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78. Changing Culture Through Technology
Hosted by Chris Castle, with guest Jonathan Lister Parsons.
Technology has transformed our working lives, but not every industry has been so quick to change. The financial services sector, in particular, still relies on paper and ink for many of its transactions. PensionBee is a UK-based company that's seeking to modernize some antiquated process. Their faith in the power of tech is so strong that they have even developed novel ways to improve team collaboration internally. Learn more about how cultures can be improved from Jonathan Lister Parsons, the CTO of PensionBee.
Chris Castle is a developer advocate at Heroku, and he's interviewing Jonathan Lister Parsons, the CTO from PensionBee. PensionBee operates in the fintech sector, and focuses on bringing a stellar experience for workers managing their retirement funds. PensionBee deals with an industry that is very reliant on paper and ink, and has sought to bring fund management in the UK out of the 19th century and into the 21st.
PensionBee's efforts to change an outdated model isn't just limited to their external business. They also find ways to use technology to improve their company culture. Jonathan believes that technology is at the core of any attempt to reach one's goals. He points out that while many companies say that customer success is their greatest priority, those efforts are often limited in their scope. In order to bring visibility into how they're doing as a company, PensionBee funnels all feedback from their website and apps into a Slack room. When positive praise comes in, teammates celebrate each other. When negative experiences occur, support and engineering band together to address the customer's concerns.
Most software isn't made by people with empathy for their users' goals. All too often, they're built by organizations who are motivated by things other than ensuring user efficacy and contentment. Meanwhile, people are still using tools and processes that are too complex and confusing. There's an innate problem in the corporate world, where decades of investment in IT have still resulted in stagnant productivity rates. For Jonathan, PensionBee striving to resolve that paradox both helps his business and provides a much needed service to its users.
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Chris: Hello, and welcome to Code[ish]. I'm developer advocate, Chris Castle. And today we have Jonathan Lister Parsons, the CTO from PensionBee.
Chris: Hi, Johnathan. Welcome. Can you share a little bit about yourself?
Jonathan: I certainly can. Hi Chris. Nice to be here. I'm Jonathan Lister Parsons. I work at PensionBee as the CTO here. So we like to say we're the UK's most loved pension provider, which is quite a claim in an industry that is not known for attracting love. So we've been going for four or five years, and we're really trying to do something different in pensions and give people kind of a 21st century experience around a pension rather than a 19th century experience.
Jonathan: Like your 401k, yeah. So typically in the UK, you get a pension with each job. And unlike your US listeners, you do tend to leave your pension wherever it sat when you move jobs. So people now have around 11 jobs in their lifetime, which could mean 11 pensions or even more if you've opened up one on the side for yourself. And that's a real problem if you are trying to sort of assess do I have enough money for my retirement? What does my long term saving plan look like? And so that sort of fragmentation is the main consumer problem that we're solving here in the UK. Our main service to people is that, effectively, we deal with very old fashioned complex industry on your behalf, and we go and get all your old pensions and move them into a single pension pot that you can then manage on your phone, on a website whenever you want, and we give you good customer service, personal service, which again, is slightly unusual in the financial services sector here. And we're really just trying to make pensions feel like any other fintech.
Chris: And so from what I understand, the way that you do that is with technology. You're a Heroku customer, a Salesforce customer.
Jonathan: We are.
Chris: The way you do that is with technology and kind of efficient use of technology to make the business more efficient, which maybe seems obvious for a lot of us in the technology industry, but it's not. Applying technology to old industries or big complex companies or big complex problems, especially when there's money involved, can be complicated.
Jonathan: Yes, I think that's right, particularly in financial services. I think before we came along, we were probably the first company to launch a pension product built entirely as a cloud native startup, kind of green field approach, as they say, not burdened by any legacy. And that's quite unusual to couple that with a relentless focus on the consumer rather than something that was like a B2B service, which a lot of the financial sector is here. And also this is another thing that is worth saying, not only for your US listeners, but also for people who are either in the UK or have similar pension situations in the UK, because it's not immediately obvious, but you can't just walk up to a big pension company here and open a pension in lots of cases. You have to have had that sold to you through a financial advisor or through some other sort of intermediary. And that means that these companies are focused on sort of pension trustees or big employers or small employers as their customer. And then the people who are actually saving the money, they don't have that one-to-one relationship with the pension provider in the same way. They're not exposed to the feedback from those customers directly, or at least not as directly. And so they're not optimizing for the consumer experience in the same way.
Chris: That's a good point. Let's get into that a little bit later. But I wanted to kind of start our conversation with a quote that you had used in a conference talk that you did at QCon London... I think it was back in the end of February or early March of this year... that said, "Technology is crystallized knowledge." And I'm wondering if you can explain what that means to you.
Jonathan: Yeah. I use that phrase quite a lot, and I wish that I could claim credit for it, but it's actually a friend of mine called Chris Sugden, who's at the moment, he's a product manager at Virgin Media, but I believe he was at TripAdvisor the first time he said that to me. And what he was talking about, and what I have certainly taken from that, is this idea that no technology exists without human beings creating it. If you look at any technology, even probably back to, say fire or stone tools all the way up to computers and international space station, they're all the composite input of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people's trial and error and lessons learned and their individual knowledge and perspective, and it all comes together, and then it's crystallized, and it can be replicated.
Jonathan: And that's kind of the beautiful thing about technology, is that once you've encoded the solution to a problem into technology, whether that's software or hardware, it's something that you can choose to replicate. And we're fortunate that we work in an industry where software is predominant and where replicating that technology is extremely cheap. And so you can spread all of that crystallized knowledge, all that embedded knowhow, around the world very quickly at very low expense. That to me has always seemed like a very exciting facet of working in this industry.
Chris: Yeah, that's fascinating. I mean, and it applies to business in that knowledge can be crystallized into technology and kind of used more efficiently and replicated, like you said, in a business context, but it also applies to the open source world where all this knowledge that people have is shared out and turned into software and then shared even more or replicated even more, maybe, as open source software that might be just within an individual business or individual industry.
Jonathan: Yeah. I felt that effect really personally very early on in my technology career because my first professional role in technology was at BT. And I was part of a unit that was working under the head of open source, if you like. And we had a remit to effectively go outside the walls of BT and work in open source communities and do things that effectively made BT look good and a good place to work, I suppose. What I found was that people working in open source indirectly or perhaps very centrally, they all shared this amazing openness of spirit and this enthusiasm for learning and sharing what they knew. And that was obviously very, very different to the corporate world where information was something that you guarded and that was the thing that you made your money off. Then once you sort of realize that everything kind of on the internet is built on layers upon layers upon layers of open source software and how crucial that is to the functioning of the modern world, you go wow.
Jonathan: Businesses are probably blind to how much openness and sharing they are genuinely built on top of, especially as software becomes more and more important in the economy. And for me, there's something weird about that, something that doesn't sit quite right because it's clear that it's the sharing underneath, the open source technology underneath that's enabled so much of what we think of as the modern economy and perhaps not what some of the people, or the titans of industry, might perceive to be their brilliant business genius that's actually changed the world.
Chris: Yeah, it's interesting. I agree. I think about that a lot also, the balance between the need for a healthy open source ecosystem and community, the historical kind of role that that has played in the technology industry and clearly become very, very important, despite Microsoft's, not current, but past attempts to wipe out what I think Balmer or someone called the scourge of open source. It's clearly becoming much, much more adopted, the concept of open source.
Jonathan: Yeah. There was a really great way of thinking about the role of open source versus, say commercial software that an old contact of mine at BT called JP Rangaswami, he's been a thought leader in kind of enterprise IT for a really long time. And he had this really memorable model, which was that if you had a problem that was generic, how do I make a web service serve web pages, for example? Then you should reach for open source software. And that was its sweet spot. And then if you had something that was a problem that was specific to your industry, then you should look for a commercial piece of software because there's going to be a company making a living, selling a solution to that problem to you and all of the people in your industry.
Jonathan: And then if you have a problem that is specific to your business, that's when you want to own the IP and build that in-house because nobody else has that problem. So you're probably best placed to fix it, to solve it. And I think about that model all the time when making decisions about should we invest time in solving a problem? Or is it better for us to go and look for a commercial solution, even if that means that we might have to sort of hold our nose a bit and get something that's only 90% what we want?
Chris: So you shared a few stories during your QCon conference talk that kind of illustrated the points you wanted to share, the points you were making. And I think the first one or the topic of the first one was, was about culture, getting into culture. So ultimately you transitioned from talking about technology to the importance of culture. How can tools help improve culture or make culture better at a company or in an organization in general?
Jonathan: I guess I probably want to start by just probably rehashing one of the points that I made about tools in the first place and how they relate to culture because I see I guess the culture of an organization as being the most impactful factor that determines the success of that organization. And that's not an uncontroversial thing to say in some respects for anybody who's worked inside an organization that has a really good culture and someone who's worked in an organization that's not had a good culture. I think they would be able to understand why I would say that.
Chris: Yeah, it's not controversial, but it's not easy to do.
Jonathan: It's not immediately obvious. But the thing is that I kind of try and keep in mind a lot of the time this tension between culture being the behavior of a group of people and that leading to the successful outcome that you want your business to have, or indeed charity or third-sector organization or any other sorts of grouping of human beings, trying to do something coordinated. So there's the tension between that, which is fighting against this kind of history of... I suppose, in the modern day, we talk about the culture wars, and people talk about zero-sum thinking, and when you look across certainly the media, you don't see a world that's sort of defined by very progressive thinking and a very progressive culture. We're still torn between primeval instincts and the memory of times of scarcity.
Jonathan: Whereas the other side of my experience around technology, which is where I think there's tension comes in, the other side of that experience is massive abundance. It's technology the allows you to create the modern economy, and it has vastly changed the face of the planet and changed the quality of life that we experience and continues to do so and continues to improve itself in a way that culture doesn't really. And I think that's something that certainly in my conference talk, I was spending the first half of the talk kind of digging into this and saying, "Look, as people in an organization that's driven by technology and that tries to use it to create positive consumer outcomes ultimately, we've got to be very aware that we shouldn't focus too much on the technology as an end in itself because actually it's the culture of the organization that's going to determine whether we're successful or not. And therefore, in my role I've got to look at well, how is technology best serving the culture of the organization, such that the people can conserve the goals of the organization?
Chris: So maybe, yeah, the better question is not how can technology improve culture? It's like if our goal is to create a culture and create behaviors, such that some better end state is our goal, is like what we're kind of moving towards, what is technology's role in improving culture and shaping behavior for longer term positive goals, whether that be profit for a company or equality for different racial groups or something like that?
Jonathan: Well, I think one of the stories I really like to tell is our transparency around customer service. So lots of organizations say, "Oh yeah, we really pride ourselves on having great customer service." And maybe they measure that in some way, and they may might talk about that to a committee once a quarter or once a month potentially, but that's not really something that's then kind of reflected back to the people who are actually providing that customer service in a real time sense. And so what we've tried to do is we have a few different customer touch points where they can leave us reviews. So we're very proud of our Trustpilot score, which I think is around 4.75 at the moment, which is the best in the pension industry and why we say we're the most loved pension company in the UK. We get a lot of reviews there, but also with our mobile app, we get reviews on the Google Play Store on the Apple App Store. So what we do is we funnel all of this information back into Slack, in a feedback and reviews channel in Slack.
Chris: So I type in a review for PensionBee and Trustpilot or something like that, and it automatically shows up in a Slack channel somewhere?
Jonathan: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. So that makes it immediately visible to the people who are working in the customer success team. Often if somebody has had a really good experience, they'll name their personal account manager. So we call those beekeepers, and often they'll be named in a review, which is obviously great for the person who's named, but they'll have had people that have helped on their account, and often credit will be given to the other people that have helped on their account. So that's a nice way to sort of celebrate those little wins. Obviously, over thousands of reviews, that all kind of adds up, and a lot of stuff kind of comes in on a daily basis. So a lot of people are seeing the effect of the work that they've done. And because it's immediate, you're seeing it from customers who they have a chance of remembering the interaction with.
Chris: It's a great feedback loop that a lot of companies don't get. They have the interaction, the transaction with a customer, and then they don't hear from the customer or hear from that person very often because customers are, I have found at least, that with building software, when your users are happy, you don't hear from them much, but when they're upset, you do hear from them a lot. And so there's this bias in the information that you receive.
Jonathan: Although that does open up the second part of my story, which is when people are unhappy and they leave a bad review, those reviews aren't sort of magically filtered out the Slack channel. So they still show up in the Slack channel. And what's really interesting, again, thinking about technology supporting culture and culture being the behavior that you want, when we get a one star review, for example, which does happen because some people, they don't get their expectations met, we drop a ball or something, they come in and they leave a one star review. That isn't something that we wait until the end of the quarter to deal with. That's something that immediately lights a fire underneath a group of people to resolve that issue. So usually it's a group of people that come together around the issue that might include the beekeeper, so the account manager for that customer, somebody that works as a customer resolution specialist, somebody from maybe compliance, if there's an issue around sort of the nature of the product or something that's gone wrong, somebody in the tech team is to trying and help diagnose what's gone wrong technically.
Jonathan: And what you end up with is this kind of little crack team of individuals who create timeline, figure out what's gone wrong. How do we communicate with the customer? How do we resolve the issue that they're experiencing? And that's sort of immediate feedback and immediate action that then leads to analysis of what can we do to stop this happening again in the future? That's the kind of incremental improvement loop that management theorists love to talk about. But that wasn't something that we did because we thought we needed an incremental improvement loop, a constant feedback loop. We did it because we wanted to create that connection between the people in the customer success team and the customers that they're serving. So what's really great is when a customer responds to that by going, "Oh, thank you so much. I feel listened to. That's great you've been able to resolve that so quickly." And then they go back on Trustpilot, and they change their one star review into a three, a four, and sometimes even a five star review. So you can imagine the impact that has on the people inside the company that have dealt with that case.
Chris: You've taken the person who is potentially unhappy and potentially turn them into someone who's more happy or maybe more likely to sing the praises of your company to others than otherwise because you've surprised them-
Jonathan: Kind of.
Chris: Which is maybe a bad thing in this world that our expectation for customer service from financial services maybe is really low, and you're able to surprise people, but yeah, that's cool.
Jonathan: Yeah. I think people are used to seeing maybe Instagram videos of somebody really going the extra mile in say, retail, somebody who, I don't know, drove down the highway to deliver a meal to somebody whose delivery order got screwed up or something, those sort of Christmas-friendly Instagram content that hits the pages, hits the media. But yeah, you don't expect that in financial services. And I think when that does happen, I think that helps to shift expectations, which is for the good. There's no reason why financial services should be any different to any other industry. In fact, it's more central and more important to your livelihood in some respects. So you should demand great service.
Chris: Yeah. No, I mean, this actually kind of brings us towards another topic or another story that you told in your talk, which was this kind of expectations for consumer apps, like your iPhone app or whatever Android app for the fun ones that are kind of personal life versus those ones that are more serious, maybe the business tools in your life and how we have such a kind of mismatch in expectations for these consumer tools, which we expect to be perfect and glossy and beautiful and easy to use versus the expense entry tool or the pension rebalancing tool or something like that. First of all, do you see that mismatch or that juxtaposition? And second, are you guys trying to fix that or make that better?
Jonathan: Yeah, that's a whole other podcast just by itself or maybe even a podcast series just by itself. I think of it as the productivity status quo in terms of people's expectations with their work tools. You have this amazing stuff on your iPhone or Android, and you're using it, and you walk through the doors of the office, and then suddenly all of those expectations, you leave them at the door, and you sit down in front of your business systems, which most white collar workers, that's what they're doing. They're in front of a computer all day.
Jonathan: And what they're using, isn't made by people with empathy for goals and use cases and personas and all the things that if you're a startup building a consumer app or a consumer product, if you're not thinking about those things, then it's just not going to be successful. They're built by organizations who are often motivated by probably different things. And they're procured by people who are using lists that don't contain those sorts of factors. There's going to be a cause and effect here. But the ultimate end point of this is that people are using tools that are too complex and confusing. And rather than helping them do their job more effectively, they're quite often being an impediment to doing their job well, that kind of corporate mishmash of different business apps that do part of a job, and you have this problematic manual process to sort of deal with the weirdnesses because two systems don't properly interact. Those sorts of things are familiar to anybody that's ever worked in a corporate.
Jonathan: One of the things that continues to just fascinate me is this idea of the productivity paradox where we've had decades of investment in IT, in business IT, and whilst we can feel the improvements in our personal lives, you measure the productivity statistics and knowledge work, and it's like the investment in computing didn't happen.
Jonathan: So where's that all gone? Where's all that crystallized knowledge I was talking about that's all gone into this stuff, into this software? Why are people not more productive? Why are they not 10 times or 100 times more productive than they were in the 1970s when they were using, I don't know, the Rolodex and maybe some basic spreadsheet software? I think about management consulting in the 1970s. Is it really that different now? In some ways, yes it is, but in a lot of ways, it's not going to be. And I just can't help thinking that a lot of this is down to this sort of really shabby corporate tooling that people get given and expected to make the most of.
Chris: Yeah, not to toot my own horn, I guess, but this is one of the reasons why I was a fan of Heroku before I joined and then really was excited to join the Heroku product because it's unusual, as you said, I think to find a tool that has not only decided that it's important to focus on a better interface between that human and the software, but also then be able to do it and execute on it and actually make kind of intuitive user interfaces, make a better user experience. It's not easy. And I guess, to your point, and to kind of what I'm hearing from what PensionBee does, it's not just the software, it's how the... I think you call them beekeepers... how the humans also interact with customers and what their motivations or kind of incentives are as employees.
Jonathan: It's the whole process. We're embedded in the pension industry, and that's an industry where I imagine broken processes are just a daily occurrence. One of the things that we did as, not a publicity campaign, but we surfaced this visibly at one point. There was this campaign around how it can take six months for you to move your pension from your old provider to a different provider. And compare that to a current account, and there's a current account switch guarantee. So I moved my current account to Starling Bank last December, and that was something that they did for me, and it completed within a few working days and was sort of hitch free as a guarantee around that. And I just thought well, that's how it should be.
Jonathan: And I think a lot of people, they're going to have experienced that more than they will have experienced moving a pension because it's so difficult. And anyway, our campaign was that moving a pension can take six months. You can fly to Mars in that time. So we had this kind of cute graphic of a little green alien on Mars in the PensionBee bee flying all the way from Earth. And it was just this kind of cute idea, but I think it just helps to illustrate that as an industry, pensions is something that's far removed from what people are now learning is the new normal around financial services.
Jonathan: One of the other things that I took a photo of for the QCon talk was one month's worth of inbound posts. So the pension industry is an industry that loves to send posts and loves to receive posts, and we have to archive everything that we get. So every month we send off a big pile of boxes to our offsite storage. And I took a photo of the pile of the most recent month's posts, and it was taller than the person who was managing the process of getting that stuff archived, quite significantly taller. And there's so many problems with having that much paper floating around, from inefficiency due to the fact that you can lose things, even with the best will in the world, to the fact that it can be destroyed easily. It's just you don't want to be running really important processes on paper anymore when there's a perfectly good digital alternative.
Chris: Not to mention the environmental impact of all that paper and then transporting all that paper.
Jonathan: Yeah, so we have a policy that we digitize at the perimeter. So all that post that does come in immediately gets scanned. So when operating any paper-based processes within the perimeter of PensionBee, and we'll only produce paper if we need to send paper to a pension provider because they won't accept something digital.
Chris: But financial services, healthcare, those two, at least in the US, are a little bit more slower moving, much more cautious. And so some industries, or some companies still need that signed piece of paper from a customer or from someone. You shared something that maybe seems simple, but I think is actually an innovation in the industry, and many other companies or industries could benefit from it. Can you share what you guys built and how you use it?
Jonathan: Yes. Yeah. I think you must be talking about a signature bot that's called Armie.
Jonathan: So I've given you a picture of a pension industry that loves paper. And another thing that they do enjoy is asking customers to sign documents. Now, personally, I really don't like having to deal with paper in my personal life. And right back at the beginning of the business, when a pension provider would ask us to get a customer to sign a document just to give us some details about their pension policies, so not even making any transfers at this point, we used to just deal with that, sort of just take it on the chin and put something in the post and send it to the customer and pray that the customer would do something with that and send it back to us. But I know I wouldn't. I'd leave that in an envelope at the bottom of a pile of unopened posts like so many people, and nothing would happen.
Jonathan: And so you can imagine what was happening to the conversion rates around that part of the product. What we've done in the spirit of removing anything that's kind of awkward and old-fashioned from the customer's experience, so when they sign up with us, they give their signature with their finger on their phone, and then we apply that to any documents that need their signature using essentially a pen-holding robot that we call Armie. And it just takes literally a fountain pen and just draws the signature on at the bottom of the page. And then when we send that to the provider... We do all of the posts. We do the hard, annoying bit, trip down to the post office and put it in the letter box... the provider gets what they want, which is a document signed with the customer's signature in ink. And the customer gets what they want, which is a hassle-free, instant digital process.
Chris: I want that for everything. I mean, anything I need to sign or any piece of paper I need to send, I want this.
Jonathan: This is something that celebrities and politicians use. So Donald Trump will have one of these-
Chris: Right, yeah.
Jonathan: Because he's not signing everything that goes through his office. So there was a famous case in the UK, Gordon Ramsay, who you might know from Hell's Kitchen. So he got in a spat with, I think it was his father-in-law because his father-in-law had signed him up to a lease using this signature printer, and then Gordon Ramsey said, "Oh, I don't want it." And the court judged that the signature was binding because this machine carried the authority to do that.
Chris: Interesting. And we'll put a little animated GIF or picture of Armie in the show notes so you folks can see Armie in action, Armie not being the military reference, but actually it means an arm?
Jonathan: Yeah, yeah. So it's A-R-M-I-E. But we have it on pensionbee.com/armie, so slash A-R-M-I-E because if people ever question it, we want to be able to say, "Look, here it is. This is how it works." It's something that we're proud of as an innovation, not something that we're sort of trying to hide.
Chris: Let's finish out with one thing that you said in your talk, which was, "Happy team equals happy customers," which maybe seems super obvious or really obvious to people, but it's not obvious to every company. And also maybe more importantly, it's not easy to execute or to make happen. Can you talk about that a little bit? What's that mean? Why is that important to you and your team and your people?
Jonathan: Well, so it is really important. Like many companies, we have kind of company values. And the one that I think is kind of at the middle or at the heart of them all is the value of love. So it's slightly unusual for a company to have a value of love, but one of the things that makes us true to that is that we try and manage for the happiness of our employees. So we do care about things like their productivity, for example, but we really, really care about those customers having a great experience and leaving those great reviews and referring PensionBee to their friends. And we believe that if we have a team of happy individuals, both creating the business, the products and serving those customers, that that's just going to lead to a happier set of customers overall.
Jonathan: So we really optimize for managing for the happiness of our employees. Everybody gets a happiness manager when they join, which is often their line manager, but not always. And every six to eight weeks, they have a happiness meeting, which is reversing the dynamic of the typical catch-up that you have with your manager. Normally when you're talking about talking to your managers, there's a undertone of performance management, essentially. And when you're performance managing somebody, you're usually saying, "What are you doing for the company?" Whereas when you're happiness managing, you're saying, "What can the company be doing for you to better support you in doing a great job and feeling happy about that?" So it really switches the dynamic around, and it means that we have sort of different quality conversations about different things that opens up what you can sort of bring to the workplace so that people feel like there isn't this, I suppose, duality between the them that's at home and the them that's at work.
Chris: Yeah, that's great. There are a lot of companies, I think that try to do that, but maybe they only hit a superficial level where they're like oh, we're going to get a coffee machine, or we're going to do this one event or something like that. But when you have a specific people who's like kind of entire role or entire reason for being employed and their metrics they're measured on like team happiness, it changes that. It makes sure that something more meaningful is created as opposed to kind of just one off quick team bonding things and then kind of forget about it and not really keep focusing on team happiness or human happiness or employee happiness. I mean, I'm sure there's been business like MBA studies or case studies or things like that about this, but it still surprises me that corporate America in general has not kind of fully embraced this. You said, "Happy customers. Happy team equals happy customers," but ultimately, then, happy customers equals business success.
Jonathan: Yeah, absolutely. I didn't invent that. That is out of some management speak book. It's just that I suppose the way you choose to implement that or whether you choose to believe it or not. That is specific to the organization, and you make it personal.
Chris: Well, great. That's all we have for today's episode of Code[ish]. Thanks very much, Jonathan, for joining us and sharing some of your wisdom about combining business success with happiness. It's definitely been a smile-inducing episode for me. So thanks for sharing.
Jonathan: Thanks for having me.
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