Join Corey and Jonan as they explore how New Relic has changed over the years, transforming from a subscription model to a usage-based model; how the cloud has evolved since New Relic became a company and how that’s impacted the business; what Jonan wants to see when he logs into an observability platform; the kinds of tweets you get when you work in DevRel and how smiley faces can make them better; how Twitch is now being used as a collaborative live coding platform and what that means for devs; how interactive media affects attention spans; the two most common places to spot DevRel folks pre-pandemic; and more.
Jonan Scheffler is the Director of Developer Relations at New Relic. He has a long history of breaking things in public and occasionally putting them back together again. His interest in physical computing often leads him to experiment with robotics and microelectronics, though his professional experience is more closely tied to cloud services and modern application development. In order to break things more effectively he is particularly excited about observability lately, and he’s committed to helping developers around the world live happier lives by showing them how to keep their apps and their dreams alive through the night.
- New Relic: https://newrelic.com/
- The Relicans: https://www.therelicans.com/
- New Relic Twitch: https://www.twitch.tv/new_relic
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/thejonanshow
Announcer: Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Cloud Economist 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. I'm joined this week by Jonan Scheffler, the director of developer relations at New Relic. Jonan, thanks for joining me.
Jonan: Thank you for having me, Corey, this is awesome.
Corey: So let's go back before we even dive into something because I don't know how to actually file grievances or trouble tickets. So, I was a New Relic customer, I want to say circa 2012, and then again, in 2014 or so. And the product was great. I want to be very upfront: it solved a problem and we were thrilled to use it. The sales tactics were—how do we put this—unpleasant where, “Oh, you're using more than we thought you were, so you need to re-up mid-contract cycle after we had things negotiated,” and the rest. And it left a bitter taste in my mouth for years.
Now, in preparation for this, I've reached out to a bunch of current New Relic customers, and I've heard, A) the product has continued to improve, so good work; you've nailed the core competency. But relevant to where I'm going with this, it was also stated that your sales team isn't doing that anymore, which means, oh, thank God, I can do business with them again.
Corey: So first, thanks. Secondly, I'm assuming that was entirely you're doing, correct?
Jonan: I did that, yeah. I actually went to them. We've got a new strategy now where we knock on your door in the morning with breakfast to have a sales meeting. It's kind of a cold call strategy: we find you, and then we talk to you over breakfa—that's not actually our sales strategy right now. I'm not in charge of those things.
I'm glad to hear it's better. We have, actually, an entire new model for paying for New Relic than we've had before where you're paying by usage rather than subscription model that fed us so far. So, a lot of those things have changed, recently.
Corey: And to be clear, something that always appeals to me, you have a perpetual free tier. New Relic and free were two words that went together basically like pudding and cheese. So that's also a bit of an eyebrow-raiser as well. Tell me about it.
Jonan: Yeah, so that was actually one of my frustrations. I worked here at New Relic—I'm a boomerang. I was here about five years ago. And I left just shortly after they went public, and went gallivanting around the industry and then came back around to run DevRel for them. But when I left, it was a very different free tier.
A lot of the features that we had at the time, which were fantastic that it started out as enterprise-focused features, you know, they expand and users want access to those. And nowadays, every part of the platform actually is available on our free tier. And what you get when you sign up for New Relic is the entire New Relic platform. Every feature you could want that we have to offer is available and then you pay as you exceed your 100 gigabyte per month free ingest allowance, which I think, personally, is a much better model for this kind of thing. Because it's just mean to get someone into the house and then show them all the fancy, awesome things that they can't play with. And now we have that.
Corey: Oh, and it solves the problem, too, historically, where you have the pricing—where you're incentivizing behaviors that don't benefit the customer, where it's oh, we're going to charge per node, or we're going to wind up going at it through a very weird lens that causes particular aspects of someone's application to spike the price. And the answer to how to control for those costs winds up being, “Oh. Just use our product less.” That seems like it's aimed in the wrong direction. And one counterpoint, your sales team did bring up with me was, “Well, sampling is not a great idea. You kind of want to capture everything.” Yeah, I absolutely do, but I have a budget, so it's a constant tension. And anything that gets away from having to actively predict those things in advance is a clear win. Let's also be clear that when we're talking about an environment that does, you know, auto-scaling, having to do a per-node licensing is sort of like hitting moving targets at any given moment.
Jonan: And that's the thing. I mean, when New Relic became a company, it was a very different landscape in the Cloud. We had a much more likely customer scenario where people were going to scale vertically. And now as is obviously the case, people are scaling horizontally: into Kubernetes, you have a massive number of nodes, or whatever you end up with in your particular infrastructure, but the per-host licensing just doesn't work in this world anymore.
Corey: Oh, back when Lambda first came out, one of the first things I did was I wound up embedding the New Relic library into a test function and then wound up invoking a couple thousand of them at once, and then just waited for the phone to ring. And sure enough, there was a salesperson who called and I don't know how they managed to make a cash register noise with their mouth, but they did. And just to taunt people because I am, first and foremost, basically an internet troll back in that era. So yeah, credit where due, you’ve figured out how Cloud works since then, and I've become a little bit less grating and obnoxious. But I have to say, the overall trend line I'm seeing from New Relic is positive. Good job.
Jonan: I wouldn't be back here if I hadn't been impressed with their progress. And I wish I could talk about more of what's going on inside because it's exciting.
Corey: I want to be also very clear here that this is a promoted episode. You are sponsoring this episode—thanks, we appreciate your business—but there is a barrier here as far as who we let sponsor things that have our name on it. Because if there's a company that wants to sponsor what we're doing, and what they're doing is abjectly awful and no one in their right mind should use it, I don't want to be associated with that. That's awful. There's always a difficult challenge of trying to square those two things of one, we like money; two, we don't like being actively harmful. And I just want to be very clear here, it was not a hard decision when we were talking to New Relic.
Jonan: Yeah. I've always gotten a lot out of New Relic. I've used it since I started in software. I mean, I came into this industry ten years ago through a code school, and that was day two of setting up an application. It's like, “All right, well, here's how you get set up with your staging development production pipeline on Heroku, and then you install New Relic.” It was just considered a best practice and I've used it ever since. I've always loved the product, and it's only getting better.
Corey: Oh, absolutely. It's one of those few things that has a different perspective on monitoring. But I want to get away from the past for the moment and talk instead about, well, I guess the present. Tell me about this whole New Relic Explorer thing.
Jonan: Yeah. So, speaking of getting better, this is the UI I’ve always wanted from New Relic. The screen that I want to see when I log in, the first screen I want to see, is an overview of my entire system. That's what I want from an observability platform like New Relic.
Corey: The mythical single pane of glass.
Jonan: That's exactly it. Right. When I used to deploy things earlier on in my career, we would open up the New Relic dashboard, and we would stare at it and wait for that red line. Nowadays, I think our practices have evolved a little bit, and even then we were a little bit behind the times in that particular role, but we were waiting for that line to go down to figure out if we were going to roll back. And that's what I want to know.
If I'm logging into New Relic, while we would like to, as a company, believe that this is all you look at all day, I imagine you have other work to do. And when you're logging in to diagnose an issue, you want to see it in your face immediately and identify the spread across potentially 2 million different systems, 2 million different entities in your platform that are interacting at a glance. That's a difficult thing to design a UI around, but it's really important. I think it comes to the fundamental flaw that humans have that we don't actually do the glyph thing where we read letters, like, staring at a whole page full of logs, and metrics as numbers and letters, our brains are not designed for that. We want pictures; we want to be able to visualize the thing and hold it in our head so that we can figure out where the pieces are falling off.
Corey: The problem I always had historically with dashboards for monitoring systems is, one, I'll go fairly long periods of time without ever logging into them. That's not necessarily a sign that this is adding no value, it's a sign of, yay, things work and I'm focusing on other stuff. And then there's the scenario that I think almost every vendor falls into, which is, “Huh. It's now three in the morning. Several graphs that are central to things have either spiked to infinity or dropped to zero, and everything else is super wonky.”
So, someone who normally is in Pacific Time is logging in 3 a.m. Pacific Time and they're greeted by a whole host of, “Have you seen what's new in our console?” “Our conference is coming up soon. Click here to buy tickets,” “We have a new user experience.” Then you have Intercom popping up. “Are you happy? Can we talk to you?” And et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And there's no awareness built into it that the panic moment someone has when they're looking at a monitoring dashboard is, “Oh, God, get the site back up.” And it feels like there's a competition between vendors, as far as who can antagonize their customer base the most in the middle of the night.
Corey: Is there anything like that baked into New Relic Explorer?
Jonan: There is no specific feature for that. I'm certain that there are a fair number of popover kind of notifications within the system, but the New Relic One platform lets you design your own dashboard. So now, when you log in there, you are—
Corey: Does it help me or does it give me the worst possible thing in the world, which is an empty screen: “Go ahead and put what you want here.” It doesn't matter if it's an IDE, a content management system when it's time for me to write a post, or a dashboard, design your own from scratch without templates is awful.
Jonan: It is awful. And that's I think one of the things that I appreciate about New Relic is that we offer opinionated solutions, we have pre-built dashboards and pre-built views, and you can also just make your own wherever they are insufficient for your needs, or you would like to see your data differently with React, which is pretty quick to learn. And you can build your own dashboards whenever you want them. But I actually—now that Explorer is here, I don't imagine I'm going to be using that feature as much.
Corey: Consider this something of a feature request. And again, you're in an uncomfortable position, specifically because every time someone is logging into their monitoring system, I can already answer the survey question you send out: “Are you happy as a New Relic customer?” “No, I’m absolutely not happy because, in an ideal world, I wouldn't remember that I was a New Relic customer because my stuff would be working.” It's actively broken right now, and I am annoyed and pissed off at everything that appears in front of me, kick-the-dog-on-the-way-over-to-the-computer-style. So it's a hard problem because on some level, you have people whose primary interaction with what you're doing is during incidents, yet, you are the director of developer relations, which means that not only do you have a whole bunch of pissed off developers because the stuff that they wrote broke, but you have to talk to these people. Tell me about that.
Jonan: Yeah. I mean, it's my job to be there and just to listen to people. I've got kind of a weird background. Before I came into tech, I worked in hospitality for a long time. One of the things they teach you when you're working the front desk at a hotel is that it is always your fault and it's always your problem, and you are prepared to give away the house if necessary, to get this person to someday stay at your hotel's brand.
Again, I worked at the Hilton back in the day. If someone came down to the front desk, and they wanted me to comp their two weeks’ stay in its entirety, and we’re flushing $5,000, we were trained to think about the $10 million lifetime spend of that Hilton customer. And I consider DevRel to be a step in that direction for software. This DevRel team that exists here at New Relic is here because New Relic cares about those interactions. So, it is in fact my job to get out there on Twitter and take the heat.
I would like it—community, if you're listening, if you just sent me some nice tweets, sometimes. I know you all have good experiences with New Relic, too. Just send me the good news. But you don't hear that, and I get that. That's part of what being in a customer service style role is.
I'm okay with that. I want to hear that, and I want to curate it and take it back to the product team so we can improve and iterate. But maybe a smiley face, too, on the tweet when you send it.
Corey: You talk about tweeting and you talk about interacting with folks in different areas. And that's great, and I'm thrilled to have all kinds of different means of interaction, but you're also getting big into Twitch. And what I'm unclear on is that just because really into Fortnight or something, lately, or is there more to it than that?
Jonan: Yeah, I would say there's a little more to it than that. I have not been playing very much Fortnight. The shooter-style games are not my thing. I like Minecraft, World of Warcraft, neither of which I try to play very much anymore because I have a tendency to get sucked into games. But, yeah, Twitch is primarily known for being a gaming platform, but it more and more is being seen as an opportunity to live code with community members and to level up when you're learning some new technology with someone in real-time in a much more engaging format.
It's a choose your own adventure television show where you're in the chat guiding the conversation and participating. I think our generation got a lot of grief over the years for having short attention spans. Y'all got ADHD because Nintendo and whatever. And that may or may not be true, but what I think has actually happened is that we've shifted away from traditional mediums like newspapers, and broadcast news shows because they're one-way communication. Online platforms like Twitch, allow you an opportunity to be a part of the media that you're consuming.
So, I can pair program, I can mob program with a hundred people from the New Relic community who want to come and learn about some new feature, they want to come and write a Nerdlet—one of our programmability dashboards—with me. They can decide the direction that goes, with me, live. I don't think that there has been another such opportunity even in a live conference format, which was the traditional realm of DevRel before the pandemic hit us. We were all out there going to these conferences. But you're standing on a stage—
Corey: Oh, yeah. Most often in the before times, your two most common places to spot DevRel were on stage at a conference, or in the frequent flyer lounge at the airport.
Jonan: Exactly. In both cases, it was a one-way conversation. I mean, DevRel in the lounge because we're really loud, but DevRel on the stage because it’s a stage, and we have a slideshow. And you get the Q&A and the hallway track, but all that's gone now. And now we have the alternative of going to a virtual conference—which is the least engaging parts of that experience—or going to Twitch where we get to have a conversation. And that's why our new team, The Relicans, you can go to the therelicans.com, audience, and check us out.
Corey: Please tell me there's a bird logo.
Jonan: Yeah. It's a pelican and their name is Ellie.
Corey: Excellent, good, good, good. I’m just checking. Sometimes it seems that companies don't connect the dots that seem obvious to me.
Jonan: Yeah, this was actually a little bit of a joke early on in New Relic. We were specifically instructed to call ourselves ‘Relics’ because relican rhymed with pelican. So, when I came back, of course, I had to name the team, ‘The Radicans.’ We chose it together, but I may have influenced the direction there. Yeah, we have a pelican. Their name is Ellie, and Ellie is featured all over therelicans.com.
Anyway, we're all on about Twitch; you can find us on twitch.tv/new_relic. There's ten of us right now streaming more than 100 hours a week on various topics. And maybe only 10 percent of that time is explicitly about New Relic. We're teaching people how to program in a variety of languages. It's just fun. Is a fantastic platform. I love playing on there.
Corey: It really is one of those just foundational type of experiences. I don't know how to describe Twitch effectively, but you're right, absolutely every other online conference—with a bit of rounding error—as aspects of, “Oh. It's just like another Zoom meeting only in some ways worse.”
Corey: In my case, it’s because I'm not allowed to take myself off of mute and insult people like I do in my Zoom meetings. But for other folks, it's almost lecture-like. And this is my big problem fundamentally, with the way that DevRel has handled these unprecedented times. And it's that they're trying to take the same thing that they would have done on stage and now they're just doing it in front of a camera. It doesn't work.
Jonan: It doesn't. And it's not going to change. I think once the live events come back, we're going to be back out there because the real value for me was standing in the hallways and having the conversations with people, getting that feedback real-time. And now I have another way to do that is only complimentary. But I don't mean to say that virtual events are not a thing we're participating in; we're still out there and doing those, but they are a select few.
And they tend to be the ones that have found other ways to drive that engagement. Because we're there for the community as much as we are there for our companies. To the community, I represent the company; to the company, I represent the community. I need to get that feedback from people so I can bring it inside the house and help improve New Relic as a platform. That is my job. And if I'm just talking, I'm not getting it.
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Corey: There has to be an engagement model. And I think that we've talked about on the show repeatedly, through various episodes, a recurring theme has been that DevRel is widely misunderstood, including in many cases, by practitioners of same.
Corey: It's a hard problem to solve for. People think, “Oh, it's marketing.” But it's not, really. “It’s product.” But it's not, really. It almost lends itself to a definition of being categorized based upon what it isn't. And that's always a hard thing to do. We saw massive layoffs around the DevRel space when the pandemic hit. You've grown the team during that same timeframe.
Corey: What is it that you see differently?
Jonan: New Relic right now is focused on developers. And I don't think that I would surprise anyone at New Relic or outside to say that maybe we weren't doing a great job of that for a while. We were focused on growing the company and talking to larger companies. And in that process, the focus naturally trends away. I mean, look, this is a standard thing that happens.
A company with a developer product goes public; they get there by swiping their first Amex from someone, and they're like, “Oh, hey. That just supplanted all the income we ever earned from the $7 a month people that we're spending all of our energy on.” And what they don't realize is the Amex swiped because that CTO sent a message to their whole team—first thing—when they got a contact from a salesperson at New Relic and said, “Hey, what do you think of New Relic?” And eight out of ten people went nuts. They were so excited that they would get to use New Relic instead of whatever home-rolled scripts or whatever they had at the time, that it was an obvious choice.
And the CTO gets to look like a hero in choosing this platform. And that starts to evaporate out from under those leaders as you move your focus to larger enterprise business. And I'm not saying you don't have to focus on both sides, but New Relic now more than ever understands how much developers mean to their success. And I think that is the real heart of New Relic, we have always been a developer-first company. But I think in the last six months since I've been here, I've seen evidence of that in ways that I would never have expected from outside. And this DevRel team is an example of that. We're here for the people. I'm really excited to be doing it.
Corey: A periodic example I keep coming back to is let's say that I start some nonsense Twitter for Pets style company tomorrow. And in the next ten years, it grows to be a component of the Fortune 500. At some point, between it's just me with a dumb idea and household name, there has to be an on-ramp for a vendor to become my vendor. And an awful lot of—if you'll forgive the term—legacy companies, but not in the flattering definition of legacy I usually use of ‘It makes money,’ but companies that were poised at the old model of selling to executives and then having it inflicted on their staff, are instead dealing with, “Oh. You mean, we need to get buy-in from folks?” Sean O'Grady’s book, The New Kingmakers—about how developers are, in many cases, the influencers that drive a lot of these purchases—seems to be a lesson that companies lose sight of as they hit certain milestones such as exceeding certain sizes, going public, having certain percentages of the S&P, or having certain percentages of the Fortune 500 as customers.
Jonan: Yeah. And I mean, you have to focus on different things. There are a certain number of features that an enterprise client demands of your business that you need to really focus on to implement. Like, PCI compliance is not a small thing, HIPAA compliance is not a small thing for an entity to build into their software. So—
Corey: It's not negotiable.
Jonan: Yeah, it's non-negotiable if you want to play in that space. So, if you do you want to serve the full breadth of potential software customers, then yeah, you need that. And it takes a little bit of focus time. I think that a lot of companies spend the appropriate amount of time doing that. What's important to me is that they remember why they're here in the first place. And New Relic very much remembers that. And I appreciate that about this company.
Corey: It's reassuring to hear that a lot of these lessons don't necessarily get lost, they just get obscured from time to time. And companies that are targeting big enterprises, of course, have to hit those compliance goals, but that doesn't mean that that's useless to startups. A further point beyond that is that every big company that I talk to right now tends to perceive itself as, “Weird like a startup,” or, “We're going to be like a startup,” or, “We're going to use some tools a startup might use.” And those tools still have to check those boxes. But you also never hear the opposite where you have a startup, and, “Oh, yes. We have a procurement process that's just like a big enterprise is.” Because the answer to that is, “Holy God, why would you do that?” There's a narrative that people want to fall in line with of how they are perceived. They want to perceive themselves a certain way that tells a certain story. Whether it's accurate or not, is almost beside the point.
Jonan: Yeah, no, I absolutely agree with you. And I think that specifically in the observability space, that move fast and break things mentality that sometimes exists in the startup community is not an ideal place to be. I think New Relic does a very good job of taking their customers seriously and their customers’ data seriously, and their business seriously, and maybe some of the time, not ourselves so seriously. I mean, I'm on a team that has a pelican for a logo. I certainly am in this space in a spirit of play. But there's a line there that is difficult for companies to walk. I agree with you. It's often the biggest mistake that a company at scale will make, is getting that wrong.
Corey: Do you think that it's required to get a lot of stuff wrong before you get it right or is it possible to learn from the mistakes of others and just do the right thing the first time?
Jonan: I've never been a big believer in vicarious learning, right? Ask every kid whose parents told them they didn't ever want to get drunk, “Never drink more than three,” has never worked. I think that we keep learning the same lessons—as evidenced by a lot of our languages and frameworks and tooling—and we eventually iterate towards better as a natural circumstance of that. I mean, there's not as much efficiency as there could be in going from here to five percent better, but I mean, you and I both worked in this industry ten years ago; it was not awesome. And today, I think it is better. But along the way, there was a lot of missteps. So yes, I think that you can certainly learn lessons from those around you, but it's easy also to feel like you're cutting ground where you're not, if that makes sense. And I think a lot of companies fall into that.
Corey: It's also easy to sit here, from my perspective—remember, I don't run any production software here. I'm mostly casting stones. The reason I'm not currently a New Relic customer is primarily because I use hosted WordPress and, frankly, if that site goes down, it's not the end of the world—first off. Secondly, I already have a monitoring system in place that costs less: it's called Twitter because people will absolutely let me know whenever my site has the slightest of hiccups. And application performance on something like that, or even moving to the other aspects of what New Relic does, isn't—to be blunt—that interesting to me.
It's a content website. There's no web app built onto it, so at least through my current lens, I don't view myself as a prospective New Relic customer. So, on some level, I'm sort of LARPing here as, well, what I would do if I had something to monitor today and how I would approach it. But I'm confident in what I'm saying for the most part just because I talk to people who are in that position, who do care about these things, who actually care about their customers. And New Relic is not a bad option these days, I've got to say, by every person I'm able to talk to. Unless I'm missing something. Are you secretly terrible and I just don't know?
Jonan: No. We are not secretly terrible. I think that I'm going to need to check my press brief here. No, it says right here, I can say that officially, “We are not secretly terrible.” It's a fantastic product. It always has been. The New Relic Explorer interface is a huge level-up for us, see all of it at a glance.
I would suggest that even if you don't care about the people reading your blog, you might be interested to know how long or how broken their page-loading experience is. They may not tweet at you just because it takes them 60 seconds to load the page because the blog post eventually shows up. That's the kind of thing we can help with. There's a free tier now, Corey, get on there. It's 100 gigs. You're not going to use that on your WordPress blog.
Corey: Oh, well, you'd be surprised. My logging is super verbose, and I tend to have an awful lot of unoptimized nonsense. But yeah, it's one of those things to where, to be direct, I don't see that there's any meaningful business benefit from improving a lot of the performance on this. Yeah, I know that it was Walmart or Amazon or someone did a study many years ago that's quoted the death about, every 100 milliseconds of latency reduces revenue by some percentage. I feel like that might make sense in the context of whatever they did. But as a global truism, I can't shake the feeling that it's significantly overplayed.
Jonan: Yeah, I think so. I think that there are a lot of opportunities to use a platform like New Relic to get observability for other reasons as well. I mean, ultimately, it is, I think, a focus on the customer and it always should be, but you're not necessarily looking for places where you're losing money; you might be looking for places where your customers are having a bad experience and you're not ever going to hear about it, they're not ever going to click your thumbs up/thumbs down form or your intercom pop up, you're never going to know. They're just going to walk away, and they're going to talk about you to their friends in the hallway, at the conference. That's, I think, where I watch that knowledge.
But again, I'm a very community-focused person, I always have been in my career, but that's what I care about is the end users’ experience using the product because I want to make the world better. I think most people do; call me naive, but I think most of us are in it to improve things a little bit while we're on this planet, and I would like to see developers' lives be better. Because as you and I both know, they're pretty bad a lot of time. Computers are terrible. It was a mistake.
Corey: Computers are terrible, and then we have to add people to that mess, too.
Jonan: Yeah. Of the two, I choose humans.
Corey: Jonan, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. If people care more about what you have to say and how you care to say it, where can they find you?
Jonan: They can find me on the internet on Twitter. I'm @thejonanshow on Twitter. Better place may even be therelicans.com, our new developer relations blog that we launched. And of course, we're all on Twitch all the time; you can find us through the twitch.tv/new_relic channel, which is linked everywhere, and all ten of our individual channels are on there. I do a lot of playing with Kubernetes and Raspberry Pis and other nonsense on there. So, come on by and say hello; I would love to hear from you.
Corey: Excellent. We will of course throw links to that in the [show notes 00:30:08]. Thank you so much for speaking to me. I really do appreciate it.
Jonan: Thanks for having me, Corey.
Corey: Jonan Scheffler, director of developer relations at New Relic. 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 hated this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice and an insulting comment talking about how this podcast free trial isn't really free at all.
Announcer: This has been this week’s episode of Screaming in the Cloud. You can also find more Corey at screaminginthecloud.com, or wherever fine snark is sold.
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