Making waves in the Ruby world
There are three projects in the Ruby world that really stood out this summer: JRuby, Mongrel, and Ruport. It's not so much what they've done in terms of development (though that's been impressive), but how well they've communicated. This is something that a lot of projects don't do as well, so I wanted to take a look at what they've done in hopes that more projects might follow their lead.
Before moving on to the meat of this article, I'd like to introduce the three projects and some of their key developers.
JRuby has a growing cast of developers, but its face has been Charles Nutter for a while now. Two other important developers are Thomas Enobo and Ola Bini. Jruby is an implementation of Ruby on the JVM, it allows native interaction with Java objects, and is rapidly drawing attention in both the Ruby and Java worlds.
Mongrel is the brainchild of Zed Shaw. He's also got a cast of developers working with him on Mongrel and several of it's offspring. Mongrel is a secure, fast, Ruby implementation of a webserver (well, it includes some C), it has taken the Ruby on Rails world by storm. Mongrel has spawned a clustering tool; a number of plugins; and, most recently, RFuzz (a web server fuzzing tool).
Ruport is the work of Gregory Brown, who was able to work on it this summer as part of Google's Summer of Code program. He's also been joined by several other developers — notably during RuportDay2006. According to Gregory, Ruport "is a software library that aims to make the task of reporting less tedious and painful. It provides tools for data acquisition, database interaction, formatting, and parsing/munging."
Releases as communications
A key piece of these projects success in engaging the Ruby community has been their 'release often' strategy. While this is largely a development issue, it's also an important communication to the world that the project is alive, active, and interesting.
Ruport made ten Summer of Code releases this year! How can that many release escape anyone's attention? JRuby and Mongrel have both been busy as well, each seeing multiple releases this year.
With frequent releases, a project can also reward new contributors quickly. If someone contributes a useful new feature or a bug fix to your project and you can cut a release (giving them credit) within a couple of weeks, they get a much bigger emotional reward than if they'd waited months to see their patch make it out of a development tree. Happy contributors are much more likely to spread the word (and to contribute again).
Just making a release isn't good enough. You need to publicize it. A well written, interesting announcement is going to be your friend. Ruport's last announcement was 127 lines of goodness. Gregory did a good job, covering: an introduction to Ruport, "What's New" (including links to examples), information about downloading and resources, and a special section on Project news (giving nods to a number of volunteer hackers who'd made good thigs happen).
Sometimes announcements aren't about a new release, just a quick update on where and how things are going. Charles Nutter recently posted an example of this to his blog (here). In his post, he talked about: RubySpec, a project to write a Ruby specification for implementors; RubyTests, a project to build a comprehensive test suite for Ruby 1.8; work on blocks in JRuby; plans for JRuby and RubyInline integration; Mongrel on JRuby; and "JRuby Extras", a project collecting various JRuby support bits for a number of Ruby applications. It was an informative article that makes the reader want to jump in and get involved.
Beyond releases and announcements, there's another kind of heartbeat that lets people know that your project is alive and kicking — flat out, visible activity. If bug reports are being acknowledged, questions are being answered, and emails responded to then you're doing the kind of community relations work that will pay back in spades.
Zed is a master of this. He's done interviews (here and here), run contests (like the "pick a bug mascot" contest earlier this year), and regularily posts on the ruby-talk, rails, and mongrel mailing lists. He's even got other mongrel users getting in on the act. Ezra Zygmuntowicz (among others) is a vocal supporter of mongrel, and provides a lot of support to the community.
It's also been nice to see Charles' work in getting various projects working together — the RubyTests, RubyInline, and Mongrel information I noted above are good examples (I posted to my personal blog about this a while ago, you can read it here). Charles has also been interviewed (here), and been involved in articles about JRuby around the web.
Finally, all three key developers (along with a lot of their cohorts) are deeply involved in the Ruby community, responding to emails on the ruby-talk and rails mailing lists about all kinds of things outside the scope of their own projects. All three are involved in their local Ruby Brigades and have made presentations at Ruby Brigade meetings, Ruby/RailsConfs, and similar settings.
Giving your project the boost it needs is often a matter of public relations. To make your project better known and more successful, do what the Jruby, Mongrel, and Ruport projects have done — follow the three steps outlined above (release often, make good announcements, and be active in the community). You'll find the payoff is well worth the price.