Dan Croak of thoughtbot on contributing to the open source community

Why designers at thoughtbot save a day every week to working on open source projects.

thoughtbot is one of five shortlisted nominees for the Agency of the Year award in the 2014 net Awards. We spoke to CMO Dan Croak about their remarkable dedication to building open source projects.

Tell us your story. How did you get started?

thoughtbot was founded in 2003 in Boston by Chad and Jon. After working on PHP, Perl, and Java projects, Ruby on Rails was released and they began specializing in it. Around the same time, it became clear that design was equally important to their development process. In 2012, thoughtbot added iOS development as a third specialty.

What has happened over the last year?

We opened offices in New York City, Philadelphia, and Raleigh.

We released and maintained open source projects such as:

  • Bourbon, a lightweight mixin library for Sass
  • Neat, a responsive grid framework
  • Refills, a UI component library for the web
  • rcm, a way for developers to manage dotfiles
  • gitsh, an interactive shell for Git
  • Laptop, a shell script to set up your laptop for professional development
  • Clearance, a user authentication library for Ruby on Rails
  • Liftoff, a library to generate new iOS projects with intelligent defaults
  • Factory Girl, a library for generating setup data in Ruby test suites
  • Paperclip, a library for uploading files in Ruby on Rails apps
  • Capybara Webkit, a library for integration testing web apps by running a headless Webkit browser

We released a new version of our playbook.

We began running "product design sprints" regularly on most of our projects:

More than 700,000 people viewed thoughtbot's sites (does not include our client's sites), especially our blog.

Do you have any special philosophies that drive your working practices and company culture?

We consult Monday through Thursday and take Fridays for "investment time", which is how we're able to contribute so much to open source, the blog, and transparently documenting our processes.

We work a sustainable 40 hours per week.

We only have two primary roles: designer and developer. Each role has a very broad set of responsibilities. We know that "unicorns" exist because our team is full of them.

What sets you apart from the rest?

We contribute to open source more than just about any other agency. We have more total Ruby on Rails experience than just about any other agency. We run product design sprints. We are extremely transparent about our processes.

Tell us about some work you're proud of.

LevelUp

The LevelUp app

LevelUp is the largest mobile payment network in the US. They make it easy for merchants to process payments and reward their best customers through a built-in customer loyalty system. We worked closely with their design and engineering team on many projects. Together, we modernized their consumer-facing application, and created native frameworks to create beautiful custom experiences for LevelUp's merchants.

Blue Sky Broadcast

We designed and developed an amazing Learning Management System for Blue Sky Broadcast. You can see the LMS' many features such as admin "edit in place", quizzes, and "slides + transcript + video" sync'ing here. (We did not design the public-facing website within which that video resides.)

InTheKnow

InTheKnow

InTheKnow lets users get location-based recommendations from their friends on everything from dive bars to nail salons.

This project was taken from mockup to the App Store by a small team from thoughtbot. Our iOS developer built the native app including Facebook login, text message delivery, crash reporting, and analytics tools. Our Rails developer wrote the backend API to handle geolocation, app-wide push notifications, and the mobile web interface for non-users to recommend places to users.

The InTheKnow project is a compelling demonstration of how thoughtbot can complete a project on both the web and mobile side, with both groups working closely to produce a multi platform social app.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tanya Combrinck is digital editor on net magazine.