RailsConf Keynote 2019

In this year’s RailsConf keynote, DHH took on the idea of the tragedy of the commons and open source software development. The talk was less about writing code or the Rails framework and more about self actualization and transcendence.

The most compelling idea that DHH spelled out was the effect of late stage capitalism on our pursuit of happiness. He put a slide up with DropBox’s mission:

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He juxtaposed this lofty mission with the actual business of hosting files on the cloud. He said roughly, “Do you think filing cabinet companies of yesteryear bragged about unleashing the creativity of the whole [explicative] world?”

He then zoomed out from the Dropbox example to the tech start-up world in general stating, “You are stuck feeding these meaning-deprived start-ups all of your waking hours rendering it utterly impossible to build other meaningful pillars in your life.” The mission of a start-up likely will not help you reach self actualization in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Rather, what is required according to DHH is “giving the best of what you’ve got and asking nothing in return,” which was more or less his approach to developing Rails.

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Of course there is another side to DHH’s story, which is that at a young age he entered into a sustainable and highly profitable business. He is a gifted programmer. He was free of student debt, which he acknowledged, is a result of the Danish welfare state. It is easy for him to talk about altruism, selflessness and socialism. After all he has so much and it came so easy to him.

The same could be said of any of us though. There are a considerable number of people in the world who are a far from being able to care about self actualization and have to worry about safety and food. The fact that I am writing this and you are reading this puts us in a very privileged place in human history.

That there are billions in extreme poverty is all the more reason to rethink our current world economic system and instead, “create bonds free of quid pro quo reciprocal expectations,” as DHH stated. Just because being a software developer in the United States insures a decent standard of living, does not mean we should neglect either our pursuit of higher meaning in our own lives or in the quality of life of our fellow humans.

Shipping features is not the same as sparking joy. I wish I knew how to get us there and it is far easier to talk about then do. But RailsConf is about getting inspired, learning, and growing. And perhaps as a first, tiny step we can all get on board with DHH in making “socialized software together.”