Spotlight: Chad Crowell - Surgeon Today

January 26, 2010
by Jacob Russell

This week we spotlight Chad Crowell of Encaffeinated and Surgeon Today, a site they built as a resource for surgeons.

Our “Spotlight” series of articles gives designers, developers, add-on creators, and just generally great members of the ExpressionEngine community a chance to talk about how they have used EE and its add-ons in their work.

Chad Crowell is a web developer who runs web marketing agency Encaffeinated by day and develops ExpressionEngine add-ons by night.  His add-on credits include Direct to Structure and Friendlee Date, both popular and useful add-ons.  He’s also so edgy that we had to blur sections of his spotlight images and it’s rumored that he stunt doubles for Kiefer Sutherland.

Give us a little background on yourself: What do you do and how do you use ExpressionEngine on a daily basis?

I run a marketing agency named Encaffeinated.  That corporation was just started, replacing my old sole proprietorship, which was Web Inception.  We’re branching out to publicly offer more than just web design and development, as we’ve been doing that sort of work for many clients for awhile.  However, my background, and Encaffeinated’s core is and always will focus on websites and surrounding technologies.

I built my first site in Ken Nesbitt’s WebEdit in a class at CSU Sacramento in about 1994.  It was a map of the school campus.  I’m a puzzle-solver type, so constructing the elements of HTML, CSS, and other technologies along with EE is a perfect fit for my personality and my thought process.  Front end development is my favorite part of web building due to that, but I’m pretty well rounded when it comes to websites and marketing in general.  I’m not designer though; the second I open Photoshop my profits go down the toilet.

How did you get started with ExpressionEngine?

I use EE on a daily basis and have been for somewhere between two and three years now.  I stumbled upon it one day through a link on Kathy and Joelle’s Moxie site and it was just what I needed.  I didn’t even know the term CMS at the time but I knew what I needed and ExpressionEngine, luckily enough for me, happens to be the best one out there.  I’m really glad I didn’t stumble onto Joomla that day!  I was an ASP classic programmer for awhile and then made the switch to PHP in 2005 I think.  I was pretty strong in PHP by the time I found EE, and was ready to let it do the data heavy lifting… I’d built way too many custom website admin panels over the years from scratch.

Soon afterward I made a business decision to standardize on EE and I have never looked back.  Eventually I needed some custom functionality and figured out how to write plugins, and have also made a couple of extensions. Mostly, I rely on the fantastic add-ons available by the talented developers in this community, but its great knowing that when I need a custom function that with my PHP knowledge I can build it myself rather quickly.  I have a bunch of Textmate snippets that lay out add-on frameworks in a few keystrokes so I can be writing a custom plugin or extension within seconds of knowing what I need it to do.

What is this site, and why is it special?

Surgeon Today (ed note: Site contains medically graphic images, visit here only if you’re not squeamish.) is a site that I built using ExpressionEngine 1.6.8.  Its, more or less, a YouTube for surgeons.  It is a closed community that is just getting off the ground as it was launched in December.  We have over 600 categories and subcategories that serve as the hierarchy that videos drop into, starting with 21 medical specialties, then several anatomical areas under each specialty, and then several medical procedural areas under each anatomical area.  The member uploaded videos are encoded in H.264 at a very high quality, and we had a custom flash video player built by the very talented Dan Carr.  Its a lot like the Hulu player, just beautiful video, really fantastic quality.  Users can create editorials about a series of videos, linking them together and creating a playlist to share, and can create discussions about videos.  It works really well.  I can’t wait to see this community grow for the site owner.

What add-ons are you using on that site?

Hop Studios’ Deeploy Helper, Solspace Favorites, Freeform and Rating, Fresh Variables, Pages, Cocoaholic’s REEOrder, PutYourLightsOn’s Sitemap, Brandon Kelly’s Fieldframe, Playa and Wygwam, Leevi Graham’s Add Sitename and htaccess Generator.  Another great one for this site was Low’s Seg2Cat.  I’m also using various other plugins and extensions that I use on most sites to enhance functionality and usability, as detailed in my Starting Point article.

During the process, I built WI Filter By Sticky to allow the site owner to use the sticky entry tool to create featured videos.  I also built WI Activation Login that logs users in automatically after they click the activation link in their activation email.

Were there any particularly challenging parts of this site that required creative solutions? What add-ons were involved with that?

User, by Solspace is the most heavily leveraged add-on here.  We’ve exposed a full front end profile management console for each user, along with a list of their videos and editorials that are editable using SAEF and Solspace’s Form Helper.  There is also a separate public profile for each user.  The most important aspect of User on the site is its ability to allow users to choose a category.  So, for the 21 specialties that the videos fit into, each user also chooses one of those specialties at registration.  User allows us to assign that category as their primary, where they have full site privileges.  For the other 20 specialties, they have limited privileges.  When the user logs in, they are taken right to their specialty homepage.  Works great.

Also, we leverage User‘s key invite system to create user proxies.  A proxy is someone who has privileges to perform account functions for another user.  Any user can send an invitation with a unique invitation key to another person to join Surgeon Today.  When the recipient clicks the link with the key and registers, we can identify them and, through a custom plugin I built, find out who invited them.  We then create a link between the original user and the proxy user.  Now, the proxy can upload and edit videos and create editorials for the original user.  This is all managed through a bunch of custom plugins that I wrote, but is mainly possible thanks to User.  A proxy can proxy for multiple other users, and any user can have multiple proxies.  For example, sometimes a surgical group has an A/V employee who serves as the proxy for the entire team of surgeons.

What is the greatest need you have on this site that you wish were met by an EE add-on.

I built what I needed, so I can’t say there was anything I wish for at this point.  A few functions did take a lot of trial and error though.  For instance, the site owner wanted custom video IDs, like V123C456 in the URLs instead of entry IDs or URL Titles.  This allows him to identify the video by ID and the category it belongs to by its ID.  I built a few plugins to build and decode this new-fangled video ID as needed to create links and show pages.  I had to work this one over a few times to get it working the way he wanted.

There are a lot of add-ons in the EE world now, which ones do you find most useful throughout your work?

The ones that are most useful are the ones that feel like they should have been part of the system to begin with.  Edit Tab Ajax, Edit Menu, LG Add Sitename, Category Checkboxes, etc.  They extend the system in a way that feels natural and works every time. 

What’s next?

A lot.  I’m still busy finishing the conversion to Encaffeinated and building a new site for that.  I also have a full host of clients with projects in process, and a few waiting in the wings.  Business has been steady and busy, and we’re looking forward to branching out in 2010 with the new company.


Joelle 01.26.10


Yay, glad we tipped you off to EE!  :)

Ryan Masuga 01.27.10

Ryan Masuga

I found it very interesting what you did with the User key invites.

This also goes to show how many add-ons might be out there that are used for a particular site or purpose that never get released.

lebisol 01.27.10


Hello there,

Thanks for sharing the ‘behind the curtain’ stories …always like to read what make the project run.

I must say I thought Masuga is a lone warrior :)

Looking at the list of addons…*twenty *of them were used makes me wonder how do you feel about this huge dependency?

I always liked EE due to fact that you don’t need to maintain a lot of 3rd party products and often seen them as pitfalls when update comes around.

With 20 of them used I must ask how do you feel about this?

Why is it that you feel more comfortable with this many (some free/open source) plugins with EE vs. using CMS that is open source itself? (WP, MODx…etc)

Congrats on the project and thanks again for sharing!

Ryan Masuga 01.27.10

Ryan Masuga

lebisol: EE was designed to be extended, so personally I don’t think 20 add-ons is unreasonable. I just did a quick count and found devot:ee is using…get this…approximately 111 add-ons.

Chad Crowell 01.29.10

Chad Crowell

lebisol: I think there are probably 30-40 add-ons on Surgeon Today in use.  Masuga is right in that part of EE’s attractiveness is the ability to extend it and create functionality that you need.

Surgeon Today is not a little brochure site.  Its a web application with a discreet audience.  I build small sites all the time with just a few plugins and some extensions that enhance the usability of the control panel, but to build ST in a manner that the client wanted, quite a bit of custom functionality was required.

And you know what?  It works.  So what’s to be afraid of?

Part of what I love about the EE community is that we all know each other quite well.  This will not always be the case, but its easy to quickly figure out which devs know their shit.  I know I can trust add-ons built by Brandon, Mitchell, Leevi, Masuga, and a host of others.  Hell, I even mod their add-ons to do things a bit differently when I need it.

So while I can respect the idea of a clean installations and using the core to get work done, EllisLab themselves will tell you that they rely on the community to build EE into what it is through add-ons.  They knew they could not be everything to everyone with any manner of accuracy, so they built an app framework that does a lot of the heavy lifting, but allows you to create new functionality as needed.

And if its not needed, you have a damn good system to build a website with on its own.

I hope that helps clarify where I come from in making a business decision to standardize on EE.

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