Keeping Your Skills Current With the One Hour Build

Staying up to date with the latest technologies can seem overwhelming. The One Hour Build can help make staying up to date a little easier.

What is the One Hour Build?

The One Hour Build is a software project that teaches you a new technology and only takes an hour to complete. But, don’t confuse this with casual research or hobbyist tinkering. The One Hour Build is a scoped, documented, and most importantly, complete project.

Why 1 Hour?

One of the biggest problems with side projects is that they often end up unfinished. Limiting the project to 1 hour gives it focus. It’s enough time develop something meaningful but not enough time to lose focus.

Setting up the Project

The One Hour Build is broken down into five main steps:

Decide on a Goal

The purpose of the One Hour Build is to learn a new skill. So, when deciding what to build, aim for something with easily defined parameters. For example, “learn Ruby” is way too broad. “Learn how to accept user input from the terminal in Ruby” is much clearer and easier to design a program around. A good rule is: if you can’t describe the program’s scope in a couple of sentences, it’s too broad of a project.

Here’s an example project description:

quote:

The goal of this build project was to familiarize myself with the following concepts in Ruby:

  • Writing a command line application
  • Accepting user input from the command line
  • Conditional statements (unless)
  • Sanitizing user input (chomp, strip)
  • Outputting strings and variables to the command line
end quote

Create a Spec Document

After you’ve decided on a project, it’s time to write the spec document. Writing a spec doc, even for a small project small project, will help keep you focused as you work. Plus, writing spec docs is a good skill that a lot of developers don’t often get to practice.

The spec document should cover:

You should write the spec doc as if you’re going to hand it off to another developer to work on. Here’s an example:

quote:

Write a command line ruby application that prompts the user to fill in the answers to the following questions (in order):

  • What’s your name?
  • How old are you (in years)?
  • What is your favorite color?
  • Who is your favorite author?

The program should prompt the user to answer each question individually before showing the next question. The user should be allowed to skip a question by leaving the answer blank. No validation should be applied to any of the answers provided. Once the user has answered the questions, the program should output the following (including line breaks):

Hello, [name]!

Today, I learned the following things about you:
- You are [age] years old.
- Your favorite color is [color].
- Your favorite author is [author].
If any of the questions don't have an answer, the program should not output the respective sentence. If the user does not provide their name, the program should output "Hello, Stranger!" end quote

Build the Prerequisites

Not every One Hour Build can be developed in complete isolation. Sometimes, there are requirements that are necessary for the project but out of scope. For example, to build the Ruby command line application, you’ll need to have Ruby installed. The goal of the project is not to learn how to install Ruby. The same thing also applies to web development. If you’re trying to learn about WebRTC and your application requires a web form, build the form ahead of time. Unless of course “learn how to build a web form” is one of the goals of the project.

Settle In

Now that everything is clearly defined and set up, it’s time to start coding. The time scale for this project is one uninterrupted hour. Not five or ten minutes here and there until you run out of time. One solid hour. Make sure you’re in a place with minimal distractions where you can stay completely focused. Set a timer. Code.

Write the Post Mortem

Once the project is finished, document the SLOC (Source Lines of Code) and how long it took you. Then, describe your overall experience with the project. Mention any issues you ran into. Here’s an example post mortem:

quote: For this build, I did not have to do a ton of research as I developed it; it was pretty straight forward. Towards the end, however, I did run into a snag when checking whether or not a given variable was empty or not and had to search around for the answer. When the user choses to not answer a question and presses enter to move on, the `gets` command returns `nil` instead of an empty string like I was expecting. Because of this, I had to alter my initial approach and check to see if an answer was `nil` or an empty string instead of just an empty string. end quote

If the project went over one hour or took drastically less than one hour, make sure you document why. Were some requirements more or less difficult to implement than expected? Why? You don’t need to write a book here, this isn’t meant be be a Root Cause Analysis. The purpose of the post mortem is to get you thinking about the project as a whole.

The Benefits of a One Hour Build

There are a lot of benefits of the One Hour Build that go far beyond improving your coding. The One Hour Build also helps you improve your writing and analysis skills. The spec doc gets you to thinking about a project from start to finish, at a high level. The time constraint forces you to focus on a project’s purpose and nail down a Definition of Done. Most importantly, the One Hour Build gives you a better understanding of what you are capable of in an hour. In turn, you’ll become better at planning and estimating projects in the future.

More Examples

To see more examples of One Hour Build projects, head over to my One Hour Build repo.