too short for bad software.
We make Balsamiq Mockups, a rapid wireframing tool that reproduces the experience of sketching interfaces on a whiteboard, but using your computer, so they’re easier to share, modify, and get honest feedback on. Mockups look like sketches, so stakeholders won’t get distracted by little details, and can focus on what’s important instead.
We sell Mockups as a Desktop application, a web application and as a plugin to a few different platforms. An iPad version is also in the works.
We believe that tools should adapt to the way people like to work, not the other way around. That's why when Google Drive came out, we jumped at the chance to integrate Mockups with it. This is the story of how the integration happened.
First of all, a little disclaimer. Although my job these days is to be CEO and all that, I come from a programming background. I started coding at 12, worked at Macromedia/Adobe for 6 years as a programmer. I'd say I'm a pretty good programmer…just a bit rusty, ok? I realize that the decision to write the code for Mockups for Google Drive myself instead of asking one of Balsamiq's better programmers to do it might have been a bit foolish, but we really wanted to be a launch partner and the programmers were already busy with lots of other stuff, plus I didn't want to pass up on the chance to work on something cool after dinner for a while. ;) OK so now you know the background, let's get started.
Once I got access to the Google Drive API documentation and looked around a bit, I started by following the detailed "sample application" tutorial.
The sample was written in python, used OAuth, the Google API Console, and ran on Google App Engine, all technologies I hadn't been exposed to before.
Following along brought me back to my childhood days of copying programs line by line from PC Magazine, not really understanding what I was doing but loving it nonetheless. :)
The trickiest part was figuring out how OAuth worked: it's a bit of a mess, but after you play with it a little and read a few docs, it starts making sense, stick with it, it's the future! ;) Plus the downloadable sample app had hidden all that stuff in a neat little library, so you don't have to worry about it so much.
Setting up the sample application took around 2-3 hours, easy peasy. Once that was done, I just had to convert it to become Balsamiq Mockups for Google Drive. Because I had done this before for other platforms, this was finally something I was comfortable with doing. The bulk of our code is encapsulated into our Flash-based Mockups editor, so all I had to do was to write a few functions to show the editor to the user and set it up using our internal APIs. Then I had to repurpose the "open with" and "edit" APIs from the sample app to work with the Mockups editor. All and all, this took maybe a day of work. Yay!
Once the proof of concept was up, I started turning the code into a real app. I cleaned up the code, added some comments, created a code repository for it in our bazaar server, set up a staging environment (a parallel Google App Engine application and unpublished Chrome Web Store listing) and integrated the build and deployment into our Jenkins server.
One tricky bit worth mentioning about integrating with Jenkins: the Google App Engine deployment script appcfg.py asks for a password interactively, which is a problem if you want to deploy automatically. The solution was to use the echo pwd | appcfg.py trick found here.
After some more testing and refinements, shipping day came, Balsamiq Mockups for Google Drive was live.
It was a very exciting day. Getting mentioned in the official Google blog was quite awesome. The only stressful moment came because for some reason my Google App Engine account was not set up for payments (I could have sworn I had done it in advance), so our app went over our bandwidth quota an hour after launch, resulting in people receiving a white blank screen instead of the app. Two people even gave us bad reviews because of it. Boo! :(
In the days that followed, things went pretty well. People started trying it out, and only a few bug reports came. One very useful Google App Engine feature is the "errors per second" chart in the dashboard, which gives you an insight on how your app is doing.
I noticed that we had a few errors, but couldn't figure out why. With the help of the docs and our main Developer Relations contact at Google, we narrowed them down to a couple of OAuth issues: one was that the library I was using didn't save the refresh_token properly, and another that had to do with sessions timing out when people use the editor for over an hour and then go to save their work.
Fixing these bugs took way longer than what I wanted, mostly due to the fact that I'm a total OAuth and Python n00b.
After a few particularly frustrating bug hunting sessions, I decided to rewrite the backend to Java. The benefits of this approach are that a) we get static type checking and b) I can get help from some of our programmers since Java is a language we're all already familiar with here.
Since by now the Java section of the Google Drive SDK website had been beefed up, the rewrite only took a day, and it felt awesome. Sorry python, I guess I'm too old for you.
The hardest part of the java rewrite was the Jenkins integration, since the echo pwd trick doesn't work with the java version of appcfg. To get around that, I had to write an Expect script, based on this Fábio Uechi blog post. By the way, I would recommend reading the Expect README, it has an awesome 1995 retro feel to it.
Overall, integrating Balsamiq Mockups with Google Drive was a breeze. Google is a technology company employing some of the brightest people in our industry, and it shows. The APIs are clean and extremely well tested. The people at Google are very responsive whenever I have an issue and have been instrumental in making us successful.
While the application is still pretty young - we are working on adding support for Drive images, linking, symbols… - we are very happy with the results we're getting already. The Drive application netted around $2,500 in its first full month of operation, and sales are growing fast.
Alright, back to coding for me, yay! :)
Giacomo 'Peldi' Guilizzoni is the founder and CEO of Balsamiq, makers of Balsamiq Mockups. Balsamiq is a tiny, ten-person multi-million dollar company with offices in 4 cities around the World. A programmer turned entrepreneur, Peldi loves to learn and to share what he learns, be it via his blog, giving talks or mentoring other software startups. Follow him on Twitter @balsamiq.