A few last thoughts on RailsConf

On the whole, my experience going out and talking to people from the conference was really positive. The Hackety Hack BoF was neat, and I’m looking forward to the Macintosh release so I can demo it for PDX.rb. I also think it’s awesome how many people are just using Rails to get things done, in this growing ecosystem of small Rails development shops. And initial reports on plans for the 2.0 release sound good. I like working with the RESTful resource system, so it’s great that they’re continuing in that direction.

However.

As the Rails community continues to grow, there is a lot of work to be done in order to keep this a useful, accessible, and relevant platform for development, and not all of that work is technical.

This really summarizes what’s wrong with the backchannel conversations that took place this weekend:

[12:06pm] Nevin: I hope the speakers don’t ever see the transscript of this chat
[12:06pm] Nevin: that would be awful

When people are spending the conference heckling speakers and playing ‘spot the hot chick in row 2!!!’, that’s a serious problem. You can’t have a healthy open source community in that kind of environment. I don’t care if no one is saying these things out loud or to our faces, that people are willing to say it in the semi-anonymous environment of IRC and few call them on it is something the community has to address.

There’s a key rule at open space events like BarCamp, called the Law of Two Feet. If you aren’t getting any value from the presentation or discussion you’re in, then you need to go elsewhere and find something that is of more interest. And if there’s nothing on the schedule, you find other people in the halls and you get something started yourself. Commercial conferences like RailsConf are focused on the planned programming, but this is still an excellent rule to apply. If the speaker is boring you to death, if it’s not a topic you’re interested in, don’t sit there and complain about it behind their back. Get up and go elsewhere. It’s your responsibility to find or create the things that will make the event worthwhile.

One of the things that seemed to trigger at least some of the complaints was content at a lower skill level (or higher-level summary) than the attendees expected. O’Reilly could do a lot to help participants find the content they want, by asking speakers to grade the target level for their talk, then including that information in the schedule. That might also encourage the development of specific beginner, intermediate, and advanced level tracks for the event (which are also really important to helping people not just start working with Rails, but actually become advanced users or contributors over time).

I think it’s great that people who work with technology enjoy it so much that they build friendships and communities around it. This is actually a large part of why I stick around even though I have complaints. But the downside is that it can create a cliquish environment that’s actively hostile to outsiders, particularly women and other minorities. There are some specific things that need to be addressed if Rails wants to really kick ass in the long run:
* Make it easy to get started. That means beginner tutorials (we’re actually doing really well on this one), in addition to friendly resources for asking questions (mailing lists, IRC channels, user groups).
* Have clear expectations for community members. This includes documentation on how to report a bug, how to submit a patch, etc. but also how we expect people to behave toward each other. If hostile behavior is treated as a joke, or harmless, or all in good fun, that’s a clear sign that this has not been addressed.
* Value the contributions of all participants. Being a Rails core contributor is not the only important role here. We need people doing documentation. We need active collaboration with designers. We need support resources like people who answer beginner questions on #rubyonrails. And we need users. Who cares about a web development framework that doesn’t have users?

I want to get people talking about these things, because I think Rails is an amazing tool, and we’re still early in its development. There is a huge opportunity here to make it something that fully lives up to the promise of open source.

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6 responses to “A few last thoughts on RailsConf

  1. You are quite right, but you also must allow for the fact that people are often in conferences, or particular sessions of those conferences, because it’s a job requirement rather than a place they actually want to be. That shouldn’t be so, but it is so.

  2. I understand that, but I think participants still need to take more responsibility for their personal experience. Is it benefiting your employer to stay in a panel that doesn’t cover the information you need? And if you really have to be there whether you want to or not, aren’t there other, more civil, ways to deal with boredom? It’s an insult to the presenter, as well as other participants who may be interested in the material, to sit there and heckle the presentation the whole time. That’s not appropriate behavior for a professional adult.

  3. It’s naive for any programmer to think that the traffic in an IRC channel is private.

    I have no illusion that this would ever happen, but I would love it if tech conferences banned laptops, jammed phones, and had no wifi. The point of a physical conference is to get out and talk to people in person.

    That’s how I operate when I go to a conference.

  4. Glenn Kidd

    Have clear expectations for community members. This includes documentation on how to report a bug, how to submit a patch, etc. but also how we expect people to behave toward each other. If hostile behavior is treated as a joke, or harmless, or all in good fun, that’s a clear sign that this has not been addressed.

    While I agree with the documentation aspects, the hostility point though I disagree with most strongly. Sometimes members of a community deserve anger/hostility. It is not a bad thing. This is not to say that ignorance should be tolerated, or good fellowship abandoned, but as soon as you try to police emotions you are going to see a lot of the potentially productive members of your community depart. I know I would never consider participating in a community where certain expressions of emotions are dismissed outright because they are deemed “bad”. If you want to qualify the statement above, I might agree with something like, “ad hominem hostilty motivated by ignorance, racism, biggotry, etc. is treated as a joke, or harmless, or all in good fun, that’s a clear sign that this has not been addressed.”

    Sorry if it sounds like I am picking nits, but you know for me it is important that an open source community is, well you know, open. Unnecessary censorship is a real turnoff to me, and I know a lot of other programmers that are like-minded.

  5. I think that anyone willing to deliver anger/hostility to someone else, whether in a professional or personal context, should have the sack to do it to that person’s face, and not in some chat room. And there’s a difference between attacking/challenging someone based on issues or competence, and just saying, “Har har har, there’s a lady in the room, she gots nice titties, har har har.”

  6. Sorry if it sounds like I am picking nits, but you know for me it is important that an open source community is, well you know, open. Unnecessary censorship is a real turnoff to me, and I know a lot of other programmers that are like-minded.

    Absolutely. I don’t mean ‘no arguing’. Or ‘no getting angry’. I’m thinking of the kind of guidelines outlined here: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/006036.html