Why We Podcast

I’ve just come to the end of my year-and-a-bit stint as the host of the Streaming Audio podcast, so I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on podcasting. What’s in it for the listener, the guest, the host and the company?

Over the past year, I got to record conversations with over 70 guests about their patch of the technology landscape, and what a privilege it was. There was a lot of work behind the scenes to make it happen. There were many, many hours of pacing back and forth muttering, “Yes, but what’s the story here?” And there was far more calendar juggling than I’ll ever be comfortable with. But every single time I hit the record button it became a joy. Talking with my kind of people, listening to them, and getting a glimpse into their minds and their problems. Learning.

So whether you’re a potential host, a future guest, or a company thinking of starting a podcast, here are my thoughts on what it takes, why we do it, and why it turned out to be one of the most valuable parts of my career so far.

Let’s Start With The Business Case

I was invited on the MongoDB podcast last year for International Podcast Day, and one of the questions that came up was, “Why would your company want to run a podcast?” Sure, it’s nice to have a chat and all, but is there a compelling reason for your company to pay you to put all those hours in? I don’t think the answer to that had quite crystallised in my mind back then, but it has now. In hindsight, podcasting was probably the most effective piece of Developer Advocacy I did, because it goes to the heart of what I think Developer Relations is all about.

A Tech Company Must Talk To Developers (Not At Them)

This is true of any company whose users are technical, but absolutely fundamental to a company that makes tools for developers. You can’t just build it and throw it over the wall. You have to be talking, teaching, learning and listening to the developers you hope to serve. You need a healthy feedback loop to create a product that's always improving and a community that’s always growing.

To my mind, Developer Advocacy is simply making that conversation an official priority. Just as you have a department that prioritises finance or infrastructure, you have people dedicated to building and caring for the ongoing conversation with developers.

But how?

We know the default answers. Forums and Slack channels are great if you can build up enough momentum to be somewhat self-supporting. Conference talks and workshops are perfect for high-quality interactions, but you have to travel far and wide if you want to reach all the different enclaves. Blog posts are great, broad-reach content, but even the best writers I know would struggle to write more than a couple of non-trivial posts1 a month.

Podcasts are another way to get involved in that developer conversation, and they combine some of the best properties of the usual formats. Like blog posts, they’ve got global reach and a long tail. Like forums, they can help build and strengthen a sense of community, especially as notable figures in that community appear as guests and add their voices to the conversation. And like conferences, podcasts are extremely high-quality interactions, having a personal, meaningful conversation, and recording it in a format where everyone can benefit. Done right, they have all the depth and value of a one-on-one conversation, reshaped into a broadcast that thousands of people can get value from. Human soul, with company-pleasing metrics.

Okay, that’s the must-pay-the-bills angle, so on to…

What’s In It For The Listener?

As a host, you’re a proxy for the audience, so to me that meant going into every conversation determined to learn something from the guest. What’s interesting is how many different shapes that education could take. Sometimes it meant asking technical questions about which configuration parameters mattered. Sometimes business questions about what this new feature buy me, and what will it cost me? And sometimes it was personal questions that brought everything together. There was a great episode with Rashmi Prabhu where we were talking about the topic of managing banks of clusters of servers. It’s a potentially dry topic, but halfway in I realised that this was 100% her jam. The real story was how much she enjoyed solving these kinds of problems, and once you see the problem through her eyes it blossomed into a source of fascinating software puzzles. That, perhaps, is the fundamental thing you can learn from a podcast with 52 different voices a year - 52 perspectives from which the world is fascinating. 52 windows we can peer through and learn what they’ve learned. Somewhere in there, there’s 52 miles’ worth of walking in someone else’s shoes.

And with all those shoes walking through our office, we should probably ask…

What’s In It For The Guest?

The initial motivation overlaps with why people speak at conferences - it’s that same urge to share knowledge. To share what you’ve learnt, to make the road easier for the people that come after you, and to maybe pick up some new friends along the way. It also never harms your career to establish yourself as an expert2 No one knows how much your voice matters until you use it. Not even you.

There are a couple of less obvious benefits too. One is that it’s a lot easier to be a podcast guest than a conference speaker. Preparing a conference talk involves a huge amount of writing, rehearing, travel and nerves. Chatting to someone about your work is so easy you’re probably already doing it regularly without thinking about it. Talks can be hard, but conversation is something humans are hard-wired to do. A good host sets you up to look good without even trying. 😎

Another benefit—and one that truly surprised me—came from talking to Dom Fioravanti about the company he was helping to grow. A couple of months after the episode broadcast he told me it had been a huge help in hiring and in getting investment. Telling your story in such a casual, organic way can help investors to get a handle on a technical subject, and can add valuable context and tone when you’re talking to prospective employees. Conversations transmit in a way that slide decks can’t.

And of course, while I have no evidence for this, I hope a few authors sold a few more copies of their book, and a few builders of valuable services get a few new customers to value them. That kind of thing never harms, does it?

Okay, that’s everybody else covered, so I get to end by talking a little about me. 😉

What’s It Like Behind The Mic?

To a large degree, if there are great reasons for the audience and for the company, that’s the case closed. Greenlight that podcast and away we go. But as the host, you have to have more motivation than that. If you want to do a good job, and do it every week of the year, you have to know where the joy is and what the workload will be.

The biggest thing I got from it was the chance to learn from people. I’m not just a proxy for the audience - I’m the audience too! And I got a front-row seat to learn from some of the best. I got to pick the guests who sounded most interesting, and then direct the conversation to whatever details I most wanted to learn. It was always with the audience in mind, but I got to let my personal curiosity drive.

I also met some fascinating people along the way, from an author of technical books for children to the hosts of a podcast in Hebrew; from a sporting world I never thought I’d explore to a whole panel of experts contemplating the future of how we architect information systems. I got to travel to people, places and ideas, and take an audience with me for the ride. (I also got to chat with friends and call it work. It was work, but that didn’t stop it from being a pleasure too.)

The hardest part of it for me was always off-camera. Every podcast was preceded by a phase of assembling a scratchpad’s worth of notes, figuring out how all those clues could fit together to form a cohesive story, and then preparing enough that we could talk through that story without it feeling scripted - having a roadmap without running on rails. I always wanted it to feel like an organic conversation, without it becoming a directionless ramble. That takes some prep.

And the time after the conversation could be just as much work. How do you take an hour’s worth of conversation and boil it down into a 2-minute intro? What did we actually end up talking about? Which parts mattered most? How do you explain why it matters to an audience that might be causally dropping in for the opening minutes? I learnt a heck of a lot about storytelling and structure just from the relentless need to meet a weekly cadence.

The upside to that work was considerable. I got to pick the brains of the best and brightest. I got the chance to follow my instincts and say, “They interest me, so I’ll bet they’ll interest everyone else.” And this one may sound strange, but I got the honour of sitting in people’s cars and kitchens, on their trips to the gym and their dog walks, every week. I’m a bit of an audiophile. Not the “gold-plated hifi cables” kind, but I do get a great deal of pleasure from music, audio and the spoken word. The fact that people selected me as a sound they wanted to hear regularly brings me a great deal of pride, and joy. If you were a listener, thank you. ❤️

  1. You can get a long way on quick tips, listicles, and more prosaic versions of documentation, but writing with real depth takes time.
  2. Some of your guests won’t consider themselves “experts”. Don’t let their modesty fool you. Some guests have literally written the book on a topic, while others have the battle scars from living with a tool in production. Both kinds of expertise are invaluable.