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May 14, 2012

The Rails Dilemma

This is a guest post by Rusty Zarse CTO of Search Discovery, spurred by a series of email conversations that we had regarding the difficulty of finding experienced Rails talent. Rusty leads the Atlanta iOS Developers meetup and is one of the better known technologists in our city.

Where'd Every RoR Go?

“Rails is hot,” ain’t no headline today. Five years ago, Ruby on Rails was an underdog, the somebody to watch, the next big thing. It's not news that the Rails community continues evolving and growing while its members do a good job protecting the integrity and quality of the platform. Rails 4 is visible on the horizon and looks better than ever. The growth of the Rails community worldwide appears to be relentless, but there's a dark underside to that growth that does not get enough attention: In terms of sheer numbers, there just doesn't appear to be enough Rails developers to properly serve the needs of the market.

Technical organizations (particularly at the CTO and Director level that I inhabit) are now faced with a stark decision of choosing the Rails platform on its virtues or reluctantly giving the nod to another technology that carries less staffing risk.

On the face of it, people might think that this situation is good for Rails developers because it means that they continue commanding astronomical billable rates, higher quality coding practices and standards for their professional ecosystem and the aura of elite superstars. But Rails remains a community-driven platform and so it's up to the community itself to identify the needs of the market and identify what can be done for our overall growth to continue to flourish.

Attracting Rails Talent

Our core product at SearchDiscovery does things that truly push the envelope. There's a lot of work remaining to be done, but we feel that it already does what nothing else in the world can do. We owe a lot to the exceptional genius of our Hashrocket team and the wizardry of the lead developer they provided to us. During my career I've led many projects and never seen a product reach this level of complexity without falling apart due to compromises and shortcuts made along the way. I attribute our success in no small part to the principles and practices that Rails embodies. It is the motivation that I had for choosing Ruby on Rails as our web development platform to begin with and continues to provide a level of quality and productivity that I believe is unmatchable.

Our dilemma is that in over 3 months of arduous searching, we have not been able to find even a single Rubyist in Atlanta interested in joining our team. I'm not talking about having to turn down interested applicants; I'm talking about not having any interested applicants to begin with.

Now we have new products in the pipeline and our CEO is pushing to choose an alternative platform. Some of us know PHP and I personally know .NET. My experience with PHP is that its a great hacky tool to tweak wordpress and everything else just becomes spaghetti soup. Microsoft .NET is the platform of choice for developers who like to write the same oil tanker full of plumbing code over and over again just to show how great they are at doing things "better" than everyone else. Here in Atlanta, a common alternative to Rails is .NET, given the large Microsoft contingent we have in town. In my opinion, .NET doesn't deliver quickly enough and PHP inevitably becomes a maintenance nightmare.

Why on earth would we consider switching off Rails? The painful truth is that we need a team of professionals more than we need the best technology. We don't even need to hire an entire army of engineers immediately. We're specifically looking to fill at least one senior position so that this individual can cultivate Ruby on Rails talent within our walls. Our long-term goal is to become that company everyone in Atlanta wants to work at. We admire companies who posses an organic energy and self-managed excellence within their development team and we're willing to invest the capital needed to get there. I feel  that we have the professional atmosphere and culture that would be attractive to Rails professionals, but where are they?

Rails in Atlanta

Obviously, timing is everything. I've tapped the local user group community and will continue to do so, but so far have not seen much interest in the position. When I do connect with a local Atlanta Rails expert, often the professional courteousness is not reciprocated. I don't want to complain about specific people, but c'mon it just isn't necessary to be rude when someone asks if you are available. Clearly I'm trying to recruit someone, but I'm a CTO not a recruiter. Is politeness too much to ask for? Most technical people in Atlanta are nice and as helpful but there are a handful of dudes with serious reputations that apparently forget that we're all in this together. Their dismissive attitudes are toxic to non programmers who just want to run a business.

Worse, these bad attitudes get back to my bosses. I can argue all day about the gazillion benefits that using Rails brings to the table, but I can’t argue against the facts of our recruiting problem!  

A Plea to the Community

I wrote this post at Obie's request when I asked him for advice. I'd failed to consider that this is more than just my problem, more than just a hiring problem: It's a Rails community concern. The Rails platform is not bleeding edge anymore. It's proven, mature, reliable, amazing and a proper choice for just about any web development problem domain you might encounter. I don't know what the solution is, but I do know that we need to ensure that it continues to be the platform of choice for innovation.  We’re committed enough in the concept to put our money where our mouth is.

What do you think? Is this actually a community problem? Let's get a greater dialogue going.

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