Getting Comfortable Working With Rails Core

This year’s RailsConf was truly one of the most impressive and inspiring development conferences I have ever been to. Bright-eyed and bewildered, I got to listen to lectures from people big and small in the community. Two individuals, in particular, stood out to me: Yehuda Katz and Rick Martinez. I listened to Yehuda’s keynote; the now Rails hero’s mentioned in his talk “I was just some guy who dove in, and here I am.” Rick Martinez of, who you may not know, is really just a guy who did dive in and was able to give a fascinating talk called “Hardcore Extending Rails 3.” The overall message? Again, “I just started digging around, and here’s what I came up with.”

As an aside, one of the questioneers at Rick’s talk was Yehuda commenting something to the affect of “this is what we wish more people would do, just dive in.”

I knew I had what it takes to dive in, it was just a matter of discipline and taking the time to learn the tools and get acclimated with the libraries. I walked into the conference feeling like a novice about to hear four days of lectures that were way over my head, and I left chomping at the bit waiting to start tearing to guts of Rails 3 wide open (which I began to do the entire trainride home).

For the past two months since then, I’ve been consuming more Ruby information then ever, determined to master the language and become a productive member of the Rails community. There have been frustrating times when I didn’t understand anything (and there will be more of that to come), but there has also been a wealth of knowledge that I have gained and have been able to apply immediately. For those of you who want to dive in, I’ve assembled this list of things I’ve done to get going and I think it could help you out, too. Pick and choose as you wish; these items may not all be for you, but if it’s on this list, it’s because I directly associate it with my growth.

  • Read The Ruby 1.9 Book

    If you want to work with Rails, you have got to learn Ruby. Ruby is filled with new concepts and techniques that you probably haven’t experienced in other languages. The more of this language you know, the more you will understand the design patterns that the Rails library uses, and the more power you can leverage in your own code. The internal architecture of the code is a lot to take in, you don’t want to be hung up on Ruby syntax at the same time. Learning Ruby will help you separate whether what you are looking at is confusing because of your lack of understanding of the Ruby code or the Rails library (looking at the Rails lib after learning Ruby better, the code is so much easier to follow). Read “The Ruby 1.9 Book,” also known as “The Pickaxe Book.”

  • Learn Ruby Metaprogramming

    Metaprogramming is the practice of writing code that writes code. Two weeks ago, I would have told you that Metaprogramming is something that the pros did because they’ve grown so bored with the boundaries of the language that they want to add to it. On the contrary, metaprogramming is a staple of working with Ruby and is a compliment of the language’s aesthetics. Learning about concepts such as Open Classes, Dynamic Dispatch and Methods, and beyond will help you understand how programmers wrangle Ruby to get it to work the way they want it to.

    Here are three great resources resource for learning Ruby metaprogramming:

    1. “The Ruby 1.9 Book” book has entire chapter on metaprogramming. I recommend reading this before jumping into…
    2. “Ruby Metaprogramming” by Paolo Perrotta. This book explains metaprogramming concepts in a fun, observational way, with an entire section on metaprogramming Rails.
    3. As a follow up, Yehuda wrote an article that helps clear up some common misconceptions about how to properly write libraries – “Metaprogramming In Ruby”

    By now you realize you’ve got a lot of reading to do, which is why I totally recommend that you…

  • Buy an iPad

    This may seem like one of those “you-got-to-be-kidding-me” kind of todos. But the truth is, I single-handedly attribute so much of my educational growth over the past month to me buying the iPad. Last year, I bought the Ruby 1.9 book and the PDF. The book sat on my shelf and I only casually browsed through it. The PDF was on my laptop, and I only fired it up a couple of times, and then get distracted by a client’s email, or a blog post, and ultimately didn’t read any of it. With the iPad, I take it everywhere: I read for 15 minutes at the laundry mat, 30 minutes at then pool, before I go to sleep, etc. In three weeks, I read over 450 pages of the Ruby 1.9 book and over 250 pages of the Metaprogramming book. Here is the key though: make it an educational device only. For me, that meant not loading on a Facebook app or any other distractions, I didn’t even configure my mail account or add music to it. It’s simply there for ebook reading, reading RSS feeds and Tweets from other developers, and writing blog posts. It’s a productivity machine!

  • Read the Rails source code

    While it may seem daunting at first, the current version of the Rails 3 library is one of the most elegant codebases to try and follow. Before taking the plunge into the codebase myself, I used to hear people say “look at the source” and I used to think “I am not at that level yet.” Trust me, you are, and the more comfortable you get with Ruby, the more you will learn how the Rails code plays into it’s strengths. Additionally, the library is filled with extremely helpful comments. For example, check out base.rb in ActiveRecord; don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure for every line of code, there are two or three lines of comments.

  • Get Involved

    When it comes to getting involved with Rails, you couldn’t ask for a better community to help you out then the Rails community. There are people with all different levels of expertise, willing to lend a hand to help you achieve whatever you’re trying to accomplish.

    • Go to conferences and meet ups. Not only do you learn about emerging technologies, but you also get to network and make friends with other developers, as well as learn about other popular developers in the community. One key piece of advice: don’t be shy. Everyone is there for the same reason, and everyone I’ve gotten to meet in the Ruby community have been nothing but nice and helpful.
    • The Ruby on Rails IRC on freenode, #rubyonrails. Don’t feel shy; just ask your question and be patient. Feel free to hit me up in there, I’d be more than happy to help you out.
    • RailsBridge – RailsBridge is a group of people committed to helping you learn more about Rails. They can answer your questions in the #railsbridge IRC, they organize weekend bug mashes to help the Rails core team get through ticket issues in Lighthouse, and are really just a great group of people. I got to spend a good half hour chatting with Santiago Pastorino of WyeWorks at RailsConf, about RailsBridge and all the things they do, awesome stuff!
    • Read up on the work other developers are up to. Guys like Aaron Paterson, Ilya Gregorik, and Yehuda Katz will commonly blog or tweet about things they are working on. You can learn a lot by being a fly on the wall.

    The biggest piece of advice I can give you in terms of getting involved with the Rails codebase is: start. Any new library takes time to learn, and Rails is no exception. If you follow any or all of the tips I’ve listed, I think you’ll find the learning curve to be a little less steep. If you have any other advice that helped you out along to way, please leave a comment below, myself and others would appreciate it.

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4 Replies to “Getting Comfortable Working With Rails Core”

  1. Hi Frank, thanks for this interesting post.

    I am starting ROR and I think we all come back to the same point: you need to master Ruby, then all gets easier.

    I started with simply rails 2 and it is a good intro, but some code gets cryptic mainly cause you need to get more Ruby.

    I will pick up the pickaxe book again. I started it sometime ago when on Holidays, not the best idea as it requires serious dedication.

    Let’s see if I can update you some time from now with what really helped me.


  2. Learning Ruby and Rails at the same time can feel like learning to snowboard on an avalanche. My best advice is to keep your head in it. The line between straight-forward coding and metaprogramming is very blurred in Ruby; once you get comfortable with the common design patterns and idioms of the language, you’re going to find the code is much easier to follow.

  3. I can note a similar increase in my reading after buying a Kindle. Unlike you I don’t think I can keep an ipad an education only device and considering a kindle is useless but reading, I’m forced to read.

    Great post btw. The one thing I did while learning Rails was to take apart well written libraries and put them back together, probably learned more doing that than reading any book.

  4. That’s actually a great point! The lack of everything-under-the-sun functionality for the Kindle may do similarly well as a learning devise. I would just like to see how the IT books render on it.

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