Interview with Chris Toomey of Upcase

The other day I spoke to Chris Toomey from thoughtbot. Chris runs Upcase, thoughtbot’s online platform for learning about Rails, test-driven development, clean code, and more. I was curious about his work with Ruby on Rails since I know little about that world. And at a little deeper level, I wanted to get his thoughts on how programming languages are used in practice, static vs dynamic, strongly typed vs weakly typed, etc.

Chirs Toomey

JC: Chris, I know you do a lot of work with Ruby on Rails. What do you think of Ruby without Rails? Would you be as interested in Ruby if the Rails framework had been written in some other language?

CT: Let me back up a little bit and give you some of my background. I started out as an engineer and I used VB because it was what I had for the task at hand. Then when I decided to buckle down and become a real developer I chose Python because it seemed like the most engineering-oriented alternative. It seemed less like an enterprise language, more small and nimble. I chose Python over Ruby because of my engineering background. Python seemed more serious, while Ruby seemed more like a hipster language. Ruby sounded frivolous, but I kept hearing good things about it, especially with Rails. So like a lot of people I came to Ruby through Rails. It was the functionality and ease of use that got me hooked, but I do love Ruby as a language, the beauty and expressiveness of it. It reads more like prose than other languages. It’s designed for people rather than machines. But it’s also a very large language and hard to parse because of that. Over time though I’ve seen people abuse the looseness, the freedom in Ruby, and that’s caused me to look at stricter options like Haskell and other functional languages.

JC: I only looked at Ruby briefly, and when I saw the relative number of numerical libraries for Python and Ruby I thought “Well, looks like it’s Python for me.”

It seems like Ruby bears some resemblance to Perl, for better or worse.

CT: Absolutely. Ruby has two spiritual ancestors. One is Perl and the other is Smalltalk. I think both of those are great, and many of the things I love about Ruby come from that lineage. Perl contributed the get-things-done attitude, the looseness and terseness, the freedom to interact at any level of abstraction.

It’s kinda odd. I keep coming back to The Zen of Python. One of the things it says is that explicit is better than implicit, and I really think that’s true. And yet I work in Ruby and Rails where implicit is the name of the game. So I have some cognitive dissonance over that. I love Ruby on Rails, but I’m starting to look at other languages and frameworks to see if something else might fit as well.

JC: Do you have the freedom to choose what language and framework you work in? Do clients just ask for a web site, or do they dictate the technology?

CT: We have a mix. A lot of clients just want a web app, but some, especially large companies, want us to use their technology stack. So while we do a lot of Rails, we also do some Python, Haskell, etc.

JC: Do you do everything soup-to-nuts or do you have some specialization?

CT: We have three roles at thoughtbot: designer, web developer, and mobile developer. The designers might do some JavaScript, but they mostly focused on user experience, testing, and design.

JC: How do you keep everything straight? The most intimidating thing to me about web development is all the diverse tools in play: the language for your logic, JavaScript, CSS, HTML, SQL, etc.

CT: There’s definitely some of that, but we outsource some parts of the stack. We host applications on Heroku, giving them responsibility for platform management. They run on top of AWS so they handle all the scaling issues so we can focus on the code. We’ll deploy to other environments if our client insists, but our preference is to go with Heroku.

Similarly, Rails has a lot of functionality for the database layer, so we don’t write a lot of SQL by hand. We’re all knowledgeable of SQL, but we’re not DBA-level experts. We scale up on that as necessary, but we want to focus on the application.

JC: Shifting gears a little bit, how do you program differently in a dynamic language like Ruby than you would in a stricter language like C++? And is that a good thing?

CT: One thing about Ruby, and dynamic languages in general, is that testing becomes all the more critical. There are a lot of potential runtime errors you have to test for. Whereas with something like Haskell you can program a lot of your logic into the type system. Ruby lets you work more freely, but Haskell leads to more robust applications. Some of our internal software at thoughtbot is written in Haskell.

JC: I was excited about using Haskell, but when I used it on a production project I ran into a lot of frustrations that you wouldn’t anticipate from working with Haskell in the small.

CT: Haskell does seem to have a more aggressive learning curve than other languages. There’s a lot of Academia in it, and in a way that’s good. The language hasn’t compromised its vision, and it’s been able to really develop some things thoroughly. But it also has a kind of academic heaviness to it.

There’s a language out there called Elm that’s inspired by Haskell and the whole ML family of languages that compiles down to JavaScript. It presents a friendlier interface to the whole type-driven, functional way of thinking. The developers of the language have put a lot of effort into making it approachable, without having to understand comonads and functors and all that.

JC: My difficulties with Haskell weren’t the theory but things like the lack of tooling and above all the difficulty of package management.

CT: Cabal Hell.

JC: Right.

CT: My understanding is that that’s improved dramatically with new technologies like Stack. We’re scaling up internally on Haskell. That’s the next area we’d like to get into. I’ll be able to say more about that down the road.

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Check out Upcase for training materials on tools like Vim, Git, Rails, and Tmux.

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