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Be The Best At What You Do: Learning, Growth and Communities, E19: Full Transcript

Updated: Aug 28, 2023



It took time for Kent C. Dodds to not just build a following, but to develop a voice - a unique professional perspective that people wanted to hear in the dev community.


How did he do it? And how can you become the kind of person that other developers want to listen to?


Don't miss our this podcast episode with Kent and our vey own Tomas Miliauskas:

You can also listen to this episode on Apple podcast, Spotify, Google or on Wix Engineering site.

And you can also read the full episode here:

 

Hi, I’m Ran Levi, welcome back to the Wix Engineering podcast.


Take me through a typical day in the life of Kent C. Dodds.


Kent C. Dodds: Oh, well...


Meet Kent Dodds, a busy software engineer.


Kent: I used to teach Sunday school to around six, nine-year-old kids. On Mondays, I typically publish a blog post that I send out to tens of thousands of subscribers and then I work on product-related tasks.


Kent is the co-founder of Remix, and previously worked at PayPal.


Kent: About once a quarter, I would go into the PayPal office to give training and stuff. I make Egghead lessons. So often I would do that in the evening after the kids go to bed, record a bunch of Egghead lessons and courses, go to lunch with friends in the community, outline – I also used to write my book, a novel, fantasy novel that I used to write. That was a lot of fun and I’m still sort of working on that.


I have like three podcasts that I manage and then yeah, respond to literally dozens of questions a day from tweets, toward the DMs, Slack, Discord, email, YouTube comments.


Also I, yeah, married and have four kids and a dog.


Kent is so busy because he’s a bona fide voice in the developer community. He has over 185,000 followers on Twitter, 26,000 on Github, 45,000 subscribers on YouTube, and so on.


People want to know what he has to say, and care about what he’s doing. But it wasn’t always this way. It took time not just to build an audience, but to develop a voice -- a unique perspective that people wanted to hear, amid the crowd of other voices flooding the internet.


How did he do it? How can you become the kind of person that other developers want to listen to? What does it take? That’s the subject of our episode today.

Wants to Become Extraordinary


Kent’s path to success began long before he ever tried coding.


Kent: I’m number 11 of 12 children. So I have a little sister and then 10 older siblings and they were all really successful growing up in school and stuff. So I would go to my new class with my new teacher and they would say, “Oh, I had your older brother and your older sister and they were awesome.”


I felt like I had to do something extraordinary to be noticed.


The feeling stuck with him into adulthood and his early career.



Kent C. Dodds
Kent C. Dodds

Kent: I remember I was interning as a JavaScript developer at Domo.


Domo is a billion-dollar cloud company.


Kent: I worked with some brilliant engineers there. Really awesome people and I just remember sitting around with those people, listening to them talk and just thinking I want to be the best at what I do.

Early Career/Above & Beyond


That ultra-competitive urge -- that drive to be the best -- drove Kent to go above and beyond at every job he had. Even his very first internship.


Kent: I was working as an intern at this company called the More Good Foundation. It’s a nonprofit that was tasked with just flooding the internet with the positive stuff about my church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and I was given a number of tasks that were just really, really busy work, monkey tasks.


I decided, you know, like this is super boring. I bet I could write a program that could do this for me. It involved like ripping the DVDs and uploading them to YouTube or like downloading videos from one website and getting it over to YouTube and stuff like that.


It was just so incredibly boring and I figured out that I could write a Java program. That’s the language that I knew at the time to upload these videos to YouTube.


So, yeah, I learned about the YouTube API. It’s the first time I had ever used anything like an API and I definitely made a big impact there because I uploaded tens of thousands of videos in a fraction of the time that they expected me to take


It was the same at his next internship, as a business intelligence engineer. He decided to write a script to automate the sending out of emails and reports, then he wrote documentation so that employees afterwards knew how to use his program. His manager felt guilty.


Kent: “Hey, Kent. Like this is great. Like you’re doing awesome stuff. But you signed on to be a business intelligence engineer. Like we want to teach you how to do that. That’s kind of what you’re doing for your internship there. We kind of feel bad that you’re doing all this other work.”

Starts Teaching


But coding alone, he felt, wasn’t satisfying. He wanted to do more -- not just for his job but for himself. There are many, many ways of contributing into the community Tomas Miliauskas, system architect and engineering manager at Wix.



Tomas Miliauskas
Tomas Miliauskas

Tomas: Speaking in conferences or speaking in local meetups or conducting like workshops and then giving talks in those.


Another kind of activity is being active in some sort of like written community channels like for instance Stack Overflow. You can spend time in answering questions there, helping other people there or you can take part in private or public chat servers like Discord for instance and then help people there or answer questions there or suggest ideas there.


Another tool that I can think of could be blogging.


Kent: I’ve always been somebody who enjoys teaching other people. So teaching ended up being the thing that I would do after hours.


Kent organized meetups, and started publishing content online.


Kent: The cool thing in the tech industry is that you can do things relatively quickly because tech evolves so fast. Like, right now, there’s no Remix course.


Remix is the full-stack web framework Kent works on today.


Kent: There’s no Remix course. So we’re a new community here. And so if you wanted to make a name for yourself, you could start up in the Remix community. Start helping a lot of people develop that trust and be like, wow, this guy’s a Remix helper. And they really are knowledgeable about this.


You know, build a bunch of demos and stuff, develop that clout. And then once you have that, that consistency, then you could pretty quickly develop a pretty good following of people who are like, “Yeah, I want to learn about Remix and I know that so and so is really good with creating content about Remix. I’m going to trust them with my time.” Because they’re trusting you with their time just as much as with their money.


Kent was doing blogs, streams, courses, talks. Thousands of followers flocked to him, he lived happily ever after, the end. Right?


Kent: Oh, my goodness. The number one thing people get wrong about this is that it can be done quickly.


that's the biggest thing people get wrong is they start like some sort of consistent content delivery thing, whether it be a newsletter, or a weekly live stream, or Discord server, or something. And after three or four weeks, they kind of putter out and be like, “Man, this is this is hard. There’s nobody… like, I have two people watching my Twitch stream or whatever.” And then they compare what they have to what I have, and they don’t realize that it’s more than just the number of people, but it’s the number of years that I’ve been working on this.


Tomas: I think that that’s kind of maybe an impact of the fast-growing industry and things changing fast in the industry. So that creates this expectation of you should also get some immediate maybe results of when you invest some time in something.


People expect this to happen fast and if they don’t get it fast enough, they either drop it or become disappointed and shift focus.


Kent: When I started, I also had nobody listening.


Basically all content creators -- when they first start out -- encounter this problem. Thousands of other people want to, or already are posting videos, podcasts, blogs about the things you’re interested in. Why would anybody want to listen to you instead of them?


To gain those first few followers, usually, content creators turn to one tried-and-true formula: clickbait.


Kent: Doing like clickbaity stuff or growth hacking stuff like asking questions like, “My favorite editor is VS code. What’s yours?” “Retweet.”


Alternatively…


Kent: Some people are just like meme masters and so they’re like social media – like really good at making funny memes and stuff. So people follow them for that reason.


The problem is that when we start trying to develop a following and producing content, and whatever, we’re trying to, we often look at what other people have done and say, I want to do what that person did. And so I’m going to do it the way they did it.


And we spent so much time trying, focusing on how do I build a following that we forget, like, why people want to follow us.


Tomas: These days we do have a lot of people just sharing or sharing other content or things like that and that creates more noise than value. I think what people are – what other people are looking for is some sort of like useful information or guidance or they’re interested in your personal experience on things, so they can maybe use it for their own in the future.


Kent: The trick for me was consistently delivering high quality content. That was the reason that I gave to people to follow me.


The other thing is also like being the type of person that people know they can take questions to and – ask questions and get answers.


When you turn into the person that people know they can ask, then you naturally turn into their expert.


I had my GitHub AMA, where I publicize that, and so people could ask me anything on there. I would help people a lot in Discord. So they’re not even necessarily asking me, but they’re asking like the Abyss, and I jump in. I also Stack Overflow or Slack, or whatever, wherever my community was.


And then jumping in and doing conference talks and stuff.


You make it easy for people to ask you questions and you get yourself a reputation for the type of person who can answer those kinds of questions. And then, you also make it easy for people to follow you. So by doing simple things, like making your profile picture a picture of you, and by making your username the same across all these different platforms, so it’s easy for people to find you wherever they want to.


And then creating a mailing list helps a great deal, because when you’re just on YouTube, or Twitch, or Twitter, or wherever, you’re kind of stuck behind the algorithm of whatever these platforms dictate, which is not a great place to be in. So it’s great to have followings on those places. But when you have somebody’s email address, then you have a direct communication line to the people that you’re following.


So I would also suggest to anybody who’s looking to build a following to start a mailing list as soon as you can. Give people a reason to give you their email address.


All kinds of positive and sometimes unforeseen benefits come from having a voice in the community. Kent, for example, can sell things to his followers, because they’ve grown to trust him and his word. But beyond that…


Kent: Teaching has always just been a really big part of the way that I develop my talents and yeah, just become a better engineer overall.


It’s what Richard Feynman articulated all those years ago -- you learn by teaching. When Kent gives a talk, or answers questions on Slack or Discord, he’s the instructor, but…


Kent: That’s cool about that is they will ask you questions that you may have never considered or have problems that you’ve never had, and then exposes you to more problems.


And so I often tell people, like the best way to get experience as a software engineer, or the fastest way is to have experiences. And the way that you have experiences is by exposing yourself to problems. So if you are trying to become an excellent wood maker, or like, furniture maker, but you spend all of your time just making chairs.


You may get really good at making chairs, but your experience in making tables does not necessarily progress in making chairs. So you want to expose yourself to a variety of different experiences. And so that’s what becoming the question answerer did for me, was it exposed me to a lot of different problems that I may have never considered before, and I certainly had never run into before.


Tomas: It makes you step out of your comfort zone because writing code is – communicating with the computers is something different than communicating with another person.


Then you can get some ideas for yourself. Maybe some ideas for your projects, some ideas for your solutions and so on.


Kent: There are so many ways to loop through an array or chop up a string, or whatever. And so, the most important thing you can do when you’re writing that code is to communicate the intent of the code effectively, and make it so that people can change that code easily. And so a big aspect of that is having them understand it.


My focus on improving myself as a communicator, in general, has helped me come up with better APIs and better code for implementing those APIs by considering how does this code communicate to the people who are going to be reading it in the future.

Conclusion


By now, you’ve learned all kinds of tips and tricks you can use to build a following in the developer community:


Get in front of audiences, and be the kind of person people can ask questions of.


Make it easy to find you online by using a consistent username across platforms, and your real face as your profile picture.


Create a mailing list, to have autonomy over how you communicate with your followers.


Keep learning, and always trying to be the best at what you’re interested in.


Have patience and keep going, even when it’s not all happening for you right away.


In the end, though, you should ask yourself: why do you want to be heard in the first place? To make money? For the vanity of being popular? Or is there a deeper reason -- a better reason, that’ll help fulfill you as a developer, and as a person?


Kent: When I say that my mission is to make the world a better place by helping people develop quality software, I mean it. That’s really what I want to do. And that’s what I spent all my time doing. And I am just really motivated to help people build quality software. I’m living comfortably, my wife and I do not live the lifestyle that requires a lot of money. I don’t want to own a boat. I don’t want to own a cabin. I like, I don’t want to own a private jet. Like, these things are not interesting to me. I don’t want to live that sort of lifestyle.


And so, I’m not chasing after money. I’m really, I just want to make the web and the world better.


That’s it for this episode, thanks for listening. The Wix Engineering Podcast is produced by PI Media - written by Nate Nelson, produced by Yotam Halachmi and narrated by me, Ran Levi. Special thanks to Moard Stern from Wix. See you again next episode, bye bye.

 

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