Out beyond Ruby, there is a field. I will meet you there.

(With apologies to Rumi)

So you’re a young, eager software developer, going to your first big software conference. You’re excited! This is the one conference you have the budget for this year, so you want to make it count.


You pore over the schedule, trying to divine from the talk abstracts which ones will have the most practical impact on your career. A talk about testing, that sounds solid. Some information on the latest Rails features: yes, definitely. A talk on that JavaScript framework everyone’s talking about; maybe it will give you the kick you need to finally build something with it. A talk on securing your application: you know you need to understand this better. You carefully map out an itinerary from talk to talk.

But there’s this one timeslot that just doesn’t have anything of interest to you. Three of the tracks are about technologies you are either already familiar with, or which you don’t think you’ll ever use. And the fourth track has some weird title like “What I learned from 10 years raising Alpacas”.

“What the hell”, you think, and add the Alpaca talk to your schedule. You can always sit in the back, pull out your laptop, and do some hacking during that talk.

But you wind up not getting any hacking done. Because the Alpaca speaker is fascinating. Her anecdotes are hilarious and sometimes poignant. Her slides are entertaining. And toward the end she slips in some insights she brought to software from her farming experience, insights that get your brain churning in new directions.

After the talk you hang out in the little knot of people to thank the speaker. You mean to stick around just long enough to shake her hand, but instead you get into an engrossing conversation with five other attendees. You wind up going out to dinner together. You don’t know it now, but you’ll stay in contact with three of them for years afterwards. Five years later, one of them will become your business partner.

Six weeks after the conference, you’ll be struggling to explain how part of your actor-structured application works, and you’ll suddenly realize that it has similarities to Alpaca herding patterns. You start explaining the code to new team members using the Alpaca metaphor, and you find it’s a huge help getting them on the same page.

9 months later, an intern will be considering attending the same conference, and will ask you if you if it’s worth it. You’ll think back, and discover you can’t remember a single technical talk you attended. All you can remember are alpacas. You tell the intern yes: it’s totally worth it.

This has been my experience at conferences over and over again. The talks that really stick with me are the ones that bring in experiences from outside of software. Often, they are completely nontechnical.

It can feel like cheating on the technical, “work-related” content to attend one of these talks. But in my experience, these are the sessions that end up bearing the most fruit over the long term.

In fact, the influx of people who are fresh to software but already have mature skills in other areas is, in my opinion, one of the most positive things happening to our industry. Software developers have a tendency to turn inward. Often we don’t even care to learn about the user interface side of our work, let alone the stuff that goes on outside the software entirely. People who have experience from beyond code bring perspectives that can make teams exponentially more effective in delivering what humans really want.

This week I attended Brighton Ruby conference. One of the best talks there was by Nadia Odunayo, on the topic of game theory. Nadia is relatively new to software, but she knows a lot about economics, and so she gave a talk on something she knew a lot about. Oh, and she also made it highly relevant to code. Bonus!

It just so happens that Nadia is curating one of the tracks at this year’s RubyConf. The subject of the track is “Beyond Ruby”, and she’s looking for talks that come from your experience outside of code.

I know that as a first-time talk submitter, it can feel like you have to tell people about something technical to establish your credibility. But the truth is, if you have experience from outside the world of software, you have the potential to expand the minds of conference-goers, and that’s a tremendously valuable gift. If you feel like you’re a newbie to programming, but you know a lot about brewing beer, or about community activism, or about climbing large mountains, or about making candles, or about meditation, or anything else from beyond the realm of code: please consider submitting a talk proposal to her track!

(Yes, as some of you may know, I too am curating a track at RubyConf. Mine is called “Fundamentals”, and it’s for talks where you leave the room thinking “I didn’t use to understand X, but now I do!”. You’re welcome to submit talks for my track too! I’m drawing attention to Nadia’s track because a) those are some of my favorite kinds of talks; and b) I’m not seeing as many submissions along those lines as I’d like.)

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