Category Archives: Helium.com

Life happens

I have not blogged in a long time. Mostly this is due to a combination of procrastination and a sense that anything I did wish to say about the industry – HTML5, CSS3, vendor prefixes, progressive enhancement, responsive design, etc – was being said better by someone with far more reason to listen to then myself.

I’ve come to two realizations. One is that even if I reiterate some points that others make – specifically by attributing them – that it’s beneficial as it shows and builds my understanding of the issue as well as – by attribution and, therefore, SEO – strengthens the views expressed by the “giants” of my industry. Second is that sometimes it’s ok to “remove the mask” and show the human side. Reading the blogs of my peers and mentors has shown that they have a willingness to showcase not just industry knowledge. Through this I’ve gained an appreciation for both the person and their skill as well as a better understanding of them as a whole.

This second realization is what I wish to touch on today as the last year saw two life defining moments for me.

The first was one many here in the US felt. For almost 5 years I was the sole and principal UI developer for Helium. My code still exists everywhere on their site. Last July I lost my position with Helium.

For many, especially myself, we are defined by our jobs. First because in having a career it validates us to have a job. It shows that a company trusts our skill enough to validate us by paying us to do something we love. Something we do on our own – often without compensation. Second because it gives us purpose. Having a job is a responsibility – a reason to get up every morning, get in our car, and drive to an office. We have responsibilities to our fellow developers and to our users – something that all (good) developers feel and are motivated by.

Fortunately, in my case, this was actually a good thing. At the end of my time with Helium I was spending a good portion of my week working from home and sleeping very little. This was because I was spending most of my hours as the primary caretaker for my dad who was under hospice care. On August 3, 2012 we lost Dad.

Dad had suffered a stroke and heart attack back in 2004 and almost died then. He was never the same after the stroke but he was living and happy – and that was good enough. For the year or so before he passed Dad had been acting erratically. We didn’t realize how serious it was until he ended up going into the hospital in May and they told us. We had a scare in June and then in the beginning of July, after much cajoling – as Dad was always stubborn – we convinced him to move in with me so I could take care of him.

Losing Dad was difficult. However, in the eulogy I talked about something my Faith has taught me – seeing the blessing even in the bad. Losing someone I was close to changed my perspective on life. Different things are important to me now. I don’t worry so much about things that aren’t worth worrying about. While I falter sometimes – as we all do – for the most part I know to focus on what is really important and not to let the small things in life get me down. I’ve learned to count my blessings. For that part of it, I’m thankful.

Helium Marketplace

So I have been conspicuously bereft of posts for quite a while – a fact I blatantly ignored in my recent posts. Two reasons for this. One is that I desperately wanted to update my site – the user interface, more RSS feeds to the sidebar for my ma.gnolia / flickr / reddit /etc, more free templates and/or WordPress themes, and to update the actual WordPress software – 2.5 looks awesome.

I accomplished none of those – yet. Hopefully some will be checked off my list soon, but no guarantees.

The second reason was work. Don’t get me wrong – I love my job, a lot. They pay me a good salary to do something I love. I have basically full control over the UI so that I can design with web standards – something I’ve gotten progressively better at even though I’m no Meyer or Santa Maria. However, when you do something all day it’s hard to come home and relax by doing more of it – even if it’s for yourself and something you enjoy.

The product of this recent work is of course the Helium Marketplace. This is something we’ve had in beta for awhile, had been a big success, and that we wanted to launch with extended features. This is also something – along with our rating engine – that sets us apart from every other site on the web. Which I enjoy because that means my stock options might be worth more than the paper they’re written on someday.

The basic premise or buzzword associated with this sort of entity is “citizen journalism” – of which you can read a sometimes slanted view of here. This was started really by the blog surge of the past 5-10 years. Normal, everyday people could write about what they know and become a “citizen journalist” – someone who might not have formal training and is not part of the main media machine, but that still has an opinion or knowledge about a subject that may be of value to someone.

Although some blogs are huge, it’s a rarity. Some gather a good niche audience of friends, family, and people with similar interests – my friend Paul’s blog would likely qualify. Most blogs – as I have experienced first hand with mine – experience little or no traffic. So 90% or more either toil on in obscurity or fail.

Helium was originally founded to help with this. Instead of one person writing in obscurity they could come to Helium, write about what they know, and be ranked against dozens or hundreds of others who did the same. Helium would grow much, much faster than a blog, would have the resources to market itself much better, would have better SEO, and, therefore, would have a much larger traffic base. In return, Helium shares it’s ad revenue with those same writers based upon their contributions to the site. This was citizen journalism – except on a much more massive scale than seen before and with many voices instead of one – like Wikipedia.

It takes awhile to build a good knowledge base, to train your writers to think beyond the – typically short – blog post writing, and to market that resource to the web community. As we did, a new need in the writing community became apparent – freelance writing. For the most part, when a magazine or website needs an article that their normal staff cannot produce – either because of under staffing or simply using freelance writers to save on the cost of staffing – they turn to the freelance market. They use different sites and services that allow you to list what they’re looking for and in the end it becomes like a job posting. They “interview” many candidates, pick one, pay a fee, and get an article.

The issue is the freelance community is small and you pay before you see results. This was fine because it was the only method of supplying the need. However, we found a new method. We had a collection of motivated writers looking to become more legitimate and make more money. So the premise was simple. You, as a magazine editor, need an article on “Real life Gardening stories.” You can go the old route, pay $500 for a freelance and get 1 article. Of you can post that title on Helium Marketplace, dozens or hundreds of writers will write on the subject, we will rate the articles, and then for $25-100 you can have your pick of the one (or two, or three) you like most.

It’s a win-win-win situation. The magazine gets many articles to choose from instead of one at a fraction of the cost. The writer gets a – for them – hefty payment and a byline in a real media source. Helium gets a small percentage for brokering the deal and the ability to add any unpurchased articles to our knowledge base.

So far it’s taking off and there has been a lot of buzz. It’s a huge niche that needed filling, we’re the only one filling it, and we’re learning more every day. It was an awesome learning experience to help build it – even my small part in it. Most importantly the community loves it. We have community boards in which I get the privilege of interacting with the intelligent, active, fun, and (sometimes intensely) passionate “Heliumites.” It’s a learning experience for me as I’ve grown from someone who simply went on there to read what users thought, to someone who explained features and informed the community on things like social book marking and networking, and now to someone who (surprisingly for me) has become a respected voice in the community. It’s a rewarding, sobering, maturing, and sometimes downright scary feeling.

I don’t cross link too frequently. However, since this has become a cross between a “Helium History” post and a press release I might as well :). You can see my Helium articles here – most, if not all, have been dual posted on this site in the past (granted with formatting, links, and in some cases revisions). You can see my board contributions here – though you are warned some of my early ones are bad and I freely admit to making mistakes.

I look forward to working at Helium as long as they’ll let me. I definitely feel I would wear out my welcome before I would decide to leave. Besides doing something I love and getting paid for it I also get to work with some really great people (best development team, or team period, I’ve been on, ever, by far), learn a great deal about new technologies (Git, Ruby on Rails, working on a Mac…), drink beer at work (paid for by Helium == awesome), and when we need a break (work hard, play hard) break into a game of Nerf war or hackey.

And now back to my regularly scheduled insomnia.

Random Tidbit: In a truly random tidbit, my favorite pastime Magic the Gathering is releasing it’s new set Shadowmoor soon. Which means I will be spending way too much money on boxes of tiny cardboard cards and way too much time opening and then sorting said cards. Perhaps too much time placing them on Ebay as well – a painful subject I may yet expand upon in the future.

Life after 3.0

So I wasn’t really able to talk about it before now, but the site I worked for has officially launched our new version – of which I’ve been a major part in since I started in January.  It’s also what’s kept me preoccupied these past few weeks as we fixed minor things in it to get it live yesterday.  We’ve already heard good feedback from our users and I’ve gotten lots of compliments on the UI (which is what I do) – though to be honest 90+% of the design work was done by other people, I just did the XHTML and CSS.

Anyways, check it out if you want to see another big example of my work.  There are still large portions I want to change – some of our dynamic boxes should be switched to the sliding doors method for example – but overall I’m quite proud.