Railsconf Detroit 2024: A Co-chair’s Perspective

When Adarsh, Ruby Central’s Executive Director, first asked me in November to think about getting involved cochairing RailsConf Detroit I was surprised, flattered and immediately said “no”.

I didn’t have the time, plus running a big, multi-track, conference wasn’t easy when I’d helped Jemma and Emily put together RubyConf mini a couple of years ago.

At the time I didn’t feel like a RailsConf could be changed that much from what it had become. In some ways a bit over-programmed, intimidating and overwhelming to attend or speak at (as I had in 2022 and 2023). Plus it was terrifying, the costs and logistics alone felt like a full time job. And it was on a different continent. And I couldn’t choose a venue, which is a big part of Brighton Ruby’s vibe.

I was looking forward to just attending to hang out with RubyFriends—with the side benefit support Ruby Central financially—I just didn’t want to spend the weeks of time to put together a talk this year.

Come January, Ufuk—installed as co-chair of Detroit—wanted to “pick my brains”. Specifically, the bit he wanted to pick was the bit of my brain that said “no” a couple of months previously. The other board co-chair was unable to assist and Ufuk felt he wanted some event experience to help pull things together.

When I asked my spouse if it was ok, to volunteer many week’s worth of evenings and stress to put on an event in a city I’d never been near (for the second time in three years) the eye roll from my better half was audible across the Atlantic.


In the lead up…

Working with Ufuk, my god, the man is a treasure and an asset to our community in both in his day job running that team at Shopify that makes things better for all Rubyists and in his new role on the board of Ruby Central.

He’s astute, gentle, warm, good humoured, and insightful and we quickly aligned on a vision and tone for the event. There were things we wanted to change from earlier editions and things we wanted to continue to focus on. We didn’t have a huge amount of time.

I visited Detroit in January, to see the venue and walk the snowy streets. It was only a three night trip and I stayed, partially wrecked, on British time. My understanding was that this wasn’t a thing organizers had done before, but the many hundreds of decisions I was able to input into during the conference build up were hugely informed by my understanding of the physical space.

We didn’t have a lot of wiggle room as the venue and hotel were booked by a previous Executive Director in 2022. An enormous, echo-y, car park exhibition space (of which Detroit’s conference centre has many!) was booked and we only had half the ballroom plus some confusingly located rooms.

Aside from that trip, most of the work I put in for RailsConf happened on evenings and weekends (yay timezones?) meaning my day job at CoverageBook didn’t take a hit, but my ability to unwind did. Am sure this is also true for lots of the folks who invested their love & energy into the various elements of the conference. So much volunteer enthusiasm is a testament to our community.

Ruby Central had started working with Aryn & Sarah from Ax3 Studios for RubyConf last year and their attention to detail, squeezing of costs, positive supplier & venue relationships and relentless good humour are the reason everything felt so smooth during the event.

Their presence the only reason I was able to actually enjoy the conference. Also Aryn made sure we got the ballroom and lost the atmosphere-free car park.

The Programme, Speakers & CFP

The immediate issue was, with only a three months to go, we needed a programme to sell tickets against. Which meant we needed to open the CFP and put together a programme of technical talks and workshops in short order, which required a talented programme committee.

An extremely kind, generous, opinionated (but flexible) crew were soon put together. Without the intensive efforts of Kevin, Ifat, John, Julie, Mayra, Gary, Aji, John, Zarela we’d have been sunk.

We also wanted to put together a more specifically technical (and Rails specific) set of talks. While also slimming and organising the programme so it felt manageable to attend.

I was incredibly heartened by folk’s thoughtfulness and hard work during the process. I pushed the committee pretty hard during that intensive review period to make sure speakers had a reasonable amount of time before the conference to write their talks.

The resulting schedule that emerged was strong, technical and yet still full of the typical Ruby community personality.

It’s important to take care of speakers. For Brighton Ruby I cover everything financially and even offer a small honorarium. This is a principle I feel strongly about as an organiser, if I’m careful, I can make this happen inside my budget.

Putting together a talk takes hours, delivering a talk takes guts, persuading your coworkers (and spouse) that this isn’t a folly can be difficult.

The requirement for RailsConf to be a fund-raising endeavour means there isn’t the ability to cover so much financially, but the least we can do is introduce, coach and support through the process. We also switched to providing accommodation rather than an honorarium which meant all speakers were in the same spot in our Byzantine, kafkaesque conference hotel and meant less admin post-conference.

“Marketing” aka “Talking”

While the CFP was in operation I went on seven (!) podcasts to sell, RailsConf specifically and Ruby conferences in general as a “good idea” for your longer term career and your medium term mental health. Hard questions were asked about previous events and how to justify conferences to your employer. There’s definitely some repetition amongst these… but I think they hold up too.

Then a couple of the podcasts were kind enough to have Ufuk on their show once we had a programme and a couple more had other RailsConf-related folks on as well. I feel like if you consume Ruby audio… you knew it was happening and we were able to put our case for the refreshed event.

I’d loved to have been able to get the ticket price down, as that feels like a big blocker to participation at one of these larger events. It seems “big”, multi-day, events in the US seem to have much higher fixed costs, particularly when contracts were signed two years ago. We were able to offer some discounting, but honestly it’s not clear that made much of a difference to ticket sale velocity.

Day One

A bugbear of mine in previous years was the long lines and speakers having to queue to get badges when we’d all rather be drinking coffee. So we made this wildly more efficient by offering registration at the hotel the afternoon before, which nearly a third of folks took advantage of. Which then meant registration was smoother, smaller and left more time for inhaling breakfast.

I opened the day having decided that even though I mostly had to deliver administrative information and stand in front of QR codes, I didn’t have to just do that. So I inserted 50 Motown song titles into the 15 minutes I was on stage. I figured if you’re going to commit to a “bit” you should really commit.

I also performed my regular (Brighton Ruby) explanation of why codes of conduct are a thing and breaking down behaviour that’s fine and what is not. As always a significant handful of people, some often quite emotional, sidled up to me in the days following and thanked me specifically for that. Which is why I keep doing it.

The keynotes were all from our community. We’re blessed with a cornucopia of great storytellers amongst us and I always preferred “our” folks rather than paid “professional” speakers who—while good—couldn’t speak to the room in quite the same way.

When I signed on, the first thing I did was pitch for Nadia. I’m fortunate to be able to call her a friend, she’s a Brighton Ruby fixture, plus I’ve witnessed her growth as an entrepreneur over the last decade and she is the real deal.

I’d seen a version of her talk from RailsSaaS, which was good and thematically a great fit for the current focus on the “one person framework” that Rails can be. I did have a few notes in the lead up, including some unpleasant (for her) rework of some of the graphs that appear throughout, but the tale and the achievement and the grit that won over the audience were all her. I did slip her a couple of bonus jokes.

Irina’s keynote was pulled from the CFP. She’d astutely observed that in our current “mature” stage as a framework we’ve stopped telling as many new stories about new teams choosing Rails: which is weird because the framework has managed to remain surprisingly productive even as it has progressed and added features over the last few years.

I was delighted that Iri owned the stage. Adrenalin dominated her nerves and the narrative she crafted from diligent research into the companies choosing Rails today was insightful and inspiring. And a great setup for Day Two’s hands-on activities.

Day Two: Hack Day

A much better position in the schedule for the Hack Day part of the event as opposed to the pilot version on day one at RubyConf. We had space for folks to land and for us to get our ducks in a row. The day one talks, especially our keynoters, enthused the crowd to build. And build they did.

John’s keynote on Vernier was a terrifically intro to the day, showing solid accessible examples of how to use his new tool to profile your code and applications.

Post-keynote the ballroom opened up to natural light, hallway track was encouraged, PRs were opened and merged on gems, apps and Rails issues.

There’s still finessing to do on the Hack Day to make themes clearer and more accessible to folks, but I thought it was tremendously well organised and the feedback so far is excellent. I’m feeling more and more that this becomes a key part of the large scale Ruby Central events.

The workshops were well attended. They weren’t scheduled against talks, but during the more freeform “open laptop times” so the whole day flowed much better and no talks were “under-attended” as has occurred in previous years.

We finished a long day of coding, sat in the sun eating more excellent conference food and having a beer and I was able to begin to unwind as I could see the release of the final day approaching.

I headed into the city to grab some dinner but there was also a board game night, hosted by Sidekiq, that was still absolutely rocking when I returned to the hotel bar.

Day Three

More talks and an early(-ish) finish after Aaron’s keynote.

As for the talk tracks, I caught parts of some talks from the back of the room but wasn’t able to administratively (or honestly constitutionally) sit and take in many of them. So when the talks emerge on video over the next couple of months I’ve got multiple evenings of talk homework to do. I heard amazing things about the general level of quality and I’m the guy who genuinely does watch talk videos on YouTube. So I’ve that to look forward to.

The lightning talks were wildly popular, I personally misread this and was willing to let it slide for this year’s event. It was grabbed by Mayra, installing Drew Bragg in his sparkly jacket as host, and everyone who attended it thought it was amazing.

A highlight for me was how pleased Aaron was with his joke about Nadia’s keynote from Day One. He’d tried it out on various people over the conference and when it came to deliver it to the wider room I was able to enjoy but the gag and how much he enjoyed delivering it.

I should also note that during the conference I had a chance to try out an Apple Vision Pro. It’s the future but it hurt my face.

Yeah! RailsConf!

My main focus for RailsConf was to reflect the reforged positivity in our community and to leave Ruby Central’s conferences on a good footing. I feel like we did that.

I was also able to feed into the plans for the future of Ruby Central. It’s clear that a single, cost neutral, larger “celebration” conference each year, supporting local conference and meet-ups plus renewed focus on open source fundraising to support the Ruby commons of bundler and Rubygems.org are the correct path.

I’m a huge fan of the work that Amanda and the Rails Foundation is doing.

Rails World was amazing in Amsterdam and will be terrific in Toronto. They’ve already picked up the baton for the big, Rails event and are clearly not having any issue generating buzz.

Rails World is not going to be the same as a Ruby Central event and that’s a good thing. I feel like the template is there for RubyConf to continue as a community-focussed Ruby event (with some Rails in it) and be a sister event to the more “this is what is coming in Rails” style of Rails World.

My hope from the positivity generated from Detroit and the improved communication and clarity of Ruby Central on its mission will help provide a broader base of support. More companies should be chipping in as part of the membership programme. Those bundle installs aren’t free you know.

The final RailsConf 2025, location TBD, will be a celebration, a coming together, and a fitting sign off. I’ll be there, but I won’t be wearing a staff t-shirt.

A selection of “feels”

I hope you’ll excuse the self-indulgence of collecting these here. But these are the reason I do the conference thing: for the feelings and the bringing together of our community.

OMG the vibe in RailsConf was so amazing, had such a great time.

Will be there next year. —Xavier Noria

RailsConf 2024 has been an absolute blast! This has easily been my favorite RailsConf to date.

Thank you for all the conversations, insights and the encouragement! 🙏🏼

Looking forward to see you at the final RailsConf in 2025! —Marco Roth

Best RailsConf I’ve been to in a long time. Heading home is the hardest part. —Chris Oliver

It really was the best in a while. —Josh Wood

I’m super thankful to Andy, Ufuk and the entire team that made RailsConf 2024 happen. The space, the talks, the vibes and energy were all top notch. The attention to detail was obvious. And, I know they were saying this, but Detroit was surprisingly cool! —Jeremy Smith

After some years off from conferences due to phases of life, RailsConf was fantastic and energizing. There’s something so different about meeting in person and riffing with others on a bunch of interesting ideas.

While exhausting in the moment, it’s incredibly recharging in the long run, and it’s difficult to not be excited about the people in the Ruby community and the prospects for Ruby and Rails at large.

With Ruby Central, it feels like the community is in great hands. —Garrett Dimon

After more than a decade of not attending, the past few days felt like my first RailsConf. Had so much fun. —Jon Nunemaker

I’m still coming down from an amazing RailsConf in Detroit last week. Rails and the community around it still delight and impress me, and are still innovating and teaching me new things after all these years. —Mike Delassio

RailsConf 2024 was incredible! Met so many amazing people! —Manu J

Over the last two decades, I have attended 51 tech conferences throughout Canada, the US, and Europe.

Without a doubt, the best tech conference I have been to is RailsConf 2024 in Detroit, United States. —Eric Brooke

Headed home after a truly wonderful RailsConf. I got to meet and talk with so many wonderful people, way to many to mention, and had an absolutely lovely time. I know next year is the final RailsConf, but I leave feeling confident that Ruby Central is in great hands! —Stephen Margheim

Just wrapped up my first ever RailsConf in Detroit and I’m sad to hear 2025 will be the last one. It somehow exceeded my already high expectations - especially how consistently genuine and welcoming everyone is. —Peter Cai

I’ve been a rails developer since 2004 yet have always felt an outsider in the community (live in rural Japan didn’t help!) attending RailsConf totally changed my perspective. —Phil Smy

It was my first time attending since 2008 and the excitement, collaboration, inclusiveness and spirit of fun was SO energizing (and exhausting too … the conference paradox). –Kevin Lawver

Some other write ups

Drop me an email if I’m missing any.

Sign up to get a nugget of Ruby knowledge every couple of weeks or so.

Last updated on May 19th, 2024