In this episode, Global Lead of DevRel at Shippo Vyshakh Babji discusses developer relations and the role they have been playing in educating and mentoring developers in the tech space, ways a developer can improve their knowledge, and why a developer needs to have a technical mentor in the community. They also advise SaaS companies that develop platforms that developers work on.
About our Guest
Vyshakh Babji is the Global Lead of DevRel at Shippo, a multi-carrier shipping software for e-commerce businesses. He is vastly experienced in Android software development and educating the public on his company’s products. He is improving ways to educate developers in the community.
Jonathan Gottfried: Welcome to the State of Developer Education, a podcast by Major League Hacking. We explore how technical leaders are creatively tackling the developer education gap to help prepare the next generation of technologists for the real world and build businesses that can adapt to any changes in the technology ecosystem. I’m your host, Jon Gottfried. Welcome, everyone, to the State of Developer Education, a podcast by Major League Hacking. We explore how technical leaders are creatively tackling the developer education gap to help prepare the next generation of technologists for the real world. I’m your host, Jon Gottfried, co-founder of MLH, and I’m here with Vyshakh Babji, developer relations enthusiast, worked at Shippo and RingCentral and has been in the industry for a long time. It’s really good to have you here today.
Vyshakh Babji: Thanks, Jon, for inviting me for this podcast.
Jon: Yes, thanks for coming.
Vyshakh: Yes, I’m excited.
Jon: Me too. I’d love to start off with a little bit of background on your own journey. Why don’t we go way back in time to the beginning, how did you actually decide to become a software engineer?
Vyshakh: Oh, yes. It’s funny story. I’ve been interested in computers for as long as I remember. When I was about 13, I would always think about my parents computers to see how it worked and how it performed so many tasks. I was fascinated about the inner working of the PC. Definitely, they were not happy about me taking out the PC, looking at the motherboards and hard drives and all that stuff.
That’s when I decided that I wanted to become a software engineer. I wanted to learn how to create programs that can make computers work. I set out learning everything from scratch. I started with PowerPoint presentations, and then in school, we started working on Fox programming and QBasic. I don’t know if you know QBasic.
Jon: Oh, yes.
Vyshakh: L LR 10 and Right. Make the turtle turn right and left and all that stuff. It was pretty good. That’s when I decided that going forward, I would probably become a software engineer.
Jon: When you were taking apart your parents’ computer, how much RAM did you have back then?
Vyshakh: It’s only 64MB, I would say. I think so. Yes, I think it was about 64MB or so.
Jon: That’s respectable.
Vyshakh: Yes. I was way back in 2000, I believe.
Jon: Yes, I think we’re probably close to the same age. I definitely broke many computers at my parents’ house.
Vyshakh: Yes, it was interesting back then how things work.
Jon: Totally. Yes. I always tell people that I was part of the last generation, and I think you were too, where to make your computer do anything remotely interesting, you had to understand how it worked and how to make it do things. It wasn’t very user-friendly.
Vyshakh: Right. Yes.
Jon: Yes. Once you decided that you wanted to become a software engineer, what did that journey actually look like? How did you get from taking apart your parents’ computers to having a job as a developer?
Vyshakh: Basically, after my school– I started my schooling in India and finished my schooling. Then I entered into a Bachelor’s of Computer Science at an engineering college in India. It’s a four-year work course and finished my computer science engineering, did a lot of projects, did an internship at a telecom company, which is called Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited. That is where I actually practically developed Android app, which basically helps the traffic police to put a fine on violators of the parking, for example, or whatever.
That’s when I got my first hands-on experience as a software engineer and developing an Android app and delivering it to this company. This company talked to Indian government and they adopted this app as one of the apps for these traffic cops. Basically so after that, I work for this company called Infosys. Infosys is one of the largest companies in India. It’s a software service provider company. Worked there on several hands-on projects on e-commerce platform. Yes, that was my other side of being actual software engineer. I moved to US, I did my master’s in San Diego State. Joined RingCentral as a developer. So that’s how my journey started.
Jon: Were able to develop an Android app right out of school? How did you actually learn to do that?
Vyshakh: It was a group project. Android was pretty new back then. I was always interested in knowing more about how Android works. It was fascinating for me to see that the smartphone can do so many things that laptop or a computer can do. Pretty robust, I would say. A lot of new features that were not in the previous generations of phones were available as a part of Android, so many apps. I was fascinated about how these apps work as well.
I started learning from Android tutorials on Google’s website, which was free. Coming back to same thing, that developer education-related stuff. They were pretty good. The guides, the tutorials were pretty good. That’s how I started learning about Android. I’m not a UI-focused person. I usually could do a lot of backend stuff. Yes. I was pretty familiar with Java back then, so Java and Android were pretty similar. That’s how I learned Android. Few of my other teammates built out several other services. I built out backend service. That’s how I learned Android.
Jon: That’s awesome. Yes, I feel like that’s a really common path, where people are using online resources, tutorials, learning from their teammates, piecing it all together to make something that works. How much of a stretch was that for you compared to what you actually learned in the computer science program?
Vyshakh: Back in school, we used to code about a hundred lines of code, and usually, people used to memorize the code and present it as a part of assignment or a project in the examinations. Going into this Android world and working on an actual project, it was a huge transition because I was never used to writing 2,000, 4,000 lines of code at once. Moving from 1,500 lines of code, working on data structures and algorithms to actual program and trying things around, it was hard.
Good thing is that we got about six to eight months to work on this project and spent a considerable amount of time figuring out how to tie so many different set of algorithms into one single set of program to run the Android app. It was pretty difficult, but because it was not a production gray code, or it was just another project that we wanted to work on, we spent enough time just tinkering around different pieces of code and getting it from stack workflow or getting it from some other sources, and just tailoring it around to meet our requirements was what we used to do back then.
Jon: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. I saw that after you built that app, but before you started at RingCentral, you did a Google Summer of Code. Is that accurate?
Vyshakh: Yes. Basically, I didn’t really do Google Summer of Code, rather I worked at this research lab called Scripps Research Lab. There was this intern who actually participated as a part of Scripps in Google Summer of Codes. We wanted to productionalize or rather create a research project around it. Basically, the project already existed, but I re-engineered the project, made sure it was as expected. It was basically a AIML-based project to figure out the early signs of a person, a human having breast cancer. That’s what I did at Scripps. I re-engineered the already existing into a actual web service-based
Jon: Got it. That makes sense. You made the transition from software engineering to developer relations. Why did you decide to go that direction? I know a lot of developers want to get more and more complex in their technical organizations, maybe become a CTO one day. DevRel is a totally different career path. What attracted you to that?
Vyshakh: This is, again, a funny story. I have always been a and I’ve been a tech enthusiast. Being a software engineer, also talking to a lot of my peers and mentoring a lot of interns, I was pretty comfortable or I saw myself as a person who can educate the developers and also talk to the developer community with ease. Also, I have had experiences around several different programming languages, and this came across as an opportunity at RingCentral.
As soon as I finished my master’s, I was looking at job postings, career postings and all that stuff. Also during my master’s, I actually participated in two different hackathons and I met so many mentors over there. One of the mentors where was Neil Mansilla. He’s a VP of DevRel at Atlassian, I believe.
Jon: I know Neil very well.
Vyshakh: He was at this hackathon called Active Hackathon back in San Diego. He was mentoring a lot of new developers, hackers, to participate in the conference. There’s this background story. I was walking around the streets in San Diego downtown along with my friend and we saw a board saying, “Hey, come here and hack.” I was too curious to see what it is. I went into that conference room and there were so many developers sitting around and looking at stuff, talking to different developers and talking to coders, and I met Neil over there. I had no idea what it was about.
I started talking to him and he was like, “Hey, why don’t you participate in this hackathon? Back then I didn’t know what a hackathon was. I have attended a lot conference, I attended a lot of events, and I didn’t have a laptop back then. Rather, I was walking around the streets, so I just entered and I didn’t have a laptop. Neil was like, “Hey, why don’t you take my laptop and start building whatever you know, just start building. I can help you with it.” It was a 24 or 48 hours, hackathon, I guess. We sat there, we spent our whole night, whole morning, and we created a simple app and we presented it to the panel and we actually won second price-
Vyshakh: That is when I got to know that there is this role that actually exists called developer advocate, evangelist of relations, and that inspired me to pick up or rather change my trajectory from a software engineer into DevRel space.
Jon: Wow. It’s funny, something very similar happened to me, where I was at a hackathon, a friend of mine was working in developer evangelism, we called it, and I also had no idea that role existed until he started raving about how awesome it was and how you get to help people and involve yourself in all these communities. That’s really cool. Neil was the person who convinced you to go that route. I feel like the best DevRel people I know, Neil included, would gladly give up their laptop to a hacker in need.
Vyshakh: Yes. He treasured us. That was crazy. We were two random kids walking in the street and getting into the conference room and he handed over his laptop over his laptop go court.
Jon: You must have looked very trustworthy.
Vyshakh: Yes. That’s the story.
Jon: That’s awesome. You touched on this a little bit, that you always had good mentors and also enjoyed mentoring other people. That’s something that’s a huge part of working in developer relations. In the same way that Neil sat there and helped you get up to speed at your first hackathon, I imagine you’ve had a lot of similar experiences with other people. What have you found makes a good technical mentor? What do you do that has impacted other people?
Vyshakh: Over the years, I had opportunity to work with a lot of talented developers. I have also had a chance to serve as technical mentors for new developers. First and foremost, the good mentor is very patient, willing to help always, and willing to answer any sort of questions. They understand that everyone learns in their own pace and support that throughout. A good mentor is always willing to share their own experiences and correct the mistakes very early in your career path.
So lets the developers make the mistakes, help them understand how to resolve the mistakes, and correct their course of path if they’re going in a wrong course. From my experience, for a software engineer, the software industry keeps changing every four or five years. It’s always good to adapt yourself to the new technologies, new languages, or rather be aware of what is in the industry. Whenever you can take help from your mentor, go for it. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your mentors, ask your mentors for help, and they’re always there to help you.
Jon: Why is it important for someone in DevRel to even spend their time mentoring? In a lot of orgs, you’re a marketing function. How does mentorship and education even factor into that?
Vyshakh: As a DevRel, or rather from my perspective, I have always been focusing on helping developers be successful in whatever they do. It probably comes as a part of your role from the interest that you have within to help mentor developers. If you see someone is struggling, you want to offer them with any type of resources, any type of, for example, help them in changing their thought process of how to approach the language as well as learn from them as well.
When they are doing some mistakes and you haven’t come across, so you go back and learn from their mistakes and be a better person to help another developer. Sometimes it is within you or you are forced to mentor the developers in the company when you are working in that role as well. That’s my perspective.
Jon: What do you do when someone asks for help with a competitor’s product?
Vyshakh: With competitors product?
Vyshakh: Oh, I always had this thing coming up every now and then when I was working for my previous company, RingCentral. Back then, even though RingCentral provided SMS capabilities and solutions, the SMS capability was restricted for, P2P, peer-to-peer messaging services. A lot of our customers wanted to use the messaging service for marketing purposes or to run campaigns or whatever. I always used to say that here our SMS services are not usable for marketing purposes, just for the information. Now RingCentral also provides SMS capabilities for marketing just a disclaimer but back then we didn’t.
I always used to allow them to Twilio for SMS solution. There were instances where I had to explore the product, use the product by myself, write some sampling course and applications, and maybe share it with the developers when they ask me, “I don’t which product to use. Can help me?” I would give them two, three different options. I have used Twilio during the hackathon. I was just talking about the hackathon. That’s where I used Twilio SMS APIs. I used, for example, to share with the developers. You go out of the way to help these developers whenever they require some help, even with the products.
Jon: It’s almost like what you’re saying is, in your role as DevRel, it is marketing, but you’re not trying to push it down people’s throats. You’re trying to help them find the best solution.
Vyshakh: As a DevRel, you never sell your company’s product. You just make sure you give them enough information about the company’s product, enough guidance toward building out the integrations, enough help to make them successful, but at the same time, don’t force them to use the product. You are not a sales person. That’s something that a lot of people in the industry are mistaken about. DevRel is not a sales engineer. DevRel is a software engineer who is happy to work with the developers, help them become successful to use your product.
Jon: Yes, I completely agree. Even at MLH, we have a lot of different developer platforms we bring to our community. We never require anyone to use any of them. We see it as our mission to make those platforms exciting and show people how they can be used in an interesting way and let them come to their own conclusions. People are much more likely to build an affinity for a platform and continue using it into the future if they feel like they chose it for a good reason and enjoy using it and get value out of it, not if they’re just required to use it arbitrarily.
Jon: As you are working at RingCentral and Shippo, we already talked a little bit about how mentoring developers is a requirement of the job in DevRel. Some of that happens in person at things like hackathons, but a lot of it happens asynchronously, things like tutorials or MOOCs or live streams. What are some of the more engaging educational experiences that you’ve either created or seen out in the industry?
Vyshakh: I have support developers and partners in various different ways. As you said, either by creating tutorials, code samples or POCs, proof of concepts, or by jumping on one-on-one calls and running them through your product, through your tools or code samples, actually, digging deeper into the code and help them figure out how to actually integrate, provide the best practices, provide the guidances as required as well as going into one-to-many type of outreach where you host the webinars or push your officers hours to invite these developers in one single space and try to answer all their questions in one-to-many format as well.
The other part of it is conferences, where you give TED talks about the new features or new functionalities, where you don’t go deeper into the product or the integration, but just show the capabilities of the product. All these tools or all these one-to-one or one-to-many, you can bring a lot of benefit to the developers community in various ways.
What has worked best for B2B or B2B2C business like RingCentral is either talk through webinars and approach a group of developers who have common set of questions or common set of functionalities, or jump on a customer call or jump on a developer’s calls and help them out running them through the integrations or running them through the code samples. Your tutorials and code samples and blogs would definitely help individually developers who are looking for some answers.
Jon: Great. Are there any developer platforms or communities that you think are taking a particularly novel approach to this? Who’s on the bleeding edge of educating developers?
Vyshakh: There are so many platforms out there. For example, Discord, or even your Twilio. Twilio has a different approach towards helping the developers via, let’s say, gamification of the program.
Jon: TwilioQuest is quite unique.
Vyshakh: Yes, TwilioQuest is unique. Also, I’ve come across Stripe partner programs where they have a different way of tackling the individual developers versus partner developers itself. The best source of our community would be GitHub stack workflow or Reddit communities. Well, Reddit has a subreddit called learn programming or something. That has a lot of engagement around both the pro developers and new developers entering into the community to get help from the developer community itself.
Jon: I definitely think that Reddit and Stack Overflow are pretty powerful in peer-to-peer education. It’s interesting that you mentioned TwilioQuest and Stripe because they’re quite different experiences. TwilioQuest is a game to teach you how to use an API, and Stripe really has interactive docs, but they’re not necessarily gamified. It feels like the thing that unites the two of them is that they make it incredibly easy to actually try the product. In Stripe docs, you can make API calls right from the docs. I’ve always loved that. I think that’s an incredible way to learn something. The technology behind all of those things is incredibly complex. Having siloed virtual environments that people can make API calls in is not a simple technical problem.
Vyshakh: Also, just to mention this, a lot of documentation solutions like like Read Ley or your ReadMe.io, these documentation solutions are providing built in base to input your open API spec and provide an interactive way to interact with the APIs through the documentation solution itself through API explorer options, which is great because as a developer, or rather for a company as a developer, if you are interacting with the API, you don’t want to move between multiple tools to try out the APIs. These set of functionalities that are embedded into the documentation solution, the API reference solutions, but make it easy for the developers to try out the APIs right from the documentation.
Jon: I definitely think that’s a really strong onboarding approach. When you think about developer education generally, we’ve covered a lot of ground here. We covered computer science, we covered hackathons, we covered DevRel, what would you want to see change in how developers are educated? It could be a big thing, it could be a small thing.
Vyshakh: Well, that’s a interesting thing. The developer education has evolved over the period of time. When I was kid, books were the main source of education. Starting from books, when the CD players came into picture, your DVDs or CDs with Britannica and whatnot, so all these were the source of your education. From there, when the internet became faster, Google is a source of your education. There are so much of content in today’s world that it becomes hard for the developers to choose or to follow which exact content to start looking into. They start with it, they get bored, they jump into a new tech, they get bored.
In the developer education’s perspective, for a developer, if you are interested in tech, it doesn’t matter which language you choose. Learn the course of one single language and go deeper into it. Learn the fundamentals, build your foundation around it. Then you can jump between each languages because the languages change pretty quickly, the programming languages, the technology itself changes pretty quickly.
Learn the basics, learn the foundation from one single search to begin with, and then start expanding your search for what you are looking for in a systematic approach. To get that, maybe plan your interests or rather plan the way you want to learn in such a way that you start from one single source and start expanding into multiple sources.
For the SaaS companies, whenever the developers come into your platform, make it easy for developers to have a quick win as soon as possible. Don’t make it hard for developers to understand your product. First, Let them play with your product, interact with your product as quickly as possible, get that small success. From there, go to the advanced topics and give the transition for the developers to learn your product as and when they move towards your advanced set of integrations, advanced set of building out the use cases that the developer is looking for.
There are a lot of good documentation solution, documentation tools that a lot of companies that a lot of companies can learn from how they train their developers coming into the SaaS product, but also, keep it simple. Keep it simple, keep it straightforward to begin with, and then maybe even they might advance into your product, you can definitely make sure to make them understand things easier. Keep the language very simple. That’s my input on this.
Jon: I think that’s great advice. You reminded me of a conversation I had recently with this young woman, Michelle, who graduated from our open source fellowship program, which is a 12-week immersive to teach people how to make contributions to major open source projects. It’s a big program for supporting the open source community. She was telling me that when she joined our program, we asked her if she wanted to do a project that was written in OCaml, and she had never even heard of OCaml before, but she was like, “Sure, I’ll try it out.”
Vyshakh: Exactly. As a DevRel, you need to be a polyguard you need to. You probably have to switch between languages, but that doesn’t mean that you are actually a programmer or a developer in that particular language. Learn one language, learn it well, and switching between languages is going to be pretty simple.
Jon: I definitely find myself helping developers debug things in languages I’ve never touched before. It’s almost a different skillset than knowing how to code in that language.
Jon: I always like to finish on a fun note here. Is there any famous like developer or technologist that you would love to take out to lunch or dinner and spend a couple hours with?
Vyshakh: Yes. I’ve been big fan of Larry Page, ever since I first learned about Google. I admire him so much that I have read lot of articles, lot of things about how he started Google, and how he approached Yahoo and whatever happened then, and what are the other new projects that he’s working on and new technology that he is working on as well. I would definitely want to, if get a chance, take him out for lunch somewhere, discuss about good stuff that he’s working on, his company’s working on. Yes, it’s Larry Page.
Jon: Awesome. In reading all of the stuff about him, is there any question that’s unanswered for you, something that you would ask him immediately?
Vyshakh: I want to know from him or his perspective about what is the future of AR/VR? What is the future of Web3? [crosstalk]
Jon: Interesting. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard him say that.
Vyshakh: I’m definitely sure we are exploring the Web3 and blockchains. All these are something that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
Jon: Me too. I don’t know if Larry was involved with this, but I used Google Glass and developed on it for quite a while. I don’t know if that counts as AR anymore, but I certainly thought it was pretty cool, but that’s a story for another time. Anyway, thank you so much. I really enjoyed hearing your perspective about DevRel and education and your own journey. Is there anywhere that you’d like to direct people to find you on the internet?
Vyshakh: Yes. The viewers of this video or the business of this podcast, you can always reach out to me via LinkedIn. My LinkedIn has linkedin.com/in/vyshakhbabji. Feel free to ping me over there, happy to talk to you and happy to help you however I can.
Jon: Awesome. Thank you, Vyshakh, and happy hacking.
Vyshakh: Thank you so much, Jon. Nice talking to you today. Thanks again for inviting me to this podcast.
Jon: The State of Developer Education is brought to you by Major League Hacking or MLH. To find out more about MLH and how we power innovation, cultivate developer communities, and teach technical skills to students around the world, visit MLH.io. Then make sure to search for developer education in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or anywhere else podcasts are found. Make sure to click subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. On behalf of the team here at MLH, thanks for listening and helping us empower the next generation of technologists. Happy hacking.