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The Discourse Team

Jeff Atwood February 5, 2013

Discourse wouldn’t be what it is without the crack team we assembled. It’s kind of amazing how this plan came together, but any plan is only as good as the people working on it.

I’m Jeff Atwood. You may know me as the programmer behind Coding Horror. I was also the co-founder of Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange.

We briefly looked at forum software when researching Stack Overflow in the early months of 2008, but we quickly realized Q&A is its own distinct genre, and stopped researching forums. When I looked at forum software again after leaving Stack Exchange, I was appalled to discover that after four years virtually nothing had changed. That’s nuts! I started a few exploratory threads in 10+ year old web forum communities asking them whether they thought the world needed a new discussion platform.

One of those forum communities was Something Awful. It was one of the first places I asked, because I figured if I could convince those guys, I could convince anyone. The crowd there is uh, er … tough, to put it mildly.

That’s where I attracted the attention of Robin Ward, who emailed me:

Firstly, thanks for the tweet about Forumwarz, was great to see it.

I’m not sure if you heard about us from the talk Mike did at GDC yesterday, it was covered on 1up this morning.

Anyway! The reason I’m emailing you is because I see you’ve been asking about forums on twitter. I know a stupid amount about them, having coded my own obviously for Forumwarz, but also being a Something Awful goon for 8 years. If you’re interested in building new forum software or something in that space I’d love to talk. I have a lot of ideas about it.

I had a quick conversation with Robin over Skype and it immediately became clear that I could not have possibly dreamed up a more perfectly suited person to work with me on a forum reboot project. Even in my wildest dreams.

Robin and his business partner built Forumwarz, a remarkably well designed web game about forum culture in Ruby on Rails back in 2006. They also built a custom forum attached to the game. That’s about as close to a PhD in forum culture as you can get.

Up until that point I had just been muddling the forum problem around in my head. But when someone so absolutely perfectly suited to attack this particular problem contacts you out of the blue, it’s a sign. This project has to happen. After a few days of thinking about it, I told Robin to just go ahead and quit his job. I was so gung-ho about this project working out with both of us attached that I would commit to self funding him to work on it for at least a year, no matter what happened.

Robin “Evil Trout” Ward

Co-Founder

Jeff “Coding Horror” Atwood

Co-Founder

As Robin and I worked over several months on fleshing out a prototype, we got to the point where we needed some early external feedback to ensure Robin and I weren’t in off some consensual reality distortion field. So I involved another friend of mine who was deeply embedded in online culture for as long as I had known him – Shawn “Hanzo” Holmes.

Shawn “Hanzo” Holmes

Advisor

Shawn and I originally met when I joined his Quake clan in 1996. He’s a natural online leader and a great communicator. Most importantly for this project, he’s been a hard-core forum user since the days of Usenet. His feedback and guidance has been a huge help.

As we got ever deeper into the prototype, it became clear that I would be unable to contribute meaningfully to the project as a Ruby and Ember developer. I still feel guilty about this, because I wrote a lot of C# code for Stack Overflow. But it’s the reality of my situation. I had always planned to have two developers on the project, not one, and it was starting to inhibit our progress.

It was around this time that Sam Saffron contacted me; he recently left Stack Exchange and was curious what I was working on. I told him. But I made it clear that at this stage we were looking for people totally committed to the project who were willing to come in as co-founders. After a few days of thinking about it, he replied: I’m in.

Sam Saffron

Co-Founder

Which is fantastic, because Sam is a superstar – that’s why I originally hired him at Stack Exchange. And he has extensive background in traditional forums with his own Community Tracker – which was written in Ruby, too. It’s another sign from above: a killer co-founder materializes on the scene with the perfect background and skills to attack the forum problem with us. We now have the proverbial dream team to build a next generation forum platform.

By now we’re all the way into November, and we have substantial progress with the prototype. We’ve even set up a forum for the Ember.js folks as a proof of concept for programmers who can tolerate alpha software. But although we’ve thought deeply about the forum problem, we also have some concerns that we’re not getting it right. So I brought out the big guns.

F. Randall Farmer

Advisor

By this point, we have VC funding, and I’m incredibly happy to be able to add Randy’s decades of experience to our group, even if only temporarily.

We also need a third board member, and when I think Discourse in the context of programming, the absolute first person that leaps to mind is Michael Lopp. You may know him as Rands. I could point to any Rands in Repose entry, but Please Learn to Write says it best. I asked if he’d join our board, and he agreed.

Michael “Rands” Lopp

Board Member

Now our little forum experiment is starting to feel like a Real Project, with Real Project Time Pressure. We have quite a few colocated servers provisioned, because a core part of our mission is to be the best host for our own open-source software. But pulling double-duty as sysadmins and programmers is just not scaling. So I turned to the Server Fault community, asking in chat if anyone is up for a part-time remote gig. I got some amazing responses.

Michael “Supermathie” Brown

Sysadmin

Ultimately I felt Michael had the best map of skills to our project. And holy crud he’s amazing. Things Get Done on our servers with an alacrity I did not realize was possible. When he’s not secretly playing Superman at Discourse, his Clark Kent persona is a consultant at Net Direct.

By December, there were two critical features on our roadmap that we just couldn’t see any way get to in time for launch with two developers. We needed a third. Fortunately, Robin had contacts in his native Toronto and hooked us up with Neil Lalonde.

Neil Lalonde

Developer

If you use our data import and export, or register a nickname, you have Neil to thank that this feature even exists at launch. We like him so much we’re keeping him around. Can you ever have enough Canadians on a project? I don’t think so.

In January we started to get desperate as the deadline approached. It was clear that we needed a bunch of extra miscellaneous help, like in getting a WordPress theme together, among other stuff. I asked on Twitter and received many excellent responses, but one stood out to me.

Nick Sahler

Intern

Nick is only 18, but kicked out our WordPress design from scratch in a paltry six hours. I was impressed! So now he’s filling in the extra hours around his college schedule with Discourse work.

Also, a huge shout out to Matt Grantham of HeroPixel and Ryan Mudryk for the beautiful default design you see here at Discourse, and on every Discourse forum out of the box. I’ll elaborate on our design process in much more detail in a future post.

Finally, I’d like to thank all our friends and colleagues who came in under the FriendDA and gave us early, critical feedback on the alpha. You know who you are. Thank you for being a friend.

I’m not ashamed to say
I hope it always will stay this way
My hat is off
Won’t you stand up and take a bow

I tend to think of Civilized Discourse Construction Kit, Inc. as this tiny 3 person company. But if you look at where we are, and how we got there, it’s clear that Discourse is the result of a lot of incredibly talented people – and me – working together toward the genesis of what we hope will be a major new open source project for the next 10 years, one that truly raises the standard of discourse on the Internet.

So we’ll see you on the forums, eh?

    31 Comments

  1. Manish Goregaokar
     February 5, 2013 12:20 pm

    So _that’s_ where waffles went. Congratulations on this!

  2. balpha
     February 5, 2013 1:40 pm

    Congratulations on assembling an awesome team and on the launch. Here’s to a successful start!

  3. David Magda
     February 5, 2013 4:46 pm

    Looking forward to see how things develop over time.

    Three future weblog posts I’m hoping to see when you get a catch: (1) why Ruby on Rails, (2) why Postgres, and (3) why an “in-browser application”?

  4. KV Prajapati
     February 5, 2013 10:18 pm

    Thank you Civilized Discourse Construction Kit, Inc. Congratulations Team Discourse.

  5. Barney Lerten
     February 5, 2013 11:29 pm

    I love forums, always have. (I was a beta tester for AOL, need I say more?;-) Nothing else fills that niche – even (especially?) a social network. We use Disqus for our TV station’s lively comment system, but when an article goes away – snap goes the thread. I’ve wanted something better for YEARS. I’m no programmer, I’m a word guy. I have great hopes for your project, despite the ‘Try It’ forum leading to ‘undefined’ when clicking on any topic tonight. I still believe in what you are doing and hope it comes to full fruition and can be bolted onto sites like ours (iframable please??? I gave up on Ning for that reason – we have to have it in-site!) when Discourse comes to life. Best of luck, I’ll be watching!

  6. Barney Lerten
     February 5, 2013 11:52 pm

    Ugh. Ah, early beta software. Either it’s busted tonight or my ol’ wheezy IE9 is fostering all the ‘undefined’s. I also hope/pray backward compatibility browser-wise comes down the road when the new ship stabilizes. Doesn’t faze me in the least. Best of luck to all!

  7. Barney Lerten
     February 6, 2013 12:12 am

    Yay! With Chrome I’m in, it works, and … it’s tricky like a new-style car but… no, it’s NOT Google Wave. Perish the thought! Only a little Wave-y;-)

  8. Gavin
     February 6, 2013 12:39 am

    Looking awesome, any plans to integrate into WordPress as a comments system combined with a forum?

  9. Sklivvz
     February 6, 2013 2:36 am

    This is great news! It’s great to see you all fired up again, Jeff!

    Can’t wait to get on a real computer and fire it up!

  10. JudgeProphet
     February 6, 2013 5:19 am

    Gratz! Always push forward!

  11. kp
     February 6, 2013 5:29 am

    hi jeff, don’t know if you know it but you guys should really take a close look on the german forumsphere, it’s considered to be the biggst in the world, and being a german myself i certainly don’t have any reason to doubt that. there is so much forum stuff going on here (in germany) and the software in place is just pure pain.

    anyway, i am really looking forward to your product and i wish your team all the best in the world!

  12. anjan bacchu
     February 6, 2013 8:21 am

    hi there,

    congrats!

    where’s the source ? what technologies/languages/components are involved ?

    BR,
    ~A

  13. Greg Ball
     February 7, 2013 2:10 am

    Hi Jeff, love your work and I’m glad someone is finally going to kick phpBB’s ass off the interwebs.

    But I couldn’t help noticing that your team is a total sausagefest.

    Reading your story of how you pulled the team together, it reminded me of this article:

    http://ashedryden.com/blog/so-you-want-to-put-on-a-diverse-inclusive-conference

    which explains how filling up a conference speaking schedule with people you know, and people who are well known, tends to wind up with a very homogeneous line-up.

    I’ve never worked at a startup, let alone founded one, much less a successful one, so I can’t legitimately criticise the way you choose to go about it. But I hope that now you’re out of stealth mode, it might be easier to address the issue.

  14. Jeff Atwood
     February 7, 2013 3:50 pm
    author

    Anjan the code is at https://github.com/discourse/discourse

    It is Ruby, Ember.js, Postgres, Redis.

  15. juan
     February 8, 2013 5:10 am

    Great job with the website

  16. Joan
     February 8, 2013 7:06 am

    great job, but I think that the requeriments excludes 99% of shared hosting providers, so phpbb will last somo more time…

  17. Dan
     February 8, 2013 9:45 am

    Congratulations, looks like a fine team and I look forward to seeing its development.

    I know there’s a long way to go, but I pray that the reason Discourse alpha is pretty much unusable for anyone who can’t see, or can’t use a pointing device, is because you haven’t found *just* the right accessibility person yet.

    With the profile you have and the success of Stack Exchange (which is also pretty tough going for AT and keyboard users by the way) it would be a real pity if Discourse didn’t reflect at least good practice in accessible development.

    The danger is that all of those who look up to you and your work will think that it’s acceptable to ignore accessibility, if that’s what you do. Discourse is a great opportunity to demonstrate that it’s not acceptable.

  18. Joshua Dickerson
     February 8, 2013 12:24 pm

    I just wanted to drop in and say that from the features and ideas presented on your homepage, Discourse is a front-runner in community building software. I haven’t installed it or used it but bringing together ideas from multiple “community” mediums is the way forward.

    @Greg Ball, I’d prefer like-minded people looking for a common picture early on. Contention hurts small teams.

    Congratulations,
    Josh Dickerson
    Simple Machines Forum

  19. svankie
     February 8, 2013 12:42 pm

    I really, really dig this. I’m looking forward to contribute. See you on GitHub.

  20. John J. Locke
     February 9, 2013 1:25 pm

    “I’d prefer like-minded people looking for a common picture early on. Contention hurts small teams.”

    A lot of people are going to misinterpret that statement…unless they’re not. It sounds like the only people who are interested or capable of using, designing, or building a great forum product are straight white males. If that is indeed the case, then the point about Contention is valid. It would be better to just say you chose to work with your friends, and that’s how the demographics happen to fall. The web is a huge place now, and it’s only getting bigger.

    In other words, your end-users aren’t just going to be in Silicon Valley, or even the USA. Your statement is already being interpreted in a certain light.

  21. Nick
     February 13, 2013 11:06 am

    Looks pretty good so far… I see potential uses once things become more stable.

    Just as an FYI… Your blog does not put the feed link as a rel in the HEAD section so it can’t be auto-discovered. I almost assumed you had no blog feed until I saw the little tiny icon at the bottom. You might want to fix that.

  22. Dread Knight
     February 13, 2013 5:49 pm

    Hello! Big A-Team fan and more recently, Discourse fan as well! Was sick and tired of old forums and was actually doing some research and work on building something along the lines of Discourse. Anyway, someone poked me a few days ago to tell me about Discourse. I have a NPO that’s all about engaging community into building free open source games using such tools in the process . We need a modern forum board like we need air, so I was wondering what’s the best way to approach you guys regarding becoming one of those 3 partners?

  23. Jeff Atwood
     February 15, 2013 1:23 am
    author

    @nick we fixed that, thanks for pointing it out! @dread we’re good on partners for the moment, but we’re always willing to help early adopters via http://github.com/discourse/discourse and of course http://meta.discourse.org !

  24. xr09
     February 18, 2013 8:07 am

    RIP phpBB… et al.

  25. Lola LB
     February 18, 2013 5:37 pm

    First of all, good luck with Discourse! I totally agree with you about how the forum setup has been stagnant for years.

    And . . . what John J. Locke said, definitely.

  26. F. Randall Farmer
     February 21, 2013 11:26 am

    @Greg – Though the core team is all male, there were and are several “minority”, ethnic, and female voices on the development discourse community server.

    Here’s the tricky bit about startups I’ve worked with – you’re competing for the attention of everyone who’s involved – and startups don’t usually pay well – have long hours demands – etc. Add to that the low-ratio of women in the tech force and blamo – you get lots of startups with a hand full of males. Its not intentional, its a numbers problem.

    [For the record, I was a CEO of a startup recently with 5 employees and two contractors. We were all friends. It happened that one was female, one was of african american decent, and one was transexual. All of that was unrelated to why they were hired.]

  27. AshRj
     March 8, 2013 6:20 pm

    Congratulations!
    Will we be seeing any collaborations with the Stack Exchange in the future ? (3/9 of the company is directly from the Stack)

  28. Lelala
     March 14, 2013 5:31 am

    Awesome Team, especially good to know you have Mr.T and Hannibal on board ;-)

  29. Randy
     March 17, 2013 9:17 am

    Its a shame you dont have a donate button! Id without a doubt donate to this fantastic blog! I suppose for now ill settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to new updates and will share this blog with my Facebook group. Talk soon!

  30. Zak
     April 22, 2013 2:09 pm

    I thought Mr T coded in .net?! Look forward to the forums of the future!

  31. Jaime
     May 22, 2013 4:17 pm

    Discourse looks quite good! :) A version able to support MySQL would come in handy, though. :)

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