Farrah Campbell is the Ecosystems Director at Stackery, a software company that builds tools that support and accelerate the development and delivery of serverless applications. She also serves as the speaker liaison and runs business development for TechfestNW, a conference that brings business leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs together to talk all things tech. Previously, Farrah worked in customer and people ops at Reflect Technologies and as director of operations at Chirpify.
Join Corey and Farrah as they discuss career advice Farrah got from Kara Swisher, what an AWS Serverless Hero is and what it’s like to be one, what Corey’s done to earn the AWS Villain moniker, Farrah’s experience as a single mom raising two kids and the mindset that comes with it, what evangelizing for a new technology really means, how serverless is a mindset, an innovation strategy, and a paradigm shift, how to use Route 53 as a database, and more.
About Farrah Campbell
After 10 years of working in healthcare management, a serendipitous 20-minute car ride with Kara Swisher inspired Farrah to make the jump into technology. She has worked at multiple startups in many different capacities, eventually working her way to being the Ecosystems Director for Stackery in Portland, Oregon.
As the Stackery Ecosystems Director, Farrah has managed the Stackery relationship with AWS including Stackery as an Advanced Technology Partner, achieving the AWS DevOps Competency, a launch partner for Lambda Layers and is an AWS Serverless Hero. Farrah has cultivated the serverless community as an organizer of Portland Serverless Days, the Portland Serverless Meetup, along with numerous serverless workshops and the Portland tech community events from Techfest to bringing multiple luminaries to Portland.
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Corey Quinn: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud, I’m Corey Quinn. I’m joined this week by Farrah Campbell, ecosystems director at Stackery. Farrah, welcome to the show.
Farrah Campbell: Hey, thanks, Corey. Thanks for having me.
Corey Quinn: So, let’s start at the beginning with what is an ecosystems director?
Farrah Campbell: [laughing], well my job, basically, is to connect with people across AWS serverless ecosystem, so that we can increase more serverless adoption. Making connections with partners, customers, community members, and then strategic partners like AWS.
Corey Quinn: So, it sounds like you’re viewing this as something that is distinct from, effectively, community. Where’s the dividing line?
Farrah Campbell: That’s a good question. I think right now, it encompasses both. It’s a new technology—well, it’s not necessarily so new now—but I think that—I feel like I kind of represent the community, but also our customers and our partners are part of that community. I need to be wherever they’re at, focusing on making sure that we’re in this together.
Corey Quinn: So, one thing you mentioned a minute ago was that you’re focusing on serverless. And then in almost the same breath, you tied it back to AWS.
Farrah Campbell: Mm-hm.
Corey Quinn: Do you view serverless as being primarily AWS driven? Is that your area of focus? Is that just shorthand because AWS is such a, I guess, gargantuan presence in the market that it’s easier to contextualize it there? Where do you stand on that?
Farrah Campbell: Well, I guess I should back up a little bit and say, working at Stackery, Stackery is—definitely—everything we do is built on top of AWS. We speed up the application development, delivery, helping teams to securely deploy and build these serverless applications. At this moment, we don’t have a system that works with Azure or Cloud Run. And so, when I talk about serverless, I guess I talk about the people that are right in front of me. [laughing].
Corey Quinn: I’m right there with you, you may want to back away from that, I want to charge directly into it. The reason that I fix AWS [builds 00:03:25], it’s where the big expensive problems are. When I’m doing serverless development work on a bunch of different ridiculous things that I then throw up on Twitter for mockery, I find that I’m always tripping over AWS things in the wild. When I just Google serverless, and then whatever I want to do, URL shortener for example, I’m not seeing a whole lot of options that aren’t built on top of AWS, for better or for worse. In my experience, that is where the community tends to circle around. Even when I step outside of my, I guess, bubble, I’m still seeing that AWS is definitely carrying the torch in this space.
Farrah Campbell: Yeah, I think so. But there’s a lot of good people that are doing good work at Microsoft and Google that actually I wish I could work more with, but we’re just not there yet.
Corey Quinn: Of course, I’d even take it a step further and invoke the great Satan, in this case, the Oracle folks when they wound up acquiring a lot of the iron.io people, they had a fantastic technology and a fantastic story. And it’s just overshadowed by Oracle’s business practices, so, for better or worse, I don’t get to play with that stuff in any meaningful way. Yeah, it’s always about the—when I talk about companies and I guess, throwing muck, it’s never about the individual people. It’s about the corporate cultures, by and large. I sometimes do a poor job of articulating that, but, “Oh, I work at a company he hates, therefore he must hate me,” is never accurate. It tends to not—separating the person from the employer is challenging at times, but I sometimes feel like I stumble over doing that well.
Farrah Campbell: I think you do a pretty good job. I’ve never felt like you were targeting a specific person. I think that when you have, it’s always to give them Happy Birthday videos or something cool.
Corey Quinn: Yeah, the only exception to that rule that I have is Larry Ellison, because he’s not people. He just thinks these people and he has no friends or people who love him to take offense on his behalf. So, therefore, it’s a free target and it’s never punching down.
Farrah Campbell: The funny thing about Larry Ellison, in my past insurance life when I was a broker here in Portland, Oregon, his ex-wife, Barb Ellison, who owns a—it’s called Wild Turkey Farm, which is a horse studding ranch, she was one of my clients.
Corey Quinn: That is amazing. And thank you for naming her because it is Larry Ellison, I would have to ask you which ex-wife, there are three to choose from. But I digress. Sorry, this is not a dump on Larry episode, though it’s somehow turned into that, but all right, moving on. So, how did you get to the place you are? I don’t think I’ve ever been talking to companies who are looking to hire and they say, “You know, what we really need is an ecosystems director.” That feels like a role that emerges, rather than something that is actively recruited for. And maybe that’s just because I’m not looking in the right places. But how did you get where you are?
Farrah Campbell: Well, how did I get where I am? Well, Nate created this role for me, here, at Stackery. I had known him from the community. I’ve worked at a number of startups here in Portland. In fact, actually, I got my start, because when I moved to Portland, I knew I wanted to do something different and I was trying to get a job. It took me about—well, for a year I applied, got no responses. I ended up volunteering at a conference called TechfestNW, and I ended up being the speaker handler. Well, my first job was to pick up Kara Swisher. I didn’t have any idea on who she was, and they just told me she was a very important person. Anyhow, I was super incredibly nervous that entire time, but it was actually pretty amazing because I had the opportunity to talk to her, and she actually inspired me to quit my full-time job and take this startup that had got in front of my face, which was four hours a week.
Corey Quinn: That is a heck of an origin story.
Farrah Campbell: [laughing].
Corey Quinn: I feel like Kara, based on my impression, I’ve never even met her myself, would argue that everyone’s important, but she’s one of those inspirational people that I really love just seeing almost everything that she does. Even when I don’t agree with her, I just love the way that she frames and does things.
Farrah Campbell: Yeah, she’s pretty awesome. She even sent me the Steve Jobs commencement address and he told me to watch that, and then she like, “Next time I hear from you, I want to know what you’ve done to try to get into tech.” And it was the next day I had this offer. It was pretty crazy. I’m incredibly thankful to her for that. She’s not that lady behind the glasses that everybody thinks.
Corey Quinn: No, it’s very clear just following her on Twitter that she has definite personality that she does not bother to hide, which from my personal perspective is just something that I adore. I spent my first part of my career trying and failing to hide my personality, as anyone who’d ever met me can attest, and finally, this thing turned into me embracing my crappy excuse for a personality. And here we are. I scream into microphones about cloud computing.
Farrah Campbell: I’d say you have a pretty good personality, Corey. I really love that picture with the motorcycle helmet on the horse.
Corey Quinn: Yes, the dating profile photo I had when I met my wife. So, she knew exactly what she was getting into 11 years ago now.
Farrah Campbell: I mean, that takes a lot of personality.
Corey Quinn: Yeah, that was an experience, let’s put it that way it’s been… I tend to be, if nothing else, refreshingly direct. So, something else has happened recently that I wanted to get your thoughts on or as much as you can tell us; you’ve become an AWS Serverless Hero, and Hero of course, is the name of their program, which I’ve always found to be kind of weird. It feels like “hero” or “entrepreneur” or a few other things are things other people call you. Calling yourself that sounds weird. “Thought leader” is similar in that space. But I’m curious as to what it was like to, first, become a hero. Secondly, what does being a hero mean?
Farrah Campbell: So, what is being a hero mean? Actually, I guess, heroes are early adopters, spirited pioneers of the serverless ecosystem. I think that the announcement of me being a serverless hero was pretty—I thought it was impactful because it shows that, I guess, experts in the field, that it requires more than just the ability to code. It requires the ability to have communication and to lead with empathy. And I think it’s important that they’re helping to change the way that we’re looking at leaders in our industry.
Corey Quinn: One of the, I guess, I love the terminology, if for no other reason than I heard that they had an AWS Heroes program, and I immediately set out to become an AWS Villain instead—
Farrah Campbell: [laughing].
Corey Quinn: —and I’ve mostly gotten there. If you look at some of the things that I’ve celebrated, even on this podcast, I’ve had a couple of, as I termed them, code terrorists who have shown up and demonstrated horrifying architectures and patterns to achieve reasonable outcomes. But by and large, I find that the folks in the Hero program tend to be, at least from the outside, never having been one myself, those are the folks that we hear an awful lot from in their respective subject areas. They, more or less, are the torchbearers for the rest of us who are stumbling our way, more or less blindly, through a lot of these things. And when you have people who can be held up and demonstrated as this is one possible way to do it, here’s someone willing to tell stories about this, it becomes incredibly compelling and for whatever reason, those are folks who can tell stories with a greater degree of honesty and transparency than you’ll often get from either a marketing apparatus, or a developer advocacy, or developer relations program because none of these folks work for AWS. They’re all community members or work at other companies in the space, but no one is carrying a quota from Amazon of, you must get at least X people to sign up or you’re not a hero anymore.
Farrah Campbell: No, in fact, I haven’t seen any requirements at all, to be honest, and I wasn’t setting out to be a hero. I never ever imagined that I actually would, just because if you look at everybody’s profiles, everybody’s written books or had all these open source contributions, tons of medium posts, and had just had a lot more experience than me when it comes to building applications. I guess it reminds me of having that serverless mindset and focusing on what matters, and I feel like that’s kind of what my career has been since I’ve gotten to tech. My life was always—had to be like that, I had to focus on what matters just because I was a single mom, but it’s pretty powerful when you can start to translate that into your work and see growth and affect change.
Corey Quinn: Can you tell me a little bit more about that? Having a single child right now with my spouse and I, that seems like an impossible amount of work. I can’t fathom what it would be like, having to do that alone. But how does that map directly into the work side?
Farrah Campbell: From very early on, I was the queen of making poor decisions when I was younger. I ended up divorced and had two kids and I was 24, and on my own in a place I didn’t have any family near me, and I guess my relationships were suffering, too, with my family. But I had two little guys to take care of, and so, when it came down to it, everything I did, the time that I had, I needed to be focusing on something that mattered. And so, I even think about that even to—day-to-day being a single mom. If I have a number of things to do, if I can outsource housework or picking up groceries, whatever it is, time is important. I made sure that we didn’t have a lot of TV, I wanted to make sure that we had a lot of face to face time in those moments that I did have that time with the boys. And I think taking that and applying that into your work life, there’s a lot of stuff that happens in our day to day that’s just noise. And if I take that time to focus on that, I’m now wasting time on things that don’t matter, and things that actually might take me to a place that’s actually not productive. I guess that’s how I would say translates from being a mom, applying that mindset of focusing on what matters in your life, and then translating that over to your work. Did any of that make sense or am I just rambling? [laughing].
Corey Quinn: No, it absolutely does. There’s a tremendous amount of, I guess, gatekeeping in the infrastructure space of, “Oh, you’ve only been doing this for a couple of years? Well, unless you were doing this back in the Solaris days of Big Iron and the rest, well, you’re not really involved in the infrastructure world,” which is, first, nonsense and secondly, not usually relevant most days, when you’re talking about getting something out the door. That’s sort of the entire premise of serverless is the stuff that everyone has to learn, well, a lot of that is now handled for you. Sure, there are times where it’s very useful to have specialist insight into how a lot of those subsystems work, but you maybe don’t need that to build a quick API that does something that demonstrates business value.
Farrah Campbell: No. In fact, for somebody, I mean for me, I created a webhook, I authenticated with Google, and I was having it look for specific information through my emails that would drop into a Google Sheet and then I could then act on that. I’ve built a language translator app with my co-worker, Danielle. I just created my own website, built on top of AWS services using Route 53, CloudFront, Certificate Manager, S3, and using the Lambda function to deploy that, and I’m doing this stuff by reading these tutorials, and in all honesty, I have really no idea what these things are doing. Like Route 53—
Corey Quinn: I maintain it’s a database. I’m told it’s not but I don’t even care.
Farrah Campbell: [laughing]. So, but I can get these things all up and working, so one of the things that I hope to help people do is just take a step back and forget about all the things that you know. We’ll bring that back later, but forget all the things that you think you know, and then just go try it, and see what happens. You’d be amazed but, with all the information that they must have after building systems, how they can apply that to building new systems, what they would be able to do.
Corey Quinn: This episode is sponsored in part by DataStax
. The NoSQL event of the year is DataStax Accelerate
in San Diego this May from the 11th through the 13th. I’ve given a talk previously called the myth of multi-cloud, and it’s time for me to revisit that with… a sequel! Which is funny given that it’s a NoSQL conference, but there you have it. To learn more, visit datastax.com
and I hope to see you in San Diego this May.
Corey Quinn: I think part of the key to this whole, I guess, unlocking the power of serverless is, first, it’s not even that old. So, if you’ve been using these technologies for 20 minutes, congratulations. You’re one of the elder statespeople who has been using this for a long time. It’s hard to remember sometimes, but 15 years ago, there was no such thing as cloud in any real sense. So, everyone who’s been doing this since the beginning, well, yeah, they don’t necessarily need to be that old to get there.
Farrah Campbell: No, you don’t. And I’m shouting this from the rooftops because there’s a moment right now to come up and level up all of your skills. That’s what everybody is doing. Everybody else is going to be doing it in the next couple of years, three to five years later, and if you do it now, sets you up in a pretty good place. You just have to be willing to put in the work.
Corey Quinn: Oh, yeah. And there’s always time to go back and learn the underlying things that you need, when you need them. Well, sure, using Lambda, and API gateway, and that’s fine for you right now, but that’s not going to be economical and scale once you wind up with 8 million users in a typical month. Oh, heavens, seems to me that might come with some other benefits, where, huh, I can afford the time or the resources to delve more deeply into that arena when I need to, but optimizing in advance of something like that, you’re almost never going to have that happen. Why bother?
Farrah Campbell: Yeah, and I think a lot of times you hear about people just try to, like, want to rework the same things that they’ve already done, or just having a preconceived idea about why something won’t work, and they’ve tried it in the past, or they had used it for some part of application it didn’t work, or maybe they were on a completely different team. That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for anything else ever again. There could be all kinds of factors that were a part of the reason why it didn’t work at that time. But anyhow, I think a can-do attitude can enable a lot specifically for developers working in the serverless ecosystem.
Corey Quinn: Something I’ve learned about serverless is that I’ve been using it for a couple of years for different things, and I was working on a system the other day, and my immediate response was, this is awful. Whoever wrote this obviously had no idea how best practices are supposed to work. There’s at least 16 errors I can see on this. What moron did this? And of course, I whipped out git blame, and of course, the answer was me. And at which point I just quietly fixed it up and there was no need for me to bring that story up any further. But it always seems like no matter what the tool is, and how perfect it can be, you can always either, first, learn new things about it and makes the person you were yesterday look a little bit less bright than the person you are today. And, secondly, any tool can be used or misused. Look at me using Route 53 as a database. It’s a recurring joke for a reason, in that it’s something you can do, but probably shouldn’t, but it could actually be forced into service as I wind up evolving that joke forward. You can misuse anything, and that doesn’t mean the tool itself is bad. It just means the architecture is more than a little bizarre. I always try to provide a positive example whenever I bring that up these days, and sometimes I forget to do it, but every once in awhile I pay off my guilt for an entire generation of people listening to this who have now built CMDBs inside of DNS, but I at least hope that people are taking the right lesson from these things.
Farrah Campbell: [laughing]. Yeah, I actually kind of like—this conversation kind of made me think about my role a little bit. I started thinking about, like when we think about somebody that’s evangelizing, or even the HERO Program, when we think about evangelizing a new technology, we tend to think about the cool tricks, the new features, the integrations, but actually, like, think about evangelism is much more about that. You have to gain trust from the people that you’re talking to. You have to inspire them, and then support them, make them want to follow and to be a part of what you’re doing.
Corey Quinn: Part of what I think is so interesting about all of this is that everyone winds up in their own silos, and we see this with communities in a lot of different ways, but look at what you’re doing. You said at one point you were the queen of poor decisions. Well, now you’re currently an organizer for Portland Serverless Days
, you help run the Portland Serverless Meetup
, you do a bunch of service workshops, and you’re doing a bunch of other Techfest things as well. That’s an awful lot of volunteer work, which doesn’t, I guess, directly tie back to, for most companies anyway, I don’t know how Stackery is structured internally, that doesn’t confer any direct benefit immediately to the company. That’s, you’re effectively giving an awful lot of yourself to the community.
Farrah Campbell: Yeah, I don’t know that I know how to do it any other way, to be honest. When I talk about bad decisions, this is like, I was the queen of negativity, and everything around me, something wasn’t going right. I was the queen of blame and victimizing myself. And it’s been pretty amazing to see what my life has been like when I stopped that. And, again, that happened when I entered into tech, and I’m like, I’m only focusing on what matters here. And it’s amazing what a better place I am with my career, what a better place I am with how I feel about myself, with my friends, with my kids.
Corey Quinn: It’s the idea of bringing your whole self to work.
Farrah Campbell: Yeah, for better, for worse, I bring my whole self to work.
Corey Quinn: Given that you’re involved in all these different things and talking to all these different folks about various aspects of it, I have to ask, what do you think, right now, is being the most misunderstood about serverless?
Farrah Campbell: So, serverless, it’s a lot more than Lambda, or Knative. It’s a mindset. It’s an innovation strategy for enterprises. But, I also think that—the technical aspects of serverless are important, but I think that there’s a paradigm shift in engineering, and the work that has generated so many tech careers is now hidden behind this growing menu of cloud services. And I feel like that there’s this host of fears, and then a focus on negativity, instead of a focus of how to be involved and to start modernizing these systems.
Corey Quinn: I always come away from serverless approaches of being of two minds. One is that it’s a fantastic approach for greenfield development of new experiments. The other is the exact opposite, where this is perfect for modernizing legacy things. And I go back and forth as to which it’s a better fit for. I started to come away with the idea that it may very well may be perfect for both use cases, depending upon other constraints.
Farrah Campbell: I think that is totally true, and it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It can be used with containers, it can be used with on-prem solutions, or—I actually, I don’t even know the old ways actually building all these applications, to be honest with you, but that doesn’t have to be—serverless is not an end for all, like, everything has to be serverless. It’s something that I think that companies are striving to get to, and again, I see it as more of the way you’re building applications.
Corey Quinn: Out of curiosity is Jamstack tied closely to the serverless movement? I keep hearing things about it, and I thought it was something one company was doing, and now I’m not entirely even sure what it is. Have you come across that at all?
Farrah Campbell: So, Jamstack is, I think, it’s marketers that, I think that a lot of them are using serverless. I actually haven’t been a part of it in any of their meetups, but we did actually host one here at Stackery, I think a year ago, and I know a lot of great people in the space like Jason, I think he works at Netlify now. I can’t remember what his last name is, but he lives in Portland. But I think that marketers are leveraging the power of serverless. If I think about it from how Stackery is using it, I can run my own A/B tests by adding in new functions to the usage event [fork 00:25:01] trigger that our team built out. I don’t need to bother anybody from our engineering team to get that done.
Corey Quinn: Yeah, a lot of times I’ll start to see people arguing against the use of managed services or SAS platforms of, “Oh, that’s not real serverless.” I am trying to solve a business problem here not strain for ideological purity, and I tend to get relatively fed up relatively quickly, with folks who tend to let the, I guess, religious movement that they’re trying to embrace, for better or worse, overtake the actual business value the entire thing is designed to deliver for customers.
Farrah Campbell: Totally. I see it’s a technological goal for all these vendors to start deliver hosting computer power to their customers. Maybe one day, we’ll call it something else, because the name just doesn’t make sense.
Corey Quinn: That’s the problem is it’s easy to sit here and cast aspersions on various names of things. I mean, Lord knows I do that enough with AWS launches, but naming things it turns out is super hard.
Farrah Campbell: It turns out also that naming things is super important when you’re setting up your environments when you’re installing certificate tokens on your computer because you need to be able to figure out what those are later, and default, and dev, and then one that just has a number isn’t helpful. These are all things that I learned last week, so, I thought I would share.
Corey Quinn: And typos, of course, are always fun and things that matter. Computers: extraordinarily literal to a fault.
Farrah Campbell: Naming just seems to be a completely hard thing in technology, period, no matter if it’s setting up your environments, keeping your tokens, knowing what AWS account you’re building in, and naming the services, again. So, what is Route 53 by the way?
Corey Quinn: Managed DNS, that’s all it is. It’s effectively the internet’s phonebook, how it converts, www.twitterforpets.com into an IP address: 220.127.116.11.
Farrah Campbell: How does one use that for a— I’ve been, I can’t stop thinking about using it as a database and—because nowhere, when I was setting anything up in there, did it look like it could be used for that.
Corey Quinn: Ah, great question. You can use text records or txt records that you have arbitrary strings up to I want to say 4k. I haven’t tested the limits of my database lately. And then you can just query it with a standard DNS query and it returns the value. You teach your code to ask the question through DNS, take the response, and do something with it. And you’ve built fundamentally what is a database in its purest sense. Now people are going to send me letters over that description but I’ll take it. And it’s not the best service for the job. I mean if you wanted a key-value store that can scale, that’s designed for this, something like DynamoDB makes an awful lot of sense. But you can misuse DNS this way.
Farrah Campbell: Well, we did talk about people misusing technologies earlier.
Corey Quinn: And I don’t think that’s going to stop anytime soon, and I don’t think the current generation of serverless proponents and detractors invented the concept, for better or worse.
Farrah Campbell: Well, maybe Alex DeBrie can help you. We could get that migrated to DynamoDB, I heard he’s really good with it.
Corey Quinn: Absolutely, there’s got to be some sort of weird failover between DynamoDB and Route 53 simultaneously. So, if people want to wind up hearing more about what you have to say, where can they find you?
Corey Quinn: Excellent. Farrah, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I appreciate it.
Farrah Campbell: Yes, thank you so much for having me, Corey, I appreciate it. It’s been a lot of fun. And I just repeated what you said.
Corey Quinn: No, that’s fine. That’s called being a thought leader when people repeat what you say, you’ve made it.
Farrah Campbell: Awesome. Woohoo!
Corey Quinn: Farrah Campbell, ecosystems director at Stackery. I am Corey Quinn, and this is Screaming in the Cloud. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please leave an excellent review on Apple Podcasts. If you’ve hated this podcast please leave an even better review on Apple Podcasts, but at least make the review entertaining.
Announcer: This has been this week’s episode of Screaming in the Cloud. You can also find more Corey at ScreamingintheCloud.com
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