Fellow thoughtboter Edward Loveall joins Steph to cohost and talk about alternative frontends and his own that he created: scribe.rip: an alternative frontend to Medium, learning about what it's like to be a manager/non-IC, and helps answer a listener question re: how do you think about empathy in your work?
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- Empathy Online: Edward Loveall
- GitHub - mendel5/alternative-front-ends: Overview of alternative open source front-ends for popular internet platforms (e.g. YouTube, Twitter, etc.)
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STEPH: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Steph Viccari. And this week, Chris is taking a quick break. But while he's away, we have a guest on today's show. Today's guest is fellow thoughtboter, and wonderful friend, and British accent enthusiast Edward Loveall.
EDWARD: Oh, hello, Steph. It is lovely to meet...No; this is not my real accent. Anyway, hi, friends. [chuckles]
STEPH: [laughs] Hello, British Edward. I am so excited to be chatting with you today. Are you going to maintain that accent throughout the whole episode?
EDWARD: No. There's no way I could do that. I need a lot more professional actor training to be able to maintain quality of that level, I think.
STEPH: That's fair. I won't hold you to that standard. I was reflecting on preparation for this chat. I've been thinking about all the fun that we've had together, the time that we have worked together at thoughtbot, all the remote coffee walks that we have gone on together as we've talked through consulting challenges or coding challenges. And I realized that we have never worked on a project together, which is wild to me.
EDWARD: Huh. Yeah, I think you're right. That is wild. Because I've been here three and a half years, and you've been here even longer than me. So in three and a half years of overlap, we've never done that.
STEPH: And yet we've still always found ways to hang out.
EDWARD: We make it a priority, you know.
STEPH: I think we need to...we might have to bribe somebody for us to get on a project together.
EDWARD: I'm pretty sure we know the person to bribe.
STEPH: We do.
EDWARD: We can go talk to our boss and make that happen. One thing we've both done in our career here at thoughtbot, too, is we have gone from individual contributor to being a manager, which is a cool transition.
STEPH: That's a really good point. That is fun that we have embarked on that journey together. I was very much encouraged to become a team lead, and that was very helpful. Because I'm the type of person where I'm not sure I would have put myself up for that role. I'm very thankful that others encouraged me to do so because I really love it. There are certainly challenges with being a team lead. But overall, I have very much enjoyed the role.
Just to provide some context for being a team lead a thoughtbot, because I feel like those management roles tend to differ from company to company as to the level of responsibilities that you have. So for us in particular, it's really focused on leading a team of developers, usually two to three developers, and conducting regular one-on-ones to ensure that they are fulfilled and are successful in their projects and their growth at thoughtbot. And then helping them become senior developers if they're not already and essentially coaching them through difficult development and consulting scenarios.
EDWARD: Yeah, there is still an expectation that you are an individual contributor in some form on client projects. It is not just a management position.
STEPH: Yeah, that's a good point. For me, that context switching is often what makes it challenging but yet also helps me still feel that I can coach somebody and that I can have one-on-ones because I am still in the trenches. I'm still contributing to client projects. And so, it really helps me still stay in touch with the work that's being done and the struggles that people will face. Let me say again I am positive I wouldn't have pursued this path if I lost my IC status. I really like that part of the role. That's really a split. How about you?
EDWARD: Yeah, and I still do. We've been experimenting. So thoughtbot generally does four days a week on many projects. So we do four days a week with our client, and then we do one day a week as investment. And team leads, at least on the team that we are on, have been experimenting with just doing three days a week on a client, one day dedicated towards team lead, and then one day for investment. I like that split so far.
We're still seeing how it goes, still pretty early on in that experiment. But I've enjoyed continuing to be in the trenches, as it were, and working sometimes with the people that report to me so that we can really grow in the same way. There's a lot of context shared there. And that's been really wonderful.
STEPH: Yeah, I have some specific questions I'd love to ask you about that shift in schedule. Because in some of our meetings, there has been discussion about that ability to context switch between I'm only billing three days now instead of my typical four. And I now have more time to focus on team lead priorities, but then that also means I lose a day with client work. And so there's that battle going back and forth between focusing on client work and also focusing on team lead work. So I'm going to leave that as just a teaser because I want to come back to that.
But I'd really love to circle back to earlier in the year when you were thinking about becoming a team lead and correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you were pretty hesitant about it. And you were still deciding if it was something you wanted to do. Do you recall what helped you make up your mind as to which path you wanted to take and why you chose this one?
EDWARD: Yeah, that's a great question. I did also get some encouragement, a pretty light encouragement from a previous co-worker. And that was helpful, but I turned it down initially. Someone asked, "Hey, are you interested in this?" And I said, "Nope, definitely not." And, I don't know, a year-ish later, I then ended up applying.
And I think what happened in the intervening year was that I started to naturally do some of the work of a team lead primarily, checking in with people and talking with them, pairing with them on things more regularly. So I felt as if I was already doing some of the work, not exactly running a one-on-one, not getting people promoted necessarily. But I cared about the people I was working with and wanted to see them grow and be happy and thrive. That realization helped me think, oh yeah, I'm just kind of doing this. And I should maybe apply for this role.
STEPH: Wow, that resonates so much. I've heard that from other folks, too, as they have progressed into team lead or other management roles is it was often they already felt like they had started doing some of the work, or there was some natural inclination to start taking over those activities. And so then it felt right to then actually acquire that title and take on those responsibilities officially.
Well, how's it been going? You had almost a year now. So you had some of those hesitations at the beginning. How's it been? What do you think of being a team lead?
EDWARD: Yeah, I'm really enjoying it. It is a challenge like you said. But that's every job, right? Every job should be a bit of a stretch. So I did come into it with some natural inclinations of wanting to talk to people and check in with them. But there are all these other pieces that I wasn't good at. One thing that has been really challenging is instead of completing things myself, being that individual contributor, is trying to coach and sponsor people to do something that I would do.
And I think the hardest part about that is they may not be as far along in their career as you are. And so it is hard to watch someone struggle in the way that you used to struggle without saying, "Oh, here, let me just do that for you.” And I think what I started to realize is that the efforts that I'm putting in I can really be a force multiplier and end up effecting more change than what I could do by myself.
Like, if you think about it, I have four reports right now, and they're all really smart and talented people. But let's just say they were half as good as I was. That is definitely not true but just go with the numbers here for a second. If I could teach them to do what I do, even if they were half as fast as me, because there are four of them, they can get two times the work done.
The math adds up in a way where if I can unblock those people, help them just get to the next one little step, do whatever it is that they need, they're going to do way more than I could by myself. And really wrapping your head around that and the advantages there is so hard but so rewarding once you figure it out and get it going.
STEPH: Do you feel like anybody told you that up front going into taking on some more management responsibilities? Or is that something you learned as you went?
EDWARD: I definitely learned that as I went. I got some great advice from Josh Clayton, who we work with, and he's been a manager for a long time. And that's a lot of how he thinks about it. And he encouraged me to do things like pairing with everybody on the team or running little workshops to teach, to fill in knowledge gaps for people asking questions, instead of giving answers, to help them find their own answer. And that's all been really, really helpful.
STEPH: Yeah, that's one of the things that I have valued very much about our culture. I've seen some other companies struggle with is that when someone does get elevated into a management role that they still need support. They still need to be coached. And they also need room to make mistakes and grow.
And at thoughtbot, I feel that we have been very supported and where there's someone that I can still get mentoring and coaching from. And I can learn to be a manager on the job versus I'm not just put in a position where I'm going to fail or just put there without the expectation that I still need to grow as a manager and as a person as well. So that has helped me out tremendously as well.
You highlighted the idea of pairing more with others and then asking more questions around providing answers. And as you're learning those skills or as you've acquired those skills for being a team lead at thoughtbot, have you found those skills also transition well to client work?
EDWARD: Yeah, they do. There's a lot of overlap, especially around gaining trust with somebody. I'm gaining trust in one-on-ones, but I'm also gaining trust with my client or helping my client understand something. This gets a little more into the client-side of it. But a lot of times in client work, I'm looking to bridge a gap. I understand something because of my consulting experience, and they want my knowledge and consulting experience. But it's hard to just go in and say, "Do X or do Y."
And in the same way, with somebody who's reporting to me or who we're having a one-on-one, it's not usually very helpful to just say, "Do this, do that." You want to help them understand the why and bridge that knowledge gap to get to where you want them to be and where you think they should be. Those really do go hand in hand, and I have used a lot of the same skills.
Giving feedback also has been a huge thing to share. It's really, really hard to give critical feedback to somebody. It's very easy for them to shut down and not take the feedback, which is the opposite of what you're trying to do. And the same can be with clients. Like, they've gotten to where they've gotten to because of whatever they've done in the past, and trying to show them why what some of the things they're doing is maybe not ideal is really tricky without triggering that flight or fight response. So yeah, there are lots and lots of crossover to answer your question. [chuckles]
STEPH: I get so excited when clients that have brought on thoughtboters recognize that we are there temporarily, that we bring an outsider perspective. And they will set up essentially reoccurring; maybe it's weekly, maybe it's monthly to say, "Hey, give us feedback. Let us know what are you seeing? What do you think about the team? What do you think about our processes? What would you like to change?"
And I don't mean just in a retro setting that you're having with the team, but it may be meeting with leadership of that company to give them that feedback directly. And that's awesome. It's rare because, I mean, that takes confidence on their part to be able to say, "Hey, give us all of your feedback, constructive, positive, whatever it may be." But I feel like they get so much value out of doing that where they really get to leverage the fact that they have brought in these external members. And they get to hear from them as to how things are going and insights that they may be missing or not hearing from their people otherwise.
STEPH: Circling back to the manager IC path for a moment, I have a question for you because I often find myself asking this question to me or sometimes other people asking this question. But how do I know which path to follow? How should I explore do I want to be a manager? Do I want to continue and invest in my individual contributor skills and really lean into that path? Have you found any resources that have really helped you or ways that you coach others through that scenario?
EDWARD: I probably don't have a very interesting answer just because I'm going to mostly repeat what I think I said. But I think it's still so relevant and valid, which is, do you find yourself doing some of the work that a manager does? And it doesn't necessarily have to be the thing that I did, which was reaching out to people and checking up on them and seeing how they're doing. It could be that you really, really like running big team meetings or something like that. You just get a kick out of doing that kind of work. Or maybe you really enjoy working less on yourself and more on the group around you. That could also point to more of a technical leader. It doesn't have to be a person leader.
So I think I would look for where you find yourself wanting to effect change and figuring out if that fits into a manager role or not. And I've had people tell me they definitely do not want to be a manager, and they know that for sure and people that are on the fence. And I think that's another useful thing is to ask your manager what they do as the job and see if that's interesting. See if any of those things spark joy for you, as it were.
STEPH: I love the approach of just flat out asking your manager or someone that you see where perhaps you would like their role and saying, "Hey, what's your day like? What do you do? And can I be part of more of your day just to see if I would be interested in this type of work? Essentially, can I shadow some of the meetings that you're in?" I really like that idea.
And I think in the past, I would have been more hesitant about this approach. And it certainly depends on your company's culture. But there's a part of me that's like, just try it out. Like, if someone is encouraging you to go for a management role or to go for maybe it's a stronger individual contributor role, maybe it's being a principal engineer or something else, but if there's someone that's already there encouraging you or if it's just yourself and you are your own cheerleader, then go for it. Try it out. See if you like it. Take some notes. See if what you thought the job was going to be like actually matches reality. Because then, at the end of the day, you can always decide to change your path.
And if you are at a company that supports that type of experimentation, then you can step back to your current role if you decide that you don't like it. Or you might find that there's a really nice mix in there. But I feel like, with time, I'm getting a bit more bold with strategies in terms of just trying things out, even when it comes for technical challenges as well. Like if there's something that you're really nervous about or there's some big technical problem or something that the team is working on, and you're really skittish and nervous about it, just go ahead and say, "I'll do it, or I'd love to work with somebody on it," and then try it out and take some notes, see how it goes.
EDWARD: You could be really sneaky too. You can say to a colleague, "Hey. You want to get lunch?" And like you turn that into a secret one-on-one. Or you offer to run the retro board during retro, or you step up for doing a bunch of pull requests that week or something like that. You can try these little test things without even having to let somebody know or committing to anything publicly or even privately. Just really internally to yourself, you can try to take some of those steps.
STEPH: I like the sneaky success ladder. People won't talk about that one as much. [laughs] That's how I definitely found out that I didn't want to do sales. There was someone that I was talking to that was interested in working with thoughtbot, and Josh Clayton was very supportive of like, "Do you want to come along and be part of the conversation?" I was like, "Yeah, sure." And so I went along, and it was fun. But I definitely walked away like, yep, I don't want to be part of sales. I really like everything else minus this part. [laughs]
EDWARD: Yeah, it's good to know. It's good to know.
STEPH: Circling back just a bit to something you said earlier, you had mentioned that as you were becoming a team lead, you realized that helping others be successful at their job was really then what led to you feeling successful as well and that you could be a force multiplier. And you'd mentioned that a lot of that work comes down to bridging knowledge gaps.
And I'm really curious because this is something that we're always working on at thoughtbot. We are looking to identify what skills people would really like to learn. How can we help people learn those skills? And I'd love to know more. How do you go about this? How are you helping people bridge those knowledge gaps?
EDWARD: Yeah, so that is a doozy of a question. I have a couple of different answers. First is something I talked about before, building trust. And there's a bunch of different ways to do that. And I see trust as the foundation of almost everything in consulting. If you don't have that trust, it's really hard to deliver feedback like we talked about. It's hard to bridge that knowledge gap. Because effectively, nobody knows who you are, and what you're doing, what's going on, why you are coming to talk to them. It's really strange. And we can come back to how to build trust.
But once you've built that trust, I approach bridging that knowledge gap in a couple of different ways. One is asking questions instead of giving answers. The goal behind this is I want them to think about their goals. And that will often help lead them to some answer to bridge that gap that we have. I have some idea. They have another idea. If I can ask the right open-ended question, they will walk themselves across and get to where I want. Now, that doesn't always work.
Another strategy I've found is outlining a bunch of different possible solutions and their pros and cons. That has done two things. One, it helps them understand where I'm coming from, what my goals are in relation to what they're trying to do. And another one is that actually tends to gain a lot of trust. In the meantime, you're showing your expertise. You're showing that you're really considering all their problems.
Because almost every solution has trade-offs, there's very rarely a silver bullet. And so it's really helpful to say, "Well, here's the pros, here's the cons. Here's where I think you should go, but you know your business better than I do. And I've outlined all the things here. So whichever way you want to go forward on this, let's do that. And let me help you get there."
Joël and I, a colleague that we both cherish dearly, we did that on a project recently, and it was really, really successful. We put a lot of work in and helped them get to a really difficult architecture decision. And it could have gone one of, I think, four different ways. And we were sort of vying for one. They were vying for another. And we found a couple more in the middle, and I believe we went more towards the middle. And we were both pretty happy with how that turned out.
STEPH: I really, really like how that approach gives someone so much autonomy, and they're part of that decision. So you're not just saying, "Hey, you need to do this," and then just following through with it. But instead, it's saying, "I think I've heard everything. I think I understand the different problems that we're facing. Here are my suggestions, but you still have more context. What do you think, or which option would you like to pursue? I really like that option."
EDWARD: Yeah, because you're always writing this line as a consultant of like, they did bring you in for your skills and expertise and theory. But you really want to level them up so that they can make the right choices because that ultimately is...like, their success is your success as a consultant. That's the job in a lot of ways.
And so yeah, giving them the tools they need to make the right decision is so often the job. And I think that can get lost in the shuffle of, oh no, we have to meet these sprint goals. Or I got to get this ticket done or this bug fixed or something. And stepping back to get them to a better place is another goal that you can get to down the line. It's not to say shipping tickets is bad [laughs] or getting the sprint goals is bad. It's just another facet. Have you had any aha moments in consulting?
STEPH: Oh my gosh, I have had so many aha moments. I think most of them, for good or for worse, are here on The Bike Shed, or at least they've been shared here on The Bike Shed. [laughs]
EDWARD: Yeah, you should write a book of them all.
STEPH: Could we just grab the...I'm lazy. Can we grab the transcripts? We'll just turn that into a book.
EDWARD: [laughs] Yeah, just put it all together, call it The Bike Shed Diaries.
STEPH: Yeah. Oh, I like it. Okay, all right, that'll be next week's task. We'll publish The Bike Shed Diaries. [laughter] Specifically, in terms of bridging aha moments for helping someone bridge knowledge gaps or even for myself is I will often focus on what skills do you need today to make your job easier? What challenges are you facing? And also, what skills would you like to have six months from now? So that way, you are meeting the needs and the requirements that you really need today to fulfill your job.
But then also six months out, we're still looking towards the future. Maybe that's also more job requirements related, or maybe it's just for personal growth, or the areas that you're really excited about. You really want to contribute to an Elixir, open-source project, or something more specific that contributes to your fulfillment.
So when it comes to knowledge gaps, those are often the questions that I'm asking are, what do you need this week to make your job easier and to make your life easier? And then where would you like to be in terms of what skills would you like to have six months from now or what concepts? It may even be too lofty to say what skills because that could be huge to say that I want a whole new skill to be able to work in a language. So maybe it's something that's more specific of like, I'd really like to understand forms a bit better six months from now, or I'd really like to feel a little more confident with SQL, or maybe you'd like to take a look at Arel, things like that.
And then set those targets and then check in to say, "How's it going? How do you plan to learn these skills? Would you like help learning these skills? What are some resources?" Because I am not always the person that can help someone acquire that knowledge. So in that role, I'm often a facilitator where I will say, "Cool, you want this. You're interested in this particular skill. I don't know that skill. But I do know someone else who's really good at this. So let's get you all connected, and then you can work together on this."
EDWARD: And to dovetail a little bit with that manager individual contributor piece we were talking about before, that's another piece we didn't really talk about, which sounds like sponsoring. It's not just you doing the thing for your report or even coaching them necessarily. It's how can I get my report into a situation where they can exercise that skill or connect them with somebody who can help them with that thing? I'm still working on that one, honestly. That's a really, really difficult one. That's not something that comes naturally.
STEPH: When you say that's the part that's still challenging for you, is it the connecting of one person to someone else to learn a skill? I'm curious to hear more about which part of that is challenging for you.
EDWARD: I think I don't always think of sponsorship as a tool that I can lean on. It just doesn't come to mind as naturally. I think the very natural thing to do is mentor first, which is like, here's what you should do. It's kind of giving somebody a fish. Coaching then is more like teaching them how to fish. And then I don't know if we're going to extend this analogy farther. Sponsoring is like you're going to open up your own fishing teaching school or something. [laughs] And that just doesn't always occur to me.
I don't necessarily think like, oh yeah, like my friend over here could totally teach you about this technical skill that you're trying to learn or set you up to speak at a conference or something like that. It's a much different level of being a manager that I'm just not used to yet. I'm getting better at it. But it doesn't come naturally.
STEPH: Yeah, that's a very powerful form of managing someone as well because then you are helping that person go beyond their current bubble of who is their manager in their team and then helping them shine in other circles. And that's incredible and also something that I am always working on getting better at.
EDWARD: Let's get better at it together.
STEPH: We can do it. Also, when you mentioned opening a fishing school, I definitely pictured fish in a school in front of a chalkboard and someone's writing on that board and little fish in their school seats learning.
EDWARD: [laughs] A little Finding Nemo action.
STEPH: You got it. [laughs] You know your fishing school. You got to learn to stay away from those hooks.
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STEPH: So pivoting just a bit on a slightly more technical note, you've been working on a side project called scribe.rip R-I-P. And I've heard a bit about it, but I would love to hear more. Could you tell me more about that project that you're working on?
EDWARD: Yeah, sure. So Scribe is what I would call an alternative frontend. And specifically, it is an alternative frontend for medium.com. The goal of the project is to give people a tool to read the Medium articles, not on medium.com, which might sound like a strange goal. [laughs] I'm happy to go into a little bit of a lie there. But that is the tool. And yeah, the domain is scribe.rip, mostly because that was a cheap domain. [laughs] So I got it and put my project there.
STEPH: I like that phrasing that you're using, alternative frontends because I think when you had first mentioned that, when I'd heard that in other conversations, I was like, oh, what is that? And I didn't know what it meant. But now, when you put it into some context, that makes all sense. I am intrigued. Why would someone be interested in using an alternative frontend versus, say like, there's an article on Medium; I'll just read it there. What might inspire me to want to use Scribe instead?
EDWARD: Definitely. There's a bunch of different reasons. The alternative frontends cover a pretty broad ground. But I'd say the most common reasons that someone might want to use one are privacy if they're worried about the main service, whatever that might be. Let's say Medium, in this case, is doing something with their user data that they'd rather they not do, potentially a better experience on that service. If you don't like the way Medium's articles look, you might want to see them in a different way. It can also be a way to vote with your actions, saying that this is the kind of web that I want to see if you don't like in general what a platform is doing.
And if you think a platform is potentially even harmful, it can be a way to say I don't want to support that platform, but sometimes I find myself needing to interact with it in some way. The alternative frontends can be a tool for that. On the very cynical angle, you can also go to you don't want to see ads. And sometimes, these are ad-supported platforms. Alternative frontends can get rid of those ads. And so that's another way too. I'm conflicted more about that one. We can dive into that.
But those are the most common reasons I've seen that people want to use alternative frontends. And to be clear, Scribe is not the only alternative frontend out there. There are frontends for YouTube, for Twitter, for Instagram, for Reddit. There's a huge list of a bunch of them, but those are some popular ones.
STEPH: Oh, that's really cool. I've never used any of those before. Will be sure to include some links in the show notes so people can check those out. And you listed some really interesting reasons for why folks might want to use an alternative frontend. I'm curious, to make this possible, though, does it mean that the service that is hosting that content do they have an open API into which then you can pull that content? How is an alternative frontend possible?
STEPH: So everything you're describing sounds really interesting. I feel like I do have to ask the question, is it okay that these alternative frontends are taking content and are essentially rendering content but then not using the original service in which the content was published? How do you feel about that aspect?
EDWARD: Yeah, it's a really interesting question. There's a bit of a moral argument here, and I think everybody has to make that call for themselves. I think every platform if it gets large enough, is going to have people that don't want it to exist for some reason. I think, in some ways, providing alternative frontends is a bit of a release valve for that platform. Not to say that the alternative frontend explicitly helps that platform, but I imagine it gives people literally an alternative to then use instead and can make a peaceful, neutral ground in a way. So instead of being forced to use only the official platform, you can now use it at least in a limited fashion outside of that, which may alleviate whatever concerns you have and therefore keep everybody happy.
And I think honestly, in the long run and in practice, most platforms will not particularly notice the impact of these alternative frontends. Overall, we're talking very, very small potatoes. YouTube is not going after Invidious, the alternative frontend for YouTube, because it's probably a drop in the bucket. Nitter is not getting cease and desist from Twitter. Instagram is not sending a cease and desist to Bibliogram. These are some of these alternative frontends. And I think that's just because it's okay. They don't mind. It's so small. And it's giving people what they want in a way that is not harmful enough for it to really matter in the long run for them.
STEPH: Interesting. Because yeah, as you'd mentioned earlier, I think most people are going to continue to use that main service because that's what they see advertised. And it's more well-known, and it's frankly easier to go to. But then for folks who do want a little bit more control over their experience and they still want to access someone's content. So it is interesting.
You still want to ensure that the person who created that content always gets recognition and ownership of the content that they have. And in this case, that very much still applies. If I wrote an article on, say, Medium, but then I'm using Scribe to be able to read that content, it's still known who wrote the article. But this way, you are perhaps opting out of something else that service is doing, maybe if they have some type of tracking or something that you're not comfortable with. But you still want to be able to appreciate that person's content, even though they're perhaps only able to publish on Medium for right now. Or they're still looking for more ways to publish their content for folks who would like alternative ways to consume their information. Yeah, it's an interesting spot.
EDWARD: Right. And some ways that I think Scribe can provide a slightly better experience are trying to highlight the author more than the platform. The only time it says Scribe on the website is on the homepage. If you go into an actual article, I don't put branding or anything like that. Because I think I really want people to have their work speak for the author, not for the platform, and that's really important to me personally. And that might not be important to you, and that's okay.
Maybe you use scribe because it supports dark mode or something like that, and that's totally fine too. I don't mind at all. There are many aspects on which an alternative frontend can provide for people that the official platform doesn't. In some ways, it's augmenting their features, but in some ways, it's just giving people a bit more choice. And I think that's important.
STEPH: I have found since you'd mentioned the side project, that I've started using it more to read content. And I have found it helpful because it really silences all the noise because a lot of services want you to see ads, and they do want you to click on more articles that are related to the thing that you're reading. And so, I do appreciate the simplicity that it brings to the content. So then I can really just focus on that one article that someone has written. Overall, it seems like a really neat project.
EDWARD: Yeah, thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
STEPH: Pivoting just a bit, I would love to go on a slight adventure and answer a listener question with you. What do you think?
EDWARD: Yeah, let's do it.
STEPH: All right. So this listener question focuses on empathy in your work, and this person writes in, "I'm curious how you all think about and notice empathy from yourselves and others around you. Empathy is so helpful and critical for making and maintaining healthy, productive relationships. I've noticed that the way you frame your client engagements, empathy sounds to be at the heart of them. For myself, I've noticed I'm better at it in certain contexts and certain times and with specific personalities, more so than others. More concretely, how do you stay empathetic with your clients and with cross-functional teams like product or design or even yourself? Can you teach or increase your empathy? And if so, what have you found successful in these situations?
So, Edward, this seems really on topic for some of the things that we were discussing earlier. So I'm going to hand it over to you first and get some of your thoughts.
EDWARD: This is a really great question. There's a lot to unpack. And one question they asked was, can you teach or increase your empathy, and if so, what have you found successful in what situations? I have found that being vulnerable both publicly and being empathetic publicly is a really useful tool.
A lot of teams don't communicate very publicly; it's a lot of stuff in private messages. Being vulnerable publicly in a big team channel can really open the door to letting other people be vulnerable and see what other people are doing, understand what people are feeling. And that's really at the heart of empathy is understanding someone else's point of view.
I've also found that starting small, like, just do it with your close co-worker. Maybe try to effect just change with them. And then once you've gotten them on board, broaden it to two other people, and then two more people, and then two more people, because it's really hard to take that leap of faith and be vulnerable by yourself. So I totally get that.
And also trying to take this on really early in someone's career or someone's tenure at a job. Offer to help new people to your team. Work with them, so they just start off with a very empathetic experience. And that can grow into a more empathetic team as a whole. Encourage team members to update documentation on their first day because they're learning so much in those first few days. Once they've learned it, the only reason they want to document it is because they have empathy for that next person. And so, just like setting that baseline and that boundary, I think is super helpful. What do you think?
STEPH: Yeah, I think those are some great examples. I really love that one way to acquire more empathy is to go on a journey with someone else. So if you have someone new that's joining the team, be their onboarding buddy. Go through that journey with them so you can understand what they're going through, what challenges they are facing. And that will boost the knowledge that you have and will likely also boost then the empathy that you have for people that are new to the team or for future onboarding buddies if you realize that there are some processes that really need to be smoothed out.
I also think it's worth highlighting that I don't think empathy is a single skill. I think it's a number of things. It can be the ability to feel someone else's emotions, so you can understand what someone else is feeling at that moment. It could be reasoning about another person's perspective, or it could be just, frankly, wanting to help. So I think there are a number of ways that we can demonstrate empathy to someone else. And it's going to depend on the situation as to which one of those skills is going to be helpful.
For how you stay empathetic with clients, that one is a really interesting one just because the way we work with clients; we do get to go on that journey with them. We are with them in making decisions around priority and technical decisions and what pain points they are feeling. So I think going, as you described earlier, going on that journey with someone is what helps us stay empathetic with our clients. And I think that's true for cross-functional teams.
So if you are working with someone that's maybe on customer support or on the design team, it could be grabbing lunch with them and saying, "Hey, what's your day like? What challenges are you facing?" Maybe it's your company has rotations where you actually are part of the customer service team for a day. So you get to respond to tickets and have more of an understanding.
I'm realizing there's a theme here. I feel like a lot of it comes down to stepping into someone else's shoes and seeing the world from their perspective and not just seeing it but experiencing the world from their perspective.
EDWARD: Yeah. And another way to do that...because that can also take a lot of time. It's a hard ask potentially to say, "I'm going to go be a customer service rep for a day," if your job is also, I'm going to be a programmer and ship features or fix bugs. That's hard to do. And I think there are ways to do that, to experience what someone else is experiencing by trying to take on not necessarily the role of the other person but just trying to support the other person in their role.
So, for example, we see teams become really siloed where the product is solely responsible for writing tickets, development is solely responsible for understanding what makes the code work or fixing a bug, and design is only responsible for user interactions. I found it really, really helpful to try to approach design and say, "What's the goal here with this user interaction?" I don't know. I'm not a designer.
And so, how can I ask them and again bridge my own knowledge gap? Because that can really help you get to that point and help them understand maybe what you're going for and say, "I wasn't going implement it like that because I thought X, Y, and Z." And they go like, "Oh, I see what you're saying." And then now you're making those barriers…or maybe when you're working with products, they're like, "I see what you're trying to do here. But in my experience, I've seen websites like this. How do you feel about that?"
And it's not to say that you're just trying to steamroll over them. It's that you're trying to share your experience and get on the same page and trying to get them on your page so that you're all making the decision together, not just handing it back and forth across the wall.
STEPH: Yeah, and that was really well said where I think the more that you do collaborate with others and the more that you make decisions with others, the more context you're going to have for why someone else is making a decision, what challenges they're facing. And so again, it comes down to having more information about what that person is going through to then help you be able to be empathetic because I don't think this is a skill you can just turn on. If you don't know anything about somebody, you don't know anything about what they're going through. Being empathetic is going to be incredibly hard.
And in this question, they mentioned that they're better at it in some contexts, at certain times with certain personalities. And I think that makes sense because anyone that's more like you, I think you're going to find it easier to be more empathetic. And anyone that has had similar situations, ones that you can relate to, you're going to naturally be more empathetic to.
Also, timing is important. Maybe it's the end of the day, and you have already used up your empathy bucket, and you have nothing left to give. And that's just something to be aware of. You may have reached that threshold. And with practice, maybe that bucket will get bigger, and you will have more empathy to give throughout the day. But just be aware when you've also hit that threshold, and maybe you don't have any more to give in that moment. But I do think it's very much a skill that you build with a lot of practice.
EDWARD: Yeah, it's absolutely a muscle. You're totally right. You are trying to do it, and the first time you do, it will be very hard. You will be very drained. And you need to recognize that that's okay. You can step away and come back the next day, and it will get a little better. But that's a wonderful point.
STEPH: There is a really nice example that you have captured in a thoughtbot blog post that will be sure to link to in the show notes that highlights how difficult it can be to communicate the tone of voice and even how impactful that can be for someone who is reading that message that you have sent, and they don't understand that tone of voice.
EDWARD: Yeah, that post was very focused on trying to bring in emotion to a more or less emotionless conversation, which is often text. It's very hard to understand when someone is being sarcastic or angry or bubbly or whatever. Just even silly things like adding emojis can really help in that process of bringing in more emotion and getting that tone across.
And I'd say finally to this person who asked the question that the fact that you're thinking about it is already an empathetic thing. Just the fact that you want to get better at this shows that you're already empathetic, and that's really great to hear.
STEPH: Yeah, I think that's a really great observation, and I think that's a perfect note for us to end on. So thank you so much to the person that shared this question with us. It is a very interesting question. And I applaud you for being so thoughtful about how to be empathetic with everyone around you.
Edward, thank you again for being a guest on the show. For those that are interested in following more of your work or checking out your alternative frontend, where can they find out more about the life of Edward Loveall?
EDWARD: You can find the alternative frontend called Scribe; it’s scribe.rip. You can find me at edwardloveall.com. And I have links to various social media or email if you want to email me or whatever. And yeah, it's been a pleasure. Thanks for having me, Steph.
STEPH: Thanks so much. On that note, shall we wrap up?
EDWARD: Let's wrap up. Ta-ta, Stephanie.
CHRIS: The show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.
STEPH: This show is produced and edited by Mandy Moore.
CHRIS: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes, as it really helps other folks find the show.
STEPH: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us at @_bikeshed or reach me on Twitter @SViccari.
CHRIS: And I'm @christoomey
STEPH: Or you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org via email.
CHRIS: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week.
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