RailsConf Europe 2007 Retrospective

RailsConf Europe Logo

As some of you might or might not now (depending on whether or not you’ve been following my Twitter stream), I’ve spent the past week touring Berlin for RailsConf Europe.

Foreword

It’s always a difficult undertaking who you’re trying to attract with such a specialized conference like RailsConf, being about a specific framework in a specific area of development (The Web). Go too technical and lose the beginners. Stay too broad or basic and lose those who have been following for years. With RailsConf Europe 2007, I think the balance was basically pretty much spot on.

But: The same holds true for the audience, too. I occasionally had a hard time figuring out the “level of sophistication” of some of the talks beforehand, so I could decide which of the 4 tracks in parallel was worth attending. And sometimes I picked wrong and let go of a presentation for one that turned out to be much too broad and lacking depth.

I’m sure attempts to solve this issue have come up before. Everything from including a short passage of “recommended skills to attend” or a simplified, numeric “sophistication index” that goes on the schedule with the title and description of the talk might help. Or create additional confusion. There you have one of the reasons why I’m not putting together conferences.

Tutorials

RailsConf Europe 2007 kicked off on Monday, September 17 with a day of (mostly) half-day tutorial sessions in parallel tracks. (One of the morning tutorials then had to be cancelled at short notice, though.)

I had opted for the BDD tutorial from the RSpec guys. I’ve been using RSpec in a couple projects now so I was well prepared for not getting too much out of it, but still hoped that some best practice would be dealt with.

Dan North

The guys were indeed having a good time on stage and the presentation was okay. (Actually, it was fairly uncommon practice to use a mind-map instead of presentation slides, but let’s save that story for next time.)

The tutorial got messy when the audience was asked to download the code for a sample application from the RSpec Subversion repository and no-one was actually able to get more than a few bytes down the pipe due to the massively overwhelmed Wi-Fi (more on that in a later section). This then exaggerated into a wild USB-stick trading scene and in the end we didn’t even get around looking at the code at all. That was a tad disappointing.


In the afternoon I then attended the Scaling Rails tutorial of Jason Hoffman of Joyent (I have that scaling thing going, as some of you might remember).

Jason Hoffman

Jason spent quite an amount of time talking about some of their preferred hard- and software setups as well as some of the specifics of being the host for Twitter, which was nice.

Scaling talks can only be so far applicable to your own itches since this is one of the topics that is so tightly bound to the application specifics that it’s simply impossible to state more than a handful best practices and then spend a great amount of time with case studies.

Keynotes

The actual conference was then kicked off later Monday night by program chair David Black and the opening keynote by Dave Thomas, “The Art in Rails”.

Dave Thomas

I truly enjoyed Dave’s speech, being the first of his I saw in-person. Rather than giving a tech-heavy presentation (that he had, from his own words, gotten several beating for), Dave went down the philosophical path of contrasting software development with art. His speech is covered sufficiently by Casper Fabricius and Stuart Eccles - I have little (if anything) to add there.


Tuesday morning was then started by The Man Himself, David Heinemeier Hansson talking about the upcoming release of Rails 2.0.

DHH presented smaller increments of progress the core team has made during the past several months and stated that at this point they’re focussing on evolutions rather than revolutions since Rails has successfully had enough of the latter since it was first released.

David Heinemeier Hansson

Rails 2.0 will see a preview release in the short term, so David presented the old (way before Rails 1.0) and upcoming (past 2.0) way of developing a sample application (the now infamous weblog application that starred the very first Rails introductory screencast).

Additional notes and code samples are, again, available from Casper Fabricius.


Another keynote worth mentioning was Dr. Roy T. Fielding’s talk “The Rest of REST”, dealing with, as the name suggest, REST as an architecture of developing modern web applications.

Roy T. Fielding

Over the course of his talk, Roy Fielding for several times returned to a graph of how many web sites the World Wide Web had at a certain time while he iterated over major milestones in WWW and HTTP history as well as his involvement sculpting the protocols and specifications that drive major parts of the internet today.

Fielding even looked at Rails’ REST implementation (looking from the outside in, as he hasn’t really developed applications in Rails so far) and offered suggestions on how to improve it. His slides are available.

Sessions

The schedule of RailsConf Europe 2007 was packed. 50+ sessions were scheduled to take place in 4 parallel tracks. Of positive note should be that the track locations were so close together that almost no time was lost traveling around. But, as indicated in the foreword, there were time slots in the schedule that had me want to split in quarters to be able to attend all 4 tracks at once.

Another negative aspect was that only the keynotes were actually recorded. Having missed out on a couple sessions for the reasons above, I’m not even able to watch a recording of a session I missed.


From the sessions I went to I really liked Evan Phoenix’ presentation about the state of Rubinius, his alternative Ruby implementation.

Evan is now working full-time on Rubinius (financed by EngineYard) and has made really good progress during the past months. He’s anticipating a preview release of Rubinius 1.0 as early as November (yes, of 2007).

Apart from the interestingness the Rubinius project brings with it, Evan sure had the best made up stats graphs of the entire conference. Not to mention his awesome tie.


In a fill-in effort for Jamis Buck (who just released Child 3.0), Marcel Molina Jr. joined Michael Koziarski in a Rails Best Practices session along the lines of what they do over at The Rails Way.

Michael Koziarski and Marcel Molina Jr.

Using several (supposedly bad) code samples the duo explained how one could improve readability, modularity, and maintainability all at once by following several simple guidelines such as ”Skinny Controller, Fat Model”, as first introduced on Jamis Buck’s blog in 2006.

Make sure all of these suggestions go straight into your “common sense” bin.

The Venue

RailsConf Europe 2007 took place in the Maritim proArte Berlin. As soon as your brain adjusted for the fact that the street-address-facing side of the hotel is actually a mall that doesn’t look at all like a hotel, the hotel worked fairly well as a venue for a 800+ attendee conference.

Being located in downtown Berlin on Friedrichstrasse, the hotel was both in little distance to most travel places (3km to the central station, 15 minutes cab ride to the next airport) and around lots of decent food places.

Speaking of food, lunch was a disaster. And I’m not talking about the food per-se (which was good), but the organization around getting 800+ attendees to their food (or rather, vice versa). If the session you attended happened to end a few minutes late, you’d have to expect to be stuck in lines for the next 20-30 minutes, risking either your cigarette break or your siesta (or both).

The breaks between the sessions as well as the lunch and intermediate breaks were nicely laid out and enough time for both participants and the venue staff to re-arrange the conference rooms going from keynote-mode into split-tracks mode.

From a technical standpoint, two things got in the way of the conference being a full win. First of all, as mentioned in the tutorials section above, the Wi-Fi was unusable most of the time. Luckily, the Wi-Fi at Starbucks right next door would accept the conference credentials for access and provided much better connectivity.

Additionally, the lights on stage and in the session rooms were really bad if you happen to have a passion for photography. Even Mr. Conference Photography himself twittered that. So for the next event, I’ll have to bring my flashes and PocketWizards and mess with Duncan’s lighting.

Summary

It was indeed a good conference where I’ve finally met several people I had only been having electronic conversations with. (So that part of the “networking” actually worked out well.)

Now I’m looking forward to RailsConf US 2008 in Portland (May 29-Jun 01), although I’m not yet certain that I will be able to attend. The next RailsConf Europe will be in Berlin again, but the dates aren’t set yet. As David Black put it: “Block out the entire fall.”

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Filed Under: Conferences