Why GatsbyJS' corporate success is really about the individual developer experience

GatsbyJS is booming thanks to its focus on the individual developer's first experience.

Writing codes and typing data code technology, Programmer cooperating working on web site project in a software developing on desktop computer at company

Image: iStockphoto/Pattanaphong Khuankaew

It turns out lots (and lots) of developers love GatsbyJS. It also turns out that the reasons for that love are somewhat consistent: GatsbyJS, a React-based static site generator, comes with fantastic documentation, high performance, a lovely developer experience, and a robust community. There's one other thing that GatsbyJS has going for it that sometimes gets lost in the modern era of open sourcing everything: It's useful to the solo developer building a personal website in her spare time. This personal convenience, it turns out, can pave the way for corporate adoption. 

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic) 

Gushing about GatsbyJS

The first two times I read The Great Gatsby I didn't like it. That was back in high school and college, and I couldn't understand why I was being made to read it. A few years ago, however, I came across Gatsby again on a meta list of the world's greatest books. In my quest to read every book on that list, I couldn't get past Gatsby, the #1 book on the list. So I reread it and...was blown away. It's such an amazing book!

GatsbyJS, by contrast, doesn't need multiple attempts to fall in love, judging by the dozens of near-immediate responses to my Twitter request for Gatsby experiences. Among them:

Great docs, great cli, amazing plugin ecosystem; amazing DX across the board tbh. I have no complaints and would highly recommend! (Stephen Brown-Bourne)

I found it super easy to get started with (especially as I usually work in React) and it did what I needed it to (very efficiently)! (Suzanne Aitchison)

Nothing but positive experience for me. I've used personally and on client projects. There are some things to learn but it's well documented and a joy to use. (Ryan Lanciaux)

I've been playing with different aspects and I really like it.

  • It now takes me about 10m to set up a site

  • Amazing performance benefits out of the box

  • Plugins and themes add advanced customisation options

  • It does everything react can (Dan Spratling)

I love the ease of setting up, using and configuring. I use for my personal site and am using it to build a PWA for a client that handles financial transactions. It's also easy to contribute towards and the community is great to work with. (Wesley L Handy)

I'm a backend person but gatsby made me want to try Frontend again. 
1. Wonderful documentation
2. Easy to setup
3. Hard to mess up 
4. Easy to accommodate changes
5. @Netlify for deployment (Bhavani Ravi)

What's particularly interesting about these and other responses is just how many first tinkered with GatsbyJS in their spare time for personal projects. Later, as with Something Digital's Gil Greenberg, the interest can become very corporate. 

In a phone interview with Marc Ammann, founder of design agency Matter Supply, offered additional insight. While the company, whose clients include Nike, Impossible Burger, and others, tends to build with a compact suite of tools, Ammann suggested that an employee discovered GatsbyJS in his personal time and recommended it for the work with Impossible Burger. Over the course of that engagement Ammann praised GatsbyJS for many of the same reasons listed above, but gave one more: When they had to migrate Impossible from GatsbyJS 1.0 to 2.0, instead of the two months allotted it took two weeks. That sort of deployment surprise rarely happens with tech.

Not surprisingly then, today 1% of the top 10,000 websites are built using GatsbyJS, with a slew of enterprise names embracing it, including PayPal, IBM, Braun, Ideo, Airbnb, and, of course, Impossible Burger. 

Starting with one developer

One of the most powerful aspects of open source, and the thing that arguably has driven its adoption more than anything else, is convenience. Writing way back in 2012, Redmonk's Stephen O'Grady pointed to the unlikely rise of Linux, MySQL, and other developer-friendly technologies. "Unlikely" because none of these was the most feature-rich, secure option on the market. What they offered, however, was something even more tempting:

Few if any of the above projects and services entered the world as the most impressive – let alone enterprise-ready – technologies. Many were, in fact, compromised in fundamental ways technically. What each had going for it was convenience. They were easy to get, easy to use and were either free or extremely low cost to employ on an ongoing basis. Whether by design or by accident, developers found each convenient, and most are considered developer staples today as a result.

A big part of that convenience stemmed from a free download, rather than having to navigate the bureaucracy of Purchasing or Legal. A developer could download the software she needed and run it on her laptop to learn it and test it, and then push it into production use within her enterprise.

SEE: Open source vs. proprietary software: Pros and cons (TechRepublic Premium) 

GatsbyJS goes beyond static site generation

Fast forward to today, and GatsbyJS aggressively lowers the bar to developer convenience and productivity. Even better, GatsbyJS builds upon the popular but more difficult to use React. As Gatsby (the company behind it) co-founder Kyle Mathews told me over email:

Gatsby adds a lot on top of React. React famously launched calling itself "just the view" (in the traditional MVC architecture). Which is the dual-edge[d] sword of being wildly flexible but also difficult to get started with….

React by itself isn't that useful. Gatsby adds all the surrounding pieces needed to make you instantly productive building websites. So a data layer to make it easy to pull in data from anywhere, a routing system so you can have pages, an optimized dev & production build setup, a ton of performance enhancements to speed the initial page load & while clicking around the site, and a rich set of APIs which almost 1,300 plugins have been built around.

All starting with a simple download. Importantly, as stated, that developer love that begins on a laptop increasingly finds its way into the developer's work life, just as great open source projects before Gatsby did (e.g., MongoDB). 

Now Gatsby is taking things one step further, building a "content mesh," as Gatsby co-founder Sam Bhagwat has written. Rather than force developers into a one-size-fits-all CMS like Sitecore, "The content mesh stitches together content systems in a modern development environment while optimizing website delivery for performance." In other words, they no longer have to use one system that is monolithic and relatively poor at most of its component parts, and instead use the Gatsby service mesh to pull in best-of-breed options (e.g., Segment for analytics, Stripe for payments, etc.). 

It's an impressive vision, but it starts with one open source download, buttressed by a welcoming community and exceptional documentation.

Disclosure: Matt Asay is an employee of Amazon Web Services. The views expressed are his own, not those of his employer.

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