Drawing from the Depths of Experience with Deirdré Straughan

Episode Summary

A continual focus here on “Screaming” is to take time to sing the praises of those folks who aptly deserve them, and that we admire. Oftentimes Corey finds them out in the wilds known as conferences, and then in reflection will have them come on for a proper conversation. This is where Deirdré Straughan, Director of Open Source Community and Engagement at Intel, comes to play. Deirdré has had a storied career in tech that has spanned a few decades now, which in turn has put her into the position to understand the industry to a depth few do. With an extensive background in marketing, but not letting previous definitions limit her, Deirdré’s focus is now on extending “marketing” past its previous ploys. Deirdré expands on what exactly marketing as education means, and she also describes her highly varied background—country by country. She offers up some excellent anecdotes, and ponders on her hardline honesty. Tune in for her invigorating perspectives!

Episode Show Notes & Transcript

About Deirdré
For over 35 years, Deirdré Straughan has been helping technologies grow and thrive through marketing and community. Her product experience spans consumer apps and devices, cloud services and technologies, and kernel features. Her toolkit includes words, websites, blogs, communities, events, video, social, marketing, and more. She has written and edited technical books and blog posts, filmed and produced videos, and organized meetups, conferences, and conference talks. She just started a new gig heading up open source community at Intel. You can find her @deirdres on Twitter, and she also shares her opinions on beginningwithi.com


Announcer: Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Chief Cloud Economist at The Duckbill Group, Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on the state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.

Corey: This episode is sponsored in part by LaunchDarkly. Take a look at what it takes to get your code into production. I’m going to just guess that it’s awful because it’s always awful. No one loves their deployment process. What if launching new features didn’t require you to do a full-on code and possibly infrastructure deploy? What if you could test on a small subset of users and then roll it back immediately if results aren’t what you expect? LaunchDarkly does exactly this. To learn more, visit launchdarkly.com and tell them Corey sent you, and watch for the wince.

Corey: This episode is sponsored in part by our friends at Rising Cloud, which I hadn’t heard of before, but they’re doing something vaguely interesting here. They are using AI, which is usually where my eyes glaze over and I lose attention, but they’re using it to help developers be more efficient by reducing repetitive tasks. So, the idea being that you can run stateless things without having to worry about scaling, placement, et cetera, and the rest. They claim significant cost savings, and they’re able to wind up taking what you’re running as it is, in AWS, with no changes, and run it inside of their data centers that span multiple regions. I’m somewhat skeptical, but their customers seem to really like them, so that’s one of those areas where I really have a hard time being too snarky about it because when you solve a customer’s problem, and they get out there in public and say, “We’re solving a problem,” it’s very hard to snark about that. Multus Medical, Construx.ai, and Stax have seen significant results by using them, and it’s worth exploring. So, if you’re looking for a smarter, faster, cheaper alternative to EC2, Lambda, or batch, consider checking them out. Visit risingcloud.com/benefits. That’s risingcloud.com/benefits, and be sure to tell them that I said you because watching people wince when you mention my name is one of the guilty pleasures of listening to this podcast.

Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I’m Corey Quinn. One of the best parts about running this podcast has been that I can go through old notes of conferences I’ve went to, and the people whose talks I’ve seen, the folks who have done interesting things that back when I had no idea what I was doing—as if I do now—and these are people I deeply admire. And now I have an excuse to reach out to them and drag them onto this show to basically tell them that until they blush. And today is no exception for that. Deirdré Straughan has had a career that has spanned three decades, I believe, if I’m remembering correctly.

Deirdré: A bit more, even.

Corey: Indeed. And you’ve been in I want to say marketing, but I’m scared to frame it that way, not because that’s not what you’ve been doing, but because so few people do marketing to technical audiences well, that the way you do it is so otherworldly good compared to what is out there that it almost certainly gives the wrong impression. So, first things first. Thank you for joining me.

Deirdré: Very happy to. Thank you for having me. It’s always a delight to talk with you.

Corey: So, what is it you’d say it is you do, exactly? Because I’m doing a very weak job of explaining it in a way that is easy for folks who have never heard of you before—which is a failing—to contextualize?

Deirdré: Um, well, there’s one—you know, I was until recently working for AWS, and one of the—went to an internal conference once at which they said—it was a marketing conference, and they said, “As the marketing organization, our job is to educate.” Now, you can discuss whether or not we think AWS does that well, but I deeply agree with that statement, that as marketers, our job is to educate people. You know, the classical marketing is to educate people about the benefits of your product. You know, “Here’s why ours is better.” The Kathy Sierra approach to that, which I think is very, very wise is, don’t market your product by telling people how wonderful the product is. Tell them how they can kick ass with it.

Corey: How do you wind up disambiguating between that and, let’s just say it’s almost a trope at this point where someone will talk about something, be it a product, be it an entire Web3 thing, whatever, and when someone comes back and says, “Well, I don’t think that’s a great idea.” The response is, “Oh, no, no. You just need to be educated properly about it.” Or, “Do your own research.” That sort of thing. And that is to be clear, not anything I’ve ever seen you say, do, or imply. But that almost feels like the wrong direction to take that in, of educating folks.

Deirdré: Well, yeah, I mean, the way it’s used in those terms, it sounds condescending. In my earliest, earlier part of my career, I was dealing with consumer software. So, this was in the early days of CD recording. We were among the pioneering CD recording products, and the idea was to make it—my Italian boss saw this market coming because he was doing recording CDs as a service, like, you were a law firm that needed to store a lot of data, and he would cut a CD for you, and you would store that. And you know, this was on a refrigerator-sized thing with a command-line interface, very difficult to use, very easy to waste these $100 blank CDs.

But he was following the market, and he saw that there was going to be these half-height CD-ROM drives. And he said, “Well, what we need to go with that is software that is actually usable by the consumer.” And that’s what we did; we created that software. And so in that case, there were things the customer still had to know about CDR, but my approach was that, you know, I do the documentation, I have to explain this stuff, but I should have to explain less and less. More and more of that should be driven into the interface and just be so obvious and intuitive that nobody ever has to read a manual. So, education can be any of those things. Your software can be educating the customer while they’re using it.

Corey: I wish that were one of those things we could point out and say, “Well, yeah, years later, it’s blindingly obvious to everyone.” Except for the part where it’s not, where every once in a while on Twitter, I will go and try a new service some cloud company launches, or something else I’ve heard about, and I will, effectively, screenshot and then live tweet my experiences with it. And very often—I’ll get accused of people saying, “Ahh, you’re pretending to be dumb and not understanding that’s how that interface works.” No, I’m not. It turns out that the failure mode of bad interfaces and of not getting this right is not that people look at it and say, “Ah, that product is crap.” It’s that, “Oh, I’m dumb, and no one ever told me about it.”

That’s why I’m so adamant about this. Because if I’m looking at an interface and I get something wrong, it is extremely unlikely that I’m the only person who ever has. And it goes beyond interfaces, it goes out to marketing as well with poor messaging around a product—when I say marketing, I’m talking the traditional sense of telling a story, and here’s a press release. “Great. You’ve told me what it does, you told me about big customers and the rest, but you haven’t told me what painful problem do I have that it solves? And why should I care about it?” Almost like that’s the foregone conclusion.

No, no. We’re much more interested in making sure that they get the company name and history right in the ‘About Us’ at the bottom of the 
press release. And it’s missing the forest for the trees, in many respects. It’s—

Deirdré: Yeah.

Corey: —some level—it suffers from a similar problem of sales, where you have an entire field that is judged based upon some of the worst examples out there. And on the technical side of the world—and again, all these roles are technical, but the more traditional, ‘I write code for a living’ types, there’s almost a condescension or a dismissiveness that is brought toward people who work in sales, or in marketing, or honestly, anything that doesn’t spend all their time staring into an IDE for a living. You know, the people who get to do something that makes them happy, as opposed to this misery that the coder types that we sometimes find ourselves trapped into. How have you seen that?

Deirdré: Yeah. And it’s also a condescension towards customers.

Corey: Oh absolutely.

Deirdré: I have seen so many engineers who will, you know, throw something out there and say, “This is the most beautiful, sexy, amazing thing I’ve ever done.” And there have been a few occasions when I’ve looked at it and gone, you know, “Yes, I can see how from a technical point of view, that’s beautiful and amazing and sexy, but no customer is ever going to use it.” Either because they don’t need it or because they won’t understand it. There’s no way in that context to have that make sense. And so yeah, you can do beautiful, brilliant engineering, but if you never sell it and no one ever uses it, what’s the point?

Corey: One am I of the ways that I’ve always found to tell a story that resonates—and it sometimes takes people by surprise when they’re doing a sponsorship or something I do, or whatnot, and they’re sitting there talking about how awesome everything is, and hey, let’s do a webinar together. And it’s cool, we can do that, but I’d rather talk to one of your customers because you can say anything you want about your product, and I can sit here and make fun of it because I have deep-seated personality problems, and that’s great. But when a customer says, “I have this problem, and this is the thing that I pay money for to fix that problem,” it is much harder for people to dismiss that because you’re voting with your dollars. You’re not saying this because if your product succeeds, you get to go buy a car or something. Now, someone instead is saying this because, “I had a painful point, and not only am I willing to pay money to make this painful thing go away, but then I want to go out in public and talk about that.”

That is an incredibly hard thing to refute, bordering on the impossible, in some circumstances. That’s what always moved me. If you have a customer telling stories about how great something is, I will listen. If you have your own internal employees talking about great something is, I have some snark for you.

Deirdré: And that is another thing AWS gets right, is they—

Corey: Oh, very much so.

Deirdré: —work very hard to get the customer in front of the audience. Although, with a new technology service, et cetera, there was a point before you may have those customers in which the other kind of talk, where you have a highly technical engineer speaking to a highly 
technical audience and saying, “Here’s our shiny new thing and here’s what you can do with it,” then you get the customers who will come along later and say, “Yes, we did thing with the shiny new thing, and it was great.” An engineer talking about what they did is not always to be overlooked.

Corey: Your career trajectory has been fascinating to me in a variety of different ways. You were at Sun Microsystems. And I guess personally, I just hope that when you decide to write your memoirs, you title it, The Sun Also Crashes. You know, it’s such a great title; I haven’t seen anything use it yet, and I hope I live to see someone doing that.

And then you were at Oracle for ten months—wonder how that happened? For those who are unaware, there was an acquisition story—and then you went to spend three-and-a-half years running educational programs and community at Joyent, back before. Community architect—which is what you were at the time—was really a thing. Community was just the people that showed up to talk about the technology that you’ve done. You were one of the first people that I can think of in this industry when I’ve been paying attention, who treated it as something more than that. How do you get there?

Deirdré: So, my early career, I was living in Italy because I was married to an Italian at the time, and I had already been working in tech before I left the United States, and enjoyed it and wanted to continue it. But there was not much happening in tech in Italy then. And I just got very, very lucky; I fell in with this Italian software entrepreneur—absolute madman—and he was extremely unusual in Italy in those days. He was basically doing a Silicon Valley-style software startup in Milan. And self-funded, partly funded by his wealthy girlfriend. You know, we were small, scrappy, all of that. And so he decided that he could make better software to do CD recording, as these CD-ROM drives were becoming cheaper, and he could foresee that there would be a consumer market for them.

Corey: What era was this? Because I remember—

Deirdré: This—

Corey: —back when I was in school, basically when I was failing out of college, burning a bunch of CDRs to play there, and every single tool I ever used was crap. You’re right. This was a problem.

Deirdré: So, we started on that software in, ohh, ’91.

Corey: Yeah.

Deirdré: Yeah. His goal was, “I’m going to make the leading CD recording software for the Windows market.” Hired a bunch of smart engineers, of which there are plenty in Italy, and started building this thing. I had done a project for him, documenting another OCR—Optical Character Recognition—product, and he said, “How would you like to write a book together about CD recording?” And it’s like, “Okay, sure.”

So, we wrote this book, and, you know, it was like, basically, me reading and him explaining to me the various color book specs from Philips and Sony that explain, you know, right down to the pits and lands, how CD recording works, and then me translating it into layman’s terms. And so the book got published in January of 1993 by Random House. It’s one of the first books, if not the first book in the world to actually be published with a CD included.

Corey: Oh, so you’re ultimately the person who’s responsible—indirectly—for hey, you could send CDs out, and then the sea of AOL mailers showing up—basically the mini-frisbee plague that lasted a decade or so, for the rest of us?

Deirdré: Yeah. And this was all marketing. For him, the whole idea of writing a book was a marketing ploy because on the CD, we included a trial version of the software. And that was all he wanted to put on there, but I thought, “Well, let’s take this a step further.” This was—I had been also doing a little bit of work in journalism, just to scrape by in Italy.

I was actually an Italian computer journalist, and I was getting sent to conferences, including the launch of Adobe PDF. Like, they sent me to Scotland to learn about PDFs. Like, “Okay.” But then it wasn’t quite ready at the time, so I ended up using FrameMaker instead. But I made an entire hypertext version of that book and put it on that CD, which was launched in early ’93 when the internet was barely becoming a thing.

So, we launched the book, sold the book. Turned out the CD had been manufactured wrong and did not work.

Corey: Oh, dear.

Deirdré: And I was just dying. And the publisher said, “Well, you know, if you can get ahold of the readers, the people”—you know, because they were getting complaints—they said, “If you can reach the readers somehow and let them know, there’s a number they can call and we’ll send them a replacement disk.” We had put our CompuServe email address in the book. It’s like, “Hey, we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at”—

Corey: Weren’t those the long string of numbers as a username.

Deirdré: Yeah.

Corey: Yeah.

Deirdré: Mm-hm. You could reach it via external email at the time, I believe. And we didn’t really expect that many people would bother. But, you know, because there was this problem, we were getting a lot of contacts. And so I was like, I was determined I was going to solve this situation, and I was interacting with them.

And those were my first experiences with interacting with customers, especially online. You know, and we did have a solution; we were able to defuse the situation and get it fixed, but, you know, so that was when I realized it was very powerful because I could communicate very quickly with people anywhere in the world, and—quickly over whatever the modem speed was [laugh] at that time, you know, 1800 baud or something. And so I got intr—I had already been using CompuServe when I was in college, and so I was interested in how do you communicate with people in this new medium.

And I started applying that to my work. And then I went and applied it everywhere. It’s like, “Okay, well, there’s this new thing coming, you know, called the internet. Well, how can I use that?” Publishing a paper manual seems kind of stupid in this day and age, so I can update them much more quickly if I have it on a website.

So, by that time, the company had been acquired by Adaptec. Adaptec had a website, which was mostly about their cables and things, and so I just, kind of, made a section of the website. It was like, “Here is all about CDR.” And it got to where it was driving 70% of the traffic to Adaptec, even though our products were a small percentage of the revenue. And at the same time, I was interacting with customers on the Usenet and by email.

Corey: And then later, mailing lists, and the rest. And now it—we take it for granted, but it used to be that so much of this was unidirectional, where at an absolute high level, the best you could hope for in some cases is, “I really have something to say to this author. I’m going to write a letter and mail it to the publisher and hope that they forward it.” And you never really know if it’s going to wind up landing or not? Now it’s, “I’m going to jump on Twitter and tell this person what I think.”

And whether that’s a good or bad change, it has changed the world. And it’s no longer unidirectional where your customers just silent masses anymore, regardless of what you wind up doing or selling. And I sell consulting services. Yeah, I deal with customers a lot; we have high bandwidth conversations, but I also do an annual charity t-shirt drive and I get a lot of feedback and a lot of challenges with deliveries in the rest toward the end of the year. And that is something else. We have to do it. It’s not what it used to be just mail a self-addressed stamped envelope to somewhere, and hope for the best. And we’ll blame the post office if it doesn’t work. The world changed, and it’s strange that happens in your own lifetime.

Deirdré: Yeah. And there were people who saw it coming, early on. I became aware of The Cluetrain Manifesto because a customer wrote to me and said, I think you’re the best example I see out there of people actually living this. And The Cluetrain Manifesto said, “The internet is going to change how companies interact with customers. You are going to have to be part of a conversation, rather than just, we talk to you and tell you what’s what.” And I was already embracing that.

And then it has had profound implications. It’s, in some ways, a democratization of companies and their products because people can suddenly be very vociferous about what they think about your product and what they want improved, and features they’d like added, and so forth. And I never said the customer is always right, but the customer should always be treated politely. And so I just developed this—it was me, but it was a persona which was true to me, where I am out here, I’m interacting with people, I am extremely forthcoming and honest—

Corey: That you are, which is always appreciated, to be clear. I have a keen appreciation for folks who I know beyond the shadow of a doubt will tell me where I stand with them. I’ve never been a fan of folks who will, “I can’t stand that guy. Oh, great, here he comes. Hi.” No.

There is something very refreshing about the way that you approach honesty, and that you have always had that. And it manifests in different forms. You are one of those people where if you say something in public, be it in writing, be it on stage, be it in your work, you believe it. There has never been a shadow of doubt in my mind that someone could pay you to say something or advocate for something in which you do not believe.

Deirdré: Thanks. Yeah, it’s just partly because I’ve never been good at lying. It just makes me so deeply uncomfortable that I can’t do it. [laugh].

Corey: That’s what a good liar would say, let’s be very clear here. Like, what’s the old joke? Like, “If you can only be good at one thing, be good at lying because then you’re good at everything.” No.

Deirdré: [laugh].

Corey: It’s a terrible way to go through life.

Deirdré: Yeah. And the earn trust thing was part of my… portfolio from very early on. Which was hilarious because in those days, as now, there were people whose knee-jerk reaction was, if you’re out here representing a company, you automatically must be lying to me, or about to lie to me, or have lied to me. But because I had been so out there and so honest, I had dozens of supporters who would pile in and say, “No, no, no. That’s not who she is.” And so it was, yeah, it was interesting. I had my trolls but I also had lots of defenders.

Corey: The real thing that I’ve seen as well sometimes is when someone is accused of something like that, people will chime in—look, like, I get this myself. People like you. I don’t generally have that problem—but people will chime in with, like, “I don’t like Corey, but no, he’s generally right about these things.” That’s, okay, great. It’s like, the backhanded compliment. And I’ll take what I can get.

I want to fast-forward in time a little bit from the era of mailing books with CDs in them, and then having to talk to people via other ways to get them in CompuServe to 2013 when you gave a talk at one of—no, I’m not going to say, ‘one of.’ It is the best community conference of which I am aware. Monktoberfest as put on by our friends at RedMonk. It was called “Marketing Your Tech Talent” and it’s one of those videos it’s worth the watch. If you’re listening to this, and you haven’t seen it, you absolutely should fix that. Tell me about it. Where did the talk come from?

Deirdré: As you can see in the talk, it was stuff I had been doing. It actually started earlier than that. When I joined Sun Microsystems as a contractor in 2007, my remit was to try to get Sun engineers to communicate. Like, Sun had done this big push around blogging, they’d encourage everybody to open up your own blog. Here’s our blogging platform, you can say whatever you want.

And there were, like, 3000 blogs, about half of which were just moribund; they had put out one or two posts, and then nothing ever again. And for some reason—I don’t know who decided—but they decided that engineers had goals around this and engineering teams had to start producing content in this way, which was a strange idea. So, I was brought on. It’s, like, you know, “Help these engineers communicate. Help them with blogging, and somehow find a way to get them doing it.”

And so I did a whole bunch of things from, like, running competitions to just going and talking to people. But we finally got to where Dan Maslowski, who was the manager who hired me in, he said, “Well, we’ve got this conference. It was the SNIA, the Storage Networking Industries Association Conference. We're a big sponsor, we’ve got, like, ten talks. And why don’t you just go—you know, I’m going to buy you a video camera, go record this thing.”

And I’d used a video camera a little bit, but, you know, it’s like, never in this context, so it’s like, okay, let’s figure out, you know, what kind of mic do I need? And so I went off to the conference with my video blogging rig, and videoed all those talks. And then the idea was like, “Okay, we’ll put them up on”—you know, Sun had its own video channels and things—“We’ll put it out there, and this information will then be available to more people; it’ll help the engineers communicate what they’re doing.”

And the funny part was, I run into with Sun, the professional video people wanted nothing to do with it. Like, “Your stuff is not high enough quality. You don’t meet our branding guidelines. You cannot put this on the Sun channels.” Okay, fine. So, I started putting it on YouTube, which in those days meant splitting it into ten-minute segments because that was all they would give you. [laugh]. And so it was like, everything I was doing was guerilla marketing because I was always in the teeth on somebody in the corporation who wanted to—it’s like, “Oh, we’re not going to put out video unless it can be slickly produced in the studio, and we’re only going to do that for VPs, not for engineers.”

Corey: Oh, yeah. The little people, as it were. This talk, in many ways—I don’t know if ever told you this story or not—but it did shape how I approached building out my entire approach: The sponsorship side of the business that I have, how I approach communicating with people. And it’s where in many ways, the newsletter has taken its ethos. One of the things that you mentioned in that talk was, first, you were actually the first time that I ever saw someone explicitly comparing the technical talent slash DevRel—which is not a term I would call it, but all right—to the Hollywood model, where you have this idea that there’s an agent that winds up handling these folks that are freelancers. They are named talent. They’re the ones that have the draw; that’s what people want, so we have to develop this.

Okay, what why is it important to develop this? Because you absolutely need to have your technical people writing technical content, not folks who are divorced from that entire side of the world because it doesn’t resonate, it doesn’t land. This is I think, what DevRel was sort of been turned into; it’s, what it DevRel? Well, it’s special marketing because engineers need special handling to handle these things. No, I think it’s everyone needs to be marketed to in a way that has authenticity that meets them where they are, and that’s a little harder to do with people who spend their lives writing code than it would be someone who is it was at a more accessible profession.

But I don’t think that a lot of it’s being done right. This was the first encouragement that I’d gotten early on that maybe I am onto something here because here’s someone I deeply respect saying a lot of the same things—from a slightly different angle; like I was never doing this as part of a large technology company—but it was still, there’s something here. And for better or worse. I think I’ve demonstrated by now that there is some validity there. But back then it was transformational.

Deirdré: Well, thank you.

Corey: It still kind of is in many respects. This is all new to someone.

Deirdré: Yeah. I felt, you know, I’d been putting engineers in front of the public and found it was powerful, and engineers want to hear from other engineers. And especially for companies like Sun and Oracle and Joyent, we’re selling technology to other technologists. So, there’s a 
limited market for white papers because VPs and CEOs want to read those, but really, your main market is other technologists and that’s who you need to talk to and talk to them in their own way, in their own language. They weren’t even comfortable with slickly produced videos. Neither being on the camera nor watching it.

Corey: Yeah, at some point, it was like, “I look too good.” It’s like, “Oh, yeah. It’s—oh, you’re going to do a whole video production thing? Great.” “Okay. [unintelligible 00:24:13] the makeup artists coming in.” Like, “What do you mean makeup?” And it’s—

Deirdré: Oh, it was worse at Sun. We wasted so much money because you would get an engineer and put him in the studio under all these lights with these great big cameras, and they would just freeze.

Corey: Mmm.

Deirdré: And it’s like, you know, “Well, hurry up, hurry up. We’ve got half an hour of studio time. Get your thing; say it.” And, [frantic noise]. You know, whereas I would take them in some back conference room and just set up a camera and be sitting in a chair opposite. It’s like, “Relax. Tell me what you want to tell me. If we have to do ten takes, it’s fine.” Yeah, video quality wasn’t great, but the content was great.

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Corey: Speaking of content, one more topic I want to cover a little bit here is you recently left your job at AWS. And even if you had not told me that, I would have known because your blog has undergone something of a renaissance—beginningwithi.com for those who want to follow along, and of course, we’ll put links to this in the [show notes 00:25:08]—you’ve been suddenly talking about a lot of different things. And I want to be clear, I don’t recall any of these posts being one of those, “I just left a company, I’m going to set them on fire now.”

It’s been about a variety of different topics, though, that have been very top-of-mind for folks. You talk about things like equal work for equal pay. You talk about remote work versus cost of commuting a fair bit. And as of this recording, you most recently wound up talking specifically about problematic employers in tech. But what you’re talking about is also something that this happened during the days of the Sun acquisition through Oracle.

So, people are thinking, like, “Wait a minute, is she subtweeting what happened today”—no. These things rhyme and they repeat. I’m super thrilled whenever I see this in my RSS reader, just because it is so… they oh, good. I get I’m going to read something now that I’m going to enjoy, so let me put this in distraction-free mode and really dig into it. Because your writing is a joy.

What is it that has inspired you to bring that back to life? Is it just to having a whole bunch of free time, and well, I’m not writing marketing stocks anymore, so I guess I’m going to write blog posts instead.

Deirdré: My blog, if you looked at our calendar, over the years, it sort of comes and goes depending what else is going on in my life. I actually was starting to do a little bit more writing, and I even did a few little TikTok videos before I quit AWS. I’m starting to think about some of the more ancient history parts of my career. It’s partly just because of what’s been going on in the world. [Brendan 00:26:35] and I moved to Australia a year ago, and it was something that had been planned for a long time.

We did not actually expect that we would be able to move our jobs the way we did. And then, you know, with pandemic, everything changed; that actually accelerated our departure timeline because we’ve been planning initially to let our son stay in school in California, through until he finished elementary, but then he wasn’t in school, so there seems no point, whereas in Australia, he could be in a classroom. And so, you know, the whole world is changing, and the working world is changing, but also, we all started working from home. I’ve been working from home—mostly—since 1993. And I was working very remotely because I was working from Italy for a California company.

And because I was one of the first people doing it, the people in California did not know what to make of me. And I would get people who would just completely ignore any emails I sent. It was like as if I did not exist because they had never seen me in person. So, I would just go to California four times a year and spend a few weeks, and then I would get the face time, and after that it was easy to interact any way I needed to.

Corey: It feels like it’s almost the worst kind of remote because you have most people at office, and then you have a few outliers, and that tends to, in my experience at least, lead to a really weird team dynamics where you have almost a second class of folks who aren’t taken nearly as seriously. It’s why when we started our company here, it was everyone is going to be remote all the time. We were distributed. There is no central office because as soon as you do, that’s where things are disastrous. My business partner and I live a couple states apart.

Deirdré: Yeah. And I think that’s the fairest way to do it. In companies that have already existed, where they do have headquarters, and you know, there’s that—

Corey: Yeah, you can’t suddenly sell your office space, and all 300,000 employees [laugh] are now working from home. That’s a harder thing, too.

Deirdré: Yeah. But I think it’s interesting that the argument is being framed as like, “Oh, people work better in the office, people learn more in the office.” And we’ve even had the argument trotted out here that people should be forced back to the office because the businesses in the central business district depend on that. It’s like—

Corey: Mmm.

Deirdré: —well, what about the businesses that have since, you know in the meantime sprung up in the more suburban centers? Now, you’ve got some thriving little cafes out there now? Are we supposed to just screw them over? It’s ultimately people making economic arguments that have nothing to do with the well-being of employees. And the pandemic at least has—I think, a lot of people have come to realize that life is just too short to put up with a lot of bullshit, and by and large, commuting is bullshit. [laugh].

Corey: It’s a waste of time, it’s not great for the environment, there’s—yeah, and again, I’m not sitting here saying the entire world should do a particular thing. I don’t think that there’s one-size-fits-everyone solutions possible in this space. Some companies, it makes sense for the people involved to be in the same room. In some cases, it’s not even optional. For others, there’s no value to it, but getting there is hard.

And again, different places need to figure out what’s right for them. But it’s also the world is changing, and trying to pretend that it hasn’t, it just feels regressive, and I don’t think that’s going to align with where the industry and where people are going. Especially in full remote situations we’ve had the global pandemic, some wit on Twitter recently opined that it’s never been easier for a company to change jobs. You just have to wait for the different the new laptop to show up, and then you just join a different Zoom link, and you’re in your new job. It’s like, “You know, you’re not that far from wrong here.”

Deirdré: [laugh]. Yep.

Corey: There’s no, like, “Well, where’s the office? What’s the”—no. It is, my day-to-day looks remarkably similar, regardless of where I work.

Deirdré: Yeah.

Corey: That means something.

Deirdré: I was one of the early beneficiaries as well of this work-life balance, that I could take my kid to school in the morning, and then work, and then pick her up from school in the afternoon and spend time with her. And then California would be waking up for meetings, so after dinner, I’d be having meetings. Yeah, sometimes it was pain, but it was workable, and it gave me more flexibility, you know, whereas the times I had to commute to an office… tended to be hellish. I think part of the reason the blog has had a lot more activities I’ve just been in sort of a more reflective phase. I’ve gotten to this very privileged position where I suddenly realized, I actually have enough money to retire on, I have a husband who is extremely supportive of whatever I want to do, and I’m in a country that has a public health care system, if it doesn’t completely crumble under COVID in the next few weeks.

Corey: Hopefully, we’ll get this published before that happens.

Deirdré: Yes. And so I don’t have to work. It’s like, up to this point in my career, I have always desperately needed that next job. I don’t think I have ever been in the position of having competing offers. You know, there’s people who talk about, you know, you can always go find a better offer. It’s like, no, when you’re a weirdo like me and you’re a middle-aged woman, is not that easy.

Corey: People saying that invariably—“So, what is your formal job?” Like, “Oh, SDE3.” Like, okay, great. So, that means that they’re are mul—not just, they don’t probably need to hire you; they need to hire so many of you that they need to start segregating them with Roman numerals. Great.

Maybe that doesn’t apply to everyone. Maybe that particular skill set right now is having its moment in the sun, but there’s a lot of other folks who don’t neatly fit into those boxes. There’s something to be said for empathy. Because this is my lived experience does not mean it is yours. And trying to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is almost increasingly—especially in the world of social media—a bit of a lost skill.

Deirdré: [laugh]. I mean, it’s partly that recruiters are not always the sharpest tools in the shed, and/or they’re very young, very new to it all. It’s just people like to go for what’s easy. And like, for example, me at the moment, it’s easy to put me in that product marketing manager box. It’s like, “Oh, I need somebody to fill that slot. You look like that person. Let’s talk.” Whereas before, people would just look at my resume and go, “I don’t know what she is.”

Corey: I really think the fact that you’ve never had competing offers just shows an extreme lack of vision from a number of companies around what marketing effectively to a technical audience can really be. It’s nice to see that what you have been advocating for and doing the work for, for your entire career is really coming into its own now.

Deirdré: Yeah. We’ll see what happens next. It’s been interesting. Yeah, I’ve never had so much attention from recruiters as when I got AWS on my resume. And then even more once it said, product marketing manager because, you know, “Okay. You've got the FAANG and you’ve got a title we recognize. Let’s talk to you.”

Corey: Exactly. That’s, “Oh, yay. You fit in that box, finally.” Because it’s always been one of those. Yeah, like, “What is it you actually do?” There’s a reason that I’ve built what I do now into the last job I’ll ever have. Because I don’t even know where to begin describing me to what I do and how I do it. Even at cocktail parties, there’s nothing I can say that doesn’t sound completely surreal. “I make fun of Amazon for a living.” It’s true, but it also sounds psychotic, and here we are. It’s—

Deirdré: Well, it’s absolutely brilliant marketing, and it’s working very well for you. So [laugh].

Corey: The realization that I had was that if this whole thing collapsed and I had to get a job again, what would I be doing? It probably isn’t engineering. It’s almost certainly much more closely aligned with marketing. I just hope I never have to find out because, honestly, I’m having way too much fun.

Deirdré: Yeah. And that’s another thing I think is changing. I think more and more of us are realizing working for other people has its limitations. You know, it can be fun, it can be exciting, depending on the company, and the team, and so on. But you’re very much beholden to the culture of the company, or the team, or whatever.

I grew up in Asia, as a child, of American expats. So, I’m what is called a third culture kid, which means I’m not totally American, even though my parents were. I’m not—you know, I grew up in Thailand, but I’m not Thai. I grew up in India, but I’m not Indian. You’re something in between.

And your tribe is actually other people like you, even if they don’t share the specific countries. Like, one of my best friends in Milan was a woman who had grown up in Brazil and France. It’s like, you know, no countries in common, but we understood that experience. And something I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time is that third culture kids tend to be really good at adapting to any culture, which can include corporate cultures.

So, every time I go into a new company, I’m treating that as a new cultural experience. It’s like, Ericsson was fascinating. It’s this very old Swedish telecom, with this wild old history, and a footprint in something like 190 countries. That makes it amazingly unique and fascinating. The thing I tripped over was I did not know anything about Swedish culture because they give cultural training to the people who are actually going to be moving to Sweden.

Corey: But not the people working elsewhere, even though you’re at a—

Deirdré: Yeah.

Corey: Yeah, it’s like, well, dealing with New Yorkers is sort of its own skill, or dealing with Israelis, which is great; they have great folks, but it’s a fun culture of management by screaming, in my experience, back when I had family living out there. It was great.

Deirdré: One of my favorite people at AWS is Israeli. [laugh].

Corey: Exactly. And it’s, you have to understand some cultural context here. And now to—even if you’re not sitting in the same place. Yeah, we’re getting better as an industry, bit by bit, brick by brick. I just hope that will wind up getting there within my lifetime, at least.

I really want to thank you for taking the time to come on the show. If people want to learn more, where can they find you?

Deirdré: Oh. Well, as you said, my website beginningwithi.com, and I am on Twitter as @deirdres. That’s D-E-I-R-D-R-E-S. [laugh]. So.

Corey: And we will, of course, include links to that in the [show notes 00:36:23].

Deirdré: So yeah, I’m pretty out there, pretty easy to find, and happy to chat with people.

Corey: Which I highly recommend. Thank you again, for being so generous with your time, not just now, but over the course of your entire career.

Deirdré: Well, I’m at a point where sometimes I can help people, and I really like to do that. The reason I ever aspired to high corporate office—which I’ve now clearly I’m not ever going to make—was because I wanted to be in a position to make a difference. And so, even if all the difference I’m making is a small one, it’s still important to me to try to do that.

Corey: Thank you again. I really do appreciate your time.

Deirdré: Okay. Well, it was great talking to you. As always.

Corey: Likewise. Deirdré Straughan, currently gloriously unemployed. I’m Cloud Economist Corey Quinn, and this is Screaming in the Cloud. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, whereas if you’ve hated this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, along with an angry insulting comment that you mailed to me on a CDR that doesn’t read.

Corey: If your AWS bill keeps rising and your blood pressure is doing the same, then you need The Duckbill Group. We help companies fix their AWS bill by making it smaller and less horrifying. The Duckbill Group works for you, not AWS. We tailor recommendations to your business and we get to the point. Visit duckbillgroup.com to get started.

Announcer: This has been a HumblePod production. Stay humble.
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