Scotland on Rails — three months on

The JRuby Guys at Scotland on Rails
A presentation by the JRuby Guys (Charles Nutter and Thomas Enebo) at Scotland on Rails.

This is a post that I’ve had sitting in my WordPress drafts since early April about the Scotland on Rails conference that I attended, actually the same weekend that Jane and I discovered that she was pregnant … so that made it a memorable event.

It’s been quite useful to come back to it after three months, because some things have settled in somewhat. I’ve had the chance to reflect quite fully on my experience of that two day conference (over a Friday and Saturday) and realise what I really took from it that has been valuable.

Initial response

This was my initial response, written a couple of days after the conference:

Excellent

In many ways the conference was excellent:

  • Great location and venue (South Hall Complex, Pollock Halls in Edinburgh)
  • Very well organised
  • Interesting, knowledgeable and passionate speakers
  • Friendly delegates
  • Plenty of space (both physically and in the timetable) to mill about and meet with folks

Disappointing

However, in many ways I personally found the conference disappointing

… and that’s as far as I got. Now we’ll never know.

Seasoned reflection

What I struggled with mostly was simply my inexperience with the Ruby on Rails (often abbreviated to just ‘Rails’) framework and Ruby as a language. So I sat through presentation after presentation that went into the nuts and bolts of the framework/language, and entirely over my head.

What I went there hoping to get a sense of was what sort of projects Rails could be used for within our university setting. I guess I was looking for more of a Show and Tell kind of stream of talks. Wow me with what cool and funky projects you’ve been using Rails for.

Instead it felt like, in many ways, a conference for über-geeks. The opening keynote presentation was about the new features in the next version of Rails; but in microscopic detail. It was like having an interest in rally cars and going to a conference about rally cars, but the opening speech being about how they manufacture the nuts, bolts and components that make up the engine.

The second keynote speech the following day, by David A Black was — in stark contrast — inspirational. It was deep, artistic, philosophical and simply inspiring.

The other notable presentation, for me, was by The JRuby Guys. They were approachable, entertaining and very knowledgable. What interested me most was that JRuby is essentially a “Java powered Ruby implementation”. It allows you to run Ruby (and Ruby on Rails) within a Java environment. Our servers are mostly Sun machines, which have Java built-in, which means that if we wanted to adopt Rails for any projects this would be an excellent way to deploy them with as few hiccups as possible.

Agile

But despite the numerous presentations that went entirely over my head (I thought MVC was a music and video store rather than a programming architectural pattern) the one thing that I took away was a real respect and appreciation for Agile software development and Test/Story-Driven Development (TDD/SDD).

The examples of agile that were shared in the various groups and presentations made perfect sense to me, I could see the practical uses of it in my own work at St Andrews. That’s what I ultimately got out of the Scotland on Rails conference; well, that and a free t-shirt! Oh, and the O’Reilly stall made a bob or two from me.

Interestingly at a recent staff meeting we’ve agreed to look more closely at Agile. I’m looking forward to that, and I have the Scotland on Rails conference to thank most sincerely for that.

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