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APR 3, 202018 MIN

Community Co-Creation via Live Stream: Community Spotlight with Jason Lengstorf

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  • Developer Relations

Jason Lengstorf

    Welcome to the Heavybit Community Spotlight Series, where we highlight the people that make up the Heavybit community, and the interesting projects and ideas that they’re exploring right now. This week we’re turning our spotlight to Jason Lengstorf, Developer Experience Engineer for Netlify. He’s also host of Learn with Jason, a live stream coding show where Jason pair programs with a variety of interesting folks in the developer community and helps viewers learn new skills. Learn with Jason has just released its 100th episode and airs twice a week on Twitch.

    We chatted with Jason to learn about the origins and evolution of the show, why live streaming is a great platform for building community and the importance of finding and adapting to a medium that works for you. Read on to learn more about Learn with Jason, live streaming as a channel and why we should all slow down and take on more creative projects.

    Let’s talk about Learn with Jason a bit. I’ve found that as a marketer, Twitch is an underutilized channel, but it’s starting to get some traction. What was the driver for you to start a live stream show?

    Learn with Jason is kind of a happy accident. It originally started as an effort to boost transparency. When I was working at Gatsby, we had talked about what our company values were going to be. It’s an open source based company, so we had decided that transparency was a big one.

    I had originally just started live streaming meetings. When we were planning things or when we were talking about something that we were going to do that would affect the community, we would just turn on a live stream. Twitch and YouTube both have live options, but Twitch had an alert system, a chat system, and more integrations that you can use. The Twitch API is a little more approachable than the YouTube API.

    As you can imagine, live streaming meetings was not super interesting. And we didn’t get a lot of engagement there. I thought, what if we just kind of worked on projects? So I worked on some Gatsby projects on stream and that got a little more engagement.

    And then one day I ended up pair programming with somebody. The first episode was with Nader Dabit and we deployed a Gatsby site with AWS Amplify. I realized that it was really fun. Suddenly it felt like there was something there.

    We started to realize that there’s a format here that works. So let’s invest a little bit in the visuals or let’s invest in figuring out how to use the Twitch platform a little bit more effectively. All those things led to what it is today, where it’s a little more organized. There’s a schedule. There’s a website for it. We’ve got all the episodes posted up and upcoming stuff, so it actually feels produced.

    What was there like a particular moment or a piece of feedback that you got in the early days of the show where you thought, “This is something we should dig into more?”

    I think it was less external feedback and more realizing that this is a medium that makes sense to me. One of the hardest things about content is being consistent with it. Having a regular schedule of doing a couple of live stream shows a week is really approachable for me, versus something like aiming to write one article a week. I just found that the way I’m wired — maybe my background as a musician and a performer — that this is something I can do consistently.

    I realized that this was the thing that I could be consistent with, and the community was getting a lot of value out of it. And that what I was creating was attracting really interesting guests who had amazing things to teach. I was seeing people share it around and we have some episodes that are over a year old and they still get just hundreds of hits a day.

    At some point I realized that it was time to treat this like a business now. It needs to be a thing that’s got structure, and it can’t just be me flying by the seat of my pants. And that was when the switch flipped and it was time to invest.

    Do you do see a lot of people tuning in for the live session versus wanting to watch the recordings of them afterwards? And Is there some magic that happens when it comes to live events that attracts people?

    I’ve found that there’s no magic about anything. It’s all about whether or not you adapt to the medium. In my early episodes. I didn’t really read the Twitch chat. I treated it very much like live broadcast TV. It was me speaking to a camera, but the audience was there to observe, not to participate. And as a result, the live viewership wasn’t very high. I have some friends who are experienced streamers, they would say, ‘you know, you should engage with the chat.’

    When we started to integrate the chat, it felt much more like something that was being co-created with the audience. When it started to feel co-created, the live viewership started to go up, people wanted to be there because then they could help create the episode, they were in on the jokes, they got to play sound effects and interrupt me at the right time where it was really funny.

    I’ve found that there’s no magic about anything. It’s all about whether or not you adapt to the medium.

    That was when it started to feel like it was important that the show was live and not just that I was doing a recorded show. The chat shows up on the screen when the show is on and people can play sound effects or trigger a storm of animated Corgis across the screen and stuff like that. You can only do that if you’re watching live.

    Community Co-Creation via Live Stream: Community Spotlight with Jason Lengstorf
    Party Corgis pay a visit during live stream of Learn with Jason. Image Source: Learn with Jason

    Do you think for a developer audience, that sense of feeling like they’re involved in co-creation is important? Would this translate to a different audience?

    I would actually say that this is one of the rare cases where developers are late adopters to something. Twitch has a really healthy community of gamers and people who are just personalities. They have a ‘just chatting’ category where people kind of hang out and talk. They play board games. They are people who cook. They are people who knit. This is way more fun than watching like a webcam feed.

    So live streaming definitely transcends genre. I think that development is almost less approachable, in the sense, because it’s so cerebral. A lot of the time you’re in your head, you’re trying to build these mental models. It’s harder to do that and still be engaging, as opposed to, you know, playing a video game where there’s a lot going on and you can just like shout and laugh and everything is chaos and that’s fun.

    I still want it to be educational content that people walk away knowing how to do something. But the more co-created that feels, the more it feels like a community creation as opposed to me on a soapbox like trying to teach people how to do something.

    If you’re laughing and there’s chaos in a coding stream, you’re probably not doing a lot of coding, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But it does create this tension where you’re trying to say “I’m going to teach you to code” and then you’re not actually coding.

    There’s a little bit of having to learn how to use the medium. I’m still trying to figure out the right ways to engage and interact and make things more fun and co-created without devolving into complete bedlam.

    I still want it to be educational content that people walk away knowing how to do something. But the more co-created that feels, the more it feels like a community creation as opposed to me on a soapbox like trying to teach people how to do something.

    Do you think having guests on the show and taking a pair programming approach — versus just you teaching something — makes a difference in terms of engagement?

    Absolutely, yeah. I think that there are a couple very deliberate decisions that I made about the show that I think have made a huge difference. I will do solo shows where it’s just me, but they’re rare. I find them to be a good way to connect with a core audience. It’s a way for us to kind of play and be off-topic and not worry too much about how much we get done.

    The guest appearances change the dynamic, so now it’s not me knowing something and building mental models and coding. The typical way that we structure the show is the guest is the teacher, and they’re not going to code much, and I am the student and I don’t know much, but I’m going to be the one who codes.

    I purposefully don’t research the thing I’m going to code, because I want to ask all of the beginner questions. As a result we hit all of the stumbling blocks that beginners are going to hit. A lot of times tutorials will gloss over the basics because the instructor already knows the material. And I find that in my own work, too, when I write tutorials. A lot of times I’m writing it with a mid to high level of context.

    By doing the pair programming and by deliberately not preparing ahead of time, it creates that zero context feel that beginners have. The episodes that have been the most popular have been the ones that I’ve known the least about.

    If someone hadn’t watched any episodes yet, what would you recommend they start with?

    We just did one where Rachel Andrew came on and that was such a blast. She taught CSS Grid — she is one of the authors of the CSS grid spec, so we were totally opposite ends of the knowledge spectrum.

    Community Co-Creation via Live Stream: Community Spotlight with Jason Lengstorf
    Jason learns CSS Grid with Rachel Andrew. Image Source: Learn with Jason

    Angie Jones was on and we did visual testing. She taught us how to write Cyprus tests to do automated testing of code, and how to use Applitools to get a visual comparison of the code that you wrote made this change to the website, which was something that I didn’t know was possible completely blew my mind.

    Rich Harris came on to teach Svelte, that was really fun.

    And I did one with Maggie Appleton, where she taught us how to draw. She’s the illustrator that does the artwork for egghead. So she came on and we did a sketch for a logo for a project called secret sandwich that I’m working on with some friends.

    Are there other streamers or other folks in the developer experience space right now that you really admire?

    There is a network that I am a part of called the Party Corgi discord and it’s a group of content creators and streamers. There’s that saying that you’re the sum of the five people you spend the most time with — this Discord is an effort to tilt that curve towards people who are all being creative.

    We’re all working to improve whatever craft we do, whether that’s code or or streaming or whatever. That keeps you motivated and keeps you pointed in the right direction. That includes people like Chris Bascardi who is one of my favorite people in the world and is a very consistent streamer and content creator.

    There’s Dometrius Clark and Ryan Harris, who run Reactadelphia. It started out as a Philadelphia in person meetup and they’ve turned it into this very interesting live streamed event.

    There’s Ryan Warner Codes, who is kind of a polyglot — he designs, he codes, he does all sorts of stuff and he’s really interesting to see.

    Suz Hinton is the OG, she was code streaming before anybody even knew what it was, so she’s wonderful.

    Instafluff — I actually don’t even know his real name. He just goes by Instafluff everywhere — but he’s built a bunch of tooling to make Twitch stuff more interesting. So he built a thing called ComfyJS, which is for reading the Twitch chat and performing actions based on that. And he’s built a bunch of other tools along that line as well. He’s got one called StreamPuppy, which is actually paid.

    His stream is one of the most interesting things I’ve ever seen. The only way that I can describe it is like, if you could walk into the middle of a comfortably upholstered hug. It’s calm and it’s fun and it’s super positive. And yeah, it’s really, really cool. A lot of inspiration taken from that show.

    Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about how the current state of things has impacted you — namely, everyone is working remotely while waiting out coronavirus. How has that changed your work?

    It’s been kind of fascinating because it changed everything, and also kind of changed nothing. I’m in a very fortunate category where I work at a completely remote company and I run a remote live stream. But I had a few events I was planning to attend, so that’s a huge bummer.

    But some of my friends in DevRel, their whole 2020 plan just evaporated. They’ve got to reevaluate everything and come up with a whole new strategy. And so I’m feeling very fortunate in that I without meaning to kind of made my strategy very friendly to quarantine.

    I can’t wait for this to be over and for it to be safe to go give everybody a giant hug, but I definitely count my blessings for my ability to mostly go about business as usual, given the circumstances.

    Have you noticed any big changes to the DevRel community?

    Every company is starting to tighten their belts. Before we were seeing companies getting ready to invest in big things and now all of those priorities are starting to shift to weathering the storm. I’ve seen a simultaneous drop in productivity where everybody is still adjusting to the new normal. They’re trying to figure out, like, you know, what is my life going to be like.

    If we want to talk about silver linings, this has given us all permission to slow down a little bit and like, feel like it’s okay to have hobbies for the sake of hobbies that aren’t ”productive.” It makes me happy to see people doing stuff that they’re doing.

    But at a personal level, what I’m seeing is people looking for ways to connect with each other online. In that party Corgi discord, we’ve got a just a standing voice chat going that people rotate in and out of throughout the day so that you can talk to a person. And people will share their screens when they’re playing games or when they’re working on something, or just to show off a funny thing they found on Reddit.

    I’m seeing this need to find things to do so that we’re not just sitting and spinning. And so there’s been this kind of interesting resurgence and creativity. If we want to talk about silver linings, this has given us all permission to slow down a little bit and like, feel like it’s okay to have hobbies for the sake of hobbies that aren’t ”productive.” It makes me happy to see people doing stuff that they’re doing.

    What are some of the hobbies you’ve picked up, or rediscovered?

    I’ve been making music, and I’ve been trying to draw again. Before the quarantine I upgraded my iPad with the magnetic pencil, so I’ve been. I’ve been drawing a lot with that. I’ve always been a big reader. So I’ve mostly just been able to read more, which has been nice.

    And I love to cook. Before the quarantine, we would throw regular dinner parties. We had this group of people that we joked was the steadily escalating dinner party is what we would call it. So now we’re figuring out how we can still make food social like we used to. I did a couple live Twitter things where I made a cocktail, or showed how to make a really simple scrambled eggs recipe that I like.

    Is there anything that you’ve picked up during this period that you’d like to keep going after we’ve returned to ‘normal’?

    Just for fun creation that’s been going on. And I think that I would like to find more ways to do that. It has been nice to do stuff that’s not even tied to teaching a concept now. I drew a picture of a little kid wearing a dinosaur costume, because that sounded like fun. I’m never going to use that for anything.

    I wrote this post a while back about optimization. And the question that I asked is, What are you optimizing for? What is it that you’re optimizing to accomplish? Maybe now instead of optimizing for maximum career growth we can optimize for like maximum quality of life.

    Where should people find you online?

    I would love to see everybody stopped by the live stream Learn with Jason. It goes live on twitch.tv/jlengstorf on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

    I would also love to see people say hi on Twitter. I’ve got you know both of my blogs linked from my Twitter profile and I always love to have people. I write about this stuff because I find it intensely interesting and I could talk about it forever. So I always want people to have discussions about it.

    And if you are someone who is looking for some connection or or a place to be social with like a bunch of people who create and share some context of being in tech, come to the Party Corgi Discord.

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