RailsConf

I have just returned from three days of RailsConf 2007 in Portlant, Oregon and wanted to share my overall impression of this very well-done event. There were four tracks, so no one could have attended all sessions. So, I won’t be sharing a play-by-play summary of each of the sessions. The guys over at OnRails.org did a good job with play-by-play notes. Also, the RailsConf slides are available here and you can check out others’ comments at the RailsConf wiki.

Thanks

First off, let me put in a “thanks” to Derek Sivers of CD Baby and HostBaby fame for sponsoring the Rails Hacker contest. As a top contributor to Rails during the month of January, Derek and CDBaby graciously awarded RailConf registration and hotel nights and I learned a lot about contributing to Rails along the way. Thank you Derek!

Pictures

I’ve posted some pics here.

Read on for the full review.

Overall Organization – 10 stars

This year’s RailsConf had about 1,600 attendees across 4 tracks! That is amazing growth and the folks at Ruby Central and O’Reilly Media partnered to pull off a well executed conference in regards to logistics. Registration was quick and painless (e.g. no lines!), food and drinks were plentiful, the program was well done and the use of online tools was well done. The organizers, crew, and moderators made sure everything ran on-time.

There were outlets everywhere, even under the seats at the sessions. There was good although slow, wireless connectivity in the main conference hall. So, 1600 geeks had the conveniences of online life while being able to connect face to face for four or three days. Logistically, the conference was well done.

Opening

Chad Fowler opened the conference by noting that the Rails and Ruby community is growing fast – from less than one hundred (or was it 41, or 12 or just 3 and a cat? – like an old fishing story, the count kept going down every time it was told) people at RubyConf in 2001 to 1,600 at RailsConf 2007. Chad went on to say we now have a voice and challenged attendees to influence how we use that voice and how the developer community at large perceives us. He said right now, the Rails community is considered a bunch of “arrogant bastards” and it’s up to us to change that. He closed by urging the Rails community to think about this saying that one way to change that image is to better promote the good work Rails community members do.

This “let’s grow up and contribute to the world” theme flowed throughout the conference. For example, through various fundraising efforts, conference attendees donated over $26,000 to charities. Pragmatic Programmers’ Rails Guidebook session raised over $12,000 alone.

Opening Keynote

David Heinemeier Hansson then was introduced and gave a keynote that was decidedly low-key compared to last years. Perhaps this is part of trying to change the tone of the Rails community; perhaps it has to do with talking in front of 1,600 people instead of 600.

David opened by first celebrating what we have. He noted there are more than a million downloaded Rails gems. But even more interesting is that people have created hundreds of plugins. That is an impressive contribution. Even more impressive is the 10,000 or so people on rubyonrails-talk that welcome new users and help people get started on Rails. Just from the joy of sharing the experience.

Noted commercial milestones:

  • Job postings for Rails community
  • Books (More new Rails books than any other technology)
  • IDEs including TextMate, JetBrains, NetBeans, Coad Gear from Borland, Aptana (formerly known as RadRails).

In a curse-free speech, David said Rails is going to be real in its impact on the world and that Rails development is going to be deliberate. My overall impression of the opening: I’m excited to see how Rails 2.0 impacts the community and what type of efforts it spawns.

Make a Difference

Other aspects of the conference that focussed on making a difference was the breakout session (called “Birds of a Feather” or “BoF” session) for Christians on Rails. We were all pleasantly surprised at the turnout of about 30 folks for this group. We talked about ways that Rails is being used to support churches, missions, and good works in general.

For example, one of the Christians on Rails attendees was Sandy Ellingson, President of The KNIT Group. The KNIT Group is a business incubator for software developers. One of their projects is to use open source products as a training platform to help give children in under developed countries a marketable skillset.

Birds of a Feather Sessions

There was a wide variety of BoFs including “Solo Rails Consultants Unite”, one including Active Scaffold and Hobo, one led by Fernand on his excellent ZiYa charting plug-in, and many many more. I did not attend many of them so cannot really give a review either way.

Daily Sessions

These were a mixed bag. It was evident that the sessions part of the conference was least under the direct control of organizers. A proposal may sound good, and a topic compelling, yet without actually seeing a speaker deliver in front of an audience, it is hard to tell if the session will go well.

Some of the speakers, especially those with years of speaking experience, were awesome. I tried to pick sessions that were non-technical, figuring I could pick up technical lessons from books and blogs. For example, Nathaniel Talbot moderated an information-packed panel discussion on the Business of Rails. I’m writing up notes from this discussion in a separate blog posting.

Of the most impact to me from the RailsConf sessions were Robert Martin, aka Uncle Bob’s talk on Clean Code. You couldn’t help but want to be a better programmer when hearing him talk.

There were several other very good, energetic, and useful sessions as well. But, unfortunately, there were several not-good, anemic, and less-useful sessions. I don’t know that the conference organizers reviewed or approved the material. I think they may have selected presenters based on an abstract, but somewhere between the abstract that sounded useful and the actual presentations, something broke down. Some of it was that not everyone is a good presenter. Some were understandably nervous standing in front of hundreds of people. Some did not have an engaging format (read: “dry” – and not the good kind).

I applaud RailsConf for giving everyone a chance to present and not just picking those with long speaking pedigrees, yet there needs to be some way to further vet the presentations before selecting them.

Exhibitors

Last year there were no vendor booths. This year there were 14, many of them major names in IT. I won’t list all the exhibitors (see here for a full list). A couple booksellers, two Rails hosting companies, three IDE vendors, three Rails consulting firms, and a couple others. Amazon was there promoting EC2 and S3. Robert Dempsey had a booth promoting his worthwhile Rails for All non-profit that is promoting use of Rails.

Networking

This is the best part of RailsConf. It was great to meet others, see what folks are working on, and learn some best practices in coding and business from them. There are tons of smart, friendly, Rails developers there willing and happy to network, to share their experiences and to listen to yours. This is the reason I will return next year.

Keynotes

Ze Frank provided the most entertaining keynote of the conference. He went on a hilarious rant about anxiety acceleration. He put it in the context of flying and the safety cards and procedures and rules. Then Ze went on to talk about his experiences and anxieties running a successful online social-network. Some useful content, but mostly just a grin-inducing good time!

The Rails Way team of Jamis Buck and Michael Koziarski presented Rails best practices in their keynote. Like Uncle Bob’s session, the Rails Way keynote made me want to go home and start coding with more thought and intention to best design. Good job Jamis and Koz.

Dave Thomas provided the closing keynote. In a fun way, Dave pointed out that the IT community just goes in circles. He compared the 3270 terminal’s asynchronous communication with the mainframe as not much different than today’s browsers’ asynchronous communication with internet servers. And you know what, he’s right.

When I look at some of the demos from say Silverlight I see a future of web apps that is very interactive and barely keyboard driven. As Dave said, what is going to be Rails community answer to formless interaction? Why are we stuck on form interactions that are not much different than the old 3270 terminals?

I hate to pose questions and not have the answers, but in this case I don’t. Certainly sliders and other gui widgets will be part of the answer. Yet rethinking our conceptual understanding of the MVC model may also be in the works. Dave’s comments are a wake up call to the Ruby and Rails community to come up with new creative alternatives to keyboard heavy interaction.

RailsConf Closing

Notable about the closing was the full house. The O’Reilly organizer said it is evident that the Rails community is strong and engaged because she has rarely seen so big of a turnout on the morning of the last day and at the last session of the conference. Though many of us were close to burn-out, it was impressive to see so many Rails developers remain engaged through to the end.

Overall Impression

There’s tons of stuff I left out because RailsConf 2007 was packed full of content. There is also tons of stuff I missed such as the acclaimed RejectConf. There was not much downtime, and even the “downtime” was spent with other RailsConf attendees. As I mentioned in the networking section, everyone there was good to be with. The organizers did a good job keeping everything running smooth. Because of the enjoyable networking and the smooth conference operation, I recommend RailsConf and will be there next year.

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