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August 28, 2014

Madison+ Ruby Conference

Bugsnag sponsored its first conference ever this year, Madison+ Ruby, and I don’t think we could’ve chosen a better event. Madison+ Ruby is a 3-day, single-track conference in Madison, Wisconsin that is self-proclaimed as being “more or less about Ruby.” I agree with that description — there were a few Ruby-specific talks, but rather than being hyper-technical, most were geared towards community and felt more personal.

The organizers were very thoughtful about creating a safe, inclusive learning environment, and put an emphasis on diversity and openness. 58% of the speakers were women. More than half! At a Ruby conference! Altogether, less than 25% were Caucasian men. Madison+ Ruby really nailed it finding diverse, high quality speakers. A lot of speakers said they were hardly nervous because the crowd was extremely inclusive and inviting. Some even mentioned the theatre setup, saying it made speaking feel like a conversation rather than performance.

In addition to the talks, there were workshops to attend like Railsbridge, Codechix, and GitHub training, and Braintree offered a lounge to pair on open source work. There were also yoga breaks during the day, and crowd participation at times (like impromptu dance sessions!) to keep our brains active.

And, of course, we did a Madison+ Ruby Friday hug.


It’s really hard to choose my favorite talks because they were all excellent. I’d recommend watching all the videos when they’re posted, but I’ll share those that stood out to me:

  • Madison+ Ruby kicked off with a fantastic talk from Liz Abinante called Unicorns Are People, Too: Re-Thinking Soft and Hard Skills. This talk really set the tone for the conference. She talked about how important it is for companies to care about interpersonal skills as much as technical ability. For example, she mentioned that a good code review takes both soft and hard skills; that they require technical know-how and subjective, constructive analysis. Without both skills, serious communication problems happen.  
  • Amy Wibowo gave a talk on her Airbnb hackathon project, Sweaters as a Service – Adventures in Machine Knitting. She told an interesting story about finding an old, incomplete knitting machine, making her own parts for it, and then hacking it. Amy emphasized that going into a project with other people works much better when there are no egos at stake. Since nobody there knew how to run a knitting machine, their team really came together cooperatively to learn and make it all happen. They even knitted a grumpy cat.  
  • André Arko recently clued me in on his new theme for conference talks: “scary campfire stories for developers.” This was one of them. In his talk, Security Is Hard, But We Can’t Go Shopping, he explained how security upgrades are insurance for developers. If we don’t take time to do these upgrades, those security vulnerabilities could potentially be an entire business’ downfall (like what happened to Code Spaces). Scary stuff. He also wrote a blog post about his talk here that I’d highly recommend reading and sharing with your team.  
  • Finishing out the conference with a standing ovation was Coraline Ehmke with Alchemy and the Art of Software Development. Her talk dove into who we, as software developers, really are. “Are we scientists,” she asked? “Not really,” she answered. “Engineers? Mostly no. Artisans?” She shook her head and went to the next slide (as we all, of course, cracked up). She then went on to fascinatingly outline the discipline of alchemy and relate it to what we do as software developers.  

Madison+ Ruby was a fantastic conference, and I’d recommend going next year if you can. The community is fantastic, the talks were informative, and I learned a lot from both. My only complaint is that I wish I was seeing these types of talks at other conferences as well (conference organizers — take note). If nothing else, go for Madison’s famous cheese curds and beer.

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