Scaffolding web sites with Ruby on Rails

I started messing around with Ruby on Rails for the first time on Sunday. This was after spending all day Saturday tearing down kitchen cupboards, tiled sinks and entire walls for a friend who is remodeling his house, so I got my fill of building last weekend whether real or virtual.

Photo: bruce grant

Trying to figure out how Ruby on Rails worked, I felt like I was remodeling my brain. It was as if I walked into Ikea with just a basic idea of what I wanted my new kitchen to look like and then walked out with design schematics and new appliances an hour later. I suddenly had confidence that I could create a really nice web site with a lot of functionality that was basically inaccessible to me before because of my limited programming background.

The “Ah hah!” moment came for me when I added two words to one of the scripts: “scaffold mydatabase”. When I refreshed my web site, I was adding, editing and deleting data in my database via a web interface. It all automatically just worked. Then literally 15 minutes later I had 2 databases talking to eachother.

It’s mindblowing how much power this environment gives to people who aren’t true coders.

I have a feeling I’ll get stuck and frustrated with what I’m trying to build. But I’m very hopeful Ruby on Rails will get me closer than I could with open source PHP tools. If nothing else, I’ll get a sense for this new trend.

Programming seems to have about a 3 year fashion cycle that also intersects with influxes of new ideas for web applications and a full cycle of students coming out of university. Now we’re at the early stages of a creative explosion on the Internet enabled by things like Rails, open APIs, storage solutions like S3, and JSON. And you can also wrap an idea in any number of different business models in even less time than it takes to build the product itself.

Maybe instead of LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP), we now have RASH (Rails, APIs, S3, Hosted).

There must be similar reactions to breakthroughs in the construction industry when things like cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) hit the market. Of course, construction suffers from bad naming as much as any other trade. Not everything can be as cool as a sawzall or funny pipe.

The fashion of business

Umair Haque equates the poor investment Americans make in their personal fashion with the cultural emphasis on productivity. He argues that people who are “stylish” are perceived as frivolous and unproductive in America. In a comment on Umair’s post Russell Davies flags the style conscious eyes and ears of the English and Japanese:

“In an essay somewhere William Gibson talks about how the British and the Japanese are so naturally expert in branding because they’re brought up to instantly spot the status inference in the tiniest marginal signal – accent, appearance, language. This must apply to style too.”

Photo: pinkbelt

True, though a bit short-sighted. I think Americans are also more forgiving of misplaced style signals or even completely ambivalent to the overbranded constructs that English and Japanese cultures use to reinforce conformity.

On the other hand, I would never argue Americans favor substance over style. Umair is right. We’re often lacking both. But America is also more ready and willing to accept a new idea or to support radical innovation than any place more stylish.

This is particularly true in business.

Look at California where the Internet business, in particular, continues to boom on the shoulders of new business models. Business itself is a type of fashion where the catwalk is loaded with hot startups and cool prototypes. For example, every online media company has been browsing through all the social networking sites and working on plans to at least accessorize their online offerings with social media in some way now that social media is the model du jour.

The tech business fashion model gets built into product strategy, too. Upon returning to Apple in 1996, Steve Jobs’ first step toward turning around the once-hot now-not desktop computer company was to reinvent the Apple style with the iMac. His bet on fashion was a winner which gave him the confidence to reinvent the MP3 player as a new fashion accessory.

It wasn’t until the flickr acquisition did I think Yahoo! was much more than a fashion follower. I’m still not sure I fully understand how fashion fits into the Yahoo! culture, but it’s clear that style is a priority in the search business.

While talking with some colleagues once about how Jeff Weiner would view a really new approach to the search user experience the response from one of the more senior people at the company was, “Jeff has a great sense of style.”

I remember my first day here nearly a year ago. I expected to see black denim and long back action and was instead surprised to see that most everyone looked rather polished if not trendy. Even one of my Nebraska born and raised colleagues shops at H&M.

Again, a shirt or two from Hennes does not make one a fashionable dresser, but style can be about more than what you wear. It’s also a vantange point from where you choose to make decisions or an awareness that enables you to spot important trends. Americans may not be dressed as smartly as Europeans, but their business sense is acutely tuned to fashion in the markets in a way that is still unmatched around the world.