The Hidden Value of Magic (and Tailwind CSS)

As I’ve begun the full rewrite process of my hobby project, I’m astounded how much I’ve been learning from all kinds of things every step of the way, by carefully analysing the old, and making lots of effort in engineering and designing the new. What follows is one of my latest learned lessons that connected some dots between 15 years of working with the Web.

Python is my favourite programming language, and I’ve always stayed firmly with the Django camp as opposed to Flask or any other gazillion alternatives. In the early days of Django (like 15 years ago) I also had lots of reservations against Rails, mostly because I was young and stupid, but also because it had too much magic. The more I’ve worked with JavaScript the more I’ve learned about good architecture and best practises from bad examples, and my views on magic have changed somewhat.

JavaScript is a fascinating language. ECMAscript 2020 is the ultimate lipstick on a pig. The core language is such an awful mess, yet the new syntax is pretty powerful and the modern tooling built around it is truly amazing and wonderful to work with. And as the tools have gotten so much better in a very rapid pace, the community is starting to get the libraries and coding conventions in a better shape as well.

Vue 3 is a great example of this. It’s built totally from ground up using TypeScript, designed with an open RFC process taking feedback from the whole community, and Evan You has done a lot of work shaping the end result into something that’s actually designed to be used and not only something that looks good.

The work on my new Vue 3 project template has advanced to list screens which need various list components, preferably in a form of a powerful datatable component. I had to completely drop the project for a while to get a better understanding what I’d really want here. Today I finally had an epiphany; the thing that’s most wrong in the current Slipmat design are the numerous different random third-party components that even though styled to look somewhat (but not exactly) similar, they all feel different. And this exactly is my issue with glue-in frameworks like Flask as well. Even though the various parts can be easily used together, there’s always something missing compared to tools like Django where everything is built to work together.

So now we get dangerously close to the infamous not invented here syndrome. If gluing up various third-party solutions yields bad results, then surely we should write all components ourselves? Well, no. Firstly, always prefer an existing ui library (like Vuetify for Vue/Material Design) over building anything yourself. Secondly, –and this is again something I realised today– properly architectured third-party components can be not just almost but precisely tweaked to fit your design. And whenever using them, you should take the time to do that design work properly. The main problem with inconsistent Web UIs is handwritten CSS. Whenever a non-designer needs to invent their own styles, the end result will end up looking something that almost matches the thing they did yesterday, but only almost. And this is where Tailwind CSS shows again how brilliant the utility-first idea really is; there is close to zero handwritten css needed for most Tailwind projects which automatically restricts you to a relatively small amount of professionally curated choices. The end result looks automatically not-very-bad and with some tweaking it’s not hard to get absolutely spot-on. (To be fair, it’s not easy either, but unlike trying to manually come up with CSS, it’s way easier!)

After I watched Adam Wathan build this select component, I was convinced that this would be the way I should build the few components (button, toggle-switch, modal, toast, data table / list component, datepicker, tag input) I need for the Slipmat rewrite.

(Yes. NIH. I’d love to use some third-party library here but at the moment there just aren’t too much to choose from for Vue 3 and Tailwind.)

Datatable experiment

The first iterations don’t need to be anything too fancy so I’m confident that building all of these from scratch instead of trying to modify third-party alternatives won’t be an issue. I’m also fully prepared to switch to using @tailwindui/vue or some other library in the future if maintaining these eats too much time. Just to get a feeling of what the API would maybe feel like I created an experiment project and pushed it to GitHub (not GitLab because on GH I get Dependabot updates automatically).

So this story has been a bit of a rambling journey from back in the early days of Web frameworks to Vue 3 and Tailwind CSS. What I’m finding common between all these projects is the meticulous attention to detail regarding almost every aspect of the tool, especially to API design. Great tools aren’t born by accident, they are engineered. And after working with JavaScript for few years now I’m starting to appreciate the metaprogramming powers of Python which makes it possible to write super clean —and somewhat magical— APIs. A good amount of magic really makes a difference in developer experience when it’s done right. I still do think that having a pluralization engine that automatically fetches one Octopus and many Octopi is way too much but I also do appreciate the attention to detail in Rails the more I get to see language restricted not-so-beautiful designs in JavaScript land.

So the lesson of the day: invest in API design and the most value from magic comes from those situations where you can’t see it.

Howto Add TypeScript to Your Existing Vue Project

The more I work with scripting languages like JavaScript with modern tools like VS Code, the more I learn to appreciate the powers of static typing. TypeScript is a typed superset of JavaScript that compiles to plain JavaScript, and with good tools it can seriously improve your productivity.

Vue has a somewhat mixed TS story. On the other hand most notable packages support it well but then there are also large painpoints like Vuex that can make your life miserable. Upcoming Vue 3 is completely rewritten in TypeScript which will improve TypeScript support hugely. In attempt to future-proof a rewrite of a large existing Vue app, I decided to start gradually typing it with TypeScript. Here are some of the initial notes from my experience.

(Disclaimer: even though I’m an experienced Vue developer, I’m a complete TS-newbie so YMMV.)

The Unbearable Lightness of Starting Slow

Problem with most TypeScript tutorials and simple examples is that they expect you to either start from scratch or completely convert all of your code to TypeScript from the very first step. For an existing codebase, that’s obviously not going to happen. I would also personally advice against it even if there were tons of tests and all the time in the world to do it, especially if you’re new to TypeScript.

The great secret of TypeScript is that you can start as small as you like and add typings gradually. By doing it this way you’ll probably find some problems with your existing code and get the chance to refactor it properly as you move forward. Granted, you won’t get the full benefits of TypeScript before you reach a certain critical point of typing completeness, but starting it small will cost you almost nothing so its very easy to get started. Life with legacy codebases is all about compromises and this path will at least give you a chance for better future.

Step 1: Initial Installation

If you’re vue project is created with vue-cli, adding typescript looks easy: just vue add typescript. Problem is, the defaults may not be that good for you and you should know what they mean. Here’s what I answered to the installer questions:

Use class-style component syntax? ❌No

By default this plugin suggests you to use class-style components which are an easy way to get started with Vue and TypeScript. Class based api was supposed to be the future of Vue, but the class syntax is in many ways problematic and if you plan to upgrate to Vue 3, you will want to consider composition api instead.

Note that many tutorials and existing TypeScript code for Vue uses class syntax. If you opt out here you have much less refactoring to do with your JavaScript and you are more future-proof with Vue 3, but you will also lose a big chunk of the examples and tutorials out there right now.

Use Babel alongside TypeScript (required for modern mode, auto-detected polyfills, transpiling JSX)? ✓ Yes

If you have an existing project where you use Babel, you’ll definitely want to keep using it with TypeScript as well.

Convert all .js files to .ts? ❌No

This is the most problematic suggestion of them all. Sure, if you’re converting a small app with five files for fun, do it. But if you’re adding TypeScript to a larger project, definitely do not rename all of your JavaScript files in one go, that’s just asking for trouble.

Allow .js files to be compiled? ❌No

As the documentation on the whole plugin is very thin, I don’t exactly know what this option even means but I assume it’s one more toggle to help you bruteforce TypeScript into your project. By default any JavaScript code will stay JavaScript and only .ts files and script tags with lang="ts" will be compiled, and that’s the way you’ll want it to be when starting gradually.

Step 2: Cleaning Up

The “helpful” installer will modify your existing code so you’ll need to do a bit of cleanup before getting back to business. First, you’ll want to delete the re-appeared src/components/HelloWorld.vue as I’m quite sure no one is actually using that in a real project (right??). You also want to fix the havoc in your src/App.vue while you’re at it. The main.js is now renamed to main.ts. This is a good change as it reminds you immediately that this project uses TypeScript even though most of the files might still be JavaScript.

The newly added tsconfig.json includes somewhat strict settings that may or may not work with your project. The stricter the rules, the more benefits you get from TypeScript, but on the other hand the stricter the rules, the harder it is to make your existing code valid. For me one of the first steps with an existing project was to disable strict checking. This allowed me to gradually add typings to complex files without spending hours and hours in debugging or adding the file full of ignores. Note that by loosening the checking you will lose some of the most powerful gains you could have from your editor and TS in general so evaluate yourself if you can leave it on or not.

(For example, with strict checking on, when editing a method inside a Vue component, the editor will know that this refers to a specific Vue instance. This is super powerful when it works. When strict checking is disabled, this inside of a component method is inferred as any type which will not help you at all.)

I would not tweak tsconfig too much more before you understand better the challenges in your specific project. Give yourself time to test and experiment before committing to any specific rule.

Step 3: Start Adding Typings

Now you are ready to start adding your first types! I’d suggest to start in a file that is large or otherwise not so easy to read at a first glance — this is where you’ll get most gains.

This is not a tutorial on TypeScript itself, you’ll find plenty of them elsewhere. The migrating from JavaScript document is a good read and Using TypeScript with Vue Single File Components was very helpful to me as well. Vue + TypeScript Cookbook is a brilliant source of practical advice and it also points out some of the long standing issues such as the problems with Vuex.

Oh yes, Vuex. Have a plan for Vuex. Almost all larger projects use Vuex and for example the mapState helper, so you’ll immediately be in a world of trouble as Vuex does not have proper TypeScript support and no simple solution has been found by the community. This does not mean that you can’t use Vuex with TypeScript or that there are no solutions. It just means that there are no good universal solutions. You need to experiment and evaluate which of the dozens of proposed workarounds works best for you. And know that if it at some point stops working in your specific edge case, you’re alone with your problem as there is no officially supported way. This obviously sucks big time, but there is at least some light at the end of this tunnel as Vue 3 will eventually bring proper TypeScript support to Vuex as well.

Try not to ignore code. Alarm bells should ring if your TypeScript code starts gathering // @ts-ignore-lines more than actual refactoring. It’s the same with linting: the point is to make your code better, not to work around your tooling. Sure, there are situations where practicality beats purity but make a mental note for yourself to keep those situations exceptions. If you find a file too hard to convert, just leave it be until you or your tools become smarter.

There are a couple of good rules of thumb you should keep in mind. First, all new code should be typed. This is kind of obvious but also easy to forget. Add documentation and processes in place to make sure that from now on, all new code in the project is written in TypeScript instead of JavaScript. You can help this process with CI scripts and other tools: ban adding .js files and if you have tools that generate new files, convert them to generate .ts.

Secondly, try not to change too much in one go. It’s very easy to stumble down into the rabbit hole and use hours and hours adding typings with very little practical gains. As you learn more and as Vue world matures, you’ll be getting more and more out of TypeScript. And then some day when you understand more about your project and the tools, you’ll see more clearly when it is the right time to take the last step of converting all the remaining code to TypeScript. Remember, cleaning up your codebase is not a race, it’s a neverending journey.

Things Will Break — It’s a Good Thing

The thing with TypeScript that makes it both helpful and painful at the same time is the fact that it’s much more unforgiving to mistakes that you’ve used to with JavaScript. My very first steps with TS in a real world project involved several hours of debugging a file that would not compile no matter what I did. Turns out it was due to a missing import in a legacy method that was never called. You’ll never find out things like this in JavaScript but they will bite you with TypeScript as soon as you turn it on, so be mentally prepared.

Legacy code is difficult in many ways and hunting down new bugs that previously weren’t there can feel frustrating. But remember that this is exactly why you want to use TypeScript in the first place: to see and fix those bugs early. It’s very likely that your old production code is relying on a bug you didn’t even know was there and turning on TypeScript will now break that code. Learn to embrace these growing pains because fixing them will make your code better and keep your productivity high in the long run.

Building An Open Graph Image Builder (Part 1)

I’ve been slowly updating this blog to the modern world from the ages when people wrote their XML-feeds by hand (yes, it was a thing). One of the “new” things Web sites nowadays have in their meta tags are Open Graph preview images (or social previews). These images are used to make preview cards in various places, for example when posting links to Twitter and other sites.

There are tools like Pablo for creating these images online. Recently I’ve switched to creating them manually with Pixelmator but I’ve long been looking for a Web-based solution that could be integrated better with my other blogging workflows.

Two days ago I happened to stumble on to ZEIT Now’s blog post Social Cards as a Service where they dogfood their own serverless platform by building a simple image generator tool that uses Puppeteer to render the images. I immediately dove in to the source code hoping that I could modify it to my own needs but it looked way too complicated for my taste. (In other words, I didn’t understand most of it.) The UI got me thinking that building a simple framework around Tailwind would probably be super easy and would allow lots more control. So I sat down for two evenings and came up with Open Graph Image Builder.

This is still a work in progress and I’m not sure how far I want to develop this but so far it has been a fun little project.

The Toolchain

My absolutely favourite frontend tool for simple projects like this has been Vue CLI. Problem with that is that as soon as you start thinking about publishing something, you’ll have gazillion things to glue together and configure before you have a production-ready site. (I should probably invest some time into a proper cookiecutter template…) This exactly is why I recently wrote Tulip, a simple one page starter template for Gridsome (which is just Vue with some JAMstack flavor).

Tulip ships with Tailwind CSS preconfigured so I was immediately ready to build something interesting.

The third weapon of choise was ZEIT Now. I’ve been following their journey for a long time because of Simon Willison but never actually tried the platform. As it was their inspiration that led me to this path it was only appropriate to try out the service with this project. The first installation and publishing workflow via the deploy button in Tulip repository was unbelievably easy, even easier than Netlify if it’s even possible. (Although I did have an issue with GitLab import. It didn’t work so I pushed my code in GitHub instead and after that everything has been smooth sailing.)

Example output:

Tulip starter for Gridsome preview

To Be Continued…

The project is just getting started and I want to learn the ZEIT platform a bit more to be able to write about it better. I’ll also probably implement a proper backend rendering for the images so it’ll be a bit more useful in practise.

In part 2 of this series I’ll dive deeper into the code, going through some of the challenges and design decisions along the way.

In the mean time, check out the project source code and follow me on Twitter!