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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?