Yihui Xie

Romain Lesur: The Most Wonderful Collaborator I Have Ever Worked With

Yihui Xie / 2019-07-16


In the footnote #4 of a blog post from last year, I said that Romain Lesur was the most wonderful collaborator with whom I had ever worked with in my software career. I meant to write a blog post about it but it was so hard to find time this year. Finally I have uploaded the rolldown package to CRAN, and can take a brief break now.

The birth of pagedown

Romain first came to my attention in September last year when he tweeted about Paged.js. Now I don’t remember how I noticed this tweet. Perhaps it was because Christophe Dervieux, Heather Turner, or Nicolas Roelandt liked it, and Twitter figured out I liked these people (I do), so Twitter recommended it to me. Perhaps it was because it contained the #bookdown hashtag by chance.

Anyway, I happened to be thinking of something similar around that time, because I had always believed in HTML and web technologies in terms of typesetting. I saw ReLaXed earlier and was excited about it (especially the incredible examples made out of CSS and HTML). Everything looked perfect and beautiful, but there were two problems: 1) One couldn’t write the full content in Markdown naturally (there was Markdown support, but the full document had to be HTML or Pug); 2) ReLaXed was a Node.js package. Of course, I was looking for something that could work best with R and R Markdown without an external system dependency. Then Romain’s tweet opened a door for me just in time. Since Paged.js is a JavaScript library, we can easily integrate it into R through the HTML Widgets framework. Problems solved.

One week later, I emailed Romain:

On Thu, Sep 13, 2018 at 8:34 AM Yihui Xie <???@gmail.com> wrote:

Hi Romain,

I have been looking at your weasydoc package and thanks again for bringing Paged.js to my attention. I have been very excited, and am still learning more about it. I have to say you opened a new door through which I feel I’ll be able to fulfill one of my life dreams.

I’m going to devote some serious time in this, and I hope we can collaborate on it (unless you have finished all the work :).

Regards,
Yihui

What made Romain a great collaborator of mine

I have admitted that I’m a terrible person to collaborate with. Usually I tend to do most of the work on my own, and do not collaborate with other people substantially. I have reviewed and merged many pull requests on Github, but these projects typically have only one absolute owner (me). I think pagedown is the first project in which I have communicated with a co-author frequently and haven’t made all the decisions only by myself. There are a few reasons why I regarded Romain as a great collaborator to me:

  1. His skill set complements mine perfectly. I know R Markdown and HTML Widgets well, and he knows Paged.js and Pandoc Lua filters. Since he joined me in the work of pagedown, I lost the motivation to learn more about Paged.js and Pandoc filters. Besides, he read the Chrome Developer Protocol and single-handedly wrote the wonderful pagedown::chrome_print() function. I confess that this is still a mystery to me, and I’m unable to reach the depth in these technologies as Romain did. He has submitted many other pull requests to pagedown, and I often merged them with awe (e.g., #16, #21, #43, and #48). In particular, my jaw dropped when I saw he reinvented the Chapman & Hall/CRC book style and the Journal of Statistical Software style with CSS. Epic magic! That was perfect timing for my rstudio::conf(2019) talk.

  2. His debugging skills are amazing. Debugging requires extreme attention to details, which Romain has clearly manifested. I’m often surprised by his simple and elegant fixes to bugs that looked complicated in my eyes.

  3. He is a very creative hacker and knows how to take advantage of existing tools to solve a hard problem in an novel way. This Stack Overflow question asked by Colin Fay (also an excellent hacker) and answered by Romain is a great example to show what an expert of WebSockets Romain is. I, for one, also love hacking the RStudio Viewer. The fact that the RStudio IDE is essentially a web browser can bring forward many fun possibilities.

  4. He is exceptionally humble—so humble that I have to remind him a few times that his role is a co-author and I’m not qualified to lead him as the “leading author”. Anyway, in the first few months of pagedown, he had always submitted his work via pull requests instead of pushing to the master branch directly (although I had granted him write access), to make sure he wouldn’t break anything and had respected my coding style. That was both careful and considerate.

Somehow he also established a personal connection with the Paged.js developers, which turned out to be very important for the pagedown package, because sometimes bugs came from the Paged.js library and we could talk to Paged.js developers to get them fixed quickly. Apparently, both the Paged.js developers and the Shuttleworth Foundation noticed his talent soon. Later he was awarded a grant from the foundation.

Romain’s other contributions

Besides pagedown, I have seen Romain help me in several other Github repositories that I maintain, although I didn’t ask him to. To be clear, I do need help, and always do. Below is an incomplete list of Github issues with which Romain has helped recently:

Romain’s first pull request to packages that I maintain was rstudio/rmarkdown#1243, created on Jan 14, 2018. I didn’t know him back then, but the pull request showed his kindness to help and also his humbleness (“Sorry, I’m not a CSS expert!”).

Summary

To sum it up, Romain has exactly the skills that I don’t have but definitely need, has a creative mind as a hacker, shares the same belief in the web, is able to sense my headache in Github issues, and often actively helps me in a way that really minimizes the work on my shoulders. I know he is currently on vacation, and probably won’t see this post until three weeks later, but anyway, I want to thank him so much for being such a wonderful collaborator as well as all the help along the way!

A wonderful collaborator