Andy Croll asked on Mastodon for good/bad/indifferent experiences at previous RailsConfs’ and I wrote him a wall of text in my email client that I instead turned into this blog post.
I would recommend every Ruby professional—regardless of experience level—attend RailsConf at least once in their career, and I think for less experienced-with-Ruby developers, frequent attendance would be valuable. When I was first starting out with Ruby, these conferences validated a lot of my feelings and impressions about Ruby. They taught me a great deal and gave me a sense of community when I was the only person writing Ruby at a Java shop.
For me, however, “community” is not “hallway track”. I really do love talking to people at conferences, but this is not why I go to conferences. For me, a conference is a place to get timely or novel information from experienced practitioners who have deeply thought about a topic and who can convey it clearly. Being in person and live is part of that experience and that is community to me.
It is nice to meet new people, connect with the person behind an avatar, or just chat with friends I only ever see at these conferences. But, as an introvert, I only have so much talk time in me, and the travel and expense of attending means the “consuming content” time must be valuable, since that’s mostly how I can spend my time there.
I have been to many Rails and RubyConfs over the years. They are extremely well-organized and well-run. The worst food I ever had was perfectly fine. The conference feels engaging and welcoming (but keep in mind I’m a white dude, so probably ask someone else how welcoming it is).
I would love to see more content for experienced engineers and a more Rails-specific content. I’d like it to be something built around attending talks and sharing the in-person, live experience.
I realize DHH is not keynoting a RailsConf any time soon. I am OK with that and if I never heard from him again, that would be fine with me. However. What DHH’s keynotes have provided the conference must be replicated. Watch his keynote from RailsWorld. Set aside who he is for a moment and just watch the leader of Rails outline a vision for Rails, outline newly-released features, and hype the speakers later in the program who will be talking about them.
Only DHH can give that sort of keynote. But DHH isn’t the only person who can get a crowd ready for a conference they are at. There are plenty of widely-respected, well-known people who can give the audience a mixture of technology, inspiration, and a sense of community, built around a specific group of attendees at a specific RailsConf.
(I didn’t see Eileen’s talk this year, so maybe she did all these things. If so, great! Invite her back!)
To be clear, this is not an endorsement for having DHH come back. Like I said, I’m happy to never hear from him again. RailsConf—and the Rails community—will be much better off if there isn’t just exactly one person who can unify the community to learn about Rails.
Aaron Patterson is a Treasure
Also, Aaron Patterson is a treasure and if he is willing and able to be the closing keynote every time, that would be amazing. His talks are always worth staying until the end of the conference for. When I’ve had my talk scheduled for the last day, seeing Aaron as the closing keynote made me feel like people would stick around and maybe come to my talk that day.
If Aaron isn’t being being paid, and paid well, he should be. I got paid $5,000 to give a talk at a conference once. FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS for ME, a nobody1. Aaron should get paid that sort of money.
His contributions to these conferences over the years are truly unique. They also benefit from being there live—it’s not the same on video. Aaron’s contributions cannot be replicated and as long as he is willing and able to close the conference, he should be.
The Middle Keynote
I also enjoy having one “inspiring talk that is tech adjacent but not about code or managing people” as a keynote. Marco Rogers’ keynote a few years back was life changing for me.
The ideal number of these keynotes is “1”. With “0”, you miss out on something thought-provoking for the attendees and “2” results in both talks feeling watered-down. For a four-day conference, just give us one morning off.
To state the obvious as context: the number of times one has given a conference talk does not correlate to the quality of the talk. I’m glad the conference is place where the experience level of the speaker is not a prime concern in talk selection. The speakers over the years have all done pretty well and clearly put a lot of time into their talks.
The conference could set a few boundaries on the speakers that I think are non-controversial and easy to enforce: make slides readable at the conference and make sure people don’t go over time. These foibles don’t happen often, but they can be extremely frustrating as an attendee.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a member of the program committee to say “hey, the content on the bottom of slides 6, 9, and 14 will not be able to be seen by anyone, so you might want to fix that”. Or to ask “have you rehearsed to make sure you don’t go over time?”. It doesn’t have to be draconian.
RailsConf Should Be Mostly, but not Entirely, About Rails
Content-wise, I believe that RailsConf’s talks should primarily be about Rails—or at least web app development with Ruby. Last year, fewer than 50% of the talks were about Rails specifically. Many of the talks—almost half—were not coding/tech-related talks at all.
I do think talks that aren’t about code are valuable. I have given talks like this. When a conference has all talks about coding and technology, that is a negative for me. But a conference about a web app framework should mostly have talks about the framework or related topics.
To be less fuzzy, I think a 75/25 split on code vs non-code talks would be a great split. Based on last year’s total number of talks, that would result in 16 talks about non-code things and that would be great. And, I do think having at least the majority of talks be about Rails should be kinda required, especially because Ruby Central does a good job of keeping RubyConf focused on Ruby and not Rails.
More Expert-level Talks
I mentioned above about talks for developers with a lot of experience. I would love to see more of this. Not a lot more, but more. It’s typically very few, if any. By Ruby Central’s own tagging of talks, only two talks last year were tagged “Advanced” (the “Expert” tag was only applied to the keynotes). That is too few.
Having more talks for highly experienced developers will bring them to the conference. This is good for the less experienced developers. They may not interact with experienced developers much, if at all, so this is another place they can connect with experienced practitioners who aren’t giving a talk. It’s also probably good for the sponsors who are looking to hire.
Speaking of Sponsors, we need to hear from developers that don’t work for Shopify or GitHub. I know that numbers-wise these companies don’t dominate the speaker list, but it can feel that way. They are not representative of Rails, even if they are highly visible and pay a lot of money to sponsor.
How does a 50 person shop deal with a monolithic applications? How does a non-VC-funded non-startup in a regulatory domain manage security with their Rails app? Who has a lifestyle business with a mobile app, a Rails back-end, keeps everything running when they are on vacation?
Note: I’m not against sponsor-provided talks, especially because the program committee labels them as such. Some sponsors use these slots for good and it’s like a whole extra bonus track.
Program Selection…Maybe a Tiny Bit More Curation?
There are good reasons for RailsConf to be curated mostly through the blind open-call process. Every conference I’m aware of that went from hand-picked to blind open was greatly improved, since blind processes increase diversity across many axes. And this leads to a much better selection of talks. The downside is that the organizers don’t have a lot of control over what content ends up at the conference—they generally have to choose from what is submitted.
QCon is curated—I don’t think they have real call for submissions. I curated a track for QConSF once. They had strict guidelines for expertise, speaking ability, and diversity. I only had to choose three speakers for my track, and the topic was fairly open-ended—a lot more so than any RailsConf track in my recent memory.
It was a ton of work.
I’m proud of the track I put together. While I met the conference’s requirements for speakers, I still ended up with five men. So, I understand how difficult it is to balance the requirements of having a diverse set of speakers who are willing, able, and capable of speaking on very specific topics.
While I’m not up to the task of curating a track at a conference, I think Ruby Central has demonstrated enough credibility to be trusted to at least try it…and I hope they do! Perhaps there is one track they think would be hard to fill with the blind process and instead fill that track with a mix of invited speakers and blind submitters? They could publicize who was invited as a show of accountability.
(To be clear, I’ve never thought that my rejection from RubyConf or RailsConf—of which there have been more than a few—were unfair. I feel like the program committees have done an honest and trustworthy job of picking the best talks for the conference based on the process they have set up. I took these rejections as a message to try to do better next time.)
I am thankful the conference videos actually get made and put up onto YouTube. It’s really nice for a speaker to have an artifact of their hard work, both to improve for next time and as part of their overall CV.
But there is this idea that potential attendees don’t attend because they can watch the talks on YouTube later. I’m sure it’s true! It’s expensive and time consuming to attend RailsConf. If the program doesn’t look appealing, you can end up spending a lot of time doing nothing between the talks you want to see. Or, you may not be able to travel to wherever the conference is. Catching up on YouTube can give you at least some of the connection to the community.
Of course, there are also attendees that don’t attend talks, knowing they are on YouTube. As a frequent speaker, this is not my favorite reason for watching talks on YouTube instead of in-person, but I understand this as a benefit. At RubyConf this year, I had to manage a moderate crisis with my parents from afar and had to skip out on something I wanted to attend.
However, not posting the videos isn’t all downside. It can drive attendance, especially if the content of the conference feels exclusive, timely, or valuable to consume in-person. Like I said, above, there is a difference in watching an Aaron Patterson talk on YouTube and actually being there.
Remember that time he got the closed captioner to go off script and participate in one of his jokes? It was hilarious. I doubt this came across on video, but even if it did, it’s a shared moment with a small part of the community that felt exclusive. You really had to be there.
So I don’t know about videos. Providing them to speakers seems valuable, especially since speakers aren’t paid much. Providing them to paid remote attendees seems like a way to include others who can’t make it in person. But providing them all for free is maybe not worth it.
My personality is, when asked for my thoughts, I tend to share, shall we say, “areas of improvement”. So let me just be clear that I think RailsConfs are generally really good. They are professionally run, with speakers who are well prepared. The staff are always great and it’s clear that everyone involved truly cares about making a great experience for as many as possible. And that they care about Ruby.
Like I said at the start, I would recommend that every practicing Rubyist attend RailsConf at least once.