In this episode, Katy Farmer, Technical Community Manager at CircleCI, talks about creating welcoming and friendly spaces, but that you had better follow her code of conduct! Katy is not here for people being rude. She protects her angels within her community. Katy is also all about treating DevRel booth people equally. Everyone is qualified to be there. Don’t ask to speak to a “technical” person, if and when in-person conferences ever resume.
Finally, Katy reminisces about working in customer service. Was it terrible? Yes, but she is very grateful that she did because it gave her the skills to help people ask questions and backtrack through problems.
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Jonan Scheffler: Hello and welcome back to Observy McObservface, the observability podcast we let the internet name and got exactly what we deserve. My name is Jonan. I’m on the developer relations team here at New Relic, and I will be back every week with a new guest and the latest in observability news and trends. If you have an idea for a topic you’d like to hear me cover on this show, or perhaps a guest you would like to hear from, maybe you would like to appear as a guest yourself, please reach out. My email address is email@example.com. You can also find me on Twitter at @thejonanshow. We are here to give the people what they want. This is the people’s observability podcast. Thank you so much for joining us. Enjoy the show.
I am joined today by my guest, Katy Farmer. How are you today, Katy?
Katy Farmer: I am excellent. How are you?
Jonan: I’m hanging in there. I don’t know what’s going on. I do know what’s going on; it’s 2020. Every week feels like five Fridays in a row. I wake up, and I’m like, I almost did it. Are you feeling that? Am I making this up?
Katy: No. Look, every day is a little bit like yesterday and a little bit like three years from now.
Jonan: Yes. That last part is not great, though. I don’t want it to be three years from now that I still feel the same way.
Katy: Everything that happened, you’re like, how long ago did we have an election in the U.S.? Yesterday? Six months ago? A year ago? Time is nothing.
Jonan: Time is nothing when every day is, is today the day that I went from my bedroom to my office and then back to my bedroom and then there was some TV?
Katy: [Laughs] Yeah.
Jonan: I just need something to measure time by, like going outside. We’ll get there soon. I’ve been seeing people getting these vaccinations. I’ve heard that very wealthy people are going to be vaccinated this year or maybe even next.
Katy: I look forward to their Instagram photos of their vacations. I’m going to be doing legs or hot dogs; that’s what I’m going to be doing.
Jonan: Legs or hot dogs on your Instagram? This is actually a real thing; I take it.
Katy: Yes. Sometimes when you’re looking at a photo that’s at a beach, and you can see a person’s top of their thighs to their knees, it turns out if you replace legs with hot dogs, it’s really hard to tell the difference. It’s a really fun game, recommended.
Jonan: Legs or hot dogs. I would need to find some particularly hairy hot dogs in my case.
Jonan: Tell us about you. Our listeners, I’m sure, are anxious to hear about you.
Katy: I am Katy. You did a great job. I am the Technical Community Manager at CircleCI. That’s kind of a nothing title to say that I am in charge of people inside of DevRel. So my job is to understand all of the technical problems and talk to people about what’s going on. So it’s not super different from DevRel, except that I own our community spaces, manage the forum and make sure we have a code of conduct, and make sure everyone feels like they’re just wrapped in clouds.
Jonan: When they think about CircleCI, they get the warm fuzzies because you are there shepherding them into this beautiful community. I like it better to think of you owning the community spaces. People have to sign something when they join the community site; Katy is the boss of me.
Katy: I like to think of it that way also. It’s a really welcoming, friendly space, but you better follow my code of conduct. I am not here for people being rude. I will protect my angels in the community.
Jonan: I think that that’s a good instinct to have as a community manager because it turns out people are kind of trash sometimes. They’re not awful humans, but it’s the internet that’s enabling. It just flips a switch.
Katy: The internet was a mistake.
Jonan: Computers generally were such an oops moment for humanity, and now we’re here. It seemed like it was going so well for a while. We’re sending people up into space, and there’s all this exciting explanation, and then Facebook happened, and it was all downhill.
Katy: When Facebook started, I was in college, and you had to have a .edu address. But I went to a very small school, and they weren’t on the list. And I remember being upset, being like, how dare you keep me out of Facebook?
Jonan: It was a very exclusive thing. And then it was so much cooler than Myspace in the beginning. And now we’re all looking back like, oh, I want Myspace back. I want some glitter on my profile.
Katy: I can guarantee you there’s always glitter on my profile. Wherever you find me on the internet, there’s some sequins; there’s some glitter.
Jonan: In real life, glitter is not a friend of mine. I have young children, and one of them once opened, I think, a five-gallon bucket of glitter in my living room, which still lives there. It never goes away.
Katy: Now you just have transformed your space into a magical —
Jonan: It doesn’t feel like magic most days, but I believe you. So when you’re doing this Technical Community Manager role, you are often responsible for being the person who steps up and says to someone, “Not that you’re not welcome here but that behavior is a problem for our community,” and very often, that kind of burns down that relationship. And occasionally, you actually change someone’s mind and help them learn and grow, I hope. Have you? Do you see that?
Katy: That’s the dream. And a phrase I’m a big fan of — and I wish I could tell you where I got it; I probably got it from somebody a lot smarter than me on Twitter. But a phrase I’m a really big fan of is, “We don’t do that here.” It’s not helpful to put blame on people and say, “You’re coming in here on the day of my daughter’s wedding?” It’s not helpful. It doesn’t help anyone for me to be mean, but I will say that making it really clear like, “Hey, you might have an opinion about this, but these are the rules for this space, and you have to follow them here.” And I’m not very flexible on that unless they’re apologetic or they displayed to me that they’re empathetic to the person that they harmed with their language.
Jonan: There are a lot of places where a kind, empathetic approach makes more sense. Dealing with trolls on the internet is not one where patience should be included. They’re willing, and they want to have a conversation with you. “I’d just like to discuss my really awful alienating plans rationally and logically.”
Katy: [Laughs] All I want is to rationally argue with you about how you’re less of a person than me. And I think the thing is that I’m more willing to take a stronger stance on making sure that this space is safe. I know it’s not cool language. People don’t like it when you’re like, “This is a safe space,” but the reality is I am what I like to call barely minoritized in tech. There are not as many women as there should be, but being a white lady in tech is still you’re the queen instead of the King. And so I think whatever privilege I have, it’s my responsibility to make sure that the person who comes after me who may or may not have various levels of intersectionality has the same experience. And it may mean me telling someone, “You can’t do that here, and if you keep doing it, you won’t be able to come back.”
Jonan: Yeah, I’m okay with that too. And I think that the safe spaces thing I get, that makes sense. We don’t have to necessarily say, “This is a safe space.” It’s like, this is a place where people are safe. We want to be safe here. It doesn’t have to be this overblown thing that a lot of people feel it’s a thing we need to focus on. But we’re focusing on it so that we can all be here and do the thing that we’re trying to do collectively. There are good reasons. It is not safe for its own sake, I guess, right?
Katy: Yes. This is more like a seatbelt safety rule. Do you know what I mean?
Katy: This is keeping people from actively being harmed. I think sometimes, I want to say in tech, but also I know this to be true on a broader scale too, we kind of shy away from the gentle language when we talk about ourselves and our spaces. Nobody wants to be known as the softest little marshmallow, except for me because I am the softest little marshmallow.
Jonan: [Laughs] I agree with you. I think that’s exactly it too. I think especially in American society, we have this kind of violent opposition in our brains against being coddled, or we don’t need to take care of each other and care about each other’s feelings as humans because we’re tough.
Katy: We’re Ford tough. This very idea of toughness is really fascinating to me. And I think once you get into these spaces where there’s a lot of stereotypes around what a developer is and what they look like, and I would argue that tough isn’t one of them, I feel like there’s even more backlash against that. “You think I’m not tough?”
Jonan: This is exactly that. I think where a lot of this comes from, and I don’t necessarily think it is as true today as it was when I was a kid because when I was a kid, it wasn’t actually all that cool to be a nerd. You didn’t have an iPad to fix, so you didn’t have much value to offer the rest of the school.
Katy: Money made it cool.
Jonan: Money made it cool. And suddenly, these were the people who were going to have startups and be billionaires. And obviously, not the reality, but everyone feels like it’s the reality sometimes. “Well, I don’t know, you better be nice to Jonan. He might start the next Facebook and buy you a Tesla someday.”
Katy: I remember my parents saying things like that. It’s so bizarre to me. So I worked in IT repairs when I was in college. Actually, when I got the job, total nepotism didn’t know how to do it. I had a computer, and that was all of my qualifications. I have used a computer so much. And honestly, that wasn’t even true. I was very bad at using mine. At the time, my laptop was like a suitcase. Working in IT fundamentally changed a lot of things about how I learned and how I approached problems. You probably know this, and everyone listening probably knows: there are very few scenarios where people get as angry as they do with their computer when it doesn’t do what they want.
Jonan: They take it personally. And which is, of course, the opposite of what is good. The computer is not out to harm you. It is doing what you told it to do. It’s just that it’s really dumb. It’s really dumb.
Katy: Yeah. It’s like you have to be really specific. And when I did that, I learned about a lot of attitudes toward who people expected to see fix their computer. And it wasn’t me. And I was actually the manager, so it was very funny to me. A lot of times, people would rather wait for a man to come. They would be like, “I’ll wait for an expert.” I would just let them wait. I have the full schedule, and I know when the next person arrives, and it’s in four hours or something.
Jonan: Yeah. Cool. You just wait over there. There’s the waiting chair.
Katy: Yeah, I have no problem. I’m not out to prove anything. And I’m like, “All right. Wait for my friend Stephen to show up. He’ll be here in four hours.” [Laughs]
Jonan: This has happened, I imagine, to you in a booth setting. Well, you’ve been in DevRel for a while. Have you ever been standing in a booth, and someone comes up and asks to speak to someone technical?
Katy: Yes, all the time, almost every time. And I think it’s multi-layered. One, I think it happens to women and people of color a lot but also because my style can be very femme. So a lot of times at a booth, what I like to do is dress to be an easy landmark. So sometimes I’ll tell my friends, “Come see me. I’m wearing sequined sneakers,” or “I’m wearing a Tutu,” or whatever it is. I have a wild sense of style because it’s fun. And so a lot of times too, people will walk up, and they’ll see an adult playing dress up, and they’ll go, “Okay. Well, who knows how InfluxDB works?” And I’m like, “It’s actually me.”
Jonan: I’ve been in tech long enough that I would assume you were the most technical person.
Katy: [Laughs] Yes, right?
Jonan: The person who’s there to be a marketing professional is not going to be wearing a tutu. I don’t think they stretch that far.
Katy: I don’t think so either. I’m always wary of blazers that’s like my little — the clacks start going off in my head, and I’m like, uh-oh.
Jonan: I go to conferences. Sometimes I get invited to a conference that’s like, awesome developer party time week. And you’re like, that definitely sounds like a legitimate conference to me. But when you show up, it’s 20 developers who got roped in or were forced to attend by their companies and a bunch of people in blazers and jeans and shoes that are too expensive who think that they’re schmoozing with leaders from the community. I really don’t like those conferences. I’m hoping those are the ones that don’t come back. I want the community ones back.
Katy: My favorite ones are always DevOpsDays. They manage to be local and small, and you meet, at least in my experience, they’re kind of my bread and butter as a speaker and as an attendee because the companies where I worked made these DevOps tools. And I felt like every time I went to one; there are some talks where you get the idea that maybe you hear the same pattern. There’s always at least one talk from someone local who’s solving a totally different problem. And I just really liked that about DevOpsDays or even maybe something like Monitorama.
Jonan: Yeah. Those conferences that are put together by the community members themselves often have these volunteer groups of devs putting together something rather than the for-profit conference scene, which I’m not going to miss very much.
Katy: So last—I almost said last year but again—
Jonan: Probably last week, a couple of weeks ago.
Katy: There’s no way to know. I emceed the greatest no profit conference of all time. And you talked to Austin about Deserted Island.
Jonan: You emceed Deserted Island DevOps?
Katy: Yes, I did.
Jonan: I loved that conference so much.
Katy: It was a joy from beginning to end. And I’ll tell you what, and this is how joyful it was. On that day, I already knew that I had been laid off.
Jonan: Oh, no.
Katy: I found out right before Deserted Island DevOps, and then I got online and emceed that conference all day. And I’ve never been laid off before. It was a very lucky thing in my life. I think I quit every job before I could be laid off, but I was obviously emotional about it, and there was also the COVID pandemic. And that conference healed me more in that day than if I had been laid off and just been home by myself for months. I made really good friends and got to just be in this warm, happy space with smart people, and it just felt good.
Jonan: That’s the thing that I think is missing in most online events these days. They had this green room going at Deserted Island DevOps where the speakers were just hanging out, and watching each other, and supporting each other, and chatting all day.
Katy: It was so good. And I’ll tell you that as the MC, sometimes I could hear them talking or Austin giving production notes while I was talking. It made me feel like a real Hollywood—
Jonan: Very fancy.
Katy: “Oh, no big deal. What’s that?” Mm-hmm. And I’m listening on my special earpiece. And I would hear Austin occasionally go like, “Keep vamping, keep vamping.” And I honestly never heard that phrase before, but I just assumed he meant to keep talking, so I did. And then later, I was like, oh, I know what vamping means now because I did it. [Laughs]
Jonan: Do you think that the community-led events are going to come back? I feel like they will because I want to organize a conference as soon as possible called Hug Jonan Conf where all my friends come, and I just make them line up, and I hug all of them over and over.
Katy: [Laughs] Yeah, I definitely think they will. And I honestly think that the big conferences, when they come back, let’s say next year re:Invent is back in the world. I mean, I’m not wild about it. I’m not wild about attending those; that’s way too many people for me. But let’s say that’s my first conference back in the world; I’m not going to any of those talks. I’m going to see all my friends. Do you know what I mean? So I think that the community conferences are going to be the ones that manage to, in some ways, take advantage of how much we’ve missed each other.
Jonan: I think so too. And I think I feel the same way about the larger events, especially re:Invent it’s a special case. But the interesting thing is I’ve had a good time at re:Invent, but I’ve had a good time in a specific way where I go about three or four blocks off the strip in either direction, and I find a group of devs who are hanging out at the restaurant and just chatting and having drinks or dinner, and that’s where you want to be. It’s not the mega party on the strip where five companies have come together to rent this restaurant out for a million dollars.
Katy: [Laughs] It’s madness.
Jonan: It’s ridiculous. The last time I was there for re:Invent, one of them had put this big party together, and then the power went out. I cannot imagine how that conversation went afterward. If you’re an events organizer, and you’ve just paid a million dollars to rent a restaurant where the whole party just dies because they don’t have electricity, it’s a lot.
Katy: Or every conference where the WiFi doesn’t work.
Jonan: It’s terrible.
Katy: And you’re like, I feel like we should have seen this coming.
Jonan: And when you talk to the event space, every single one of them is like, “Oh, we’ve never had trouble with the internet.” I was like, all right, we’re going to slow down a second here. I want to explain.
Katy: That’s how I know you’re lying. Never? [Laughs]
Jonan: Never. Every one of the people attending this conference is going to have five devices on them at all times, probably downloading like Linux tarballs, huge, huge files. It’s going to break your internet. So what’s your failover plan? “Oh, we won’t need one. We don’t know.”
Katy: And someday, I would like to try to plan to purposely overload those networks and then give a talk about the failover.
Jonan: Yeah. Here’s your lack of failover. I’ve been involved in organizing a lot of conferences, and the ones that were most successful from that perspective always had someone come in and drop new lines. We trust that you have your WiFi, and yes, we’re happy to use it for whatever exorbitant fee you are charging us. But we’re also just going to have this person come drill some wires into your building because that’s going to be the internet we actually use.
Katy: Being in DevRel and being in tech, there’s a lot of things to love, and there’s a couple of things that maybe I thought were glamorous that aren’t. But the thing that’s been the most disheartening to me is learning about events like events rentals and spaces. I’m based in San Francisco, so I did a lot of the Moscone Center conferences, and they would be like, Oh, do you want a mat to stand on? That’s $200 a day.” I was like, “Are you kidding me?” [Laughs]
Jonan: It’s ridiculous. I’ve paid $10,000 to $15,000 for a 20 meg up/down connection. In the booth, to get a wire drop, get your own ethernet cable and actually plug it into something because you know the WiFi is busted right away, you have to pay them $15,000 or $20,000. It’s absurd. And for the TVs, you have to rent the TV for more than it would take to buy five of them in a day. But part of it is that there are all these fees built-in. You’ve got to have someone come and install the power strip, and that’s why the power strip costs $20 per day because there’s the installer. I’m over the physical events, and I can see why companies would not want to do it again. But as a community organizer, you have access to a lot of spaces most people don’t. You can get people to donate event space a lot of the times. Go find your local Unitarian church; they’ll be like, “Sure. We’re not using it that day.”
Katy: And it’s when you try to get—whatever that level is of cool that you’re trying to get, just forget it and look in your community and at the spaces that are there because there’s always someplace. There’s always a community building of some kind that you can rent that’s way cheaper. Is there going to be WiFi? No. Bring a hotspot. [Laughs]
Jonan: Yeah, exactly. The point is the people, as with all things in tech. And I imagine that this is central to the conversation that we were probably expected to have by all of our listeners tuned in about people being the part that matters. Observability, as a concept, has a lot of parallels to community management actually. And you’ve been doing developer relations and community management in the observability space for many years. You see this overlying theme where people are saying, “Well, observability is about understanding the actual issue and enabling people to go and solve those things and focusing on this solution and this total visibility,” instead of what though? Well, instead of just staring at the logs and then being like, “I can’t figure it out because I don’t have enough data.” I get it, but I also kind of think, well, yeah, that’s the point. The point is to understand the whole system much like we talk about in these conference scenarios. The point is not to come here and do a talk, come here and stand next to other nerd people and do nerd things, but it’s about the whole community coming together and building itself up; that holistic view applies all the way across the tech stack. When you were at LightStep, did you do much with OpenTelemetry?
Katy: Austin is one of the main contributors, Austin Parker, and we worked together, and I was just starting to get my feet wet with OpenTelemetry when I left. But I had to learn, also just as a side note, it’s like these weird relationships between companies and open source products take months to understand in the first place sometimes, but OpenTelemetry, I was like oh, so this makes sense. What I’m looking at is just a tool for measuring things. If I’m going to hang a painting, I don’t need that many tools to do it. If my wife has anything to say about it, I need a level. I don’t mind when they’re crooked; I’m going, to be honest.
Katy: I need a level and then maybe a hammer and a nail, you know?
Jonan: Yeah. And those are pretty common tools. But you don’t need a hex key set.
Katy: I don’t need a mass spectrometer. There are so many things I don’t need. And in my opinion, what makes the people in DevRel unique or the people who work here is we tend to come from more non-traditional backgrounds. And when I was starting to learn to code, my wife was a programmer and has been most of her life. So she’s like one of those original nerds where you’re just like, I get it; you were born knowing BASIC or whatever. I didn’t have that experience. Like I said, I was like; this is my laptop, I have a Yahoo. That’s it, that’s what I had.
Katy: Man, I loved my Yahoo homepage. I spent a lot of time customizing that bad boy. [Laughs] Oh, how much glitter.
Jonan: More glitter, more glitter.
Katy: When I started reading, my wife gave me a couple of books that were some of those beginners programming or whatever it was. And I would read the first chapter, and it would be like, this can’t be the beginning because I don’t know what it means. And all of the resources I came across had been written by people who knew so much they had forgotten what zero was.
Jonan: Exactly. And that is exactly why learners have so much value in our community.
Katy: Yeah. And so then when I finally did learn to code, I went to a boot camp because I knew that if I could have learned it on my own, I would have; I am a good reader. Not to brag, but I have a degree in reading. I have literature degrees, which, as I found out they’re just pretty much you can read so good. I was like, yeah, right, I can.
Katy: I was like, if I could have learned this on my own, I would have, and some people are really great at it. I just needed to be in a classroom. And once I started getting in, and I saw this developer relations job, I thought what I’ll do is I’ll learn at the same time as the people I’m teaching that way, it is a community effort. I don’t know how this database works, but you know what? I have a little bit of information. Let’s figure it out together.
Jonan: This is one of my favorite parts about being in developer relations is that most of the time, nobody knows even the entire surface area of their own product, but you can sit down with someone at a conference who says, “I’m trying to do this thing.” And if you can get them to explain the problem clearly, you can sit down and figure it out together. And it’s such a joy.
Katy: In some ways, it inspires you to think that maybe you’re better at things than you think because I know as an industry, most of the people I know have some degree of imposter syndrome where they’re just, “I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
Jonan: Oh yeah.
Katy: And even I say that occasionally, and I know a ton.
Jonan: You’re such a good reader.
Katy: I have a special tassel for it on my hat and the whole deal.
Jonan: A+. Oh my gosh. This is the best description of a literature degree I’ve ever heard.
I love it so much. I actually want to know about that. What did you learn to read also?
Katy: I just got a second degree in Spanish literature because writers from South America in particular, I just think are wonderful and better, and American writers are boring.
Jonan: We do all right, but romance languages are called that for a reason.
Katy: When you’re getting a degree, and they make you read a lot of what are classics, I’ll say loosely there are some American authors I did like and do like. Hemingway is a favorite even though he’s super problematic and weird. I sort of like reading the book through the lens of: this guy got problems. If you could take that with you into any Hemingway book, they become much more interesting.
Jonan: I liked that approach where Hemingway is known for taking away words until the sentence literally doesn’t make sense. That makes a lot of sense to me as a programmer. When you’re trying to write a blog post—and I have a tendency to get very wordy and use very flowery language in my blog posts because it’s fun for me. I like to play with writing, and then I’ve got a 5,000 or 10,000-word blog post that’s like this is what OpenTelemetry does. And also, there’s a lot of stories about my pets and where I grew up. And I think it adds color, but a lot of times, I don’t want to read that blog post. It reminds me of those recipe sites, but the recipe is all the way at the bottom.
Katy: I’m like, I don’t really need to know how your grandma figured out it needs a teaspoon of salt; what I need are cookies in my mouth right now.
Jonan: Right now. Give me the instructions. But again, so many parallels to what we do. Like if we’re writing an OpenTelemetry article, I sometimes will get on a call with a company that’s starting out and trying to understand DevRel because, let’s be honest, today, you’re going to have a real hard time hiring anyone to do developer relations. There’s a lot of opportunity for us. And so people hit me up, and they’re like, “Oh, come over here to this startup where we’ve decided we want DevRel.” And I was like, “Why?” And they’re like, “Well, we don’t really have any goals. We were hoping you could make that up as you go along.” I’m like, “This is a trap.
Jonan: You’re going to push this person back out on the street in six months. I can see it from here. Let me just sit down with you and talk with you through it.” And so I’ll look at their homepage. I’ll be like, “All right. So your homepage, for example, doesn’t have any code on it.” It doesn’t indicate to me as a developer that’s anything—and guide them through this process. But if I’m looking at a blog post, I want to see code snippets. They’re above the fold. I want to know that this is going to be a technical explanation of what OpenTelemetry does, which is brilliant, by the way. For those of you out there listening right now, we keep saying this thing, and maybe you haven’t heard of OpenTelemetry it’s just a common protocol for observability tooling so that rather than there being a New Relic language that we speak to the world and every other provider having their own way of talking to their agents, we have a common language and all the tools can inter-operate.
Katy: Pretty Cool.
Jonan: It’s amazing. It’s a safe space for observability. It’s where everyone gets an equal seat at the table and gets to share their thoughts, even your logger and your metrics.
Katy: I’m into that metaphor.
Jonan: I like that. The OpenTelemetry is helping us to build safe spaces for this little rub-up.
Katy: Yeah. Even on top of that, the people who work on OpenTelemetry are pretty cool. Culturally, no one is going to be like, “You’re rude. Get out!” Which is what I thought everyone would say to me; as soon as I got into tech, I thought everyone would be like, “Get out, child! You’re bothering me.”
Jonan: And unfortunately, some people do, but you quickly realize, I think after you’ve been here for a few years, that those aren’t the people that have the respect of their peers, and we’re too kind to really just call them out a lot at the time. I think that you and I being an exception, I get the impression we’re both quite loud, and I’ll be like, “That was really stupid. You shouldn’t have said that. You can’t just tell someone a thing is super easy and simple and that they’re not smart enough to get it, and they should probably quit tech. You’re not allowed to do that, and you’re not welcome here.” I have no problem saying that thing, but I think that there is something to be said for this issue that exists where people will just not speak up and allow that kind of toxicity to continue to perpetuate itself and then lose respect for them.
Katy: You say, “Oh, well. He’s just like that,” right?
Jonan: Yeah. He’s just like that. And I don’t ever respect that person’s opinions again, but I’m not vocal enough to kick them out of the community. And the problem is, of course, that it limits the growth of the community and the safety for everyone else to come along behind me.
Katy: It’s fascinating to me because my technique when it comes to like either if it’s somebody who’s kind of just being insensitive or if it’s someone I’m working with on a technical project and we’re just not communicating, my tactic is always the same, and it’s questions, questions forever. I’m everyone’s two-year-old. I’m like, what’s that? Why? How?
Jonan: Yes. What does that do?
Katy: Because people who at their core are bigoted, they run out of reasons real fast. They’ll keep saying things, but they’re all trash. And when it comes to technical problems, asking questions is the fastest way to understand who you’re working with. You say like, “What problem are we solving, and how did you get here?” And that, to me, is always way more helpful.
Jonan: You can exhaust someone’s patience pretty quickly, and I have too. But I think that’s part of my role that I played early on those teams was to be the person who asked the questions and kind of recenter people. When you sit down, and you say, “All right, so what are we trying to accomplish? What’s the end goal?” Because inevitably, and this is very common with the junior set. They’ll come to you, and they’ll say, “CSS is broken. I think I found a CSS bug,” or “There’s fundamentally a thing that is busted in this system,” or “I’ve definitely identified it’s somewhere in the compiler that is broken.” And you’re like, “Okay, what are we trying to do?” And you’re like, “Well, I’m trying to get this gif on this page here.” And I’m like, “Okay, all right, let’s focus on that. We’re going to start loop back to the beginning and get the gif on the page, and then we’ll figure it out.”
Katy: Was it terrible working in customer service? Yes, but I am very grateful for it because it gave me the skill to help people ask questions and backtrack through problems. I worked in IT; I worked in retail. I worked at a waffle house. I’m not from the South. I didn’t know what they were when I applied at one. I moved when I went to college, and there was one in town, and I was just like, I like waffles, and I applied there, and it was everything you think and more. And also, it was in Missouri. You could still smoke indoors at the time, so that’s a factor. But every time I have to help someone, all right, why is this person yelling at me that they have two shoes that don’t match or something? And you begin to learn this second-hand language; if they have a problem, in order to make my life easier, I have to figure out what it is.
Jonan: Yeah, and I first have to acknowledge that I understand why that would be upsetting that you have mismatched shoes on and how did we come to be here and what are we actually trying to accomplish? But that first piece of human empathy where you’re just like, “I hear you. I understand that you’re upset. I would also be upset. How do we fix it?” This is something that I got from working in hospitality for so long where people come and are ridiculous, spoiled babies just over and over again. And I’ve done it myself when you get on the road, and you’re like 36 hours into a trip, and you land, and your bed doesn’t have any sheets or a comforter, and you’re just like, “Can you just do the one thing? I just want a place to sleep.” I don’t often do it, but I have this behavior in myself. I’ve seen it. And you just got to calm people down, get them back to talk about the actual problem, and then hopefully be able to solve it. I think that approach to tech has been incredibly successful for me, though, just being the person in the room who keeps asking the questions. I try to avoid spaces where I am the smartest person there; I really try hard. I know a lot of people say, “Always be the dumbest person in the room,” but I know also that a lot of people don’t live it. It’s fun sometimes to be the source.
Katy: It feels nice for people to come to you looking for answers. And I think if you can find a way to keep growing through that, that’s one thing. I’m just a learner, and it’s why I have had a thousand different jobs. And I actually went to college on a music scholarship. I just didn’t ever know what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I’m still deciding.
Jonan: I think it’s kind of like a musical reader of waffle making community tech. I think that’s pretty clear. That’s the job title; we just wrote your job.
Jonan: I had a very similar path. I have had so many odd jobs in my past, and I think that impulse to learn and to grow is driving the part of tech where we hang out in these communities. I don’t mean necessarily that there are people who never do anything aside from tech. In fact, I think that that’s kind of the opposite. A lot of my friends who are in conference organizing and community management have 40 hobbies and all of the tooling to go with them packed away in the garage. But they also, I think, have this commitment to learning and growing as human beings, and that’s what makes it so fun for me to be in tech if I find my people.
Katy: I think for me, it can be frustrating, and especially during 2020, there have definitely been times where I’m like, does any of this matter? Does anything matter? Does this tool for developers matter? The world is on fire. And then I’ll have this moment where I’ve either written a blog, or I’m talking to someone, and they’ll say, “I really needed somebody to say that in plain English. Thank you for that.” And I feel like sunflowers open up in my heart. I’m just like, “I did it.” [Laughs]
Jonan: I mean, that one thing is enough to feed my soul for weeks, and maybe hours during a pandemic; I get off of that one comment. I actually had a conversation with my daughter the other day about this. My daughter is an artist and wants to go and be an artist and maybe get into digital design or whatever it turns into. But we had this conversation about artwork, and she said the most heartbreaking thing. She said, “I want to feel like I mattered, and I don’t feel like I would matter as an artist.” And I was like, “Oh, sweetheart, art is very nearly why we are here as humans. That is the point.” And helping her realize that if before she dies, she manages to draw something that brings someone joy for a moment, that that can be enough. You have to remember that we are all trying to make the world better by degrees, and we are collectively doing it only by degrees. There’s no one really who comes along and just changes the whole world. There are people who stand at the front of huge packs of people and take credit for their work.
Katy: It’s so funny. So I am also an artist. It’s one of my hobbies to relax. I do digital drawing because it turns out this whole time; it was just the medium that was not for me. Pencil on paper is a no-go for me, but on my tablet, I love it. I feel really creative, and I make a lot of things. And I very recently sold my first piece of art (and you can tell your daughter), and I teared up. And then I was like, am I sad? I was like, no, I think I’m happy.
Katy: It’s very overwhelming to think that other people find something in your work, whether it’s a tool you’re building for developers that they know and love or you’re evoking some feeling, that’s what matters. And I felt like, especially given my learning journey, and to give a little color to this, I have PTSD and depression, so I’m a fun person. And so for me, at the core of what I do is I always want to tell people, “You matter. You’re here. I love you.” And then we move from there. Okay, you don’t understand how continuous integration works, but we can figure that out; that’s learnable. There are fundamental things like you’re a good person who wants to know how to do something, and you will figure it out maybe not as fast as you would like, but you’re not alone. That’s why this role position exists.
Jonan: Yeah. That’s exactly why we’re here and to help people realize that actually nobody knows a thing before they know it. It’s shocking, but having been the proud owner of three infants at this point who are terrible at computers, I’ve never met an infant who could code even an iota.
Jonan: They’re terrible programmers. No matter how many keyboards you pile on them.
Katy: We’re not very gentle with ourselves. We look at people who we admire, and it’s like, oh my gosh, I just want to do everything that Liz Fong-Jones has done. And you think, oh my gosh, that’s the most impressive person. And then you look at your own work, and you’re like, this is a trash bag full of sausage; I hate it. This is the worst thing that’s ever happened. And none of that is fair because what I’ve learned over the past couple of years when I talk to people that I admire at conferences is that they often think the same things about themselves. None of us think we’re good enough, and the truth is that we all are.
Jonan: Yeah. And that is the message for today. You are all good enough. And I’m so glad that you sat here and listened to us talk about all of the things we talked about. Well, we have you here, Katy, do you have a way for people to find you?
Katy: I am all over the internet. You can find me on Twitter at TheKaterTot.
Jonan: TheKaterTot is such a beautiful handle. Well done.
Katy: Sometimes I’m TheKaterTot. Sometimes I have to be just KaterTot. I prefer ‘the’ if we’re being honest.
Jonan: You could go with an eight too. There’s always that trick. Kater with an 8. I like it. Okay. Well, we will have people find you on the internet, and I will include links and so on. Do you have any parting thoughts to leave with our friends?
Katy: I just want to say that you should always be kind to each other. You don’t always have to be nice, but you do always have to be kind.
Jonan: I like that. Good call. Thank you for joining us, Katy. I’ll see you next time.
Thank you so much for joining us for another episode of Observy McObservface. This podcast is available on Spotify and iTunes, and wherever fine podcasts are sold. Please remember to subscribe, so you don’t miss an episode. If you have an idea for a topic or a guest you would like to hear on the show, please reach out to me. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find me on Twitter at @thejonanshow. The show notes for today’s episode, along with many other lovely nerdy things, are available on developer.newrelic.com. Stop by and check it out. Thank you so much. Have a great day.