2014-02-06

Co.Labs

How To Use Hacker News To Fine-Tune Your Project

A web developer tells us how he turned his two-week side project into a Hacker News discussion, where he could use feedback to decide whether his concept was actually valid and useful.



Learning to code is like learning a language: It helps to have a native explain things. For coders who are self-taught, an expert isn't always near at hand. So a 20-year-old programmer built a tool that would allow people to annotate one another's code a la Rap Genius, with far more flexibility than code-commenting usually allows.

It's called Kurikku--Japanese for “click”--and it's Chris Bui's first project. While the whole "Rap Genius for code" tagline seemed like a solid idea, as a freelance developer it put him in a tough position: How would he know if this experiment deserved more of his time, which could be spent earning cash? To find out, he turned to Hacker News for feedback. Here's what he learned.

The Project's Birth

Like a lot of programmers, Bui thinks school is a waste of time that could be spent hacking away on a real-world project. To stay motivated, he blogs about industry topics. Last month, he wrote about improving your programming game through code review. The problem, he says, is that students and solo developers have trouble getting senior programmers to review their code. So he decided to build a code review site.

The Launch

Impatience led Bui to “launch” Kurikku a little over three weeks after starting it. He felt that he was building too many features without knowing whether the public would want or use them. Once he got to a workable (if minimal) viable product he submitted the project to HN. With a little luck and a clickable headline, it shot up the New Posts list.

“I knew the post would either hit the top of Hacker News or just die,” Bui says. “I think because I timed it so well that it hit the top. I posted right before the Super Bowl ended, a bit unintentionally, when the new page was slow so my post would be up near the top for as long as possible. And I had a title that would catch the HN community's attention 'Kurikku--Rap Genius For Code'.”

The Hacker News Kurikku post did hit the top of New. Today, it’s run up the third page of HN’s Top Stories, topping out at 91. The post’s 76 comments run the gamut from delighted to curious: Is he going to integrate Kurikku with GitHub? He says yes. Every comment--even the negative ones--have been helpful, from fonts looking bad in some browsers to unintuitive color choices for code commentary.

“Some people didn't see the point of it. Which to me was a good sign that I was onto something because [cofounder of Y Combinator] Paul Graham always said that if people dismissed your idea as a toy then it means it could've been overlooked,” Bui said.

Lessons For Solo Developers

Bui’s best advice for young project heads: Launch as fast as possible and leave out unnecessary features.

“I didn't have pagination or user profiles. I just launched it,” Bui said. “I even had a vulnerability that people found in the comments. I had to patch that as fast as possible.”

Were he to do it again, he would have kept every user's email address--even the folks who quit early on. Once Kurikku introduces more features and its community begins thriving, Bui would then send out emails to draw early users back in.

Two weekends--that's how long he spent building the tool, and that’s all it takes to get an overwhelming response, Bui says. He’ll continue walking the walk over the current semester, expecting to work 40 hours per week on school and 40 hours per week on Kurikku, but also admits that with the newfound response he's getting, school is becoming less and less a part of the equation.

[Image: Flickr user Shaylor]