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Developer Love
31 MIN

Ep. #3, Developer Experience Teams with Peggy Rayzis of Apollo

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about the episode

In episode 3 of Developer Love, Patrick speaks with Peggy Rayzis. They discuss her role leading the developer experience team at Apollo, empathy and how it relates to scaling, and the global pivot to virtual events.

Peggy Rayzis is an engineering manager, leading the Developer Experience team at Apollo. She is also an internationally recognized speaker and blogger.


Patrick Woods: Welcome to the show, Peggy. Thank you so much for coming on today.

Peggy Rayzis: Thanks so much, Patrick. I'm excited to be here.

Patrick: Let's dive right in. Could you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you're working on?

Peggy: Sure. My name is Peggy Rayzis and I lead the developer experience team at Apollo , and at Apollo we build a platform for helping developers build great apps.

You may be familiar with some of our popular GraphQL open source libraries like Apollo Client and Apollo Server.

On the developer experience team, we are a mixed bunch of people attacking our mission to inspire and equip developers to be successful with Apollo, all from a different angle.

We have developer advocates on the team, we are responsible for the documentation, we organize events, and we're also going to be focusing on education as well in the latter half of the year.

Patrick: Awesome. How did you get into the world of developer experience in the first place?

Peggy: I feel like this is a pretty common story for a lot of people, but I used to be on the open source team at Apollo as an engineer and Apollo was just starting up at that point.

We weren't nearly as popular as we are today, and so a lot of us were creating content and I just started enjoying the process of teaching developers and creating this content more than the coding aspect.

My role morphed into this hybrid role.

I was doing half engineering and half developer advocacy work, and then eventually I decided I love the developer advocacy work so much that I started to manage this team now at Apollo.

This is about two years ago.

Patrick: Cool. What was it like transitioning from an engineering role to more of a developer experience and education advocacy role?

Peggy: It was pretty seamless. I actually come from a non-traditional background, so I have a degree in history.

I actually sometimes feel more comfortable with words than I do with code, but I think really my passion is helping developers and I think I realized that I could do that so much more through writing content and developer advocacy work rather than coding.

So, that's how that transition played out.

Obviously, when I started the team two years ago developer experience was very undefined at Apollo.

It is so different at every company, there's no roadmap for building a developer experience team.

Everyone does it a little bit differently, so it's been really fulfilling and really cool to build this team from the ground up and really think critically about "OK. How are we going to achieve this together? How are we going to inspire and equip millions of developers to be successful? What are the ingredients for that?"

That's how we work together to hire our first people and build out that team.

Patrick: What a fascinating origin story there, for the team.

What would you say is the secret to building things developers love?

Peggy: I think first and foremost, you have to come from a place of empathy.

I think one of the reasons I've been able to be successful at Apollo is because before I started working there I was actually an engineer at Major League Soccer, and I was using Apollo tools so I had felt that pain that developers feel when they have a bunch of different rest APIs and they're trying to build a back end for front end, and aggregate all this data into some sort of object that can then be consumed by the front end.

We had experienced that pain, so we then migrated from rest to GraphQL, and seeing that whole process through and seeing the transformation and increase our team had in productivity when we started adopting Apollo tools and GraphQL was really powerful.

I think that's something that I've carried with me through now to joining the Apollo team and building that team. I still really remember how it felt to be an engineer and walk a mile in the shoes, implementing this stuff.

I think coming at it from a place of empathy is really important to understanding what pain points our developers have and how to solve them, and I also think you have to be open to really listening to them and making them feel heard.

I think empathy and listening are the two ingredients to building something developers love and are passionate about.

Patrick: Yeah, empathy has come up a number of times in our conversations, both with Apollo people but just with people on the podcast as well.

I'm interested in your perspective on empathy as it relates to scaling, if that's possible.

Meaning one-on-one it's very clear how to be empathetic with another individual, so how do you, as a leader of a team, ensure that your team is showing empathy and that a company or a brand shows empathy with the whole community? How does that work?

Peggy: I think obviously one to one interactions don't scale all the time, so we as a team really comb through our different channels.

Whether that's GitHub issues or Spectrum or social media, and we find out "OK. What are the common themes here? What are the common pain points developers are running into?"

Then we prioritize that content, and we find that developers are having a lot of trouble with caching.

So then maybe we plan a blog post series on caching and we'll have a whole stream episode dedicated to caching.

I think it's about looking at all your channels, figuring out "What are people running into the most? What pain points?"

And then solving those. I think also too, as developer advocates, it's building apps with the product yourself and running into those issues and testing new features and libraries before they hit the public, and experiencing those things yourself.

I think even though we might not be able to have one to one interactions all the time, I think you start to see common themes that pop up, and prioritizing those and also delivering that feedback to the product teams as well.

Sometimes we are the eyes and ears of the community and we represent the community to our company, so it is our responsibility to take that feedback back to the product teams so they can address it as well as us creating content, of course, to solve those too.

Patrick: That's awesome. You mentioned collaborating with the product team as the eyes and ears of the company out on the front lines with the developers, what are some tools or tricks that you found effective in terms of communicating back to the product team effectively and clearly?

Peggy: I'll give you an example from open source, most recently with the Apollo Client 3 beta.

Apollo Client 3 is something that our open source engineers have been working on for a while now, and I think the big challenge there was re-architecting the cache.

The open source engineers on that project, Ben and Hugh and Jen, have done a phenomenal job rethinking what that looks like.

From that came new APIs to interact with the Apollo cache, one of them being cache.modify, which was the name of the API.

Khalil, the developer advocate of my team, he started creating a talk about Apollo Client to give at one of our events, and as he was going through it and thinking about "What are the practical use cases that someone might encounter when they're interacting with the Apollo cache? Maybe pagination is one, or you send a mutation and the server sends a mutation, now how do we update the cache on the front end to reflect that?"

As he was going through and seeing, "What are the practical recommendations?" We found that we didn't really have a clear answer, and there were these--

This cache.modify thing was only for advanced power users, but then we heard feedback from the field that people were using it for everything.

There was this question about how we teach it, so I think Khalil's exploration and how he used his talk as a way to flesh out these practical examples, and what are our concrete recommendations.

The client team realized that the API was a bit too complex , so through his feedback and his exploration and really going through "How are we going to teach this to developers? How are we going to make this practical?"

That's where that feedback cycle came from. So, I think a lot through teaching.

Figuring out how to explain this in practical terms to someone is really where a lot of this this feedback comes through, and then you have the cycle.

We work very closely with the open source team, as well as the product engineering teams to close that feedback loop and get that implemented.

Patrick: That makes a lot of sense. So, your team is involved in a lot of things like streaming content, working with the product team.

With you as the team lead, how do you know what you're doing is working? How do you measure success?

Peggy: It's not perfect. I think measuring success in developer advocacy is a difficult thing, and that's why I'm so thrilled you all are building Orbit.

Obviously, on the qualitative side we can look at impressions, but that's sometimes imperfect.

A view on a stream is different than a retweet, which is different than-- It's hard to compare apples and oranges, but we do look at it obviously.

We look at download counts, like "If we're creating content about this thing are the download numbers going up?"

But even that's kind of imperfect, especially if you're using NPM downloads.

I think qualitatively we really love to just hear feedback from people that a blog post or a piece of content that we wrote really helped someone, and sometimes that's the most meaningful thing.

If we are combing through the issues and we find that we're not getting issues about this thing that we always used to get issues about, I think that's also a metric of success as well.

None of these things are perfect, but we do track them and that gives us a less blurry picture of how we're doing and whether the things that we're doing are actually helping developers or not, because at the end of the day that's what we're aiming to do.

Patrick: We've seen and experienced the blend of data and story to make the case for why what we're doing is working.

So, what would you say is the one tool that you can't live without?

Peggy: The one tool I can't live without? This maybe isn't super developer advocacy focused, but I am a big fan of Franz.

I'm not sure if I'm saying that correctly, but as a DevRel person you're constantly context switching all day.

You're in your Twitter DMS and then you are on Spectrum and you're in your GitHub issues, and then you're on many different Slack channels and it's very difficult to keep track of everything.

Franz aggregates all of those different messaging platforms into one tool , and it is the only way that I am able to stay sane throughout the day jumping between all of these things.

I highly recommend that you try it if you're having a difficult time staying on top of everything, because it's nice to just have everything in one app and be able to easily switch between all the different platforms you're on.

Patrick: Can you spell that for the audience?

Peggy: Franz.

Patrick: Got it.

Peggy: And it's free too, which is great. They have a paid version but I use the free version.

I should probably pay them for how much value I get out of it.

Patrick: I will link that in the show notes. That's really cool.

All right, so you've started this team from zero to one over the past couple of years and you've hired some really great people, and you've transitioned yourself from a developer into a leadership management role.

What would you say have been your biggest learnings transitioning into that capacity at Apollo?

Peggy: I think my biggest learnings have been to really think about, "What are your goals? What are you trying to achieve?"

And then work backward from there. I think, at least from my perspective, Apollo is still a very small startup.

It's taken me two years to get to where we are now and it's been a very incremental process, so I think if you are starting from zero and then building the team from the ground up, you really have to think about "What is going to make the most difference?"

Maybe it's investing in your documentation first and hiring a documentation expert. That's really important.

Maybe a developer advocate and getting the word out there about your product, and building example apps and tutorials is what you need, so you'll go in that direction.

I think you have to first start with your goals and then work backward from that.

I think the other thing too that's important is I really enjoy hiring people based on potential, I think a lot of people who are really successful developer advocates may have not been career developer advocates.

They may have been engineers who realized along the way that they were really passionate about the communication side of things and teaching others.

Khalil on my team is one of those people, this is his first developer advocate role but he is so awesome at it and had his personal blog before, which is how I found him and saw how incredible his writing was.

That's how he transitioned there, but I think especially with developer advocacy roles it's important to find those people who really love the communication side of things and take a chance on them, even if they may have not been a career developer advocate before.

Patrick: That's awesome. The space is growing, so hopefully it'll continue to grow.

I think that type of advice is going to be super relevant for people. What are you excited about right now?

Peggy: What am I excited about? I think what I am super excited about, it's a bittersweet thing, is the whole pivot to virtual events.

Obviously, Covid happened and developer advocacy, which previously had been really centered around these in-person conference experiences and workshop experiences suddenly got flipped on its head.

We all had to figure out how to adjust to this new world, and virtual events were something that we had wanted to try for a while, even before the pandemic happened.

But this was kind of the kick that we needed to take a risk and try it.

I've just been so impressed by the team and how they've been able to think creatively about this, and thinking about how events are different now when you maybe don't have the same constraints as before with time and space and reimagining what those look like.

That is probably what I am most excited about, and it's also something I'm kind of in the middle of right now.

At Apollo we host GraphQL Summit, which is the largest developer conference dedicated to GraphQL.

Previously, that used to be an in-person event in San Francisco for over a thousand developers . This year, it's completely online.

We're targeting five thousand developers and suddenly now we've been able to reach so many more people from around the world.

I think we were running the numbers today and it used to be 92% of the people who attended GraphQL Summit were from the US, but now that it's moved to virtual that number is now 52%. So we're reaching so many more developers around the world than we could have ever thought possible.

I think I'm super excited about that, to welcome these developers from around the world into our community and just really think about what events look like in this new world.

Patrick: That's incredible. What does that mean for your community that so many more people from around the world are going to be able to participate?

Peggy: I'm super excited about it, to be honest. In-person events, I have this moral conflict with because especially before we hosted it in San Francisco which is obviously a very expensive city.

The ticket price is a $1,000 dollars because it's very expensive to feed over 1,000 developers in the San Francisco hotel, so there was this huge financial cost to meeting our developers at this event.

That didn't quite sit right with me, and I think now that we have this virtual event it's free to attend, anyone can attend from anywhere, and I am just so excited about what doors that opens.

Now we can meet people from different countries that we wouldn't normally get to meet otherwise, we can welcome people who may not be working at companies that can support the financial cost, welcome more students into our community, include more people from different racial backgrounds and socioeconomic backgrounds.

I'm really excited about virtual events because I think they make our communities more inclusive.

I am just over the moon excited to meet all these developers that we wouldn't normally have gotten to meet at an in-person event.

Patrick: You mentioned a moment ago that the switch to virtual gives companies and communities the chance to reimagine what their events look like.

What are some ways that Apollo has been reimagining the event?

Peggy: One of the things that I am-- I don't know if "passionate" is the right word, but I think the conference talk in and of itself is something that we're trying to reimagine and push the boundaries of.

Obviously, with an in-person event you have a person standing on stage there doing some slides, maybe some live coding.

But with a virtual event, you can really flip that on its head.

For GraphQL Summit this year we are prerecording all of our talks and we are really focusing on the production quality, because now that it's not in person we can make it feel more like TV or like a movie.

So we're hiring animators to do cool bits in between the talks, spotlighting different community members and why they're passionate about the GraphQL community.

We can add fun visual effects. It doesn't have to be the same old formula that it used to be, and I'm so excited about that, to see how creative people can get.

I think we'll start to see more reimagining of what a conference talk looks like.

I think I saw on Twitter something, someone had a conference talk that they did in Animal Crossing and in Animal Crossing, they rebuilt their company's breakout room or whatever.

So they hosted their tech talk from Animal Crossing, which is so cool.

That's something that you normally would never get to see in an in-person event, so I think it's just breaking the formula and really getting creative.

I'm just super excited to see what the next year or so brings with that.

Patrick: That's wonderful. You showed a bunch of amazing vignettes today, but I wonder, aside from all the highs from having an amazing leadership team at Apollo, what have been some of your biggest challenges as a developer advocate?

Peggy: Biggest challenges?

I think the measurement thing that we talked about before, that's definitely a challenge just because I don't think there's a playbook on how to do it exactly right.

That's why I'm so excited about Orbit, is it gives us this framework and a structure for thinking about these things.

That has definitely been a challenge.

I think the other thing that maybe people at a startup can relate to is there are so many things that we could be doing, and it's hard to focus on what's going to have the most impact.

Because especially as our community grows, you want to help everyone but you literally can't.

So, how do you focus your efforts on what's going to help the most amount of people?

Balancing that I think is really tough working at a startup, because there are so many different things that you could be doing, how do you focus and hone in on the ones that are going to have the most positive impact for your community?

Patrick: What would you say has been your proudest moment as a developer advocate?

Peggy: Right before the pandemic we had everyone in town week, and Apollo does this several times a year.

We fly everyone in to San Francisco because typically we're a distributed team and we get to collaborate in person, and we were just doing this roadmap planning exercise and we had posted it on a whiteboard, and this is really exciting for a distributed team because we never get to do this kind of thing in person.

So everyone is super pumped. They're writing their ideas, developer advocates are giving ideas about events and the events lead us giving ideas about the documentation side of things.

Everyone's cross collaborating and brainstorming these ideas together, and I think it was just this really proud moment for me because I realized that I had built something bigger than anything that I could do myself.

The things that we can accomplish together are so much greater than anything that one of us could accomplish individually, and so I think that was just a really cool, surreal moment.

To just see around the room, the awesome team that we had built together and all the cool ideas that were flowing, and how even though we all have a different specialty, how we work together and lift each other up to accomplish our goals.

Patrick: That sounds really special.

One thing I ask everyone because this is a podcast called Developer Love, so I'm wondering, what's one thing that you're loving right now?

Peggy: I've been really loving the nice weather in New York City and being able to get outside.

I think after being cooped up for so long, just being outside and in the park.

I try to-- My fiancee and I, we have a tandem b ike, so when I'm done and signing off for the day we take the tandem bike out and we ride to the park and I sit in the sunshine.

That has just really centered me through some dark times.

I would say the summer sunshine is something that I've been loving right now.

Patrick: We live on a park as well, and it's been a real godsend in the context of quarantine.

But I've always wondered, how does one decide to buy a tandem bike?

Peggy: This is going to be really embarrassing because I'm admitting this to all the podcast followers, but we're just going to go with it.

I never really learned how to ride a bike as a kid .

My dad had taught me one time, but we lived on this big hill and I must have been like six years old and I have this vivid memory of speeding down the hill full speed, flying off the bike and scraping my knee and crying.

We just didn't try after that. It was also like Razr scooters were popular at the time, so I had one of those and that was my mode of transportation.

But then obviously relying on that through childhood, you get to adulthood and you still don't know how to ride a bike, and it's kind of embarrassing.

So I've had some friends that have taught me and I'm OK now, but definitely not good enough to ride in a city.

We went to Amsterdam about six or seven years ago, where we tried it there for the first time and fell in love with it, and as soon as we came home we knew we had to buy a tandem bike.

It's bright blue, we get a lot of compliments on it. It's kind of flashy, but I really enjoy it because I get all the thrills of riding a bike without worrying that I'm not going be able to stop or a car is going to crash into me, or something.

Patrick: It's very consistent with what you've told us today about empathy and listening and teamwork and collaboration.

The tandem bike really is the embodiment of all of these values.

So Peggy, one of my favorite questions on the show is, what's your most controversial DevRel hot take?

Peggy: OK, I'm going to say this one. It shouldn't be controversial, but it is. I think I'm going to get some hate mail because of it.

But my controversial DevRel hot take is that DevRel is complicit in upholding white supremacy in tech, and I'm going to unpack that for you.

Patrick: All right.

Peggy: I think as developer advocates we have a responsibility, and I think I said this before, to represent our company to our community and our community to our company.

Too often I see DevRel teams that are made up entirely of white men and white women, and t his is really problematic because I think within DevRel and within open source there's a lot of hero worship.

We tend to idealize the people who are on stage at conferences and popular on social media, and people don't want to participate in a community that they don't feel welcome in.

When all we see are white men and white women on stage, black engineers are not going to feel welcome and excited to join our communities.

So, what do we do to fix this?

I think we really need to amplify the voices of black engineers and developer advocates. We need to reach their work, we need to give them a platform by inviting them to share their technical work at our conferences. We need to nominate them to our project's technical steering committees, we need to hire them, we need to promote them, we need to give them leadership opportunities.

I think so often I hear from people that "Where are they? This is a pipeline thing."

And it's not, there are so many incredible black engineers and developer advocates who are doing amazing work.

I'm just going to name a couple of my favorites

Christian Nwamba. He's a leader in the GraphQL and Serverless communities doing excellent work at Microsoft.

Obviously, we talked about Brian Douglas before. He's helped thousands of developers through his work at GitHub.

You have Aisha Blake, who's an engineer at Gatsby. She publishes excellent content on the JAMstack.

You have Taylor Alexis, she's doing really interesting things streaming on Twitch and you have Paris Athena, she has this awesome platform and newsletter, Black Tech Pipeline.

It's a resource for hiring black engineers. So, they're out there.

We just need to find them and we need to amplify their voices and we need to hire them to our teams, and we need to lift them up.

I think together, as DevRel professionals, we need to first admit there is a problem and admit that we are part of the problem.

I think once we do that, we can start to make real progress towards fixing it and dismantling white supremacy in our communities.

Patrick: Thank you so much for sharing that informed perspective.

I've appreciated you and your team's leadership on these questions, and the specific steps you've listed today, I think people can apply and start to run with.

It's not rocket science. So, thank you for sharing that.

Peggy: Yeah, of course. The Apollo community isn't perfect, but I think we just first need to acknowledge this and acknowledge that it is real.

By doing that, now we're able to take steps and work towards fixing it.

Thanks for letting me share that, because I think it really needs to be said.

Patrick: Yeah, I'm not sure that it's controversial. At least I hope it's not, but it's very important.

So, thanks for sharing that. Peggy, you and your team have been really amazing early adopters of Orbit.

You've given us tons of great feedback and a lot of where we are today is as a result of the input you've given us.

I would love to hear a little bit more about how you're using the tool and what your thoughts are in general.

Peggy: Absolutely. We are super excited about Orbit and we've already started using it and getting great value from it.

Right now, obviously, with the GitHub integration we have a lot of repositories on GitHub, so between all of our different products whether it's Apollo Server or Apollo client, Apollo iOS, Apollo Android.

Just getting to see all that data aggregated into one has been really helpful for us as we start to identify our champions and our overall communities growth, so that's been really awesome.

I'm super excited about the tagging feature, because as a conference organizer who is always trying to make speaker lists and figure out, "Who do we know that speaking about this topic?"

The tagging feature has definitely saved us there as we start to plan these virtual events. I really enjoyed that.

Also, our open source teams have found tremendous value from it as well.

Just being able to see all of that GitHub data in one place and see, "W hat's going on?" Identifying which people have high reach in the community and being able to engage them, so we're super excited about it.

I can't wait for the Twitter integration to come out. That's going to be awesome, and we've enjoyed it so far.

Patrick: Cool. Peggy, thanks so much for coming on today. I've learned a ton.

I appreciate your perspective on everything from DevRels role in white supremacy and racism to the importance of empathy and listening and building communities.

So again, thanks so much for coming on Developer Love. It's been a real pleasure.

Peggy: Thanks for having me, Patrick. It's been so much fun.

Patrick: If anybody wants to learn more about you, where would they find you online?

Peggy: Twitter is the best place to find me, I'm @PeggyRayzis on Twitter.

Patrick: Awesome. Thanks again.