Ruby on Rails’ phenomenal rise to prominence owed much of its lift-off to novel technology and timing. But technological advantages erode over time, and good timing doesn’t sustain movements alone over the long term. So a broader explanation of how Rails has continued to not only stay relevant but to grow its impact and community is needed. I propose that the enduring enabler has been and remains its controversial doctrine.
This doctrine has evolved over the past decade, but most of its strongest pillars are also the founding ones. I make no claim to the fundamental originality of these ideas. The chief accomplishment of Rails was to unite and cultivate a strong tribe around a wide set of heretical thoughts about the nature of programming and programmers.
With all that ado, here follows the nine most important pillars of The Rails Doctrine, as perceived by yours truly:
There would be no Rails without Ruby, so it’s only fitting that the first doctrinal pillar is lifted straight from the core motivation for creating Ruby.
Ruby’s original heresy was indeed to place the happiness of the programmer on a pedestal. Above many other competing and valid concerns that had driven programming languages and ecosystems before it.
Where Python might boast that there’s “one and preferably only one way to do something”, Ruby relished expressiveness and subtlety. Where Java championed forcefully protecting programmers from themselves, Ruby included a set of sharp knives in the welcome kit. Where Smalltalk drilled a purity of message passing, Ruby accumulated keywords and constructs with an almost gluttonous appetite.
Ruby was different because it valued different things. And most of those things were in service of this yearning for programmer happiness. A pursuit that brought it at odds with not only most other programming environments, but also the mainstream perception of what a programmer was and how they were supposed to act.
Ruby took to not only recognize but accommodate and elevate programmer feelings. Whether they be of inadequacy, whimsy, or joy. Matz jumped implementational hurdles of astounding complexity to make the machine appear to smile at and flatter its human co-conspirator. Ruby is full of optical illusions where that which seems simple, clear, and beautiful to our mind’s eye actually is an acrobatic mess of wires under the hood. These choices were not free (ask the JRuby crew about trying to reverse-engineer this magical music box!), which is precisely why they’re so commendable.
It was this dedication to an alternate vision for programming and programmers that sealed my love affair with Ruby. It wasn’t just ease of use, it wasn’t just aesthetics of blocks, it was no one single technical achievement. It was a vision. A counter culture. A place for the misfits of the existing professional programming mold to belong and associate with the like of mind.
I’ve described this discovery of Ruby in the past as finding a magical glove that just fit my brain perfectly. Better than I had ever imagined any glove could ever fit. But it was even more than that. It was the event that marked my own personal transition from ‘doing programming because I needed programs’ to ‘doing programming because I fell in love with it as a mode of intellectual exercise and expression’. It was finding a fountain of flow and being able to turn it on at will. For anyone familiar with Csikszentmihalyi’s work, the impact of this is hard to overstate.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that Ruby transformed me and set the course for my life’s work. So deep was the revelation. It imbued me with a calling to do missionary work in service of Matz’s creation. To help spread this profound creation and its benefits.
Now I can imagine most of you shaking your heads with incredulity. I don’t blame you. If someone had described the experience above to me when I was still living under the “programming is just a tool” paradigm, I too would have shook my head. And then I would probably have laughed at the over-the-top use of religious language. But for this to be a truthful account, it also has to be honest, even if that’s off-putting to some or even most.
Anyway, what did this mean for Rails and how does this principle continue to guide its evolution? To answer that, I think it’s instructive to look at another principle that was often used to describe Ruby in the early days: The Principle of Least Surprise. Ruby should behave how you’d expect it to. This is easily described with a contrast to Python:
Ruby accepts both exit and quit to accommodate the programmer’s obvious desire to quit its interactive console. Python, on the other hand, pedantically instructs the programmer how to properly do what’s requested, even though it obviously knows what is meant (since it’s displaying the error message). That’s a pretty clear-cut, albeit small, example of PoLS.
The reason PoLS fell out of favor with the Ruby community was that this principle is inherently subjective. Least surprising to whom? Well, to Matz. And people who are surprised in the same way as him. As the Ruby community grew, and the ratio of people who were surprised by different things than Matz grew with it, this became a source of fruitless bike-shedding on the mailing lists. So the principle faded to the background, lest to invite more debates going nowhere over whether person X was surprised by behavior Y or not.
So again, what does this have to do with Rails? Well, Rails has been designed with a similar principle to Principle of Least Surprise (To Matz). The Principle of The Bigger Smile (of DHH), which is just what it says on the tin: APIs designed with great attention paid to whatever would make me smile more and broader. When I write it out like this, that sounds almost comically narcissistic, and even I find hard to argue against that first impression.
But creating something like Ruby or Rails is at least at its outset a deeply narcissistic endeavor. Both projects sprung from the mind of a singular creator. But perhaps I’m projecting my own motivations onto Matz here, so let me narrow the scope of my proclamation to that which I know: I created Rails for me. To make me smile, first and foremost. Its utility was to many degrees subservient to its ability to make me enjoy my life more. To enrich my daily toil of wrangling requirements and requests for web information systems.
Like Matz, I at times went to silly lengths to serve my principle. One example is the Inflector, a class that understands just enough of the patterns and irregularities of the English language to map a Person class to a People table, Analysis to Analyses, and simply Comment to Comments. This behavior is now accepted as an unquestioned element of Rails, but the fires of controversy raged with great intensity in the early days when we were still coalescing the doctrine and its importance.
Another example that required less implementation effort, but triggered almost as much consternation: Array#second through #fifth (and #forty_two for good trolling measure). These alias accessors were deeply offensive to a very vocal constituency who decried the bloat (and near end of civilization, for good measure) of something that could as well be written as Array#, Array# (and Array).
But both decisions still, to this day, make me smile. I relish getting to write people.third in a test case or the console. No, that’s not logical. It’s not efficient. It may even be pathological. But it continues to make me smile, thus fulfilling the principle and enriching my life, helping to justify my continued involvement with Rails after 12 years of service.
Unlike, say, optimizing for performance, it’s tough to measure optimizing for happiness. This makes it an almost inherently unscientific endeavor, which to some renders it less important, if not outright frustrating. Programmers are taught to argue and conquer the measurable. That which has clear conclusions and where A can categorically be shown to be better than B.
But while the pursuit of happiness is hard to measure at the micro level, it’s a lot clearer to observe at the macro level. The Ruby on Rails community is full of people who are here precisely because of this pursuit. They boast of better, more fulfilled working lives. It’s in this aggregate of emotions that the victory is clear.
So thus we conclude: Optimizing for happiness is perhaps the most formative key to Ruby on Rails. It shall remain such going forward.
One of the early productivity mottos of Rails went: “You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake”. It postulated that by giving up vain individuality, you can leapfrog the toils of mundane decisions, and make faster progress in areas that really matter.
Who cares what format your database primary keys are described by? Does it really matter whether it’s “id”, “postId”, “posts_id”, or “pid”? Is this a decision that’s worthy of recurrent deliberation? No.
Part of the Rails’ mission is to swing its machete at the thick, and ever growing, jungle of recurring decisions that face developers creating information systems for the web. There are thousands of such decisions that just need to be made once, and if someone else can do it for you, all the better.
Not only does the transfer of configuration to convention free us from deliberation, it also provides a lush field to grow deeper abstractions. If we can depend on a Person class mapping to people table, we can use that same inflection to map an association declared as has_many :people to look for a Person class. The power of good conventions is that they pay dividends across a wide spectrum of use.
But beyond the productivity gains for experts, conventions also lower the barriers of entry for beginners. There are so many conventions in Rails that a beginner doesn’t even need to know about, but can just benefit from in ignorance. It’s possible to create great applications without knowing why everything is the way it is.
That’s not possible if your framework is merely a thick textbook and your new application a blank piece of paper. It takes immense effort to even figure out where and how to start. Half the battle of getting going is finding a thread to pull.
The same goes even when you understand how all the pieces go together. When there’s an obvious next step for every change, we can scoot through the many parts of an application that is the same or very similar to all the other applications that went before it. A place for everything and everything in its place. Constraints liberate even the most able minds.
As with anything, though, the power of convention isn’t without peril. When Rails makes it so trivial to do so much, it is easy to think every aspect of an application can be formed by precut templates. But most applications worth building have some elements that are unique in some way. It may only be 5% or 1%, but it’s there.
The hard part is knowing when to stray from convention. When are the deviating particulars grave enough to warrant an excursion? I contend that most impulses to be a beautiful and unique snowflake are ill considered, and that the cost of going off the Rails is under appreciated, but just enough of them won’t be that you need to examine all of them carefully.
How do you know what to order in a restaurant when you don’t know what’s good? Well, if you let the chef choose, you can probably assume a good meal, even before you know what “good” is. That is omakase. A way to eat well that requires you neither be an expert in the cuisine nor blessed with blind luck at picking in the dark.
For programming, the benefits of this practice, letting others assemble your stack, is similar to those we derive from Convention over Configuration, but at a higher level. Where CoC is occupied with how we best use individual frameworks, omakase is concerned with which frameworks, and how they fit together.
This is at odds with the revered programming tradition of presenting available tools as individual choices, and to bestow the individual programmer privilege (and burden!) of deciding.
You’ve surely heard, and probably nodded to, “use the best tool for the job”. It sounds so elementary as to be beyond debate, but being able to pick the “best tool” depends on a foundation that allows “best” to be determined with confidence. This is much harder than it seems.
It is a problem similar to that of the diner in a restaurant. And like picking each course in an eight-set meal, picking each individual library or framework is not a job done in isolation. The objective in both cases is to consider the whole evening or system.
So with Rails we decided to diminish one good, a programmer’s individual privilege to choose each tool in their box, for a greater one: A better tool box for all. The dividends are legion:
Because even the most learned and skilled programmers who come to and stay in Rails aren’t likely opposed to all matters of the menu. (If they were, they probably wouldn’t have stuck with Rails.) So they pick their substitutions with diligence, and then go on to enjoy the rest of the curated, shared stack alongside everyone else.
There’s a strong emotional appeal to picking a single central idea and following it to the logical conclusion as your architectural underpinning. There’s a purity in such discipline, so it’s clear why programmers are naturally attracted to this bright light.
Rails isn’t like that. It isn’t a single, perfect cut of cloth. It’s a quilt. A composite of many different ideas and even paradigms. Many that would usually be seen in conflict, if contrasted alone and one by one. But that’s not what we’re trying to do. It isn’t a single championship of superior ideas where a sole winner must be declared.
Take the templates we build the view in our Rails MVC pie with. By default, all the helpers that allow us to extract code from these templates are just a big pot of functions! It’s a single namespace even. Oh the shock and the horror, it’s like PHP soup!
But I contend that PHP had it right when it came to presenting individual functions that rarely needed to interact, as is the case with much abstraction in view templates. And for this purpose, the single namespace, the big pot of methods, is not only a reasonable choice, but a great one.
This doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally want to reach for something more object-oriented when building views. The concept of Presenters, where we wrap many methods that are interdependent with each other and the data below it, can occasionally be the perfect antidote to a soup of methods turned sour by dependencies. But it’s generally proved to be the rare rather than common fit.
In comparison, we generally treat the model in our MVC layer cake as the prime bastion of object-oriented goodness. Finding just the right names for objects, increasing the coherence, and lowering the coupling is the fun of domain modeling. It’s a very different layer from the view, so we take a different approach.
But even here we don’t subscribe to single-paradigm dogma. Rails concerns, the specialization of Ruby’s mixins, are often used to give the individual models a very wide surface area. This fits well with the Active Record pattern by giving the concerned methods direct access to the data and storage they interact with.
Even the very foundation of the Active Record framework offends some purists. We’re mixing the logic needed for interfacing with the database directly with the business domain and logic. Such conflation of boundaries! Yes, because it proved to be the practical way to skin a web-app cat that virtually always talks to a database of some sort to persist the state of the domain model.
To be so ideologically flexible is what enables Rails to tackle such a wide array of problems. Most individual paradigms do very well within a certain slice of the problem space, but become awkward or rigid when applied beyond its natural sphere of comfort. By applying many overlapping paradigms, we cover the flanks and guard the rear. The final framework is far stronger and more capable than any individual paradigm would have allowed it to be.
Now, the cost of this polyamorous relationship with the many paradigms of programming is conceptual overhead. It’s not enough to just know object-oriented programming to have a good time with Rails. It’s preferable to be well served with procedural and functional experiences as well.
The way to alleviate some of that learning burden is to simply just make it easy to get started, make something of real value, before you understand every single aspect of the framework. We have a rush to Hello World for this reason. Your table already prepared and an appetizer served.
The thinking is that by giving something of real value early, we’ll encourage the practitioners of Rails to level-up quickly. Accept their journey of learning as a joy, not an obstacle.
We write code not just to be understood by the computer or other programmers, but to bask in the warm glow of beauty. Aesthetically pleasing code is a value unto itself and should be pursued with vigor. That doesn’t mean that beautiful code always trumps other concerns, but it should have a full seat at the table of priorities.
So what is beautiful code? In Ruby, it’s often somewhere at the intersection between native Ruby idioms and the power of a custom domain-specific language. It’s a fuzzy line, but one well worth trying to dance.
Here’s a simple example from Active Record:
This looks like DSL, but it’s really just a class definition with three class-method calls that take symbols and options. There’s nothing fancy here. But it sure is pretty. It sure is simple. It gives an immense amount of power and flexibility from those few declarations.
Part of the beauty comes from these calls honoring the previous principles, like Convention over Configuration. When we call belongs_to :account, we’re assuming that the foreign key is called account_id and that it lives in the projects table. When we have to designate the class_name of Person to the role of the participants association, we require just that class name definition. From it we’ll derive, again, the foreign keys and other configuration points.
Here’s another example from the database migrations system:
This is the essence of framework power. The programmer declares a class according to certain convention, like a ActiveRecord::Migration subclass that implements #change, and the framework can do all the plumbing that goes around that, and know this is the method to call.
This leaves the programmer with very little code to write. In the case of migrations, not only will this allow a call to rails db:migrate to upgrade the database to add this new table, it’ll also allow it to go the other way of dropping this table with another call. This is very different from a programmer making all this happen and stitching the workflow together from libraries they call themselves.
Sometimes beautiful code is more subtle, though. It’s less about making something as short or powerful as possible, but more about making the rhythm of the declaration flow.
These two statements do the same:
But the flow and focus is subtly different. In the first statement, the focus is on the collection. That’s our subject. In the second statement, the subject is clearly the person. There’s not much between the two statements in length, but I’ll contend that the second is far more beautiful and likely to make me smile when used in a spot where the condition is about the person.
Ruby includes a lot of sharp knives in its drawer of features. Not by accident, but by design. The most famous is monkey patching: The power to change existing classes and methods.
This power has frequently been derided as simply too much for mere mortal programmers to handle. People from more restrictive environments used to imagine all sorts of calamities that would doom Ruby because of the immense trust the language showed its speakers with this feature.
If you can change anything, what is there to stop you from overwriting String#capitalize so that “something bold”.capitalize returns “Something Bold” rather than “Something bold”? That might work in your local application, but then break all sorts of auxiliary code that depend on the original implementation.
Nothing, is the answer. There’s nothing programmatically in Ruby to stop you using its sharp knives to cut ties with reason. We enforce such good senses by convention, by nudges, and through education. Not by banning sharp knives from the kitchen and insisting everyone use spoons to slice tomatoes.
Because the flip side of monkey patching is the power to do such feats of wonder as 2.days.ago (which returns a date two days back from the current). Now you might well think that’s a bad trade. That you’d rather lose 2.days.ago if it means preventing programmers from overwriting String#capitalize. If that’s your position, Ruby is probably not for you.
Yet it’d be hard — even for people who would give up such freedom for some security — to argue that the power to change core classes and methods has doomed Ruby as a language. On the contrary, the language flourished exactly because it offered a different and radical perspective on the role of the programmer: That they could be trusted with sharp knives.
And not only trusted, but taught in the ways to use such capable tools. That we could elevate the entire profession by assuming most programmers would want to become better programmers, capable of wielding sharp knives without cutting off their fingers. That’s an incredibly aspirational idea, and one that runs counter to a lot of programmer’s intuition about other programmers.
Because it’s always about other programmers when the value of sharp knives is contested. I’ve yet to hear a single programmer put up their hand and say “I can’t trust myself with this power, please take it away from me!”. It’s always “I think other programmers would abuse this”. That line of paternalism has never appealed to me.
That brings us to Rails. The knives provided by the framework are not nearly as sharp as those offered with the language, but some are still plenty keen to cut. We will make no apologies for offering such tools as part of the kit. In fact, we should celebrate having enough faith in the aspirations of our fellow programmers to dare trust them.
Plenty of features in Rails have been contested over time as being “too much freedom”. But one example that’s currently in vogue is the feature of concerns. This is a thin layer of syntactic sugar around Ruby’s built-in feature of modules and is designed to allow a single class to encapsulate multiple related but independently understood concerns (hence the name).
The charge is that concerns provide programmers prone to bloat their objects with a whole new set of drawers to stuff their clutter in. And that’s true. Concerns can indeed be used like that.
But the grand fallacy is thinking that by not providing a feature like concerns, which when used by even mildly capable hands allows an eloquent partial separation of concepts, we’d put programmers on the path to architectural bliss. If you can’t be trusted to keep the kitchen sink out of your overstuffed concerns, you’re probably not going to end up with a shining beacon of elegance otherwise.
Programmers who haven’t learned to wield sharp knifes just aren’t going to make meringues yet. Operative word here: Yet. I believe that every programmer has a path, if not a right, to become fully capable Ruby and Rails programmers. And by capable, I mean knowledgeable enough to know when and how, accordingly to their context, they should use the different and sometimes dangerous tools in the drawers.
That does not abdicate a responsibility to help get them there. The language and the framework should be patient tutors willing to help and guide anyone to experthood. While recognizing that the only reliable course there goes through the land of mistakes: Tools used wrong, a bit of blood, sweat, and perhaps even some tears. There simply is no other way.
Ruby on Rails is an environment for chefs and those who wish to become chefs. You might start out doing the dishes, but you can work your way up to running the kitchen. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be trusted with the best tool in the trade as part of that journey.
That’s a very broad scope, as we’ve discussed, but no broader than to be realistic to understand for a single person. Rails specifically seeks to equip generalist individuals to make these full systems. Its purpose is not to segregate specialists into small niches and then require whole teams of such in order to build anything of enduring value.
It is this focus on empowering the individual that points to the integrated system. It’s in the integrated system we can cut out many needless abstractions, reduce the duplication between layers (like templates on both the server and the client), and, above all, avoid distributing our system before we absolutely, positively have to.
Much of the complication in systems development comes from introducing new boundaries between the elements that restrict how you make calls between A and B. Method calls between objects is far simpler than remote procedure calls between microservices. There’s a whole new world of hurt in failure states, latency issues, and dependency update schedules that await those who venture into the lair of distribution.
Sometimes this distribution is simply necessary. If you want to create an API to your web application that other people can call over HTTP, well, then you just have to suck it up and deal with many of these issues (although handling requests inbound rather than sending them outbound is much easier – your downtime is someone else’s failure state!). But that’s at least a limited amount of damage inflicted on your own personal development experience.
It’s entirely possible to share large chunks of the entire application across multiple apps and accesses. To use the same controllers and views for the desktop web as for embedded in native mobile apps. To centralize as much as possible within that glorious, majestic monolith: The integrated system.
All this without giving up much if anything in terms of speed, user experience, or other attributes that falsely draw developers to premature distribution.
That’s the have-most-of-it-all we seek: All the power of individually tuned and distributed applications with the ease-of-use and understanding of a single, integrated system.
When systems have been around for more than a decade, like Rails has, their natural tendency is towards ossification. There are a million reasons why every change might be an issue for someone, somewhere who depended on past behavior. And fair reasons those are too, for the individual.
But if we listen too closely to the voices of conservatism, we’ll never see what’s on the other side. We have to dare occasionally break and change how things are to evolve and grow. It is this evolution that’ll keep Rails fit for survival and prosperity in the decade(s?) to come.
This is all easy to understand in theory, but much harder to swallow in practice. Especially when it’s your application that breaks from a backwards-incompatible change in a major version of Rails. It’s at those times we need to remember this value, that we cherish progress over stability, to give us the strength to debug the busted, figure it out, and move with the times.
That’s not a license to inflict needless or excessive hurt willy nilly. The Great Rails Migration of 2.x to 3 still lingers in the scar tissue of many who were around for that. It was a tough one. A serious upheaval that left many behind in 2.x land for a long time, some soured beyond convincing. But, in the grand scheme of things, it was still worth it.
Those are the hard bargains we have to continue to make. Is Rails going to be better off in five years for the changes we make today? Is Rails going to be better off for adopting another problem domain, like job queuing or WebSockets, in years to come? If yes, then let’s suck it up and do the work.
This work isn’t just something that needs to happen in Rails itself, but also in the larger Ruby community. Rails should be at the frontier of helping Ruby’s progress by driving its constituents to adopt later versions faster.
We’ve done very well at this so far. From when I started, we’ve moved through Ruby 1.6, 1.8, 1.9, 2.0, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 2.5 and now onto 2.6. Lots of major changes along the way, but Rails was there to have Ruby’s back, and help everyone get with the program faster. That’s in part the privilege and obligation Rails serves as the major popularizer of Ruby.
This too is true for the auxiliary tools of the chain. Bundler was once a controversial idea, but through Rails’ insistence that it be a cornerstone of a shared future, it’s today just taken for granted. The same is true for things like the asset pipeline and Spring, the persistent command process. All three of these went through, or are still going through, growing pains, but the obviousness of their value in the long term helped us push through that.
Progress is ultimately mostly about people and their willingness to push change. This is why there are no lifetime seats in groups like Rails Core or Rails Committers. Both groups are for those who are actively working on making progress for the framework. For some, their stake in such progress may last just a few years, and we will forever be grateful for their service, and for others it may last decades.
Likewise, it’s why it’s so important for us to continue to welcome and encourage new members of the community. We need fresh blood and fresh ideas to make better progress.
With so many controversial ideas to its credit, Rails could quickly become an insular group of ideological hermits, if we required everyone to exhibit complete deference to all tenets, all the time. So we don’t!
We need disagreement. We need dialects. We need diversity of thought and people. It’s in this melting pot of ideas we’ll get the best commons for all to share. Lots of people chipping in their two cents, in code or considered argument.
So while this doctrine has described an idealized form, the everyday reality is much more nuanced (and interesting). Rails is capable of supporting such a large community under one tent exactly because there are so few if any litmus tests.
The continued success of RSpec, a DSL for testing I’ve often expressed grave discontent with, is perfect proof. I can rant until I’m blue in the face of why I don’t think it’s the way to go, and it can still blossom and prosper. That point is the far more important one!
The same is true for the advent of Rails as an API. While my personal focus and dedication is to the integrated system that includes the view, there’s undoubtedly room for Rails to do well with people who do want to distribute their clients and servers upfront. We should embrace this inasmuch as it can coexist as a secondary mission, and I believe it surely can.
Having a big tent doesn’t mean trying to be all things to all people, though. It just means you welcome all people to your party, and allow them to bring their own drinks. We need to lose none of our soul or values by offering others to join us, and we may well learn how to mix a new delicious drink or two.
This doesn’t come for free. It requires work to be welcoming. Especially if your goal isn’t just to attract more people who are just like the ones who are already part of the community. Lowering the barriers to entry is work we should always take seriously.
You never know when the next person who starts just fixing a misspelling in the documentation ends up implementing the next great feature. But you stand a chance to find out if you smile and say thank you for whatever small contribution that gets the motivation flowing.