RailsConf '07: Days 2 & 3

Day 2

Yesterday at RailsConf was mainly uneventful. Two good talks were the panel discussion on "The Business of Rails," and Ezra's deployment talk. The afternoon session with Nathaniel Talbott was underwhelming, mostly due to a Jeopardy-style format that didn't work for me. (It's important that Jeopardy questions have one and only one correct answer, and that the answer is objective fact. They didn't.) Judging from the earlier panel discussion, Nathaniel has a wealth of real-world information in this area. I like creative presentation formats, but this is one case where I think a traditional presentation would have delivered his message more effectively.

Day 3

Today's most interesting sessions were Josh Susser's talk on contributing to the Rails project and Jamis & Koz's discussion of "The Rails Way." The Right Way to do things in Rails seems to shift every 3-6 months -- so these efforts to educate are very valuable. But the talk from Twitter was not great, and the final session I chose on the internals of respond_to was dreadful enough that I left it for the spontaneous open mic demo that sprouted up in the vacuum of an AWOL presenter. It was chaotic, but entertaining nonetheless. And there were a few projects I had to note down for later. PragDave closed up the conference with a clear message: do not be seduced by snake oil; do not pray to false gods; do not imitate those you perceive as more wise than yourself unless you do, indeed, understand why you're doing it. In other words: Question Authority. Good advice.

More Better

Now that the conference is over I can start thinking about what I can take away. I came to Railsconf with an understanding of the philosophy and tech at the heart of both Ruby and Rails. I leave Railsconf with a far better understanding of who Rails is: behind the websites, books, documentation and blogs I read every day, there is a community of people as diverse as a can of mixed nuts (and perhaps there are other similarities?). In this community there is lots of youth -- and the boastful arrogance, sense of immortality and naivity that comes with it. There is a smaller population of time-hardened corporate IT types -- and the reluctance to the unproven that comes with that. There are hipster designers and "cool" developers who've never worked for anyone but #1 and who you might mistake for Jack Kerouac. Others appear inspired by Steve Wozniak's plentiful facial hair. Permeating the whole community, and perhaps a driving force behind it, there is a sense of celebrated rebelliousness, of gleeful insubordination. Perhaps it is this feature of the community -- what my high school advisor identified as "nefarious collusion" -- that many of us find so appealing.

I also return home with the realization that many developers who have attained Rails celebrity status are just regular work-a-day people like the rest of us. Inspiring, sure. But some are clumsy; others are socially awkward. Most are geeks, of course. They fumble with stupid projection problems and are a bit unpolished when it comes to presenting. It's easy to build a mental image of some infallible, superhuman genius as we follow their RSS feeds. Years of deliberate marketing can do that, and it's not a bad thing. What we should learn from this (and it was repeated many times by speakers themselves) is that there are dozens -- if not hundreds -- of DHHs, Jamis Bucks, Amy Hoys and Geoffrey Grossenbachs in the crowd with the ability to rise to that level. They just haven't done all it takes to get there yet.

I am carrying home renewed inspiration, but more importantly, more confidence in the industry that has blossomed around Rails. Is there really work to be had? Is the development profession still alive onshore, here in the U.S.? Is it possible to make a living -- exceeding a well-paid corporate salary -- in Rails consulting? I think we all know the answers to these questions now.