231: Deserted Island Safety and Expectations with Austin Parker
April 21st, 2021 · 47 mins 38 secs
About this Episode
01:04 - Austin’s Superpower: Pain Tolerance
02:06 - Deserted Island DevOps (Running an Online/Virtual Conference in Animal Crossing or Other Mediums)
- Deserted Island DevOps 2020 on YouTube
- Software Circus
- The Great Cloud Native Bakeoff
- Making Real-Time Audience/Human Connection
- Watch Parties
- Austin Parker: Virtual Events Suck.
24:09 - Failure; Making it Safe to Fail
- Technical Failure
- Psychological Failure
- Underpromise, Overdeliver
32:51 - Safety and Setting Expectations (The Problem with More is Better)
John: The creativity of new ways to experience a conference.
Coraline: The importance of moderation.
Austin: How to communicate feelings of failure and setting expectations about it to people you’re working with.
Jacob: Find a conference that has been thoughtful about interaction when not in person and go.
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CORALINE: Hello and welcome to Episode 231 of Greater Than Code podcast. I’m so happy to be here with you today. My name is Coraline Ada Ehmke and I’m joined by my friend, John Sawers.
JOHN: Thanks, Coraline. And I’m here with Jacob Stoebel.
JACOB: Thanks. John! It’s my pleasure to introduce our guest this week, Austin Parker.
Austin makes problems with computers and sometimes solves them. He’s an open-source maintainer, observability nerd, DevOps junkie, and poster. You can find him ignoring Hacker News threads and making dumb jokes on Twitter. He wrote a book about distributed tracing, taught some college courses, streams on Twitch, and also ran a DevOps conference in Animal Crossing.
Such a nice pleasure to have you on the show.
AUSTIN: It's fantastic to be here.
JACOB: We can start the show like we always do by asking you a question. What's your superpower and how did you develop it?
AUSTIN: Right now, my superpower is I'm 50% through a COVID-19 vaccine and I developed it by staying indoors for the past year, but more hilariously I guess, I developed a strong resistance to burns by working as a gas station cook for quite a while, back in my younger days. So I ran the fryer and you get really good at ignoring hot oil spattering on you. So I'd like to think that that level of pain tolerance is what helped me get through a lot of DevOps stuff and getting used to computers.
CORALINE: Yeah. I hate Kubernetes and it's hot oil splashing. They should do something about that. It's open source. I guess, I could open my PR, but .
AUSTIN: Yeah. Well, they say PR is welcome, but that's the open-source maintainers. Bless your heart, right?
CORALINE: Yeah, exactly. So Austin, I want to know more about this DevOps conference that you ran in Animal Crossing.
AUSTIN: So let's start at the beginning, let's take everyone back to just about a year ago now where we were all kind of settling in for our wonderful pandemic that has been extremely not wonderful for most people, but I think everyone was coming to grips with how long it would take at first.
My day job, I work as in developer relations. I'm a marketer, effectively. But I remember a lot of people were talking, the marketing team and certainly, the entire events space like, “Oh, what's this going to do about the summer events, what's this going to do about the fall events?” and I'm sitting here like, “Hey, I think this is going to last a little longer than till June.”
So the conversation kind of pivots as everything gets progressively worse and people are starting to come to grips like, “Well, can we do a virtual event?” I don't think anyone at the time really had a good idea of what a virtual event would be. We all know video conferencing certainly is something that we've come to rely on in our day-to-day lives over the past year. Even if you weren't already in tech, or weren't already working remotely, Zoom is – it’s been Q-tip. It's been Kleenex. It's a no matter what you're using, you're Zooming someone. So they have that going for them, I guess.
People, I think there was a lot of possibility and not a lot of real, strong ideas about what does this actually mean? So I wanted to try something different. I was joking around on Twitter and I had just gotten a copy of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and I was staging with screenshots with like, “Oh look, this is funny. It's like a conference booth.” It's like ha, ha, we're all giving out t-shirts and laughing.
And the code people picked up on and they were like, “Oh, that's funny. I bet you could actually do a conference in Animal Crossing and stream it out” because you can actually have people like join you, come over to your island and stand around. I was like, “Well, actually, you could just composite that video from the output of the game over some slides and what's the difference?” Someone's talking, someone's clicking through slides, and it spiraled from a joke. I put up a page, a landing page on April 1st, which is the best time to announce anything thing. Because if people don't go for it, you can always be like, “Ha, ha, April fools. Got you!”
But I put up a landing page and we had a 100 people register for more information that first day, I messaged them on Slack, and I'm like, “Well, I’ve got to do it now; a 100 people one day. That's great.”
AUSTIN: So long story short, over the next 30 days, we basically put together, myself and then my co-organizer, Katie @thekatertot on Twitter, or Katie Farmer, a virtual conference inside of Animal Crossing. It's called Deserted Island DevOps. You can go watch it on YouTube, the one from last year. We're doing another one this year on April 30th. It's just a one-day live stream. If you're watching it, you're just watching it on Twitch. We have a Discord that you can talk and do the hallway track stuff and ask questions and network.
But the gimmick is basically, everyone's presenting has a Switch and they are in Animal Crossing. They're on this island, they're dressing up their little Animal Crossing character and we overlay their slides with the video coming out of the Switch so they can emote and react and it's cute experience to watch.
But I think it's also interesting because what I saw, last year at least, is that it solves a lot of the problems, I think most virtual conferences don't quite nail, which is, I think a good event is something that takes you out of your day-to-day. It takes you out of where you are and put you somewhere else. Now, if you go into KubeCon, or re:Invent, or even devopdays, if you're doing this physically like, you're not at your office, you're not at home, you're somewhere else talking to people, literally, you have changed the physical location you're in. But most virtual events, it still boils down to, “Hey, I'm watching a Zoom effectively and I'm talking to people in Slack.” If I wanted to do that, I could just do my actual job.
So I think one of the things that people appreciated about Deserted Island and continue to is the idea that this is produced differently. There's a couple other people that are doing stuff like this. I think Software Circus out of the UK, they've done a lot of themed events, themed virtual events like this, where the presenters are wearing costumes. Or there was The Great Kubernetes Bake-Off, I want to say where it’s a cloud kitchen theme so everyone has their chefs’ hats.
I think having that concept also gives presenters a lot of mileage in terms of hey, you can theme what you're talking about. Here is an analogy in a box, here is a world that you can put your talk in and you have an idea that everyone can use those shared experiences, that shared language to develop your talk and give people an anchor for it, which I think is one of the good ways you help people learn. If you give them something they know about and then you tie your concept into that concept, then they're going to get more out of it.
The other thing is that it's a great way to be expressive. In Animal Crossing, you are who you are, you are whoever your avatar is. So you don't get any of the – I hate being on camera a lot. It gets exhausting because you feel like you're performing for the camera. It’s not the same, but in this, nobody's seeing your actual face; they're hearing your voice and then you can dress your Animal Crossing your avatar whatever. So you can be creative. You can be who you are without having that weird performance pressure of a bunch of people that you can't see staring at your face
JOHN: This is an important topic these days because there's still everything's online and will be for a while and I think so many people are still learning how to do online events and those skills are going to need to keep happening over the next coming years. I think because you can do now online events, which are more accessible to more people all over the world, you don't have to be the sort of person who can fly places in order to attend certain events. Having them online is a great accessibility option. So finding new modalities for making that interesting and not just sitting on Zoom all day, I think is a worthy endeavor.
AUSTIN: Yeah, and it's super challenging. I don't want to sound like I'm like dragging people's work because I know CNCF has had to move a lot of stuff virtual. I know of the entire devopsdays community has had to move a lot of stuff virtual. This is super hard to do. It's not easy. It requires a lot of intentionality; a lot of planning and I think we will all get better at it over time.
The future is not necessarily going to be like the past, I don't know if there's ever going to be a day where we just kind of flip a switch and it's all like, “Oh, we're back to how we were before March of 2020,” I think. So there's still going to be a desire for virtual events and there's still going to be a desire for figuring out ways to be more inclusive and to bring people in, especially because of climate change and everything like that. At some point, we have to come to a reckoning about the actual cost of a global travel-based society but that's maybe a slightly different topic. I don't know.
CORALINE: I actually think a good side effect of all this is a focus on accessibility and like you said, a lot of people aren't people to travel. It's expensive. I know conferences, typically in-person conferences, used to spend quite a bit of money with programs to bring in marginalized folks who maybe couldn't afford the travel.
But one thing I do miss is getting that audience reaction. Especially as a storyteller, I tend to tell a lot of stories in my talk and I like to be able to see, is the audience with me, is the audience getting what I'm saying? I can tune my presentation in real-time based on audience reactions and I really miss that. I really missed that aspect of it, that feedback aspect of it, because at the end of people are like, “Oh, great talk.” I'm like, “Yeah, but did it get to you?”
AUSTIN: Yeah, did you connect with it?
CORALINE: Yeah, and that's so hard.
AUSTIN: It's challenging, especially because so many of – on the production side, there's a bias, I think in virtual events to prerecord, due to a lot of factors and this is not a diss on prerecording. I personally hate it. I basically have stopped doing any event that's like, “Oh, we want you to prerecord.” I'm just like, “Eh, I'd rather not” because that’s the style, that's the way I talk. I agree with this idea of storytelling like, you're not just reading slides. If I just want someone to read slides, I could just hand them a book.
But what's weird to me is one of the things that I think that we did, that I haven't seen anyone else really do, is there's already a way that people do this. If you watch Twitch, if you watch twitch.tv, or live streams like the kids do these days, there is a real-time chat and people are reacting in real-time. It's a little bit delayed. It's a couple seconds delayed, but I don't know why you haven't seen other virtual event platforms take that idea and really try to have even just a button like a clap button, or a sparkle fingers button, or something to kind of let people know that there's people out there watching you and that they're reacting positively and maybe not negatively, but they're reacting. That they are cognizant of what you're saying.
It's really surprising to me that we haven't seen more like that and I would love if some of these event platforms thought about that. How do you make that actual, immediate real-time, or near real-time audience connection with the speaker?
CORALINE: The Twitch thing is really interesting. Back in October, I started streaming in addition to everything else I do in my life—I'm a musician—and I started streaming, recording, and music production and I have a weekly show. You're right, the audience interaction is great and I incorporate that into my show. I'll stop what I'm doing after I finish laying down one track and I'll ask the people in chat, “What instrument should I pick up next?” Or, “What sound would you like to hear there?” Things like that. It does make that more interactive and it brings some of that human connection back and I think you're right. That's what's missing from a lot of these online conferences is that connection.
CORALINE: Yeah, and I actually think you've hit on it right there with streaming. There's been a big question – I don't know how much you follow the CNCF, KubeCon EU talk acceptance drama that kind of popped off a week, or so ago. But the short version is obviously, KubeCon is a very prominent conference in the Cloud Native world and it gets a lot of submissions and because it gets a lot of submissions, a lot of talks get dropped, a lot of things get cut. That's every event; there's always more submissions than there are slots for people to speak, but it turned into a bit of a blow up on Twitter and they actually wrote a blog post that's very explicitly described again hey, this is how we pick these talks. There's a lot of factors that go into it.
The thing that occurred to me and I've seen some people talk about, especially people that have been in the industry for a while is, what really is the benefit of a conference at all? When you have things like Twitch and you can build an audience for yourself and it's easier than it's ever been to get a platform. Some people in the world have used that for good ends and some people in the world have used that for ill ends, but regardless, I could go out and just say, “I'm not doing talks and I'm not doing conferences anymore. I'm just going to stream. I'm going to produce things and put them on YouTube.”
The only reason you would be at a conference at that point is as like okay, this is a quality filter. These are some people saying, or suggesting that these talks, or these individuals have a higher value to the community because we got a bunch of people, smart people to look at it and say like, “Yeah, we think this one's better than that one.”
But I really wonder if all of this with COVID, with the pandemic, with the change in events is going to inspire a different model going forward, where there's less of a centralization factor of you haven’t made it until you've done a KubeCon keynote, or you haven't made it until you've done the devopsdays circuit, or you haven't made it until you've written a book, or whatever. If you’ve got something to say, go say it and I think maybe that's a better way because that also is more accessible. You don't have to necessarily – there's less gatekeepers and a lot of times, gatekeepers and experts are useful because they help cut through all the chaff.
But on the flip side, it can be harmful, too because everyone has biases and even the best process is never going to weed out bias and most of the time, you don't want it to weed out bias. You want it to be biased for good things, not bad things. I don't know. I feel like there's a conversation that needs to happen about this that hasn't quite gotten off the ground yet. I'm interested to see where it goes.
JACOB: One thing that sounds interesting about this Animal Crossing conferences, you talked about it was a different modality altogether and I'm just curious if did this conference include, or at least was it like there was a side-effect of conference goers just playing the game with each other?
AUSTIN: Yeah, actually that was one of my really interesting learnings from it was that when you have a community started, just the best thing to do is just let them go do stuff. We had a bunch of people form impromptu watch parties where they would open up their island and invite people are watching to come and be in the same game space as them as viewers and run around together while watching the stream. So they would tweet out pictures like you would do at an actual conference, where it's like, “Oh, hanging out with the besties,” and then tweet out a picture, a screenshot of their island with people sitting. Some people went really into this; they built little watch party rooms where everyone had chairs and a little movie projector set up. Some people had coffee machines and a little snack plates, or whatever in the game.
It was really interesting to me how, when you kind of let people be creative about it and you let people try to build what they want inside this modality, this world, this bigger world, I guess, of being at a virtual conference, that they'll do stuff with it because it's fun and because it gets you engaged. Again, it's not just watching another Zoom. It's not just chatting on Slack. It's, you're doing something and the really good thing about that is if you are doing something, if you do make it a unique experience, people will actually take the time for it.
One thing that I think gets lost in a lot of these virtual events right now is that it's not something you're blocking off time for. You're saying like, “Okay, I've got maybe two, or three talks I really want to watch. So I'm going to block off 45 minutes in my calendar here and there and I'm going to watch this different screen for a minute.”
But with this, what we saw was people had blocked the entire day off. It was a 6-hour, maybe 5 hours total and people were there the entire time. We had 8,000, 9,000 people watching basically consistently from the beginning to the end and about 15,000 people total watched it over the course of the day. So nearly 50% of that were people that were there the whole time roughly.
I think by giving people that space to make time for themselves and to say like, “I'm going to treat this like an actual thing and not just something I'm going to pop back into.” That meant they could do the networking. They could do the chatting. They could react in Twitch and they could do the little clap emojis and the sparkle emojis. They could have those hallway track conversations and network and bond and get that social jazz you get by talking to people that have this similar problems, or have overcome challenges and are like, “Oh, this is how I solved X and Y problem in Kubernetes,” or even, “Oh yeah, this is a strategy I learned for dealing with managers that don't understand me, or making sure that we – how do I communicate this technical concept to the business?” It wasn't just, “I want to talk about really cool IP tables configs.” It really was like, “Hey, we're all people trying to solve these problems,” and that was, I think, wonderful to see and something that I'm really hoping that we can nail again this year.
JACOB: I think the wonderful thing about conferences is that, as someone who has a good deal of social anxiety, or shyness, is the in-person experience is an excuse to sort of – well, it was like it prevented me from having the excuse of like, “Oh, I could just watch it on – is this something I can just watch it on YouTube?” I was able to like, convince myself, like, “No, you actually have to go there and you have to sit next to someone you don't know and introduce yourself.”
I feel like conferences that I could get the exact same experience just watching the video anyway, I lose that side effect, which is, I think the more valuable thing is that there's an experience that I would miss out on if I wasn't there.
So it made me think about what Caroline is saying about that immediacy of being a speaker and I guess, what I’m wondering is maybe the secret is if you can't reproduce the immediacy of people being in the same room together, and I'm not certain that's true, or not whatever it is, maybe the trick is how do you use technology to your advantage rather than thinking about it as a barrier to get around?
AUSTIN: Yeah. I'm not going to say I have all the answers, certainly. The thing that I really hope, because I wrote a big thing about it on my blog and I feel like there's a progression of events, virtual events that have happened where people are experimenting and trying new things. I would like to think they're trying to get to that point. How do you use the technology we have to enhance connections rather than viewing it as just like, “Oh, this is a thing we’ve got to do until we can get everyone back on a plane”?
CORALINE: And really, that's the best thing about technology is when you find an unexpected use for it. When you find something outside the use case that it's designed for and you get that feeling of delight, I think that's when tech is at its best.
AUSTIN: Yeah. I think that was one of the things. The two big things about Deserted Island is the idea that this is a deliberately delightful and cute and comfortable place. It is the softest game you can imagine. There are no harsh edges. There is no failure state. I don't think there's a 90-degree angle in that entire game, but it also gives you enormous constraints because it's a very crafted world and so, working around and through those constraints, but also having sort of the delight of overcoming them and figuring out like, “Oh, this is this really soft round space that I can do stuff in, but I have these walls. I have these barriers set up that I have to work around.” I mean, that's why I'm in technology; it’s because it's endless source of challenges and it's an endless source of like, “Oh, here's a hill I can overcome.”
I was never super popular, or fast, or anything. I sucked at sports. I still suck at sports. The one time I went skiing, I tore my ACL in 15 minutes. I'm just not a coordinated guy, but in technology, there's always a new hill to summit. There's always something new to learn. There's always a new challenge that presents itself. That, to me, is that's why I stick with it. I could do other things, but here's something that's always going to challenge me and it's always going to give me something new to do.
That, I think is worth celebrating in itself and if we can find a way to blend all these things together, blend all the different ideas about events and the delight and constraints and challenges of technology and dah, dah, dah, dah, and throw that together in a Twitch stream. Cool, rad, let's do that. I think that was a lot of the inspiration. It was just like, “Hey, this might blow up in my face. This might fail terribly, but it's better to try it and see what happens.” Every day when I'm sitting here thinking, “Oh my God, it's never going to be as big of a success. Everyone's going to hate me,” whatever, I come back to that like, “Well, better to try and just like fall on my face than it is to wonder what might've been if I hadn't tried.”
CORALINE: That reminds me of safety and something that we talk about at least in workplaces is making more places safe to fail and I think at the event level, the fear of failure has got to be a lot more on a different level. So were you prepared to fail and how did you prepare to fail?
AUSTIN: It’s a great question. To be super honest, I'm not sure I was prepared to fail by the time it actually – so there's two types of failure. There was the technical failure and that was something that I did have plans for. There's a lot of technical failure that can happen during a live event production; my computer could have crashed, my internet could have gone down, a presenter's internet could have died. In preparation for that, there was a playbook effectively of okay, if this goes wrong, then do this. If this goes wrong, do that.
Now, in doing so, I actually discovered a lot of other things that I didn't think could go wrong that did go wrong. One example was, we had very strong moderation in the chat because it's the internet, it's a public thing. There's no registration. Anyone could come into the Twitch chat and say whatever. So I was pretty biased towards okay, now let's crank up the moderation filters and make sure that people aren't going to just come in and say some mean things.
One thing I didn't think to ask any of the presenters is like, “Hey, do you have something that's interactive outside of this?” One of them did, they had an interactive presentation where people went to Slido, or something and could that had its own chat input, text input.
Any large enough Twitch stream, you had some trolls that had come in and started typing some slurs and other non-code of conduct things. So it's like, “Oh, crud,” and switch that scene off really quick and try to make sure, coordinate in chat like, “Hey, are you aware of what's going on with the speaker?” In real-time while they were continuing to present. We managed to deal with that and then cut out the offensive language in the video on demand version. So it's not there and it didn't disrupt things. there was a blip of like, “Ah,” and then we dealt.
I think beyond that, though, the actual psychological failure because my expectations were pretty low in terms of like, “Oh, what is a success?” Because we didn't spend a lot of money on it. I didn't have any sponsors. I think I had an email list with 1,500 people on it and I was like, “Well, 50 roughly, you have some sort of webinar, or whatever, you get 50% of the sign-ups and that's a good one.” A 100 people sign up and 50 people show up. Great, you're doing fantastic. So my expectations were like, “Oh, here's my bar, 1,500.” If we hit that, if we hit anything close to that, we're doing great and then we hit 8,000.
So the problem coming back to this a year later is oh, now the expectations are so much higher and we've taken sponsorship. We have sponsors now; we have a sponsor money in order to fund things like scholarships. One of the problems last year was you had to have a Switch to participate. This year we've come, I've gone around and said, “Hey, if you want to sponsor this and pay for someone that doesn't have access to a Switch, or Animal Crossing, or whatever, you can sponsor us by buying that person the equipment thingy to join this because not everyone can afford that.”
Obviously, it's some level of exclusionary, like not everyone has internet, but within the group of people, the class people are giving talks to this, I figured that's about what we can do. Especially since you don't need a good camera, you just need a microphone. But because they're sponsors now, because there were so many people last year. It's like, “How do I set myself up for the chance that this is a failure psychologically?” And that, I don't have a great answer to. Therapy, I guess, is the answer to that. I talked to my therapist about this stuff. But it is. I think the psychological effects are actually much harder to plan around and much like in a workplace, psychological safety is significantly harder than technical safety.
So my advice is to be very open and honest and transparent with the people that you're organizing with and to talk about it. I think this is the problem with most things is we don't talk about failure enough and we don't talk about how does it feel to fail? How do you get back up after you failed? By keeping all that inside, that leads to a lot of negative stress outcomes and stuff and you just feel like crud. So normalize talking about failure.
JOHN: Were there any specific structures, or just communications that you set up with your organizing team around that to get everyone on the same page about thinking through failure and how it feels and how you're going to react to it, anything like that?
AUSTIN: So that's also a really great question. It's an area that I could do better at. The organizing team is very small and informal for this like, it's mostly just me and Katie, and I've wound up doing quite a bit of it just for a variety of reasons that are really important. But we've had a lot of conversations about, I think that level of nervousness and that level of stress that you can have. A lot of it is both of us talking ourselves down right and being nobody – and some of it also just being very straightforward with people, with external people.
When I did this last year, literally the expectations were very, very low and when people applied to speak, it's like, “Well, you know what you're getting into.” I didn't pretend this was anything other than what it is. This year as well, when I'm going and I'm talking about it, or I'm putting together sponsorship perspectives, or whatever, I'm saying, “Look, here's what happened last year. I can't guarantee you the same level of thing, but I'm also not asking a ton from you.”
So I think one lesson from this is preemptive de-escalation. It's better, or maybe a better way to say this is under promise/overdeliver. The perspectives is very clear. It's like, “Look, this is historically what we had. Here's what I'm asking from you and here's what you're getting for it.” I've seen what a lot of conferences charge for sponsorships, I'm asking you for much less and maybe compared to those, you're not getting as much. You're getting a 30-second ad a couple of times over the day, you're getting your logo, you're getting some shoutouts and that's it. You're not getting leads. You're not getting an attendee list because there is none. That's one nice thing, I think about doing stuff like this is you don't have to be super aggro about stuff because it's like well, this doesn't exist. There's no registration so I can't tell you who's attending.
But by lowering the stakes a little bit, people are still willing to throw you a couple grand, or whatever on a community conference, because one, that's a rounding error in most places’ event budgets. Two, even if you only get a 1,000 people and you expected 8,000, the video's going to be there. It's a long-term asset. Those videos are going to be on YouTube forever and they're going to be something that people go back and watch so, under promise. And the third thing really is and this actually makes it worse, not better, but this is probably the longest I've talked about this to anyone, this podcast right here.
Most of the promotion for this has come from people that attended last year and spoke last year that are going around and talking it up and being like, “Oh no, this was the best thing I did in 2020. You should definitely put this on your calendar.” That actually makes it worse because that's all of your internet friends are like, “Oh my God, this was so great,” and you're just sitting here like, “Wow, I hope I don't let all these people down,” but that's life. I'm not going to tell people, “Hey, don't talk good about this because I'm worried that it's going to fail.” Let those external expectations try to lift you up a little. If everyone knew what it was last year and if you can deliver that again at least, then you're probably going to be doing all right.
JOHN: There's two threads I wanted to pull on with that. First of all, you talked about having multiple different people, different constituencies like there's you as the organizing team, there's you and the speakers, there's you and the attendees, there's you in the sponsors. There's all these different groups and there's different levels of safety with each of them that. A different type of relationship with each of those and they each have a different level of communication and setting expectations.
And then I think the other thing that really jumped out was the setting of expectations. I think that's such a key to managing an emotional reaction to something because so often those negative reactions come from missed expectations and that proactive communication about where things can land and what's possible and what's likely is a great way of keeping everyone on the same page.
AUSTIN: Absolutely. So I want to actually start on that second one about expectations because I think this is something that catches me a lot and probably catches a lot of other people that are – wherever you are in your career, really, but there's both a tyranny of low expectations and a tyranny of high expectations. We tend to focus on one, or the other, but the hardest thing in the world is actually figuring out what that band is in the middle between your expectations are too low and your expectations are too high.
I think the tech industry is absolute hot garbage just stem to stern. There's a ton of practices we have in the industry that I think because we're so afraid because the way capitalism works, the way funding works, the way everything works, every incentive is tuned towards preventing you from ever setting expectations too low.
So if you look at OKRs, the concept of OKRs, the idea is the objective and key result and you should always set those as something you'll never hit; you should never set your key result too low. I think the Google-y way to think about this as if you achieve 70% of OKR, then that's good. That's what you should expect. To me, that's terrible. I hate that with every fiber of my being because you're giving me an objective that I'm always going to fail.
That's how I perceive it and I get why we do this because it's always bad to be too low and I think a lot of this is cultural. It's the success win whatever business culture that's infested technology, where we would much rather set a very high bar for ourselves and then not meet it rather than set a low bar and clear it because if you set a low bar and you clear it, then that means you weren't pushing yourself. Because of the way that all of the money works an d how monetized we make all of our labor, if you aren't doing enough, you might as well not have done anything at all.
So the thinking is better to have that high bar and then miss it. But that's extremely, I think just dismantles people that aren't super neurotypical. It certainly dismantles me and I'm whoever, I'm Austin, I'm one person in the distance. But I think it's prevalent throughout everything in tech and I would love to see that interrogated more.
You're starting to see a lot of the golden geese of the tech industry being interrogated because of the pandemic. Things like the value of people working in person with each other, or the value of having companies in San Francisco, or the value of hiding your pay, of pay inequity.
I think this idea of what should our expectations of ourselves be, of our teams, of the performance of our software even, I made a joke the other day that’s like, I want to see smaller applications written by fewer people that are paid more, that don't work as well and I'm not kidding.
Because I think that the idea of oh no, we want the Googles, we want the big companies of the world to encompass everything. We want this one-stop shop. It's not great. It's harmful, it's actively harmful, and I know that there's a lot of voices and people are like, “Well, you can't just dismantle, you can't just cut Google into two pieces, or five pieces, or Amazon into five pieces and have it all worked out.” I agree, you need to be intentional about this.
But I remember when I was growing up in the 80s and I remember what technology was like a little more than and the idea that someone could go into business for themselves maintaining a library and just selling a license for people to use that library. Maybe they figured out a really fast way to do a bubble sword and it's like, “Okay, I'm going to sell you a library, a Pascal library that you can link to and it does this work really fast and if you have a problem with it, then you get support from me and you email me, or whatever and I fix this bug for you.”
We've taken all those things that people used to be able to do and build and craft and just said, “Hey, we're going to socialize all that expensive maintenance and put it on the open source community and have them do that for free and then we're going to build businesses around extracting value from all that labor.”
CORALINE: That's one of the seven criteria of the ethical source principles is that we have a right to be paid. We have a right to have the value of our work respected and if you're making billions off of an open source library, you would better be giving back.
AUSTIN: Yeah, and I think but it feeds back from – this all goes back to the capitalism.exe; It's all from the same source and a lot of ways. But I think that idea of expectations setting and never setting the bar low; that is a product of this and it's all intersectional. It's all interrelated. There is no one evil other than really big sociological complex sociotechnical human systems, or whatever and we can make it better, but we can't fix it without equally big changes.
JOHN: Yeah. I think that the capitalism more is always better rule is what's poisoning this because you could make a small app and it can be successful and it could be two people on the team and those people could be very happy. But everything in society is saying, “Well, make it bigger, add a bigger team, do more things, blah, blah, blah.”
I remember reading a story about, at one point a couple of years ago, the Uber like iPhone app was growing by 1 megabyte of compiled code per week because they were adding all this stuff to it and that just boggled my mind. It's like, it's Uber. They do really just one thing and they were having to do all these things and they kept bumping up against iOS store limits of the size of the binary. Just that mentality of let's do all the things because we can and let's stress ourselves out and work ourselves raw just because more is better.
AUSTIN: Yeah, and I think it's a team problem. It's an organizational problem. Because how does that happen without you having so many people working in the same small space that are duplicating effort, that are duplicating features even, or other things behind the scenes? You just keep hiring and hiring, you keep growing and growing because that's all you can do, because that's the only way you can exist in society as a corporation, or as people building a product, or whatever is to constantly consume and grow and grow.
This goes into Non-Fungible Tokens, NFTs, that have taken, at least my corner of the internet, by storm and the idea that oh, this is a way that you can introduce scarcity into digital art and it's like, “Oh my God, it's such a bad idea.” Every blockchain thing is so, so awful. But the amount of energy it takes to actually encode these things under the blockchain, even on Ethereum blockchain, because of how proof of work algorithms function, the only purpose of these things is to consume more energy for a completely pointless purpose.
If you're consuming energy for the sake of consuming energy, to prove that you're doing some work in order to “prove that you own something.” You can't own a tweet; Twitter technically owns that tweet. There are people who are selling cryptographic signatures like, “Oh, it's like a signed tweet. You own the signed tweet.” It's like you own a link and that I'm not even sure that you can own that from any sort of legal, or moral, or ethical standard. That's not how ownership works, especially intellectual property ownership.
Oh my God, this industry. Every day, it makes me want to move to the woods and raise alpaca.
CORALINE: Well, maybe there'll be an alpaca feature added to Animal Crossing soon.
AUSTIN: Maybe, yeah. Just live out my alpaca farming dreams in Animal Crossing. It’s a shame that we need money to live.
JOHN: So we've come to the time on the show and we go into our reflections, which is a where each of us talks about the things that we're going to take away from this conversation. Maybe the things we're going to keep thinking about, or any new ideas that we were exposed to and just what's going to stick with us.
So for me, I think I heard about Deserted Island DevOps last year when it happened, I think some of my friends presented there, but hearing you talk about it more in-depth in behind the scenes, should we a bit more about the creativity, both on your side and in the audience as they put together new ways to experience the conference.
I am really excited by that because it's not a place where I've seen a ton of creativity being expressed and finding new ways to have a conference-like experience like different mediations, different ways of participating, I think are really valuable because right now, we're copying online what we used to do in-person, but kind of and it's not always working out great. So if you just sort of throw away all the stuff and start over from, this is our platform and these are our constraints, I think that that leads to creativity and so, it's nice to see that.
CORALINE: And I'm thinking about what you said about moderation and the importance of moderation. I was involved in the famous tech feminist wars of the 2010s and I was one of the voices calling for codes of conduct at in-person conferences. I think that becomes even more important with virtual conferences and the need for moderation. I don't think we do a good job, as an industry, of thinking about what moderation means, thinking about how to manage random people on the internet coming to a virtual space and I'm hoping that virtual events continue to invest some more technology.
I think Twitch does a great job of giving us tools and I'm hoping that that idea of really investing in moderation takes off because I think that will have ripple effects in a lot of different domains.
AUSTIN: I'm going to reflect, I think when you were talking about with failure and psychological safety and how to communicate failure, or those feelings of failure and setting expectations about it to not only peers, but also to people I'm organizing events with, or two people I'm working with. Because I think that one thing that this conversation really led me to realize is that I don't actually communicate it as well as I thought I had, or there's things I don't think about. Sometimes, you need someone to mention it to really piggy back up.
I'm wondering if there's ways that we can develop toolkits, or playbooks, or even just point by point, like, “Hey, here's a guide to have these conversations,” because they're hard conversations and they're conversations that maybe you think you're ready to have, or that you think you've communicated. But it's like, “Well, did you think about this?”
So that's something I'm definitely going to take away from this. I will put it out in the moderation thing. I used your code of conduct for the Deserted Island one. So yes, I appreciate the work that went into that because it was invaluable to me to make a good one for this.
CORALINE: I'm glad to hear that. Thank you, Austin.
JACOB: I haven’t been to any conference since the pandemic started and I think part of it is that being stuck at home like pretty much everyone else, hopefully, is that I think I was always telling myself, “Do I really need to take time off when I would probably be bored and restless and would wish I could just watch the video later anyway?”
I think I was kind of missing the point because I think maybe what I really need to do is find a conference like this one that has been thoughtful about how participants can interact when not in-person and make the leap and force myself to take the day off, or days off. That’s the only thing I’m doing and force myself to be engaged with it because I’ve got nothing else to do just like any in-person conference. I’m going to give it a shot.
CORALINE: Well, Austin, it’s been great talking to you today. Thank you for your openness, your honesty, your vulnerability, and you great ideas. I think we all have a lot to take away from this conversation so, it was really great talking to you today. Thank you so much.
AUSTIN: Thanks! It was wonderful to be here.Support Greater Than Code