RailsConf 2008 vs 2016

Here’s a quiz: I went back to the online program for RailsConf 2008, which was the first one I attended.

Here are 20 talk titles. Some are from the 2008 program, some are from the 2016 program. Can you guess which is which?

  1. “Your First Legacy Codebase”
  2. “Level-up Your ActiveRecord Skills: Learn SQL”
  3. “The Rails Boot Process”
  4. “3x Rails: Tuning The Framework Internals”
  5. “Testing Rails at Scale”
  6. “Entrepreneurs on Rails”
  7. “Multi-Core Hysteria FUD about CRUD”
  8. “Surviving The Big Rewrite: Moving <x> to Rails”
  9. “10 Things I Hate About Web Apps”
  10. “Crud Doesn’t Have an S: Managing Complex Searching in Rails”
  11. “How to Get and Love Your First Rails Job”
  12. “Managing Growing Pains: Thinking Big While Being Small”
  13. “Can Time-Travel Keep You From Blowing Up The Enterprise?”
  14. “But Doesn’t Rails Take Care of Security For Me?”
  15. “Crushing It With Rake Tasks”
  16. “Flexible Scaling: How to Handle 1 Billion Page Views”
  17. “Remote Pair Programming: Impossible or So Possible”
  18. “The Launch: Dos and Don’ts of Real Life Deploys”
  19. “Asynchronous Processing in Ruby on Rails”
  20. “Advanced Active Record Techniques: Best Practice Refactoring”

Here are the answers which I will bury so that they are kind of hard to scan. The first five from “Legacy Codebase” to “Testing at Scale” are from 2016. the next five: “Entrepreneurs” to “Searching” are from 2008, the next five (“First Rails Job” to “Crushing it with Rake”) are 2016, and the final five, “Flexible Scaling” to “Advanced Active Record”, are from 2008.

How’d you do? Better than pure luck? I admit I chose titles that were deliberately ambiguous, avoiding talks about Mongrel in 2008 or Phoenix in 2016, the fact is that we talk about a lot of the same problems in 2016 that we did in 2008, even as the details change.

And overall, I think this is a good thing.

Without doing anything like, you know, a precise study, there are a few things that struck me about the 2008 program versus the 2016 one:

  • There’s a class of problems that were big deals in 2008, that are still important, but which we’ve got much better community solutions now. Things like deployment, hosting, continuous integration. Even git was relatively new to the community in 2008. There were a lot of “how do I even deploy at all” kinds of talks in 2008. In contrast, there was relatively little talk about things like “Your First Legacy Application” in 2008, which has become a bigger deal in 2016.
  • In general, in 2008 there were talks about getting into Rails, in 2016, there are more talks about languages and tools we might use other than Rails.
  • In 2008, there were more than a couple of talks about how to monetize your side project, or be an entrepreneur. This year we have more talks about ongoing tech careers. (That’s why the “First Rails Job” is 2016. 2008 had “The Profitable Programmer”). Another footnote, the entrepreneur talk from 2008 was by Dan Benjamin, now known mostly for the 5 by 5 podcast network, but at the time, known as one of the first people to cash out of a Rails project. The room was so full the fire marshals kicked people out.
  • In 2008, we did not fully realize that a huge percentage of RailsConf attendees would continue to be first-timers every year. In 2016 the conference does a much better job of providing content for people relatively new to Rails or new to development in general.
  • Basically, there was no discussion of JavaScript or client-side technologies at all at RailsConf in 2008. Or mobile, for that matter. (That said, there isn’t actually all that much client-side in this year’s program compared to a couple of years ago. But there was none in 2008). That’s interesting, considering that easy Ajax support was definitely a Rails competitive advantage in 2008 (over, say Django), but there wasn’t yet a real diverse client-side eco system to argue over.

I also hope that we do a much better job of being inclusive reaching a diverse group of speakers and attendees. I think we do, but I think there’s still a long way to go.

Still, the overwhelming impression is a community that’s pretty stable and is largely interested in solving the same problems that it was in 2008. I realize I’m supposed to decry that and complain about how Rails used to be cool or something, or wish that we had some great new problems to conquer.

But the fact is, there’s still a lot to say about the same problems, especially as we expose new facets of them as our applications get more complex. We’ve solved some problems, we’ve added some new ones, but basically, we’re trying to still trying to build great software.

Thinking about it, the clearest way to describe the difference is the journey from 2008s “Entrepreneurs on Rails” and “The Profitable Programmer” to 2016s “How to Get and Love your First Tech Job”, “5 Practical Ways to Advocate for Diversity”, and “Changing Careers as a Single Mom”. In 2008, people were still colonizing a relatively new territory (not the Internet in general, but Rails specifically). A lot of those people did great things, and we have the ecosystem we have because of that work.

In 2016, we’ve lived here for a while, we have new people who we want to stay for a long time, and I think we’re more focused on long-term personal and community goals.