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:


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


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.


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.

Meeting the students

A nice and friendly way to begin a presentation.

About 10 months ago we launched a new website for the University.

Over the last few weeks we’ve been hosting a number of feedback sessions inviting folks to comment on what they think works, what doesn’t work, what could be improved, and giving us an opportunity to showcase a few things that we’re currently working on.

Having had two sessions with members of staff, at lunchtime today we hosted a group of students — ten were invited, five turned up — and I loved it. Students are great!

It was really interesting to compare what the staff members thought important from the website with what the students wanted. It was great too to be able to throw about ideas and ask their opinion on whether this would work better, asking if particular terminology or labels were right or not.

There’s nothing quite like good, honest, face-to-face conversation with your customers! Quite agile. I can’t wait until we do the next one.

Oh, and we’ve already made one adjustment: adding the link to SAULCAT to the Current Students‘ toolbar.

Financial liberty for the Library One

Yesterday I got a call from the University Library asking why I’d not returned the book that was recalled last Saturday.

Erm … because that telephone call was the first time I’d heard about the book (The Warnock Report, in case you’re interested) being recalled.

Seemingly I had already accrued a fine of six earth pounds (£6.00).

They’d sent me two emails, one on Saturday, and a reminder on Tuesday. Only … well, I didn’t get either of them.

IT Helpdesk checked the server logs and sure enough: they’d sent two, but I’d received none of them.

My fine was cancelled and I’d help escalate a new support call: where is the missing email going?!

High table at Andrew Melville Hall

Andrew Melville Hall

Last night I did something I’ve not done in fifteen years: I had dinner at a University of St Andrews hall of residence.

Pizza express

Rewinding a few hours, I had just finished a lunchtime presentation about website statistics and customising our search engine when I was standing chatting with someone and nibbling on the left-overs from lunch.

I shouldn’t have one last mini pizza, I thought to myself … but they’re just so tasty. So I indulged.

I bit into the pizza, and it exploded a massive dollop of tomato sauce all the way down my new Fat Face jumper. D’oh!

They do say that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Well, twenty minutes after my free lunch I was the proud owner of a new, identical Fat Face jumper that cost me £40.

But at least I now wouldn’t have to turn up to Andrew Melville Hall looking like a pizza filling.

High table

Last week I was invited by the Warden of Andrew Melville Hall — Mr Steve Yorkstone, an alumnus of this fine University no less — to attend High Table and speak for five minutes on a topic of my choice.

What happens is the Warden invites up to twenty students (two turned up!) to meet before dinner in the Upper Common Room for sherry and convivial chat, before sitting at high table in the refectory and retiring once again to the Upper Common Room for port and a five minutes chat with that evening’s guest, usually about his or her role in the University, what they do, their take on the University and … stuff!

So I took along our information architecture diagram — it’s about 7 feet long! — which got some folks excited as they’d never had a proper “show and tell” before, with props and everything, and I spoke about the website redesign project.

It was great fun, I absolutely loved it. It was great to get real, face-to-face feedback from students about the website — what they find useful, what they’d like to see.

I talked about how the project ran, what I do, where we’re going next with the website, what I love about my job and then, courtesy of the Warden who’d clearly been cyber-stalking me, we moved onto the number of Amazon books I’d reviewed and my involvement in Join Me.

It turns out that I’m a part of Join Me Top Trumps, which I didn’t know about.

After about an hour or so of chat, laughter and general, controlled geekery the evening was over and I retired to view the Warden’s flat on the top floor of the hall. He has a balcony, a very cool study and a tube that leads from his washer-dryer machine and pokes out of the window.

I know! All the mod-cons.

Having spent my first and fourth years in David Russell Hall (of fond memory), I never realised what good fun could be had in Andrew Melville Hall! 😉 A highly recommended evening.