Austin Geek of the Week: Damon Clinkscales

For the last year or so, the GeekAustin Cabal has been talking about publicly tipping our hat to fellow members of the Austin tech community who either 1) have made significant contributions, 2) deserve wider recognition, or 3) are simply doing cool stuff. Each of those to whom we tip are hat will be the Austin Geek of the Week.

To get started, each of us put together a list. We compared them over DimSum. One name was on everyone's list: Damon Clinkscales. We have a winner -- our first Austin Geek of the Week.


I've been following Damon for years now. First as founder/leader of Austin on Rails, then as instigator of Cafe Bedouins, then Open Coffee, then Friday Night Hacks. Damon does all this in addition to being a father and working full-time at VitalSource. I can think of no one more deserving of our kudos than Damon.

Damon does so much, it's hard to keep up. Just to make sure I wasn't missing anything, and to get a bit more history. I met Damon for coffee, and then more coffee. Below are some of the highlights of our conversation:


Lynn: How did Austin on Rails get started?

Damon: Basically, I had started using Rails in the summer of 2005 at work. I was using Java at the time. By the fall of 2005, I was wondering if anyone else was using the technology, and I bumped into a couple of other people who were wondering the same thing: Rob Jones and Rob Rasmussen. I forget how we found each other. We got together for a little meeting. I think Rob was working at Frog at the time. So he talked to them to see if we could use their space. At the time they had a tiny meeting room upstairs. At the very first meeting in November, there were about eight of us. Frog had really nice offices. They were on Congress -- right by Hickory Street.

Lynn: I remember. They used to empty out the first floor for the SXSW Interactive Party.

Damon: At the time, we weren't yet meeting in the bigger room downstairs. For the first meeting, I gave a talk about Rails 1.0. Where I worked, we had already been using a pre-1.0 version of Rails. Rob gave a talk as well.

Did the group grow quickly? It's pretty big now.

It grew rather slowly. At the time, Rails was considered a hobbyist language. Almost no one one using it. Even when we started to get some attendance, it was always people just tinkering with it. There was almost no one doing professional Rails work.

You cover a lot of stuff that is not necessarily Rails. As far back as I remember, Austin on Rails always seemed to be a place where the newest technologies were showcased: Cucumber, MongoDB, Cassandra, etc

I keep my ear to the ground -- mostly on twitter -- about what people are using. I'm always looking for that next thing -- to see what we can use when we're building our web applications. It's such a broad field now. We're really lucky, with all the technological change now. For web developers, there's always new stuff to dig into. On the front end, there are all the JavaScript libraries. AJAX is now old news. On the server side, there are alternate storage mechanisms -- going beyond SQL. Those options have exploded in the last 12-18 months. Something like MongoDB is really easy to drop into a Ruby project. You can use it as an augmentation, or even a replacement, to your SQL database.

When Hayes Davis built TweetReach 1.0, he used Tokyo Cabinet. I'm not sure how he came to choose it, but it worked very well for what he was doing. This was about the time he wrote Grackle -- which is his Ruby-based Twitter library.

So he came in and did this talk about a side project he did where he pulled in some new technologies. I just thought it was great. I had probably said to him: "Will you give a talk on what you've been doing because I think that it's cool", but it's the community that steps up.

Is that pretty much how it works? Someone says "I'm doing this cool new thing" and you say "Will you come talk about it?"

You know I say that a lot. People need a little encouragement. Developers are not always naturally inclined. They sit at their desk or home in their little coding den and never leave. Some of what I do is just getting people out -- either to a meeting for Austin on Rails or Tuesday nights Cafe Bedouins to work on side projects.

You have a new format and location for Austin on Rails. How is it working out?

It's been great. We just did our first meeting at Buffalo last Tuesday. We had 84 (!) people come out

How is the new format working?

The response has been very positive. This month was our first official foray into a split program: beginners | break/raffle | advanced. Because we've had an explosion of training offerings in the past 6 months. Yours, Richard Schneeman at UT, and Lance's classes. our community is becoming shaped like a fat snowman, with more beginners on the bottom a solid mid-section of intermediate developers, and a handful of experts.

The Drupal community split into separate meetups -- with one for beginners. Do you see something like that happening with the rails community?

I would prefer to avoid it, but we shall see. We were at a breaking point in our previous space. Something had to give.Beginners have been coming out to our meetings kicking the tires for awhile now. I felt strongly that I wanted us all in the same room (if possible). We will be watching things to see how they develop, but the Buffalo space lends itself to spreading out and forming small groups, hacking, etc. I think it can work. I may be wrong though. We are scaling up and I want to make the tent bigger while maintaining a reason for every last shade of Rails developer to come out.


So tell me how Cafe Bedouins got started.

I wanted to force myself to work on some side stuff -- just anything outside of my job. I love my job, but in the night, I want to work on something else. At the time, I was going to Thunderbird Coffee every Tuesday other than the one we held the Rails meeting. So, I set aside Tuesday nights. I started telling people what I was doing, started tweeting about it. People grokked what it was about, and starting joining in.

There was a great post by Dave Rupert on 40 things he learned doing side projects.

Dave specifically mentioned Cafe bedouins on the ATXWebshow, didn't he?

Yes he did. He just started coming in the last year. I remember him saying how he was going to start a podcast. He was pretty new to Rails. He thought it was cool and started to bang out some Rails stuff. From the beginning, Dave got the vibe of what we were doing at Bedouins.


You recently initiated Open Coffee Austin. How has that been going?

It's been going well. I standardized on two meetings per month -- one for Central / North Austin and one for downtown/south

Where are the locations?

Houndstooth for Central and Medici on Congress

Two best coffeehouses in town.

But of course

Last time I showed up at Houndstooth, it looked like there were about 20. How many people usually show up?

The attendance has been anywhere from 5-20 -- bigger downtown, and tending towards 10 or so. The Facebook invite for the last Central one never went through. One guy showed up anyway and we had a good chat


You recently started Friday Night Hacks. How did that turn out?

It turned out great -- specially for the first time. You can see on the projects page some of the stuff that was worked on -- although not everyone has registered or written up their projects. My hope is that we will get better and faster about putting stuff out there

Will the Hack Night be an ongoing thing?

Yes, it was so popular. The next one is tentatively in early October

So, I remember that you were going to trim back with the events. Didn't you say something like that last year? What happened with that?

I trimmed Open Coffee from three per month to two. I have help now in planning the events for Austin on Rails whereas I used to personally plan 10 meetings per year, I can now plan one or two. I still poke and prod and promote, but people are stepping up to the plate.

A general question: What kinds of things would you like to see happen in the Austin tech communty ? things that you haven't had time to do yourself.

Great question. Truthfully, I haven't gone to the mountain on things like that in awhile... to think at the larger scale. I am glad to see people using the GeekAustin meeting post you made to not step on each other's meetings. I enjoy the times where the larger community gets together for events, for example our web holiday bash with 10+ groups last year was a blast. i'd like to see group leaders do more sharing about how to be effective organizers.

What's next on the calendar?

Thursday, September 8th, there will be a special Austin Startup Week edition of Open Coffee at Jo's Coffee. You can RSVP on Facebook or Plancast


Who will be the next Austin Geek of the Week. Send nominations, questions, complaints and threats to