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I'm the community engineer on the Glitch team at Fog Creek, ask me anything!

jennschiffer profile image jenn schiffer ・1 min read

I'm the glitch.com community engineer at fog creek, as well as an artist, writer and troublemaker in jersey city.

My most popular side project is make8bitart.com, which is a free in-browser open web application I built so I could draw pixel art, along with anyone else. Over 1000 visitors daily use it and it's open source!

I'm also an organizer of jerseyscript, co-organizer of brooklyn js. I love community organizing and helping people learn and continue to solve problems with code.

Ask me anything!

Posted on Oct 4 '17 by:

jennschiffer profile

jenn schiffer

@jennschiffer

hiii!! i am the director of community engineering at glitch! i also created make8bitart.com, jerseyscript, and a bunch of pixel art

Discussion

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You tweet/write/speak a lot about the terrible forms of harassment that you've had to face as a consequence of being outspoken and visible in the tech community. Honestly, how do you deal with this happening all the time? How do you let it not take an emotional or mental toll on you? Particularly when you have folks approach you face to face, like after a conference talk?

 

It's really hard but I honestly thing that my growing up in a very abusive household taught me survival in home and social settings. Like, it still bums me out but the rewards I get for being in the industry - meeting awesome people, solving problems, getting paid to meet awesome people and solve problems - makes it worth it. I feel like I am in a place in my career where I can be loud and obnoxious about the cultural issues in our industry, so it's my responsibility to do that!

 

Thank you for your answer, and for always speaking out! We're all really grateful to have your (loud) voice 🙂

<3 and i am really grateful to be told that

 

+1 Also THANK YOU for speaking out on it!

 

What's a typical day at work like for you, Jenn?

 

my role is under the realm of dev rel, so i can be working all sorts of weird hours and have spent quite a bit of time on airplanes to events, so "typical day" is usually anything but! my role is also very extroverted so there's a lot of communication and email and meetings - I like to start my morning responding to critical emails, looking at what glitch apps folks have been making and talking online about, and reading the glitch support forum. some days i have either podcasts, meetups, or conference talks to either attend to or plan/write, other days i'll be building apps on glitch to provide starter apps for users to remix or just to try some cool APIs i think users would find interesting.

 

Do you think dev advocates need to be extroverts to be successful?

i think the definition of success in such a role is not entirely defined by the person in that role - so in that case, yes, there is an expectation of being "out there" in the field and online. i imagine that there are products where you can be entirely online and not go to events or be on video, but dev rel doesn't work when you're in a vacuum. i, myself, am constantly being pushed out of my comfort zone and a big part of my defining my success is trying to make sure that push out of my comfort zone is on my own terms.

a cool fun fact is that by traditional definitions of introvert/extroverts, i'm actually quite an introvert. i am definitely the wallflower at a party until someone i know arrives or someone approaches me to chat.

 

Hi Jenn! Thanks so much for taking the time to do this AMA :D I'm curious about your experience organizing meetups and events. Any tips for staying sane and keeping the momentum going?

 

i think the more consistency you have in a meetup - specific day of the month, location, program - the easiest it is for the organizer(s) to keep a momentum and also for the community to learn about and attend. with jerseyscript, i had a hell of a time trying to find the right venue for talks and at the end of the day decided it's best to just make it a social event, which made building that consistency in day, location and program so much easier - and people love the setup.

another important thing is to delegate work when needed. at brooklyn js we have 6 of us who organize, but some of us do a lot more because they can. if i am unable to do a task i'm totally fine with being like "ok i'm drowning someone needs to do this." communicating with those you work with is so important or else you're making someone pick up the slack for an event that we're all essentially doing for free!

 

Awesome! Yeah, the delegation is something I've struggled with in the past - it's hard to ask for help sometimes. Thank you so much (also you rock) :D

i've found that there are always people who see you running the show and want to be involved somehow - we do this with our meetup bouncers and tweets and have taken on those folks as full organizers in the past!

 

What do you think goes wrong when it comes to developer communities and the lack of inclusivity? Is it a matter of being too homogeneous for too long and not being comfortable with change? Are there basic things existing communities can do to better foster change? Why are they all concerned about about who's a "real developer"?

 

i think the problem is that the people with the most privilege have benefited for so long that it's hard to let go. no one likes being uncomfortable, and admitting that there are underrepresented groups of people who don't have the option of feeling comfortable is an uncomfortable thing to own. but we need to own it if we are going to break down those systemic barriers. the opposite of that ownership is claiming that things will just work out if we "just care about the code" and i totally agree - but we clearly don't "just care about the code" right now, and people claiming we do are the problem.

 

What projects or experiences prepared you to be a community engineer? What was your biggest obstacle? What's been your favorite thing to do at Fog Creek?

 

i think that being active on social media (ie. twitter) prepared me for connecting to a large user base in tech, which is essential to my current role. doing consulting for a few years has taught me how to work with many different kinds of people - even in different roles like dev, designer, marketing, product, c-level, etc. my biggest obstacle as a woman in tech with a web presence, essentially a requirement for my job, is targeted harassment. i had a really bad time with this once and i had to stay silent about it and it was probably one of the hardest parts of my career.

my favorite thing to do at fog creek is hang out with my coworkers. we're mostly remote but we recently had an off-site, regularly meet weekly on zoom together, and i mentor one of my remote coworkers by working on a cool side project app. it's refreshing how i get to work with all of them even though many of them are not on my team.

 

How do you write and practice your conference talks?

 

ok so this may seem bad but it totally works for me so...i write my conference talks in my head for like weeks in advance and will sometimes take notes in a personal slack i use. i don't really make slides until a few days before and leading up to the talk (slides are my least favorite part of giving talks) and i do not practice. sometimes conference organizers insist on me doing a run-through but i vehemently protest. it just feels unnatural to me on stage if i've done it before.

 

wow, ok. that's pretty amazing. do you ever recycle talks?

i've never done the same talk more than once, no - although i'll recycle ideas if they are impactful enough for the group i'm speaking in front of. it's a lot of work and tbqh i know a lot of speakers don't agree with me but life is a highway!

 

At what age did you notice you’re into tech? What cues were there, and what was your first personal project?

 

i didn't have a computer at home until my sophomore or junior year of high school (so like 2002ish) and my lack of access to tech stifled my interested for some time. i did take computer science my senior year and i was full speed ahead since then.

my first personal project was a weezer fan site i made in geocities. it ended up on the fan page list on weezer.com and forum users called it "pretty good for a geocities site"

you can probably wayback machine it, my yahoo/geocities username was jennlikesweezer :D

 

Glad you did that course! Thanks Jenn for all your dedication. It helps make the tech world a funnier and a bit less toxic place ❤

 
 

What does Fog Creek do best as a company?

 

i think what fog creek does best as a company is what they've been doing for 17 years - trying to best serve the software development community by designing, building, and selling tools that do just that, which means remembering that software is about the humans that are behind its creation.

 

How do you keep a high level view of where the Javascript language is going and what frameworks you should be trying out?

 

i owe my past work in consulting to creating the habit of reading and trying everything. in that role, it made me a stronger consultant and able to make sure we were using the best tools for our clients. today, it makes me a stronger engineer (always gotta be learning and building!) and also advocate for developers who themselves are swimming in the paradox of choice - especially in the javascript world. basically i follow a lot of folks involved in tc39 on twitter, take arguments with a grain of salt, and go to a lot of meetups and conferences (and watch a lot on youtube) to see what folks are stoked about. i also follow what our users are making on glitch!

 

What new tech thing are you most excited about?

 

i'm actually kind of stoked that server side rendering is a thing people are talking about again. coming from php and node and then doing a lot of front-end apps, we've spent a few years pulling everything onto the client side and then were like "wait why are things so slow and big" and are building those frameworks to bring some stuff back down to the server. it's just nice to see conversations about performance lead to architectural changes.

 

What's your fav conference to attend vs. what has been your fav conference to speak at?

 

i rarely get to attend conferences where i'm not speaking or emceeing BUT my favorite so far has got to be web rebels which is in oslo. the conf and city rules.

my favorite conference to speak at was jsconf colombia. the attendees were so nice and respectful, they raised a really low bar pretty high. also medellín is a beautiful city.

 

cool. at this point, do you still send out CFPs or are you mostly asked to speak?

i'm mostly asked to speak but next year i really want to do fewer speaking engagements but those few need to be highly impactful, so i'll probably be sending out CFPs

 

Can you describe the position of community engineer? And what roles did you have before you got to where you are now?

 

i wrote a lot about this on my blog but the gist of it is that i'm an engineer whose main stakeholder is the community of glitch.com users. we call glitch the friendly community where you can build the app of your dreams and i'm trying to keep it that way by building tools for users to remix, doing outreach and also listening to what the users needs are so we build the best product for everyone!

ooof I've done a lot! before i came to fog creek i was a consultant building javascript and php apps for all sorts of clients, and before that i was a senior front-end engineer at the NBA working mostly on stats.nba.com. before i entered the industry with that gig I was a department administrator in the computer science department at a state university. i advised students, taught java and web development and intro to technology, recruited, and did curriculum design.

 

Thanks, I wasn't sure if that was a common title or something you rolled yourself. It makes a lot of sense as a key responsibility at a place like Glitch.

i rolled it myself for my role, but there are others who have already been going by that title i've learned. there are also some who have changed their title to community engineer after they read my blog post. i'm sure it's not helping the confusion around what dev rel/evangelism/experience/advocacy is but it works for me :)

 

What are your thoughts on programming as a more creative process versus problem solving process? I personally have found that it's really both, but would love to hear what you think.

 

i totally agree - problem solving in itself is a creative process! much like with anything in the world, problems solved with code have many different possible solutions and the creativity is in how you get to those solutions and then how you choose them.

 

Does your interest in art influence the way you might approach a specific programming project and how so? On the flip side, how has your approach as a programmer influenced the growth and evolution of your art?

 

i most certainly gravitate towards projects and jobs that are interesting to me - and art is of course one of my biggest loves. i'm v fortunate that the industry is in a place where that intersection of art and code is not only more pervasive but it's also celebrated, so lucky me!

as for my being influenced as a programmer - i'm always learning and refactoring code, and i'm doing the same when it comes to art. recently i have grown a larger interest in the creation of tools to automate my art creation. i did this years ago with creating make8bitart.com and lately i've been designing rulers to help me draw grids for IRL pixel art even quicker for when i just want to do some quick sketches.

 

You make some pretty sweet pixel arts and codeses - how much do you think art and programming overlap? Do you think these skills live in the same category, or do you see them as totally separate practices? TLDR; does art-ing help you code? :D

 

i think they overlap a lot - in both the good things (like creation) and bad things (social issues). code is just a medium honestly - it can solve non-art and art problems. art is an expression of creativity and sometimes i express that through code. the hard part about art and code is prioritizing how it falls into my everyday life. i am by no means paid to be an artist, so the creation of art definitely falls behind my day job - which sometimes is a night job because dev rel is wacky like that. but, tl;dr - in my life art and code overlap more than i think it does the average person.

 
 

we're doing a number of things - focusing on how to make the work of dev rel people easier to manage and measure, maintaining a friendly community, and discovering what kind of developers our users are so we can prioritize and build the features they need to succeed.

 
 

How do you find time for it all? You seem busy!

 

i am v busy and i honestly have no idea how i do it, but i literally wouldn't be where i am if it were not for my calendar updating and note-taking skills! also the pomodoro technique helps!

 

Any quick advice for someone who struggles with calendar updating and note-taking?

My duties are not totally unlike yours, but these are probably my two greatest weaknesses and it holds me back sometimes.

oh for sure, same! I sometimes need to set calendar alerts to do a calendar audit. it's all about forming good habits and breaking bad ones so i found that the more i put in my calendar (like 5 minutes for responding to a specific email) the better.

as for notes, i have a personal slack channel which i wrote about once where i have notes on anything like work ideas, art events, gym progress, etc. it gives me a central "private" location to return to if i forget a thing. i even have a channel where i take photos of open/close hours of places i frequent like the launderette.

 

How'd you get into programming/development/coding?

 

i used to babysit these kids who had a computer and i learned about the internet there and the idea of making a webpage that anyone could see was very exciting. i lied to my stepmother and told her that the AP french class my senior year of high school was full and that i had to take computer science 1 instead because it was the only other option hehehe. and yeah, i wanted to build space ships but ended up going to college for computer science instead and tbqh in retrospect i 1000% made the right choice!

 

Yes!!! Love the taking control of your class choices, can totally relate.

also love lying to stepmothers!!

 

Did you expect your side-project to gain so much popularity? How does one maintain an open-source project?

 

i did not expect make8bitart to be as popular as it has become but i'm totally stoked about it - especially since it's mostly kids who are using it! and they and their parents send me art they made with it and it's truly the best.

as for maintaining it, being an open source project, i haven't done too many feature changes because that takes time and i'm v busy with work. once in awhile a developer will post an issue for a feature and build that feature - if i merge it, i'll make them a committer on the project so they can update their work as needed. i've got a number of pals who i met through their helping out on the project. overall, make8bitart.com is an extremely pleasant project from both an owner and open source maintainer point-of-view!

 

That's awesome! Thanks for me giving me an overview on what's it's like to be a maintainer.

 

I'm currently building a react/redux/firebase app as an MVP. I'm essentially going the opposite route to this and going serverless, using Firebase Cloud Functions for server processes, Firebase Auth for authentication and Firebase hosting for CDN hosting of static files. I'm still a few months off starting on the ServiceWorker and PWA enhancements like code splitting etc. Do you think the CDN/serverless approach has potential limitations with PWA's? I've never done code splitting so not sure I can properly pre-fetch without a server. To counteract the server rendered app shell, I'm simply hardcoding HTML with inline CSS to act as an app shell until react mounts to #app.

 

Besides NYC, where do you think the next largest JS hub is?

 

i know a lot of cool folks in the js community working/living out of austin and denver!

 

I've been following you on Twitter for a minute and it's clear that you're a super creative person. How do you maintain your level of inspiration? What's your creative process like?

 

my process is kind of bananas. i try to find overlaps of things so i can multi-task and keep things interesting so i actually complete them. i write down all my todo lists and i dog-ear a lot of magazines. i go through a lot of bouts of totally being uninspired and use that time to read and go to art galleries and museums to try to fill that cup up.

 

In addition to node.js, will glitch.com be adding support for php on the server? I'm new to node, and having php will make the transition easier.

 

Oops! I guess I was too late with the question :(

 

Did you at some point work at the NBA?

 

i did! i was a senior front-end dev there. i did mostly work on stats.nba.com and special projects that were not under the broadcasting terms of turner broadcasting. i also wrote a lot of php for a digital encyclopedia project they may or may not even be releasing hahah.