Tech Talk: A PatientsLikeMe Year in Review (Part IV – Tech)

tech5The PatientsLikeMe engineering team is excited to highlight some of the work that went on behind the scenes in 2010 to make this site what it is today.  We tend to write more specifically about our work on a separate blog (, so feel free to follow our work there as well.

In addition to building the new site features you see (discussed in other blog posts), our team of engineers work tirelessly to continuously improve the site for you.  Here are some highlights of the work they’ve done in 2010:

The Team
Early in 2010, Co-Founder Jeff Cole moved over to our data operations team where he now leads the way in analyzing the data you share.  In leading the engineering team this year, I’m thrilled to report that we accomplished one of our top goals – to grow the team without detracting from the culture that makes us great.  With 13 team members and growing, we closed out 2010 with a larger team than we had in 2009 and have maintained the high caliber of engineers by refining our hiring process during the year (see the PatientsLikeMe Tech blog for more details).  We pride ourselves on hiring the best of the best Ruby on Rails engineers; Ruby is an open-source framework that lets you write beautiful code and share it with other engineers to learn and improve.

The Process
To make the site run smoothly for 80,000+ members, we need to have a solid set of processes.  This year, we used a set of processes called “Scrum,” an iterative methodology used for agile software engineering.  Here’s a peek at what happens behind the scenes to help make changes to the site more efficient and seamless to you:

  • Sprints: We break our work into two week chunks called an iteration, or a sprint, during which time we complete, test and push site enhancements – everything from bug fixes to new features. By committing to getting changes out every two weeks, we can roll out new features and incorporate your feedback more quickly than before.
  • Demo/Retro: We added two new Scrum ceremonies to our standard set of processes, demo and retro. At the end of each iteration, we demonstrate (“demo”) the accomplishments of our last sprint for the entire company to 1) help everyone see what is new and ask questions that we anticipate from you and 2) help us get feedback that we can use to make things better. After demo, we have a retrospective (“retro”) on the work we just did to the site. This is all part of our drive for continuous improvement.
  • Tech and Wow Weeks: PatientsLikeMe has always had a philosophy of keeping technical debt (or the slow build up of tech problems) as low as possible. In 2010, we formalized our strategy for dealing with technical debt in Tech Week. To make the site more efficient for you, every two sprints we take a week to prioritize and remove pain points (such as performance issues, upgrades and bugs) or make infrastructure improvements (including server changes or new tools). After Tech Week, we then take a week where individuals around the company can work on what ever they want to “Wow” us.  Wow Week is our opportunity to try out new ideas. Some of thescreen-shot-2011-01-06-at-41223-pmm are great and become site features, including the new “symptom sandwich” charts (see right). We also work on ideas you’ve submitted to us during that time, like a prototype of a mobile application for the site.
  • Performance: Have you noticed the site loading more quickly in 2010? We dramatically improved our performance monitoring tools to help make some big improvements in site performance. (Note: there’s more work to be done in making the “slow” pages faster.)

Looking Ahead to 2011

Here are a few of the engineering improvements we have in mind for 2011:

  • Continued Performance Improvements: We will be constantly working to make the site perform better, even as we add new features. We crunch a lot of data on each page, and try to customize many of them for each of you. It can be a challenge doing this at “webspeed,” but we have new hardware for the servers in the works and will continue working on our software to improve this.
  • Continued Team and Process Growth: To get even more done for you this year, we need to continue to grow the team with a high caliber of engineers and continuously improve the way we do our work. You may not see much of this directly, but you will see the results.
  • Thought Leadership: PatientsLikeMe is a thought leader in healthcare and we have one of the best engineering teams in the business. This year, we will be more aggressive in sharing our tools and ideas with our software engineering community to learn and improve on what we do.

While we’re excited about our accomplishments in 2010, we promise to continue making improvements to the site in the coming year to help you make the most out of the sharing you do through our site.  Here’s to a faster, stronger, better platform in 2011.

PatientsLikeMe member shammond

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