In this episode, we talk to Jonathan Jackson of Ember Weekend about Ember, The Ember Community Survey, and FastBoot.
Jonathan Jackson: @rondale_sc | Ember Weekend | 201 Created
CHARLES: Hello, everybody. Welcome to The Frontside Podcast Episode 60. My name is Charles Lowell. I'm a developer here at The Frontside. With me is Robert De Luca, also a developer. Hello, Robert.
ROBERT: Hello, hello.
CHARLES: Today, we actually have a meeting of the podcast minds. We have with us a very special guest, Jonathan Jackson. You probably know him from the Ember Weekend Podcast. If that's your thing, it's a great podcast. I listen to it, you should definitely check it out. Hello, Jonathan.
JONATHAN: Hey, how are you doing? I'm really excited to be on the podcast. I am an occasional listener. It's similar to my own podcast where if I don't edit it, I tend not to listen to it. It's when I have long trips you guys are number one, number two right behind The Adventure Zone which is a D&D podcast.
CHARLES: You worked at 201 Created. Why don't you tell us a little bit about that? It’s an interesting company.
JONATHAN: Actually, when we book to this podcast, I was not at 201 Created. This is a very new thing for me. I think I started right around the time of Ember Conference out in San Diego and I'm just realizing that this is not exclusively an Ember podcast. This is the first podcast I've been on where I can't just assume blanket knowledge of Ember stuff. But it's an Ember conference out in San Diego.
I actually gave a talk there about FastBoot which is a server side rendering technology. Right after that, the entire 201 company which I think is four. It's very small. The entire thing, the whole crew went to do a company event and basically camped out in the mountains for a few days, which was really, really fun. But I started working there and 201 is a consultancy based out of New York but I think it's more than half is remote. I think Matt's on the West Coast, two of them are in New York and I'm in Jacksonville right now.
We do a lot of really cool stuff. We worked in a lot of different companies. You can actually see the website at 201-Created.com and you can see the different clientele we worked with. But we specialized in consulting, training as well. As well as a couple of other services that we offer. It's been a real great experience. It's been very fun and also I'm learning a ton which is really cool to be in a different environment. I have done consulting for a little over four years, previously at Hashrocket. I got to tell you, consulting will get your wheels turning. It's been nice to see how different consultancy takes a stab at things. It's been super fun.
CHARLES: Yeah, it's a fantastic company. I've definitely known them for a while, certainly through my involvement in the Ember community and one of the things that always struck me is just how seriously they take the community aspect of it. We were talking about just a little bit ago, it was 201 that sponsors -- well, sponsor isn't really the right word for it. It does the Ember Community Survey which I think is a practice that we're now used to in the Ember community but I think it's something that I would love to see wider communities do. Maybe you could talk a little bit about that and explain what this community survey is, why it exists and what's the knowledge that's derived from it and how do we take action on that?
JONATHAN: 201 also does contribute workshops and things like that. The idea is to make Ember a more inclusive space, a place where people feel comfortable being a part of our community and a big part of that is self-reflection and realizing where you have weak points and how you can actually mend areas that are being neglected or whatever. Basically, shining a light to figure out where we need to improve and a big part of that is the community survey so figuring out what technologies are being used, figuring out what demographics are represented or under-represented and trying to figure that out.
It’s actually been really cool. I think this is the third community survey and it's live right now. I feel like we could probably shed a little bit about some of the questions. This year, they did a really cool thing where they actually put all of the questions before they put the survey up live. They actually asked for a comment period which is very, very Ember thing to do.
CHARLES: Because I was actually going to ask about that. Who is the final arbiter of the questions that get in because part of the survey is determining you're trying to get hard metrics on a set of questions but it's the questions that you don't know that you should be asking which are really the tricky ones.
JONATHAN: It was really interesting to watch the document change over time. There was a committee discussion between some of the people in core team and Matt Beale and Tom Zalman who's been doing the organizational stuff as an intern at 201 and he's been doing a fantastic job of really staying on top of it. It's a surprising amount of work to get a survey together, especially when you have a comment period so there's tons of little adjustments here and there need to be made, to wording and phrasing and also like responses. Surprisingly enough, you can actually have biases in your questions based off of the responses that are allowed because multiple choice.
It’s been a really interesting effort and I think trying to weigh and balance that side of things, where you want things to be worded in a way to where people can answer more honestly and without a bias coming into the question. Because the questions change year over year, trying to get data that is historically relevant so we can see what versions were being used last year and versus this year, what was your experience level with Ember last year and this year. But still make those changes that are recommended.
It's an interesting balancing act. I was very interested in the process. I was trying to stay as involved as possible but I think also, Isaac was working on that as well. It's been a team effort. The survey is a very interesting aspect of the Ember community and it's only been three years but it feels like longer.
CHARLES: What I love is the work. Once you actually get the survey up, the work has just begun, which clearly a lot of thought went into it, not just the questions that is very beautifully presented --
ROBERT: But the survey, what's the software that you're using to do that?
JONATHAN: I think Typeform is the thing that they're using. I feel like it actually works on mobile and I have a great analytics tools. If you're doing a survey, you should come talk to me.
ROBERT: Does that like track people that half-fill out a survey and exit?
JONATHAN: Yeah, it does. It actually does track like -- what's the word for that -- there's a word for that. Basically, the main metric that we're looking for is people who open the form then complete it and the percentage there, that's the respondent percentage. I've actually haven't seen the metrics yet. I think I might just wait until the conference. You're exactly right, this is only the first step so once everyone fills it out, then there's a bunch of data extraction because some of these questions are open-ended and allow users to directly input their own feedback and trying to sort that and make that useful information as a lot of work and a lot of effort.
It’s interesting to see, of course there's some obvious graphs that are going to happen like we see transitions. It's easy to graph out the number of people using things on a time axes or the X-axis or whatever. There's some kind that are obvious but I'm actually looking forward to seeing the results. I was only really involved in the actual administration of the survey in as far as I provided some feedback before the main feedback period. But it's been really a community effort which is great because it's a community survey. That's pretty neat.
CHARLES: One of the questions that I have is how do you ensure, because the only people who hear about the survey are the people who are already involved. In order to get -- I don't want to say statistically valid -- a broad and more informative data set, how do you try and balance the concern of we want to make, maybe half people exposed to this who aren't inside my community or maybe sitting on the boundary somewhere or slightly over somewhere versus at some point, if someone's an attorney for example, then we don't really care if they hear about or participate in the survey. Certainly within the developer community, which is ill defined to begin with, how do you try and draw those lines to make sure that you get the best knowledgeable dataset possible?
JONATHAN: You know, I don't really know. I guess, it's the meta point that I should probably make but it will prevent me from giving my opinion. Basically, I think that since this is a community survey, it makes quite a bit of sense for the community avenues for learning about Ember to be used to actually distribute the survey itself. For instance, these podcasts, like my podcast as mentioned in the survey and now, this podcast is going to mention in the survey.
I want to say, "It's going to be in Ember Weekly." That's just a guess, I don't know. But there's really avenues: Reddit, Twitter, etcetera and then the Ember blog itself. Those are the means for dispersal within the Ember community. The one metric that we get from that is what can we reach or who can we reach? How many people can be reached through the normal means? That in itself a metrics. But I think it's kind of valuable to test that every once in a while.
ROBERT: I did feel that form out at the survey with my experience that I've had with React recently, things that I would like to see come over to Ember. I don't know... That'd be interesting to see or I wouldn't want them to fill it out because they would, obviously ruin the data set but I think another survey with more information from other communities to see like, "What's preventing you from utilizing Ember or what are the barriers to learning it?" Maybe from other communities might be interesting. That would be cool to do cross-pollinated surveys where you can be like, "We'll do it, if you do it and then React can provide us something and vice versa. I feel like the word homogenization is bad, usually but sharing ideas is good, I think.
CHARLES: If you've never experienced this in your development community, the amount of work that goes into actually analyzing the survey and trying to draw and make inferences from it is just astounding. Who does that? Is that like Matt sitting up in an ivory tower? That's was just the wrong term. Basically, he can sequester himself for a month and put on his thinking cap and just come out with these mind-blowing deductions?
JONATHAN: To be honest, I wasn't here last year at 201. My suspicion is that Tom will do quite a bit of the data munging, I think is the word. Then we'll go through phases where I think Isaac and Matt are working pretty closely with the survey stuff so they'll probably do feedback loops, then eventually before anything happens, I think with EmberConf, there's usually a survey blog that comes right alongside the EmberConf thing, where you share some of the results.
I think that those things will go out to core and then core will start to pick it apart, toss that around exactly and then come back and basically, you're going to try to get as many people who are pretty smart, looking at it and trying to make sure the data makes sense and honest and doing the right things the survey needs to do, in relevant, I guess is the other metric.
CHARLES: Now, as part of the survey, one of the things that you mentioned was the purpose is to surface weaknesses and gaps that need to be filled. When you think about your experience and the way that you filled out the survey, obviously it's anonymous, share what you're comfortable sharing but what were some of the things that you perceived as maybe holes that need to be filled and you're hoping that the survey will bring to light.
JONATHAN: That's a very interesting question. I think, the thing that I'm interested in seeing is maybe different than what I've seen. One of the things I'd really like to see the survey that bring to light -- it's probably the most important metric in my mind -- is where people are at in the upgrade process because the cadence of releases an Ember is such a big facet of what makes Ember really powerful, especially for large companies and stuff like that. But I've personally seen people get stranded in certain spaces. Usually by the time they call a consultant to help them get un-stranded, they're at a point where they're going to try to work towards pushing past it.
I think this is felt primarily around the 1.13 switch. People did get stranded there and some people are still working on very large apps to push past that and I would really like to see just where the community is at right now, in general. Especially as a consultant because you come into a project and I don't necessarily know what to expect. I think on certain teams, I am always shocked I see like, "Oh, you're using beta and everything. You guys are on top of this. That's really cool. Let's do some feature [inaudible]," and you're really excited. But then other times, you get called in and they're like, "We're still using 1.13 and we have bind others in our source and could you please help us?"
In Ember, it really strenuously disagrees with that philosophy. They try super hard. All the people in core and really the community at large, the philosophy is like, "No, we're not going to break Ember. Ember is very serious here. We're not going to leave people stranded," yet it still happens. The reason I'm curious about seeing it is really about how do we make that story like a solved problem. Is it possible to do? Is it possible for us to basically make it to where the Ember community can very honestly say, "If you choose us if you choose this framework, it will be around. There will be a path forward for you for five to ten years and that's not something you can get a promise from anywhere else."
I just want to see what are the ways that we can make that promise more strong. I think, the LTS was a big step in that direction. I think that was actually last EmberConf which the LTS was announced?
ROBERT: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely all of our clients have moved to LTS as rather than trying to do every six weeks because they find that much easier to upgrade in between and they're more stable.
JONATHAN: They're more stable and I think it's such an easier sell like if you actually start talking about going up the pipeline and you're like, "I have to talk to my boss and my boss just to clear money. We have to clear time, etcetera." We're going to put a [inaudible] aside every six weeks to upgrade seems a little untenable for a lot of companies. I think for larger companies, it's sometimes okay because they're actually utilizing some of the edge features which is cool and I think that's a big thing. I feel like I have no real insight here but I feel like that's what LinkedIn kind of does, where they're usually pushing the boundaries because they're utilizing features like engines were first brought into LinkedIn. I think it kind of pushing it at the edge.
ROBERT: If you have the new LinkedIn Ember app, if you will crack open the inspector, when I last looked, I think the beginning of this week, they had two beta versions deployed. The Ember data version, that was beta and actual Ember, it was beta.
CHARLES: Usually large companies are associated with big lumbering end piece that are in terrible condition. That's actually a breath of fresh air. Shout out to LinkedIn.
ROBERT: Ember Data is 2.12 canary and Ember is 2.10 Beta 2 patch so it looks like they have a patch version.
JONATHAN: It doesn't surprise me that Data is being pushed. I think last I spoke to [inaudible] right around December, he was doing a lot of perf work on there so I think he's really pushing that pretty hard. There's a lot of really cool stuff like that and I feel like it kind of runs the game. You see the smaller teams who choose Ember for stability, they sometimes get stranded so I want to see if some survey data can probably correlate. You could correlate the size of your company to the version of Ember you're on. Maybe, we'll see some trends around if it does it mean that smaller companies have more difficult time pushing forward.
That would actually be a little counterintuitive. I would expect that smaller companies would be able to push forward at a faster clip because they usually have to support fewer browsers, etcetera. It'd be interesting to see information like that because I think that promise for ease of upgrade and there will be a path forward, that's a big part of what makes Ember really appealing to me. Especially as a consultant for four years, you see so many projects. I don't ever really want to advocate a rewrite but we're going to have to spend a significant amount of time fixing this and it's because you went with Mootools or something. Everybody guess Mootools wasn't so bad.
CHARLES: But the point is that you didn't go with a holistic solution so you basically had to write your own framework.
ROBERT: Yeah, in Ember, it is a feature that you will not be left behind and you can upgrade. That is something that is really nice. I have upgraded a lot of Ember apps.
JONATHAN: I think Mike North calls that the patchwork app application. It's not just like React apps where you have React-Redux and Preact and all of this other stuff that you kind of piece together and make your own little quilt and that's your application. But this also happened in Backbone. It happened in jQuery before that and it was just like take this thing, take that thing, then I have this custom quilt, which is not bad. There are some advantages -- pros and cons.
CHARLES: Ember is giving you a blanket.
JONATHAN: And it's going to be a comforter. It's going to probably all look the same and be right.
ROBERT: My experience is I love Ember and I love the convention over configuration but whenever you hit that wall of the convention is actually getting in the way now, that is a very tall wall to scale in Ember.
CHARLES: Yeah, I think the flip side of it is like you say, Rob because everything does have to mesh, because that blanket has to be one solid weave, it means that you've got a hole in the blanket, the surgery required to excise that hole and then patch it --
ROBERT: I love his metaphor. His metaphor is --
ROBERT: It's so good.
CHARLES: It takes a lot of effort.
ROBERT: Today, I'm quilting daily.
CHARLES: That's right. Next topic, crochet.
CHARLES: But, yeah in order to make that surgery on the blanket to mix metaphors, which I love to do so freely, you have to make that cut and then make sure that the weave is again, seamless. I think that takes a lot of thought, it takes a lot of effort and it takes a lot of time. It means that there are shiny things out there that you might not be able to have.
I think, one of the ways that the community and the technology is mitigated is with the add-on ecosystem, which is very, very strong and allows you to riff and experiment and push those boundaries. But there are core pieces, things like the rendering engine, which can't really be modified or hooked with an add-on. They can but not in deeply fundamental ways or the templating. We saw that happened. There was a big kind of shift from first, the old handlebars to --
CHARLES: HTMLbars and then Glimmer 2, which there's been a flurry of activity around there but that was definitely one area where there was a hard wall right now. I feel like for me it’s around the handlebars itself. I would like to see that environment become more powerful because certainly, with the React Native work that we've been doing around here, you get to see just how simple like the JSX model is, React aside because like Vue, you can do with JSX.
ROBERT: To be clear to the Ember developers that are listening like us kind of advocating JSX, if you are having like, "No, that's a terrible idea. I hate JSX," I had that very exact reaction about a year and a half ago. If you go look at my Twitter feed, you would see me ranting about how much JSX is a bad idea. After I actually played with it, I'm on the opposite side. I think JSX is really awesome and I think there are things to learn from it.
CHARLES: I definitely love having templates. I love having the separation. I like having it in a different file but at the same time, I don't want to lose sacrifice the power that comes. I think that for people who are kind of sitting on the fence or have played with it, if you actually are strict about not having side effects and things in your templates, it really is a great experience.
I think there's a lot of people who have scars from doing ERB or liquid templates, where you can have all kinds of crazy side effects --
ROBERT: That's where my scars came from -- ERB.
CHARLES: Yeah, I can show. I can roll up my sleeves. I will be like, "You see this? I got that back in aught-seven with an ERB app, where they were calling out to a service from inside the template."
ROBERT: Setting the variable and modifying everything.
CHARLES: Yeah. There's definitely that tradeoff. One of the things that is great about the Ember community in particular is when there is, it takes a while to generate the will to recognize that this is a major problem but then the solution that you do get does, eventually match the weave of the entire blanket, which is really, really nice. But it can be frustrating when you have those core pieces of infrastructure that are presenting those walls to you.
ROBERT: I'm excited for Angle Bracket components because that's actually a lot of the gripes that I had with handlebars. Whenever I got a bunch of the curlies next to each other, like a bunch of components around each other, they all kind of just mold together and seeing the brackets and just looking like HTML, it makes it so much easier to grip.
At this point, I couldn't even give a flip. It's nice. It's great but there's a barrier, there's a threshold that has been crossed, actually some time ago. Performance of rendering is -- I can't even remember the last time it was a problem. What about you? Have you run up against performance issues in your Ember apps?
JONATHAN: Some performance issues but usually, they're a result of some rather inefficient rendering. Basically, a combination between user and keyboard or whatever. I wrote something really bad. It's not Ember getting in my way. I don't particularly mind the curly braces within my template but I think a big part of that is just editor choice. If your editor syntax highlights then it also knows how to indent handlebars correctly, that makes a huge difference.
ROBERT: Are we about to start an Emacs versus Vim war here?
JONATHAN: No, as a matter of fact, I suspect you would win that when the Vim -- there's no good solution for indentation in handlebar templates that I found in Vim. If anyone knows that [inaudible], "Oh, there's one plugin," please ping me on Twitter because that would be nice.
CHARLES: Well, yeah. It's true. I can deal with it. I don't think it bothers me quite as much as it does Rob but I think what has been interesting is in our hypothetical code, you always like pay snippets in Slack. We started using Angle Bracket syntax just because it's so much clearer. Even though, none of us actually use it in any of our apps, when we're actually exchanging ideas, that's what we use.
JONATHAN: Yeah, there's some cool things that come with Angle Brackets that aren't just aesthetic. The container element is like you don't have to deal with the tag lists stuff anymore. I feel like there's a few tradeoffs that are going to be really interesting to see when those start becoming the norm.
JONATHAN: Totally. I think it's [inaudible] cool stuff.
CHARLES: It's exciting. I remember being derisive of it -- not divisive, that's not the right word -- but I'm thinking like, "Why are they spending so much time on this," but I actually think it is going to have a big impact, small change.
CHARLES: No dis to the people who are working on it. I know it doesn't feel like a small change at all.
ROBERT: Yeah, it only took a year and a lot of really hard work.
ROBERT: Like I peek in there and I'm like, "Hmmm... Nope, not smart enough yet."
CHARLES: One of the things that I want to ask you, you mentioned that at SO Ember, you gave a talk on FastBoot. You've actually got a lot of experience around the subject so I'm just curious. First of all, what were you talking about?
JONATHAN: I think my talk was actually called Boots and Shoeboxes, which there's a little library function into the FastBoot suite called the Shoebox where you can communicate between node and the browser. It's not like well-known enough to where that title resonated with people. I got up on stage and I was like, "You know, we don't have any descriptions on the speaker note like website. He just talks about FastBoot. I hope that I don't disappoint you," because they had no idea what I was talking about. Actually, I feel like the problem that's the FastBoot solves is a persistent thorn in people sides.
JONATHAN: Yeah, I don't like using that word.
CHARLES: Yeah, there's like server side, SSR --
JONATHAN: Yeah, SSR, you'll see that a lot.
CHARLES: I guess the question is why would you even?
CHARLES: That's a hard problem.
JONATHAN: Oh, it's a very difficult problem.
CHARLES: Unlike anyone who says they have a solution, you should look at them with extreme mistrust.
JONATHAN: Yeah and there's a whole bunch of different solutions that people have tried. You could actually have prerender.io, I think is the service that will actually render it for you and you put it in front of your CDN and they'll actually do that and create static files for you, which is a solution or no script tags. You basically render all of your stuff as much as you can on the server side and you put everything into no script tags and that will presents its own problems.
There’s a bunch of different solutions that people have tried. In FastBoot, the solution that Ember went with and I think that it's really cool because server side rendering and this is the big reveal of my talk. I think it's recorded so you can check it out. But the bigger reveal is that the server side rendering is not just about rendering. It's also about routing and data fetching and authentication and etcetera. There's a whole bevy of things that you also have to handle very well. It's not just taking a component, the view layer to component and rendering it to HTML and then serving that. It's much more than that. You want your app to basically run in node. FastBoot does that remarkably well. There are some spots where it's a little fuzzy but does it remarkably well.
CHARLES: What's an example of how you would might need to handle authentication? That sounds terrible.
ROBERT: One of the problems for a lot --
JONATHAN: That's exactly the problem. You actually have access to headers and stuff and FastBoot land so you can do authentication by using traditional token off, which is pretty cool. There's a lot of really cool things and routing is obviously handled quite well so the request comes in and it does the normal Ember router. The Ember app instance itself is running in node so all of the things you expect to work in the browser, work in Ember and node, with the exception of any time you need to access the DOM because the DOM is expensive like very, very, very oddly expensive. Like JSDOM is just expensive and unreliable, then you have to deal with compatibility tables for that.
Anyone who has written tests for Phantom and tried to bind a function or something, they know the pain. I think it's fix now but I was always bitten by that so many times. It doesn't even give you the right error. Forget about it.
CHARLES: You have all these things. It's basically authentication. It's data. It's making sure that you have in your, so to speak, headless environment as an authentic replica of your application running in the user's browser, as you can possibly retain.
CHARLES: How feasible is that? Like what you're saying is that Ember takes that whole approach and says, "Okay, we're going to make sure we handle all of these cases?"
JONATHAN: Yeah, I think Ember has done a phenomenal job of this. It's still alpha software, although I believe that the path to 1.0 is basically paved. It just needs some documentation. I think FastBoot hits the nail right on the head and gets a lot of the stuff really in a good place. It's also a big part of FastBoot's call to action where this stuff is possible elsewhere. You can do all of these things. You can make all of the stuff work in the React ecosystem or Vue ecosystem, etcetera.
But in Ember, it's Ember install, Ember FastBoot, I think or Ember CLI FastBoot which is a really compelling sell because I've looked at some of the alternative approaches and in other ecosystems, they're very complicated. It's not possible. It's just their ad hoc --
ROBERT: And it's usually a 10,000 line medium posts that you have to follow line by line --
CHARLES: Right so instead of giving you actually a working code, what you get is a treasure map.
JONATHAN: Yeah, exactly. It's like you just shop at Ikea. Here you go, build it. There's some really cool stuff that it unlocks and the fact that it's so low-hanging fruit, for instance Ember Weekend, which by all accounts does not need to be on FastBoot, isn't on FastBoot because it's ostensibly free and it's a good testing ground for me to learn about FastBoot. But the future --
ROBERT: It's interesting in handling audio on a FastBoot, how was that?
JONATHAN: Since the user doesn't actually can't listen in node land, the user can only listen in a browser, we don't do anything with the player in FastBoot land, which is fine. There are some weird things like you have to basically have guards around like key events, for instance. Because Mousetrap relies on, I believe in jQuery to bind its events, you have to basically say, "In node land, we're not going to bind any of these Mousetrap events because they will not work," but there are some things you have to learn about the ecosystem but by and large, it's a solution that you just drop in and you just get for free.
There’s a lot of weird edge cases and describing the interactions is I think the hardest part about FastBoot. It's just like describing why this might be really good for you is the hardest part because a lot of people don't have these problems. If you're doing a marketing site, you're probably going to use Squarespace or something.
ROBERT: Yeah, like a static site generator or something?
JONATHAN: Yeah, exactly.
ROBERT: Something that will give you great SEO results.
ROBERT: You want to play around with that.
JONATHAN: This dovetails into something Edward Faulkner was talking about eight or nine months ago when he was working on the inline content editor for Ember. It's really, really neat. I actually like to see where that's at now. I think it was Cardstack that funded a lot of the stuff for it. But if you combine things like that, then also FastBoot, you're starting to talk about something that could do what WordPress does, which is a really interesting thing like the really, really low hanging fruit. Type these few commands and you're point clicking your way to a website which is really, really cool.
CHARLES: All right everybody, thank you so much for listening. Thank you, Jonathan for coming on by and talking with us today.
JONATHAN: Yeah, thank you so much for having me on. This podcast is super awesome. I'm really excited to actually be able to be a part of it. I feel like you are at Ember Weekend that one time and you were in Norway?
JONATHAN: Yeah, Finland and we weren't able to actually have a video open at the same time because of the data problem. It's been actually kind of cool to actually have a real conversation. That's been really great.
CHARLES: Yeah, that has been awesome. That was a good conversation and that, your podcast obviously is EmberWeekend.com. Everybody go and check it out. Thanks for listening.