Jeremy Meiss, Director of DevRel at CircleCI, joins Corey on Screaming in the Cloud to define what DevRel is and what it isn’t. Listen as Jeremy explains where he feels DevRel is best positioned to sit in a company, as well as why it’s important to view DevRel as “just marketing” or “just product”. Jeremy also reveals how he sees the role of DevRel evolving as we face economic changes in the market, as well as how DevRel teams can connect to a sense of meaning and purpose in their work to avoid burnout.
Episode Show Notes & Transcript
Jeremy is the Director of DevRel & Community at CircleCI, formerly at Solace, Auth0, and XDA. He is active in the DevRel Community, and is a co-creator of DevOpsPartyGames.com. A lover of all things coffee, community, open source, and tech, he is also house-broken, and (generally) plays well with others.
- CircleCI: https://circleci.com/
- DevOps Party Games: https://devopspartygames.com/
- Twitter: Iamjerdog
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeremymeiss/
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. I generally try to have people that I know in the ecosystem on this show from time to time, but somehow today’s guest has never made it onto the show. And honestly, I have no excuse other than that, I guess I just like being contrary about it. Jeremy Meiss is the Director of DevRel and Community at CircleCI. Jeremy, thank you for finally getting on the show.
Jeremy: Hey, you know what? I woke up months and months ago hoping I would be able to join and never have, so I appreciate you finally, you know, getting that celestial kick in the ass.
Corey: I love the fact that this is what you lie awake at night worrying about. As all people should. So, let’s get into it. You have been at CircleCI in their DevRel org—heading their DevRel org—for approximately 20 years, but in real-time and non-tech company timeframes, three years. But it feels like 20. How’s that been? It’s been an interesting three years, I’ll say that much with the plague o’er the land.
Jeremy: Yes, absolutely. No, it was definitely a time to join. I joined two weeks before the world went to shit, or shittier than it already was. And yeah, it’s been a ride. Definitely see how everything’s changed, but it’s also been one that I couldn’t be happier where I’m at and seeing the company grow.
Corey: I’ve got to level with you. For the longest time, I kept encountering CircleCI in the same timeframes and context, as I did Travis CI. They both have CI in the name and I sort of got stuck on that. And telling one of the companies apart from the other was super tricky at the time. Now, it’s way easier because Travis CI got acquired and then promptly imploded.
Security issues that they tried to hide left and right, everyone I knew there long since vanished, and at this point, it is borderline negligence from my point of view to wind up using them in production. So oh, yeah, CircleCI, that’s the one that’s not trash. I don’t know that you necessarily want to put that on a billboard somewhere, but that’s my mental shortcut for it.
Jeremy: You know, I’m not going to disagree with that. I think, you know, it had its place, I think there’s probably only one or two companies nowadays actually propping it up as a business, and I think even they are actively trying to get out of it. So yeah, not going to argue there.
Corey: I have been on record previously as talking about CI/CD—Continuous Integration slash Continuous Deployment—or for those who have not gone tumbling down that rabbit hole, the idea that when you push a commit to a particular branch on Git—or those who have not gotten to that point, push the button, suddenly code winds up deploying to different environments, occasionally production, sometimes staging, sometimes development, sometimes by accident—and there are a bunch of options in that space. AWS has a bunch of services under their CodeStar suite: CodeBuild, CodeDeploy, CodePipeline, and that’s basically there as a marketing exercise by CI/CD companies that are effective because after having attempted to set those things up with the native offerings, you go scrambling to something else, anything else. GitHub Actions has also been heavily in that space because it’s low friction to integrate, it’s already there in GitHub, and that’s awesome in some ways, terrible in others. But CircleCI has persistently been something that I see in a lot of different environments, both the open-source world, as well as among my clients, where they are using you folks to go from developer laptops to production safely and sanely.
Jeremy: Absolutely, yeah. And I think that’s one thing for us is, there’s a niche of—you know, you can start if you’re into AWS or you’re into Google, or you’re in—any of those big ecosystems, you can certainly use what they have, but those are always, like, add-on things, they’re always like an afterthought of, “Oh, we’re going to go add this,” or, “We’re going to go add that.” And so, I think you adequately described it of, you know, once you start hitting scale, you’re eventually going to start to want to use something, and I think that’s where we generally fit in that space of, you know, you can start, but now you’re going to eventually end up here and use best-in-class. I spent years Auth0 in the identity space, and it was the same kind of boat is that, you know, sure you can start with hopefully not rolling your own, but eventually you’re going to end up wanting to use something best-in-class that does everything that you want it to do and does it right.
Corey: The thing that just completely blows my mind is how much for all these companies, no matter who they are and how I talk to them, everyone talks about their CI/CD flow with almost a sense of embarrassment. And back in the days when I was running production environments, we use Jenkins as sort of a go-to answer for this. And that was always a giant screaming exemption to the infrastructure-as-code approach because you could configure it via the dashboard and the web interface and it would write that out as XML files. So, you wound up with bespoke thing lots of folks could interact with in different ways, and oh, by the way, it has access into development, staging, and production. Surely, there will be no disasters that happened as a result of this.
And that felt terrible. And now we’ve gotten into a place where most folks are not doing that anymore, at least with the folks that I talk to, but I’m still amazed by how few best practices around a lot of this stuff has really emerged. Every time I see a CI/CD pipeline, it feels like it is a reimplementation locally of solving a global problem. You’re the director of DevRel and have been for a few years now. Why haven’t you fixed this yet?
Jeremy: Primarily because I’m still stuck on the fact you mentioned, pushing a button and getting to XML. That just kind of stuck me there and sent me back that I can’t come up with a solution at this point.
Corey: Yeah, it’s the way that you solve the gap—the schism as it were—between JSON and YAML. “Cool, we’re going to use XML.” And everyone’s like, “Oh, God, not that.” It’s like, “Cool, now you’re going to settle your differences or I’m going to implement other things, too.”
Jeremy: That’s right, yeah. I mean, then we’re going to go use some bespoke company’s own way of doing IAC. No, I think there’s an element here where—I mean, it goes back to still using best-in-class. I think Hudson, which eventually became Jenkins, after you know, Cisco—was it Cisco? No, it was Sun—after Sun, you know, got their hands all over it, it was the thing. It’s kind of, well, we’re just going to spin this up and do it ourselves.
But as the industry changes, we do more and more things on the cloud and we do it primarily because we’re relocating the things that we don’t want to have to manage ourselves with all of the overhead and all of the other stuff. We’re going to go spit it over to the cloud for that. And so, I think there’s been this shift in the industry that they still do, like you said, look at their pipelines with a little bit of embarrassment [laugh], I think, yeah. I chuckle when I think about that, but there is a piece where more and more people are recognizing that there is a better way and that you can—you don’t have to look at your pipelines as this thing you hate and you can start to look at what better options there are than something you have to host yourself.
Corey: What I’m wondering about now, though, because you’ve been fairly active in the space for a long time, which is a polite way of saying you have opinions—and you should hear the capital O and ‘Opinions’ when I say it that way—let’s fight about DevRel. What does DevRel mean to you? Or as I refer to it, ‘devrelopers?’
Jeremy: Uh, devrelopers. Yes. You know, not to take from the standard DevOps answer, but I think it depends.
Corey: That’s the standard lawyer answer to anything up to and including, is it legal for me to murder someone? And it’s also the senior consultant answer, to anything, too, because it turns out the world is baked and nuanced and doesn’t lend itself to being resolved in 280 characters or less. That’s what threads are for.
Jeremy: Right [laugh]. Trademark. That is ultimately the answer, I think, with DevRel. For me, it is depending on what your company is trying to do. You ultimately want to start with building relationships with your developers because they’re the ones using your product, and if you can get them excited about what they’re doing with your product—or get excited about your product with what they’re doing—then you have something to stand on.
But you also have to have a product fit. You have to actually know what the hell your product is doing and is it going to integrate with whatever your developers want. And so, DevRel kind of stands in that gap that says, “Okay, here’s what the community wants,” and advocates for the community, and then you have—it’s going to advocate for the company back to the community. And hopefully, at the end of the day, they all shake hands. But also I’ve been around enough to recognize that there comes that point where you either a have to say, “Hey, our product for that thing is probably not the best thing for what you’re trying to do. Here, you should maybe start at this other point.”
And also understanding to take that even, to the next step to finish up the answer, like, my biggest piece now is all the fights that we have constantly around DevRel in the space of what is it and what is it not, DevRel is marketing. DevRel is sales. DevRel is product. And each of those, if you’re not doing those things as a member of the company, you’re not doing your job. Everybody in the company is the product. Everybody in the company is sales. Everybody in the company is marketing.
Corey: Not everyone in the company realizes this, but I agree—
Jeremy: Yes. And so, that’s where it’s like yes, DevRel is marketing. Yes, it is sales. Because if you’re not out there, spreading whatever the news is about your product and you’re not actually, you know, showing people how to use it and making things easier for people, you’re not going to have a job. And too often, these companies that—or too often I think a lot of DevRel teams find themselves in places where they’re the first that get dropped when the company goes through things because sometimes it is just the fact that the company has not figured out what they really want, but also, sometimes it’s the team hasn’t really figured out how to position themselves inside the business.
Corey: One of the biggest, I’ll call it challenges that I see in the DevRel space comes down to defining what it is, first and foremost. I think that it is collectively a mistake for an awful lot of practitioners of developer relations, to wind up saying first and foremost that we’re not marketing. Well, what is it that you believe that marketing is? In fact, I’ll take it a step beyond that. I think that marketing is inherently the only place in most companies where we know that doing these things leads to good results, but it’s very difficult to attribute or define that value, so how do we make sure that we’re not first up on the chopping block?
That has been marketing’s entire existence. It’s, you know that doing a whole bunch of things in marketing will go well for you, but as the old chestnut says, half your marketing budget is wasted and you’ll go broke figuring out which half it is.
Jeremy: Yeah. And whenever you have to make cuts, generally, they always, you know, always come to the marketing teams because hey, they’re the ones spending, you know, millions of dollars a quarter on ads, or whatever it is. And so yeah, marketing has, in many ways figured this out. They’re also the team that spends the most money in a company. So, I don’t really know where to go with that isn’t completely off the rails, but it is the reality. Like, that’s where things happen, and they are the most in touch with what the direction of the company is going to ultimately be received as, and how it’s going to be spoken about. And DevRel has great opportunities there.
Corey: I find that when people are particularly militant about not liking sales or marketing or any other business function out there, one of the ways to get through them is to ask, “Great. In your own words, describe to me what you believe that department does. What is that?” And people will talk about marketing in a bunch of tropes—or sales in a bunch of tropes—where it is the worst examples of that.
It’s, “Terrific, great. Do you want me to wind up describing what you do as an engineer—in many cases—in the most toxic stereotype of Uber and 2015-style engineer I can come up with?” I think, in most cases if we’re having a conversation and I haven’t ended it by now, you would be horrified by that descriptor. Yeah. Not every salesperson is the skeezy used car salesman trying to trick you into something awful. Actual selling comes down to how do we wind up taking your pain away. One of my lines is, “I’m a consultant. You have problems and money. I will take both.”
Jeremy: That’s right [laugh]. Yeah, that’s right.
Corey: If you don’t have a painful problem, I have nothing to sell you and all I’m doing is wasting my breath trying.
Jeremy: Yeah, exactly. And that’s where—I’ll say it two ways—the difference between good marketing teams are, is understanding that pain point of the people that they’re trying to sell to. And it’s also a difference between, like, good and bad, even, DevRel teams is understanding what are the challenges that your users are having you’re trying to express to, you’re trying to fix? Figure that out because if you can’t figure that out, then you or your marketing team are probably soon to be on the block and they’re going to bring someone else in.
Corey: I’m going to fight you a little bit, I suspect, in that a line I’ve heard is that, “Oh, DevRel is part of product because we are the voice of the community back into the development cycle of what product is building.” And the reason that I question that is I think that it glosses over an awful lot of what makes product competent as a department and not just a function done by other people. It’s, “Oh, you’re part of the product. Well, great. How much formal training have you had as part of your job on conducting user research and interviews with users and the rest?”
And the answer invariably rounds to zero and, okay, in other words, you’re just giving feedback in a drive-by fashion that not structured in any way and your product people are polite enough not to call you out on it. And that’s when the fighting and slapping begins.
Jeremy: Yeah. I don’t think we’re going to disagree too much there. I think one of the challenges, though, is for the very reason you just mentioned, that the product teams tend to hear your product sucks. And we’ve heard all the people telling us that, like, people in the community say that, they hear that so much and they’ve been so conditioned to it that it just rolls off their back, like, “Okay, whatever.” So, for DevRel teams, even if you’re in product, which we can come back to that, regardless of where you’re at, like, bringing any type of feedback you bring should have a person, a name associated with it with, like, Corey at Duckbill Group hates this product.
Corey: Uh-oh [laugh]. Whenever my name is tied to feedback, it never goes well for me, but that will teach me eventually, ideally, to keep my mouth shut.
Jeremy: Yeah. Well, how’s that working for you?
Corey: I’ll let you know if it ever happens.
Jeremy: Good. But once you start making the feedback like an actual person, it changes the conversation. Because now it’s like, oh, it’s not this nebulous, like, thing I can not listen to. It’s now oh, it’s actually a person at a specific company. So, that’s one of the challenges in working with product that you have to overcome.
When I think about DevRel in product, while I don’t think that’s a great spot for it, I think DevRel is an extension of product. That’s part of where that, like, the big developer experience craze comes from, and why it is a valuable place for DevRel to be able to have input into is because you tend to be the closest to the people actually using the product. So, you have a lot of opportunities and a big surface area to have some impact.
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Corey: I think that that is a deceptively nuanced statement. One of the things I learned from an earlier episode I had with Dr. Christina Maslach, is contributors to occupational burnout, so much of it really distills down—using [unintelligible 00:16:35] crappy layman’s terms—to a lack of, I guess what I’m going to call relevance or a lack—a feeling like you are not significant to what the company is actually doing in any meaningful way. And I will confess to having had a number of those challenges in my career when I was working in production environments because, yeah, I kept the servers up and the applications up, but if you really think about it, one of the benefits of working in the system space—or the production engineers base, or DevOps, or platform engineering, or don’t even start with me these days—is that what you do conveys almost seamlessly from company to company. Like, the same reason that I can do what I do now, I don’t care what your company does, necessarily, I just know that the AWS bill is a bounded problem space and I can reason about it almost regardless of what you do.
And if I’m keeping the site up, okay, it doesn’t matter if we’re streaming movies or selling widgets or doing anything, just so long as I don’t find that it contradicts my own values. And that’s great, but it also is isolating because you feel like you’re not really relevant to the direction of what the company actually does. It’s, “Okay, so what does this company do?” “We make rubber bands,” and well, I’m not really a rubber band connoisseur, but I could make sure that the website stays up. But it just feels like there’s a disconnect element happening.
Jeremy: That is real. It is very real. And one of the ways that I tried to kind of combat that, and I help my team kind of really try and keep this in mind, is we try to meet as much as possible with the people that are actually doing the direction, whether it be product marketing, or whether it’s in product managers, or it’s even, you know, in engineering is have some regular conversations with what we do as a company. How are we going to fit with that in what we do and what we say and all of our objectives, and making sure that everything we do ties to something that helps other teams and that fits within the business and where it’s going so that we grow our understanding of what the company is trying to do so that we don’t kind of feel like a ship that’s without a sail and just floating wherever things go.
Corey: On some level, I am curious as to what you’re seeing as we navigate this—I don’t know if it’s a recession,’ I don’t know if it’s a correction; I’m not sure what to call it—but my gut tells me that a lot of things that were aimed at, let’s call it developer quality of life, they were something of a necessity in the unprecedented bull market that we’ve seen for the last decade at some point because most companies cannot afford to compete with the giant tech company compensation packages, so you have to instead talk about quality of life and what work-life balance looks like, and here’s why all of the tools and processes here won’t drive you to madness. And now it feels like, “Oh, we don’t actually have to invest in a lot of those things, just because oh yeah, like, the benefits here are you’re still going to be employed next week. So, how about that?” And I don’t think that’s a particularly healthy way to interact with people—it’s certainly not how I do—but it does seem that worrying about keeping developers absolutely thrilled with every aspect of their jobs has taken something of a backseat during the downturn.
Jeremy: I don’t know. I feel like developer satisfaction is still an important piece, even though, you know, we have a changing market. And as you described, if you’re not happy with the tool you’re using, you’re not going to be as productive than using the tool or using—you know, whether it’s an actual developer productivity tool, or it’s even just the fact that you might need two monitors, you’re not going to be as productive if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing. So, there is a piece of it, I think, the companies are recognizing that there are some tools that do ultimately benefit and there’s some things that they can say, we’re not going to invest in that area right now. We’re good with where we’re at.
Corey: On some level, being able to say, “No, we’re not going to invest in that right now,” is the right decision. It is challenging, in some cases, to wind up talking to some team members in some orgs, who do not have the context that is required to understand why that decision is being made. Because without context, it looks like, “Mmm, no. I’m just canceling Christmas for you personally this year. Sorry, doesn’t it suck to be you? [singing] Dut, dut.” And that is very rarely how executives make decisions, except apparently if they’re Elon Musk.
Jeremy: Right. Well, the [Muskrat 00:21:23] can, you know, sink any company—
Jeremy: — and get away with it. And that’s one thing I’ve really been happy with where I’m at now, is you have a leadership team that says, “Hey, here’s where things are, and here’s what it looks like. And here’s how we’re all contributing to where we’re going, and here’s the decisions we’re going to make, and here’s how—” they’re very open with what’s going on. And it’s not a surprise to anybody that the economic time means that we maybe can’t go to 65 events next year. Like, that’s just reality.
But at the end of the day, we still have to go and do a job and help grow the company. So, how can we do that more efficiently? Which means that we—it leaves it better to try and figure that out than to be so nebulous, with like, “Yep, nope. You can’t go do that.” That’s where true leadership comes to is, like, laying it out there, and just, you know, getting people alongside with you.
Corey: How do you see DevRel evolving? Because I think we had a giant evolution over the past few years. Because suddenly, the old vision of DevRel—at least in some quarters, which I admit I fell a little too deeply into—was, I’m going to go to all the conferences and give all of the talks, even though most of them are not related to the core of what I do. And maybe that’s a viable strategy; maybe it’s not. I think it depends on what your business does.
And I don’t disagree with the assertion that going and doing something in public can have excellent downstream effects, even if the connection is not obvious. But suddenly, we weren’t able to do that, and people were forced to almost reinvent how a lot of that works. Now, that the world is, for better or worse, starting to open up again, how do you see it evolving? Are we going right back to a different DevOps days in a different city every week?
Jeremy: I think it’s a lot more strategic now. I think generally, there is less mountains of money that you can pull from to go and do whatever the hell you want. You have to be more strategic. I said that a few times. Like, there’s looking at it and making sure, like, yeah, it would be great to go and, you know, get in front of 50,000 people this quarter or this year, whatever you want to do, but is that really going to move the bottom line for us? Is that really going to help the business, or is that just helping your Delta miles?
What is really the best bang for the buck? So, I think DevRel as it evolves, in the next few years, has to come to a good recognition moment of we need to be a little bit more prescriptive in how we do things within our company and not so willy-nilly return to you know, what we generally used to get away with. That means you’re going to see a lot more people have to be held to account within their companies of, is what you’re doing actually match up to our business goal here? How does that fit? And having to explain more of that, and that’s, I think, for some people will be easy. Some people are going to have to stretch that muscle, and others are going to be in a real tough pickle.
Corey: One last topic I want to get into with you is devopspartygames.com, an online more or less DevOps, quote-unquote, “Personality” assortment of folks who wind up playing online games. I was invited once and promptly never invited back ever again. So first, was it something I said—obviously—and two what is that and how—is that still going in this post-pandemic-ish era?
Jeremy: I like how you answered your own question first; that way I don’t have to answer it. The second one, the way it came about was just, you know, Matty and I had started missing that interaction that we would tend to have in person. And so, one of the ways we started realizing is we play these, you know, Jackbox games, and why can’t we just do this with DevOps tech prompts? So, that’s kind of how it kicked off. We started playing around doing it for fun and then I was like, “You know, we should—we could do this as a big, big deal for foreseeable future.”
Where’s that now is, we actually have not done one online for—what is it? So probably, like, eight, nine months, primarily because it’s harder and harder to do so as everybody [laugh]—we’re now doing a little bit more travel, and it’s hard to do those—as you know, doing podcasts, it takes a lot of work. It’s not an easy kind of thing. And so, we’ve kind of put that on pause. But we actually did our first in-person DevOps Party Games at DevOpsDays Chicago recently, and that was a big hit, I think, and opportunity to kind of take what we’re doing virtually, and the fun and excitement that we generally would have—relatively half-drunk—to actually doing it actually in-person at an event. And in the different—like, just as giving talks in person was a different level of interaction with the crowd, the same thing is doing it in person. So, it was just kind of a fun thing and an opportunity maybe to continue to do it in person.
Corey: I think we all got a hell of a lot better very quickly at speaking to cameras instead of audiences and the rest. It also forced us to be more focused because the camera gives you nothing in a way that the audience absolutely does.
Jeremy: They say make love to the camera, but it doesn’t work anyways.
Corey: I really want to thank you for spending as much time as you have talking to me. If people want to learn more about who you are and what you’re up to, where should they go?
Jeremy: Well, for the foreseeable future, or at least what we can guess, you can find me on the Twitters at @Iamjerdog. You can find me there or you can find me at, you know, LinkedIn, at jeremymeiss, LinkedIn. And you know, probably come into your local DevOpsDays or other conference as well.
Corey: Of course. And we will, of course, put links to that in the show notes.
Corey: Thank you so much for being so generous with your time. It is always appreciated. And I do love talking with you.
Jeremy: And I appreciate it, Corey. It was great beyond, finally. I won’t hold it against you anymore.
Corey: Jeremy Meiss, Director of DevRel at CircleCI. I’m Cloud Economist Corey Quinn and this is Screaming in the Cloud. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, whereas if you’ve hated this podcast, please leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice, along with an angry, irritated comment talking about how CI/CD is nonsense and the correct way to deploy to production is via the tried-and-true method of copying and pasting.
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