Graham Ashton: How do I learn and master Sinatra?

by Satish Talim on July 10, 2009

Welcome to the third installment on the RL blog, of a mini series – “How do I learn and master Sinatra?” – by top Rubyists using Sinatra. The interview series will provide insight and commentary from these notable Sinatra developers, with the goal of facilitating and providing answers to the questions Ruby beginners face on how to learn and master Sinatra.

Satish>> Graham Ashton, could you tell us something about yourself – your background, where you are based?

Graham AshtonGraham Ashton>> I’m Graham Ashton. When I first got involved in web development I taught myself Perl. It served me well for five years, but I felt there had to be a better way. I picked up Python and loved it, and set about finding a full time Python job. Another five years later I found my way to Ruby, Rails and eventually Sinatra. I’m now working in London developing web applications as a freelancer. I’m mainly using Ruby at the moment, but I’m still keeping my eye in with Python.

Satish>> Are there any pre-requisites for a person to start learning Sinatra?

Graham>> I think it’s well worth having a basic grasp of the programming language before you pick up a framework. The first time I tried Rails I didn’t know any Ruby and couldn’t tell the Rails magic apart from the Ruby magic. I found it much easier to learn Rails after spending a day or two getting familiar with the Ruby syntax. Sinatra doesn’t really do magic (which is great, and appeals to the Python fan within me), but I still think it’s well worth having a good grasp of Ruby.

Otherwise, the only thing I’d recommend is a good understanding of the basics of HTTP (GET, POST, etc.). Sinatra feels like a pretty thin layer on top of HTTP.

Satish>> How should one start learning Sinatra?

Graham>> It may be a cliche, but I’d start with the README. It’s a fairly succinct summary of what you can do with Sinatra, and will bring you up to speed on what’s possible. You can refer back to the README or the Sinatra book for more details later. I hear the book is still a work in progress, but I found it very useful when I was starting out.

Once you’ve skim read some docs just get stuck in and start trying to make stuff. Don’t skimp on the testing; it’s pretty easy to do and is just as important to learn as the main Sinatra API.

Sinatra – quickly create tiny web apps and services

Satish>> Which area of Sinatra should a beginner pay particular attention to?

Graham>> That’s a tricky question. Sinatra is so simple that no part stands out as being worthy of attention. Just make sure you write tests and you’ll be fine.

Satish>> Is the official documentation on Sinatra good enough for a beginner? Are there areas which need improvement or need to be re-written

Graham>> I think it’s good enough, yes. That’s how I learnt Sinatra and I managed to write a complete app without resorting to digging into the code. I hear that the book will be getting some work done on it in future, but I’m not really up to speed on it’s deficencies.

Satish>> Sequel, DataMapper, ActiveRecord – which one would you recommend to use with Sinatra and why?

Graham>> I’d say you should use whichever is most suitable to your task, that you’re familiar with, or interested in learning. Sinatra doesn’t have a preference.

Sinatra Icon

Satish>> Is an understanding of Rack important while learning Sinatra? Why? Which area of Rack should one be really comfortable with?

Graham>> Understanding Rack certainly isn’t a pre-requisite. To deploy a Sinatra application you typically need to write yourself a Rack config file, but there are plenty of examples online that you could download if you wanted to.

Having said all that, Rack is pretty simple, very cool, and well worth reading up on. Check out how to chain various Rack components together using the Rack::Builder DSL (there’s an example in the RDoc).

Satish>> How should one hone one’s skills in Sinatra?

Graham>> Make stuff. Deploy it. Repeat.

Satish>> What type of projects should a beginner work on to gain more expertise in Sinatra?

Graham>> When I’m learning a new technology I find that I progress faster if I’m really motivated to release whatever it is I’m working on. So make stuff that interests you or excites you. Development is a creative process, and should be fun.

Satish>> Could you suggest some web services that a Sinatra beginner could develop himself / herself?

Graham>> If you’ve got an existing site that you’ve already implemented with another technology, consider porting it to Sinatra (it’s a great way to compare and contrast different approaches). Have you got a personal web page or blog? They’re easy to make in Sinatra, and once you’ve got total control of your site using something as simple as Sinatra you really can do anything you like with it.

That’s exactly what I did when I built Nesta (I had previously been running Mephisto). You could just use Nesta but you’ll learn more if you write your own site from scratch. There are plenty of alternatives to Nesta out there, such as Marley (which inspired me to make Nesta) or the code for toolmantim.com.

Satish>> Anything else you would like to add?

Graham>> Take half an hour out to learn HAML and SASS. The syntax is so simple, it’ll be well worth the investment.

Thank you Graham. In case you have any queries and/or questions, kindly post your questions here (as comments to this blog post) and Graham would be glad to answer.

Others in this series:

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