A Steward of the Community with Chris Williams (2/3)

Welcome to episode 230 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_) – two technology professionals with backgrounds in IT Operations and Sales Engineering on a mission to help others accelerate career progression and increase job satisfaction by bringing listeners the advice we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 2 of an interview with Chris Williams, discussing how Chris learned to interview people for cultural and technical fit, what vBrownBag is and how Chris got involved, and how being a part of multiple advocacy programs and community groups has boosted his career.

Original Recording Date: 06-09-2023

Chris Williams is a Developer Relations Manager at HashiCorp for the North Americas region. You can find him on Twitter @mistwire. If you missed part 1 of our discussion with Chris, check out Episode 229.

Topics – Learning to Interview and Crash and Burn Dumpster Fires, vBrownBag, The Unexpected Opportunity, Multi-Community Involvement

2:48 – Learning to Interview and Crash and Burn Dumpster Fires

  • How did Chris learn how to interview people, and what skills did he need to learn to do it well?
    • Chris says there is a difference between good candidates and candidates willing to work for a startup. It will depend on the startup and what they expect of people, of course.
    • Chris tells us the interviewing process is culture fit and personality first and then a willingness to learn something the person does not know.
    • For personality fit interviews Chris will generally just talk to the candidate. He doesn’t have a specific book of questions. Chris certainly has things he wants to know from a technical perspective.
    • "From a personality perspective, I just talk to them. I just figure out what they do, the things they like to do when not working. Do they have a quarter rack in their basement? If so, do they have a blog? Are they passionate about the thing we are trying to work with together? Do we have common interests?" – Chris Williams on interviewing people
    • Chris tells us he’s not looking to find people who are carbon copies of himself. Ideally the candidate would have different hobbies and different interests outside of work but the same technical passions for what they will be working on together.
    • When Chris goes into the technical interview, he does an exercise called "be the packet." It allows the candidate to go into as much detail as possible on what happens during the process of using a web browser, for example, so Chris can get a feel for how the person thinks across endpoints, servers, networking, cloud, and many other areas. And it is an indicator of technical depth.
      • "It’s an open-ended question, and it gets me into their head for what they do and don’t know." – Chris Williams
      • Nick says that’s a perfect reason he was so hard on his math students about showing their work back in his teaching days. You have to be able to explain your thinking.
      • John says this is trying to understand how people think and at what abstraction layer they think. One could ask what the person knows at one layer above or below what they are sharing.
      • The person could get into the OSI Model in their explanation, for example.
    • In response to how he figured out how to interview people, Chris tells us his career has been a series of failures but that he sometimes learns from mistakes.
      • "My interview process, my method of communicating with folks, the way that I present on stage is all just a series of horrible crash and burn dumpster fires that have turned into less crash and burny dumpster fires over time." – Chris Williams on learning from failure
    • Nick suggests Chris is aggregating the lessons learned into how he asks interview questions of candidates.
      • When working with a new company, Chris often describes himself as a battle scared, weary veteran.
      • Chris likes to use humor as well to make the job fun. He says many enterprise architects feel they have to be serious and stern because they get paid so well.
      • Chris and John talk about how being a good prompt engineer is the previous generation’s equivalent of being skilled at Google searches. We all need help in searching for what we want now and then.
      • "Getting good at searching for the answer in your domain is actually a skill." – John White
      • Chris suggests a possible future guest – Mike Fiedler.
      • John likes to create Chrome search engine shortcuts for things you need to find (for LinkedIn, Google Drive, and other things).
  • Chris says we learn through mistakes, by doing things poorly (not well) initially and by getting faster as we go.
    • We talk about vim (a Unix-based text editor) skills and mention a good resource – vim-adventures.com. John says he probably needs to focus on skilling up at VS Code.
    • Chris struggles with what he needs to learn and what he wants to learn. There are so many interests he could spend time on during his finite amount of free time (which isn’t a lot and is precious).
    • The struggle increases as you get older.
    • Chris says right now he has to focus on obtaining a Terraform certification.
    • Chris likes to read technical books on vacation as a form of relaxation. Similarly, Nick likes to do show notes or edit podcasts (and has even done this from a cruise ship).
    • In working for HashiCorp now, Chris is getting paid to during the day do some of the work he has done for free for vBrownBag for 10 years.

12:54 – vBrownBag

  • vBrownBag is a community-driven, volunteer-based IT video podcast for anyone in the IT space who wants to show off presentation skills, show off a technology they are passionate about, or discuss a certification they may be pursuing.
    • This started around 15 years ago with Cody Bunch, Alastair Cooke, and others.
    • Chris was using it to study for VMware certifications and met the people running it at a VMworld. He did not realize the show was completely community run until then.
    • After letting the people running vBrownBag know that he loved what they were doing, Chris offered to help. He was immediately put to work by Alastair Cooke and would work on the show in evenings.
    • "I’ve been helping out, contributing, hosting, presenting, and creating new content for it ever since." – Chris Williams, on his work with vBrownBag since he first offered to help out so many years ago
    • Chris is the type of person who likes to lean into things that make him uncomfortable until he breaks his brain and gets over it.
    • Chris was the type who did not want to do any presenting, podcasting, or public speaking. When Alastair told Chris he could help as a presenter and host, it terrified Chris. And that’s exactly why Chris said, "this terrifies me. I’m in."
    • There are around 2,200 videos in the vBrownBag catalog now with around 14,000 subscribers and around 17 million view minutes last year. The vBrownBag crew attend many conferences and host TechTalks. If you want to sign up to present on a vBrownBag, you can find the calendar and sign up form here.
    • "It’s community guys that get together and encourage other folks to come on and talk about fun stuff. I love it. I love giving back like this." – Chris Williams
    • John has been a contributor and not a consumer of vBrownBag. Nick has listened to the content in the past and done a couple of TechTalks.

15:20 – The Unexpected Opportunity

  • Chris’s current boss (Melissa) used to be a vBrownBag host, and he ran into her at AWS re:Invent. She asked him if he was looking for a job.
    • Chris tells us he wasn’t not looking for a job and tries to keep what his next thing might be in mind. He’s open to having conversations but wasn’t looking to leave WWT at the time.
    • She wanted him to come and do the things he had been doing for vBrownBag, his blog, and a local AWS user group during the day but as an employee of HashiCorp.
    • After some conversations with Melissa and then with his wife, Chris decided to make the move to HashiCorp.
    • Chris tells us because he enjoys his work so much it is hard to stop at the end of the day. But now he doesn’t have to do as much at night to setup local user group speakers and get vBrownBag videos released. It’s easier for his wife to drag him away from his computer in the evening now.
    • "For me, it was what I was doing as my hobby. So I’m now doing my hobby as my day job. It’s crazy." – Chris Williams, on taking his current role at HashiCorp
  • Make no mistake. It’s not all a bag of Funyuns in Chris’s current role.
    • When you are producing things for fun, you can publish anything and may not care if the product isn’t good.
    • Chris equates the situation to someone who cooks for their family and friends and is encouraged to open a restaurant (and taking something from want to into have to).
    • In the back of Chris’s mind he wonders if this will burn the love out of him. But so far he is really enjoying it.
    • Chris is still doing the same amount of work for vBrownBag. After recording a vBrownBag on Wednesday he would often use Thursday or Friday evening or part of Saturday to process the video and get it posted. Now he does the processing Thursday morning.
    • He does not spend his evenings working on vBrownBag or collaborating with other leaders of the AWS Portsmouth User Group (or PUG). He does it during the day.
    • Chris also does things for the AWS Hero community.
    • "It’s not weekend stuff anymore. It’s daytime stuff." – Chris Williams
  • Chris also has a couple of HashiCorp series going right now.

20:12 – Multi-Community Involvement

  • Nick highlights advocacy groups as a great way to raise one’s game by developing more expertise in a specific area and making new connections who might end up getting you a job down the line.

  • Chris believes his personal brand and value as an employee skyrocketed at different times as a result of advocacy group and community participation.

    • The first time was when Chris became a VMware vExpert followed by becoming an AWS Hero.
    • Chris also highlights when he was asked by Chris and Dawn Harney to help out with the VTUG (Virtualization Technology User Group)[https://siliconangle.com/2019/07/26/eport-from-vtug-virtualization-community-rides-shifting-market-trends-as-cloud-employment-grows-vtug/]. This experience taught Chris about the power of community.
    • Chris also worked with the Harneys to start the AWS Portsmouth User Group (PUG) and the Boston User Group.
    • Running into local people you normally would not run into has a great benefit.
    • "When you go out into the community…when you go to a meetup and you start seeing all these different people then you start seeing all these possibilities. And they start talking to you about their problems and challenges. If you share and give people ideas then it comes back tenfold." – Chris Williams on the value of attending a meetup group.
    • John would agree with things coming back to those who are willing to give to others in the community.
  • If you’re not a member of a technical community today, try attending a meeting.

    • All you have to do is show up!
    • "There is no expectation on community….You don’t have to do anything. I just happen to do too much." – Chris Williams
      • You can look on Meetup.com to find people in your area with similar interests.
      • Chris is a member of a number of meetup groups, including a local gaming group.
      • In some of these groups he’s just a fly on the wall or a member of the audience who applauds after someone gives a presentation. That’s enough to be part of the community.
      • And you’re not required to give back to a community group. You can receive value from it by attending.
      • Chris encourages attendees to give a presentation on a topic of interest if they want to speak. If someone attends only to help study for and then eventually pass a certification, Chris is happy for that person.
      • John says there is value in being part of the audience during a presentation. You are giving energy and validation to a presenter who may be working to sharpen their own public speaking skills.
      • Chris remembers what it was like to do that first presentation and says he will sit in the front row, smile, and be an enthusiastic audience member for anyone. He will gladly give the person feedback on how to make a presentation better.
      • "Just by getting up there, you’re showing 10x more fortitude than the people in the audience that are never going to get up there. So I applaud everybody that goes up there." – Chris Williams, on the courage it takes to give a presentation at a user group
      • Nick says we don’t always think about the fact that there are people in the audience who are looking to learn from us when we give a presentation. Usually we think about the fear of not being able to answer all the questions, which can lead to overpreparation.
      • If Chris sees someone trying to play stump the chump or asking a presenter an unfair question, he will put a stop to it. The presenter is there to share something, and the audience is there to learn something.
      • This discussion makes John want to start attending podcast meetups again. Chris is looking to find some podcast meetups in his area to get some feedback on how he can improve.
      • Nick suggested a Reddit forum called r/podcasting with a weekly feedback thread that allows you to submit a feedback request on your show with the expectation that you will provide feedback to someone else.
  • With so much community involvement, how does Chris decide how much is too much and strike some kind of balance?

    • Chris says he struggles in this area because it loves it so much. It is hard for him to pull back from involvement.
    • Chris’s wife lets him know when he has spent too much time doing community things and not enough with her.
    • Chris says he may be addicted to community involvement because he enjoys it so much.
    • As engineers, it’s hard to be interrupted when you’re working on a problem. If Chris is learning something he gets ideas for blog articles on what he is learning, which leads down another rabbit hole.
    • Finding balance is a lot easier now that Chris is doing many of the same things as part of his day job. He’s been able to spend time going to the gym, meditating, getting enough sleep, and other things for self-care.
  • How has in-person user group attendance been now that people seem a bit more willing to get out there and meet?

    • When the pandemic started it was great to boost attendance for virtual events. Chris tells us vBrownBag attendance skyrocketed at that time because people needed human interaction.
    • Then as the pandemic continued live viewership dropped. People didn’t want to be in another virtual meeting after doing it all day. Viewership of recordings started to go up, however.
    • The AWS PUG is now doing hybrid events (an in-person component and a remote component). They got a boost in attendance from all over the world during the pandemic and wanted a way to retain those attendees. Chris now records presentations live at the meetings and will post the recordings online afterward.
    • The first live event they had again for the PUG was in January 2023 and was pretty big. Attendance went down a bit after that but seems to be picking up steam again.
  • Mentioned in the outro

    • Remember culture and personality fit discussions can be conversational. Let them be that way, and show them who you are as a person. But be sure to ask any remaining questions you might have as a result.
    • When Chris ran into his current boss at a conference and she approached him about a job at HashiCorp, she knew his reputation and what he was working on. He had shown his work in many ways, and he was open to having a discussion even when not actively looking for a new job. How many of us would have been open to merely having a conversation about an opportunity to learn about it?
    • After receiving value from vBrownBag, Chris wanted to provide some value back and volunteered to help.
    • You can be a member of more than one advocacy group or community group and get involved as much or as little as you would like.
    • Presenting at a user group is less pressure than at a conference. Consider starting there to gain experience. Remember people are looking to learn from you!
    • Supporting growth of yourself and others is really what community is about. Remember to be an encouragement to others, especially those who are just starting and gaining experience.
    • Chris has really been a steward of community for others (maintaining the atmosphere for the benefit of all).

Contact us if you need help on the journey, and be sure to check out the Nerd Journey Podcast Knowledge Graph.

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