The Hidden Ruby Community

by James Britt

A few nights ago I had the good fortune of leading the first Phoenix Ruby Users Group meeting in many months, and the difference between this one and the previous meeting were amazing. Expecting to see maybe eight or ten people, a fairly sizable training room (graciously provided by Cyclone Commerce) was completely filled. By rough estimate there were 25 to 30 people. Were in the world did they come from?

A bit of history: I came to Ruby sometime in 2000 or 2001. It was probably Dave Thomas’ article in Dr. Dobbs that piqued my interest. I remember browsing through a copy of the first edition of Programming Ruby at a local Barnes & Noble, and being put off by some of the syntax, but, for reasons now unknown, I gave Ruby another shot. Part of learning Ruby was getting active in the Ruby community, which meant lurking, then participating, on the ruby-talk mailing list, and learning about the main Ruby Web sites, such as Ruby Central and Ruby Garden.

Some time early on, interested in meeting other Rubyists, I added my name to the Ruby Garden wiki page for the Phoenix Ruby Users Group. There were, I think, two names already there. I may have tried sending E-mail to these people, but nothing ever came about. It wasn’t until early 2005 that, hearing that people were doing well using (then free) Meetup.com to organize user groups that I did actually attend my first Phoenix meeting. On the up side, I met great people (in fact, it led to my joining them in the Web design and development company, 30 Second Rule ). However, over the course of three or four meetings, it was always the same three people, and the user group, as such, just dissolved. Though the Rails Summer of Hype meant Ruby was getting routine attention on various Web sites (such as Slashdot, and here on O’Reilly), it seemed as though Phoenix was just never going to be a hotbed of Ruby activity.

Getting Refreshed

However, a few months ago, a few folks from some local companies began to realize that indeed there were a number of interesting people and companies here in the Valley of the Sun , but for the most part they were operating in complete ignorance of one other. Copping a tune from Refresh Dallas, Refresh Phoenix was born, with the goal of bringing together Web developers and designers in a relaxed social environment so we could meet, get acquainted, learn new things, and share ideas and experiences.

The first meeting in November went great. Our fears of pitiful turnout were completely unfounded; there were probably 25 to 30 people there. It turned out that many people were thinking the same thing, and were eager to get out of their cubicles and actually talk with people, face-to-face.

The big surprise for me, though, came as we asked everyone gathered to say a bit about themselves, what they do, and what things were they interesting in. Probably half a dozen people mentioned Ruby or Ruby and Rails, saying either they were just getting started or looking learn.

At the second Refresh Phoenix meeting I announced that I was looking to revive the Phoenix Ruby group; before I left I collected a dozen names. Shortly afterward I made plans for our first meeting, expecting perhaps eight or ten of those on my list to show up, as well as a few folks from Cyclone Commerce. I was mistaken.

The meeting was scheduled to begin at 6:00 PM, and by 6:15 PM nearly every seat in the good-sized training room was taken. Wow.

Since this was largely a Get Acquainted and Figure Stuff Out meeting, I asked if each person could say who they were, how much Ruby they knew, and what they hoped to get from the group. The responses were somewhat surprising. Most people had taken a stab at Ruby coding, but were just getting started. That made some intuitive sense. I was really expecting to hear a room full of people telling me they all wanted to learn Rails. But, while that did get some mention, most people expressed a primary interest in learning Ruby itself, in expanding their general programming skill set. Some wanted to get away from Java, some wanted a better understanding of meta-programing with a dynamic language. But the interest was in Ruby itself, not some particular framework or application.

Since so many were new to Ruby, I offered up some resources. By a show of hands, though, most of the room seemed unfamiliar with the ruby-talk mailing list (home to the world’s friendliest developer community) and most of what I consider the better known Ruby Web sites. So here was a room full of people, many of whom were already somewhat familiar with Ruby, many of whom had taken steps to learn Ruby, yet were not even lurking on ruby-talk or surfing the Ruby Garden wiki. (Thankfully, at least some folks already knew about ruby-doc.org.)

The meeting went great, and I’m looking forward to the next one, in January. It’s really nice to be around so many people so interested in expanding their horizons.

The Takeaway

I think one tends to get the impression that the discussions on ruby-talk, or on Slashdot or O’Reilly, or on the many Ruby blogs, somehow represent the “Ruby community”, but the reality is that there are good numbers of people actively interested in Ruby, but unaware or indifferent to certain public forums and currents. This suggests that while activity on the main outlets correctly indicate a growing interesting in Ruby, the real numbers are much larger than may be readily apparent. And the comments from people I spoke with suggest that while certain topics and tool sets get a fair amount of public buzz, there is tremendous interest in all the myriad aspects of Ruby.

If you are a publisher, you may want to rethink jumping on whatever is the current bandwagon for your next Ruby book. People want to know all about all of Ruby. And if you are part of a company looking for developers, thinking that Ruby may give you an edge, but concerned about finding people, know this: There are far more Rubyists than you know.