Chatting with Peter Cooper

2008 January 04, 09:30 h

Ruby Inside is one of the greatest Ruby/Rails website available and a great source of news. Its creator is the British entrepreneur Peter Cooper, also the author of the recently published book Beginning Ruby, from Novice to Professional, an excellent source for anyone willing to learn the Ruby language.

Peter speaks about Ruby on Rails, business, novices and, as a last-minute exclusive, he comments on the recent Nuclear Zed episode that shocked a lot of people in the community. Just to clarify, Peter answered my questions before New Years Eve, it’s only the last question that was added today.

Once again, I deeply apologize the brazilian audience because I didn’t have time to translate this into Portuguese today, but I will do very soon. Stay tuned.

AkitaOnRails: For the Ruby community Peter Cooper stands for Ruby Inside. I personally enjoy reading your website as it accumulates most of the important Ruby and Rails websites out there. Let me thank you again for adding my blog to your sidebar list. But how did it start? What do you think were the most important steps you made to build its good reputation?

Peter Cooper: Ruby Inside began as a vehicle for promoting my forthcoming (now released) book, “Beginning Ruby.” The name itself came from a comment made in an interview Geoffrey Grosenbach did for the Rails podcast where someone adapted Ruby into the old “Intel Inside” slogan, which sounded like a great name for a blog covering Ruby issues. Initially, the blog was simply to promote the book, but it quickly turned into a digest of news from the whole Ruby community. I think the key to its success was that the larger Ruby blogs at the time, the O’Reilly Ruby blog being a good example, were posting less and less as their writers were getting more and more Ruby work. Ruby Inside filled a gap of providing heavily digested news from the whole Ruby community, with only one or two posts per day, allowing Ruby developers to keep up to date with things, but without having to subscribe to hundreds of blogs.

AkitaOnRails: Looking through your LinkedIn profile I see that you’ve been quite involved with internet-based business for the last 10 years. You also describe yourself as a ‘serial entrepreneur’. Entrepreneurship is something very very difficult here in Brazil, mainly because of economics and overwhelming bureaucracy involved. How difficult is it there in England to open and run your own business?

Peter: It’s very easy to start up in business in the UK. Depending on what you want to do, you can just say you’re a business right away, without filing any papers (although you do have to call the tax office to let them know!), and operate as a “sole trader.” Registering a business officially, however, is quite easy too and gives you a number of legal protections and a more professional image. Getting funding and so forth isn’t particularly easy here, compared to the UK, but if you’re willing to bootstrap, then the UK’s very good for easy banking, fast communication, and trading with the rest of the world. With the natural advantage of the English language, the US market is easy to target from the UK.

AkitaOnRails: Your other most well known products should be Code Snippets and Feed Digest. Can you introduce both of them to our Brazilian uninitiated? How did the idea occur to you? It was something like ‘scratching your own itch’ or it was something totally unrelated and maybe following some trend that you identified? What tools did you use to build them? Many people are interested to know what does it take to build a successful product. What do you think it takes to be a good internet entrepreneur?

Peter: Code Snippets was the first “tagged” public code snippet repository. In fact, I believe it was the first Rails application to use tagging at all, as I wrote the earliest code which was appropriated into a number of following tagging libraries. The site was launched in early 2005 and I sold it in February 2007 to DZone. Feed Digest is a service for mashing up, processing, and re-publishing RSS and Atom feeds into other formats, such as HTML, JavaScript, Flash, images, and so on. I sold it to a Russian company in the summer of 2007.

Both businesses / sites were a result of “scratching my own itch” as you say. I needed a system to store code snippets in a tagged way, and was not suitable for this, so Code Snippets came out of a 24 hour coding marathon, was publicly released, and then grew to thousands of users over time. Feed Digest evolved from an earlier service called RSS Digest that I created to scratch another itch, republishing my links onto the header of my blog. It grew far beyond that though, and now has over 25,000 users and serves perhaps about half a billion requests each month. I no longer own or have a direct interest in either of those projects now though, but I must be doing okay on the chart of people selling Rails apps!

AkitaOnRails: I congratulate you on your recently published book, from Apress, Beginning Ruby, from Novice to Professional. As Larry Wright states in his review, he is right that the Pickaxe is a good Reference book, but you take a different approach in being more careful about actually ‘teaching’ the environment. It does fill a gap as there are more and more people interested in learning Rails but lacking an introductory book to learn Ruby itself. Please, describe your book for our audience as I think many Brazilians don’t know about your book yet. What’s its target audience? What do you talk about?

Peter: The book is currently only available in English, unfortunately, so the US has definitely been the biggest target market so far. Content-wise, the book is very reminiscent of the “classic” programming tuition books I was brought up on in the 1980s. It takes a very “walkthrough” approach, with the installation of Ruby coming first, followed by a walkthrough of all the main concepts regarding object orientation, Ruby’s syntax, and the basic data types. Eventually, by the end of the book, the reader has gone through file operations, database usage (there’s even an SQL primer), developed a text adventure game, built a simple Rails application, and so forth. It’s very much a book you’d go through, as a beginner, from beginning to end, and then move on to more advanced books like the Pickaxe or The Ruby Way. Hopefully we will see it in Portuguese one day!

AkitaOnRails: And speaking of beginners, again I think it amusing to read at your LinkedIn profile: Does “left school at 16” count? If so, I’m in. Education is great for most, but overrated if you’re a grafter. I dropped college to work in the Internet bubble as well (though not as an entrepreneur, which I regret). I don’t recommend people to just drop college as I did, of course, this is a personal choice and everybody should take an educated decision about their own future. But there are a lot of people – at least here in Brazil – that praise certifications and diplomas much more than hands-on experience. Sure, there are very good certified developers, but there are more bad developers that actually ‘believe’ in their own certifications as a graduation for competency! I don’t see any correlation between diplomas and good developers. What is your opinion about this matter?

Peter: I have a lot of respect for people who take the academic route, and feel that in general they turn out to be better at their jobs than the less well educated. One of the downsides to being indoctrinated in academia, however, is that people with many degrees, certifications and diplomas often act like technological automatons, only understanding one course of action, not able to think dynamically on the fly, and unwilling to try radical new directions. There is a lot of room in the world for people like that, but on the other foot we also need a lot of “crazy” people who try things that initially seem idiotic or radical.

The other problem with people who brag about their certifications is that in many cases they are just proving that they managed to pass a test. Passing a test and having a lot of knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean you develop good problem solving skills or can work as a true developer, architecting solutions from scratch. For example, a builder might be excellent at building houses, but he’s likely to be very poor at actually designing buildings, which is an architect’s job. In IT, especially within smaller companies, it’s often necessary for developers to fill both architectural and development roles, and many people with certifications, but little real world experience, struggle with the design of systems.

AkitaOnRails: We are both Ruby and Rails evangelists, of course, but as myself I don’t see you as a ‘blind’ developer, meaning, the kind that needs to make everything else look bad just to justify putting Ruby up on a pedestal. I actually believe in the ‘right tool for the job’ approach. Not even DHH states that Rails is the solution for every use case. That said, I think Rails is the best approach for a niche of web development. Recently I involved myself – and I regret it – against a troll rant from a Brazilian .net advocate. I don’t dislike .net, far from that. Anyway, do you see yourself involved in rants like this? Or you do try to avoid them altogether? What is your opinion about ‘X vs Y’ type of discussions?

Peter: I think it’s possible to play interesting political games in any situation. As a regular human being I do have, of course, biases and preferences, but it’s important to recognize these for what they are and still be able to see the big picture. I believe in trying to use the right tool for the job (or, more accurately, the most efficient tool for the job – I’m not going to learn a whole new language just to solve one problem), so Ruby Inside runs on WordPress, a PHP-based weblog platform. In terms of bias, I’m certainly rather anti-Microsoft, although I do acknowledge that their approach to the development of GUI applications is light years ahead of everyone else.

I don’t try to avoid or become embroiled in X vs Y types of discussions, although I do tend to play devil’s advocate when they come up. It is important to remain as scientific and objective as possible in these situations, but I’ll certainly let a little bias show from time to time, as any human would. For example, I (and I’m far from alone on this, although a lot of people seem not to want to rock the boat publicly) am not particularly keen on David Heinemeier Hansson’s overprotection of the terms Ruby and Ruby on Rails, and especially the Rails logo to the point where he rejects the Rails logo’s usage on books that he has not personally worked on. I’m not afraid to show some bias and reference issues like these from time to time.

AkitaOnRails: This leads to another question: everyday I see people here asking us “Why should I choose Ruby on Rails over X?” Personally, I think there is no clear answer for that. Being experienced in many platforms like ASP.NET, Java, PHP, Perl, I did my choice based not only on raw performance (which Ruby lacks, for now), not even a mature library set (which is evolving fast, though). Some reasons were based solely on me being happier with this platform. I do think Ruby enables me to write more ‘beautiful’ code as Marcel Molina Jr. explains. But “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. What’s your take on this matter? Being an experienced programmer in other platforms, why did you choose Rails?

Peter: I was a Perl developer before I came across Ruby and Rails, and when I did see Rails, the first thing I did was try to clone it in Perl. Unfortunately, I’m definitely not in the top 10% of programmers, by any means, so my attempt was messy. I tried using Rails directly, reluctantly, with a self promise not to get suckered in to learning a whole new language, but merely to develop what I needed to develop at the time. Of course, the rest is history and I’ve been converted over to Ruby entirely, due to its consistency, ease of use, and the way it just feels like a “natural” language.

Back in 2004, Ruby’s library set was poor, RubyGems wasn’t popular, and there weren’t many books available, so it seemed like a poor choice, but these things have all changed very rapidly, and I’d say Ruby’s library set in 2007 competes very strongly with, say, Python, and while the raw numbers are behind those of Perl’s CPAN, the quality and modernity of Ruby’s libraries exceed it. Ruby is now a strong choice.

AkitaOnRails: I have to extend this theme because I think it is relevant as we see more and more switchers to Rails. I see 2 kinds of developers coming on board: the first being experienced programmers that were not satisfied with their current day-jobs and tools and wanted to try something new and refreshing. The second being novice developers that think Java or .NET have a higher learning curve than Rails. The latter worries me a little bit because some tend to think that Rails is too easy to be considered professionally and some even get frustrated in finding out that Ruby is not Basic, and you do have to make an effort to learn its way. You do training as well, what are your experience dealing with newcomers?

Peter: I have not dealt with anyone who’s completely new to Web application development, so I cannot give a strong answer. However, I certainly don’t feel that people are choosing to learn Ruby or Rails because it’s perceived as “easy.” Indeed, I think it’s the more experienced developers who consider Rails to be easy, and that’s why they’re giving it a go. Beginners tend to just go with whatever is in fashion at the time or what’s the most popular. There’s no shortage of newcomers to all of the major languages right now, it’s just that Ruby is now getting its fair share at last.

AkitaOnRails: 3 years ago the majority of developers predicted the “demise” of Rails as a viable alternative. Today we just saw Rails 2.0 out of the door and the Rails community growing faster and stronger each day. Now people do think of Rails as the contender to beat. I think this is a good thing because we tend to run faster (develop more gems, innovate more) when we are under pressure. Do you think people are accepting Rails more or do you still see barriers for Rails adoption, at least there in England or Europe in general?

Peter: I disagree with your assertion that three years ago a majority of developers predicted the demise of Rails. I think there were just a lot of defensive programmers choosing to disregard it. I also don’t think the majority of developers on other platforms see Rails as something to beat. There’s actually a lot of blindness in the branches of the programming community to the efforts being made in other branches. The majority of .Net developers don’t care about, and most likely haven’t heard of, Ruby or Rails. Developers on dying platforms, such as Cold Fusion, are more familiar with Rails, simply because they’ve been looking for alternatives, but Java and .Net are still taking on new developers at a far higher rate than Ruby and Rails. There is a large difference in what the blogs and other online media want to report and what’s actually happening out there.

AkitaOnRails: There were many things that Ruby was lacking and now we just saw Ruby 1.9 released. It is still no stable 2.0 but this is a clear sign that the language is evolving fast as a mature platform. Free performance is always welcome, but this release will break many things. Are you already using 1.9 or do you feel it’s still not ready for prime time?

Peter: I’ve played with Ruby 1.9 a bit, but I don’t routinely use it. I don’t consider myself a programmer in the academic sense. I like to be aware of, and dabble briefly with, technologies on the fringes, but I’m not one of these super-programmers who downloads, say, Erlang or Haskell and tries to learn it in a weekend. Ruby 1.8 will definitely remain my main Ruby interpreter for at least a few months yet.

AkitaOnRails: Our Brazilian community is still very young and small, I usually describe it as the US community from 2004 ~ 2005. We still didn’t reach critical mass. How are things going there at England or Europe? Is your community big enough that the market started to demand Rails related professionals already?

Peter: The market in the UK is still very small. There was literally nothing in 2005 but things have grown quickly in the last couple of years, although it’s still perhaps 1000th the size of the market for Java or .Net services. There are usually a handful of Rails related jobs floating around, but so far I’ve found that Rails is a technology that agencies are using for their clients behind the scenes, rather than something being actively demanded. I am not directly involved in the UK Ruby or Rails communities, however, so I cannot provide much more detail than this.

AkitaOnRails: This is just for amusement: if you were DHH or Matz what would you like to change in Rails or Ruby? Or maybe, where do you see both of them leading to?

Peter: If I were DHH, then Rails probably wouldn’t exist, simply because I think a lot of his excellent evangelism of Rails is driven by some craving of fame. At a more practical level, though, I would make Rails less opinionated and more customizable, simply because a lot of the opinions are too rigid to be practical in the real world. The initial opinion of relying on the database to provide information about model structure was a good one, but then along came migrations.. and suddenly we’re defining table layouts in code after all, often in many tens of different files! Why not just put the attributes into the models directly and let Rails take care of the schema changes transparently? DataMapper does this, and ActiveRecord is starting to look backwards in comparison with its bizarro approach.

On the Ruby side of things, I think Matz has done an excellent job technically, although whereas DHH scores high on the PR scale, Matz seems reluctant to promote Ruby at all. I think this is both because this sort of modesty is a honorable trait in Japanese culture, but also because Ruby is something he developed to scratch an itch, and another million or so developers using the language won’t benefit him significantly. He’s a great guy, but he lacks the craziness of Larry Wall (Perl) and the authority of Guido van Rossum (Python) and is incredibly lucky that he can rely on a very strong and vocal community to promote Ruby. One benefit of Matz’s hands-off approach is that people feel that they can take authority over various areas of the language and community for themselves without having to answer to a higher authority.

In terms of the technical side, the only thing I’d perhaps do if I were in control of the development of the Ruby language would be to make heavy pushes towards more functional constructs in Ruby 2.0. JavaScript and Perl 6 are taking strides into the world of functional programming, and Ruby needs to follow. I’d also be considering concurrency very strongly and making this a major focus for new language feature developments.

AkitaOnRails: What would be your recommendation for novice Railers here in Brazil? I mean, for those that wants to learn both Ruby and Rails but may need some guidance to start?

Peter: Well, if you can speak English, then naturally I’m going to suggest my book “Beginning Ruby” published by Apress! Unfortunately I’m not familiar with Portuguese resources for learning Ruby or Rails, although I’m sure you are! One free resource I would definitely recommend to newer developers is Chris Pine’s “Learn to Program.” It’s available as a print book, but a more raw version is available to read free online.

AkitaOnRails: Now, speaking of information, we had a very explosive new year beginning. Zed Shaw literally exploded in rants, cursing and every form of aggressive communication. As I stated in my previous article I was personally shocked at first, but I read it through – trying to filter down all the hatred, and uncivilized manners – and there’s actually some information buried there. What is your take about this episode?

Peter: Personally, I think Zed is spot on. I don’t like the way he has specifically attacked a few people personally (Kevin Clark, for example) for minor infractions. His language is harsh, and he clearly has a lot of vitriol. Behind all the swear words and chest beating, however, is a lot of truth. I sympathize with his main arguments, especially those raised in the “round two” update published on January 3rd.

Zed touches on the way some people form into elitist, ego driven gangs, such as Rails Core and the I was involved with the for a while myself, and I have a great respect for many of its members (Courtenay Gasking and Amy Hoy, for example), but the whole thing stank too much of elitism to me, and I’ve distanced myself from all of this Rails related online socialization. I could recall quite a few pathetic condescending incidents from members of these communities myself, but unlike Zed I leave quietly. I think one of the biggest causes of the tension, gang-forming, and general childishness is that many of the people involved with these gangs have no social life outside of this community. This probably explains why parlor games like Werewolf and general goofery are so popular at the conferences, as opposed to, say, actually revolutionizing the field.

Lastly, Zed is spot on with his comments about the “Programming Ruby” book, more commonly known as the “Pickaxe.” I tend to remain politically correct on this subject, especially as I have a competing book, but the Pickaxe really is stunning in its mediocrity. It sells well because it has first mover advantage and name recognition, and no-one else has bothered writing a better reference book (The Ruby Way is excellent, but it’s not a reference book). For having the only printed Ruby reference book, Dave Thomas deserves credit, but it’s still mediocre.

AkitaOnRails: For the good or the bad, I have mixed feelings about this whole episode. I won’t judge anyone yet. Let’s see how it unfolds. And of course, I really appreciate Peter Cooper’s patience with me, kindly answering all my questions. Thanks a lot!

tags: interview english


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