Software Development
Arts / Hackathons

18F’s Moncef Belyamani recalls his first major coding project: an online record store

The former Code for America fellow and current 18F innovation specialist brings us back to 2003.

Belyamani sits among his records. (Courtesy photo)

Before our first scheduled interview, Moncef Belyamani had to cancel: The 18F developer had hurt his back lifting crates of records. Yes, vinyl records.
Belyamani started accumulating his vinyl collection in the late ‘90s, when he deejayed locally at Andalu, a former house music night club on 18th Street near Dupont Circle. Between 1998 and 2003, Belyamani and his musical partner Nicolas Laget played sets every other Saturday until 3 a.m. Belyamani manned the turntables while Laget did overlays with his keyboard, sax and flute.
But after eight years, Andalu switched musical directions, and Belyamani spun less regularly. Belyamani started compiling lists of new records and sharing them with friends. Occasionally when he ordered new vinyl online, he would place orders for friends too and save money on shipping.
“A couple people appreciated my taste, so I thought, why not open a record store and then I can buy stuff at wholesale prices?” Belyamani said.
Pretty soon, Monfresh Recastow, Belyamani’s online record store, was up and running. (Wondering what “recastow” means? Mouth the word slowly to understand.)

His first code

Monfresh Recastow wasn’t necessarily Belyamani’s first foray into coding. He attended the University of Virginia around the time Netscape came out and taught himself basic HTML and CSS while studying electrical engineering and music. When Belyamani graduated, he and Laget decided to move closer to the District to pursue music and other work.
They needed a way to promote their DJ sets, so they made a website with little help or guidance. Meanwhile, Belyamani got a temporary position at AOL working in quality assurance. The temp gig turned into a full-time opportunity, and Belyamani stayed at AOL for 14 years.
But Belyamani was always listening to and in search of obscure records to spin at clubs, and eventually sell on Monfresh Recastow, which is what he considers his first major project.

How he did it

Belyamani began working on his record store in 2003. To order records from wholesale retailers, he registered as an official business first. Then, he started coding.
For those of you who have forgotten, it’s important to remember that in 2003, the internet wasn’t like it is today. Tutorials and how-tos on YouTube weren’t plentiful.
After doing some searching, Belyamani found that Dreamweaver, then owned by the defunct company Macromedia, conveniently had a tutorial called “How to build a record store” using PHP and MySQL. Belyamani is a self-taught programmer, and he used the tutorial to lay the foundations for the site. Using his knowledge of HTML, CSS and JavaScript, Belymani was able to get the site up in about a month.
He used Monfresh Recastow to process most of his sales and kept up with the Discogs Marketplace to connect with people who wanted to buy lesser-known, soulful dance music on vinyl or CD.

Hardest thing about the project

Belyamani wanted to integrate PayPal’s shopping cart into Monfresh Recastow. Easy, right? Not for Belyamani, who had a very specific idea in mind.
“There was one option to just have the PayPal buttons on your site, but it wasn’t what I wanted,” he said “I wanted to make it look like it was my site up until you checked out.”
“The problem was that I had to make JavaScript and PHP to talk to each other,” he continued. “I was like, ‘How in the world am I going to make these two languages talk to each other?’ How do I pass this variable from JavaScript to PHP? I remember struggling and banging my head, but eventually I figured it out.”
Another somewhat frustrating aspect of the project came five years after the record store’s debut.
“Slowly you could feel people moving toward digital just because it was more convenient,” Belyamani explained. “You could download things right away instead of having to lug around records and break your back.”
Websites like Traxsource offered digital downloads of the same records Belyamani was trying to sell. Some of his wholesale record distributors started to shut down. Older records that weren’t yet available digitally still sold, but things changed. Belyamani still sells records and CDs on Discogs and his record store remains open for business, but there was a sense of loss.
“To me it felt like, I spent all this time digging for these records, and now people can get it anywhere,” he said.

Advice for current/future coders

When Belyamani started coding Monfresh Recastow, he did the project in small increments. Now, he still breaks down the problem “into manageable chunks” to make things less overwhelming.
“You can take things step by step and make bite-size pieces,” he said. “It feels less challenging when you’re doing one thing at a time. Sometimes it’s good to time-box things. If it’s not a priority or critical, give yourself one hour and if you can’t do it, oh well.”
Programmers can also check out Belyamani’s tutorials. His most popular how-to is “How to Install Xcode, Homebrew, Git, RVM, Ruby & Rails on Mac OS X (From Snow Leopard to Yosemite),” but he’s also written plenty of other explainers, which you can find on his website.

Current side projects

Not long after leaving AOL in 2012, Belyamani started a Code for America fellowship. Alongside two other fellows, Belyamani developed the Ohana API for San Mateo County in California.
The Ohana API allows governments, nonprofits and citizens to keep track of human services available in their communities. Using the open data compiled by community stakeholders, the fellows encouraged third-party developers to create apps with the API.
Belyamani and his team ended up winning a grant from the Knight News Challenge to expand and improve upon the project. Belyamani continues working on Ohana, but now his full-time focus is on 18F as an innovation specialist.
But, that doesn’t mean music is out of the picture. For him, it’s a true passion: Belyamani began studying piano at a young age, and everyone in his Moroccan family is a musician in one way or another. Plus, all those records are still sitting in his house, waiting to be spun or sold.

Companies: 18F / Code for America / Knight Foundation

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