It’s just not Kansas

One of the biggest “we’re not in Kansas any more” monents I’ve had with Rails was during a discussion of a conference that a lot of people had been to recently. While we were talking about how the important part of conferences is normally nothing to do with the official schedule I mentioned a story about a very good talk I once went to at UKUUG. It was delivered without slides in part because the night before the speaker had been forced to decide between more beer and writing his slides. To be fair, I don’t believe the speaker in question had ever had much intention of having worthwhile slides and he was certainly good enough to carry it off. I felt that this reflected a focus on the important things but really surprised, perhaps even appauled, by the idea.

Of course, I’ve never been to a Linux conference that required a particularly substantial payment to attend – indeed, one of the most substantial parts of the Debconf budget is sponsored travel for attendees. Requiring such fees for a Linux conference would be a warning sign regarding the sort of audience that the conference was likely to attract. In contrast, Ruby conferences (like Scotland on Rails, which is even closer to me than Debconf was) typically charge only commercial rates. Were I paying commercial rates for a conference I imagine that I too would be demanding well rehearsed talks and a general professionalism from the conference. Equally well, I’d be surprised to see anything quite so excellent as the night venue at Debconf 7 at a more professional conference.

It’s not that Linux is a hobbyist thing – just look at the companies running server farms on the enterprise distributions and paying good money for support, or at the people relying on Linux for embedded applications – or that there is a big wall between the more commercial people and the rest of the community. Often it’s commercial use cases that stress things and drive interesting new work and you’ll often see people doing commercial work asking for help in the same places as end users. It’s not that Rails is particularly hostile to non-commercial people – the openess of the community is comprable to that of other free software projects and the help given to developers by the community feels very much like that you’ll see in the Linux community. The only thing is that the emphasis is very different. As far as I can tell this is mostly due to the applications that the two cover – such a large proportion of substantial applications for Rails are in commercial environments, almost exclusively with closed applications, that it will naturally attract a higher proportion of people who think in exclusively commercial, buisness terms.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Rails community handles this as it grows. The Linux community has, by virtue of being very open technically and focusing strongly on the technical side of things, managed to handle this very well over a very long time period. It’s a big part of what it such a fun place to work. Rails is much newer but I’ve heard a few people remarking on the fact that the success of Rails means that simply being aware of and using Rails is no longer quite such a good indicator of clue as it was when there was no commercial track record to attract people. It’ll be interesting to see how the community adapts to the presence of people motivated more by their CV than by the technology itself.

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