My GoRuCo 2008 highlights

Aaron and I had a great time at GoRuCo 2008 last Saturday. Here are my highlights.

Bryan Helmkamp, Story-Driven Development

Bryan Helmkamp’s talk on SDD (slides, 1.6 MB PDF) reminded me of what Scott Hanselman calls “spec documents with teeth.” If I get it right, as you develop user stories, you use a standard format, and code parses your story file, and ties the text directly to functional tests you write. The stories aren’t executable themselves, but it brings them closer together.

Each story has a name, a description, and scenarios; the descriptions follow the format “As a …, I want to …, so that …”:

As a headhunter looking for Rails developers
I want to search for CVs with 8 years experience
So that I can make an exorbitant commission

The scenarios are different ways that story might play out. Each scenario has a description, which follows the format “Given … When … Then …”:

Scenario: Enough experience.
Given a CV with 9 years of Rails experience
When I search for qualified Rails candidates
Then I should find the CV
And I should realize the candidate is full of shit

Then code reads your story files, and uses the text following the keywords to connect to executable functional tests you write:

steps_for :cvs do
  Given "a CV with 3 years of Rails experience" do
    @cv = Developer.create!(:first_name => "Joe",
      :last_name => "Developer", :rails_exp => 3,
      :gender => "Male")

steps_for :cvs do
  When "I search for qualified Rails candidates" do
    @results = Developer.find_qualified(8)

The code that actually performs the test is just ActiveRecord. If you want to test the UI, there’s a DSL called Webrat that simulates the browser. It seems to live halfway between Watir and mechanize, and it doesn’t do javascript. It looks like this:

steps_for :cvs_with_ui do
  Given "a CV with 3 years of Rails experience" do
    visits new_developer_path
    fills_in "First name", :with => "Joe"
    fills_in "Last name", :with => "Developer"
    selects "4", :from => "Rails Experience"
    chooses "Male"
    clicks_button "Create"

I’m curious about chooses "Male" — I don’t see how it connects that text with the drop-down it’s supposed to change, unless it looks at values for all drop-downs on the page. He gave a nice breakdown of the differences between Webrat and Selenium, and how SDD fits into an Agile team.

Giles Bowkett, Archaeopteryx

That’s ARK-ee-OP-ter-ix, or Arcx for short. Made by Giles (soft ‘g’) BOH-ket, or boh-KET, I wasn’t exactly sure which. It is, in his words, “a Ruby MIDI generator,” and “a system for auto-generating, self-modifying music.”

Giles had hands-down the most entertaining talk of the day. Instead of poring through each token of the code, he compared taking VC money (or “weasel-brained muppet fucker” money) to being an artist with a patron — as the programmer/artist, your job is to make stuff that makes your VC/patron look good. He showed some of Leonardo da Vinci’s designs that weren’t constructed until recently; that it took this long, he said, was a failure of da Vinci’s time. Similarly, staying within a VC’s idea of what’s possible is a failure of wasted passion and energy. Start-ups are so cheap now, you can ignore VCs — so follow your passion, create an open-source-enriched ecosystem around it, and make money by servicing the niche market you made. If your startup is great, you can say “my career is this thing”; if it’s mediocre, you can say “my career includes this thing”. Just remember that good artists ship.

Which brings us to Arcx, Giles’ idea for a crowd-interfacing, automatic music machine. Someone asked whether it was wise to name a new project after an extinct species, and Giles got all clever: archaeopteryx was either the last dinosaur or the first bird, and the project could be either the last DJ tool, or the first automatic music machine, played by the crowd. He played us some samples, and talked through the code just a bit, dropping hits about the CLOS-like structure of his code. As fun as his talk was, I would’ve liked to hear more music, and more about the lambda-passing and CLOS stuff.

He also pointed out the most interesting ruby book I’d never heard of, Practical Ruby Projects: Ideas for the Eclectic Programmer.

Chris Wanstrath, ParseTree

Out of all the talks, Chris’ was the one I’ll be using first. Lispers say “code is data,” and I can see why that’s so powerful — but I haven’t really tried it yet. ParseTree brings some of that coolness to ruby:

require 'ruby2ruby'

def to_ruby(&blk)

puts to_ruby { 1 + 1 }
puts to_ruby { |i| i == 42 }

def to_sexp(&blk)

puts to_sexp { 1 + 1 }
puts to_sexp { |i| i == 42 }

…which produces:

proc {
  (1 + 1)
proc { |i|
  (i == 42)
[:proc, nil, [:call,
   [:lit, 1], :+, [:array, [:lit, 1]]]]
[:proc, [:dasgn_curr, :i], [:call,
   [:dvar, :i], :==, [:array, [:lit, 42]]]]

Most of the examples he gave generated query syntax in a ruby-idiomatic way: say you have an ORM, and you want users to search for users like this:

old_cat_people = do |u|
   u.favorite_pet == "cat" && u.age > 100

How could you turn that into SQL? Call to_sexp on the query block (that’s “to S-expression“), and evaluate the abstract syntax tree it returns. Like this:

class Users
      query = query.to_sexp

      # Now, query looks like this:
      # [:proc,
      #    [:dasgn_curr, :u],
      #       [:and,
      #          [:call,
      #             [:call, [:dvar, :u], :favorite_pet],
      #             :==,
      #             [:array, [:str, "cat"]]],
      #          [:call,
      #             [:call, [:dvar, :u], :age],
      #             :>,
      #             [:array, [:lit, 100]]]]]

      # Time to evaluate the AST.

Admittedly, it’s not that trivial, but that’s the gist of it — and I think the gem helps you with this. (Cue the smug Lispers: this stuff is natural in Lisp, the way passing anonymous functions blocks is in ruby.)

But here’s the interesting thing: we’re on our way to building .Net’s LINQ right into ruby. Remember, it stands for Language Integrated Query. LINQ is a big deal for .Net folks, because it’s handy. Microsoft put a lot of work into it, and it still needs its own new syntax. I think that’s a pretty clear example of the power of being able to see your own AST, and code off it.

Ryan Davis, Hurting Code for Fun and Profit

Ryan‘s talk was nominally about using tools like Heckle and Flog to beat the evil out of code, but my favorite part was his introspection-driven development. I know I’ll want to refer others to his slides and audio throughout my career.

Some of his tips for improving as a programmer:

  • Read. 1 technical book a month. Sites like — get close to the experts.
  • Focus. Only a few smart blogs: not zillions, not flame-prone. (Flame-retardant blogs?)
  • Grow. Learn 1 new language a year. Learn things outside of programming.
  • Learn from the pottery challenge story in Art & Fear: practice, a lot.

Ryan is also a fellow Dvorak typist, and pretty emphatic about it.


Johnson is a ruby gem that executes JavaScript code. (It’s a successor to RKelly, which did the same thing.) I don’t know why I think this is so cool. Most people agreed the main use case for something like this is testing, but it seems to me there might be neater tricks to play. We’ll see how I feel after playing with it for a while.

GoRuCo 2009?

I’m definitely going next year — see you there.