Dev rel and coronavirus: Steve Pousty

April 21, 2020

Author Matthew Revell

DevRelCon founder and CEO of Hoopy, the content agency for the developer economy.

Dev rel veteran Steve Pousty discusses how someone who focuses mostly on conference speaking can adjust to a world where travel is impossible and conferences are postponed.T


Matthew: Okay. Steve, thanks very much for joining me. Just to start off, whereabouts in the world are you?

Steve: I am in Santa Cruz, California, which today is drizzly. Oh, let’s wait for the camera to adjust there. There’s my backyard and it’s a little drizzly today. We’ve had, actually, right near my house, the Watsonville Airport had more rain this last weekend than it ever has had in the entire month of April.

Where you’ve got seasonal rain here and this is a very late rain but it’s going to rain all week. But I’m not complaining because anytime we get rain, it’s a good thing here right now.

Matthew: And also you are indoors, so.

Steve: Exactly. Although my dogs will complain, you’ll see them come probably running in and out later because they haven’t been able to exercise most of the weekend, other than that it’s been okay. I’m in California.

Matthew: Cool. Okay. Well as you know, I’m in England.

Steve: Oh, wait, just one other thing. For those who don’t know Silicon Valley, I’m about, so this is San Jose, this is San Francisco, and then Oakland’s over here. So if this is San Jose, you go over the mountains by about 20 minutes and then I’m down here, so I’m right off Silicon Valley but I’m not in Silicon Valley.

Matthew: So what’s happening with you then at Crunchy Data due to coronavirus? Obviously, in DevRel we are impacted, so what are you doing differently?

Steve: So the funny part is not much work-wise, almost nothing has changed except I don’t travel anymore, right? Like, so I did one travel at the beginning of January when the virus was just starting and I remember people talking about it, but that was actually only just an internal meeting with some of my engineers up in Canada in Vancouver, Victoria actually, and since then, it’s just been like normal.

We’re a very remote company, right? We’re an opensource company on PostgresSQL, and so a lot of the engineers and support, and everyone is basically remote. We’re 85% remote, I think. We have an office in Charleston and an office in Northern Virginia, and other than that, we’re just remote.

And so the thing that’s changed for me is there’s just no speaking events anymore or traveling with engineers or meeting with engineers and so now I’m spending a lot of time working on content, so which is my least favorite thing to do. Other than that though, nothing has cha-… For me, personally, in terms of my work role, so I have a small team and I’ve been reaching out more to them than I would otherwise just to try to keep contact up and people…because people can’t go out in the places where everybody is now shelter in place but the places…they were shelter in place even earlier.

And so I think that’s kind of hard for some people. And then the other thing that’s happened is I’ve started doing like once a week live streams and I’ve learned a lot by doing it. One, I’ve learned how to do the live stream and like using OBS Studio and things like that. But then I’m also learning about what works and doesn’t work in live streams. I was thinking, “Oh, it’ll just be like me giving a talk.”

So my first live stream was like, “Hi, this is me, let’s test out the equipment and let me give you some ground rules and what my intentions are for the live streams.” So there I learned that headphone mics are garbage for live streaming, you do not use headphone mics for live streams, they work more terrible. So I got like this blue Yeti mic set up thing going on which works much, much better.

Then the second one I learned, you should not do an hour and 20-minute live stream, that’s like a lecture. Most people, it seems like looking at the stats afterwards, I get about 20 minutes of attention and then people move on. So I think from here on out, I’ll probably be doing like short little…break them up into short little segments, kind of like what we do with Katacoda.

For the DevRel people who don’t know, Katacoda is like this online learning platform and in there, we try to make our exercises, like, at most 15 to 20 minutes, right? Where people can read and do exercises because if you do it much longer than that, it’s hard for people to carve out time. And if you make it less than 20 minutes, it’s like, I’ll do this while I’m taking a break or eating lunch or doing something like that.

So I’ll probably make my sessions 20 minutes from now on.

Matthew: Okay, cool.

Steve: That’s about what we’ve been doing.

Matthew: So with the streaming, are you getting engagement with people in the way that you’d want to? Is it replacing events for you or…?

Steve: No. There’s nothing that replaces like live interaction, right? So for me, first of all, I find webinars, live streaming, all that stuff, remote teaching when nobody else has their camera on, I find those events extremely hard, not as hard as writing but still hard because a lot of…when I speak, it’s gauging the interaction like being able to see faces, being able to see if like, if everybody looks confused and I can stop, I can ask questions, I can get people, it’s much easier to like look directly at somebody and say, “Okay, what do you think of what I just said?”

But I can’t gauge at all, it’s just like speaking into a wall, right? And so I find it hard. Sometimes there’ll be courageous people who’ll ask questions and do stuff but, in general, it’s not replacing speaking. Plus also the thing that happens around speaking is people hang around afterwards, right? Then I’ll see people and they’ll ask more questions about it, like that doesn’t happen, for the most part, no one follows up on Twitter with a question or something like that.

So it doesn’t replace it, but it’s the closest I can get and it’s something I guess that I’m somewhat good at. I think speaking is my strongest of my DevRel skills. Well, that and analytics are probably my two strongest DevRel skills. And so now I can’t flex that muscle very much, so this gets me at least a little bit of that flexing and it’s interesting and new and I’ve been meaning to do it for a long time.

And now I’m like, “Well, now you have no excuse because you’re not going to any events, so this is a good way to invest your time.” Right, so.

Matthew: Yeah. Okay. Well, so then what were events doing in your strategy up until you had to put them on pause? Were they there for awareness or…?

Steve: Yeah. They’re mostly awaren-… Like, so the thing is my role at Crunchy, since we’re a Postgres company, PostgreSQL, I think my role has been to get developers to understand more of how to use their database for better applications, right? How to get more out of their database, teach developers.

I think developers in general, not all, but in general, learn a little bit of SQL to get by and then never progressed past that. And when I hang around with database people, I see the stuff that they make databases do and I’m like, “Oh my goodness, you know, this would make my application so much better, other people should know how to do that.”

And so most of my role has been just show people how to do stuff with databases. And so that’s what events were, were me getting out and, you know, awareness about crunchy and awareness about what Postgres could do for you, try to raise more developers doing Postgres. I mean, in a good world, this is more a general depth, my thoughts on general DevRel, do you want me to go onto those or…?

Matthew: Yeah, absolutely, let’s do it.

Steve: Okay. In a good world, we’re kind of like bottom-up salespeople, in a way, not salespeople, I shouldn’t say that. We’re bottom-up help to the salespeople is what I should say. So that when one of our salespeople contacts the company and they start talking to the people… salespeople usually start higher up in the company than we do, but so when they come to the engineers and they say, “Hey, we’re thinking about getting a contract with Crunchy Data and do more with Postgres, what do you guys think about that?”

Our job is to make the engineers say, “Oh, I saw that talk and those guys are great and we should total, that’s great.” As opposed to, “I have no idea what Postgres is and I don’t know why I would spend money on it.” Right? We want the act…our role, I see, is to get the groundswell of people either going directly to their salespeople saying, “Hey, we’re not their salespeople.”

Going directly to their purchasing people and saying, “You know, we’re using Postgres a lot, we should really get support from these people. They seem to really know what they’re doing.” Or if the upper people come to them and say, “Oh, yeah, they’re good people, that’s good, move ahead with that one.” As opposed to giving friction. So what was the point of that one? Oh, that’s the awareness.

So that’s the kind of awareness I’m trying to work towards.

Matthew: So in terms of more general developer relations, O’Reilly, it seems put their entire events business into the past, you know, it looks like KubeCon is still happening, you know, that’s not going anywhere, but a lot of smaller regional events that said, “Hey, this is a good opportunity for us to now perhaps go and do something else with our spare time or, you know, whatever.”

So what do you think is going to happen longer-term out of this? So are we looking at developer relations becoming a purely virtual thing where maybe once in a while, we’ll go to an event, but actually most of what we’ll do will be writing blog posts, doing Twitch streams and hoping for the best? What do you reckon?

Steve: So let’s first define long-term. So my feeling is there’s…anybody planning an event pre-November is highly optimistic, right? And even November to me feels optimistic. I know like who just… Oh, KubeCon EU rescheduled…they’re thinking they were rescheduling to August.

I was supposed to be speaking at Devoxx UK, they say they’re going to do it in August. Now I think that’s highly optimistic that we’re going to be allowed to travel especially internationally by August. There’s no vaccine coming by that point, things won’t be “under control.” I mean, there’ll be some better testing hopefully, but I don’t see that happening. So that to me is short-term though.

Like long-term, I don’t think things are actually going to change all that much. I mean, I could be completely wrong, right? There’s a very strong contingent on Twitter and even one of the proposed talks for DevRelCon SF was all DevRel should be virtual. For both for climate reasons, this was pre-pandemic, right?

That one was for climate reasons which I’m sympathetic to, being an ecologist and all that, but I don’t see it. I mean, part of what I do is also in-person training events, right? Where I go and I meet with people.

And part of why DeVrel was like dev advocates pre the big field of DevRel, but even dev advocates were hired in the first place was there’s nothing that replaces face-to-face interaction with people, like working a booth, seeing a person, talking to them, answering their questions, giving a talk to a room of 30 people, 100 people, people like that kind of setting.

I think engineers enjoy getting out and getting around with other engineers and meeting other engineers, and I use engineers in the broadest term possible, like technical people, right? Sharing beer, sitting across the table, there’s nothing that replaces breaking bread with people. So let’s talk about O’Reilly for a second, though. So OSCON had been declining for a while, right?

O’Reilly was in a very… I think this is the final nail in the coffin for O’Reilly events. O’Reilly was in rarefied air in terms of how much they charged for their events. I don’t feel like O’Reilly events caught up with what was happening in the events space, which was a lot more smaller or foundation-based events where their prices for their events were several thousand dollars to attend per event.

Whereas I could go to PyCon, I think PyCon is like 200 bucks a person, right? And there, if I’m a Python developer and I have to go to my boss and say, “Hey, look, I want to go to OSCON, I want to go to Strata, I want to go to one of those, it’s $3,000 and it’s in the city of San Francisco or New York or London where it’s going to be another $3,000 in airfare and room, and board, and food at least, right?”

Versus, “Well, I’m going to go to PyCon, it’s in Pittsburgh, but it’s 200 bucks. And the Pittsburgh room and board is not going to be that. And I’m going to meet people who care about Python and learn a lot about Python.” It’s a much easier sell, right, to go to PyCon. So they were basically competing against things like JavaOne, Oracle, OpenWorld. And if your market is open-source or the individual developers, that’s a very hard sell to make at that price point.

So I think, yes, O’Reilly shutter their events business, I actually also think that was a long time coming for them. I don’t agree that then everything is going to move virtual now. I just don’t see that as… Humans aren’t that way, right? Even though we’re doing this interview remotely like this, it’s not the same as you and I sitting at like DevRelCon in London and doing this together in front of a microphone and talking and then, you know, having a side chat about something else and then…it’s hard.

Both business and learning and friendships, all those happen in the small moments not all in the…and I think unless we all start hanging out in virtual Slacks all together, all the time or I don’t know, those small moments don’t happen as much and it’s hard to have those connections.

Matthew: I guess the way that we do virtual communication is intentional, you have to decide to have this kind of conversation. And okay, people do hang out in Twitch and just for hours on end in an unstructured way but I think that’s the rarity, not all of us can do that.

Whereas it’s the unplanned communication that happens face-to-face that is often the most valuable. I speak as someone who’s been working from home for 14 years now, right? So I get the remote thing, but for me, those moments together with real people are precious, even more so because I work from home.

Steve: Totally. Like, and that’s the… Even if you read the companies that are fully remote, they’re not remote all the time, right? The good companies that do that pick a couple of times a year when they get everyone together in the same space because it’s just a different style of interaction.

Like we can’t even react, like even if we’re doing a “virtual conference,” it’s how do we do…have that where like I’m going to sit next to you and we’ll watch this talk together and I’ll whisper over to you and say something about what we just saw or where is that space that happens like an hour later when I’m walking in the booth area and I see you and I see your talk and I’m like, “Oh, hey, that was really cool, have you thought about blah, blah, blah, blah, blah?”

Or, “You know what? Can we collaborate on blah, blah, blah?” It’s just different, I don’t see it going away, personally. And maybe it’s reduced, maybe we realize we don’t have to do quite as much in person and fly quite as much. I just don’t see it going away, though.

Matthew: I imagine one thing that comes up is, and I speak from, not bitter, but certainly from personal experience, is that the production value of events might go down a bit because, you know, I’ll be very open about this, we lost 35 grand on DevRelCon San Francisco, right. And this is for not for profit, you know, volunteer organized event, right?

So San Francisco, Tamao and I run this in our spare time and, you know, it’s fun and all of that. But 35 grand, it’s just that we happen to have a bit of surplus from last year that means that I’m not now tearing my hair out worrying about the mortgage, right?

Steve: Exactly.

Matthew: I can imagine the people who are doing conferences as a spare-time thing, they’re going to de-risk them, I think if…once it’s all over.

Steve: I agree with you. And that’s kind of what O’Reilly did, right? I think they were basically seeing that it was getting harder, their sponsorships were expensive, their attendance tickets were expensive, so it was probably harder to get to the breakeven point. I mean, maybe what will happen, and this could actually be a good thing is so some friends and I, way back when we saw that a lot of people were doing interesting JavaScript stuff in the geospatial world.

So just three of us got together and like, “Hey, why don’t we just have a JS geo event?” Right? “We’ll just call it Event JS Geo and it’ll be…we’ll charge like 20 bucks for the ticket just to like…so you have skin in the game so that we know you’re actually showing up and we don’t promise anything except for like, we’ll get eight speakers up on stage and we’ll find a space where you can all fit,” and that’s all the base promises.

And then if sponsors come through stuff, maybe we’ll get some food or maybe we’ll get some beer or something like that. But other than that, the only promise is that we’ll get you all in the same space, we’ll get good speakers and you’ll have a chair to sit in. And that actually…it was relatively low-stress planning, relatively because we still had to try to get sponsors and like find the venue. And usually, what we would do is tag onto larger events, say, “Hey, do you guys have an extra room we can do the day before or the day after?”

But maybe we’ll see some more of those kinds of less formal events, I don’t know. You know, I think what might change coming out of that is what does sponsorship look like? Right? For one of those kinds of things. Because, I mean, there was no booth space at those events. So what does it look like?

What do you expect to get out of it? That could be an interesting thing to see. I still don’t think the events going away, though.

Matthew: So then what would you say to other people in your position leading DevRel programs who, I’m not saying this is your position, but you know there are people out there who might have executives now saying to them, “Okay, what are you going to do to react to this? How are you going to justify your position after you sold me on the strategy of going to different events and so on? You can’t do that anymore. You told me in-person was really important. Why am I going to keep you on during this time of stress when investment’s tanking?”

I saw, I think Baruch from JFrog posted it the other day to Twitter where, you know, there’s a smash list in case of emergency and there’s a distant note in there saying slash marketing. You know, so like right now, you know, DevRel is in a precarious position, right? So what’s the advice to your peers who are running DevRel programs?

Matthew: So I completely agree with you. Like I fully…like when this started happening, that was one of the things I worried about for us too, right? I mean, the one nice part is we just saved a bunch on travel, right? So that whole travel budget and sponsoring budget and event budget gone, right?

I mean, not gone, but that can get absorbed back into the company. But like what about your events people? What are you having them do right now? Right? So, in general, I think our value is still the same, which is to get developers excited and successful on our product.

So I do think setting up more virtual, I mean, the nice part is everybody is in the same boat, right? It’s not like, no, there are some events going on, but you guys can’t travel or you guys can’t do events. There’s nothing happening travel-wise, so everybody is retooling in this space and things are coming up.

I guess this is the part of the time when we need to hustle, right? So you start reaching out to your compatriots at other partner companies and being like, “Hey, let’s put on a talk together, like a virtual talk together, or let’s do a blog post together, or let’s start like…” Basically, it’s hustle and get stuff out there. Because everybody is stuck at home anyway, right? It’s not like you’re missing out on the… There’s no FOMO, fear of missing out.

You know, it took me a long time to figure out what FOMO stood for, for a while. I was like, “Are those people talking about FOMO?” And I was like, “Oh, wait,” someone spilled it out, I think once where it was like fear of missing out. And I was like, “Oh, right.” And you know what? There’s another expression that I can’t get. So I thought like SMH, was so much hate, but I think it means shake my head.

Matthew: I thought it was “Sydney Morning Herald” because that’s the…to my name.

Steve: Right. And then if we flipped it around then it could be her majesty’s, what is it? HMS? Isn’t that the HM…right, what was it?

Matthew: Her majesty’s ship.

Steve: Is it just ship?

Matthew: A sailing ship.

Steve: It sounds so not as exciting when you just say the word ship.

Matthew: It does, yeah.

Steve: Her majesty’s ship. So anyway, I think you just have to hustle and work different kinds of content right now and find like this is a time for all of us to kind of, as a profession, to explore how other ways to reach out. And if you’re the events person, now is a great time for you to learn about virtual events or streaming or like widen your tool belt to do something different because if you don’t start doing that, you’re going to be in trouble, I think, we have at least an eight months to a year of no physical events is what I think.

And it’s going to take a while for those to spin up anyway because everybody is going to have to… It’s kind of like the restaurants and all those things, everybody’s shuttering and it’s going to take a while for them to spin back up, if they survive.

Matthew: Well, it’s not just the conference organizers, it’s the event spaces. I can imagine that we’ll see events spaces just go under because, okay, someone else might take them over but I remember, I’m going on a digression now, but I remember as a kid, right?

There were places in the cities where I lived that we just still bombed out from the second world war and there hadn’t been the money for, you know, this is like the early ’80s, for 50 years or whatever, 40 years to fix these things yet. And I think we’re maybe a little bit blinkered to the perhaps the long-term outcome of this situation we’re going through now because we’re not just going to flip up overnight and go, “Hey, it’s all back to normal.”

It’s going to take a decade, I think.

Steve: I mean, I’ve been trying to spend some of my money locally with like in safe ways, right? Like ordering out food every once in a while. And the weird part about it, it’s not weird, it’s actually what causes recessions also in depressions, is everybody gets scared so everybody gets tight with their money and then the economy just contracts even further, right?

And so it was just a hard balance. But I don’t know what’s going to end up happening with the… I think some of the volunteer ones, I think they’ll be okay, sometimes they pick universities, right, for where they do their events and those aren’t going anywhere. And the big event spaces are probably, a lot of them, at least in the States are civic-sponsored, right? Like so Moscone and Jacob Javits in New York.

And a lot of those happen…probably that QE place that we meet for yours is probably also somewhat government-sponsored.

Matthew: It’s owned by the central government. There’s a clause in the contract when you sign up for an event there that you will have to give over the space in event of war or something like that.

Steve: Right. Well, and I bet they do that at the Jacob Javits. I think the Jacob Javits Center in New York is now like a COVID-19, like quarantine space or bed space, I think they turned it into that, they’re like, “This is what we’re doing.” So I think those bigger ones will be okay and then university, it will be okay. But for like smaller spaces like that one where we did DevRelCon SF, the Dogpatch one, I don’t know what they’re doing.

Like, they’re like at the same as a restaurant, right? The other one is like music halls, like what’s happening to them? Anyway, I don’t know. Although maybe this will free those spaces up to think differently about how they do business to get started again. I mean, so that’s the…from an ecology example, just thought I’d talk about, sometimes you need fire to rip through a place to sprout up new stuff, right?

Like to just kind of burn it all down to the ground because otherwise, you don’t get the change, right? Like taking out one or two trees doesn’t clear enough space to really let the ecosystem reset and new things to come up. So I wonder, it’s tragic on the one hand, right? Because you lost all those trees and the things that burned it. I’m not talking about an out-of-control human-caused, like, because we never did fire management kind of thing, I’m just talking about the natural process.

But like I do wonder what new innovations will come out or what new configurations of how we do physical spaces in terms of events or it could be interesting to see how what new things spin up in the aftermath, right?

Matthew: I hope there is some positive stuff that comes out of this, you know, and to bring it back to DevRel, perhaps we will be more thoughtful about the travel that we do because frankly, I’ve had enough, I’ve seen the DevRel life hashtag where people are humble bragging about, you know, life in airports and stuff like that.

And I think it is time that we are more thoughtful with how we practice DevRel, so if anything, maybe this is a catalyst for that.

Steve: And one thing about that DevRel, lifestyle hashtag about life in airports and stuff like that, that’s the engineering equivalent of I pulled an all-nighter or I did a week-long death march to do code. It’s promoting a lifestyle unless you’re actually say…this is really garbage that I’m having to do this, there are some people who love it, right?

And I’m sure there’s some engineers who love like that, the thrill of the death march for a week or two where they’re not sleeping and I slept in the… it’s like a cool story and I’m living that life. But for most people, it sets out a false image also to other engineers when they see us tweet that stuff. We’re like, “Oh, your life is all just travel and party and you complain about it but it’s so awesome that you go to…” and I try to explain to people like even my fiance, like when we were first together, she’s like, “Oh, you get to travel for work, that’s so exciting.”

And I was like, “Okay, come with me on a trip and see what happens, right.” And she did. And basically when, for the most part, when you travel for DevRel or for work, unless you’re single and your company is really flexible with vacation time your trip consists of, take something to the airport, sit in the airport, hope it’s not delayed, sit on a small tube in the sky for a while, land somewhere.

Take a taxi to the hotel probably at like 9:00 or 10:00 at night, hope that the room service may be still open so that you can get food because you haven’t eaten except for some small meal on the plane, it’s probably not open. Go to bed eating a KIND bar, like one of those little bars or something that you happen to pack for yourself. Wake up in a different time zone at a time your body doesn’t want to wake up. Get in a taxi again, go to the event, stay inside of the building the whole day.

Get back in a taxi, go out to beers and drinking or something or just with people you half-know, you may not know at all, so it’s totally socially awkward. Then go back to your hotel, sleep. Do it, rinse and repeat the next day. Maybe find time for exercise, barely see the sun, get back in a metal tube, fly back to your place and pass out and be like exhausted.

Going back to another time zone. For me, it’s… I like the speaking and the event. I started adding a day onto the end of events sometimes where I just stay in-country just so I could say, “Yeah, I was in Amsterdam, but all I saw was the airport and my hotel.

Like I say, “Okay, well now I’m going to go out.” And usually, actually what I try to do is find a way to get out into the country like go birdwatching, go do some hiking, do something else in that country just so at least I can say, “I’ve been to Italy but, and I’ve really actually been Italy but,” And I’ve really actually been to Italy rather than, “I’ve been to Italy,” but it could have been Detroit, right? Because I didn’t …except for the food, right?

The pasta was way better or the food was better, but other than that… So I don’t know, it’s draining, those events are draining. And so I think we do ourselves a disservice by bragging about how much we’re traveling. And it shouldn’t be seen as a sign of pride necessarily that like I’m a million-miler or I did a… right, I don’t know. I buy into it, I fall into that same trap though too, so this isn’t judging everybody else.

Matthew: Well, look, Steve, I hope you stay safe.

Steve: You too.

Matthew: It’s really good to talk to you.

Steve:– Good luck in the UK.

Matthew: Thanks.

Steve: You seem to have a level of government planning very similar to ours which makes me very sad. I hope we weather it okay together.

Matthew: I guess we just got to find out, we’ve got to wait and see.

Steve: I know it’s hard, you see, this is how my podcast…my stream turned into an hour and 20 minutes, but I think this is even like weirder than a hurr-… Like, at first I was telling people this is like a hurricane, right? Like we know it’s coming or a typhoon or whatever, you know it’s coming, so you prepare and then there’s this period before where it’s blue skies outside, what did we prepare for?

Like the what’s…but you can see it on the satellite map at least, that you can see that. With this, it’s like a hurricane coming slowly and progressively until it’s right on top of you and you can’t see it coming, except you can watch the numbers but you don’t know, it’s a very different way of watching some sort of disaster coming at you and it’s very unnerving.

Matthew: And if you sat in your house, you know, you might not even know anyone or come across anyone who’s suffered from this, so it’s the stuff on the news, isn’t it? it’s like another TV show, in a way. I don’t want to trivialize it but, you know, once you, if you’re in the house and your only…

Steve: And if your social network…I mean, and then the problem is then once it starts hitting people you know, then it’s really going to hit people you know, like at that point, it’s just…suddenly on you. It’s like this creepy thing that…creeping, as in like small… not like creepy but creeping and then suddenly, boom. And I haven’t…maybe a few people I’ve heard of that have probably gotten it. The other thing is we’re not doing enough testing to know who’s really getting it and who’s not. But so, anyway, enough of that.

Matthew: Well, look, thanks, Steve. I’ll see you around.

Steve: Okay, virtually.

Matthew: Cheers.

Steve: Cheers.

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