How To Learn Ruby on Rails - A Beginner's Guide

Credit: Matthew (WMF) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Matthew (WMF) (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Welcome Aboard!

If you're at all familiar with the tech industry, you have undoubtedly heard of Ruby on Rails -- otherwise you wouldn't be reading this article! Rails has been the driving force behind sites both past (Digg), present (GitHub), and future (your own site!). It is an exciting time to be learning web programming, and there is no better time than the present to get started!

Getting Started with Ruby on Rails

Before we get started, let's first check where we are at. Now I'm guessing there will be two types of readers reading this: those who already have programming experience and those who none or very little. If you are a member of the first group, I recommend skipping ahead to where I begin talking about Rails in specific. If you're in the latter, however, read directly on! :)

A Brief Introduction To Programming

If you are completely new to programming, I recommend first running through some of the Ruby and Web lessons on Codecademy and doing some of the computer science exercises on Khan Academy. Both of these sites are free to sign up for, and offer interactive lessons that will help you learn the basics of programming.

Despite what the books on the shelf at Barnes and Noble will tell you, programming is not something that you can learn in a day, a month, or even a year. It is a skill that some say takes over 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master -- and even then there will still be more to learn. Don't feel discouraged if the lessons are difficult at first, perseverance is key and you will get better!

So after you have practiced with some of those interactive lessons and have gotten a feel for what code looks like and what it's like to write it, I recommend graduating to book learning. One series of books that I highly recommend is the "Learn Code the Hard Way" series by Zed Shaw. Don't worry, his books really aren't that hard. What they are, however, is highly informative and a great next step. I recommend working through his "Learn Python the Hard Way" book even though you will be using Ruby with Rails. "Learn Python the Hard Way" was Shaw's first book in the series and it is still the most mature that I have found.

Besides, it's not learning the syntax that is important, but the programming concepts that are. If you can understand and write a little bit of Python, writing code in Ruby should be no trouble!

def proceed_onward
  puts 'Keep reading!'
end

proceed_onward unless confused?

If you can understand the code above, then you're ready to move on. Congratulations! If you can't, then shame on you! Just kidding, but be sure to get some of the basics of programming down before moving on. :)

What Is Ruby on Rails For?

So by now you should be familiar with some basic programming concepts including variable assignment, functions/methods, if/else, and loops. Now it's time to become familiar with the web.

I am going to assume a basic understanding of HTML, so first let's take a basic page:

<!-- index.html -->
<html>
  <head>
    <title>My Page</title>
  </head>
  <body>
    <p>Welcome to my site!</p>
  </body>
</html>

Looks pretty simple, right? It's functional and it works, however there's one small problem with it. This page is completely static! Let's say we want the page to be a bit more dynamic -- say we would like it to be more personal and welcome the current user by name? How could we do this? Well one answer is by writing a Rails web application. With Rails, we would extract this HTML and put it in a view and be able to use embedded Ruby code within it. So our ERB (embedded Ruby) version of this page would look like this:

<% #index.html.erb %>

<html>
  <head>
    <title>My Page</title>
  </head>
  <body>
    <p>Hello <%= user.name %>! Welcome to my site!</p>
  </body>
</html>

That's a small taste of the power that Rails gives you. So if you're interested, now I'll point you in the right direction for learning more about the web framework.

Learning Ruby on Rails

One of the best resources for learning Rails that I have found is the Rails Tutorial book by Michael Hartl. This book is available for free online and covers the basics of setting up your first Rails application and will guide you through the process of creating a rudimentary Twitter clone. On top of this, it will even introduce you to the RSpec testing framework to help you get acquainted with test driven development and ensuring that your code is high quality.

Once you've worked through that book, the only other advice I have is to read other's code (GitHub is great for this) and continue practicing. Make your own Rails application and then continue reading Rails literature and try incorporating some of the new best practices that you have learned into your app. By continued, deliberate practice your skills will improve and your site will look better and better.

Eventually your skills will be at a high enough level that you will be able to actually create something that people will want to use or they'll be good enough to land you a job developing Rails applications.

Happy coding! :)

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