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Exploring and Tech – Internationally Awesome with Peter ONeill

Relicans host, (Lauren Lee](], talks to Styra’s Peter ONeill about being a digital nomad, working for Styra’s Open Policy Agent, and learning to code via Coding Dojo, a coding bootcamp.

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Jonan Scheffler: Hello and welcome to Launchies, proudly brought to you by New Relic's Developer Relations team, The Relicans. The Launchies podcast is about supporting new developers and telling their stories and helping you make the next step in what we certainly hope is a very long and healthy career in software. You can find the show notes for this episode along with all of The Relicans podcasts on We're so glad you're here. Enjoy the show.

Lauren Lee: Peter ONeill is a Community Advocate for Styra, Inc., the creators of Open Policy Agent. He spends his time building the OPA community and teaching people about cloud-native technologies.

Peter is also a digital nomad and has been working and traveling for the past three and a half years. He has worked from beaches in Bali, 1000-year old cities in Croatia, and a tiny bedroom in Cape Town, South Florida, which is where he's calling in from today. Peter, welcome to Launchies.

Peter ONeill: Hey, thanks for having me.

Lauren: Yeah, super excited to be chatting with you today and diving into your history and exploring advice that you might have for other folks that might be launching into tech themselves. Can you take me back in time and tell me have you always been in tech? What are the experiences that you had before the tech industry?

Peter: So for pretty much my entire working career, I've been in tech. So right out of high school, I joined a program called Year Up, which is a non-profit organization. They're centered around what they like to call closing the opportunity divide, taking young adults from areas that typically have less resources, that are underfunded and giving them an opportunity to work in tech or companies, typically as a desktop support role or as a data analyst or something that has an entry-level position. And you're connecting those youth with companies that have open positions.

Lauren: Cool. So how did you find out about them or get into that program?

Peter: So that program actually my sister found it. And so we did the program together, which was a lot of fun. So she graduated from high school about two years before me. So she was still looking for a job. And right at that time, she saw the program, and she knew that I liked technology as a kid. I built computers, used to do a bunch of techy things.

And so she was like, "Hey, I'm about to join this program. You should apply too." So both of us joined. We got into what was class five but the program in the Bay Area. And so we spent the year hanging out and learning technology together.

Lauren: That's so great. I love that. So what an incredible opportunity it sounds like. What came next for you after Year Up?

Peter: So I went through the program, and so it was like six months learning and development, six-month internship where I was positioned with Electronic Arts. And then, right after that, I actually got a contract role with Mozilla, the creators of Firefox.

And so I worked with them after that point for about three years, handling a lot of their desktop support work. So essentially coming in to fix computers, help people with their email clients, kind of get things rolling. I ended up doing a lot of their AV work, getting their remote sites set up. I got to travel to London and Vancouver and a few other places for them to build out their network infrastructure and to just facilitate things.

Lauren: Okay, I love it. Is that when you got your travel bug? Is that when that hit?

Peter: That definitely is where it started. So they sent me to London for three weeks, and that was my first international trip. And I was 19 at the time, and so I remember getting there and just being super excited. Like, this is the first place that I've seen outside the country. And so it was just so much fun and being out there with a couple of my teammates as well. We had a completely empty office building from the ground up and just hanging out, having dinners, and just exploring and being tourists but also getting a lot of work done.

So there were a lot of long days. We had a very concrete deadline to get the office up and running for all the workers that were in London. So it was kind of like, we got to hit this deadline [laughs] so a lot of long days. But yeah, it was definitely one of the very first tastes of international travel that I did.

Lauren: Awesome. I love it. It sounds pressure-packed but a very memorable experience for sure. So then, what came next after working in that IT support role?

Peter: So from there, I ended up specializing in networking for Mozilla. So I was doing a lot of the networking setup for them. And so that led me to work for a company called Webpass, which is now owned by Google. But when I started working for them, they were across three or four cities. And so, I helped do a lot of their network administration work in San Francisco in the Bay Area.

And then, I ended up moving to Chicago for them to help build out their network. So it was a brand new city, brand new market. I ended up getting a lot of exposure out there to different types of roles and activities because I was the only engineering resource on the ground. I was doing a lot of the programming and setup work for the network. But I was also doing a lot of the sales engineering work as well to help out the sales team.

We were a very small and scrappy team. I think we started with five people. I think it was two techs, and then one salesperson, and then myself, and then one general office manager. And so we were just dumped out there and said, "All right, figure it out." And so that was actually a really cool experience. My first time leaving California and getting to a place where I didn't know anybody.

Lauren: Yeah, a new job, a new city, and just figure it out. There are so many lessons there that you can learn. And were you in that networking space for long? Is that your passion? And what came next then?

Peter: So I would say that I really liked the networking space. I made a bunch of friends that were network engineers. And so, I wanted to do something adjacent to what I was doing at the time. But I knew that I wanted something a little bit more cloud-native friendly just because, at the time, I was programming a lot of physical switches, and automation was just taking over. So even then, it was like physical switches.

I knew that the larger-scale operations things that were not a mom-and-pop shop weren't consoling in with a cable to program all their switches. They're plugging in thousands of switches and routers every day. And those things all get programmed automatically. And so I was kind of like, okay, what can I do that's a little bit more on the cloud-native side to get a better understanding of how a lot of...a good exposure to a lot of new technologies?

And so, wanting to stick in the startup realm, I explored around until I found a startup called ThousandEyes. And so I went to work for them. I moved to Austin, Texas, which was a really fun city, very kind of young demographic. It is a college city, and so I had a great time there. I was their first employee out there, first one in the office. I actually spent a couple of months in this big corner office meant for 20 people just by myself and just like, [vocalization] [laughs].

Lauren: Would love to have co-workers.


Peter: I definitely said that to them. I was like, "Guys, this giant office just for me is great, but let's fill this." [laughs]

Lauren: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it sounds like you were bit by that startup bug, though, and you were excited to be a part of that creation thing, that part of building and starting from nothing and seeing an idea into fruition.

Peter: Once I had a taste for it, it was definitely one that I loved the process because there's no direct route. It's all kind of try, experiment, iterate, move forward. And so the things that I learned from both places were just hugely valuable to how I think about a lot of my processes now and just knowing that there's not going to be one answer. It's kind of like, do very small experiments and just move forward as quickly as possible. And so yeah, the startup world is probably where I'll spend the rest of my career.

Lauren: Yeah, and I like that, the thriving and experimentation, not being afraid to take a risk and then sharing with your peers saying, "We tried this, it didn't work,” or "It did, but because of that now, we're going to apply it and move forward. And this is something new that we're going to also try." And so I think that it just keeps things interesting, I suppose, too.

Peter: Yeah, it definitely does. And so Austin, Texas, specifically one of my first big tasks was to teach a bunch of I guess they were SDRs, but it was a new sales team. They were all fresh out of college. And so they didn't learn networking, and technology, and IT stuff. So they didn't really speak the lingo. And it was kind of my job to teach them how to speak tech.

Lauren: Got it.

Peter: Which was very funny because, for me, having spent a few years in the industry already, it all came very naturally. But to a group of young professionals who are just out of college and haven't even built a computer before, they're just like, "What's a DNS? What do you do with that?" And so I was just giving them the crash course on how computers work, on how networking works, on how the technology works.

And so that took a lot of experimentation on my part to see okay, how do I even teach this material to them? How do I get this to stick? What is it going to take? Is it sitting with them in a conference room? Is it creating PDFs? Is it flashcards? How exactly do I get these educational pieces across to them? And that was probably also one of my first exposures to teaching content to other people.

Lauren: I was going to say it sounds like your first moment of DevRel also sort of developer relations. And that's what you're doing now. How do you make the foray and switch into that industry?

Peter: It definitely was, I guess, my first exposure to DevRel without knowing that it was DevRel.

Lauren: For sure. I think that's actually really common for a lot of folks that are in this industry. We were doing it and then realized, oh, we could be paid to do this sort of thing, this part of the job full-time. Like, oh, that sounds cool.

Peter: Yeah. And so I worked for ThousandEyes for three years. And so I did various things for them. But near the end of it, I wanted to explore and see like, okay, well, this was fun, maybe something less networking-focused.

And so, looking around and just reading job descriptions, I realized that the opportunities out there that were the most interesting all required some level of coding skills. And so up to that point, I had written some bash scripts, some very simple things. I didn't have much exposure or need to code anything.

Lauren: I see.

Peter: And so I ended up looking up some coding bootcamps in my hometown area. So I ended up finding one called the Coding Dojo in Berkeley, California. And so I went back to Berkeley...I actually stayed in Oakland. And I borrowed my friend's bike for the three months of this class so that I could ride from Oakland to this coding bootcamp every day back and forth.

And so I did that for three months while simultaneously working for ThousandEyes. So I was working for ThousandEyes in the evenings and doing that bootcamp course from 9:00 to 2:00 and then working for ThousandEyes 3:00 to midnight. And so, I had this super-packed schedule for three full months.

Lauren: Wow. I'm a fellow bootcamp grad myself. And yeah, it is a grind, it is. It's a hustle but also demonstrates to companies grit. Like, I want this. It didn't come easy for me. I've demonstrated that I can learn in adulthood too. There's just something I think really important there and is interesting and compelling for hiring managers, so good for you. That sounds awesome. When you finished the program, what were you hoping to do? What direction were you hoping to take?

Peter: So I was leaning heavily just towards DevOps. I didn't really understand what that meant at the time. And I was kind of just like, all right, all my friends on Twitter keep saying this thing called DevOps. I want to be a DevOps person.

I was like, all right, I've done a lot of operation-type things. I've built networks; I’ve built computers. I've built so many things in the operations side now. Okay, now I have some of this dev experience too. I have completed this coding bootcamp. Now I should be able to combine these two things and find something that works for me.

And so it was actually like a seed series startup called strongDM. They were in the middle of doing their series A funding. It was a team of...I think I came on as the 12th or 13th employee. It was a very small company, very small team. But yeah, it was a lot of fun. I initially started as a customer engineer and then progressed into a product education engineer.

It started off with a lot of documentation fixes and kind of revamping the information architecture that they had set everything up with. And then it was finding out the best ways to teach and educate the various aspects of the product. The product was like an authorization or an access management solution, I guess, is the best way to describe it where they connect whatever your SSO or your authentication provider is to all of your back-end services.

But then the kind of education piece is how do you link all these things together? Because you could have dozens or 100 different kinds of back-end services. And so, how are you managing all these things? And so, there was a big learning curve to get all these pieces and components hooked up. So that's where I spent a lot of my time figuring out how to teach a lot of this material. And that was, I guess, still unaware that I'm doing DevRel, but I would say where I moved a little bit more into the realm.

And I think it was near the end of my time with strongDM that I actually came across the term DevRel. I was trying to figure out like...I think because I was just looking up what are the best ways to teach technical content? And then, of course, through Googling these things and who are the best technical teachers and the teachers who teach developers, I came across the whole DevRel thing and kind of just like, oh, this kind of sounds like exactly what I like doing.

And so, from that, I realized that what I wanted to be doing full-time was this DevRel thing. And so, while the product education piece I was doing for strongDM was fun, I wanted what I was doing to be much more on a public stage, being able to do a much more of a one to many scenario where I'm able to teach a lot more people, have much more public presence, be much more interactive with the communities around me. And so, I wanted to have much more of a DevRel focus. And so that eventually led to me leaving strongDM and finding my next role.

Lauren: Okay. And so then, that was your first foray into officially a DevRel role as a developer advocate. Is that correct?

Peter: Yeah. So that was my first time having a DevRel title. I was a developer Advocate for Ambassador Labs, another startup. And so I think they were Series B at the time. They were centered around the developer experience. So I had a lot of fun diving into the DevRel industry with them. And so my manager that I was working for has a long history of DevRel. And so I got to learn a lot of tips and tricks from him.

But as a developer advocate, I think that there's kind of this expectation that you're always talking, always creating, always just being in front of people. And so, I think it ended up not exactly clicking with me that what I wanted most out of moving into DevRel was the community piece, so talking and engaging with people consistently and building out what is community.

And so, with Ambassador Labs, I got to do a lot of content creation. I got to do a lot of speaking about the product and how it works and finding ways to teach about it, and to create quick start guides and all these different components that make up DevRel.

And so I was having fun doing that, but there was just a huge lacking component for me, which was the community component. And so they have a community, but they already have a community manager. And so, I just wasn't in charge of a lot of those initiatives.

I think a headhunter hit me up at some point and was just like, oh, we're looking for a technical DevRel person to lead the community at Styra. And so I was just like, oh. It was a very interesting call because it was still in the CNCF space, the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, which I really liked, but it was still very technical.

There are some community manager roles where you're not required to be technical, and then there's some where they're expecting you to know the tech and to engage with the community members on their level. And so, if I was going to do anything, I really wanted to stay close to the tech and stay in a very technical role.

So when he explained it to me, I said it sounded very interesting. And then he connected me, I think, with the VP of Open Source at Styra, who is now my manager. So he connected me with him, and he explained a lot more about the role and what they were hoping to accomplish. So someone coming in is like the first community person to build out a lot of the infrastructure around the community.

Lauren: Yeah, of course.

Peter: So there are two parts. They have their enterprise side, and they have the open-source side. And so the open-source side has been a graduated CNCF project, and it has 5,000 people in the Slack channel and hundreds of contributors, and a lot of big companies already using the product. There's Netflix, and IBM, and Red Hat, and all these different players already using it, but all the growth has been organic.

And so it's kind of like, they needed someone to come in and just iron out all the rough edges. Everyone was coming in and saying like, "I want to do this. I want to do that," and just organically, things were coming together.

Lauren: No one thoughtfully driving the ship. People are just excited about the product and want to use it and contribute it sounds like.

Peter: Exactly. And so it's like now they needed someone to just lay out a lot of the infrastructure. Like, oh, it's kind of like someone taking a step back and saying, "Why did we set up Slack the way that we did? Are these channels actually necessary? Are these helping anyone?" And so, just going through and just thoughtfully removing the things that aren't adding value and adding pieces that are starting to direct people towards specific areas in the community. And so getting to work on all of those community pieces.

And I still do some of the advocacy work and talking in conferences. I just spoke at All Things Open doing some demos about Open Policy Agent, kind of like a mixture between the two roles of developer advocate and community manager. And so, I think that this was a sweet spot of what I was looking for in DevRel.

Lauren: I love that. I'm so happy for you for finding that. If you were to zoom out and look at it, what was it about community that ultimately pulled you to be the thing that really put a sparkle in your eye? Why community in particular in that org?

Peter: And so I think what really drove me towards community is that I live my life pretty much on the road. So I'm engaged with a lot of traveler communities, nomad communities. I'm one to understand how that flow works really well. And so, a big part of me deciding to join this world was that I felt like I never really fit in back home. And I was always looking for my people, whatever that means. Who are the people that I really connect with?

I always felt like the odd kid at school who didn't have a lot of friends. And so, I was just trying to understand what it is to build a community around myself. And so I think that is something that I found with the traveler community, the nomad community, where this is something that I've learned to do long term, and I've learned to make friends in a very particular fashion.

And so I can see this and how it also translates to other aspects of our lives, especially technology and open-source technology, where we want to learn and develop and connect in a way that is open and facilitates how we grow the technology in a way that is inclusive for everyone to be involved and helps us go so much further, so much faster.

And so, I think that me choosing to push my personal life into this traveler nomad community ended up being a big driver in how I wanted to live my whole life. And so understanding that and seeing how I can do that for my professional life as well. Like, understanding the community components of both, I think, was probably the biggest driver.

Lauren: I love it. It sounds like you found a really great place then. I'm so happy for you. It sounds awesome. Do you have any advice that you can share for those that want to launch into tech?

Peter: Yeah, I would say that nothing's too small. Finding a place to start, that could be finding an open-source project that you like, that could be just finding open docs issues, finding something small, and getting integrated with some technology and resonate with different people.

I think that a lot of people are very intimidated, especially by open source, where you see these massive projects. You see thousands of people contributing lines of code. There are so many things going on that it's very intimidating. And so I would like to say that it doesn't have to be and so just finding something super small.

And you'll see that pretty much every open-source project out there really, really wants new people to get involved at every skill level. So finding that first thing will get you to interact with one of the maintainers. And then, from there, you might be able to pick up something a little bit bigger. And so, a lot of the simple things you can do can really help you to get a foothold in open source and technology in general. And so yeah, I think that no first step is too small.

Lauren: I see. I love that. And so if someone's listening to this today, and they're curious to contribute or to become a part of the community with Open Policy Agent, ideally, from your perspective, how does someone get involved and get started?

Peter: I think it's very similar with most open-source projects. Once you've heard of the project, check them out online, see what they're up to. You'll see that we have a Slack channel where we do most of our day-to-day communications. We also have a GitHub repository. And so joining the Slack channel, maybe joining our community meeting, and then seeing what GitHub issues have the label good first issue and just taking one of those and running with it.

And so, from there, our maintainers are super active. They are very quick to respond. And so, if you need help understanding what style of coding we do, how we like things to be submitted, we are very active in engaging, especially with first-time contributors. Finding us online, joining the Slack, and just saying hello is that first step.

Lauren: Now, for me, when evaluating an open-source project, how folks interact with those first-time contributors is really, for me, a gold standard. So I'm impressed. That sounds great. And I encourage folks to go check it out. Okay, Peter, make your shout out. What would you like listeners to go check out?

Peter: I've definitely touched on a handful of things that have helped me throughout my career. So I'm going to do a couple of shout-outs here; one is the Year Up program. That is one where it's in a lot of big cities from coast to coast. And I think the age range is 18 to 24. And so, if you're looking to break into tech, that is also a good way to do it, find a role with a nice company, and to learn a little bit about the basics of technology.

Another one was the Coding Dojo. If you have a little bit of money to spend, doing a coding bootcamp is a great way to learn some of those development skills. And then Open Policy Agent, the community that I'm building, come check us out and come hang out. [laughs]

Lauren: [laughs] We'll include all those things in the show notes, of course, for listeners. And, Peter, where can people find you online?

Peter: I'm pretty much everywhere with at Peter ONeill Jr. That's just J-R. And apparently, I'm the only Peter ONeill Jr out there because no one has taken it. And I've never had an issue with it. [laughs]

Lauren: I'm happy for you. You can have it across all platforms. That makes things easier. [laughs] Wonderful. Well, Peter, it's been such a joy to chat with you today. Thank you for connecting with me from Cape Town. And I'm excited for you and your community. It sounds incredible. So I really just appreciate you sharing your advice, your wisdom, and your journey with the listeners today.

Peter: Awesome. Thanks for having me on.

Lauren: Of course. Talk to you soon.

Jonan: Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it. You can find the show notes for this episode along with all of the rest of The Relicans podcasts on In fact, most anything The Relicans get up to online will be on that site. We'll see you next week. Take care.

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