Pieline.net

What we learnt from building a jobboard

A few months ago we built a jobboard — pieline.net. It was mostly a programming challenge — we wanted to learn more about databases and Node.js, and we thought that this would be useful and straightforward.

There used to be the Geekup Jobboard, run by Andrew Disley, free and for everyone (except recruiters). It was split up by functional areas — business, design, development and others. A few years ago, Andrew focused his efforts on a better solution — NeedHQ and the site received no new jobs.

Pieline.net
Pieline.net

Tim had talked to an Agency owner who was sad that the site had gone and we also knew new developers who weren’t aware of the volume of jobs available, because they didn’t know the names of all the different companies to look at their websites. Other jobboards didn’t have jobs outside of London, didn’t have a clear UX, or were full of recruiter jobs which obscure the name of the comapny you’d be working for.
The idea was to create a simple job board — listing one job from every tech company around Manchester for 30 days. Ideally, people would submit their jobs to us. In practice for the time we ran the site, we manually added ~200 jobs by hand, and never had one submission.

Learnings about companies

Companies are hiring all the time. Even the small ones. Everybody would like another developer or two.

Most companies suck at designing their websites with recruitment in mind. At least half of the sites we visited buried their recruitment page — we often found ourselves trawling sitemaps for a link. Given how competitive it is to recruit developers, we thought that every company would list the main technologies a developer would be using in the job, but all too often we found that ‘Front End developer’ really meant ‘PHP developer’, or there were just no useful details at all. When we looked over recruitment pages, we were struck by a unifying theme — they put no effort in. We rarely had enough information to say whether we could do a job, let alone if we wanted to choose one over the 200 other jobs in Manchester.

When we talked to employers, whilst they were interested in receiving better people, they were totally uninterested in yet-another-jobboard — especially without any candidates already coming in. There are many job boards, and it seemed like putting the jobspec together at all was a labour. They were understandably deeply suspicious of anything that resembled cold calling recruiters (even when we approached via email!).

A very small minority of companies listed clear breakdowns of the job and requirements, with renumeration, perks, and insight into company and engineering culture. We’d probably say AO.com has one of the best hiring pages of the companies we’ve reviewed. If your page is half as good as theirs, you’re above average.

Learnings about technical things

If you don’t know if you’re building the right thing, use duct tape, not superglue

On the technical side, we learnt how you (in a very hacky way) use Node, Express, Bootstrap, CSS, MySQL (especially joins), resolve git conflicts, and Tim learnt some JavaScript. We wanted to use a fairly lean approach, and we had a somewhat functional site live within hours. This was possible because we borrowed a lot of the backend from an open source Node CRUD app.

When we needed to secure the admin area where we could add and review jobs, we didn’t want to learn about authentication in javascript — so instead we created a password protected area via nginx and left it at that. Not rock solid, but good enough.
We never had a staging site — we deployed straight from our git repo. This wasn’t ideal but did force us to test a lot, and fix it if we broke it. When we wanted to move fast and get it out the door — we got it out the door.

Learnings about UX

To figure out how it worked in the hands of users, we went to tech meetups, and asked people if they wanted to see this thing we’d been building, and when they said yes, we asked them to apply for a job on the mobile site. As we watched them use it on their phone, we saw them click on the wrong bits, expecting things to work differently, and instantly gathered feedback about which bits worked and which bits didn’t. Some more experienced developers (I’m thinking Bobby and Martin in particular) were kind enough to critique the UI for us as well, which helped us get some of the common-sense navigation in place. We were reading Lean UX at the time, which gave us some great approaches for iteratively improving the user experience.

Users said many things — often they asked for features we didn’t want to implement in an MVP like search. Almost everyone wanted a clear salary range and we just didn’t have the data.

One of the challenges was that people often didn’t know what jobs they wanted.

People who could be hired into junior or graduate jobs, didn’t know whether they had the qualifications, when all they really needed was enthusiasm, the ability to learn and not being unpleasant to work with.

For more senior people, it often wasn’t really clear what the most useful details were to put in front of them. “Can I actually do the job?” seems like an important question, but understanding what the company is like, why they might want to work there more than where they work now, is also important information, which we couldn’t figure out a way of displaying.

One idea we had was that most job adverts are sparse on details, and so it seemed like the ability to ask each company a question — in an anonymous, ebay-style public Question & Answer might be an appealing feature.

The Q&A feature
The Q&A feature

We still think it’s a good idea — imagine: You read the job advert, you’re happy with the salary, you know where they work, you have the skills, they seem nice enough — however, you have some questions…questions that might be awkward to bring up in an interview. Questions like “do people ever pull all-nighters to finish things for a deadline?” or “will I be able to leave early some days to pick up my kids from school?”. Ultimately, although we tried our upmost to seed the board with questions, and use this feature to add value — we weren’t able to get it moving. We think it’s a neat idea, and perhaps might work really well — unfortunately we didn’t hustle hard enough to see any traction.

We tried adding Optimizely A/B testing to gather data about incremental changes. We might have been better off testing more radical variations but we learnt that with the amount of traffic we had, we were never going to learn much fast with very subtle A/B testing. Ah well.

Learnings about Growth

We never had a growth strategy that was sustainable, real or existant. We tried some paid adverts to get traffic, but since we never received any revenue from the site, this was clearly unsustainable. The idea never had a ‘purple cow’ so there wasn’t much virality potential. The question feature is probably the closest we came to it.

We feel this is an area we would give more thought to next time. Really, we should have tested this part first. ;)

In conclusion

One great outcome is that a several people found jobs because of pieline! This was without doubt the best part of the experience — we’ve heard from a couple of people who found companies on pieline, applied for the jobs listed and got them, which is very satisfying. One of them became a good friend, and we got to hear all her stories of starting her first development job. It was also a great side project for Clara to show off to employers as she was looking for her first coding job at the time.

We learnt a lot from the project — about technical things, about product, about UX. I think the main thing we learned, was that a job board isn’t the best way to solve this problem. We’re not sure what the best solution is, though better company careers pages are clearly somewhere to start.

The site is mostly now offline, though it survives on archive.org, Github and trello. As for us? We’re better prepared for our next adventure.

Pieline was made in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire with love by @czmj2 & @tdobson.

BBC iPlayer, Defective By Design Protest outside BBC Oxford Road in Manchester by Matt Lee (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

I protested BBC iPlayer in 2007, and I don’t regret it.

During the summer holidays of 2007, I was a teenage sailing instructor who was volunteering locally, to teach younger teens how to sail (better) for a week.

On Tuesday, I skived off teaching, jumped on a train to Manchester and changed my life forever.


But that’s not the beginning… A few months earlier I was prowling the school library looking for anything to dull the boredom of actually studying when I stuck my nose in the computer section, and found that, for some reason, they had a copy of Free As In Freedom, a biography of Richard Stallman.

In the book, Sam Williams, the author, interviews Stallman a number of times, and explores the backgrounds to his principled stances with regards to software.

In spring 2007, I ran Ubuntu and Windows XP in dual boot and so I found it very relevant to my interests and persuasive.


One weekend, I was reading The Register, and I saw a headline…

Free Software Foundation plans protests at ‘corrupt’ BBC

The article explained that planning protests outside the BBC headquarters in London and
“outside the corporation’s Manchester offices on Tuesday, 14 August.”

My ears pricked up…


At this point, you might be thinking:

iPlayer? You protested against iPlayer? Why? iPlayer is awesome.

Let’s go back to 2007.

When the BBC announced iPlayer with a fanfare it was to be:

  • Internet Explorer only, Windows-based peer to peer service
  • where you downloaded a DRM’d Windows media file
  • and the DRM meant you could only watch it for 30 days.

To make the perception of a dotCom era Microsoft: “embrace, extend, extinguish” even worse, Ashley Highfield, the BBC manager in charge of delivering it was an ex-Microsoft exec. Small world eh?


When pressed about the lack of cross platform support, the BBC said:

“It is not possible to put an exact timeframe on when BBC iPlayer will be available for Mac users. However, we are working to ensure this happens as soon as possible and the BBC Trust will be monitoring progress on a six monthly basis.”

To be it seemed incredible, that in 2007, our national broadcaster could release a platform that I was unable to use without a Windows operating system and to exclude Mac, Linux and emerging mobile platforms – it just seemed such a massive strategic error on the BBC’s part.

And I kept thinking

“I really like the idea… Just not the implementation. Not this implementation.”


I barely knew Manchester, and even getting from Piccadilly Station to the Oxford Road BBC building seemed like a large challenge to me. I’d never been to a protest before, I’d never spoken to any techies who weren’t family, friends or classmates, and I was somewhat terrified. I had no idea what to expect.

The protest itself was actually relatively low key – the concept was that DRM was defective by design, and by extension so was iPlayer. So we stood outside the BBC in hazmat suits, with placards, and handed out leaflets to passersby.

BBC iPlayer, Defective By Design Protest outside BBC Oxford Road in Manchester by Matt Lee (CC-BY-SA 2.0)
BBC iPlayer, Defective By Design Protest outside BBC Oxford Road in Manchester by Matt Lee (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Afterwards, we retired across the road, to the upstairs of Odder Bar; for me this seemed like the first criteria for success: it appeared that no-one had been arrested, or hurt.


The protest had been organised by Matt Lee with help from Noah Slater, and as a result I became involving in the first days of Manchester Free Software group, and started hanging out and demonstrating naive youthfulness in various related IRC channels.

The first talk I went to was about hosting and free software and was by Matthew Bloch of Bytemark Hosting… Hmmmm.


As a direct result of getting to know people, Noah first gifted me the tdobson.net domain, and Matt gave a xen VM on his Bytemark dedicated server to play with for a while.

I continued to debate BBC iPlayer strategy on the BBC Backstage mailing list, I made friends with Dave Crossland and Ian Forrester, and as a result, later on I ended up contracting for the BBC and living with Ian.. but that’s another story.

In addition, I started to discover the other emerging communities in Manchester, I remember dragging myself to the “BSD User Group” – essentially a drinking club with jolly good taste for pubs, Geekup, currybeer and my first barcamp of many more.


And BBC iPlayer?

After some drama where Ashley Highfield annoyed Linux users some more, and I suggested he talk to Groklaw, and he did, they quickly put together a compromise: a streaming solution via Adobe Flash.

By January 2008, the Register was reporting:

The BBC’s Flash-based streaming service has gifted a massive traffic boost to the iPlayer site since it went live in mid-December, independent figures have revealed.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a project that was floundering a few months back. The DRM-timebombed and buggy P2P version limped into the limelight in summer 2007 after years of troubled development.

It had attracted consternation from Apple, Linux and Windows Firefox users, who were shut out by the use of Microsoft DRM, despite being the people most likely to be early adopters of new net services.

The cross platform iPlayer you know and love is the great grandson of this service.

I like to think my criticism of the implementation helped iPlayer achieve the success, just much like the BBC’s initially poor choice of platform, helped me find my feet in the world of technology.

Tell your children: “If you don’t go to University, you’ll end up homeless”

The University of :inux?
No chance!

“I never let my schooling interfere with my education” was something Mark Twain once allegedly said. Well it certainly sounds like he had an easy ride!

Infrequent readers of this blog will know that my education and my schooling (clearly different things) have been recurring subjects of this blog since the start.

From bypassing content filters, to satirically moaning about institutional IT to rants about utterly useless courses and teachers and finally how I got first got hired, my schooling and education did not get off to a symbiotic relationship.

Recently I helped Richard Smedley with an article, which appeared in Linux User and Developer Magazine (issue 125, page 57), about my route into industry.

For me, the main thing that keeps hitting home is how little things had a big effect later on.

Some examples:

  • I first got into the technology community through Manchester Free Software Group – Matthew Bloch from Bytemark Hosting was the first speaker I saw at the group. He’s now my boss. (Equally, other speakers I saw at the time are friends and/or customers).
  • I first played with the Asterisk PBX software when I was ~14-15 or something. I never really got it to work. My first job was supporting it. (I’m still not sure I got it to work though! ;) )
  • At the first Barcamp I went to (Barcamp Manchester 1!), I met someone who’d later employ me as a contractor at a big corporation and for a period of time, be my first flatmate. In return, I may have saved his life.
  • Several years ago I attended lots of technology community events to help myself learn stuff quickly. I still attend lots of events, but these days I can support the community, wearing my Bytemark hat.
  • At one point I found myself supporting a cluster of Xen hypervisor VMs using the xm-tools package, later, I found myself working alongside the original author.

Of course, this isn’t all that surprising, nothing is stunning unlikely, and of course, one builds on previous achievements and contacts, but up until after it happened, I wasn’t even aware it was possible.

It is not an understatement of my naivety when I mention that I thought schooling and careers had a linear aspect – get good grades in this, to get a good degree in that, to get a good job there, and be happy(tm).

If you approach it like this, then you can start to understand threads like this: Those of you who did not do well in their GCSE’s, how did your life turn out?

with comments like:

I did alright in the mocks, got a mixture of A’s and B’s. I was wondering if they actually were important for after education seeming as my school is trying to convince me that if I get less than a B on my Biology test then I will be homeless.

Sadly they’re clearly not alone. This makes me upset.

One of the other arguments people used to persuade me I should  go to university was that they themselves, made some really good friends at university – “the best friends of their lives”. This argument is relatively watertight, right up until the moment where you ask yourself whether people who didn’t go to university, really go through life with no friends at all… and then it unravels.

As it turns out, actually I’m a member of three university clubs or societies, across two geographically distinct, higher education establishments in different cities. Furthermore, I keep an eye on things that are going on in several other university’s clubs/societies. Hum, clearly no opportunities to meet people if you’re not at uni then!

It’s easy to say “Wow, Tim, you’ve done really well”, but this isn’t about me – it’s about the young people, stuck between by terror stories of university fees and threats that a “B in Biology” will make them homeless, making the right choices about what’s best for them.

I do various odd bits of mentoring but that makes a limited impact here – this is something that needs to be addressed at a higher level and as I’ve no idea how to effectively do that, I’ll just be sporadically blogging here as usual… unless anyone has other suggestions?


This Son of Dork song is a bit of an anthem for me:

Son of Dork – Slacker