The Stack Overflow Podcast

Is everyone starting to work like a developer?

Episode Summary

This episode we're presenting something a little different: a recording of a live show streamed on a platform called Fishbowl. We talk about developer tools and workflows taking over across a wide swathe of disciplines and industries. We also take questions and chat with audience members from Google and several startups.

Episode Notes

The massive shift to remote work that so many companies undertook over the last year has pushed many to adopt an asynchronous, merge driven workflow that has been pioneered and perfected by software developers. With tools like Airtable, and Coda, the boundary between programming and other forms of media and knowledge work is beginning to blur. 

What happened to Google Wave? Can products with passionate fans get pushed into the Commons after they are sunset?

Peek under the hood, and it's spreadsheets all the way down. Some companies are now turning a simple spreadsheet into an interactive web app

Spreadsheets on steroids, what could go wrong?

No Lifeboat badge this episode, but tune in tomorrow, we'll have Part 2 of our live episode from the Fishbowl.


Episode Transcription

Paul Ford Frankly, most people who buy and want code to be written don't actually read the code, whereas with design, they see every single part of it and they want to talk about it.

[intro music]

Ben Popper Build your health app on the most accurate data available. The Health Care Locator SDK instantly connects your apps to the world's leading health care database. Add provider names, locations and specialties in just hours. Visit to download today. 

BP Hello, and welcome to a special episode of the Stack Overflow Podcast. The recording you're about to hear was done live through a service called Fishbowl. We got to hang out and chat and then meet with members of the audience. Something we're testing out, you might see us in the future places like Clubhouse or Twitter spaces. So if you enjoy this next episode, please do let us know you can email us And we're going to split this episode into two parts. So you'll have part one, great conversation with me Paul Ford, Sara Chipps, some folks from Google who chimed in, and then tomorrow we will release part two, where we get some great questions from the audience, what to do when your engineering team really hates you. [Ben laughs] Alright, so without further ado, please enjoy this episode live in the Fishbowl of the Stack Overflow Podcast.


BP Welcome, everybody. Thanks for coming. If you're listeners at the Stack Overflow Podcast, thanks for showing up. If you're just here, because you saw a random tweet, thanks for showing up.

PF This is actually—Ben and I have been charged to—let's see, it's 8:01, right. So I think until about 8:04 would you say? 8:03? We have to create really engaging conversation but not get to substantive just kind of bring people in the room. So what'd you read today?

BP I had a good read about the end of fiat currency. 

PF [coughs] That's me coughing, because fiat currency is very important to me, very emotional.

BP Crypto as the reserve currency of choice, and I'm signing an NFT. Do you want to hear about my NFT?

PF Oh, wait, where did you read this? Was this on Where did you read this amazing fact?

BP CoinDesk has an editorial department now. [Ben laughs]

PF No, no CoinDesk has always had an editorial—CoinDesk is an editorial. Coinbase you're thinking of.

BP Oh yeah, Coinbase. 

PF For God's sake! I know it's late.

BP Coinbase has an opinion section, an op-ed board. 

PF CoinDesk is actually a pretty good website. I don't know—there's a journalist there, Brady Dale, who I just think it's top notch when it comes to the cryptos. 

BP Paul, let me ask you a question. I was thinking about it today. You know, the title of this is Building Software in the New Normal. And what I was thinking is maybe it's more like the world is coming to you, like a lot of people are learning to work in a mode that is comfortable and familiar to the software developer, remotely, asynchronously, boards and automations. What do you think?

PF You make a real point, so okay, so for context, because I know probably a lot of people here don't know who we are. I own a software company. I'm the co-founder of a software firm called Postlight. We're about 80 people. And for years, about half the company is engineering. And for years engineering has been remote first, it's always been led by someone from out of New York City, but our headquarters are in New York. Product Management and Design were always New York City based. Then we went all remote. And suddenly we said, okay, you know, to hell with it, let's stop pretending, we're gonna start hiring designers and product managers from all around, really, and especially all around the US. So what is tricky, and what we're still working out, and frankly, what I think will take years to work out is that engineering, collaboration processes have a few things that are just really good. A) they're very text base, because code goes, you know, code is usually just a form of like, flat, relatively flat text. B) tools like GitHub, were built to support a kind of asynchronous text based, merge driven workflow. Right? And they don't require a live in person collaboration. And I, you know, like anything, I think people benefit when they get in the room together and work together. But it truly isn't a necessity. And the way that open source and the way the code works in general, is that people find something and they're like, I want to fix that. And they go ahead and fix it. They issue the pull request in 2021. And then it gets merged in. When you go to design and product, it is different. Like when you have a lot of people, and people have used Figma. Figma is a beautiful tool, design tool. You can see everybody's cursor moving around. I use Whimsical a lot. There's Miro, there's all these tools, but like Figma for design, amazing tool, works really well, but it doesn't, it's not as natural a workflow for design. Design still seems to really involve one or two people going away, working on something coming back and saying, well, you know, here's what I figured out and I'd like to share it with you. I'd like you to take a look at it. And so the tools are trying to catch up, they're trying to make sense. And they're getting there they've made, you can do much more beautiful stuff collaboratively than you ever could before. But engineers have a terrible advantage. And they also have a terrible advantage in the kind of work they do. And the people who buy the work, don't expect to be as involved and connected. And frankly, most people who buy and want code to be written, don't actually read the code, whereas with design, they see every single part of it, and they want to talk about it.

BP You know, I think that I've been noticing this, I come from the editorial world as a journalist then moved into marketing and content marketing technology and software companies. And the developer tools are just slowly but surely encroaching. The design team will start working with GitHub, and then they'll add that, you know, to my Monday or my Trello, because they are saying, 'well we want to push this change for your blog, we want to, you know, help you out with a newsletter, but we got to file it, you know, we got it, we got to do a pull request in GitHub.' Same with JIRA. Now, 'hey, you want to work with legal you want to you know, you want to do some procurement for a new contractor, get this JIRA ticket going.' So it's like the software tools. I think we're kind of built for the world we live in now. They have that advantage. And as you pointed out, they seem to be slowly exfiltrating into new departments. 

PF Well, I think you're hitting on something really fundamental right, which is that if we talk about the future of remote work in the future, kind of digital remote work. Right now, today, I think most of what we're talking about is everybody works more and more like a developer. Everybody uses more and more of an engineering style process. So groups of people, you break things down to their component parts, groups of people go and work on them, they come back, somebody brings them and merges them together into one coherent whole. Everybody sort of looks at how it works, tests it, evaluates it goes back, and then iterates on that, again, whether they're adding new features, fixing bugs, writing unit tests, all of that stuff. So that is, there's Agile and Agile in wonderful in all the different ways that you build that. But like, I think when I say engineering process, what we know is that people are writing code, and they're putting it somewhere and other people are kind of merging it together, and the computer is somehow making it go, and then you see how it works. Right? And that's actually not how—

BP Let's welcome—

PF No, go ahead.

BP I was gonna say, let's welcome our wonderful third co-host, Sara Chipps. Hi Sara.

PF Sara you're muted! Get unmuted!

Sara Chipps I'm muted! Thank you guys so much. I'm excited to be here!

BP Sara, so good to have you.

PF Just today, we said 'when are we gonna get on Fishbowl and talk about development process?' [Sara laughs]

BP So Sara, well, I'll give you the spiel we were doing and then we'd like love your thoughts. So basically, we're saying what's the new normal, you know, building software. And then we were just kind of reflecting on how developer tools, maybe were kind of already built for this remote asynchronous, you know, sort of, like, built in piece world, and that the world is kind of coming to you, as a software developer, people from marketing and design are kind of learning to think more like engineers and using more of your tools, whether that's GitHub or JIRA, I don't know, what do you think having worked cross functional at Stack Overflow? What do you see?

SC I think about this all the time, it's the most annoying thing. I imagine being a marketer, for someone on the sales team, and having a developer tell you, you know, you guys should really work in GitHub, I think that's probably the most annoying thing on the planet. And I really respect the folks that really step up to do it. My question is always, I think often about how convenient is it actually, right? Like when we think about GitHub, we think about like, the most wonderful place to be building software. And it's, it's so great. But, you know, it's the kind of the same concept as Google Docs, right? Like you have versioning—

PF Can I make a point, right, which is that like, engineers, deep down in their hearts believe that Markdown is good. They believe it like if we just add some special squiggles to a text file. That's as good as typography needs to get in order to do work. And it's awesome, because then we have really complicated HTML documents, but they're not really HTML. They're just flat text. They're easy to version and all those things. I hate that. It means that you're basically taking all the all the sort of history of typography and all the wonderful things you can do with documents, and you're saying let's flatten it so that it's better for the computer, right?

SC Yeah, no one likes—I have a suspicion that no one actually enjoys Markdown. But everyone—

PF Yeah, no, I think you're right. Well, they, because it's easy to implement, you go get the library. But you know, for God's sake, since like, 1973 you've been able to add bolding by hitting Ctrl+B. If you're on a Windows machine and Command+B on a Mac. 

BP But Paul, I think you know, like to the point of, yeah, everyone is, as Sara was saying, this tool the right way for everyone. It was designed to work in the world we live in now, which is everybody in front of screens, possibly versioning trying to work together on something and avoid these overlaps that can cause headaches. So I used to be in a newsroom, we would yell at each other. If you were working on a magazine in design instead of web design, you would be like in the same room with you know your stuff spread out. So in some ways, like the way that software was always done on the computer on screen. And with this real attention to detail around versioning, because you didn't want to have, you know, bugs in the final does make sense now for all of us, right, that has to be all of our process.

PF I mean, you know, we don't have to be the only people talking about this, but we can't see it, because we're the host, but apparently, there's like, you know, raise your hand to talk feature on the bottom left of this app. So if anybody wants to tell us how—yeah, if anybody wants to raise their hand. We'd love you know, don't say first time caller, you're not allowed to say that. But other than that, you can say anything. 

BP Hello!

Gaurav Mishra Hi!

PF Hey! Oh my god, this works beautifully. Look at us collaborating. Hello! 

GM Hi, I just wanted to join and say that there's a lot of things that are happening, you know, right now in the engineering world for collaboration, but I'm keen on learning from the designers about what have you found to be useful? Or is there no alternative to just meeting in person for designers?

PF Oh, I can, I can tell you what we're doing at work. And then hopefully, if there are some designers in the call, they can, they can jump up and tell me that I'm wrong. So Figma has really taken over our organization, we have a 20, 20 plus person design team. And I would say it's, it's taken over Sketch, it's clearly, there's a lot of Illustrator, Adobe XD, like Figma is the way to go. People collaborate in it all day, they use it to present they use it to prototype, it's even taking over for things like InVision, and the sort of group collaboration aspects of it with a distributed team really are effective. So that, so that's big. And then for concepting, whiteboarding, sort of creative design sprint kind of stuff. It's a sort of toss up between a couple of different tools, there's Miro, there's another one, I think called Mural, Miro seems to be winning just because it's the most like sticky notes. And it seems to be getting adoption kind of all over the place for the kind of like, let's throw sticky notes on the board. But the one that's coming from behind is Whimsical. So these are the, Whimsical is my favorite, which is just it's like a mind mapping, sticky note, concepting tool. I used it for an hour and a half on a meeting today to just kind of gather what people were saying. So the designers in the org are using these tools more and more as kind of a baseline, what has not changed is the, the need to present the work in almost like a formal way. Like you just need to walk people through what something is in their way. I think like sometimes engineers can throw something over the wall and say, I think it works now. Go ahead and see how it works on your machine. So you know, the Zoom call, the Meet, the let me walk you through the slides, you know, let me show you in Figma, let me show you how this thing is going to work. That formal presentation has only become more and more important since the pandemic started. But I'd love to hear what other people are doing and what else we've seen.

BP Yeah. And then we're going to have a podcast episode about this coming up. But our had a brand design, you know, uses Figma we've used Miro recently. And then you give a designer with a little bit of development chops and man they go off.

PF That is true!

BP Workflows, they're, you know, building cascading loops for you to file your requests. It's quite exciting to see them.

PF Yeah, data gathering is a big part of this. I think that it really, anyway, yeah, we should we should be listening.

BP The gentleman who asked to speak, can you say your name and where you work? I don't want to mispronounce your name. But thank you for coming and asking a question. I really appreciate it. 

GM Sure. Yeah, my name is Gaurav Mishra. And I work at Google. 

BP Okay. Well, thank you so much for coming and asking a question.

PF Gaurav, you know more than we do, for God's sake, you're at the heart of it. [Ben laughs]

GM Well, you know, at Google, it tends to be, we tend to be sort of like in a silo. And there's, like, you know, we have all everything is internal. So we have a bug tracking tool. We have our own sort of like meeting software, right. I mean, you know, if it's not made at Google, then we don't use it, apparently.

BP Something to collaborate across departments for engineering... Google Wave, they could call it, Google Wave.

PF No, Ben, don't, don't do that.

SC You're not in marketing for nothing. 

GM Yeah, hey, it's a way to get people riled up. 

PF Listen Wave was good. We should spend the rest of his podcast just breaking down all the things that were in Wave that everyone has spent the last you know, 10, 15 years trying to rebuild.

BP Everything really good that you're going to send set, just take off the Google and open source it, Reader, Wave. Put it all out in the commons. 

PF Woof, no, don't put a person on the spot. Somebody finally raises their hand and you do that, Ben?

BP Oh, no, I'm not putting him on the spot. I'm saying like—

GM No, I mean, I'm right there with you about, you know, product cancellations and stuff like that, you know, Google Reader was my favorite. And obviously—

PF Oh that was good.

GM So yeah, I mean, you know, I hear you.

BP Alright, so yeah, thank you again, why don't you step down. And we'll ask other people to step up. But I'll introduce a new topic since we just had someone from Google. So Paul, we were doing some hiring from someone who's always been remote at Stack Overflow. And this maybe applies to Postlight. And they were saying, the move to fully remote has been a big boost to small companies that don't have a big reach. Now that remote hiring is the norm, you can reach a much bigger and better pool of talent that normally before you would have had to have an office to compete on or like a wide, you know, HR net. What do you think has

PF It's all real tricky, and the stories that people tell about remote versus in person are—there's a lot of myths, right? So here's what I've observed. A) of course, there's talent everywhere, that should be a given. It's global, there, people learn skills and so on. There are cultural sensitivities around New York, that when you are servicing in New York client, for instance, I have one of my clients is the MTA. They make the trains go, and the buses, they are here, they're literally all around the city, and presence is just understood for them. And so are you going to be able to educate them about what remote work means? Well, during the pandemic, sure, after the pandemic, probably a little, but it's also a little bit TBD. And so that's what we're negotiating as a firm that like, you know, Google's has a very good policy, actually, I think, which is, is they announced that they're going to go three days a week, it's going to be very flex. But Google works for Google, right? So I work for banks, so the MTA and media companies and so on. And ultimately, they're my bosses of the CEO. And that's a nice thing to say, but I've been cleaning services. And so what do they need in order to feel that they're getting, like a clear understanding and that they're, they're getting what they need now. So I have to solve that problem. I think the way that we do solve that problem is some mix of more flex time, people being present, more strategies for remote people to be present. Some people are really good at leaning it remotely, some are a little more quiet, trying to figure out career paths around the disciplines where people who are going to stay remote, have a good understanding of how they can progress. But also for people who want to be kind of in the mix of things and be part of growth, how do they jump in and sort of connect directly with the client to like, it's all a big, muddy puzzle. And people are like, no, look, I can be just as productive at home. It's like, well, you can, you can get your work done. And it's not that I need to see your face or that I need you to prove it to me. It's just that certain parts of growth happen because humans are together. I actually don't have the power to change that in my business. I can't make that—

SC I wonder though, counter point, are you just an old? [Ben laughs] Like, I wonder...

PF Yeah, sure I am Sara. But so are my clients, so are the people who write the checks. I have to negotiate that.

BP Sara, before I let you go, cuz I know you're you're celebrating your transition to LinkedIn, and we're celebrating you. If I said to you, you know what's building software in the new normal, like you're, you know, you're coming from Stack Overflow community team, but also software, you're going to be an engineering manager, you think anything fundamentally has changed for folks who, you know, day in day out, yeah, working on building software? Is there a new normal for you? Or do you think the last year and a half hasn't really fundamentally changed the way you're going to work?

SC I think what we've observed is that there has been a really big change. I think, it's really too early to tell, I think, I mean, at Stack Overflow, we all used to have our own offices. So it was basically we were remote all the time. But I think it's going to take some time for all of us to come to the other side of this and figure out actually have things changed? Alright, we're gonna let Sara go. Paul and I will carry on and invite some more folks.

PF Goodbye Sara!

SC Thanks for having me, y'all.

BP Bye Sara. Paul, counterpoint to what you were saying about client services in New York, I have a relative who used to work for the Oregon State Government Eugene, doing urban design. And now they said you can live anywhere, you know, you can just send us the files and be on the Zoom calls and be wherever. So let's say I was the MTA before, I would think I would probably hire in New York and ask people to come to the office. Now the MTA can have a great designer engineer, anywhere in the world, right? Like, doesn't that open up a little bit? 

PF It does. I think it's going to be, you know, this is the worst answer in a podcast because the answer is like, here's what's it's going to be and here's the three things you need to do. And let's get ready. Nobody knows. Nobody knows, very large organizations can say, okay, we're gonna see the end of the pandemic, eventually, we're going to go to flextime. We see what our what our employees want to do. And we don't think that this is going to hurt our revenue. So here we go. But most of the organizations of the world, you know, when do you think about software, right, like, it's like something like 18 million people that are in this industry, and like probably, I don't know, 12 million of them are not working at big companies, but working at like consulting firms in the backroom is doing stuff for inside of their, you know, inside of other orgs. And I think about you know, like the carpet company that has a Salesforce implementation, right, like, who's taking care of that? Could be totally remote. Could be that the you know, the boss really expects him to be in the in the office, could be that there's a vendor involved like, it's just going to be messy, and it's going to take really about a year to fully unpack. You know, I think from a personal point of view, I have a software company, some people can't wait to get back in the office, some people are obviously incredibly anxious and nervous about it. Some people really want to stay remote. Some people are already distributed around the United States, and you know, don't want to get on an airplane. Everyone is a mess after the last year, right? That's just a fact. So it's like, first we got to solve that, right? First we have to solve the everyone is a mess problem. Easiest thing in the world is somebody who wants to come back to the office, everybody else is gonna need like six months to unpack what just happened to them.

BP Yeah, there's gonna be, you know, emotions and and psychology around easing back. And I'm already starting to feel that with, do I venture out of my house and work from the coffee shop? Do I go to the gym once or twice a week? Because it adds to my health that but you know, also, you know, I feel risk when I'm there. So yeah, even as someone who's double vaccinated and two weeks out, I'm sort of weighing those things always in my head. I don't feel totally calm. But Paul, I guess another thing that came to mind when we talk about, you know, like, building software, and the new normal, is that people have been at home, they've been thinking about their projects and thinking about their jobs. And what's important to them, it seems to me, like the trend of open source has only continued to grow and to work its way deeper into large enterprises and companies that, you know, previously were kind of even starkly opposed to open source. Do you feel like there's momentum there and has the last year and a half played any role in that, or that's just a continuation of a big wave? It's been coming? Let me just say, if you're in the crowd, and you want to, you want to join, we'd welcome a new question after Paul wraps up.

PF I mean, you know, I think, look, I most of the solutions, my org delivers are web based. So if you look at things like React, React components, the way the the backends, the API's work, and my life is open source software built on top of cloud platforms that are tightly controlled by one or two or three giants. [Ben laughs] Yeah, which are also open source software. But sometimes it gets really tricky. I think what's fascinating is, you know, the Mac has been built on the Darwin Core and a BSD core for decades now. And you know, homebrew is a huge part of anyone doing serious work on the back end. And on the windows side, you've now got the Ubuntu subsystem for Linux. And Microsoft is, you know, huge supporter and caretaker of the open source ecosystem. So I think that, like, I feel that we're done. Like, I feel that like, anyone who is still fighting that fight is way out of date, maybe Oracle, but even Oracle—

BP I think that's right. It's like there's a regime change. And now it's settled, it's in a settled state, right? There's not like a big conflict, trying to sort it out, which it's like, we've shifted, people have accepted that you have the real scale of open source and that can sit next to these big money making SaaS platforms. 

PF That's right, I think there's still some relatively closed ecosystems like Salesforce is like you go in there user Apex coding environment, like they're not, you kind of live inside of planet Salesforce, even though it's a web based set of platforms. But so there are still some kind of, you know, walled gardens that are going on. But for the most part, if you're building kind of software for open platforms that are going to be, you know, distributed very widely, not just for internal or serums values, you're, you're gonna use something open along the way. I think that that if we go one level down from your question, it actually what I think it gets to a little more is like, a kind of agile, Git driven style of development has absolutely taken over everywhere at every way, right? I just don't know many people who don't do that. And I'm sure there are millions of pockets of people who are like, no, I, you know, I programmed my Visual Basic and compile it by hand using my PDP 11. But like, but for the most part, it's on GitHub. Like Microsoft did, it was very smart when it bought GitHub, like just like, yeah, we're gonna have the whole ecosystem, let's let's help ourselves.

BP No, I mean, when folks come to me for content marketing help, and to do you know, brand building and sort of awareness, we do blogs with them. And typically, what they want it to do in the end, is guide the reader to some open, you know, repo where they can start playing with the tools themselves, like, typically what they want in the end is for the developer and be interested, you know, to take to read the article where they're, you know, they get some technical explanation or walk through a project, but then to be able to pass those tools off with ease and have that person start building with ease, you know, that's what they feel, will really draw people into their ecosystem.

PF There's a whole ecosystem that enables it, right, like Stack is a perfect example. There's a ton that you know, there's code samples, there's code pad and like, the tools that we have for communicating and expressing things around code and then if it's open source code, and you can cut and paste it, and you can go get it and run it. It's a superpower, things like NPM package managers or superpowers—

BP Paul, I saw something the other day I wanted to, I wanted to share with you. It's a startup called Rose.

PF Okay, Rose, here, you're gonna hear my loud keyboard, my DOS keyboard, Rose.

BP You make the Excel sheet, and then you just like, hit a button, and it turns it into a web app. I know this is your jam, right?

PF Well, this is the thing. I'm fascinated by low code. I'm fascinated by stuff like AirTable and so on. Because what it does is it enables that person who's in the back room who is really annoyed with how inefficient everybody is and like all the crappy spreadsheets that they use, it's just it's like a kind of pseudo programming that they can then go ahead and build an app out in like AirTable and say, why don't we use this instead? And it sort of spreads virally inside of the org as people go like, yeah, okay, I guess I saw before, sort of like Excel. And meanwhile, that person, even if they don't think of themselves as a programmer is doing their programming. And so I think it'd be very easy to see that as a threat. If anything, it just makes the whole universe that we're in a lot better. But it's the opposite of open right? Now you've got platform lock in and you're using, you're using a tool, you're writing your code and you're running it in a sort of visual way inside of a closed environment. So you know, we're, we're always going in one direction or the other when we sit down to make things.


BP Alright, everybody that wraps up part one of our live episode accorded with Fishbowl. Hope you enjoyed it. If you did, let us know we might try more live stuff in the future. And that was part one. So please do tune in tomorrow. We'll have part two of this podcast, some more conversation from the Fishbowl, some really interesting questions from people who work at companies with large engineering teams, but perhaps are not communicating with them as well as they could or getting along with them, as well as they want to, how to communicate and get along with your engineers. Lots of great conversations. So tune in tomorrow for part two.

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