The 5 life-changing lessons I learned from RMU

It’s been nearly 2 weeks since I completed my Ruby Mendicant University course and joined the growing ranks of RMU alumni. I’d hoped to put together my thoughts earlier, but the exhaustion has just worn off.

Being on the extreme “novice” end of accepted students, the experience of RMU was more trying (and tiring) than perhaps some others. But experience or no, it’s pretty intense. On the other side of the crucible, I find myself with several lessons I’d managed to escape until now. I thought they’d be worth sharing.

Lesson 1: When you see opportunities, don’t forget opportunities to help.

For those who aren’t familiar, Gregory Brown is a profoundly skilled, pragmatic, and good-hearted developer who saw a big hole in the education of Ruby developers: too many reach an intermediate level and are unable to make further progress.

I must admit that the conniving marketer in me would have seen a very easy way to extract money from the wallets of these budding developers. But Greg’s instincts being more of the “change the world” variety, he saw an opportunity to experiment with the idea that open source ideas can change the face of education.

People that join RMU are taking advantage of one of the best learning opportunities available in the world of programming, and it’s completely free to participate. I hope with that opportunity comes a sense of a longing to help. You may have earned a spot in the program or alumni status, but it’s humbling to think that the community has bought your way into a first-class education.

I think Greg’s passion for contribution to a larger cause is inspiring and contagious. RMU is slated to launch over 100 open source projects in the next year, and there will be ample opportunity to contribute (financially, by volunteering, or on the projects themselves).

Lesson 2: Find an excuse to take the first bite of the apple.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I imagine that many new programmers are intimidated by the world around them. It sometimes reminds me of what it feels like on the first day of high school. The projects are big and solve complex problems, other programmers are megageniuses, and established community members seem as if they had been assigned that status by deity. Also, some of them have moustaches.

It was a fellow student, Anita Kuno, who worked with me to crack open a relatively complex project and dissect it. At first it looked impossible, and alone, I would have given up. Anita’s advice was to find something I understood and latch on. I did, and was surprised to find a piece I could get my brain around. Then, working my way outward, I figured out the purpose of the program and got to understand its architecture.

That’s the nature of programming, I think, and RMU was the first to bring that out for me. There’s no reason to be intimidated: it may take a little extra work, but it’s not hard to find a way to get your foot in the door.

Whether facing a difficult problem with a blank sheet of paper or a complex project that seems impenetrable, the big revelation for me was “OK, so I can’t solve this. So what can I solve?” After that, it’s just a matter of time and work before the solution unfolds, and it’s profoundly gratifying.

Lesson 3: A working product comes first.

I’ve heard it pontificated, but RMU drilled this into my brain: Priority 1 is to ship. Before RMU, I had 3 or 4 half-products pushed in a mutant state with no ability for people to interact with them.

During RMU I shipped 2 functioning products. They’re proto-sites with no CSS and limited capability, but I learned an incredibly valuable lesson. You should be in a big hurry to make something that sees the light of day, solves a problem, or makes someone smile.

That’s not to say that sloppy code is OK in shipping products; that’s just douchey, especially to newbies like me. But prettifying beyond the point where someone else could read, interpret, and contribute on your project seems a lot less valuable than getting another awesome feature or product shipped in that same timeframe.

Lesson 4: Do not underestimate the power of community.

RMU is not a solo gig. The people I’ve interacted with have taught me nearly as much as Greg. I believe it’s actually engineered that way.

However, I don’t think even Greg anticipated the quality or quantity of response he’d get from community members. The people that have gathered from around the world actively participate in IRC chats, cross-project contribution, impromptu projects, and even contributing to the core of RMU itself… it’s staggering to me.

It’s also been great to see the alumni stick around to help the incoming group with questions and moral support. The community is the culture and the brand of RMU. Ultimately, this community will surpass Greg as the “owner” of RMU (and he’s no stranger to this concept after running several open source projects).

The idea and pitch for RMU was strong enough to attract a passionate group of people, but it’s the people that bind to each other and to a shared goal. These are friends from all over the globe that I plan to stay in touch with indefinitely. How cool is that?

I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life, but I hope it leverages the good that a passionate, engaged group of people can do.

Lesson 5: Don’t listen to DHH.

OK, that was a blatant poke in the eye. But DHH and Jason Fried would tell you never to launch a product without a business model, and I imagine they’d tell you never to launch a community initiative without a sustainability model.

But if Greg had waited until he had a solid “business plan” behind RMU, it may never have gotten off the ground, leaving the situation in the world exactly as it is. Or it would be drastically different, scaled down, or less ambitious in its goals.

Instead, RMU has already helped dozens of developers “level up”, and created an incredibly tight and productive global community, with tremendous upward momentum.

Sometimes you just have to take a breath and jump, and figure out how to land safely on the way down.

Greg’s fearlessness in tackling the problems that RMU confronts is inspiring. By nature, I’m a cautious cat. I measure two hundred times and cut once. I would rather not participate than risk rejection or looking stupid. I was almost too afraid to become a father. Why should I be afraid of any of that? Being afraid is not how you change the world.

So I guess that’s the real lesson 5: Not just ignoring, but obliterating fear is the only way I’m going to make a dent in my life or in the world.

Thanks to Greg, Jia, Jordan, and everyone that’s contributed to RMU so far, and I hope to pitch in when and how I can.

So yeah, RMU was valuable for me. It’s indisputably valuable for the community. Hope you’ll help keep it going.

If you don’t like blah blah blah, leave.

Some pretty tough talk from the You The User blog basically states that if your job isn’t making you happy, excited, engaged, challenged, etc., then it’s time to walk out the door.

Most reactions were along the lines of “you must not have kids”, or “that’s fine if your job is a plaything”.

The thing is, Matt (Matthew hates being called Matt, apparently) is in large part correct. So while it does tend to engage the automatic-eye-rolling mechanism in my brain, there’s something valuable here to investigate.

Imagine one semantic tweak to his list. Instead of

If you aren’t being challenged in your job – leave.

I read it as

If you aren’t being challenged in your job – What are you still doing there?

And rather than

If you think you are successful – leave and find something or somewhere where you aren’t. When you become successful again – leave again.

I see

If you think you are successful – why aren’t you looking for somewhere you aren’t?

Then, rather than the “15 commandments of walking out in a huff”, we have some serious points to consider.

This way, if the answer is “I can’t get another job” or “I need this paycheck”, you at least have a graceful way to beg out of the discussion. However, you’re most likely wrong. I don’t meet many people these days who leave a job, never to find another source of income.

This idea of being a free agent was impressed on me by a dear friend. And the idea is career- (and life-) changing, because instead of a wage slave, you’re free to be the absolute best. If you’re undervalued, underused, or underappreciated, you can be confident that it you can go be the best somewhere else. Why settle for less if you don’t have to?

The trick is realizing you don’t have to. Let me share one piece of wisdom that this friend gave to me in my darkest hour:

If you feel like you are trapped in your job, you’re not, and it really is probably time to leave.

Life is too short to not soak up every challenge. And as I’ve come to learn, it’s also too short to spend in a job you hate but fear to lose.

And unless you work for the government, if you hate your job, you’re going to lose it sooner than you think.

So yes, the post may sound like it’s being dictated from an ivory tower, but there’s a solid foundation beneath that tower. My advice is that if you find yourself disagreeing violently, you may want to give some thought to your current situation.