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At RockMelt, engineers pound out features at light speed

day on the job RockMelt front-end engineer Devon Rifkin is just months out of college. But already he's making a big impact on a hot new browser that directly integrates some of the main Facebook and Twitter features.

RockMelt front-end engineer Devon Rifkin smiles as a fog machine hidden under his desk begins to do its thing. CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman spent a recent Tuesday with Rifkin for the Day on the Job series. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

day on the job MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--If you don't regularly hang out with coders at work, you may think it takes a long time to write a new feature. That's a quaint notion to Devon Rifkin.

Rifkin is a front-end engineer at RockMelt, the maker of a hot new browser that integrates many of the functions of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media directly into the browsing experience. I've come to RockMelt on a recent Tuesday to shadow Rifkin as part of my Day on the Job series, and now he's schooling me on just how fast it's possible to go from concept to functional code.

The 23-year-old has been at RockMelt since a week after graduating from UCLA with a computer science degree last summer, and already he's made his mark. He wrote RockMelt's Facebook app, and now he's deep into building the browser's new tab page.

For Rifkin, one of the joys of working at RockMelt is that its browser is based on Chromium, the foundation of Google's Chrome, and has development tools that allow him to iterate and test new features in just minutes. He's also happy that when he's digging into something new, he only has to worry about how it'll work on RockMelt. "We're using cutting-edge Web technologies to do a lot of things in the browser," he says. "I don't have to worry about supporting non-advanced browsers."

He doesn't name names.

Just seconds
Rifkin is sitting at his desk, waiting for a meeting that's been pushed back for half an hour. Today, he's wearing sneakers, jeans, and a burgundy T-shirt--several people noticed that it seemed like half the office showed up in that color today. His 27 inches of iMac monitor are just the beginning of his display real estate. He's also got a 30-inch Dell monitor off to the side.

CNET Day on the Job with RockMelt's Devon Rifkin by Daniel Terdiman

On his desk, there's a coffee cup that's been there all day, plus one of those ubiquitous plastic red party cups. There's also a little triangular earbuds case, three pens, some buttons, and a giant paperclip paper weight. Add some RockMelt sunglasses, and that's about all the clutter there is. Unless you count four odd plastic robotic insects hiding behind the iMac.

As he waited, Rifkin decided to take a crack at one of the pieces of the new tab page that's on his agenda--a shuffle button that when clicked, should rotate out the six friend boxes that show up when a new tab is launched. The point is to show you more people you can invite to use RockMelt, which is important for its opt-in social reading and other interactive features.

He wants to build an animation so that when a user clicks the shuffle button, their six friends fall artfully off the page and a new set falls in from above. Going into the coding section of his page, he typed a few commands, and within a minute, all six boxes fall off the page in a single column. It looks cool, but he wasn't fully satisfied. "Not quite," he said. "There's still a positioning issue."

Another minute of coding, and Rifkin was ready to try again. This time, the six fell off the page side by side, and the new six fell properly from above, though faster than he wanted. A flurry of keystrokes later, and the boxes fell correctly. "Now you know why it gets tested 700 times," he said.

Playing around, he was struck by a new inspiration: spinning the boxes off the screen. Quickly, he implemented that idea, only to discover that it caused a problem: When he reduced the size of the browser, the spinning boxes made scroll bars appear. Rifkin doesn't like scroll bars. "I'm going to have to do something about that," he said. "That's actually a little tricky."

Tricky means different things to different people, of course, and before even a minute had passed, the scroll bars were history. But something else caught his attention: With the screen smaller, only four friends showed. If he then made the browser bigger, two more friends fell into place.

It was unexpected, but he was actually pleased. So it became a feature, not a bug. "That's one of those things that nobody's going to see," he says. "But it's a nice little touch."

Aesthetic balance
Today, Rifkin had several meetings on his calendar, and the first was with the company's co-founders, CEO Eric Vishria and CTO Tim Howes, as well as head of design Winnie Wong and user experience and visual designer Xiang Ling. The topic? Exactly how to showcase what people's friends are reading on new tabs.

This is important to get right, the group knows, because RockMelt users open new tabs about eight times a day on average. By presenting them with links to what friends are reading, RockMelt wants to influence where they go from those tabs.

When a user opens a new tab, they'll see several icons representing a set of Facebook friends. The group tried to decide how to visually express friends' social reading so that the aesthetic balance of the page isn't spoiled.

The final decision was to go simple: The page will only display one friend's social reading, and if a user hovers their mouse over that friend, a title for their most recently read article will appear and cover up the friend to the right.

It's RockMelt's demo day, and at 1:30, Rifkin and three others will be showing the whole company what they've been working on. But that's later. First, he has to finish one other task: taking a designer's PhotoShopped version of what will show up on the new tab page when it's a friend's birthday and replicating it in code.

Until now, they've been using an icon of a little pink cupcake with a candle in the lower right-hand corner of a friend box. But the new design adds a banner in the middle of the box with another cupcake and the words "Say Happy B'Day." The idea is that a user can click the box and immediately send birthday greetings to their friend's Facebook wall.

As part of one of his tasks, Rifkin had to create a roll-over icon that exactly matched a mock-up created in PhotoShop by a RockMelt designer. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

For about half an hour, Rifkin worked on coding exactly what he's been given. Each time he made a change, he would grab a screenshot, blow it up, and lay it over the PhotoShop version. And each time he would see something else that wasn't quite right. He wanted a perfect match. "I've rebuilt this one 628 times," he said, and I think he's serious. "Every time I rebuild it, it takes about three seconds."

Soon, he was close. But he pointed out that the white at the top of his version of the box wasn't exactly like what the designer had given him. "That's the thing about designers: they'll never use real white," he laughed. "If it's real white, then you know it was done by a programmer. I'm trying to learn all the tricks."

Demo time
It was now 1:30, and time for the four demos. Rifkin was second up.

Rifkin gives a demo to the whole company of his work on the new RockMelt tab page. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

For a few minutes, he showed the whole team his recent work on the new tab page. What he was really excited to show off was the birthday feature. "Oh, look, it's Dan's birthday," he said, showing how on the screen, one of his friends had the pink cupcake in the corner of his box. He clicked on the box, and up popped the dialogue for sending off a Facebook wall message. Everyone applauded.

Afterward, I asked him if he'd been nervous about doing the demo in front of everyone. "Nah, I tend not to feel any demo pressure," he said. "I've always been this way. School presentations, those bother me, but work things? Not a problem. Which is another reason why I wanted to just start working" after college instead of getting a Master's degree.

'Final Countdown'
Rifkin's had one more meeting today, this time with Vishria, user experience designer Eyal Ophir, and Greg Jones, a Stanford computer science Master's student who's interning at RockMelt. Jones was also Rifkin's former UCLA roommate.

First, they talked about how a recent new release had done in the weeks after going public. Ophir explained that there'd been a big initial bump in content sharing, and that it had for the most part sustained after that. Then they talked about some potential new features they might like to try. Most were deemed not likely to "move the needle" enough to merit any development time. But one looked promising: a new photo viewer that would allow RockMelt users to see a slideshow of Facebook photos in full-screen mode.

Rifkin works with intern--and former UCLA roommate Greg Jones--in the RockMelt offices in Mountain View, Calif. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Back at his desk a little later, as Rifkin was explaining some of the finer points of the meeting to me, what looked like smoke began wafting from under his desk, at first just wisps, and then a thick cloud. But he didn't go running for a fire extinguisher. Maybe it was the familiar notes of Europe's "The Final Countdown" that started blaring from nearby and the laughter of his co-workers as the fog machine that had been surreptitiously placed under the desk really kicked in. He just smiled and kept talking.

If your company is interested in being featured in Day on the Job, please send a note to daniel-dot-terdiman-at-cbs-dot-com. Unless given specific permission, I will not reveal any proprietary information or forward-looking business plans I encounter during my time at the companies I visit.