Your Papers, Please

Sometimes a line of discussion will open up into areas of unexpected intensity. Suddenly people are vehement and they won’t let go. When that happens, it’s interesting, and it might mean something.

This happened at Madison Ruby (#MadisonRuby) during a moderated panel of principal Rails teachers: Steve Anderson of Bendyworks, Chad Pytel of Thoughtbot, Jeff Cohen of Code Academy, and Jeff Casimir of Jumpstart Labs. Everything was pretty low-key until moderator Steven Bristol asked a question that provoked blunt audience outcry and dominated the rest of the panel’s time. Reverberations continued on Twitter for a while. The question, paraphrased a bit, was

Should there be some kind of recognized Ruby and/or Rails certification?

Well, that danced the laser dot in front of the cats, and motion predictably ensued. The discussion quickly expanded to its natural scope, which is

How can a Rails employer tell whether a prospective hire is competent with the stack?

This seems like a simple question, but it really isn’t. It’s tied to the nature of the Rails community, to who we are, and what we are becoming.

Disclaimer: I’m still new here. I still have that charming combination of ignorance and… ignorance. I like to refer to this as “a fresh set of eyes”.

Reputation over Remuneration

The most obvious thing about the Rails community is its fairly tribal nature. The term “tribal” has a lot of meanings that are used in a lot of ways, so I’m going to boil it down for this. When I say “tribe” I mean that this is a fairly cohesive community in which reputation is the primary common good. In particular, we do not use money as a marker for tribal status, as so many other communities do. It’s more important what people think of us as developers and as individuals than what people think about our wealth.

Of course, we care about money as such – there’s a lot of entrepreneurial energy around, and a lot of ambition. But honestly now – how many people in the Rails tribe are willing to trade in their reputation for money?

Yes, I know: “How much money are we talking exactly?” There’s always a hypothetical dollar amount that invalidates the whole thought experiment. But think about that for a moment. Those hypothetical dollar amounts are really nothing more than a vague exit strategy. How much money is my Rails community reputation worth? That question inspires a definition:

exit fuckton: A monetary amount deemed sufficient to cause a person to permanently forsake the tribe.

As a hypothetical, that’s comfortably far-off, and I think for many of us it would end up being rather a lot.

“Oh son—you sold your Rails community reputation?”

“Well, I wasn’t using it. And he taught me how to play this guitar real good. #rockstar”

Money is an individual good. Its importance in tribal matters is secondary.

Rails Tribe

So, a Tribe, whose internal relationships are primarily mediated by the regard we hold for one another. But what kind of Tribe are we? What do we care about?

Of course, we care about the technologies and the practices. That’s what brings us together in the first place. Our take on that is unusual though: it leans hard in the direction of craftsmanship—something you don’t often see in communities of programming practice.

We have a strong ethos of contribution. The rails community could not exist in its current form, and probably not at all, without the huge body of Open Source code in Rails, and the equally huge consensus that giving your code to the community is much better than keeping it to yourself. Hand in hand with that goes a strong opinion in favor of transparency. We do not hold a high opinion of the secretive. We are pretty out there in a lot of ways.

We also value mentoring. We have, it seems, an ingrained impulse to help people level up, and to recruit people who are cool, people who have the spark.

We also discuss, a lot. We talk and tweet and (ahem) blog, and when we can we stand and deliver at tribal gatherings. Communication is contribution. Seriously, people: I’ve been to conferences in other disciplines. The concept that your personality and expressiveness are themselves contributions is… not a widespread notion out there. The Ruby on Rails community is perhaps more different than you’d think.

We’re flexible and tolerant. We value wit, humanity, playfulness, insight. Anyone who attended Madison Ruby, as I did, could not fail to be impressed by the emphasis on passion, creativity, personal development, and thinking outside the box. Some, like Nell Shamrell, tried consciously to connect the dots, to draw explicit connections between the creative life and the world of software. Other presentations were a little less obviously applicable. What kind of technical conference features talks from two world-class drummers in a single afternoon? Martin Atkins and Clyde Stubblefield are very different people; but they both had important things to tell us, and I’m pretty sure that most of the conference attendees were listening.

We want to be fair and openhearted. Fairness matters to us. Hampton Catlin closed out Madison Ruby with a thoughtful meditation on the genetic basis of humanity and what it tells us about the users of our software, and how wrongheaded we as engineers can be about those users. One tangential but important takeaway is that fairness is extremely important to everybody—it’s a defining characteristic of the human personality—but that different cultures have different perceptions of what’s actually fair. Rails Tribe seems to set that particular bar pretty high.

Oh, and? We are convivial. In case you hadn’t noticed.

Rails Tribe: we contribute. We give it away with both hands. We prefer to be good people. And that, in turn, is the basis of reputation.


So now we turn to the discussion that started this whole thing. How can an employer tell that a prospective hire is competent, and would a formal Ruby On Rails certification process help out?

After everything I’ve said above, I think you can guess my answer. But I’ll tell it anyway.

Rails Tribe already has existing measures of very high quality for figuring out whether someone is good, and a good fit. Want a job? Well, show what you’ve got. Resumes are of little value compared to a portfolio of accomplished (or in-process) work; a look at GitHub makes one hell of a portfolio. Interviews are less useful than time spent pair programming. A potential employer can learn an honest lot about you from your online presence, right? Hard to conceal your personality if you have a long-running Twitter feed, especially that thing where you tweet all drunk-ass. #InVinoVeritas

In a context like this, formal certification is farcical. It contributes absolutely nothing.

However, certification does have two very valid real-world purposes.

First, certification is a moneymaker for the certifier.

Second, certification is important for bureaucratic purposes. HR people and pointy-haired bosses want some kind of objective marker that they can use to get a handle on a mass-market, highly impersonal employment process.

Obviously, those two purposes form a very stable self-reinforcing system.

To me, the fact that someone raised the concept of a Rails Certification, and that it grabbed everyone’s attention so hard—it was hard to get people off of the discussion—is an ominous sign. It’s an indication that the Enterprise is coming. A warning that the concepts and norms of bureaucracy will be weighing heavier and heavier on Rails Tribe. What will happen then? Will we somehow preserve our integrity as a community, and dictate the way we can live our lives? Or will we be overwhelmed by a huge manswarm gaggle of self-important corporate underachievers with their baggage of mediocrity and spite and futility, of systems failure as a way of life?

Will we then find that we have to get a piece of paper to get a job?

Good questions. I have no real idea how it’s going to go, not yet.

Leon Gersing’s superb talk at Madison Ruby opened with an adaptation of the famous Hunter S. Thompson quote about the drug collection in the trunk of the car, from Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. I’ll close with another Thompson quote. Determining applicability is left as an exercise.

“History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of ‘history’ it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket… booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)… but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that…

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”


Category: Community