RailsBridge: a Difference That Makes A Difference

So, there’s this conference in town this week.

It’s going to be damned good: attend if you can. One of the most remarkable parts of it is the RailsBridge Women’s Outreach Workshop being offered on Wednesday evening and during the day on Thursday. If you’re a woman who’s new to Rails, or even to programming in general, sign up and bring your laptop.

When I say “most remarkable” I don’t mean that it’s better than other parts of the conference. The Workshop is by all accounts extremely good: well run, welcoming, and very helpful to the larger community of Rails practice. But Madison Ruby is a high-quality event, and I certainly can’t justify singling this one workshop, good as it is, out as being better than the rest of the content.

What I’m saying is that, beyond its clear merits, the Women’s Outreach Workshop showcases some interesting aspects of the nature and character of the Rails community.

I myself haven’t been a part of any RailsBridge work yet (I will be helping out this year) but I’ve been talking with people who did. Not only is the event worth boosting a bit, but it really does exemplify how this community works.


The RailsBridge project is one of the best kinds of volunteer organizations: streamlined, focused, and honest, without a lot of discretionary funding sloshing around. Its mission is simply captured in its Guidelines:

  • First, do no harm. Then, help where you can.
  • Bridge the gap from aspiring developer to contributing community member, through mentoring, teaching, and writing.
  • Reach out to individuals and groups who are underrepresented.
  • collaborate with other groups with similar goals.

The Women’s Outreach Workshops particularly address that third point, of course.

Women’s Outreach Workshop

Women who attend the Workshop start with little or nothing in terms of Rails expertise. They leave with the full Rails personal stack properly installed on their laptop, credentialed accounts with free source control and hosting services in the cloud, and a fully functioning Rails app, built on that laptop and published to those cloud providers—a Rails app that they’ve built themselves, in a day, under the guidance of top-shelf Rails experts.

Note that the Workshops are not strictly limited to women. Men may attend—but only as the +1 of a woman who is taking the Workshop. A thoughtful measure: not entirely exclusionary, just designed to ensure that the Women’s Outreach isn’t overrun by men.

Women’s Outreach at Madison Ruby 2012: how it goes

The first part is the InstallFest, which takes place on Wednesday evening the 22nd. If you’re attending the Workshop, you need to show up at the Bendyworks offices, laptop in hand, by 6:30. The point of InstallFest is to make sure you are ready to start the Workshop on Thursday morning. With the help and guidance of knowledgeable volunteers, you will install the Rails 3.0 stack and a set of development tools on your machine, and set up personal accounts with GitHub (source control) and Heroku (hosting).

The Workshop proper runs all day on Thursday. This year, it’s once again run by the highly accomplished programmer and Rails educator Desi McAdam.

Attendees from last year have consistently praised the Workshop’s sensible organization and low-stress approach. Desi and her team of volunteers will be walking you through the business of setting up a Rails Web app, pushing the source code to your personal GitHub repository, and staging it to Heroku. You will come in a n00b, and you will walk out… well, still a n00b, but one with game-changing tools and confidence.

The Rails Community

I said above that RailsBridge Women’s Outreach illustrates a lot of the characteristics of the Rails community. In particular, consider these points:

  • RailsBridge is an emergent, mainly volunteer effort. Rails people tend to self-organize and to keep the overhead low. Sponsorships sometimes go to good ideas; but the ideas come first, and sponsorship doesn’t confer ownership.
  • The Workshop is all about mentoring. Mentoring is one of the most important Rails norms. If you can help someone learn, you just do.
  • Inclusiveness and diversity, the driving motives behind the Workshop, are favored by the community—at least in spirit. In practice we’re preponderantly white, straight, and male; but most of us seem to regret that uniformity. It’s unsatisfactory, and we sincerely like to contribute to activities like the Women’s Outreach Workshop.
  • Open Source software top to bottom. It’s not just that you don’t have to pay—it’s that there isn’t a license that’s going to get bought in some corporate acquisition and force you to change your code or your stack.
  • Rails programmers do the majority of our work in the cloud. Sometimes we work on local servers for clients, but the ordinary Rails programmer will keep code in publicly accessible source code repositories.
  • The typical Rails programmer uses a laptop. Your tools go with you—and because you’ve got the cloud-centric Rails habit, your work goes with you too.

The Rails community is all of that. There’s a lot more to it, of course, but that would be a bigger article. The Rails community is one of those strange social groupings that crop up from time to time—the ones that make you think, “It can’t really be this good.” But then it is.

Rails people just don’t do the expected. Competitors, rather than trying to put each other out of business, try to help each other prosper. Programmers give their code away with both hands, whenever they can. The level of intellectual excitement remains high; there’s camaraderie and a lot of partying. There’s a genuine eagerness to help anyone who’s worth helping.

Final Note: Inclusiveness and Privilege

This Workshop is timely. Recently we’ve been hearing more voices speaking up about harassment and privilege, and how they relate to gender imbalance in the software sector. Two things about that.

First, John Scalzi has written an incisive commonsense article, “An Incomplete Guide to Not Creeping”. Men: I double dare you to read it. See how your typical behavior, reflexes, and attitudes measure up. Women: this is, among other things, a list of lines that guys should not cross, and you don’t have to excuse them when they do. A partial, incomplete, but very helpful level-set for all.

Second, I am so looking forward to hearing Lindsey Bieda and Steve Klabnik stand and deliver on Friday morning.

Category: Community
Tags: Diversity, Rails, Ruby