S01E11: Obie Fernandez

18 Feb 2011

We interview Obie Fernandez and talk to him about his new book The Rails 3 Way and how he started his consultancy Hashrocket Dr. Nic: I want to introduce today’s guest through a series of deep, probing questions. Obie Fernandez. Is Obie your real name?

Obie: No. It’s not my real name. Although, what is real after all?

Dr. Nic: That’s--perhaps you’ve got a reference for us, perhaps--Getting Real. I wonder if that’s covered--naming? Is naming covered in the Getting Real book?

Obie: I don’t think that it is but its better to avoid trendy names, when naming.

Dr. Nic: True. Well, unless its a trending name or you are the trend.

Obie: Or it has trended.

Dr. Nic: There are some classics from the early 1900s, there’s retro.....So where did Obie come from?

Obie: Obi-Wan Kenobi I believe.

Dr. Nic: So that’s--ok, so what your real name?

Obie: Obed.

Dr. Nic: How do you spell it?

Obie: O-B-E-D.

Dr. Nic: What’s your social security number? I’m sure I can look it up with the Internet. So, say hi to Obed. So how did it become Obi-Wan Kenobi? You wanted it? Did you make up your own name?

Obie: No, because people kept asking me these questions about where my name came from and I got tired of it.

Dr. Nic: I do remember you saying Obi-One--was that your IRC or something?

Obie: Obi-Wan.

Dr. Nic: Alright. Is there anything gratuitous you would like to promote to our listening audience? A new book perhaps?

Obie: Yea, there’s this really big, its kind of obnoxiously big--

Dr. Nic: It is huge. You keep talking while I get a page count.

Obie: Yea, the 4 hour body--It’s just a huge, huge book. Someone sent me 2 of them for Christmas. I’m not sure why they sent me 2 but I don’t actually know who it was because the gift card was missing.

Dr. Nic: Someone sent you--are you referring to your own book or are you just trying to flog off stuff you got for Christmas at the moment?

Obie: I was talking about Tim Ferris’ book but--Oh you meant my book?

Dr. Nic: That’s right, let’s do a white elephant store--yea I got a whole bunch of stuff for Christmas I don’t want.

Obie: Yea, The Rails 3 way--The Rails 3 Way, not the Rails Three-way. Apparently American audiences cannot hear three-way without thinking of sex.

Dr. Nic: Only American audiences? I’m competent of that same thing.

Obie: Perhaps Australian as well.

Dr. Nic: We’ve all watched this--we’re all Americanized. That’s probably it.

Obie: But I don’t get it. You don’t laugh when you talk about a three way switch.

Dr. Nic: To be honest, we don’t talk about three way switches.

Obie: We’re talking about my book.

Dr. Nic: What is a three way switch?

Obie: A three way switch is--

Dr. Nic: Oh, like one a wall.

Obie: Like on a wall, yea. I figured the snicker or laugh would not be a bad thing because at least people would be--

Dr. Nic: So I’m flicking through the book and there’s no fold out section, which I would’ve thought a book on the three-way would have--

Obie: The centerfold has the table of response codes in there and their Rails equivalent.

Dr. Nic: Yea its been a long time since I’ve read sort of--men’s literature, but would there be like an Obie profile of favorite--ya know, that’d be great for an interview such as this so I could just review and go, “What’s your favorite animal?” with having you--a spread out picture of Obie.

Obie: It’s not The Obie Way--some people have said that the book should be called The Obie Way or the HashRocket way.

Dr. Nic: It is--it does make a stance on certain topics. Doesn’t it?

Obie: It is opinionated.

Dr. Nic: It is opinionated. What--

Obie: I think Rails is not opinionated enough anymore. That is my opinion.

Dr. Nic: Well, and some of them are different--they’re still defaults. So what are the differences? What are your opinions on what we should be doing as Rails developers other than the standard kit?

Obie: In a nutshell? Rspec and Haml?

Dr. Nic: Well not in 700 pages. Certainly not. I don’t want that. Sorry, Haml and--

Obie: Rspec?

Dr. Nic: Rspec for unit testing or what? Or also for integration tests?

Obie: I actually like Rspec integration test because it means I don’t have to internalize and know a whole other technology like Cucumber.

Dr. Nic: Well, Cucumber is English so its not entirely another technology.

Obie: Yea.

Dr. Nic: And.....its not even about British English its Old English.

Obie: Its considered another knowledge set that you have to--another mental mode that you have to be in.

Dr. Nic: But I thought-- to me that’s--

Obie: Some people think that’s a good thing.

Dr. Nic: That’s right. I mean, there’s a conversation that came up in Ren’s session at RubyConf and someone said it was helpful because you could--it actually facilitated you changing your mental perspective at the time of writing your integrations test.

Obie: That’s right.

Dr. Nic: Close to thinking like a user. I’m gonna say that someone else said it, but I was thinking the exactly same thing at the time.

Obie: It sounds good. And I like that line of thinking--its good for talks and clients.

Dr. Nic: Ok so clients. Why--I mean, I know that was actually one of the things when Rspec came out, excuse me Cucumber--”oh, you can give you Cucumber scenarios to the users--to the client to read them. We didn’t have a lot of success, I know, when we used to do that. It sounded good.

Obie: It did sound good but, using history as an indicator at Hashrocket, I mean, that’s not generally what happens. Generally, even that, is too technical for the clients to digest on a regular basis.

Dr. Nic: So where is--overall all the projects you run a consultancy through Hashrocket, you guys have had how many different clients?

Obie: I think at last count its over 80.

Dr. Nic: Over 80 clients, over 3 years?

Obie: Yea.

Dr. Nic: So, what has been the way you sort of end up interacting with clients on a regular basis? How do they know that the project is going they way it should--that they’re happy with where its at?

Obie: Well Pivotal Tracker is the backbone tool and is the skeleton for the process methodology that we use.

Dr. Nic: So like, you have a version on staging that they go through and accept they’re sources?

Obie: Right. Yea, so very low ceremony iterations. There’s a back log that is constantly being worked on by the development team and their--as they finish functionality, they push it out to staging.

Dr. Nic: The kick their asses better to accept things.

Obie: So to speak. Yea, its really important to keep the clients engaged and accepting stories on a daily basis. That helps in a lot of other ways as well.

Dr. Nic: Put in context for those listening, Obie runs Hashrocket--there’s a small little thing called Hashrocket that some people have heard of. I myself used to run a larger, more majestic consultancy called Mocra.

Obie: That subcontracted to Hashrocket.

Dr. Nic: Yea, so in a few words, just cover this. Because I think we should cover this competitive tension that, you know--rife. Just say a few words--why was my consultancy better than yours?

Obie: Well you had to save our bacon.

Dr. Nic: No, obviously its alright. That was just for my amusement, unless you have an answer.

Obie: THat’s the best I could come up with and unfortunately it was a lie.

Dr. Nic: Oh. That hurts. Obie that hurts in all many sorts of places. Is running a consultancy hard?

Obie: Its hard enough. Its a constant treadmill. So, I would say if you like to have a--its certainly a job. I don’t know. What--elaborate on the question. You certainly know its hard.

Dr. Nic: Its obviously loaded and I know some of the answers. In what ways--is it--why should people go--actually let’s do it in a positive sense.

Obie: Ok.

Dr. Nic: Engine Yard, I know, a bunch of our business comes from our development partners, amongst many of them Rails consultancies, others are digital consultancies and so they have a different intent. So, its in our best interest that they’re are more Rails developers evolving from just being developers to running their own consultancies and spreading the word, etc.

Obie: Sure.

Dr. Nic: But I know its not all just happy times.

Obie: No.

Dr. Nic: So, how does a developer go from being a developer to, ya know, starting a consultancy. Is there--how did you go about it with Hashrocket? How did other consultancies do it?

Obie: It helps to have a backbone client. By which I mean an initial client that is supportive of the idea of you taking their team and turning it into a consultancy because they’re going to get some benefit from doing so, which is essentially what happened. We were--I was leading a team of 4 including myself, working on a product called CityClick and after about a year, that was frankly getting a little bit boring for me and I wanted to do something else. The book had just come out so we were celebrating that and I saw opportunities to leverage the notoriety I was getting from the book to get clients so I went to my client at the time and said, “Hey, now would be a good time to back me in starting a consultancy” and so that’s how that came about and I think that’s a fairly common story--for that to happen basically. If not directly going into business with your client basically using a particular backbone client to bootstrap a consultancy especially if you’re able to grow your team, just slightly above what you need to service that backbone client so that they--they mitigate your risk, the big client, then you’re able to start taking smaller projects on the side. An then the way that we really got off the ground was through some marketing slight of hand around the 3-2-1 Launch concept.

Dr. Nic: That was exceptional.

Obie: Yea.

Dr. Nic: I don’t know if it made you any money but, you know--

Obie: It was kind of a wash money-wise because even though I wouldn’t have--I would have been hesitant to admit it to you at the time, it was trying to constrain all 3 variables of time, scope, and--

Dr. Nic: Which we’ll probably all 3 talk about.

Obie: We will talk about--No you can’t do that. Even though I did my best to explain to the clients that the scope was going to float, so that the scope variable was going to float in the sense that we couldn’t guarantee to you exactly what we were going to be able to launch but it was going to be within the constraint--which may have been explicit, I don’t remember very well, but it was always with the conceit that we would launch something at the end of the 3-2-1, hence 3-2-1 Launch. And there were some other very interesting, unique aspects of it. For instance, Tammer, who’s working here at Engine yard now, at the time he was at Thoughtbot and we brought him down to work on a 3-2-1 Launch as part of our program.

Dr. Nic: Yea he had the--how big was Hashrocket at the time?

Obie: At the time that was going on, I mean we were, probably half a dozen people.

Dr. Nic: So having sort of, novelty people come in.

Obie: Having novelty people to expand our brain power and new blood and new ways of thinking and it was quick and easy--it was relatively easy to convince people to come down and do that because it was a very low commitment kind of gig.

Dr. Nic: Come work at the beach for a week.

Obie: Come work at the beach. I think I was paying 3 grand per person for essentially 4 days of work. So its fly in on Monday morning and work for a solid--so basically get up to speed on Monday, work for a solid 3 days. Those 3 days might be a little bit over hours but not too much and then celebrate on Friday. And then that was the bulk of implementation work for the projects we’re doing BUT the brilliant part about it was not necessarily the execution. It was the splash that it made in the market. A lot of people talked about it and it gave us--it bought us some attention.

Dr. Nic: Yup. Alright well, yes. Certainly it seems so from the outside.

Obie: We did 8. We did 8 of them over the course of probably 6 months if I remember correctly.

Dr. Nic: No doubt. Well, you’re a new business and I’m not sure if people who are not in business recognize that. It quickly becomes a lot than just writing Rails apps.

Obie: Oh yea, for sure.

Dr. Nic: There’s paperwork, process, controlling/managing clients--

Obie: Collections.

Dr. Nic: Collecting money. And the timeliness of collecting the money because typically your staff don’t like to be paid the same time that you get paid from your customers.

Obie: Right.

Dr. Nic: They tend to--yea definitely.

Obie: It wasn’t a cheap enterprise to start Hashrocket. We essentially lost or invested, as you will, ¾ of $1 million to the first year, so that was the initial spend, which, you know--

Dr. Nic: Is there a discussion? Like at the quarter million mark, was somebody supposed to say, “Hey Obie-- ¼ $1million, how’s that going over there.” I mean, where’s that number.

Obie: No, about half of that amount was the initial commitment we had discussed and then the rest of that of amount was the amount that we went over and were there discussions? Sure, they weren’t--I don’t remember them as being particularly difficult discussions, it was just something that we needed to do.

Dr. Nic: I mean we have going signs, metrics that show that things were actually going well.

Obie: Oh, absolutely. I mean things were going very well so, you know, there wasn’t too much of a hesitation I would say. There was certainly thought put into it--there was risk in doing so but it didn’t feel particularly risky.

Dr. Nic: I mean, at the time you had--I used to think there was a number of bottle necks to a growing consultancy, 1 was getting staff because you were restricted by how much work hours, because you sort of bill by hours, getting clients, and now I can’t remember what the rest of them are. I used to be very proud of my list at the time. Hashrocket seemed to be able to get staff pretty easily or was that just from the outside or was it--did you get a lot of quality people wanting to come down? You were sort of not really in a major hub.

Obie: Yea, you could say that again. The--but we did have the beach. That was our secret weapon so we recruited a bunch of people from where there was no beach. Because people that are not from the beach, myself included--so I was in Atlanta at the time I met Mark and Mary, my partners and I started coming down there to contract for them and just kind of fell in love with the whole living at the beach vibe because I hadn’t lived at the beach before. Loved the ocean and still do. I mean, I have a wonderful place on the beach. You can see the sunrise. I think you’ve probably event stayed there, right? So you know what I’m talking about and there’s certainly a copious amount of pictures out there but there’s this romantic notion of being by the ocean and everything like that and you can use that to get people down and we certainly still do. Now whether you can keep them long term is another story because the extent of the culture at the beach is--are surfers and skateboarders and bleach bimbos and things like that.

Dr. Nic: Yea. And those 3 aren’t necessarily the same group of people that become Rails developers.

Obie: No, not at all. Nor do they want to date Rails developers so--

Dr. Nic: Aw that hurts Obie. I’m happily married so that’s irrelevant to me but--now, so we finished that conversation. We talked about hiring. So what else? So marketing you did the 3-2-1 which is really cool and its--I know at the time people laughed about it being the largest and--I know ThoughtWorks was running around saying how wonderful Ruby was and it was 40% of their work in some 2007 or something there’s going to be a Ruby--

Obie: Right.

Dr. Nic: I mean Hashrocket in those days certainly seemed like the biggest active brand that seemed to be growing.

Obie: Right.

Dr. Nic: Do you remember what other things you used to be doing back then? Why it was working so well?

Obie: We certainly set out to be the best so, we had an internal mission statement to be the best Bleeping web consultancy period. The period was just punctuation, we didn’t actually say period.

Dr. Nic: It came later. Someone needed to spell check it.

Obie: It felt like we were scaling that mountain pretty effectively and people would come down, particularly in the first year and a half we worked hard and partied very hard. First year, we were working really hard and probably partying every other night. It was very much an environment of drinking and having a lot of fun. So that was good in terms of attracting talent and people that wanted to live, breathe, and eat and drink. Hashrocket worked out really well. I gotta say over the years we matured and some of those folks got married, had kids, and then we hired other family people.

Dr. Nic: It changes your life.

Obie: It does certainly change--slow you down significantly and so probably now, light beer is the predominant drink instead of Patron or at least beer, I’ll say.

Dr. Nic: Now I have an important technical question for you because you’re a technical person--you’re an author. There’s no segway into this--no segway whatsoever except that I just got told that I have 2 minutes left or I was just given the finger. One of the two. Technical question. Do you prefer Rails 1 to Rails 3?

Obie: No, why would I? That’s not sensible.

Dr. Nic: Ok. Now, actually a few questions from other people, before I get into the important topic of RMM. Ok so, unfortunately there’s just the Twitter tags and not everyone in the world do I remember what Twitter tag matches to their real name. But @RubyBusiness--how do you see large enterprises adopting Rails?

Obie: I see it everywhere. We’re doing work for big corporations like Sony Ericsson, Routers, I could probably rattle off another half dozen big companies that we’ve done Ruby with.

Dr. Nic: Is that something that as a business--Hashrocket, do they spend any time jsut monitoring outside the scope of your own pipeline, sales pipeline? I mean do you ever spend time pondering how to make Rails grow, just to make sure the--

Obie: No, I stopped kinda caring about that and I stopped the heavy evangelism once--I guess the way I see it now in retrospect, once Hashrocket started going, I kind of saw it as a competitive advantage. I thought it had enough of it to hold in the marketplace that it didn’t really matter whether people thought it was mainstream or not. It like--whether people were saying its mainstream or not, we’re seeing the adoption, therefore, I don’t really care what the perception is. We’re using it to great effect and we’re charging big bill rates and getting a lot of great, fantastic projects with it.

Dr. Nic: Has it kept growing?

Obie: You know, my mindset is I don’t really care--I mean now, what we’ve--

Dr. Nic: Ok, has the type of customer you get evolved at all? Do you still get the same type of business, the same type of client?

Obie: Its changed in the sense that, in the beginning as you would expect a lot--the referrals we were getting, the incoming leads that were coming were due to the book and due to the reputation in the Rails community but now the majority of the business that we get is straight up referrals where the client doesn’t know anything about Rails. Sort of--to give you a better example, we used to get calls in the first year, so this would’ve been 2008, and I kid you not, one guy even told me, “I’d like a Rails app, like with the rounded corners and the AJAX”

Dr. Nic: I love the rounded corners and the AJAX. I’ll be honest, that’s one of the reasons I went to--picked Rails because AJAX was harder than .NET and with Visual Studio, I had no idea how to get the rounded corners and they seemed very important in 2005. It was still a bit behind the curve to be asking for that in 2008 but you know, obviously we had rounded corners and we had AJAX. Every-one's got rounded corners now.

Obie: There’s not too much of that now. Now its kind of more serious.

Dr. Nic: We’re back to normal corners now.

Obie: The technology isn’t so much the focus and it should’ve never been the focus. The focus should be on the execution.

Dr. Nic: Well a niche is a niche. As a community, you’ve gotta pick--if a community forms out of passion then businesses will take advantage of that passion and in the whole chain of things from do you want a web app to do you want it through Hashrocket, the passion was around Ruby specifically.

Obie: Right. I will tell you one thing, there’s huge numbers out there. You and me and kind of, the group of early adopters and loud mouths that are the most visible within the Ruby ecosystem, we’re just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an enormous community of people using Rails who don’t blog--

Dr. Nic: Don’t go to conferences. Don’t blog. Attempt to use it on Windows.

Obie: There not mentioning it on Twitter all the time, they probably don’t even use Twitter.

Dr. Nic: They have normal jobs, probably go out and play golf on the weekend. I actually have no idea--

Obie: They don’t drive expensive cars.

Dr. Nic: No, that’s me. I have a Toyota Sienna. I look awesome in it. Its tremendous. If Toyota ever wanted to sponsor me to say things like that, that’d be awesome. I have a seasonal question.

Dr. Nic: You’re on the old Working WIth Rails chart.

Obie: You’re stuck just behind me.

Dr. Nic: I’m stuck just behind you so you’re currently number 2 but mostly importantly, at one stage you were number 1. In fact, I think you were number 1 and number 3 or something at the same time. What--how did you manage to achieve the feat of having 2 spots?

Obie: I think Zed was number 2. So, there’s never been a number 1 other than DHH?

Dr. Nic: Really? Zed never got to number 1? I thought Zed got to number 1?

Obie: No, I don’t think he got to number 1.

Dr. Nic: Because I think he had a blog post that said, Make me number 1.

Obie: Oh, make me number 1. That may have happened but i think some of those got disqualified and then he got fed up or bored and wanted to take it up so he changed his name on the site to my name so then I was number 2 and number 3 or number 1 and number 2 or something like that. And then, some people asked me why I had had hacked the site to be on there twice which i just thought was a wonderful indicator of those people’s intellectual capacities.

Dr. Nic: Do you think you could ever get Zed back?

Obie: No, Absolutely not.

Dr. Nic: Is Zed lost forever?

Obie: He’s lost forever.

Dr. Nic: He’s lost forever so he’s personified us and decided that we’re not lots of different people. That we are one person with one unique ability.

Obie: Zed is extremely opinionated.

Dr. Nic: I’ve never met Zed.

Obie: Really?

Dr. Nic: So, I love--

Obie: We should go to drinks tonight. He lives here.

Dr. Nic: Oh ok, awesome.

Obie: But I know Zed pretty well. We lived together for 6 months. He was involved in that CityClick project before Hashrocket came about>

Dr. Nic: Oh, so you were one of the people who didn’t pay him or something? No?

Obie: No, I was the one who bailed him out when he was not getting paid.

Dr. Nic: No I mean, I’ve been playing with the Mongrel 2 thing too and it looks great. I’d love to know--its annoying that its a project that has an inherent anti-Ruby bend to it.

Obie: It’s good to know you guys are still supporting Mongrel.

Dr. Nic: Still supporting Mongrel. Yea. Mongrel’s an important piece of technology that we’re glad still exists. Only because--let’s wrap this up. Ok, so the reason we’re laughing is because yesterday we had a deploy day here at Engine Yard--actually before we say Deploy day actually, can you talk about what it was because its as interesting for you to talk about what it was as for me to introduce it.

Obie: Really? Deploy Day--we got a chance to deploy to Engine Yard Apploud. It takes some skills, I would say.

Dr. Nic: I mean it was interesting. Have you ever seen any of your clients? I mean 80 different clients--do any of those businesses ever gone through the process of using their own app and sort of making an activity of it.

Obie: Our clients? No. We are definitely the experts in AppCloud when it comes to our clients.

Dr. Nic: That’s right. No, I don’t mean AppCloud. So we-- like I said we did AppCloud and we did a competitive platform as an example but have any of your clients--

Obie: Let’s say SalesForce, for instance, had a platform.

Dr. Nic: Right, let’s say SalesForce had a platform. You’ve got the lingo. If its ok, you create apps for your clients. Do any of them as businesses, go through that same process of using their own app, experimenting--

Obie: Oh, well yea, of course they do.

Dr. Nic: There’s too many levels of the word client in this conversation, its getting confusing.

Obie: Forgot what you asked?

Dr. Nic: I can appreciate that. So, CityClick as a customer, does Mark, etc.--do they sit down as a group activity go and use CityClick and say this could be better this could be worse, how do they--

Obie: The folks responsible for the acceptance of features as they’re delivered are all constantly using the app. And in a lot of cases the stakeholder is the same--is the entrepreneur, is the owner, is the client, so yes. The answer is yes they do they do use it all the time. That’s a very good idea--to keep them using it all the time instead of demos and big bang employees.

Dr. Nic: Final personal question--personal.

Obie: Oh God.

Dr. Nic: Did you purpose to your fiance on Twitter?

Obie: So I actually used the proposal on Twitter to distract her from the fact that I was getting down on my knee to whip out the ring.

Dr. Nic: So if--she was geographically next to you at the time that you tweeted to her?

Obie: She was standing next to me at the base of Coit Tower, overlooking downtown San Francisco and I said, “Oh Shit, have you seen Twitter?” which as I was looking at my iPhone, which she took to mean as there was an earthquake somewhere or something.

Dr. Nic: That probably Coit Tower was about to fall down.

Obie: And so she grabbed my phone to see what it was and as she was looking at the proposal on Twitter, I was getting down on one knee to you know, whip out the ring. Shock and awe.

Dr. Nic: Now, I want to follow that up with--there’s a number of other people in the room so I have not prepared this question at all but Coit Tower--that was gifted to San Francisco from a widower or something? Does anyone know the story?............I’m Danish, let me just get on Wikipedia then so I can get my answer. Oh its right here. CoitusTower. I’ve no idea--

Obie: Its not Coitus Tower, its Coit Tower.

Dr. Nic: Coit Tower is a 210 foot tower located on Telegraph hill in San Francisco. Blah Blah Blah.....It was bequeathed ⅓ of her estate--so Coit, some person called Coit requested ⅓ of her estate to the city....oh, this is not answering my question. I thought it was some dead person and something unromantic in the context.

Obie: No I assure you. It was very, very, romantic.

Dr. Nic: It was very romantic. Obie Fernanandez, thank you very much for your interview.