I attended RubyConf this year in Nashville, Tennessee with a few of my teammates from Shopify. What a great city and a great first time attending RubyConf!
I took notes on many of the talks I attended and here are the summaries for the first of the three days. Day 2 is available here. Headings that have links go to a video of the talk.
Matz Keynote – Ruby Progress Report
Matz started off the conference with his talk on the upcoming Ruby 3, talking about some upcoming features with it, and the timeline. Ruby 3 will absolutely be released at the end of 2020, removing half-baked features if necessary to keep it on track. This probably also means that if the 3×3 performance goals aren’t fully met, then it’ll still be shipped. He spent some time on talking about being a Rubyist, as the majority of attendees were new to RubyConf, encouraging people to have discussions and contribute to the future of Ruby.
.: (shorthand for
Object#method), the pipeline operator, deprecating automatic conversion of hash to keyword arguments. Some attendees were vocal about getting more rationale about removing these features, and Matz was more than accommodating to explain in more detail.
No Return: Beyond Transactions in Code and Life
Avdi Grimm’s talk focused on discussing the unlifelike constraints that are imposed on users when performing things online. For example, filling out a survey or form online may result in the user losing their progress if they exit their browser. In real life this doesn’t happen, so why should we constrain these transactions so much? Avdi recommends that when building out these processes, these transactions, that we should instead think of it as a narritive, one stream of information sharing that only requires the user to complete a step when it’s really necessary. Avdi related this to our code by suggesting a few concepts that can make our programs more narrative-like such as embracing state and history of data by utilizing event-sourcing/storming and temporal modelling, failing forwards in code by treating exceptions as data and expecting failures, and interdependence in code by using back pressure, and circuit breakers.
Betsy Haibel talked about an effective way of figuring out a bug during a potentially painful upgrade of their Rails app to 6.0. Through the use of metaprogramming, she was able to fix a frozen hash modification bug that would have otherwise been quite difficult to debug. She accomplished this feat by monkey patching the
Hash#freeze method, saving a backtrace whenever it is called. Then in the
Hash#= method, rescue any runtime exceptions that occur and start a debugger session. This helped her narrow down exactly where the hash was frozen earlier on in the code.
Besty then went into detail on what metaprogramming is, and how it differs from language to language. Java, for example has distinct loadtime and runtime phases when the application is starting up. Ruby, on the other hand is both loading classes and executing code at the same time since it’s all performed together during runtime.
Lastly, the talk provided a pattern for using metaprogramming to investigate bugs or other problems in code. Through reflection, recording, and reviewing, the same pattern can be applied to help debug even the most complex code. The reflection step makes up determining what part of the code early on leads to the program failing. The moment that it occurs can be found by inspecting the backtrace at that point in time. Next is the recording step where we want to patch the code that we’ve identified from the reflection step to save the backtrace. This can be done either by saving the
caller to an instance variable, class variable, logging. To get a foothold into the code, the patching can be accomplished by using
Module#prepend or even the TracePoint library. Lastly, reviewing is the step in which we observe an event in the system (eg. an Exception) and either pause the world or log some info for further reading. An example of this would be to put in a breakpoint or debugger statement, optionally making it a conditional breakpoint to help filter through the many occurrences.
Ruby Ate My DSL!
Daniel Azuma presented about what DSLs (Domain Specific Languages) are, the benefits of them, and how they work. One of the biggest takeaways from this talk was that DSLs are more like Domain Specific Ruby as we’re not building our own language, instead the user of these DSLs should fully expect to be able to use Ruby while using DSLs.
Daniel also went on to mention how to build your own DSL, mentioning a few gotchas as he went. One of those was that since
instance_eval is used throughout implementing DSLs, that we should be aware of users clobbering existing instance variables and methods. One solution is to have a naming convention for the DSLs internal instance variables and private methods (eg. prefixing with underscore characters). Alternatively, another way of preventing this clobbering from going on is to separate the DSL objects from the implementation which operates on those objects. This then has the effect that the user of the DSL has the minimum surface area needed to set the DSL up, removing the possibility of overwriting instance variables or methods the internal DSL needs to run.
Design DSLs which look and behave like classes. Specifically, whenever blocks are used, have them map to an instance of a class. RSpec is a great example of this where
it calls are blocks which create instances of classes. The
it call creates instances that belong to the
describe instance. Where things get more interesting and lifelike is if helper methods and instance variables defined higher up in a DSL can be used further down in the DSL. This is the concept of lexical scoping.
Lastly, constants are a pain to work with in Ruby. They don’t behave as expected when using blocks and evals. Some DSLs provide alternatives to constants, for example RSpec’s
mruby/c: Running on Less Than 64KB RAM Microcontroller
Hitoshi HASUMI presented mruby/c, an mruby implementation focused on very resource constrained devices. Where mruby focuses on devices with 400k of memory, mruby/c is for devices with 40k of memory. Devices with this small amount of memory can be microcontrollers which are cheap to run and offer many benefits over devices which run operating systems. Some benefits are instantaneous startup and being more secure.
Hitoshi focused his talk on the work he performed building out IoT devices to monitor temperatures of ingredients at a sake brewery in Japan. These devices had a way for workers to measure temperatures, display the reading, as well as send that reading back to a server for further processing. Hitoshi made it clear that there are many different thing that could go wrong in the intense environment of a brewery. High temperatures, hardware failure, resource constraints, etc.
The latter half of the talk was focused on how mruby/c works and how to use it. mruby/c uses the same bytecode as mruby, but removes a few features that regular Ruby developers are used to having, namely: modules and the stdlib. mruby/c compiles down to C files and provides it’s own realtime operating system. Hitoshi finishes the talk with plugging a number of libraries and tools that he’s developed to help with debugging, testing, and generating code. Those being
Statistically Optimal API Timeouts
Daniel Ackerman discussed the widespread use of APIs and how timeouts for those remote requests are not being configured efficiently. He introduces the problem that timeouts should be optimized for the best user experience – the fastest response. Given a slow responding API request, we should timeout if we have high confidence that the request is taking too long. He prefixed the rest of his talk explaining that setting the timeout to the 95th percentile is a quick but accurate estimate.
Since APIs are all different, Daniel presents a mathematical proof of determining statistically optimal API request timeouts. By analyzing a histogram of the API response times, we can determine the optimal timeout that balances user experience with timing out requests. Slow API requests often mean that the service is under heavy load or not responding.
The Ultimate Guide to Ruby Timeouts was mentioned as a go-to source for configuring timeouts and knowing which exceptions are raised for many commonly used libraries. Definitely a useful resource. Daniel finished his talk with a plug to his gem
rb_maxima, a library which makes it easy to use the Maxima algebraic system from Ruby.
Collective Problem Solving in Software
Jessica Kerr talked about the idea of cameratas – the concept of a group of people who discuss and influence the trends of a certain area. More formally, camerata came from the Florentine Camerata, a group of renaissance musicians and artists gathered in Florence, Italy who helped develop the genre of opera. Their work was revolutionary at the time.
Jessica then related it to the great ideas that have come out of ThoughtWorks, a London-based consulting company. Their incredible contributions over the years have included the concepts of Agile, CI, CD, and DevOps to name a few, have influenced the entire software industry and has set the bar higher.
In general, great teams make great people. Software teams are special in that they consist of the connections between the people in the team as well as the tools that the team uses. Jessica relates this to a big socio-technical system, introducing the term symmathesy to capture the idea that teams and their tools learn from each other. No one person has a full understanding of the systems they work on, therefore the more symmathesy going on in the team, the better the team and system is. This is similar to the concept of senior developers being able to understand the bigger picture when it comes to teams, tools, and people compared to new developers usually concerned about their small bit of code.
The talk was closed by encouraging dev teams to incentivize putting the team first compared to the individual, grow teams by increasing the flow of information sharing and back and forth with their tools. Lastly, great developers are symmathesized.