The sixth Developer Avocado 🥑 we interviewed for this year’s advent was Jason Lengstorf. Laka had an interview call with Jason, and we’ve lightly edited and uploaded the recording to YouTube. There’s a lightly edited transcription for posterity as well. Enjoy the video, and we’ll see y’all tomorrow!
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am Jason Lengstorf, and I work at Netlify as a Developer Experience Engineer. I’m also the host of “Learn with Jason” which is a live pair-programming show on twitch where I bring on a teacher and learn something new in 90 minutes. I also host another live show where I interview successful devs in the industry about how they got in and what they’re looking for in people who are just starting their careers. That’s called “Connecting the Dots” that’s on the freeCodeCamp live stream. Prior to that, I worked at IBM, worked at Gatsby, ran a freelance agency and been doing this since 2003.
Laka: That’s quite a bit of time, and that sounds really interesting. It seems like you’re doing a lot of things!
How did you get into Developer Relations?
When I was at IBM, I was working as an Architect on the front-end of the application, and I worked on IBM Cloud. Which is the competitor to like AWS or Azure or Google Cloud. What I was working on with the front-end teams was how could we speed up our development workflows and make things a little more efficient. We had good practices, but everybody’s practices were different. So I started working with my team on internal tools that would speed things up. But what we found was that the hardest part of solving any technical problem is not solving the problem. It’s convincing people that your solution is the one that’s gonna work. Because everybody has opinions, everybody wants to build solutions and getting someone to switch, that’s a high cost. So internally at IBM I started doing the equivalent of Developer Relations.
I was running internal training, I was writing up documentation, I was writing internal presentations for management folks, for tech leads on other teams. Building demos, working with other teams to help show them how to integrate technology. And I was having a blast! It was so much fun for me to do it because I loved seeing the light go on for folks when they saw how a technology could help them. So when I left IBM, it was to go over to Gatsby and do a lot of the same things. I wanted to help show people what Gatsby could do, what the potential was, how it could help them. From a kind of generalist position at Gatsby, I became the head of their DevRel department. That led me to the Twitch stuff that I’m doing and all that.
When I got to Netlify, it was in a very explicit Developer Experience role. That’s the role that I’m doing, and it was kind of the ultimate end [goal]. I knew that’s where I was headed as soon as I started it at IBM, but landing at Netlify, it was like okay this is where I really want to be. Like this is my job, this is what I do, and I know that it’s well defined.
Laka: That sounds really familiar because when I started doing this, I didn’t know that Developer Relations was what I really wanted. I just happened to be really unhappy in most of the jobs I’ve done until Developer Relations. I wanna ask you kind of a follow-up question here: How long did it take between IBM - I’m doing all these things - to Netlify - this is where I belong? How long was that journey?
I got the job at IBM in 2016. So when I realised that DX was a thing that I wanted to do, it was about 18 months. Between doing it at IBM without that being my job to switching over to Gatsby as like that is my job. That also though comes with the caveat that prior to going to IBM, I’d done conference speaking and I’d taught workshops, but that was all on the side. So I think my story might not be typical in terms of a timeline because there was so much extracurricular stuff that I did as part of my agency. When I worked at an agency, I was in Sales. Well, I wasn’t in Sales, I was Sales for my agency. I had to sell the projects, I was doing project management, product management, customer management, along with development and design. So I was kind of all over the map in the agency, and all of those skills helped set me up for when I moved into Developer Experience. I think my decade of experience in other parts of the industry is what made it faster for me to move from “I think I’d like to do DevRel” to “I am a DevRel”.
What advice would you give people looking to join you?
I think there’s room for anyone in DevRel at any career level. I don’t like it when people say “oh you have to have done x or y to be a DevRel”. I think that you could start your career in DevRel. Or that could be the thing that you do when you get tired of being an individual contributor or manager or any of those things. The thing that I’ve noticed that is definitely required though is an interest in learning and an interest in helping people connect what they want to accomplish with a solution. What I found is that if I am trying to convince somebody to use something that I don’t care about or I’m trying to help somebody and I don’t care about the problem they’re trying to solve, my advice isn’t good I don’t give good advice in that case. I’m just kind of like “Well, I don’t know, you could try that.”. And it’s not convincing, it’s not engaging, and it’s not actually helping. It’s just me saying some words and walking away. So there’s a level of investment and your reward centre, I think, has to be aligned with this idea of seeing other people succeed.
DevRel is something where your sense of success should be tied to the success of the people around you. If you see yourself as a force multiplier that makes other people more likely to advance in their career, makes them more likely to complete the project that they’re working on. When that happens, that’s when you feel like you did a good job. I think that’s at the heart of being good at this profession. Really tying your success to the success of others.
Laka: I’m so happy you’re saying that. I’m really, really happy you’re saying that especially since this is going to go into the Advent Calendar. Because I sympathise with that, especially since in our industries there are two separate camps: one of them is “You need to be a Solution level Architect to be in that role” and the other one is just what you said. I’m in this last camp, and I think more people should be coming out and saying that. Thank you!
How has your role changed in the past year?
I think there have been good and bad changes in DevRel. I think one thing that I was struggling with prior to the pandemic was how to balance my personal health with career health. Because I love conferences, I love to travel, I love seeing people face-to-face. But if I travel more than once a month, I’m not seeing my partner, I’m not at home, I’m not around my local friends and family, I’m not part of my local community. So I was struggling a little bit with how do I really get the benefit of being out there and seeing people face-to-face. But also have this quality of home life and being a person who has a local community, and a local group of friends, and is attentive to family. Those things were kind of at odds for me, so when the pandemic hit it immediately solved one problem. I am home, and I am with my partner all the time.
But it left this gap where now we have to figure out as DevRels how to connect with people when we can’t be in the same room. I can’t stand up in front of a room full of people and give a presentation anymore, so instead, I’m trying to find ways to create that level of engagement remotely. And I think that this is hard because Zoom calls are not inherently engaging. A one-on-one zoom call is great, a one-to-many Zoom call is a webinar. And I don’t like to watch webinars, I’ve never been a big webinar fan. And really, what’s the differentiator between watching someone on a Zoom webinar and tuning in to watch the replay on YouTube. What makes a difference between a YouTube video and a live event, when everything is remote?
I’ve really been focusing in on Twitch. Because what is interesting about Twitch, is that there are APIs that make you able to interact with folks. So my Twitch setup, for example, has a chat that if you run a command in chat, you can play sounds on the stream. You can drop a boop emote from the top, and it’ll bounce around the screen for a little bit. You can really quickly shout out suggestions, we can run little polls, and get results for what should we build next. There are lots of ways to actually interact, so that being there live changes the experience. It’s part of the experience. And this is actually something that now I can’t really imagine going back to conferences without pulling some element of that back in. I feel like now, if I go to conferences, I’m gonna want some way for people on their phones to participate in the slideshow or vote for what we’re gonna talk about or somehow contribute to the experience. Because that’s what live experiences are all about. It’s co-authoring. I think that’s so cool and so much fun, and I love what the pandemic has kind of forced us to consider in that aspect. I’m really enjoying the ways that we are finding to adapt and kind of embrace this new model of communicating from far away.
Laka: Thank you, that was really helpful! Your stream is an inspiration, especially for the audience engagement part. I think you and Michael Jolley are the two people that, when I watch on Twitch, I think to myself “When I grow up ,that’s what I want to be”. And I think that’s amazing, the things you’re doing with with audience engagement in an online setting is just amazing.
How do you see the future of DevRel?
I think that DevRel is going to continue having to adapt to a more remote experience. I think that after the pandemic, conferences are probably changed forever. I think that there is still going to be a place for in-person events. I think there’s always a place for in-person events. But what I think has happened is we’ve realised that we can have these events together from anywhere on the planet. And it’s also been really really good in the sense that like there are developers in Lagos, Nigeria who are able to participate in the community at the same level as a developer in San Francisco right now. That’s never been possible before, and I don’t think we want to lose that. So I think that the future of DevRel is How do we take all the good things that happened to our industry as a result of the pandemic? We took lemons, and we made lemonade. How do we make sure we don’t lose that? What can we pull forward into our industry and make sure that we continue to reach people who are in rural areas, who are in underserved markets, who are in countries on the other side of the globe, that don’t usually have access to these local events.
We don’t have conferences. There’s like one big developer conference in Africa, and not all of us can make it to Concatenate. The folks in Nigeria, for example, they can’t get visas to go travel. So how do we make sure that we don’t leave them behind? How do we make sure that people in New Zealand don’t have to make a 60-hour flight go hang out with other peers at an event? We have solved these problems to an extent, and we’ve made a lot of these problems.
We’ve created a whole new set of problems. A lot of conferences feel like watching a YouTube playlist now. And I think if we keep working on that if we keep pulling that into the future, we’re going to find more ways to get more connected even remotely. I think that we can remix that, there are ways that we can take all of these remote benefits and then mix in the live, in-person bits. How do we do a full conference where people are remotely tuned in but, locally, they get together to have watching parties. Maybe there’s a conference where everybody’s participating remotely, but you get together to watch it. The way you’ll see people watch The Bachelor on Twitter as a group and they live tweet it. How do we get that sort of engagement, where people are still doing things together, but it remains accessible to everyone? I think there’s a lot of potential there, and I think that’s where the next big growth area is for DevRel.