Relicans host, Aisha Blake talks to Developer Evangelist at Twilio, Streamer, and VC Scout, Lizzie Siegle, about her journey into Developer Relations and how having fabulous mentors has helped her see how others make the jump from academia to getting a full-time job and adulting in general.
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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 developer.newrelic.com/podcasts. We're so glad you're here. Enjoy the show.
Aisha Blake: Hello and welcome to Launchies, the podcast for early career devs and devs from non-traditional backgrounds. My name is Aisha Blake. I'm a Senior Developer Relations Engineer for New Relic, and I will be your host. Today I am here with Lizzie Siegle, Developer Evangelist for Twilio, streamer, and a VC if I'm not mistaken.
Lizzie Siegle: VC Scout.
Aisha: VC Scout. Excuse me.
Lizzie: [laughs] Yes, that's it. I wish VC, someday, maybe.
Aisha: Yeah, I can feel it. Well, welcome. And thank you so much for coming.
Lizzie: Thank you so much for having me, Aisha. I'm so excited to be here.
Aisha: Awesome. So today, we're going to talk a little bit about your journey into Developer Relations. Could you tell us how you got started?
Lizzie: Yes. I studied computer science in college, but I didn't always want to do so. I used to want to be a teacher. But let me tell you, I think American society really does not respect teachers as much as they should. And when I got to college, I was all, yeah, I'll take a computer science class. And I realized people treat you better when you say you're studying computer science, and you want to go into tech, because also capitalism.
Aisha: I feel that for sure.
Lizzie: Yes. What is life if not for capitalism? [chuckles] Anyways, in my first semester of college, I went to my first college hackathon. And it was there that I met people who've worked in Developer Relations. And they were the ones giving the demo for their company, giving a workshop on how to use their product, how to build something. And I was all, "You get paid to travel and help me?" And they were all, "Yes." And I was all, "I want your job," especially because I wanted to be a teacher growing up. [chuckles]
So since that, I guess freshman year, I took a few steps to get there, including organizing events, writing blog posts. And I ended up interning for a startup on their evangelism team. And then that led to my second internship as a developer evangelist, and then that one converted full-time. So I've been working in Developer Relations for about five years now, I say, even though two of them were summers, so only a few months. And here I am still around. [laughs]
Aisha: Awesome. That in itself is impressive that you've stuck with a single role for as long as you have. So this is a pretty unusual path into Developer Relations based on my experience. Typically, you see people go into some form of engineering and then transition into Developer Relations. And one thing I've talked about with some guests on my own show is that most companies that have Developer Relations teams don't necessarily have a good system for nurturing new Developer Relations professionals. So I'm wondering what your experience there was as an intern.
Lizzie: Yes. Very grateful. I'm very grateful for some mentors I've had in my life and in my career. My first manager when I was interning at a startup called PubNub, her name is Tomomi, and I feel like I talk about her a lot. Sometimes I used to go on first dates, and I would end up talking about her.
Lizzie: And another mentor of mine, Bear, who both work in Developer Relations. And Tomomi was not actually my manager, but she was the one who was in the office with me on my team. And she has really nurtured me. And I feel like I based a lot of my online presence, my approach to technical content, some of my technical opinions based on her. So I try to emulate her and my other mentor, Bear, who I met at a college diversity program that happened on Twitter. So very lucky that I found these mentors.
And I think both of my internships were not necessarily prepared for someone who was new to not just Developer Relations but tech in general, even though they did have intern programs. And at Twilio, there was one other person on my team who was straight out of college. He became a full-time evangelist. So I think having mentors has helped and seeing how others make the jump from academia to a full-time job and adulting.
Aisha: Oh yeah, that adulting on top of everything else. Okay. So it sounds like there is more of an emphasis in this description on having individual feedback and mentorship from a person rather than necessarily having a system built into the organization that is shepherding you from academia into Developer Relations or whatever the specific field is. Do you have particular maybe types of conversations that you had with your mentors that were really helpful for you or habits that you picked up that were really helpful in that time?
Lizzie: Yes. I think it was valuable to see other women who I looked up to their online presences and how they approached speaking engagements. And I would ask about how they made content, how they went about their jobs, their goals, their backgrounds. And then, based on their goals, I would try to compare that to mine because everyone is different. And they would also help me with articulating my goals. I think as a new adult, it was hard for me to answer my manager's question of where do you see yourself in five years? And I feel like I don't know where I want to be in one year.
I was also lucky when I interned at Twilio to be at the New York office with my teammate, Sam Agnew, who was the other evangelist who was in school and went directly to Developer Evangelism. I think Developer Evangelism, Developer Relations is so self-driven. I feel like everyone on the team does their own thing like content, events, documentation, SDKs, so many different things. If you have your own schedule, your own goals, it can be hard to emulate one because everyone does something different.
Aisha: Yeah, absolutely. And so in that, you have to find your own rhythm, and your own voice, and your own professional values.
Lizzie: Yes. I never thought about professional values, but yes, articulating things is hard, but I agree so much.
Aisha: So, like we said earlier, you're getting into this career in Developer Relations straight out of college, and that's pretty unusual. How did that affect you in your first couple of years? Was that difficult to skip that more typical transition from engineering into DevRel?
Lizzie: Good question. Yes. I feel like even though I knew I wanted to be in Developer Relations for years after meeting Developer Relations professionals at hackathons in college, it was still tough to transition to full-time. I remember one evangelist who transitioned to engineering after he was an engineer, then evangelist advocate, and then back to engineering. He told me, "Lizzie, I’m going to give you...like, here's a hot take, some advice. You should not become an evangelist after your internship full-time." He said, "You should not become a Developer Relations professional straight out of college." And I was all, "Why?" And he was all, "You should gain the experience of engineering so you can better understand engineers, and they will trust you more."
And I think that was an interesting take because this was a man versus, I think, more gender minorities. More non-men would understand that you need to prove yourself versus I think some men don't realize that you need to prove your technical chops or prove yourself. And I had felt like I really need to do everything sometimes. I need to stay up to date on libraries, languages, sometimes spend a lot of time on technical content. Because I'm like, I need to prove that I can code, that I can build something so others will listen to me, and read my content, and watch my content.
And there were a few people I worked with on different teams in engineering or product who would ask things like, "So, who was president when you were born? Aren't most people on your team older?" And I think just questions like that, conversations like that really made me think I didn't belong. Or even though I really wanted this job, like I love Developer Relations, I love teaching, working with developers, helping developers, it made me think that it might not have been the right path or choice for me. And it planted seeds of doubt in me, but I got over it. I don't think that anymore.
Aisha: If you don't mind my asking, how? Was it a matter of time or? What helped you to get over it?
Lizzie: I think just gaining confidence in myself and my personal life and realizing that other people's opinions do not matter and that as long as I was happy with what I was doing, as long as I got emails and messages saying, "Good blog post," or "This tutorial really helped me," that was enough for me. And it made me realize that I did not need a full-time software engineering job to understand engineers, that I could understand them just from my computer science background, from my hackathons background, from my side projects background.
Aisha: And also through the work that you do in Developer Relations.
Aisha: There's a certain amount of understanding that you get just from being in constant contact and thinking always about what your audience needs.
Lizzie: Yes, exactly. Just by virtue of building something, coding something, and putting it out there, that's helping people, and that's part of the job. And yet that also has boosted my confidence by seeing how others respond to what I make and that it helps them learn a skill or a concept.
Aisha: Yeah, that feedback. So you sort of stumble across Developer Relations while you're still in school, get a couple of internships. You decided, hey, this is what I want to do. Where does your interest in and background in teaching come in? How has that served you in your career in Developer Relations?
Lizzie: I remember wanting to be a teacher since around fifth grade.
Lizzie: And I think part of it was I really liked kids. In fifth grade, we had a leadership program where the fifth graders could work with kindergarteners and the younger grades at recess. And I really liked playing games with them. And then, throughout middle school and high school, I was a youth umpire, a soccer referee. I babysat, I tutored. I was a running buddy. And I was a tennis coach, volleyball coach. It was fun. I loved kids and teaching.
I think sometimes I'm not a fan of Myers-Briggs, but I'm an ENFP. I think ENFP is a fairly common Myers-Briggs for teachers as well as some Developer Relations professionals. It's about empathy and that feedback of seeing someone reach that aha moment of helping people. And I guess I've just always liked that feedback loop of passing on knowledge knowing that I helped someone get better, helped someone be happy, maybe. And that has continued into my professional life since I stopped wanting to be a teacher. I mean, I still get to teach, which is nice.
Aisha: Yeah, it's a lot of the more fun parts of teaching. You don't have to deal with classroom management. Most if not all of the people that you're teaching are there voluntarily. Those are big pluses for sure. This concept of being a continuous learner, I think, is ever-present in tech. But particularly within Developer Relations, how do you keep up the momentum?
Lizzie: I want to say that I don't always keep up momentum, especially in the past year since we've been in a pandemic. I feel like it goes through ebbs and flows. Sometimes I'm like, yes, I'm going to build this app. I'm going to learn TensorFlow. I'm going to learn how to do X thing. And then other days I'm like, ugh, I don't want to do that.
One plus of doing a lot of different things, like in Developer Relations, we do marketing, product, engineering, is that if I get bored if I get tired, I can do a slight pivot and work on a different task somehow. I used to think I was very unproductive because I would jump around tasks because I got bored of them, one hour doing one thing, next hour switch to another even though I did not finish the first thing. But I think for me, that works, and I actually like context switching, so I don't get bored and so I can stay motivated. Even if it might end up making me take a bit longer on time, but ultimately, I think it's better for me mentally and momentum-wise to context switch.
Aisha: That makes a lot of sense, entirely fair. So context switching actually brings me to another question. When you are learning a new topic or concept, what are some of the methods you employ?
Lizzie: Earlier, you mentioned having too many tabs. I think I'm an avid fan of having too many tabs of googling how to do this thing or googling something and then just opening up a lot of new tabs from the same Google search. And then just going through different Medium posts, different Practical Dev posts, maybe a YouTube video, and trying to see what resonates with me. Because I think with so much free content out there to learn, you don't need to settle for a blog post that doesn't necessarily work for you, and that's okay.
Aisha: Yeah. And that's a really great argument for why you should write that blog post. The existing blog posts might not work for everybody. And your perspective might be the one that helps it click for somebody else.
Lizzie: Yes, same with Stack Overflow answers. I think it was maybe late 2019 I got really into answering Stack Overflow questions. I have one teammate who checks the Twilio Stack Overflow tag every day, and I do that now too. But I was all, why does he get to answer all the questions? So I started answering some. And at first, I would be like, oh no, someone answered this question before me. But now, even if there's an answer or two, or three, or four or five, I try to throw my hat in the ring and answer it in a different way. Because sometimes other Stack Overflow questions they'll mark the answer, and I'm like, but that didn't work for me even though the question asker marked it as answer, so one answer does not fit all.
Aisha: Yeah, absolutely. So this, like so many things, reminds me of a song from a show. I neglected to mention in the introduction that you are a fellow Broadway fan.
Lizzie: Yes. Oh my God. What's your favorite musical? Do you have a favorite musical? Because mine depends on the day, I guess.
Aisha: [laughs] So I actually don't have a favorite musical, but one of my favorite musicals is [title of show]. And this reminds me of a song from [title of show]. The line specifically it's something like, go sketch that turtle you saw. [singing] Pull your novel out of that sock drawer. And it's like, go and create the thing that you want to create. Try not to be hampered by self-doubt or even people telling you that you shouldn't, or you're not good enough, or your thing isn't useful.
Lizzie: Oh my gosh. I love that. That kind of also reminds me of is it a chorus line where there's a song like they just keep moving the line?
Aisha: Ooh, I'm not sure.
Lizzie: Oh, that's underrated. I love Suddenly, Seymour so much.
Aisha: That's something too that I think is so useful regardless of your technical background or expertise; being able to bring that personality into your content can help to make connections with people who might not feel as connected to that technical content otherwise.
So, for example, I try to talk about the things that I love when I stream or when I'm being interviewed on a podcast like Broadway and board games. And I bring those things into examples when I am writing tutorials. And I try to couch technical concepts in terms that both feel good for me and also help to illustrate those concepts in friendlier terms.
Aisha: Wait, I love it.
Lizzie: Yes. That was a fun one. I feel like when you relate a technical topic to a non-technical one, metaphors are nice. It can help someone understand something better. But it can also bring people more into tech in general, maybe, feeling like there are people like me out there who also like Taylor Swift, who also like Broadway. And that debunks the stereotype of a guy in a basement who codes alone and doesn't have as many non-technical interests, maybe.
Aisha: Exactly as you said, it goes beyond the metaphor. It goes beyond the mental model into setting the stage, if you will...
Lizzie: Setting the stage.
Aisha: [laughs] For people who share your interest to share in this interest as well, this technical thing that you're trying to teach.
Lizzie: Yeah, so I love that. Is that like a play on words or like double meaning in this case, like set the stage, like the duality of being applicable to different areas of your life, different topics?
Aisha: Yeah. So, what are some ways that you have found to bring more of yourself into the content that you create?
Lizzie: One thing I like about working in Developer Relations is being able to build demos, to work on sample apps, to showcase use cases of company products. And I like to tie in a lot of my content to current events or to something I'm interested in. It's like the Taylor Swift lyric post. Or I made a Pokémon GO map app with a Uber API and some PubNub app or PubNub API. I just feel like you can illustrate a technical concept or technical idea and still make it fun. You can still make it applicable to pop culture or other interests.
And something I've also seen is you have two. You actually end up making two blog posts, two different applications. One is like, this is a different app I built. You text a phone number, and what you text is written to a Notion database using the Notion API. So, on one hand, you can have a blog post like, “How to Upgrade To a Notion Database With Twilio SMS.” Or if you want more of a pop culture hit, I call it, or social media hit, I made another app about Father's Day, and it was like, “How To Collaborate on a Father's Day Gift Idea With Notion and SMS.” So you can teach, but you can also have fun and teach at the same time.
Aisha: Yeah. And you have that added benefit of immediately presenting a practical use for whatever it is that you're building.
Lizzie: Yes. I feel like some content I read sometimes I wonder how I can use it. Like, what's the use case? So there we go.
Aisha: Yeah, it's like, I see what I need to type, but why? Why would I type this?
Lizzie: Yes. Why is the skill handy, useful? When will I use it?
Aisha: How has Twitch been important for you and your work?
Lizzie: I feel like as soon as...when we went virtual when events ended, a lot of people in Developer Relations started live streaming, and I kind of held off on it. I was like, Twitch is mainly guys; it’s mainly video games. That doesn't really apply to me. But then I started seeing other people's live streams. And I was like, I want to get in on this because I get FOMO very easily. [laughs] I've slowly realized you don't need to stream video games, and there are non-guys on Twitch as well. And it's really cool to build something on stream, to chat with someone on stream and see how people react to that. I love the chat aspect of Twitch, how it's in real-time. And I also like how I can build something on stream. I can write a blog post on stream. So I feel like I can kill two birds with one stone.
I can do work that I would do otherwise, but I just turn on my camera. I just start trying to talk about it as I build it. And I think that's related to this thing that's been...I've been seeing on Twitter about building in public. You can learn in public. You can build in public. And Twitch really makes that easy and in real-time. So people can find you, and they can learn while you learn.
Aisha: Absolutely. This feels like a good time to plug womenwhostream.tech, where you'll find a list of a ton of women, specifically who stream in the science and technology category on Twitch.
Lizzie: I did not know that that was a thing. This is a good website, and that's a good plug. [laughs]
Aisha: We'll have to get you on there if you're not already.
Lizzie: Yes, I'll look into that, thanks.
Aisha: Absolutely. That's definitely one of the things that I've loved about streaming is that conversation, that community. And it's made it easier for me to find other people, particularly in DevRel, who are doing work that's very different from mine. There's a lot of game dev, but there's also a ton of people across a ton of different stacks and frameworks and all of the above doing some really, really cool things, and a ton of people who are actively learning as well.
Lizzie: Yes. I think it's really cool how you can learn from anyone. Even if someone's streaming .NET or something, I'm like, I don't do .NET. I don't want to do .NET. But you can still learn from what they're building or their style. Or you can probably convert what they're building in .NET to a different language. You can always learn from someone, even if you don't immediately think it's applicable to you.
Aisha: Absolutely. One of my favorite things is to watch or to read people's content and write down what I like about their approach to whatever it is that they're teaching. And I'll then try to apply those things to the next piece of content that I create. And that helps me to keep very slowly iterating and improving the quality of the things that I put out there.
Lizzie: Yes. I used to think the stereotype of some communities like one-up each other...I was like, these people will not help you, and especially on Twitch, which has a history of abuse or not being friendly to outsiders. But I've found the community on Twitch has been very supportive, inclusive, welcoming. And I know that's not the case for everyone but overall for me. And everyone wants to bring everyone up, and you can learn from everyone.
Aisha: For sure. And I think that is partly that there are just genuinely lovely people. And also, at least I'm pretty intentional in the way that I curate my community on Twitch, and that helps a lot. Same as Twitter, my Twitter feed is great. [laughs]
Lizzie: One thing I learned from my mentors was, I guess, using Twitter to further your career or to network, to meet people. And I don't like saying that you should have a...I don't like how some people say that you need a personal brand because you're a person, not a business. And you should be able to tweet anything. You should be able to say different things even if it does not apply to your brand. But I'm a big fan of Twitter and the community on Twitter. And especially with the pandemic, I feel like people are really coming together online, and Twitter and Twitch are some great examples of where you can do that to find like-minded people.
Aisha: I think a lot of folks regard networking as a dirty word. But for me, it has always been about making friends basically. And I use that term intentionally. You don't always get to the level of actual friendship, and that's not necessarily the goal. But in treating people like friends, it's easier, at least in my experience, to find folks who are going to vibe with you, for lack of a better term, to find people who are going to be fun to talk to and to learn from people who will be willing to connect you with opportunities, who will think of you when they meet somebody else who's working on something similar.
Lizzie: I agree. And I feel like you don't need to be constant online friends, and you can learn from people every now and then. And you don't need to respond to everything, and they don't need to do that for you. But it's nice to know there are people that you can learn from, even like liking one thing of theirs. It's a good feedback loop, I guess, like a circle.
Aisha: Yeah, it's very much you get out what you put in. And so on Twitter, that might mean commenting when someone says something funny or tagging someone who you know likes Avatar: The Last Airbender when you discover that there's a role-playing game coming out. [laughs] That totally didn't happen. [laughs]
Lizzie: Definitely not, yeah.
Aisha: [laughs] Or on Twitch, that might mean streaming yourself, or it might mean being an active participant in somebody else's chat.
Lizzie: Yeah, it just feels good to see people in your chat. And then when I see someone in my chat, like, oh, I need to go get in their chat. It's like a symbiotic relationship but not in a forced way. Like, it feels good and more natural.
Aisha: Yeah. I think in cultivating those sorts of relationships, it becomes easier to roll with whatever comes up. So, for example, if say you're a developer evangelist who's never been an engineer full-time, that starts to matter less because you have all of these friends and connections. If you do come up against something that you don't have an answer for, or if you need to consult with someone, you've got this whole community of people that you can lean on to say, "Hey, I could use some help."
Lizzie: Yes. And I like that dynamic of people you can lean on and learn from. And that's really changed how I see mentors, I guess, and who I can call a mentor. I feel like I used to imagine mentors were people older than me, higher up than me, farther along in their careers than me. But friends can be mentors. Peers can be mentors. And I think it should be important to remember that when you get mentored, you should also...I feel like you can naturally organically mentor back. Everyone has something to bring to the table and to teach others because of different perspectives and backgrounds.
Aisha: Absolutely. So I want to thank you, Lizzie, so much for spending the time to chat with me today. Could you tell folks where they can find you and if there's anything that you're working on right now that you'd like to plug?
Lizzie: Thank you so much, Aisha, for having me. And yes, you can find me online on Twitter and Instagram @lizziepika , L-I-Z-Z-I-E-P-I-K-A like Pikachu. And unfortunately, my Twitch handle is not quite consistent. It's lizziepikachu, almost lizziepika but just add a chu if you're on Twitch.
And for now, I would like to plug The Twilio Student Ambassadors Program. If you're a U.S.-based college student, we're looking for you to help teach like-minded students programming skills. And you can learn more about that program on twilio.com/quest/students. That's T-W-I-L-I-O.com/quest/students.
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 therelicans.com. In fact, most anything The Relicans get up to online will be on that site. We'll see you next week. Take care.