Dev rel in the time of coronavirus: Chris Castle


Chris Castle

Chris Castle

Heroku’s Chris Castle discusses how the global pandemic has affected their events plans and more.


Matthew: Okay. So, Chris, thank you for joining me. Where in the world are you? Seattle?

Chris: I’m in New York, actually. Yeah, I’ve been in Seattle for 15 years but I grew up in the Northeast U.S. up here. And sister has a two-year-old and she’s just about to, in seven days, due to have a second one. Parents live around here, too, so I’ve been doing a little bit of… Having no, like, kids, or wife, or any kind of attachments of my own directly, I can live anywhere as a remote worker.

So rented an apartment in New York and I’ve been spending a few months here.

Matthew: Cool.

Chris: It’s been fun, but I’m also now in the epicenter of the… I think today, actually, if you look at, is forecasted to be the peak hospital resource use in the State of New York. So, hopefully, we’ve hit the peak of the curve. You know, that’s a forecast.

You never know until after and are starting to come down.

Matthew: Well, I mean, let’s talk about how that’s impacting what you do because you’re a developer advocate at Heroku.

Chris: Correct.

Matthew: So I know that some of the Heroku Developer Relations program involves going to events and things like that, but just overall, what’s changed for you over the past few weeks as a result of this situation?

Chris:Yeah. Kind of both quite a lot has changed and not much has changed. In the quite a lot bucket, all of our events, sponsorships have been paused. Well, let’s say all of our event travel, any developer advocate travel to an event has been completely paused.

We’re not doing any of that. Salesforce has actually been really good at taking care of its people and being, like, really on top of it. I thought it was a little bit too overwhelming at first, but safety and security team at Salesforce has been awesome and giving us all the knowledge we need to do our job and then only kind of putting restrictions in place when they absolutely have to.

So, yeah, we’re not doing any traveling at all. I, personally, am not doing any personal travel also. But then on the not much has changed side, I, as a remote worker, like, 60% to 70% of the people that work directly on Heroku are remote. So more than half of the folks that work on Heroku directly are remote, and a lot of us are used to this.

It’s just working from home. But there’s probably…I have noticed on video conferences, calls like this, there’s a big difference between those people who live alone and those people who have families in that me, living alone, I am, like, even as an introvert, craving contact with other humans because I, you know, don’t get out of the house much, I, you know, respect the six-foot rules.

But then those who have families, you know, are kind of maybe going a little bit bananas with everyone around them all the time and having to deal with child care and making sure they have a good enough internet connection even to, like, be able to do video meetings like this. So, yeah, that’s been the main change. Everything’s been…you know, travel’s been paused personally, and then, you know, that’s the same for Developer Relations kind of overall at Salesforce.

Matthew: How does that affect your ability to get things done? You know, you must have a plan that required you to travel. So what are you going to do instead of…? What’s not going to happen, and what are you going to do instead? Like, what are you not going to achieve?

Chris: So definitely not, as I said, traveling. Not going to, for instance, PyCon, I think, is coming up or maybe would have already happened in April, not going there. The last event that I was at QCon London, actually. It was early March, and it was kind of right where things were taking up in the U.S., I think, and in the UK.

And, you know, even when we were there, we actually even, like, considered cutting the event short or our presence there short and coming home, but we didn’t. We stayed there through the end of it. The event actually did a great job. They had, like, a chokepoint where you had to use hand sanitizer when you came in the building, and they had it all of the elevators and major doors. And each attendee got their own personal little hand sanitizer bottle, and they were encouraging handwashing a lot, too.

So they were kind of, like, following, you know, like, the WHO and CDC recommendations. So that was the last event. But, to be honest, I mean, I love events. It’s like, you know, that physical contact with the community, being with them in front of them, like, seeing body language, seeing facial expressions, kind of sharing deeper emotions, I guess, is great.

But I’ve always kind of had this kind of thought in the back of my head, which I’ve never fully, like, resolved or completely, like, justified or figured out in that events are great as a developer advocate activity, but when you think about the population of developers, the portion of the population of developers that you’re actually getting to interact with and be around, it’s very small.

I mean, it’s probably, like, you know…I don’t know exact numbers. I should probably figure this out. Like, at PyCon, PyCon’s a huge event. It’s a couple thousand people, I think, but it’s still probably a single-digit percent, maybe even less, like, less than 1% of all of the Python developers out there that we could be connecting with and engaging with, so it’s a good opportunity.

And events are a good kind of, like, forcing function for content creation, you know? You got to create talk. Maybe if you have a booth there, we’re creating talking points, or a demo app, or an activity for those people that come to our booth. And then we can reuse all of that content after the event, so that’s great, but, again, it’s just a forcing function. There’s other ways to get that content created.

And so, yeah, we’ve switched to completely everything digital, and this is across Salesforce, too. It’s not just kind of Heroku-focused but Salesforce DevRel. We’re starting to do more live streaming, like, live coding. We’re trying to amp up the content pipeline, like, make sure it’s more full of content being, like, kind of non-live things, I guess, blog posts, or webinars, or short video explanations, or things like that.

But then I guess stepping back a little bit, one thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot, and this actually not just me but it’s been the Heroku leadership and Salesforce leadership in general, is that as we kind of come into this crisis, all of the communication from kind of the top-down has always been number one and, sometimes, even number two has been your well-being, employee well-being.

And I was a little bit surprised by that because, you know, like, despite a company being made up of humans, it’s still…like, it needs to generate money and we all would like our paychecks. So, you know, I’m sure there are fears among people of, like, you know, what is revenue, how do we make sure we’re getting paid?

But I like the long-term focus of, you know what, it’s great to make sure you’re getting paid, but if you don’t first make sure your employees, and your people, your teammates, etc., are healthy, and happy, and productive, able to do work, then it doesn’t how much if your first concern is how much you worry about…your first concern being make money, so that’s been great to see from Salesforce.

Matthew: I’ve been hearing that from a lot of people as well is that the companies are really focusing on how do we keep each other safe and also mentally well in a time when we spend a lot more time indoors. So, talking about the replacements for events, so the live coding and things you’re doing, do you have any…?

Have you learned anything about how to do this, you know, infrastructure-wise, tooling, and so on? Because, you know, DevRelCon is going online. We’re looking at how we’re going to put that on, and I’m sure that lots of Developer Relations people are all hungry for someone else to give them some tips on how to pull this off.

– Yeah, for sure. There’s, like, a big document going around internally among…well, Salesforce, like, overall, Developer Relations in that…just a brainstorm doc. Like, we’re trying to figure out what are all the different ways and fun ways we could do things…not replace, I guess, but what are the different ways we could engage with developers in a useful to them way, valuable way digitally.

Yeah, so live coding, like, live streaming was the first thing that just made sense right out of the gate. Fortunately, Trailhead, which is, like, Salesforce’s learning and learning about Salesforce’s platform, they actually have something called “Trailhead Live.”

So they kind of had some infrastructure built out already to just kind of jump in, you know, add someone to the list, the queue that wants to put on a Trailhead Live session. So we kind of jumped into that. Like, there’s a little bit of dissonance if, like, you come from kind of the Heroku Purple and see Trailhead Live.

But we figured, you know, it’s worth a try. We’re going to see how this works, and then, you know, use this great thing that’s already been built for us and then get feedback if there are things that we think should be changed for like the developer brand, or the Heroku brand, or to make it more engaging in a way that maybe developers are interested in. So, yeah, that’s been a thing.

We’ve thought about, like… I mean, I guess the other thing that I’ve been kind of… I guess I’ve tried to be empathetic to, like, what do people want? Like, what do developers want at this point? You know, I’m sure there’s not a single answer. Different people are experiencing this crisis in different ways.

Some people, like, want distractions, right, and they want to read more blog posts. We’ve actually seen podcasts listen numbers go down. My hunch is that that means that’s because of less commuting, and people listen to podcasts while they’re in cars commuting or in a subway, like, yeah, somehow commuting, subway, bus, car.

But we’ve seen some blog channels go up, like the Heroku Engineering Blog has actually gone up. And I don’t know…we haven’t done, you know, like, statistical studies on it, but it has gone up in March. And so, yeah, I want to figure out what do developers want and how do they want to either just passively consume or engage digitally with other humans.

And not just other humans, I guess, but, like, you know, a company, or a product, or a tool like a developer tool, or their developer community if they’re interested in that. Let’s see, so one of the things, actually, that came out of that was, like, someone said, “One thing I really like about events is the hallway track.”

That’s like one of the main…after going to a few events, you’re like, “Okay, now I’m a veteran at going to developer software events. I know there are a few talks I want to see. Maybe I want to skip the keynote because it’s like a marketing pitch from some company, but hallway track. Like, I want to talk to people and meet people.”

So I’ve been thinking about how do we replace that, and I don’t have an answer. So, hopefully, someone watching this maybe can, like, share some ideas. I’m not sure if there will be a way to comment or kind of reply back to this. But, you know, there’s Zoom, like we’re using right now, to record this. Zoom has this concept of breakout rooms, so maybe there’s, like, some way to connect people there.

There’s this tool called “” that we use internally for Slack that randomly connects people that maybe work on the same team or working on similar teams and says, “Hey, you two should get to know each other.” It’s kind of, like, just a random coffee break pairing with someone. So, yeah, I’d love to hear other people’s ideas if anyone has ideas on how to replace human connection in the hallway track.

– Yeah. There’s a tool called “Remo,” I think it is, and Kevin Lewis at Vonage pointed me to it because they’re using it to replace the meetups that they would host and things like that. And the way that I’d describe it is it’s a cross between Animal Crossing and Second Life if it was in 2D.

You basically get a birdseye view of, I guess, a conference space but they’re cabaret-style tables. And then you can select a table sit at if there’s a free space, and then that puts you into a video conference with the other people at that virtual table, but also you see the speaker and the speaker’s slides. So I guess that’s one way of doing it.

To me, it feels a bit isomorphic, you know, kind of feels a bit trying to shoehorn in some way of doing it, but I’d love to see how it works in practice.

Chris: Yeah, totally. It reminds me of…my mom used to play bridge and be really into online bridge playing. And she would, like, open up this app on her computer and it would be just like you described. It would be, like, okay, here’s the hall of all of the people playing bridge and all of the tables, and you could choose one to either, actually, you could be a spectator and just view the game or you could join if there was a free seat available there.

Totally makes sense. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.

Matthew: So, longer-term, what do you think impact this will have on how you do Developer Relations at Heroku and, more broadly, at Salesforce, or will you just go back to how you did things before?

Chris: I don’t think so. I’ve actually enjoyed…maybe not enjoyed, but I’ve been intrigued and kind of fascinated to watch my peers and colleagues’ experience with moving to remote work when they have been used to going into an office every day.

And it’s actually been a bit more of a surprise to me than I thought in that…and, you know, kind of being empathetic, I should have realized this. Like, when I started it, it was a big change. I had to kind of think about how I spent my time and how I behaved, and acted, and the kind of different stimulus, and distractions, and things all around me.

But, you know, Salesforce has, like, all-hands calls and the executive team all working from home joining that call and share whatever information, you know, they need to share with the entire company, and everyone’s working from home. It’s kind of like, in many ways, it’s almost like a leveler in that, like, everyone is now at the same level working with the same things.

Of course, those people who are getting used to remote work are, you know, trying to kind of catch up in that way. But I think it’s been a good exposure for a lot of people to, like, see that remote work can work. I’m a big remote work advocate in general. It may not work for all roles but I think it can work in many more places than it does currently.

So I’m excited to see companies, hopefully, be a little bit more receptive of remote work being a normal thing. And then, going back to the kind of event topic, developer event tradeshow topic we chatted about earlier, I also hope that, like, the creativity of coming up with ideas and ways to interact with people virtually persists.

Like, I’m sure events will come back in some fashion, in some way. There are people that have been saying it’s not going to happen, but I think that’s more clickbait on the internet. I think it will come back, but I also hope that we can maintain some of these maybe more, like, accessible forms of engagement with developer audiences.

Accessible meaning, like, you know, someone that lives in a rural area and maybe can’t travel to a developer event or their job doesn’t let them go to an event, or maybe it’s someone in, I don’t know, like, Africa or someone, you know, very geographically far plus doesn’t have the resources to get to kind of where the main developer events are. So I hope, yeah, we can maintain some of this kind of newfound digital engagement or digital connection learning methods that are kind of born out of this experience.

Matthew: Right, yeah. I think we’re going to certainly come away with this with a different view of how to do Developer Relations. And, yeah, if nothing else, perhaps a reconsideration of some of the things we used to assume to be true, but, yeah. Well, look, Chris, thank you very much.

Chris: Yeah, that makes sense.

Matthew: Stay safe in New York, and hope to see you around.

Chris: Yeah. Thanks very much. Same to you, Matthew. See you later.

Matthew: Cheers.

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