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Episode 41 - August 3, 2021

Peter Cooper on Why Developers Should Create Content

Featuring Peter Cooper, author, publisher and engineer.
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Welcome to Semaphore Uncut, a podcast about developers building great products. In this episode, I talk with Peter Cooper, tech publisher, author, software engineer, and of the most successful newsletter curators. Press the play button and listen to us talking about content creation, the cycles in the tech business, and how developers learn.

🎧 Key Takeaways

  • Using email as the core driver for a business
  • Getting older in the technology industry
  • Why developers should be involved in content creation also
  • Is it fun to be the chair of a conference?

Listen to our entire conversation above, and check out my favorite parts in the episode highlights!

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Edited Transcript

Darko (00:02): Hello, and welcome to Semaphore Uncut, a podcast for developers about building great products. Today, I’m excited to welcome Peter Cooper. Peter, thank you so much for joining us. Great. Yeah. Please just go ahead and introduce yourself.

Peter Cooper (00:15): So I am Peter Cooper. If you might know me from different email newsletters like JavaScript Weekly, Ruby Weekly, Go Weekly, just put something and then put Weekly on the end of it and there’s a 50% chance that I’m involved with it somewhere down the line. I was running fanzines about programming and stuff on Usenet. I moved into blogging, and then from blogging, I went into sharing conferences, I went into writing a book about Ruby called Beginning Ruby, and I also created a blog to promote that book called Ruby Insight. Which between, I think about 2005 and 2010 was the biggest Ruby on Rails related blog, other than the official ones of course.

Peter Cooper (01:10): And then that folded over into email when I began Ruby Weekly in 2010. And from there, I’ve used the whole mark Zuckerberg-esque domino approach of Facebook grew from school to school to school. Today I run a company, there’s five of us, we have some external curators and we have about 10 different weekly publications going out to around 500,000 people each week.

How newsletters started

Darko (02:21): Can you maybe speak a bit about how it went, what has changed?

Peter (02:27): I discovered that around 2009-2010 was when there were companies like Groupon and LivingSocial, that were using email as their notification platform of choice. And that was actually a novel thing at the time. Most companies would have a website and they’d drive it to the website and sell whatever it was. But actually using email as the core driver of business was a novel thing.

Peter (03:18): I just saw it and I was like, “Yeah, this is a perfect way of communicating with people.” So I started the email and I mentioned it on Ruby Insight, where I think we had about 40,000 RSS subscribers at the time. And within a few days, I had a couple of thousand subscribers. Because I had this audience already, I transitioned them into email, and over time the blog faded away and the email grew.

Peter (07:04): I try and distill a lot of what I learn and find out about the world. So most of the items that we include have a summary or something along those lines written with them that help provide a little bit of context as to why something is important or why you should check out a certain project.

Looking past the hype

Darko (08:05): Over time, you witnessed a lot of hypes, technologies, changes in technologies, and also some maybe culture shifts over these years. So what are maybe some milestones that you would point out?

Peter (08:38): The older I get and the longer that I’ve done it, the more you can see these loops occurring sometimes. So just to pick one example like databases, how everyone was pushing relational databases. People were really pushing MySQL and then SQL server and all that type of stuff. And then all the new SQL stuff came along and we have MongoDB and everyone was like, “Oh, let’s move on to Node and let’s do this. And let’s do Mongo DB, we don’t have to worry about our schemers anymore,” and blah, blah, blah. And then now you’re suddenly seeing Postgres exploding again.

Peter (10:07): Cycles in communities is a normal thing. And just the older I get, the less I am focusing perhaps so much on the short-term immediate changes are more on the, how is something we’re doing now, how does that relate to some academic paper that someone wrote in the seventies?

Everything comes back

Peter (17:58): I began programming in the 80’s as a kid, and back then, coding was a completely different ball game. You had your home computer and you’d literally start typing 10 print, blah, blah, blah, 20 go to 10, run.

Peter (18:29): You could keep an 80’s home computer, all the different pieces and different chips in there. you could keep them in your head and be like, “Oh, I can experiment.” The level of abstraction has completely changed. Whereas you might have written some sort of little stock control program on an 80’s computer and written in a few hundred lines of code, and known how every piece of it worked, now you’re building the same thing but on the web over a network.

Peter (19:43): As I’ve mentioned, there are cycles. Serverless is probably a great example of that. Where so many things go out the window when it comes to serverless, it’s almost like, “Oh yeah, upload some code and bam, it works.” And that’s another game-changer. We’ll look back on this in another 20 years and be like, “Oh yeah, this is just like another loop of an extension of something we did in 2020.”

On being experimental early in the career

Darko (23:47): Where are you in your career? For instance, if we take you and me, we are very busy with our current businesses. People who are early on in their career have much more freedom in that area because they don’t have something which is dragging them along into the next decade.

Peter (24:16): Yeah, that’s very true. We saw that also with the guys that built Mono, for example, was that Miguel de Icaza and Nat Friedman, who is now the CEO of GitHub. I used to follow Nat Friedman’s blog from about 2001 through to 2007. And he was a normal guy. They were working on Linux desktop projects, which at the time weren’t even particularly popular. That led to things, they built upon each other and led to things that are now very, very significant. But yeah, once you get to a certain age, and I think it’s actually probably might be slightly ageist to say, that older people don’t come up with necessarily the next big idea, I’m sure it does happen. But it’s not the main thing that occurs.

Peter (25:18): People are more experimental earlier in their careers and take risks. Or just doing something at the weekend, the messing around. And they revolutionize a scene.

Organizing conferences

Darko (27:24): Something you mentioned that you had an interesting experience and you might want to talk about, is that you work with some people organizing conferences and being a member of those boards and committees there. Do you want to maybe talk a bit about that?

Peter Cooper (27:38): Because I was running JavaScript weekly, I got the attention of someone called Simon St. Laurent who was working at O’Reilly Media. Their conference division was 40, 50 people at the time. They were launching a new conference called Fluent, which ran between 2012 and about 2017. Being a chair of a conference is a lot like running a newsletter.

Peter Cooper (29:36): And that might sound a little bit weird, but it’s this idea of knowing what a big picture is within a space, and connecting to people that are doing cool things, shining the spotlight on them, and putting together a program of things. Putting together a conference is almost like putting together a newsletter. As the chair of an event, you get more access to people and people just want to talk to you more and stuff like that. So yeah, if you do get a chance to organize, just do it. It’s the difference between reading a newsletter and running your own.

Developers should create content

Peter (32:36): There are so many people now that run their own newsletter or run their own YouTube channel, run their own podcasts like this one. I’m actually speaking to you as the host of this show, you get more from this than just if you were listening to hundreds of podcasts every single day, because this is extra dimension, you get to speak to the guests and so on. And this all just ties into a big thesis of mine that developers, in general, should try to be involved in content creation at some level or another, whether it’s through an event or a podcast or YouTube channel or blogging, or just hanging out on Hacker News or Twitter and wherever, because it just gives you this exposure to things and allows you to find your place in the world.

Darko (33:16): No, it is great. And it can be inspirational, I think, for a lot of people who might be even early in their career. You don’t have to be an absolute expert on the topic to start teaching other people on that topic. It’s not that you have to have 10 years of experience of writing let’s say Node.js That you can start teaching people about the first steps.

Peter (33:36): Yeah. I think a key thing to do is just disclose what your level of experience is and who your target audience is. So like Dan Abramov of the React Project is really good at this. He does these great blog posts about advanced React JS topics. But he’ll write at the top, it’ll say, “This is a really advanced topic and it’s interesting to people who really geek out about React, but if you’re learning React, this is not relevant to you, you don’t need to read this.”

Peter (34:07): You can write stuff, even if you’re inexperienced, even if you write and say, “Look, I’m learning X topic.” Now, Julia Evans actually is a perfect example of someone who nails this. She does amazing blog posts where she’s like, “I’m learning how to use a debugger. Oh, I’ve learned this about the debugger. The debugger does this. You type this, this happens. I’ve learned this connects to this.” If you’re not used to it, it almost seems like a very naive way of writing, but actually, it’s incredibly clever because she is very upfront about saying, “I am learning this thing. You’re coming along for the ride with me. Here’s what I learned, and actually this is very, very useful experience.”

Peter (34:52): And she’s not going in saying, “I am a super-duper expert at debuggers, and you should listen to me and this is how it works.” She’s actually saying, “I’m learning this, come along with me.” And if you can put that into your blogs or YouTube or whatever, you will build up more of an audience, but also feel less of a fraud than if you just go in, you’ve learned how to use a tool for 10 minutes, and you’re like, “I can write a blog post about this. Here’s the ultimate guide to using this thing.” If you’re not an expert, you’re going to feel like a fraud pretty quick. Just say, “Look, I’m learning X, here’s all these cool things I learned about it. Maybe you’ll find this useful too.” That gets you a much better audience and gets you a lot more respect.

Darko (35:31): There is also a very strange but logical thing. If I would now start writing about teaching someone Ruby and I learned there Ruby let’s say 12, 13 years ago, I forgot about what was the thing that was confusing me or what was very interesting that I discovered and so on. So I would just ran over that. But if there is a guy or a girl learning it now, they’re much closer to it. They are emotionally very involved and at the correct stage. While you and I, we are just two old guys preaching something.

Peter (36:07): I’m amazed actually, when sometimes people share the most elementary of tips on Twitter and they blow up and they get tons of likes and retweets. And I think that is actually a really, really obvious thing, but it’s not clearly obvious to everyone because that’s why it’s got this engagement. So yeah, always try and think from the beginner’s perspective where you can, because there’s a lot of beginners out there. And at the end of the day, we’re all beginners in something or other, there’s always blind spots to what we know.

Darko (36:34): Yeah. And that’s a nice way to end. Thanks so much for being the guest here, it was a pleasure talking to you.

Peter Cooper (36:43): Yeah, it’s been fantastic. If anyone wants to follow me, just come, Peter C, @peterc on Twitter, because that’s probably the best place to go.

Meet the host

Darko Fabijan

Darko, co-founder of Semaphore, enjoys breaking new ground and exploring tools and ideas that improve developer lives. He enjoys finding the best technical solutions with his engineering team at Semaphore. In his spare time, you’ll find him cooking, hiking and gardening indoors.

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