The Stack Overflow Podcast

GitHub Copilot is here. But what’s the price?

Episode Summary

The home team convenes to discuss the full public release of AI pair programmer GitHub Copilot, the VPN company that turned off subscriptions to protect its customers’ privacy, and the moral hazard of “free-to-play” apps and games.

Episode Notes

GitHub Copilot is now available to all developers. There’s also the GitHub Copilot Labs extension for Visual Studio Code, which has some neat tricks up its sleeve. 

Yes, Copilot is impressive; no, it’s not gunning for your job. ICYMI, check out our blog post exploring whether AI is poised to steal our livelihoods: The robots are coming for (the boring parts of) your job.

Mullvad VPN is removing the option to add new subscriptions because they want to know “as little as possible” about their users: “We are constantly looking for ways to reduce the amount of data we store while still providing a usable service.”

Data scraping is both ubiquitous and seemingly unavoidable—but it raises serious privacy concerns, writes David Golumbia for Real Life.

Tech recs: a ladder to bypass (almost) any paywall, the smartest way to learn a new language, how to explore the JavaScript universe, a great place to listen to longform journalism, and the email-free way to read your favorite newsletters.

Thanks to Liam for emailing the podcast to share Physics Girl’s terrific explanation of quantum cryptography.

Today’s Lifeboat badge goes to user martineau for their answer to How to start and stop a thread.

Episode Transcription

Cassidy Williams Honestly, the way I've described it to non-technical people is it's glorified fancy autocomplete. But really what it is is, you get AI-based coding suggestions and they have both the GitHub Copilot extension in VS Code where it'll suggest code for you, but there's also a GitHub Copilot Labs extension that has more experimental features, and that one I’ve played around with a little bit which is neat. With one of them, you can highlight a snippet of code and it'll translate it into another language, like JavaScript to Python or JavaScript to COBOL or something strange. It's not perfect but it's pretty decent which has been kind of cool to play with. 

Ben Popper Yeah. “Look at me, I’m a Haskell programmer.” Alright, that's interesting.

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BP Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk all things software and technology. I am your host, Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow, joined as I often am by my wonderful co-hosts Cassidy Williams and Ceora Ford. Hi, y'all. 

CW Hello!

Ceora Ford Hi! 

BP Cassidy, I'm going to let you drive today because you added some interesting links here to our show doc. One thing, I was patting myself on the back getting my invite to Copilot today. Turns out I'm not so special. Tell me what's going on.

CW Yeah. So for that one, GitHub Copilot is now available to all developers which is very exciting. It's something that I've kind of taken for granted because I've been using it a bunch for a while now ever since I got the earlier access, but it's really cool. And I know we've talked about it on the show before, but honestly the way I've described it to non-technical people is that it's glorified fancy autocomplete. But really what it is is, you get AI-based coding suggestions, and they have both the GitHub Copilot extension in VS Code where it'll suggest code for you, but there's also a GitHub Copilot Labs extension that has more experimental features. And that one I’ve played around with a little bit, which is neat. With one of them, you can highlight a snippet of code and it'll translate it into another language, so like JavaScript to Python or JavaScript to COBOL or something strange. It's not perfect but it's pretty decent which has been kind of cool to play with.

BP Yeah. “Look at me, I’m a Haskell programmer.” All right, that's interesting. Good for passing technical interviews and getting jobs you don't deserve. 

CW And then there's another thing where it'll add comments to your code as well where you can say, “Please describe what this code is doing.” The Labs part is not perfect, but it's fun to play with and in general, it's exciting to see Copilot be released to everybody now.

BP Okay. So we were talking about this recently. Ceora, you were saying you want to leave behind better code comments for your open source project. So just automate it, have it run through once at the end of every day before you shut down and leave some comments for people.

CF Yeah. I also noticed that it said it’s free. Well, it's a paid feature for now, either $10 a month or $100 a year, but it will be free for verified students and maintainers of popular open source projects which I think is pretty cool. 

CW Yeah. I think it's free for the summer and then they're going to have it paid afterwards, but it's cool that they're making it more readily available for open source projects, and I’m not sure what the definition of popular projects are to qualify for that, but the fact that they're supporting open source in that way is pretty cool. 

CF Yeah. I think a few times we've talked about ways in which we can compensate open source maintainers in some sort of way. Not that this is in any way, shape, or form close to that, but it's a step in the right direction to get some sort of perk for being an open source maintainer, which is pretty hard work in my opinion.

CW Yeah. It's not going to pay the bills but it might make their lives easier. 

CF Yeah.

BP So Cassidy, how many months in are you now? I don't remember, do you know when you got access? 

CW I'm not sure when I got access either. It's been a while now, at least six months if not more.

BP Just to describe it, when I think about what you're saying, autocomplete and where it's useful, if I'm writing a piece now, all the spelling and the grammar is corrected automatically, great. Just as I'm going through it's fixing that for me, and sometimes I have to reply to an email and it's just taking some of the work off my back just finishing easy sentences. But I sometimes do feel a little self-conscious endlessly sending that same auto-reply. What are the pros and cons a few months in and do you feel it's made you better, just made life easier, has some downsides?

CW So first of all, I do think it's aptly named Copilot, because it's not leading development in any way. At this point, at least for me, it's not going to be taking my job anytime soon and I don't think it's going to be taking anybody's job anytime soon which I know is a concern for some people. But what's been really nice is I can say like, a function that adds two numbers together in a comment, something very simple, and it'll just paste out that function and then I can just get on with my day. So the fact that I don't have to write very basic utility functions as much anymore is very helpful because that is kind of just reinventing the wheel. For more complex things it is confused, but I think that is okay because that's what human brains are for. 

CF Yeah. I was imagining that's how it would be, because I do think a lot of people do wonder, “Is AI going to replace every profession in the whole entire universe?” Or even as I think we've discussed before, the whole complex about like, “Am I cheating? Is this really coding?” To me, it seems like it just makes your job easier, it just makes it so you're not spending as much time on the things that aren't as computationally heavy or that need a ton of brain power for problem solving and things like that, which I think ultimately is a good thing. Everyone wants to focus on the problems that actually need their focus instead of some of the smaller things that are more tedious than anything, so I feel like anything that helps developers do that is generally probably going to be a good thing. 

CW I agree. For example, one thing that I always have to look up, I've been coding for a long time but I always have to look up the syntax for switch statements. For some reason I always forget that.

CF Me too!

CW The fact that I could write a comment saying, “A switch statement that decides between these options,” and it does it, even if the options aren't perfect, it gets the syntax right and I can fill in the blanks, is so nice because I don't have to leave my editor to look up, “Okay is there a parenthesis here, is there a colon here?” Because it's just awkward enough. 

BP Yeah. I want to have some academics on the show who study how the brain works. When we did the developer survey last year there was a question about how many times do you find yourself going back to the same Stack Overflow question? And how many times have you even contributed an answer or asked that question yourself? And maybe it is better to just offload that part of your brain and Google it every three months when you need it. Same with a switch statement. But also if I need this thing why isn't my brain just getting it?

CF I know sometimes too it depends on if you're a developer who's worked with a ton of different languages. It can be easy to confuse syntax between languages so I imagine Copilot would be great for something like that when you're not super super fluent in a coding language, but you know enough to know how to detect the problem and know how to solve the problem, but little things like, “Oh, what keywords do I use here? Where do I put the colon,” that kind of stuff, I feel like that's where this could come in and be super helpful. If you're used to working in JavaScript and now you have to build something with Python and you know enough to build it, but those small little syntax differences are where you get tricked up, this could probably be super helpful. 

CW That's where I think that Labs extension is really helpful. Where if I need to make some kind of object or class or something, I am not good at remembering that in Python for the life of me, but I can do it in JavaScript or even Java. If I can type it out in one file and then have Copilot translate it for me, that makes my life so much easier to just get to the logic part that's a bit harder. 

BP 100 percent. So this is a good segue into a link I don't have, but I just want to say, I read a great article. If you're listening to the podcast, please share it. And it was all about how software development is an industry that, compared to many, many other industries, people do not remain software developers in a technical role for that long. And it was about why do people choose to invest so much in education and go into this career and then move to management or product or other non-technical roles. And the answer was that compared to other industries, you just have to keep learning new things in software development so quickly, and technologies that you learned in college or your first job become obsolete so quickly. Not obsolete, but not as in demand so quickly, that it’s very stressful. And so many people will just say, “I’m management, I can just learn that skill for life and I'm not going to have to be learning a new [language].” So it's really interesting about what you said, that in the future if you're a great developer in one language and you can get the logic and you can figure those things out, maybe AI will be doing the translation for you and that will be a great way to continue to learn and move into the new breed of whatever people are doing. 

CF Yeah. That's how I see it being especially useful, because it is hard to predict what language 10 years from now is going to be the most popular or the most useful to us. But I don't think that should stop you from sticking to one language. Once you get that foundation down, you can pretty much solve any problem. It's just the little syntax things that change from language to language. That's why sometimes even with technical interviews it can be hard to actually gauge how proficient someone is at coding based off of a technical interview, especially if it's in a language that they're not super proficient in. It could be a different one that they're really good at. 

BP Right. Totally. We've had a couple of podcasts about how in demand COBOL developers are and how they get paid a ton, and Ruby on Rails. And so you kind of get to make this interesting choice of, “Do I want to stick with this language that's going out of date or out of style, but I command a very high salary and I'm really in demand?” But at the same time, your options if you wanted to go work for a new company start to narrow because only so many people are building new teams and new platforms with that language that's become passé. Not even passé, but you know what I mean, it's just not where people are investing their learning time these days. 

CW Right, exactly. 

CF Yeah. I think a lot of people end up making the shift to a different stack anyway if they really want to, because I do think, and I could be wrong, but I do think those foundational principles that you have to know to solve problems in code can be pretty much applicable to any language. So I feel like I've heard of a lot of people at different companies I've worked at who went from working with one stack to changing to Elixir or something like that which is not as common, but because they still have that foundation, they can move on to a new language and be pretty successful, I guess. I would hope so anyway.

CW Yeah, it's a challenge to switch but I think it's something that is more common than we think. People have to switch all the time and it's something that I think is good for your brain because you kind of are continuing to learn and staying a bit fresh. But it is a challenging aspect of the industry and so any tools that help with that I think are important. 

CF Yeah, absolutely. 

BP So let's go on to our next link here. This is from Mullvad VPN, “We're removing the option to create new subscriptions.” What kind of business would do this, Cassidy? It doesn't sound like a smart business move. I love subscriptions. I make them, I forget them, and then I keep paying them. 

CW Yeah, well that’s what's interesting about this. So this company, Mullvad VPN, I admit I don't know a ton about it, and I discovered this article and now I have this newfound respect for them. They are a VPN for any sort of things you might be doing through VPNs, privacy and hiding location and that sort of thing. And they basically started this blog post saying, “We want to know as little as possible about our users. Because our software is for privacy, we want to stick to that and also be as privacy-focused as possible.” And one of the things that they noticed and realized and it's throughout the industry where there is not a lot of privacy, is the area of payments, where privacy just isn't a thing because you need information from people to get a certain amount of payments. And what they basically did was they got rid of recurring payments and subscriptions for their software. In order to keep some kind of subscription, they need to keep people's payment information on file for a certain amount of time and they just keep it forever and that's just how subscription models are. And so they are now sticking with one-time payments so that when you buy the Mullvad VPN, they don't have to keep your payment information once you put that payment in until the next iteration they have to and stuff and so there's no recurring payments or anything. And I thought that was just really, really interesting and unusual, because kind of like you said, Ben, it's probably not the best business model to get rid of subscriptions because that is a cash cow. But the fact that they did this I really respect.

CF So it's not the yearly subscription thing, it’s just a literal one-time payment? I miss one-time payments, actually. 

CW I know. Same. 

CF I kind of curse whoever came out with whatever company first started doing the monthly subscription thing, because at one point in time, like I remember Photoshop Creative Suite used to be a one-time payment. You would pay like 500 bucks to use Photoshop and that was it. And now it's a monthly thing and it's like, “Ugh, that's so annoying.” But anyway, I digress.

BP I mean, 100 percent. They probably did some consumer research and found that most of their customers are folks who are software developers. The VPN clientele cares as much or more about data security than anything else. This is the kind of thing that's going to make them stand out from the pack with all these other VPNs. I don't really know what differentiates one VPN from another. I'm going to go on a bit of a tangent now, but the original Diablo video game came out in 1997 and I played it, and then there was a second version and a third version and then recently they put out their first version that's on mobile. So I downloaded it to see what it's like, but the whole thing is just an endless stream of in-game notifications to spend more money on this, or subscribe to this, it's got like a million different ways that they're trying. It's just like a casino, that's what it feels like. And after a while it's like, “This is gross. I'd be happy to give you $60 or whatever I used to pay for the game in the box with the CD, a ton of money up front, and then just let me enjoy this.” Because this feels icky after a while. 

CW Right. That was actually a blog post I wrote at one point of, would you rather have some kind of really high lifetime payment or just a subscription to try it out? And it was an interesting balance of people saying, “Oh, I like a subscription because then if I don't like it after a couple of months I can just stop.” But for me, and granted I have the privilege to be able to pay for things, I love being able to do a lifetime payment or a five-year payment or something so I just don't have to think about it anymore. 

CF Yeah. I think I like that too. I guess it depends on what I'm paying for as well. But another thing I miss is the 30-day trial. I have a lot of complaints. A lot of places are doing the 7-day trial or the 10-day trial. I miss the 30 days because 30 days was enough for you to see if you liked it enough to pay for it. So you could do 30 days and then do your one time payment and be done. But now you get seven days, and by seven days can you really use it enough to know if you like it in the first place? 

CW Right. Can you go all-in on it enough? Yeah.

BP I mean, one thing that I do really love about Apple, and I think it works for both ID and payments, is that you can sign up for an app now with like the spoof Apple ID where it's an email that's going to Apple and then they're sending it to you. So they don't get your email, your personal stuff is not going to get leaked. And then if you're using Apple Pay and you just authenticate with your face, I don't even think they're getting your credit card details. So again, I will sometimes try to get an app and you can't even get into the app. It's like, “Start the four day trial now.” And then it's like, “We're going to start billing you after so many days.” I just got to get out of there, you know? 

CW So many apps now are like, “They're free on the app store. Wow!” But then you join and then it's immediately like, “If you really want the app, there's an in-app payment of this subscription 10 times.” 

BP Yeah, exactly. It’s garbage.

CF I just thought of another complaint I have, and this is for the journalism people out there. So it used to be that every platform would give you like five free articles for the month and a lot of them don't do that anymore and I find that so annoying. Sometimes people will share a New York Times article or something like that. I don't know if New York Times doesn't do it anymore, but I've ran across a couple that don't do the five free articles or three free articles, whatever it was every month. And I'm like, “Come on, I don't want to pay a dollar every week or whatever it is. I just want to read this one article and be done.”

BP I know. I might have ranted about this on this show before, but that was the one area where I felt like micropayments would be so great. Like, I get some local news story from some town or state that I've never heard of, but I really do want to read this article. I will pay you a dollar, just give me the button to click. I'll pay you a dollar for this one story that I'm going to read one time. That's like as much as I would pay for a physical paper, but I'm not going to subscribe to the Colorado Tribune Gazette so I can read this one story. It's not happening. I'm not coming back. 

CF Yeah, I wish there was some sort of subscription service. I just dogged monthly subscriptions, but like you pay a monthly dollar amount to have access to such and such number of, almost like Netflix.

BP Apple News is like that. It's pretty good. 

CF Oh, is it? Okay, cool. 

BP That one gives you like a ton of magazines and a bunch of other stuff in there. 

CF Yeah. See, that's the kind of thing I should probably try out. 

CW There is this website called and it basically says, “Show me a 10-foot paywall, I'll show you a 12-foot ladder.” And it's to go past paywalls. And granted, I do think we need to support journalism and that kind of stuff. I have a few new subscriptions and stuff, but I really like the description on this website where it was saying, “I believe that Google AdWords killed the web. Google AdWords incentivized sites to peddle SEO-optimized garbage, sites that aren't optimized for email capture and they market directly to you. They now show ‘news’ and ads and spam instead of information. You should be able to surface information that you want.” And it's one of those things where I agree. There's so many articles where I'm just like, “I will spend a little money here,” or, “I will do this,” but I don't want to pay for this whole subscription. There are articles about me that I can't access because I don't want a subscription to Business Insider or something. And so sites like where I can just say, “What did they say about me? Cool, great,” and then I can move on with my life. 

BP Is there a lot of hot gossip about you in Business Insider? I’ve got to check out this site now. 

CW No. You know where they are just like, “10 women on Twitter that you should notice.” You know, that kind of stuff.

CF Yeah. Business Insider has a pretty expansive tech journalism side where they do pieces on people in the tech community all the time. So I'm sure it's pretty good stuff. No hot gossip. 

CW Yeah. You know, just checking. You want to know why your name is appearing on the Google search.

BP You're talking to somebody who was an intern at Business Insider working on the content mill making slideshows back in 2010.

CF Whoa. 

CW Don't get me started on slideshows for news articles though. Because my word, whenever it's just like, “Oh, here's a list of states, cities, things you should visit. And then it's just one slide at a time and there's 36 slides and there's so many ads around every single slide. 

BP That’s 36 visits to this news organization that you only would've visited once. It really helps them out.

CW It’s infuriating. 

CF Yeah.

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BP All right, everybody. Thank you so much for listening. We really appreciate it. It is that time of the show. I'm going to shout out the winner of a lifeboat badge, someone who came on Stack Overflow and found a question that had a negative score and gave it an answer and now the question has a score of three or more and the answer has a score of 20 or more. “How to start and stop a thread.” Thank you, Martino. We appreciate it, and we'll have that knowledge for you in the show notes.

CW So my tech rec is the app LingoDeer. It’s a lot like Duolingo but it's really helpful for Asian languages. And so I'm using it for Korean and I know they're really good for Japanese and stuff. And something that I really like about them is that you can get a lifetime membership instead of just a subscription if you want to. Yeah! 

BP Nice.

CF Yeah, actually someone just recommended LingoDeer to me for learning Hangul, which is the Korean script. So it's so funny that you mentioned that because I just downloaded it. I haven't even opened it up so I probably should. My tech rec is a nice little, I guess I could say bite-sized course. It's called Just JavaScript. It is created by Dan Abramov and Maggie Appleton who we just had on the podcast. And it basically explains JavaScript in a way that is closer to how it actually is in reality if that makes sense. So it's supposed to help you understand and debug better by actually understanding how JavaScript really works. So it's been super helpful for me as someone who's notoriously beefed with JavaScript, so that's my tech rec for this week.

BP Very cool. All right. I have two. These are both for cleaning up your media consumption diet and trying to eat healthier when it comes to what you read. One is called Audm, and that is professional reads of long form stuff. So I find I consume really great journalism best if I'm doing chores or driving in the car. And that one, Ceora, similar to your mention, I think it's like three bucks a month or something and then you get access to news from a whole bunch of publications that all feed in there. So you get your Atlantic and your New Yorker and your Wall Street Journal or whatever. They put their best stories in there and professionals read them so they're kind of fun to listen to. And the other one is an app called Stoop that my friend showed me, which is an inbox just for your newsletters. So my inbox has ads in it and family stuff in it and my kids' Little League stuff in it and then it's got my newsletters. And so it feels kind of cluttered and sometimes it’s hard to concentrate. So this is like, “Oh, I have some time to read. I'm on the bus or getting on an airplane,” or whatever. You go to Stoop and it’s just the newsletters that you've been reading all lined up. So that one's helpful if you want to have some focus time for your brain. 

CF Cool. Awesome. 

BP All right, everybody. I am Ben Popper. I'm the Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper. Email us with questions or suggestions, And if you like the show, leave us a rating and a review. It really helps. 

CF My name is Ceora Ford. I'm a Developer Advocate at Auth0. You can find me online, I'm usually on Twitter. My username there is @Ceeoreo_. 

CW And I'm Cassidy Williams. I do developer experience at Remote and OSS Capital. You can find me @Cassidoo on most things. 

BP And I always say that if you email us I will shout you out and then often I forget. So I'm not going to do that this time. Thank you to Liam who sent us an email with a link to a video from Physics Girl explaining how quantum cryptography and the quantum internet could work. So we'll stick that in the show notes and we appreciate you listening and sending us some info. Thanks for listening and we'll talk to you soon. 

CW See ya!

CF Bye!

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