The Stack Overflow Podcast

We chat with Slack developers about building apps, APIs, and open source communities

Episode Summary

On this episode we chat with Shay DeWael and Steve Gill, two developers at Slack working on their open source tooling and developer education.

Episode Notes

Shay is a developer advocate building open source tools and writing education content. Outside of work she writes poetry, indulges fad hobbies, and reads whatever’s left out on the coffee table. 

Steve Gill a Developer Relations Manager, currently managing the SDK tools team at Slack. The tools teams develops all of our open sourced SDK, such as Bolt for JavaScript, Python, and Java. In his spare time, he enjoys playing ice hockey, woodworking and gaming.

You can find Shay on  LinkedIn and  Twitter

Learn more about Steve on LinkedIn and Twitter 

If you're interested in Bolt, there is lots to learn here.

No lifeboat this week, but thanks to Alex for emailing us to ask: "alternatives to more better element usage?" If you have ideas, we're all ears.

Episode Transcription

Ben Popper People asked me to go on AIM. I had to like get back on AIM when I when I was at Business Insider. They were like, "this is what we use for chat!"

Sara Chipps I love that! We should bring that back. Sorry guys. Sorry. Slack is great. But have you tried AIM? [Sara laughs]

SD No, thankfully, I have not.

BP Complex, multi-cloud environments, siloed teams, a huge volume, velocity and variety of data that overwhelms human teams. Well download Dynatrace's free ebook to learn how you can overcome these challenges, innovate faster, and transform the way you work with AI and automation. Visit to learn more. 

BP Hello everybody! Welcome to the Stack Over Podcast. Hi Sara!

SC Hey Ben, how's it going? I heard you're giving away eggs now that you live in a farm.

BP You know, up here in the country, in these rural environments, somebody gave me a very nice Guinness stout chocolate cake for St. Patrick's Day. And I was like, well, I should give you something. So I gave them a dozen eggs because I have lots to spare. It's really wild. Like, you know, when daylight savings times rolls around, you're like, "Why do we do this? Like, I don't get it. It's so arbitrary or whatever." But actually, when we lost an hour, like right, when we lost an hour, and the chickens basically stopped laying, like it went from like, the next day, to like 2, 3, 4, 0.\

SC Woah! It's the chicken union. They know. The union let them know.

BP Exactly. They're like really in tune with a solar cycle. So like, now that I've been doing this boutique farming, there's still a ton farming for a minute, starting to make sense. Because like things just like shut down when the light leaves and wake up when light comes back. So Sara, we have two great guests today. Shay and Steve are joining us from Slack. I was on a call yesterday with a company to be unnamed about a potential partnership. And they just kept being like "We love Slack!" And I was like "Yep, here at Stack Overflow..." And they're like, "You know, when I'm using Slack..." and I just kept being like "Sure! Whatever you say, we're gonna make this work somehow." But Shay, Steve, welcome to the podcast. Thanks so much for joining us. 

SC Welcome!

Shay DeWael Thanks for having us!

BP So Shay, tell us a little bit about who you are. And yeah, what you work on day to day at Slack.

SD So I've been at Slack for about three years on our Developer Relations team. Before that I was at Purdue studying computer science. And there, I kind of got involved in the Hackathon scene, which is where I learned the beginnings of what developer relations is. And so I ended up interning at Slack and then going there full time. And I started at Slack on our open source tooling team, which is the team that Steve now manages, but have since shifted more towards like the education realm in terms of like belting out programs to better teach people how to build on top of our platform.

BP Very cool. And Steve, tell us a little about yourself. What's your journey into software and to Slack? 

Steve Gill Sure. Hey, everybody, I'm Steve Gill, as Shay mentioned, I'm the developer relations manager of the tooling team here. Previously, I've been working in open source projects for over 10 years. So you could say open source is a part of my DNA. I used to work at Adobe, during the early days of an open source project named Cordova, which really allowed mobile app development to be available for web developers.

SC Yeah, I love Cordova. I'm a big fan.

SG Oh! Awesome to hear. Yeah, it's been it's been around. 

SC I've done a lot of work with them.

SG Yeah. It's been around for a long time. I actually started on it when it was PhoneGap. Pre Adobe. 

SC Yeah, that's great. React Native.

SG Yeah. And then about a year and a half ago, I joined the team here at Slack, tooling team as a developer. And yeah, we're working on some really cool projects. We got SDKs in JavaScript, Python, and Java. And more recently, we've been focusing on our Bolt framework, which we're excited to talk about today.

SC What's Bolt? Tell us about Bolt. I'm excited about this.

SD Yeah. Bolt is a framework we built around two years ago, it was me and one other person who's now starting the Developer Relations at Notion. And it's just a framework that we built to kind of abstract Slack's platform, mostly the API's and the more complex platform features so that it becomes a bit easier to build on top of the platform, enabling people to like use the more in depth platform features right when they're approaching the platform. Rather than having to learn all that the craft and history that comes with that. We first started it in JavaScript and then have since then, kind of expanded it to Python and Java in the past year.

SC So your team must have a lot of people that are fairly flexible language wise, or do you have a specific group working on the Python extension and the Bolt?

SD Yeah, it's been interesting, we were pretty good at JavaScript. That was kind of where we lived. And we had one other person on the team at the time, that was really good at Python, which is why all of our tools always started in JavaScript and Python. And then since we've gotten another person who is very, very good at Java. So there's that like, kind of language spread now, where we do have those kind of language experts, but also other people from the team kind of chipping in and kind of learning the languages over time.

SG Yeah, to make it work. We all had to learn some of the languages for sure. 

SC That sounds fun!

SG  Yeah, it definitely has been fun. I mean, we're always kind of concerned if it's just one person doing all the work on one language, you know, the whole get hit by a bus theory. 

SD Especially Java. 

SG Especially Java.

SC Yeah. Those darn buses always aiming for programmers, it's so weird.

BP It's called the trolley problem, Sara, it's a really big problem in programming.

SG And the Java support, Java support was quite interesting, because Kaz who Shane mentioned, actually did that as a side project outside of like the work that he did in Slack. So implementing that project, he just really liked Bolt and the concepts behind it. And then once he kind of joined our team, it made sense to move that and make it an official Slack project.

SC What are your favorite apps? Like? What kind of stuff do you get excited about?

SD So there's a lot of apps that were built by, like smaller developers early on in the Slack platform that are like, pretty cool. And take advantage of a lot of the features. Some of the like, simple ones are like polling apps, like there's a simple poll up. That was like one of the first on the platform.

SC Yeah! I remember that. Yeah.

SD Yeah. It's created by this great guy. Will Helm, and he just like, did it as a side project. And then now it's like the most popular polling up on our platform, and which doesn't sound like a big thing. 

SC Everyone needs polls.

SD But it turns out like polling, yeah, every enterprise company needs a polling app. So now you have all of these, like, huge enterprises using this one guy's polling app, which is interesting. 

BP Yeah, we use that one internally. We're like, what's the best headline? What should the social promotion be? We use that on the marketing content side, everybody gets to vote on what they think will perform best. But that, I guess, you know, takes us kind of in that direction of Yeah. What if one day, Will Helm or the general, you know, the guy you mentioned just is like, "I don't want to do this anymore." And now all of a sudden, those big enterprises can't do polls? What happens?

SC No one's gonna know what to have for lunch. [Sara & Steve & Ben laugh]

SD Hopefully, that doesn't happen. That's a scary platform problem for Slack.

SG I think there are alternative polling apps as well. And the platform doesn't make it easy to create your own if you're interested. So.

SC Yeah, Shay, you mentioned that you're at Purdue and doing hackathons there. I bet, like being able to build Slack apps that is a hit at hackathons, like something I'd love to do at a hackathon. 

SD Yeah, it's really good for the hackathon scene because the API is quite simple. And most people have a familiarity with like, I mean, an IRC message kind of paradigm or just messaging in general, like it's pretty easy to know what you can start doing with an app. And so it's really easy to start building. So it's good for that like hackathon scene. But yeah, I created a Slack app at a hackathon before I worked at Slack. Just because like our hackathon, Executive Board, used Slack internally. So it was like a cool like little fun project to like, automate.

SC That's great. 

BP And so do you have memories of what life was like? In the pre-Slack days, I worked at a couple of media companies from like, 2008 until it arrived, and we would always roll our own IRC, would get super janky was a chance for like tech writers who also had a little programming experience to show off. I remember one of the worst things is definitely like search and archive, like we could find nothing. You know, you said something to somebody, a month later would be gone. And of course, yeah, there wasn't anything like the the integrations, it was like, you know, a place to break out into teams and to have private messaging, but nobody was really building any kind of integrations. Do you have IRC experiences from back in the day?

SG Yeah definitely, I know my old team, we went through various different chat platforms to find the right fit. early on. We were small enough that we were all in the same office, so we didn't really need it chat platform like email. It was kind of what we were doing crazy. I think a lot of people. Yeah. Which a lot of people can, I think relate to. Eventually we we tried out Google Hangouts for a while, which was a terrible idea. Imagine like, 25 people in one giant Google Hangout group.

BP People asked me to go on AIM. I had to like get back on AIM when I when I was at Business Insider. They were like, "this is what we use for chat!"

SC I love that! We should bring that back. Sorry guys. Sorry. Slack is great. But have you tried AIM? [Sara laughs]

SD No, thankfully, I have not. [Steve laughs] Yeah, and then and then after that, we jumped on to IRC cloud for a bit, which worked out, you know, pretty decently. But we really found our groove once we jumped on to Slack, which I think was probably in about 2014. And then we never looked back. And you know, and everyone that I know, that worked with Slack, you know, always loved the product, love the integrations. So when I had the opportunity to join Slack, it was almost a no brainer.

BP We mentioned earlier on that. Yeah, you know, there's ideas around creating a platform Shay, you know, you mentioned educating people, what does it take to do that kind of outreach and education, like if folks are considering, hey, you know, I want to get involved in open source, maybe I should be developing stuff for Stripe, or Slack or GitHub, like, I want to work on some tools that are going to get me recognition, teach me things, making part of a good community, what are the things that help people feel like, this is a platform where, you know, I can learn and grow and maybe someday participate?

SD Yeah, a lot of that kind of participation. And early, kind of getting involved with our tools starts from people building apps with some of our tools and finding stuff that they really hate about them, or at least like, dislike a little bit. So that's generally how they start like opening issues or something like that. And we generally get a feel for them, we have like a Slack community workspace. So we, like interact with a lot of these developers on a pretty regular basis, if they're willing. And a lot of these developers that end up becoming contributors are pretty outspoken, in themselves in a really good way. So we tend to have like a really good relationship with them, they start to make really small changes. And then they like, get more involved in the project. And some people it's been one of their earlier open source projects that they've first participated in. And so that's been really cool to see. 

BP We had Chris Anderson on from 3D Robotics. And he said, when you want to build a community, like an online software, you have to make the code just good enough to work, but so bad that everybody wants to fix it. And then people will, then the community will come.

SD Yeah, I mean, our early tools team was was very, very small. When when I joined I, it was, like three other people across DevRel, and so like, it was forced to be bad. So that was helpful in that thing.

BP Steve, you said that open sources is in your DNA. Sara is big in that world. Sara, tell them what--you're a board member? What's your official? 

SC Thank you. I just got elected to the Board of Open JS, which is exciting.

SD Oh!

SG Congratulations.

SC Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, it's a really fun organization that is a parent organization, a bunch of a bunch of great projects like node and jQuery and a bunch of others. So it sounds like your team is pretty heavy JavaScript. Do you find that people that are building Slack apps? Is that usually where you're they're coming from?

SG Yeah, I think traditionally, for sure most of our developers are JavaScript developers. But Python has really got a lot of steam behind it. And actually, I think, you know, as we release new features, we're seeing faster uptake in Python than JavaScript. So it's been interesting to see the community grow like that. Yeah.

SD Also, we recently have seen this attacking Go as well, which is really cool. It's like a fraction, right. But it's cool to see out like, take off so quickly. I don't know of many open source tools that use Go for a Slack tool, specifically, but it's cool to see.

SG Yeah, and we don't have an official Go library. But there is a community one that we we occasionally go and help contribute to.

BP Steve, you mentioned, you know, some ideas sort of in the open source world about how to handle you know, being a project manager and what to do when something succeeds, how to maintain something, Sara and Paul and I have talked about this many times, but you know, yeah, there is kind of that, that kind of balancing act of like, I want to create something, I want more people to use it. But then also, Oh, my gosh, this is too popular, you know, demands are pouring in for me to fix this, that now. People are shouting at me. What do you think about that kind of world? Like, what is your idea for how people can get involved in open source but not feel overwhelmed by it?

SG Yeah, I think it really comes down to the maintainers to make it an inclusive environment for new contributors. So you know, in my experience, that means being very responsive on issues that are being filed. You don't want to leave somebody ignored for a week, you know, so on our team, we definitely have like, 'let's make sure we're responding within 48 hours' type rule and we rotate triage to make sure that that happens. I also think it's important to have like good contributing that MD in your repos really kind of describing how they can get involved. And you know, in my experience, if someone does file an issue that they seem interested in sending a pull request, like encouraging them, even jumping on a Zoom call with them to help help them kind of get that first commit, anything you can do to kind of lower that barrier for them, I think is really worthwhile. And I know like for the Bolt team here, in particular, we, we ended up hiring our second intern, the one after Shay, was actually somebody who was contributing to the open source project. And once we found out their age, they weren't even in university at the time, which was crazy.

SC Wow! So cool!

SG They're still a high school student. Yeah. So you know, we found this out. And they were sending some really high quality PRs to the project, that we offered them an internship, and, you know, they came back for a second internship. And now they're, they're actually an employee here at Slack. Working on some Electron work, which is super cool.

SC Woah! Cool!

SD They directly work on the team that is contributing to Electron in the open source world at Slack. So they're still doing open source work just on another side of the company.

SC That's great. Yeah, the Electron team is also clearly neat opportunity.

BP Just for people who don't know what is Electron.

SG So essentially, Node JS is how you would build, you know, server side JavaScript, or tooling and JavaScript Electron packages, the Node JS runtime into a nice little handy framework package, whatever you call it, and allows you to build desktop apps using JavaScript, which is pretty sweet.

BP So before we wrap up, I wanted to chat a little bit about sort of like the future of work, you know, I think here at Stack Overflow, we have Stack Overflow for Teams, which is kind of like you can have a private instance of Stack Overflow in your company, you know, big companies like Microsoft have it and little startups and they use it for documentation and q&a. And our most popular integration is Slack. So people are constantly obviously chatting with their colleagues, they're asking questions. And this is a way to sort of use that real time conversation and make it into some more like permanent documentation. But we did a piece recently, which I share with you, Shay, Steve, and I just sort of want to get your thoughts on it, about updating our app, you know, to sort of fit with what you're doing and what's coming next. So when you think about the, you know, the future of work, and how to help people, what's top of mind? I mean, I think for us, one of the things that's come up again, and again, his team's had to go remote really suddenly. And there's increasingly, you know, a need to work asynchronously. And also to figure out, you know, where knowledge is stored and how to communicate, because you can't just chat with somebody, you know, at the office or over the lunch table. And sometimes you're working in a completely different you know, timezone A lot of people have moved. So, yeah, tell us a little bit about sort of, like, what's top of mind for you, when you think about Slack and how it can help people with what I think will be kind of like the new normal, it doesn't seem like at least for software developers, things are going to sort of snap back to the old ways and the old office anytime soon.

SG You know, obviously, when when COVID hit, it was a big deal for everybody. And it's been pretty exhausting, I'd say, the last year, but Slack has definitely helped the transition for for me, I would say. Like you mentioned async messaging has been huge. But a big part of that is also setting boundaries about when you're online, when you're offline. Nowadays, it does feel like it's easy for that work-life to kind of blend. So for me, I'd recommend, you know, using something like DND, do not disturb reminders. And there's some really nice integrations that could help with that type of work as well. I also found that like, trying to eliminate as many meetings as we can has been helpful, because people are distributed across the world now, you got to be more open to those async messages, you got to be open to receiving responses at a later time. But also, we still like to do some ad hoc meetings, when people are online just for talking about a specific topic, we can just throw in a quick Zoom and jump on it if people are available. I found that it's been really helpful. Slack has been really good for kind of breaking out of the nine to five, the traditional nine to five. So especially people with kids, like I have a little toddler running around at home nice. So it's nice to be able to take a break when I need to. I know that I can, you know work a little earlier or work, you know, after she goes down for the night. And that's been very helpful to kind of manage my work life balance as well.

SD Yeah, I mean, I just to add on in terms of like how some of this adoption, at least internally at Slack has helped in terms of the platform. Being at like these ad hoc meetings, we can just like spin up a zoom and stance from within Slack. It feels more natural than like, going to throw a Zoom social calendar invite on everyone's calendar, as well as just like social apps as well. Doing stand ups in Slack or or just like regular there's that there's an app called Donut that pairs you--

SC I love Donut!

SD Yeah, yeah, that's great. And we have it internally. And so it pairs us with people from around platform and just like one on one with like, new people starting, like half of Slack has started remote or something wild like that. So like meeting people that work on the platform, it used to be really quite easy for me. But now it's been kind of a barrier. So having avenues like that have been really helpful. And yeah, that that often is where the platform can come into play in terms of easing that transition. 

BP Sara, what do you what do you use Donut for? Is that kind of like Stack roulette? 

SC It's a little like Stack roulette? Yeah, it pairs you up with someone at random, in a Slack organization to have a donut or whatever you like, a paleo breakfast bar. 

BP So why don't we--why did we--yeah, why don't we stop using Chat Roulette, we could just use Chat Roulette. [Ben & Sara & Shay laugh]

SD Get on it!

SC Speaking of which, there's this app I love. And now I can't think of the name of it. Maybe y'all can help me, we use it out Open JS, and it prompts you, you know, once a week to thank someone within the organization for doing something great. It's kind of like Has anyone helped you this week? You know, like, What? Oh, Thanks Spot! It's called Thanks Spot.

BP I have to admit that probably the one I've used the most over my entire Slack life is is the giphy. But you know, sometimes just better than words.

SD I mean, that's definitely the most use App on the platform by far! So we never have to plug that one. [Sara laughs]

BP Yeah, it's interesting to hear you say that so many people are starting to remote that that makes me shed a tear as somebody who wants to go back to the office. But I think that's part of it is that so many tech companies have leaned into hiring during this time and totally embraced hiring remote. And so the overall demographic of so many companies has shifted, you know, to be, I think, majority remote now. So it doesn't necessarily make sense to then go back to an office of the same size. You know?

SD I don't know for me, it's hard because I live alone here. So I'm like, very excited to go back to the office as well. And I won't go back every day or anything. But the flexibility there is nice. But it's it's also just hard to think about how it will pan out after, it's going to be more remote, of course, based on that hiring, based on how people are indicating they don't want to go back into the office always. But a lot of people still want to go sometimes. And it's unpredictable just because of the times when it's it's hard to separate the negative from positive.

BP Y'all tell me if you think this would work for you. I was on a call recently. And they were just saying, you know, everybody we're having to adopt, we're having to admit that the nine to five is gone. We have a developer who works four hours a day, seven days a week. What do you think about that?

SC I love that.

BP Wake up every day at six, crank till 10 and then take the rest of the day off?

SC I think there's a lot of companies that used to have are like, I really hope that butts-in-seats as a success metric goes away. You know, like, there's like a lot of companies. Like we have butts-in-seats from nine to five. And that is great. And it's like, come on you like is that really what we're all aiming for? Like, just sitting in a chair? I don't know. I like that. I don't know. What do you all think?

SG Yeah, I personally would lean towards maybe a four day week if I could, like cram cram a bit more and then take that three day weekend. That's, that's where I lean. [Sara laughs]

SC Yeah.


BP Alright, everybody, I am Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper. And you can always email us it's a We want to hear from you. We try to you know, share that stuff on the show. I had a recent one that I shared with you Sara, right? What was the, it was like, "how to not use elements so much"

SC Yeah, that was it. That was that was great. I think that we can all use not use elements so much. 

BP Yeah. Shay, if you want to like say, this is who I am. Find me on social here. What you know, however you want to sign off and where would you like to be found if you want to?

SD Yeah, I'm on Twitter @ShayDeWael. Also, like, as we're wrapping up, I want to give a shout out to Eric, who like, literally runs our presence on Stack Overflow and is like, the most engaged person there and probably knows more about the platform than me. And so I have to give a shout out to him while I'm on here. But yeah, I'm on Twitter. That's probably the best place. I don't even use it very much. But I'm there.

SG Yeah. And you can you can find me on Twitter as well. @SteveSGill. Thanks again for having us, Sara and Ben, this has been awesome. 

SD Yeah, thank you!

SC Yeah. Thanks so much for coming. I am Sara Chipps, I'm director of community here at Stack Overflow. And you can send me crypto @SaraJo.eth.