Rails For Beginners

by Jess Brown

I recently read a tweet by Andy Lindeman asking:

I'm not about to try and answer that question, but it does resonate with something that I've been thinking about for some time: all the things I had to learn to learn rails.

I started my company in 2008. I'd built a few websites on the side, knew a little HTML, barely CSS, a few PHP functions and phpMyAdmin (though couldn't say I knew anything of MySQL). I had no formal training in any web technologies and majored in Finance (I did have one CS course :-).

That first year I went through a huge learning curve and started getting much better and smarter about web development. I believe it was sometime in 2009 when I first heard about Ruby on Rails.

I read a few tutorials, at first but didn't really get started on my first real app, a personal project, until March of 2010.

If I had to summarize the difference in learning rails vs learning php, or css, or any of the other technologies I had previously learned, it'd be this: to learn rails is to learn a new craft called software development. It's the difference in learning how to hammer a nail vs how to design, architect and build a house.

People struggle the most when learning rails (actually substitute any other software development practice here: web app development, iOS, etc) when they either come from no technical background or they only have a few specific skills (HTML/CSS, Javascript, DB Admin, etc) like I had.

Here are the things I had to learn and struggle with as a begging rails developer. Many of which you'll see are not related to rails itself so much, but software development in general.


Before learning rails, I had no prior knowledge of Git or any other version control systems. FTP was the name of the game and if you were going to make a change to a file that you might not want to keep, you just back a quick backup, like index.php.bk or be confident in whatever backup process you were using.

Though the basics are pretty straightforward (git add, git commit), Git is very complicated and I'm still new tricks today.


Deployment with a static HTML site or PHP was/is so simple. A LAMP stack was the norm for most of my client's hosting services. The only hiccup would come when the client was on a windows server and my PHP mail script wouldn't work!

Rails has always had a difficult past with deployment and hosting. Luckily, I missed the mongrel era, but I really struggled with my first VPS and Passenger.

Fortunately, with services like Heroku and Engine Yard, this is becoming less and less of an issue, but even experts still struggle with deployment. I'm thinking of you asset pipeline and dependency issues.

Local Setup

In a close category to deployment, setting up a local machine is something that has to be learned. Rails strongly encourages developers to develop locally, and when everything is good, deploy confidently to production. Tools like homebrew and rvm|rbenv|chruby, rubygems and bundler have made this process WAY easier over the last few years, but if you're new to web development and/or rails, you have to learn how to use these tools too.


If you're coming from another language (or no language at all) I can't really imagine a better language to start learning than Ruby. It' so expressive and developer friendly...it's joyful to learn.

Coming to Ruby to PHP wasn't necessarily hard, but it just takes time to learn things and get in the flow of how thing work. Little things like learning how to read the documentation, figuring out how to debug error messages, style, and how to phrase questions and bugs are as much or more a part of learning the language as anything.

Objects, Classes, Modules, Inheritance, OH My!

As I stated earlier, I didn't have have a CS background and my PHP programming skills were sub par. Using thing like Classes, Inheritance, Namespacing were all foreign principles to me. I knew some basics like functions, arrays, loops, etc, but Objects really blew my mind in the beginning.

Command Line

While I was in college training to be a financier, computers always were my hobby. I'd collect family member's old computers and figure out how to get Linux or FreeBSD on them. So, fortunately, I was familiar with the command line. Not that I was ever slinging bash or anything, but I knew the basics of navigation and how to run commands. But for some, this is something else they have to spend time learning.


Similar to the command line, the console was a new principal to me. To test if a piece of PHP code works, you just upload it to the production, server, right? The console is such a big help, I almost don't want to list it as a "thing you have to learn before you learn rails", but it is another concept you have to figure out.

Text Editor or IDE

Before I started my quest to learn rails, I used Dreamweaver. A lot of people bash it, but I still believe it's a good tool to start front end web development on. However, it didn't take very long for me to realize that it wasn't going to be a good tool to code Ruby. I started looking into TextMate and Vim. I was so fascinated with Vim, that I figured if I was going to have to learn something new, I might as well learn Vim.

Learning Vim is a journey in of itself in addition to learning rails. I believe most beginners coming to rails are going to have to learn a new IDE or a new text editor.


From all my reading and everything I had heard, I knew testing was a must. I'd been burned in the past by making small changes to a CMS or shopping cart only to realize later that my change had broken something else.

Looking back on it, I can't really pick out any one pain point, but I just really struggled with it. Many times I'd know what I wanted to test, but just not know how to write it up. My instinct was to just fire up the browser and visibly test it.

Testing is one of the more obivous things that beginners struggle with, but it's one of the things that separate the beginner from the advanced.


Finally, alfter all that, we get to the thing we've wanted to learn (I realize you can possibly skip some steps like deployment and testing). I never really thinking rails was tough to learn, but it's just a giant framework with tons of convienent helpers. It just takes time to learn it. Similar to what I said about Ruby, you have to get used to the error handling, docs, etc, but then there's a few other categories...


Conventions are awesome after you learn/know the convention, but before you learn the convention, it's just another unknown. I think all in all, the majority of conventions in rails are a big help. It's really nice to see the same directory layouts in tutorials and to see similar controller actions in beginner app as in an advanced app.

The Rails Way

It might have just been me, but I was so concerned about doing things the right way, that I'd waste hours trying to figure something out that I knew how to do, but didn't think it would have been "The Rails Way". I suppose there's a balance that needs to be made. Sometimes it's important to learn things the right way the first time and sometimes it could be better to just do it and refactor later.

The Magic

It's been discussed, but a lot of the magic behind rails is wonderful and some of it is harmful. A lot of times you don't know why or how something works, but you see others do it or find it in the docs and it gets used. On reply to the tweet by @mislav said

Rails is awful for beginners, especially those who don’t understand the set of problems that a framework like this solves for you

The "magic" is a part of that disguise.


A MVC concept was was unfamiliar with to me. I didn't always understand the role of the controller, model, views, helpers, etc. What should go where? I'm not sure if routing really falls under MVC, but that was a confusing concept too. In PHP, you just upload the file and it works!

DSL's and Gems

Rails is one big DSL and typically developing a rails application involves learning many other DSL for necessary gems. Devise, formtastic/simple_form, bootstrap/foundation, slim/haml, state_machine, cancan, kaminari, carrierwave, fog, delayed_job/sidekiq are just a few common gems in my Gemfiles. All of them and more have to be learned.


I hope that the people teaching rails will read this and understand a little more about what a beginner is thinking. I wish I'd have written this in the early stages so I'd have a fresher memory of the struggles. I'm sure teachers and instructors have their own memories and reflections of when they first learned too, but hopefully another perspective will help out.

Lastly, if you're new to rails or going through the learning process now, I'd say don't get discouraged. If you really want to become a good rails developer, it'll take time, experience and dedication. It's not easy and you don't want it to be easy. If it was easy, anyone could pick it up and do it, which would make being a rails developer a valueless commodity.

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