Today Corey interviews Jeff Smith, Director of Production Operations at Basis Technologies. In a post-2020 world, they discuss the pros and cons of remote work. Jeff talks about the trade-off that gets made when employers allow workers to forfeit face to face time in favor of working from home. Jeff and Corey make the point that often the interactions that are cited as pros — i.e., chatting with a coworker in the hallway — are the very same exchanges employees identify as interruptions to their actual work. They come to the conclusion that the loss of face to face interaction is often still worth the benefits to employees and companies. Corey and Jeff conclude their conversation by talking about what Jeff has learned about the power of telling your story and using your voice since the release of his book, “Operations Anti-Patterns.”
Jeff Smith has been in the technology industry for over 20 years, oscillating between management and individual contributor. Jeff currently serves as the Director of Production Operations for Basis Technologies (formerly Centro), an advertising software company headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Before that he served as the Manager of Site Reliability Engineering at Grubhub.
Jeff is passionate about DevOps transformations in organizations large and small, with a particular interest in the psychological aspects of problems in companies. He lives in Chicago with his wife Stephanie and their two kids Ella and Xander.
Jeff is also the author of Operations Anti-Patterns, DevOps Solutions with Manning publishing. (https://www.manning.com/books/operations-anti-patterns-devops-solutions)
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.
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Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud
. I’m Corey Quinn. One of the fun things about doing this show for long enough is that you eventually get to catch up with people and follow up on previous conversations that you’ve had. Many years ago—which sounds like I’m being sarcastic, but is increasingly actually true—Jeff Smith was on the show talking about a book that was about to release. Well, time has passed and things have changed. And Jeff Smith is back once again. He’s the Director of Product Operations at Basis Technologies
, and the author of DevOps Anti-Patterns? Or what was the actual title of the book it was—
Corey: I got hung up in the anti-patterns part because it’s amazing. I love the title.
Jeff: Yeah, Operations Anti-Patterns, DevOps Solutions.
Corey: Got you. Usually in my experience, alway been operations anti-patterns, and here I am to make them worse, probably by doing something like using DNS as a database or some godforsaken thing. But you were talking about the book aspirationally a few years ago, and now it’s published and it has been sent out to the world. And it went well enough that they translated it to Japanese, I believe, and it has seen significant uptick. What was your experience of it? How did it go?
Jeff: You know, it was a great experience. This is definitely the first book that I’ve written. And the Manning process was extremely smooth. You know, they sort of hold your hand through the entire process. But even after launch, just getting feedback from readers and hearing how it resonated with folks was extremely powerful.
I was surprised to find out that they turned it into an audiobook as well. So, everyone reaches out and says, “Did you read the audiobook? I was going to buy it, but I wasn’t sure.” I was like, “No, unfortunately, I don’t read it.” But you know, still cool to have it out there.
Corey: My theory has been for a while now that no one wants to actually write a book; they want to have written a book. Now that you’re on the other side, how accurate is that? Are you in a position of, “Wow, sure glad that’s done?” Or are you, “That was fun. Let’s do it again because I like being sad all the time.” I mean, you do work Kubernetes for God’s sake. I mean, there’s a bit of masochism inherent to all of us in this space.
Jeff: Yeah. Kubernetes makes me cry a little bit more than the writing process. But it’s one of the things when you look back on it, you’re like, “Wow, that was fun,” but not in the heat of the moment, right? So, I totally agree with the sentiment that people want to have written a book but not actually gone through the process. And that’s evident by the fact that how many people try to start a book on their own without a publisher behind them, and they end up writing it for 15 years. The process is pretty grueling. The feedback is intense at first, but you start to get into a groove and you—I could see, you know, in a little while wanting to write another book. So, I can see the appeal.
Corey: And the last time you were on the show, I didn’t really bother to go in a particular topical direction because, what’s the point? It didn’t really seem like it was a top-of-mind issue to really bring up because what’s it matter; it’s a small percentage of the workforce. Now I feel like talking about remote work is suddenly taking on a bit of a different sheen than it was before the dark times arrived. Where do you land on the broad spectrum of opinions around the idea of remote work, given that you have specialized in anti-patterns, and well, as sarcastic as I am, I tend to look at almost every place I’ve ever worked is expressing different anti-patterns from time to time. So, where do you land on the topic?
Jeff: So, it’s funny, I started as a staunch office supporter, right? I like being in the office. I like collaborating in person; I thought we were way more productive. Since the pandemic, all of us are forced into remote work, I’ve hired almost half of my team now as remote. And I am somewhat of a convert, but I’m not on the bandwagon of remote work is just as good or is better as in person work.
I’ve firmly landed in the camp of remote work is good. It’s got its shortcomings, but it’s worth the trade off. And I think acknowledging what those trade-offs are important to keeping the team afloat. We just recently had a conversation with the team where we were discussing, like, you know, there’s definitely been a drop in productivity over the past six months to a year. And in that conversation, a lot of the things that came up were things that are different remote that were better in person, right, Slack etiquette—which is something, you know, I could talk a little bit about as well—but, you know, Slack etiquette in terms of getting feedback quickly, just the sort of camaraderie and the lack of building that camaraderie with new team members as they come on board and not having those rituals to replace the in-person rituals. But through all that, oddly enough, no one suggested going back into the office. [laugh].
Corey: For some strange reason, yeah. I need to be careful what I say here, I want to disclaim the position that I’m in. There is a power imbalance and nothing I say is going to be able to necessarily address that because I own the company and if my team members are listening to this, they’re going to read a lot into what I say that I might not necessarily intend. But The Duckbill Group, since its founding, has been a fully distributed company. My business partner lives in a different state than I do so there’s never been the crappy version of remote, which is, well, we’re all going to be in the same city, except for Theodore. Theodore is going to be timezones away and then wonder why he doesn’t get to participate in some of the conversations where the real decisions get made.
Like that’s crappy. I don’t like that striated approach to things. We don’t have many people who are co-located in any real sense, nor have we for the majority of the company’s life. But there are times when I am able to work on a project in a room with one of my colleagues, and things go a lot more smoothly. As much as we want to pretend that video is the same, it quite simply isn’t.
It is a somewhat poor substitute for the very high bandwidth of a face-to-face interaction. And yes, I understand this is also a somewhat neurotypical perspective, let’s be clear with that as well, and it’s not for everyone. But I think that for the base case, a lot of the remote work advocates are not being fully, I guess, honest with themselves about some of the shortcomings remote has. That is where I’ve mostly landed on this. Does that generally land with where you are?
Jeff: Yeah, that’s exactly where I’m at. I completely agree. And when we take work out of the equation, I think the shortcomings lay themselves bare, right? Like I was having a conversation with a friend and we were like, well, if you had a major breakup, right, I would never be like, “Oh, man. Grab a beer and hop on Zoom,” right? [laugh]. “Let’s talk it out.”
No, you’re like, hey, let’s get in person and let’s talk, right? We can do all of that conversation over Zoom, but the magic of being in person and having that personal connection, you know, can’t be replaced. So, you know, if it’s not going to work, commiserating over beers, right? I can’t imagine it’s going to work, diagramming some complex workflows and trying to come to an answer or a solution on that. So again, not to say that, you know, remote work is not valuable, it’s just different.
And I think organizations are really going to have to figure out, like, okay, if I want to entice people back into the office, what are the things that I need to do to make this realistic? We’ve opened the floodgates on remote hiring, right, so now it’s like, okay, everyone’s janky office setup needs to get fixed, right? So, I can’t have a scenario where it’s like, “Oh, just point your laptop at the whiteboard, right?” [laugh]. Like that can’t exist, we have to have office spaces that are first-class citizens for our remote counterparts as well.
Corey: Right because otherwise, the alternative is, “Great, I expect you to take the home that you pay for and turn it into an area fit for office use. Of course, we’re not going to compensate you for that, despite the fact that, let’s be realistic, rent is often larger than the AWS bill.” Which I know, gasp, I’m as shocked as anyone affected by that, but it’s true. “But oh, you want to work from home? Great. That just means you can work more hours.”
I am not of the school of thought where I consider time in the office to be an indicator of anything meaningful. I care if the work gets done and at small-scale, this works. Let me also be clear, we’re an 11-person company. A lot of what I’m talking about simply will not scale to companies that are orders of magnitude larger than this. And from where I sit, that’s okay. It doesn’t need to.
Jeff: Right. And I think a lot of the things that you talk about will scale, right? Because in most scenarios, you’re not scaling it organizationally so much as you are with a handful of teams, right? Because when I think about all the different teams I interact with, I never really interact with the organization as a whole, I interact with my little neighborhood in the organization. So, it is definitely something that scales.
But again, when it comes to companies, like, enticing people back into the office, now that I’m talking about working from home five days a week, I’ve invested in my home setup. I’ve got the monitor I want, I’ve got the chair that I want, I’ve got the mouse and keyboard that I want. So, you’re going to bring me back to the office so I can have some standard Dell keyboard and mouse with some janky, you know—maybe—21-inch monitor or something like that, right? Like, you really have to decide, like, okay, we’re going to make the office a destination, we’re going to make it where people want to go there where it’s not just even about the collaboration aspect, but people can still work and be effective.
And on top of that, I think how we look at what the office delivers is going to change, right? Because now when I go to the office now, I do very little work. It’s connections, right? It’s like, you know, “Oh, I haven’t seen you in forever. Let’s catch up.” And a lot of that stuff is valuable. You know, there’s these hallway conversations that exist that just weren’t happening previously because how do I accidentally bump into you on Slack? [laugh]. Right, it has to be much more it of a—
Corey: Right. It takes some contrivance to wind up making that happen. I remember back in the days of working in offices, I remember here in San Francisco where we had unlimited sick time and unlimited PTO, I would often fake a sick day, but just stay home and get work done. Because I knew if I was in the office, I’d be constantly subjected to drive-bys the entire time of just drive-by requests, people stopping by to ask, “Oh, can you just help me with this one thing,” that completely derails my train of thought. Then at the end of the day, they’d tell me, “You seem distractible and you didn’t get a lot of work done.”
It’s, “Well, no kidding. Of course not. Are you surprised?” And one of the nice things about starting your own company—because there are a lot of downsides, let me be very clear—one of the nice things is you get to decide how you want to work. And that was a study in, first, amazement, and then frustration.
It was, “All right, I just landed a big customer. I’m off to the races and going to take this seriously for a good six to twelve months. Great sky’s the limit, I’m going to do up my home office.” And then you see how little money it takes to have a nice chair, a good standing desk, a monitor that makes sense and you remember fighting tooth-and-nail for nothing that even approached this quality at companies and they acted like it was going to cost them 20-grand. And here, it’s two grand at most, when I decorated this place the first time.
And it was… “What the hell?” Like, it feels like the scales fall away from your eyes, and you start seeing things that you didn’t realize were a thing. Now I worry that five years in, there’s no way in the world I’m ever fit to be an employee again, so this is probably the last job I’ll ever have. Just because I’ve basically made myself completely unemployable across six different axes.
Jeff: [laugh]. And I think one of the things when it comes to, like, furniture, keyboard, stuff like that, I feel like part of it was just, like, this sort of enforced conformity, right, that the office provided us the ability to do. We can make sure everyone’s got the same monitor, the same keyboard that way, when it breaks, we can replace it easily. In a lot of organizations that I’ve been in, you know, that sort of like, you know, even if it was the same amount or ordering a custom keyboard was a big exception process, right? Like, “Oh, we’ve got to do a whole thing.” And it’s just like, “Well, it doesn’t have to be that complicated.”
And like you said, it doesn’t cost much to allow someone to get the tools that they want and prefer and they’re going to be more productive with. But to your point really quickly about work in the office, until the pandemic, I personally didn’t recognize how difficult it actually was to get work done in the office. I don’t think I appreciated it. And now that I’m remote, I’m like, wow, it is so much easier for me to close this door, put my headphones on, mute Slack and go heads down. You know, the only drive-by I’ve got is my wife wondering if I want to go for a walk, and that’s usually a text message that I can ignore and come back to later.
Corey: The thing that just continues to be strange for me and breaks in some of the weirdest ways has just been the growing awareness of how much of office life is unnecessary and ridiculous. When you’re in the office every day, you have to find a way to make it work and be productive and you have this passive-aggressive story of this open office, it’s for collaboration purposes. Yeah, I can definitively say that is not true. I had a boss who once told me that there was such benefits to working in an open plan office that if magically it were less expensive to give people individual offices, he would spare the extra expense for open plan. That was the day I learned he would lie to me while looking me in the eye. Because of course you wouldn’t.
And it’s for collaboration. Yeah, it means two loud people—often me—are collaborating and everyone else wears noise-canceling headphones trying desperately to get work done, coming in early, hours before everyone else to get things done before people show up and distracted me. What the hell kind of day-to-day work environment is that?
Jeff: What’s interesting about that, though, is those same distractions are the things that get cited as being missed from the perspective of the person doing the distracting. So, everyone universally hates that sort of drive-by distractions, but everyone sort of universally misses the ability to say like, “Hey, can I just pull on your ear for a second and get your feedback on this?” Or, “Can we just walk through this really quickly?” That’s the thing that people miss, and I don’t think that they ever connect it to the idea that if you’re not the interruptee, you’re the interruptor, [laugh] and what that might do to someone else’s productivity. So, you would think something like Slack would help with that, but in reality, what ends up happening is if you don’t have proper Slack etiquette, there’s a lot of signals that go out that get misconstrued, misinterpreted, internalized, and then it ends up impacting morale.
Corey: And that’s the most painful part of a lot of that too. Is that yeah, I want to go ahead and spend some time doing some nonsense—as one does; imagine that—and I know that if I’m going to go into an office or meet up with my colleagues, okay, that afternoon or that day, yeah, I’m planning that I’m probably not going to get a whole lot of deep coding done. Okay, great. But when that becomes 40 hours a week, well, that’s a challenge. I feel like being full remote doesn’t work out, but also being in the office 40 hours a week also feels a little sadistic, more than almost anything else.
I don’t know what the future looks like and I am privileged enough that I don’t have to because we have been full remote the entire time. But what we don’t spend on office space we spend on plane tickets back and forth so people can have meetings. In the before times, we were very good about that. Now it’s, we’re hesitant to do it just because it’s we don’t want people traveling before the feel that it’s safe to do so. We’ve also learned, for example, when dealing with our clients, that we can get an awful lot done without being on site with them and be extraordinarily effective.
It was always weird have traveled to some faraway city to meet with the client, and then you’re on a Zoom call from their office with the rest of the team. It’s… I could have done this from my living room.
Jeff: Yeah. I find those sorts of hybrid meetings are often worse than if we were all just remote, right? It’s just so much easier because now it’s like, all right, three of us are going to crowd around one person’s laptop, and then all of the things that we want to do to take advantage of being in person are excluding the people that are remote, so you got to do this careful dance. The way we’ve been sort of tackling it so far—and we’re still experimenting—is we’re not requiring anyone to come back into the office, but some people find it useful to go to the office as a change of scenery, to sort of, like break things up from their typical routine, and they like the break and the change. But it’s something that they do sort of ad hoc.
So, we’ve got a small group that meets, like, every Thursday, just as a day to sort of go into the office and switch things up. I think the idea of saying everyone has to come into the office two or three days a week is probably broken when there’s no purpose behind it. So, my wife technically should go into the office twice a week, but her entire team is in Europe. [laugh]. So, what point does that make other than I am a body in a chair? So, I think companies are going to have to get flexible with this sort of hybrid environment.
But then it makes you wonder, like, is it worth the office space and how many people are actually taking advantage of it when it’s not mandated? We find that our office time centers around some event, right? And that event might be someone in town that’s typically remote. That might be a particular project that we’re working on where we want to get ideas and collaborate and have a workshop. But the idea of just, like, you know, we’re going to systematically require people to be in the office x many days, I don’t see that in our future.
Corey: No, and I hope you’re right. But it also feels like a lot of folks are also doing some weird things around the idea of remote such as, “Oh, we’re full remote but we’re going to pay you based upon where you happen to be sitting geographically.” And we find that the way that we’ve done this—and again, I’m not saying there’s a right answer for everyone—but we wind up paying what the value of the work is for us. In many cases, that means that we would be hard-pressed to hire someone in the Bay Area, for example. On the other hand, it means that when we hire people who are in places with relatively low cost of living, they feel like they’ve just hit the lottery, on some level.
And yeah, some of them, I guess it does sort of cause a weird imbalance if you’re a large Amazon-scale company where you want to start not disrupting local economies. We’re not hiring that many people, I promise. So, there’s this idea of figuring out how that works out. And then where does the headquarters live? And well, what state laws do we wind up following on what we’re doing? Just seems odd.
Jeff: Yeah. So, you know, one thing I wanted to comment on that you’d mentioned earlier, too, was the weird things that people are doing, and organizations are doing with this, sort of, remote work thing, especially the geographic base pay. And you know, a lot of it is, how can we manipulate the situation to better us in a way that sounds good on paper, right? So, it sounds perfectly reasonable. Like, oh, you live in New York, I’m going to pay you in New York rates, right?
But, like, you live in Des Moines, so I’m going to pay you Des Moines rates. And on the surface, when you just go you’re like, oh, yeah, that makes sense, but then you think about it, you’re like, “Wait, why does that matter?” Right? And then, like, how do I, as a manager, you know, level that across my employees, right? It’s like, “Oh, so and so is getting paid 30 grand less. Oh, but they live in a cheaper area, right?” I don’t know what your personal situation is, and how much that actually resonates or matters.
Corey: Does the value that they provide to your company materially change based upon where they happen to be sitting that week?
Jeff: Right, exactly. But it’s a good story that you can tell, it sounds fair at first examination. But then when you start to scratch the surface, you’re like, “Wait a second, this is BS.” So, that’s one thing.
Corey: It’s like tipping on some level. If you can’t afford the tip, you can’t afford to eat out. Same story here. If you can’t afford to compensate people the value that they’re worth, you can’t afford to employ people. And figure that out before you wind up disappointing people and possibly becoming today’s Twitter main character.
Jeff: Right. And then the state law thing is interesting. You know, when you see states like California adopting laws similar to, like, GDPR. And it’s like, do you have to start planning for the most stringent possibility across every hire just to be safe and to avoid having to have this sort of patchwork of rules and policies based on where someone lives? You might say like, “Okay, Delaware has the most stringent employer law, so we’re going to apply Delaware’s laws across the board.” So, it’ll be interesting to see how that sort of plays out in the long run. Luckily, that’s not a problem I have to solve, but it’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out.
Corey: It is something we had to solve. We have an HR consultancy that helps out with a lot of these things, but the short answer is that we make sure that we obey with local laws, but the way that we operate is as if everyone were a San Francisco employee because that is—so far—the locale that, one, I live here, but also of every jurisdiction we’ve looked at in the United States, it tends to have the most advantageous to the employee restrictions and requirements. Like one thing we do is kind of ridiculous—and we have to do for me and one other person, but almost no one else, but we do it for everyone—is we have to provide stipends every month for electricity, for cellphone usage, for internet. They have to be broken out for each one of those categories, so we do 20 bucks a month for each of those. It adds up to 100 bucks, as I recall, and we call it good. And employees say, “Okay. Do we just send you receipts? Please don’t.”
I don’t want to look at your cell phone bill. It’s not my business. I don’t want to know. We’re doing this to comply with the law. I mean, if it were up to me, it would be this is ridiculous. Can we just give everyone $100 a month raise and call it good? Nope. The forms must be obeyed. So, all right.
We do the same thing with PTO accrual. If you’ve acquired time off and you leave the company, we pay it out. Not every state requires that. But paying for cell phone access and internet access as well, is something Amazon is currently facing a class action about because they didn’t do that for a number of their California employees. And even talking to Amazonians, like, “Well, they did, but you had to jump through a bunch of hoops.”
We have the apparatus administratively to handle that in a way that employees don’t. Why on earth would we make them do it unless we didn’t want to pay them? Oh, I think I figured out this sneaky, sneaky plan. I’m not here to build a business by exploiting people. If that’s the only way to succeed, and the business doesn’t deserve to exist. That’s my hot take of the day on that topic.
Jeff: No, I totally agree. And what’s interesting is these insidious costs that sneak up that employees tend to discount, like, one thing I always talk about with my team is all that time you’re thinking about a problem at work, right, like when you’re in the shower, when you’re at dinner, when you’re talking it over with your spouse, right? That’s work. That’s work. And it’s work that you’re doing on your time.
But we don’t account for it that way because we’re not typing; we’re not writing code. But, like, think about how much more effective as people, as employees, we would be if we had time dedicated to just sit and think, right? If I could just sit and think about a problem without needing to type but just critically think about it. But then it’s like, well, what does that look like in the office, right? If I’m just sitting there in my chair like this, it doesn’t look like I’m doing anything.
But that’s so important to be able to, like, break down and digest some of the complex problems that we’re dealing with. And we just sort of write it off, right? So, I’m like, you know, you got to think about how that bleeds into your personal time and take that into account. So yeah, maybe you leave three hours early today, but I guarantee you, you’re going to spend three hours throughout the week thinking about work. It’s the same thing with these cellphone costs that you’re talking about, right? “Oh, I’ve got a cell phone anyways; I’ve got internet anyways.” But still, that’s something that you’re contributing to the business that they’re not on the hook for, so it seems fair that you get compensated for that.
Corey: I just think about that stuff all the time from that perspective, and now that I you know, own the place, it’s one of those which pocket of mine does it come out of? But I hold myself to a far higher standard about that stuff than I do the staff, where it’s, for example, I could theoretically justify paying my internet bill here because we have business-class internet and an insane WiFi system because of all of the ridiculous video production I do. Now. It’s like, like, if anyone else on the team was doing this, yes, I will insist we pay it, but for me, it just it feels a little close to the edge. So, it’s one of those areas where I’m very conservative around things like that.
The thing that also continues to just vex me, on some level, is this idea that time in a seat is somehow considered work. I’ll never forget one of the last jobs I had before I started this place. My boss walked past me and saw that I was on Reddit. And, “Is that really the best use of your time right now?” May I use the bathroom when I’m done with this, sir?
Yeah, of course it is. It sounds ridiculous, but one of the most valuable things I can do for The Duckbill Group now is go on the internet and start shit posting on Twitter, which sounds ridiculous, but it’s also true. There’s a brand awareness story there, on some level. And that’s just wild to me. It’s weird, we start treating people like adults, they start behaving that way. And if you start micromanaging them, they live up or down to the expectations you tend to hold. I’m a big believer in if I have to micromanage someone, I should just do the job myself.
Jeff: Yeah. The Reddit story makes me think of, like, how few organizations have systematic ways of getting vital information. So, the first thing I think about is, like, security and security vulnerabilities, right? So, how does Basis Technologies, as an organization, know about these things? Right now, it’s like, well, my team knows because we’re plugged into Reddit and Twitter, right, but if we were gone Basis, right, may not necessarily get that information.
So, that’s something we’re trying to correct, but it just sort of highlights the importance of freedom for these employees, right? Because yeah, I’m on Reddit, but I’m on /r/sysadmin. I’m on /r/AWS, right, I’m on /r/Atlassian. Now I’m finding out about this zero-day vulnerability and it’s like, “Oh, guys, we got to act. I just heard about this thing.” And people are like, “Oh, where did this come from?” And it’s like it came from my network, right? And my network—
Jeff: Is on Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit. So, the idea that someone browsing the internet on any site, really, is somehow not a productive use of their time, you better be ready to itemize exactly what that means and what that looks like. “Oh, you can do this on Reddit but you can’t do that on Reddit.”
Corey: I have no boss now, I have no oversight, but somehow I still show up with a work ethic and get things done.
Jeff: Right. [laugh].
Corey: Wow, I guess I didn’t need someone over my shoulder the whole time. Who knew?
Jeff: Right. That’s all that matters, right? And if you do it in 30 hours or 40 hours, that doesn’t really matter to me, you know? You want to do it at night because you’re more productive there, right, like, let’s figure out a way to make that happen. And remote work is actually empowering us ways to really retain people that wasn’t possible before I had an employee that was like, you know, I really want to travel. I’m like, “Dude, go to Europe. Work from Europe. Just do it. Work from Europe,” right? We’ve got senior leaders on the C-suite that are doing it. One of the chief—
Corey: I’m told they have the internet, even there. Imagine that?
Jeff: Yeah. [laugh]. So, our chief program officer, she was in Greece for four weeks. And it worked. It worked great. They had a process. You know, she would spent one week on and then one week off on vacation. But you know, she was able to have this incredible, long experience, and still deliver. And it’s like, you know, we can use that as a model to say, like—
Corey: And somehow the work got done. Wow, she must be amazing. No, that’s the baseline expectation that people can be self-managing in that respect.
Corey: They aren’t toddlers.
Jeff: So, if she can do that, I’m sure you can figure out how to code in China or wherever you want to visit. So, it’s a great way to stay ahead of some of these companies that have a bit more lethargic policies around that stuff, where it’s like, you know, all right, I’m not getting that insane salary, but guess what, I’m going to spend three weeks in New Zealand hanging out and not using any time off or anything like that, and you know, being able to enjoy life. I wish this pandemic had happened pre-kids because—
Corey: Yeah. [laugh].
Jeff: —you know, we would really take advantage of this.
Corey: You and me both. It would have very different experience.
Jeff: Yeah. [laugh]. Absolutely, right? But with kids in school, and all that stuff, we’ve been tethered down. But man, I you know, I want to encourage the young people or the single people on my team to just, like, hey, really, really embrace this time and take advantage of it.
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Corey: One last topic I want to get into before we call it an episode is, I admit, I read an awful lot of books, it’s a guilty pleasure. And it’s easy to fall into the trap, especially when you know the author, of assuming that snapshot of their state of mind at a very fixed point in time is somehow who they are, like a fly frozen in amber, and it’s never true. So, my question for you is, quite simply, what have you learned since your book came out?
Jeff: Oh, man, great question. So, when I was writing the book, I was really nervous about if my audience was as big as I thought it was, the people that I was targeting with the book.
Corey: Okay, that keeps me up at night, too. I have no argument there.
Jeff: Yeah. You know what I mean?
Corey: Please, continue.
Jeff: I’m surrounded, you know, by—
Corey: Is anyone actually listening to this? Yeah.
Jeff: Right. [laugh]. So, after the book got finished and it got published, I would get tons of feedback from people that so thoroughly enjoyed the book, they would say things like, you know, “It feels like you were in our office like a fly on the wall.” And that was exciting, one, because I felt like these were experiences that sort of resonated, but, two, it sort of proved this thesis that sometimes you don’t have to do something revolutionary to be a positive contribution to other people, right? So, like, when I lay out the tips and things that I do in the book, it’s nothing earth-shattering that I expect Google to adopt. Like, oh, my God, this is the most unique view ever.
But being able to talk to an audience in a way that resonates with them, that connects with them, that shows that I understand their problem and have been there, it was really humbling and enlightening to just see that there are people out there that they’re not on the bleeding edge, but they just need someone to talk to them in a language that they understand and resonate with. So, I think the biggest thing that I learned was this idea that your voice is important, your voice matters, and how you tell your story may be the difference between someone understanding a concept and someone not understanding a concept. So, there’s always an audience for you out there as you’re writing, whether it be your blog post, the videos that you produce, the podcasts that you make, somewhere there’s someone that needs to hear what you have to say, and the unique way that you can say it. So, that was extremely powerful.
Corey: Part of the challenge that I found is when I start talking to other people, back in the before times, trying to push them into conference talks and these days, write blog posts, the biggest objection I get sometimes is, “Well, I don’t have anything worth saying.” That is provably not true. One of my favorite parts about writing Last Week in AWS is as I troll the internet looking for topics about AWS that I find interesting, I keep coming across people who are very involved in one area or another of this ecosystem and have stories they want to tell. And I love, “Hey, would you like to write a guest post for Last Week in AWS?” It’s always invite only and every single one of them has been paid because people die of exposure and I’m not about that exploitation lifestyle.
A couple have said, “Oh, I can’t accept payment for a variety of reasons.” Great. Pick a charity that you would like it to go to instead because we do not accept volunteer work, we are a for-profit entity. That is the way it works here. And that has been just one of the absolute favorite parts about what I do just because you get to sort of discover new voices.
And what I find really neat is that for a lot of these folks, this is their start to writing and telling the story, but they don’t stop there, they start telling their story in other areas, too. It leads to interesting career opportunities for them, it leads to interesting exposure that they wouldn’t have necessarily had—again, not that they’re getting paid in exposure, but the fact that they are able to be exposed to different methodologies, different ways of thinking—I love that. It’s one of my favorite parts about doing what I do. And it seems to scale a hell of a lot better than me sitting down with someone for two hours to help them build a CFP that they wind up not getting accepted or whatnot.
Jeff: Right. It’s a great opportunity that you provide folks, too, because of, like, an instant audience, I think that’s one of the things that has made Medium so successful as, like, a blogging platform is, you know, everyone wants to go out and build their own WordPress site and launch it, but then it like, you write your blog post and it’s crickets. So, the ability for you to, you know, use your platform to also expose those voices is great and extremely powerful. But you’re right, once they do it, it lights a fire in a way that is admirable to watch. I have a person that I’m mentoring and that was my biggest piece of advice I can give. It was like, you know, write. Just write.
It’s the one thing that you can do without anyone else. And you can reinforce your own knowledge of a thing. If you just say, you know, I’m going to teach this thing that I just learned, just the writing process helps you solidify, like, okay, I know this stuff. I’m demonstrating that I know it and then four years from now, when you’re applying for a job, someone’s like, “Oh, I found your blog post and I see that you actually do know how to set up a Kubernetes cluster,” or whatever. It’s just extremely great and it—
Corey: It’s always fun. You’re googling for how to do something and you find something you wrote five years ago.
Jeff: Right, yeah. [laugh]. And it’s like code where you’re like, “Oh, man, I would do that so much differently now.”
Corey: Since we last spoke, one of the things I’ve been doing is I have been on the hook to write between a one to two-thousand-word blog post every week, and I’ve done that like clockwork, for about a year-and-a-half now. And I was no slouch at storytelling before I started doing that. I’ve given a few hundred conference talks in the before times. And I do obviously long Twitter threads in the past and I write reports a lot. But forcing me to go through that process every week and then sit with an editor and go ahead and get it improved, has made me a far better writer, it’s made me a better storyteller, I am far better at articulating my point of view.
It is absolutely just unlocking a host of benefits that I would have thought I was, oh, I passed all this. I’m already good at these things. And I was, but I’m better now. I think that writing is one of those things that people need to do a lot more of.
Jeff: Absolutely. And it’s funny that you mentioned that because I just recently, back in April, started to do the same thing I said, I’m going to write a blog post every week, right? I’m going to get three or four in the can, so that if life comes up and I miss a beat, right, I’m not actually missing the production schedule, so I have a steady—and you’re right. Even after writing a book, I’m still learning stuff through the writing process, articulating my point of view.
It’s just something that carries over, and it carries over into the workforce, too. Like, if you’ve ever read a bad piece of documentation, right, that comes from—
Jeff: Right? [laugh]. That comes from an inability to write. Like, you know, you end up asking these questions like who’s the audience for this? What is ‘it’ in this sentence? [laugh].
Corey: Part of it too, is that people writing these things are so close to the problem themselves that the fact that, “Well, I’m not an expert in this.” That’s why you should write about it. Talk about your experience. You’re afraid everyone’s going to say, “Oh, you’re a fool. You didn’t understand how this works.”
Yeah, my lived experiences instead—and admittedly, I have the winds of privilege of my back on this—but it’s also yeah, I didn’t understand that either. It turns out that you’re never the only person who has trouble with a concept. And by calling it out, you’re normalizing it and doing a tremendous service for others in your shoes.
Jeff: Especially when you’re not an expert because I wrote some documentation about the SSL process and it didn’t occur to me that these people don’t use the AWS command line, right? Like, you know, in our organization, we sort of mask that from them through a bunch of in-house automation. Now we’re starting to expose it to them and simple things like oh, you need to preface the AWS command with a profile name. So, then when we’re going through the setup, we’re like, “Oh. What if they already have an existing profile, right?” Like, we don’t want to clobber that.
SSo, it just changed the way you write the documentation. But like, that’s not something that initially came to mind for me. It wasn’t until someone went through the docs, and they’re like, “Uh, this is blowing up in a weird way.” And I was like, “Oh, right. You know, like, I need to also teach you about profile management.”
Corey: Also, everyone has a slightly different workflow for the way they interact with AWS accounts, and their shell prompts, and the way they set up local dev environments.
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely. So, not being an expert on a thing is key because you’re coming to it with virgin eyes, right, and you’re able to look at it from a fresh perspective.
Corey: So, much documentation out there is always coming from the perspective of someone who is intimately familiar with the problem space. Some of the more interesting episodes that I have, from a challenge perspective, are people who are deep technologists in a particular area and they love they fallen in love with the thing that they are building. Great. Can you explain it to the rest of us mere mortals so that we can actually we can share your excitement on this? And it’s very hard to get them to come down to a level where it’s coherent to folks who haven’t spent years thinking deeply about that particular problem space.
Jeff: Man, the number one culprit for that is, like, the AWS blogs where they have, like, a how-to article. You follow that thing and you’re like, “None of this is working.” [laugh]. Right? And then you realize, oh, they made an assumption that I knew this, but I didn’t right?
So, it’s like, you know, I didn’t realize this was supposed to be, like, a handwritten JSON document just jammed into the value field. Because I didn’t know that, I’m not pulling those values out as JSON. I’m expecting that just to be, like, a straight string value. And that has happened more and more times on the AWS blog than I can count. [laugh].
Corey: Oh, yeah, very often. And then there’s other problems, too. “Oh, yeah. Set up your IAM permissions properly.” That’s left as an exercise for the reader. And then you wonder why everything’s full of stars. Okay.
Jeff: Right. Yep, exactly, exactly.
Corey: Ugh. It’s so great to catch up with you and see what you’ve been working on. If people want to learn more, where’s the best place to find you?
Jeff: So, the best place is probably my website, attainabledevops.com
. That’s a place where you can find me on all the other places. I don’t really update that site much, but you can find me on LinkedIn
, from that jumping off point, links to the book
are there if anyone’s interested in that. Perfect stocking stuffers. Mom would love it, grandma would love it, so definitely, definitely buy multiple copies of that.
Corey: Yeah, it’s going to be one of my two-year-old’s learning to read books, it’d be great.
Jeff: Yeah, it’s perfect. You know, you just throw it in the crib and walk away, right? They’re asleep at no time. Like I said, I’ve also been taking to, you know, blogging on Medium
, so you can catch me there, the links will be there on Attainable DevOps as well.
Corey: Excellent. And that link will of course, be in the show notes. Thank you so much for being so generous with your time. I really do appreciate it. And it’s great to talk to you again.
Jeff: It was great to catch up.
Corey: Really was. Jeff Smith, Director of Product Operations at Basis Technologies. 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 or smash the like and subscribe buttons on the YouTubes, whereas if you’ve hated this podcast, do the exact same thing—five-star review, smash the buttons—but also leave an angry, incoherent comment that you’re then going to have edited and every week you’re going to come back and write another incoherent comment that you get edited. And in the fullness of time, you’ll get much better at writing angry, incoherent comments.
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
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