Ruby on Rails confronts its founding bully

We can learn from David Heinemeier Hansson's childish behavior and build an even stronger WordPress community.


This week, Ruby on Rails creator and Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson dropped a proverbial bomb on RailsConf 2022, the largest conference for Rails enthusiasts.

The provocation? RailsConf’s team decided that, after having Hansson as the opening keynote speaker every year since the event’s inception in 2006, they wanted to try something different.

Since Hansson is the most powerful and well-known person in the Rails community, you might guess he’d take this news graciously and offer his support as RailsConf expands beyond its original circle of influencers. You’d be wrong.

Instead, Hansson published a childish diatribe criticizing the decision, which he believes is a result of ideological disagreements and “a need to settle scores.” Hansson goes on to speculate that RailsConf might cut ties with lots of major organizations that have had PR stumbles (a hypothetical that does not appear to be true), taking advantage of the slippery slope fallacy to attempt to cast doubt on the conference’s legitimacy and future financial health.

In this post, I’ll take a step back to look at why the folks at RailsConf might want to distance themselves from Hansson, and how we can learn from our fellow open-source enthusiasts’ misfortune to make WordPress an even better community.

In the past, I’ve written about how the Basecamp founders were a formative inspiration for me in the early 2000s as I was building my first software products, and how disappointed I was when they melted down last year in response to some seemingly reasonable employee dissent.

The tl;dr of last year’s controversy is that some members of the Basecamp team had kept a list of “funny customer names” for years, which newer employees (correctly) called out as juvenile and mean. The resulting discussion devolved into harsh and hyperbolic language, including one employee suggesting that the “funny names” list was a precursor to genocide, and a second employee retorting that white supremacy did not exist at the company. It was a mess, but it was made worse by the Basecamp leadership team’s response: “no more talking about social issues at our company, and if you don’t like the new rule, you can quit.”

Well, it turns out that a lot of people did quit – at least 20 of their 57 employees.

Here’s a snippet from my article at the time, in which I made the case for talking politics at your tech company:

I think the Basecamp execs missed the fact that, for many Americans, politics and daily life are inextricable — especially when the taboo subjects are defined, in CEO Jason Fried’s words, as “every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society.” (Does “society” include software-as-a-service product design?)

It’s something of a luxury to be able to just turn it off, and frankly, as someone who has the ability to exercise that luxury, I still think it’s a bizarre and antisocial decision to habitually pretend like the world doesn’t exist so you can sit down and code. Fried says, “We are not a social impact company,” but everything everyone does has some sort of social impact. Society needs knowledgeable citizens who have experience engaging in difficult conversations without catastrophic results to their interpersonal relationships. They could gain that experience at a company with the right structure, trust and leadership.

Rather than Hansson being firmly shown the door as a result of his role in causing the mass employee exodus, he’s still the CTO and has intensified his seemingly intentionally combative political statements, which he which he expresses on a blog hosted on his company’s platform despite his employees being silenced. Basecamp’s leadership appears to have been proud of the lack of immediate consequences, reporting a month after the exodus that “new customers signups continue as usual,” as if subscription revenue can buy dignity.

By contrast, the scandal-plagued gaming company Activision appears to have much more competent directors, who recently sold the company as part of a deal to replace their troubled leader and salvage the reputation of their popular software. The way I see this, either Fried and Hansson made a horrible call and lost 20 great people, or they made 20 horrible hiring decisions and ended up with a large group of employees who they believed were hurting the company. Driving out a third of your staff (even with severance) is something you see when a private-equity firm is gutting a company, not when you are trying to build innovative software. The Basecamp founders are prolific coders, engaging writers, and way ahead of the game on remote work… but, as far as I can tell, they are failing as leaders.

And so, the organizers of RailsConf seem to want to distance themselves from Hansson. To me this seems like a reasonable choice, not just because of a petty ideological disagreement, but because he has spent the past year behaving with cruelty and contempt toward the people who helped him become wealthy and powerful. Community members see him not just as someone they may disagree with on a debatable political issue, but as someone who is tarnishing their reputation by acting like a vicious and heavy-handed jerk.

And when the RailsConf organizers tried to gently back away, like a skilled and experienced bully, Hansson pounced on them and used his platform to attack the less powerful.

My employees and I have been talking a lot recently about Robert Sutton’s 2013 book, The No Asshole Rule, and how we should apply its wisdom to our company. Here’s a key passage that I think applies to today’s discussion:

“It can help you distinguish people who are having a bad day or a bad moment (‘temporary assholes’) from persistently nasty and destructive jerks (‘certified assholes’). And a good definition can help you explain to others why your coworker, boss, or customer deserves the label—or come to grips with why others say you are an asshole (at least behind your back) and why you might have earned it.”

Robert Sutton in The No Asshole Rule

What I hope Hansson and his colleagues will learn from this crisis is that when you crush dissent and then act like a jerk, punching down at your employees and customers, people will slowly, awkwardly back away from you. Hansson seems to be in such a narcissistic state of mind that he doesn’t realize that it’s his behavior that pushes people away, not just his particular flavor of contrarian nihilist politics, which is shared by many in the industry.

This “awkwardly backing away” is exactly what I think the RailsConf team was doing in their e-mail removing Hansson from the keynote speaker role. I think they knew he was a volatile jerk who was hurting their brand. Fearing his volatility and jerkiness, I’m guessing they wanted to broach the subject without outright telling him he’s a jerk. It seems like they were trying to avoid conflict in a difficult situation. Unfortunately, Hansson lashed out with a puerile blog post in which he tormented people who have a lower socioeconomic rank than him – Sutton’s textbook definition of “Certified Asshole” behavior.

What the WordPress community can learn from Rails

While we’re not working directly with Rails in the WordPress community, there are some obvious parallels that make it worthwhile for us to watch and learn from this situation. WordPress, like Ruby on Rails, is open-source software supported by a non-profit community, with many for-profit companies orbiting around it. Those companies have various high-profile leaders that are often viewed as de facto representatives of the community as a whole. We’re lucky to have kind and mild-mannered leadership, but it would also be wise for us to ensure that employees and community members always feel comfortable speaking freely about social and political issues without unfair consequences. For companies where this is not yet the case, there’s a risk of a Basecamp-like meltdown that would be bad for everyone and could reverberate through the community at large. Lagging on major industry initiatives, such as increasing diversity and protecting free expression, is a liability both for individual companies and everyone in the community since all our organizations are so closely intertwined with the WordPress brand.

I hope this challenge makes the Rails community stronger (and allows them to leave their founder behind so he can reflect and improve upon the way he communicates with the people around him), just as I think our recent discussion about diversity at WordCamp Europe will ultimately make that event and all future WordPress events a better experience. (And by the way, if you’re into Rails and want to visit Portland this May, you should go!)

The whole point of creating a diverse, welcoming community is establishing a place where people feel comfortable to speak freely and be themselves, including when there is disagreement and controversy. Touting a percentage-point diversity goal is much less meaningful if everyone is walking on eggshells and you’re not actually creating an integrated community that can handle healthy debate. You can never completely avoid “politics” or “social activism” in any organization, so the ideal approach is to embrace it and ensure that leaders set the example that you can have difficult conversations without losing friends, alienating co-workers, or embarrassing an entire open-source community.

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Rob is the CEO of HDC and the Publisher of MasterWP.

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