It's a reunion episode featuring a Stack Overflow classic crew, with Ben Popper, Paul Ford, co-founder of Postlight, and Sara Chipps, engineering manager for flagship architecture at LinkedIn. We talk about Paul getting his first job in software from a footer note on the CSS mailing list. Later we chat about Sara's experience going from a company with hundreds of engineers, to one with thousands.
At LinkedIn scale, it pays to save your developers a few minutes or even seconds on repeat tasks. Sara walks us through her experience managing senior engineers, and trying to improve developer experience and tooling, on a massive, global platform with over a billion user interactions a month.
Paul shares some of his firm's latest work, helping to visualize the impact of climate change at Probable Futures. Interested in doing work in software focused on climate change? Paul recommends you learn a bit about NetCDF files.
Follow Sara on Twitter here.
Follow Paul on Twitter here.
Enjoy our brain teaser of the week: a new way to cut pizza.
Paul Ford Nobody thought HTML was very serious when we were learning it.
Sara Chipps Yeah, still kinda don't. [Ben laughs]
PF I mean, a lot of people don't, right? Remember when we figured out you could put tables inside the tables, and it was like, wow, how deep does this go?
Ben Popper All the way down, all the way down.
PF Turtles at the bottom.
BP Visit saucelabs.com/stackoverflow and try a cloud hosted web and mobile application automated testing platform for free. Develop with confidence at every step. From code to deployment, on every framework, browser, OS, mobile device and API with saucelabs.com/stackoverflow.
BP Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, classic theme edition. I am Ben Popper, the Director of Content here at Stack Overflow and I'm joined by two of my former co-hosts, I would say former friends, once upon a time compatriots.
PF Do you remember our names Ben? Do you remember them?
BP Paul Ford and Sara Chipps. Hi, everybody.
SC Hey, how's it going?
PF Does Sara have an H at the end of her name? Do you remember?
BP Sara--there's an H in Chipps but not in Sara.
PF We're back. We're back.
BP So for people who don't remember your cruel, cruel departure from the show, tell them where you went and where you are just so they know who you are in this big old world of ours?
SC Yeah. Wow. So I left Stack Overflow to join LinkedIn about four months ago. It was bittersweet. I miss the Stack crew, but I still do lurk.
BP Okay, that's good. And Paul, you were formerly the CEO of Postlight. Now you are the--
PF I'm the co-founder Postlight, so two jobs nobody knows what it is you actually do. But that is entirely true. I'm working on some different stuff, less CEO and more new opportunities. Turns out my replacements did a great job. They're doing really, really well.
BP Alright, so the first thing I wanted to discuss is I think, Paul, you were working during the dot com era. Sara, were you working during the dot com era in the world of technology?
SC This is really aging, like everyone, not quite.
BP So Paul was.
PF The very beginning of my career. I was like slinging HTML.
BP Paul was just a young a young code slinger, webslinger. So I want--the question is at Stack Overflow right now really the only thing you know that I would say it's like a break on our growth and development and everything we do is that we cannot hire enough engineers, because the most competitive job market ever or since the dot com boom, is what I hear a lot of people in the world of software saying. So just give me a little bit, what's your experience of the recent market been like? And if you can relate this to some other point in time? What does it feel like?
SC Yeah, I think now's an interesting time. I think all the people that were looking might have looked for jobs during the pandemic kind of waited to the end. So they're all doing now. I haven't been actively hiring recently. So I'm not running into these things. Paul, I bet you have a good--you might have a better ear to the ground.
PF I think a lot of the things that people talk about, you know, what should the company be like, and our you know, people have voice and, you know, are there are good resources? Like I think we dealt with that and set that up years ago. So our attrition has been quite low compared to a lot of orgs, where I think people have been building up a lot of frustration over the pandemic. You know, I'm working on wood, but it feels like we have a good dynamic culture, and on and on. So like, I know, I'm not feeling that pressure. But what's happening is there's just a lot of work. There's a lot to do, there's a lot of inbound, I feel that it's sort of like it feels like the full reboot has happened. And everybody's like, okay, let's get our stuff going. And we're ready to start tomorrow. We have a team in Lebanon, we've been growing them. We have the team here, we've been growing, we've been hiring. I'm seeing two new faces a week, frankly. And it's like, it feels like just the beginning. And it's tapped, it's hard. It's hard to get more high quality engineers in the door, I think for anybody. Compared to dot com days though, like, that was a time when you could go to Barnes and Noble, get a couple books, read them do the exercises, and actually know roughly as much as about half the people in the industry. [Ben laughs] For real. Like I feel like I you know, I literally got my first job because I was on the CSS mailing list and somebody was like we're hiring.
SC Were you really on the CSS mailing list? How cool is that?
PF Yeah, yeah.
SC Like in Google group?
PF Well wouldn't have been a Google group back then. No, no, it was like the World Wide Web Consortium, like CSS discussion group. Somebody in the bottom was like, you know, there's there sig was like, we're hiring. And they were on the Upper West Side. And I was like, looks good to me. I was temping. Until like, you know, you go and you'd learn enough as you went. And it was it was all fine because it's so the industry back then had a very different glide path in, right? You'd use HTML and CSS, and then you'd learn a little bit of Perl, and then you'd learn a little bit of this, a little bit of that. And then, you know, you could go down two or three different paths and more towards design, more towards products or harder engineering, but everybody was very incentivized for you to just sort of learn a little bit more.
BP In that world, Paul, who did they hire to be like their DBA? You know, they could hire anybody to do the front end and they were starting a new company, but you had to do that back end in house. So where did those people come from?
PF You would go hire a DBA. Like I remember this very nice young woman who sat in the back with the one of the co founders they just administered to the databases.
SC That's so nice. That sounds so peaceful.
PF It was pretty peaceful.
BP Did you have all your hardware like on prem, like the office had the three servers? And that was it?
PF That was a big thing. And then I remember there was one company, I can't remember the name of it, I think it was agency.com.
BP Do you want to be an agent or an agency? Agency.com.
PF They didn't hire me. Like I went for a lot of interviews where they were like, what? You know, but I remember they had like Silicon Graphics machines in a closet with glass in the front, like, kind of close to the entrance that we're hosting, you know, websites for for big companies. That was a whole thing like the you had the hardware for the companies on site, because the idea of the web and the data center weren't
really unified yet, like the data center was for like insurance companies.
BP Right, if let's say you agency.com is building a website for somebody, and you spent a lot of time on it. Sara, I know, you spent a lot of time reorganizing the database for--was it Fish Sales?
SC I did work on database for Fish Sales.
BP So Paul, or Sara, like, yeah, you spent a lot of time on something. And then there's no cloud distribution. There's no sharding. So what do you back it up to a hard drive every night or every week? And then you've set that aside just in case?
PF A lot of people who really screwed this part up. But yeah, tape. Actually, a lot of times it would be tape. If you were pretty serious about it, somebody would take a hard drive home, or they would take tape home. So that if there was a physical disaster, you could deal.
BP Who has the backups? Paul has the backups, right?
PF A lot of stories in the early days about like, in fact, we had to do this. I remember, when that company got bought got rolled up, they had to move the servers physically to the new company. And so it's like, it was literally like, who's got a van and kind of went from there. [Ben laughs] You have to tell the clients like it's going to be down for six hours.
SC Yeah, yeah, but it's fine.
BP Let's put 98 percent of our IP in this van and hope it gets to where it needs to go.
PF Don't worry, it'll be fine. Sort of the drama of turning the server's back on. So I mean, compared to then, right, like it was way more ad hoc, there was like the real tech industry, which was, you know, Microsoft, let's say, or Google was kind of just a glimmer. And then there was the web, which was way ad hoc. It was cool kids and nerds and relatively kind of everybody showed up.
BP Like crypto is today.
SC Yeah, yeah.
BP But we're breaking up to get them back a million dollars. $100 million is gone. Oops.
PF So frankly, actually, way more diverse than crypto. Crypto has kind of tended towards a monolithic societal--
BP I see Sara saying an 'mmm' face. I also have an 'mmm' face.
PF No, c'mon, Sara. C'mon.
BP I think on the artistic side, it's actually really diverse. For the people who are trying to get into tokens and NFT's. I think it's pretty diverse.
SC I think this is an interesting conversation. Do you think so? I remember--no, I think actually, you're absolutely right. Because the numbers for programming, especially in the early 90s, late 80s, were much more diverse than they are even now.
PF I'm walking around that first startup, two stories, I'm walking around in my head, and it's like, a half female, lots of people from different parts of New York City, Queens, you know, people from Harvard, people from state schools, people who hadn't, you know, had just finished high school. Like it was just more of a like, everybody felt something was happening. And they kept showing up and the demand was such--and the skills were enough. You know, the interesting thing, I think this is worth noting, those people are still in the industry 20 years later, like I know some of them, and people are still happy to see them. And so it's like, you get out of your program somewhere. I remember one guy had been like, had worked at Rikers, and he was now a DBA.
BP Yeah, I don't know we have this new woman on the podcast Ceora Ford, and we talked recently about was the environmental impact of crypto versus other industries or whatever. It seems to me that the ease of getting involved as an artist and minting something or trying out a token through some of these open protocols means anybody who sees it come into their sphere through Twitter or Instagram, or Tiktok can then go try it. And so maybe they're not building hands on or working at a company. But I think a lot of people are throwing themselves in the industry and trying it in a way that's pretty diverse.
PF Yeah, I think that's true. I think NFTs are--I mean, it is something where in about a week, you could learn enough to have an artifact up in one of the marketplaces that you created. Now if other people buy it or you know, if it's, if it's as popular is that sort of board a yacht club thing, it's up to the market, but like, there is an element of that, which is like I made a little thing. I'm going to enter into this marketplace with it. And the problem I guess, with that, for me is like--well not the problem--I guess the difference is that like, is that really a skill that you're going to be able to apply for 20 years? Maybe. Maybe, I mean, nobody thought HTML was very serious when we were learning it.
SC Yeah, still kinda don't.
PF I mean, a lot of people don't. Remember when we figured out you could put tables inside the tables? And it was just like, how deep does this go?
BP All the way down.
PF Turtles at the bottom.
BP So Sara, to the degree that's possible. Tell us a little bit about what the engineering culture and workflows like for you now. What does it like to work at LinkedIn? I mean, you know, I'm sure there's things you can and can't say. But just curious.
SC Yeah, good question. I think it's, it's very different. Because there's 1000s of engineers and our customers are the engineers at LinkedIn, which is really cool. And so going from an environment where there's less than 100 engineers to an environment where there's 1000s of 1000s of engineers, the problems that you run into are just so different.
PF What are your problems like with that? I mean, 1000s of engineers--just, that's too many engineers,
SC It's millions of lines of code. I mean, the problems that like our team thinks about it, like, how long does it take an engineer to build the application locally? And like, did this change introduce a few seconds to every engineer that's currently working on the application? Is it making their life harder? And if so, how do we identify when changes that are gonna make life harder for all of the engineers and make sure that those aren't being introduced?
PF You know what would be good? So let's say I'm an engineer, and I just got a job at a company like LinkedIn, I've been in a place with maybe, you know, up to 150 eng. But now I'm gonna go over to LinkedIn. And like, I have to get my bearings, I had to figure out how to check out code and be productive. What is that like? What does that transition like?
SC Yeah, it's actually--well, I can't speak for every company. But for us, it's really easy, just because it's so well documented. You know what I mean? Like, it took me about two days, and I everyone was like you're manager, you don't have to do this. And I do this every time. I'm like, this is important, I need to know what it looks like. But it took me two days. And it was just because you know, you have to install things and do all the things. But we have a great remote environment that you could just check out and change and then reset and, you know, do all kinds of stuff with. So people have been really thoughtful about this. I'm sure there's been a time where it was held. But for right now, it's fairly easy.
PF Is it like Google, where they just give you all the code? Or are you working with individual repos?
SC There are individual repos, but it's most of the code. It's like, it depends on what team you're on.
PF You can get to the parts of LinkedIn that you need in order to do your job?
SC Yeah, yeah. Fairly easily. I think if I was new, the thing that would be really shocking to me is like, if you work at a smaller company, the idea of like building a new component, or like doing things like that is something that you do all the time, where it's like, when you're working at this scale, like you might be building a tiny part of a component, and that feels very different.
PF 100 million people are going to click that close button.
BP The Accept button, Paul. The Accept button.
PF Yeah, no, but but also to like to make sure that when they click Accept that we kind of know everything happening on every system at any time.
SC I was talking to one of my team the other day, and they were saying that they used to work on another team. And they made the little green dot that shows up when someone's writing to you.
PF Ohh, the little green got.
SC Yeah, yeah. And I was like, that is so cool!
BP Yeah, how warm should that green be? Sara, I remember you saying, you know, as you're making the transition, that it was also going to be interesting because you had largely been doing managing of engineers and work with the community. And then here, you would be a little bit more back again, hands on, has that been the case? Are you spending more time actually working with code? And if so what's that been like?
SC I am not coding, but I am helping to solve really cool problems that I haven't been able to in a while. And I think the thing that is probably most unique about this role to me, and what I've been thinking about a lot is, all the engineers on my team are fairly senior, and managing senior--like folks that are like staff level above engineers versus, you know, managing a more diverse group of engineers. It's very different challenges, like you're helpful in much, much less ways, but you can have a lot of impact.
BP Well, we are nearing the end. So I have a few pieces of housekeeping to take care of. Unless either of you has a topic you want to throw out.
PF No, it's nice to see everybody again.
SC Yeah! Nice to see y'all!
BP I think we should do this--
PF I miss our Stack Overflow folks.
BP Once a quarter, we'll do classic.
SC That sounds great.
PF Stack Overflow Classic.
SC Where we just talk about things that that make us sound old.
BP Yeah, exactly. And the dot com boom! Do you remember?
PF I'll tell you no, don't simply become associated with being 200 years old. No, I've been up to a ton of stuff. We just launched at work, we have a client, probablefutures.org. Go check it out. And it's an organization focused on communicating what's happening on climate change. It's very, very driven by science. There's a lot of maps underneath. There's a lot of work kind of coming from it in the future. And I've been working closely with them and getting deeply into a lot of different aspects around climate, but especially kind of how the data works. What climate models are, how you make them more accessible. How do you access the different formats they use in geosciences? So actually, a lot of what I've been doing lately is thinking about ways that If climate data was less about, like raw data and more like an API, how you could use it in our world. When I come back on in a quarter I'll have some ability to actually express what that means in concrete terms right now I'm just really deep in the middle. But if you're curious about that world, A, feel free to get in touch with me with, just DM me @ftrain on Twitter or whatever. But the thing that I've been learning a lot, go dig around and stuff like net CDF files and learn how they work. That is like, one of the standards for how climate data is shared. And actually understanding that at a low level will help you understand how the geosciences world sees data and what it does with it. I can't recommend it enough. If you're in Python, the net CDF library will set you straight.
BP Sara, I know people can go check out LinkedIn anytime they want. Is there anything else you want to send them to while we have the chance?
PF Check out LinkedIn! [Paul laughs]
SC Ever heard of it? A great place to be friends, connect with coworkers.
PF If people want to connect to you some way to some sort of network, what should they do?
BP Professionally or otherwise.
SC You can find me on LinkedIn or otherwise Twitter.
PF Where are you at accepting LinkedIn invites? Like do you need a personal connection? Are you like, yeah, what the hell.
SC I need a personal connection.
PF Yeah, me too.
BP I guess I'd be scared to connect with you on LinkedIn now because then you can just like look behind the scenes and see everything, So you know me too much for us to connect there now.
SC That's not how it works, but yeah. [Sara & Ben laugh]
PF Yeah, I kind of doubt she can actually. They usually keep things pretty locked down.
BP Well, if you have not already, you should go check out The Key on StackOverflow or on drop.com.
SC Oh, yeah, that looks awesome. So excited about that.
BP Yeah, you can pre-order it and 10% of the proceeds go to a great charity, Digital Undivided. So check out The Key, nice gift for the programmer in your life. So I have been messing around with a few things. I don't do lifeboats all the time now. I've been getting really into our puzzling Stack Exchange. So for today, this is for you to take to the bank and/or to friends. 'A new way to cut pizza.' Asked three days ago, viewed 4000 times. 'Can you cut a pizza circle into 12 congruent pieces, such that half of them have a crust circle boundary while the other half do not. The pieces must have the same shape and area but can be mirrors of each other. Bonus can you do with identical pieces where pieces are not mirrors of each other?' So spend the morning when you have a little time to think, a new way to cut pizza.
PF Getting right on that. Absolutely a real priority for me.
SC Forget the climate change stuff.
PF I do miss this part of my life when we would just randomly go through Stack Exchange.
BP It's the best, it's really the best.
PF It's just shenanigans non stop.
BP You guys weren't here for the best one from Workplace from like a few weeks ago. 'How do I get demoted?'
BP And the answer was actually really good.
SC Start licking things at the office.
PF Yeah, I'm gonna go check it out. Sara, before you joined. Ben was giving me the update and it sounds like things are going--sounds like you and I leaving was the key to success for this podcast.
SC You're welcome!
PF Things are going great.
BP Pod is headed into the future.
PF New team, lots of energy. You know, nobody is like, back in my day we used to program Perl.
BP Yeah, it's all React and Apollo these days.
PF I'm all over React these days. I do like React. I gave up.
SC Aren't we all?