Recently, Startup Houston sat down to speak with Jesse Wolgamott, a Ruby developer, IronYard teacher, and RailsConf speaker, about Ruby on Rails, open source, and RailsConf. Wolgamott is also involved with RailsGirls, an international, free workshop run locally in each location, that teaches women how to code in the span of two days.
SH: I understand Ruby on Rails is a software framework.
JW: So Ruby itself is a programming language. It was first started in Japan in 1993, it just turned 21. It existed just in Japan, just used by Japanese engineers for years. And then, in the early 2000s, Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas discovered it. They were bored with programming languages and found it, and then they wrote a book. And some people sort of flocked to it, but it didn’t become mainstream until a guy called David Heinemeier Hansson released an open source project called Ruby on Rails. Rails is a toolset, and we call it a framework, but it’s a toolset that you can use to build web applications. I believe in late late 2004, 2005. He was at a conference, and he was like, I’ve created this thing, Ruby on Rails, and I can use it to create a full blog application in 15 minutes. And he created it, on stage – you saw him do everything. The stuff he was doing, nobody else was doing anything close to it, it was groundbreaking. Ruby on Rails would be to WordPress what Ruby is to PHP. So a lot of times peole will use Ruby on Rails and not think about the Ruby part of it, even though to really excel at Ruby on Rails, you have to know Ruby.
SH: What would be an example of a blog that uses Ruby on Rails?
I don’t have a blog, but I can give you several examples of sites that do. So Base Camp is Ruby on Rails. And Groupon, Living Social. Twitter was famously started on Ruby on Rails. Twitter still uses it for about half of their stuff, but they’ve enhanced some of their stuff using other technologies. It started there, and Twitter says that’s what enabled them back in 2007 to really fast forward the company.
In 2006 or 2007, I was in a class at the University of Houston, and the professor was showing new techniques or whatnot. He showed of Rails. It was the first time I’d ever even seen it. I’d sort of heard about it, but I saw. I’d been working on a project for about 4 years at that point, and I was like, if I had used this, it would have cut off 3 of those 4 years of work, because it just does so much for you, it speeds it up, and its so much fun. It’s great.
SH: I noticed you have your own free and open source Ruby learning website. Can you go more into the importance of open software, and the importance of open government, if you feel qualified to speak on that?
JW: I don’t feel qualified to speak on open government itself. I can say that I feel like that secrets are bad, if that makes sense. I will say that before I started being a Ruby developer, I was a Microsoft developer. And the trouble with Microsoft software when you’re developing with it, is that you don’t understand what’s going on. It gives you a program, you use that program, but even if you find like a bug, you can’t do anything with it. You can’t fix it, you can’t look into it, yhou can’t see what’s going on.
More importantly, you can’t see other people’s code, and improve your own. So it doesn’t foster a culture where you’re learning from other people, what other people are doing. You can see what other people are doing, and you’re like, well that’s kind of cool, but you have no idea how they did it. The Ruby community, most of the main things, are open source. People still have private repositories, mostly for the stuff they make money off. But they’ll open source major components of it for other people to use. But there’s also just this idea, that it’s so important to be able to see good examples of both good and bad code, so you can improve. I fin any application that you build, not only are using the Ruby on Rails code, but yuo’re going to use gems, and gems are libraries of othere people’s pen source code. And you’re going to use a lot of that. And if its open source, you can help them fix it, you can suggest new things, you can help with documentation – you can help out. And that’s really encouraged.
In fact, GitHub, which is also run on Ruby on Rails, is a main hub for these repositories. People host their code there, and it’s free if its open source. And you’re able to go and suggest changes, even make changes on your own, and keep going if they won’t your changes. But they also keep, next yo your profile, this graph of open source activities. So its encouraged to give back. There are several companies that actually really help with this. So historically, there’s a company called Engine Yard. And they use Ruby on Rails, and they let you host applications. And what they do that’s really, really, really cool, is they sponsor open source projects. But sponsor in a really real way. You don’t have to have a job, they pay you a salary to work on open source. Because they’re like, we’re only here, I know that open source could get here, so let’s help it get there, and everybody is happy. And it’s so cool that they do that.
Other people that do that – AT&T actually does that. One of the most prolific Ruby on Rails contributors, Aaron Patterson, he works for AT&T, and all he does is work on Rails. He’s making serious strides in making it better. But it all happens because he doesn’t have to worry about paying the bills. Everybody else is mostly a couple hours a night, or something like before they go to bed, trying to get something out.
SH: I know we’re speaking about this in the context of the US, but do you see this open source movement happening in other places?
JW: I think you could seriously say that Europe leads the US in open source.
SH: And why do you think that is?
JW: I don’t necessarily know. I mean, I can make assumptions on it. But I don’t really know. I don’t have a clear theory on it, Other than its just ingrained in the society over there. That’s where Linus Torvalds came from, who created Linux, that’s free and open source. I would just say that we’ve adopted it in the last 10 years, especially with startups. Startups like Facebook, Google to a certain extent, Twitter, they’ve all made serious open source contributions. If I were to say what’s one thing open source helps, is that it helps people learn, because they can see other people’s code – what it should look like, what it could look like. Because one of the downsides to code is it’s half art, half science. So the science part, you can learn. Someone can teach you – you learn. But the art side of it, that’s what really separates the crap from the awesome.
SH: Explain the art side.
JW: Sometimes you can just see code work, and have it run, and say, how did it do that? And then you look at a code and you’re just amazed – wow, how did that happen? Then you read it, and you’re like, whoa that’s cool. Nowadays, what you can do is go learn from people who are a couple of years ahead of you, or maybe even a decade ahead of you, and you can see their actual work, how they got there. The history of work, not just the final product. If you look, you can really see the possibilities.
SH: How did you end up at START teaching a class?
JW: I’m at the IronYard. I have been teaching an online course for Ruby of Rails in addition to my consulting. I just thought it would be a pretty good idea, because I wanted people t olearn Ruby in addition to learning Rails. I was having a lot of fun with it, and thought teaching was actually pretty freaking cool. My friend Jonathan Birkholz and I always talked about starting a code academy here in Houston, but we never got it off the ground. For any number of reasons, it just became this idea that we had.
Richard Winley came to town and took me out for coffee, and at first I thought it was just a normal sales call, and he was like, I’m part of the IronYard, the IronYard’s coming to Houston, and I’ve been asking around about Ruby developers and Ruby teachers, and everyone points to you, and so I want you to join. And at first I was like, I’m just not interested. I’m not looking for a part time gig, I’ve got a pretty sweet gig, I don’t want to stop consulting. And he said well, we’re a little bit different. And I was like, I don’t even know about code schools, they tend to not care about their students, and he said, well, we do.
With every step, I thought, wait, are these guys for real? They flew me out to see a real class in Greenville, South Carolina. I went there and it was week 8 of a 12 week class. And I was like wow, everybody in here is discussing concepts they way I would discuss them, with people who I’ve worked with for years. That trip was when I sort of bought in, because I was like this is awesome, why not. I love it. I think its great. My mom is a teacher, and I don’t know if there’s any sort of inherited thing there or not, but I really like teaching.
SH: Explain the Rails conference a little bit.
JW: There are multiple conferences. Most of them are regional Ruby conferences. These regionals are like a state or a group of states. They’re typically smaller and cheaper conferences, but they still get people to come and speak. They’re great, they’re so great. In addition to that, there are two national conferences. There’s both RubyConf, and RailsConf. RubyConf has existed since Hunt and Thomas discovered Ruby in 2000. And it used to like 10 guys at a hotel, getting together for a weekend and talking about it. And now, right when Rails started to really gain momentum, they were like, we should have a RailsConf to talk about Rails stuff, and RubyConf to talk about everything else. RailsConf has a more produced vibe. There’s more money, more sponsors, more developers. There’s much more people, I think a thousand people go, it’s crazy. They pick a city a year. In terms of how they pick, I think it has to be halfway a cool destination city, and halfway a city that can handle that many people. So it was Austin two years ago. Last year was Denver and this year was Chicago. It’s really cool going. RubyConf is the same but less people go, so it has a more intimate vibe, and its much less commercial. It’s more peer-research vs. applied research, if I were to describe it that way. It’s much more about Ruby the language versus how you can build super cool web apps that make a lot of money.
In terms of how I got started, I was at ChaiOne at the time. It was the first year that we were there, I was an early, early employee there. Ben Sherman, who’s a developer here in town, still at ChaiOne, was like, you know, there’s this LoneStar Ruby Conference. I’m going to submit a talk, you should to. I was like ok, whatever, and I submitted a talk, and it was comparing 4 different types of databases, and I guess it had a catchy title, because it was the “Battle of the No Sequel Stars” and it got selected.
And I was like, oh no, now I have to actually do it. When you get selected to speak, you get a free ticket. This was LoneStar Ruby, a regional in Austin. I went, and I still remember, it was the second day, and going up there and being like, what am I going to do? I’d worked on it a lot, but was pretty introverted. I had not had any public speaking for however many years – that was not me. I was scared, but I went up there, and somebody told me, everybody’s just like you, we’re all programmers. I went up there and I loved it, I fell in love with it immediately. It became a tradition where I speak every year at that one. I wanted to do it more, I felt like it gave credibility. I started submitting to others.