In this Episode
Lorna Mitchell is the author of the Leanpub book Git Workbook: Self-Study Guide to Git. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Lorna about her background, her public and her technical work as a Developer Advocate, Brexit and the tech sector in the UK, her book, and at the end, they talk a little bit about her experience as a self-published author.
This interview was recorded on February 1, 2018.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Len: Hi, I'm Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast, I'll be interviewing Lorna Mitchell.
Based in Leeds, Lorna is a developer advocate for IBM Cloud Data Services and former independent web development who worked with clients on improving their development practices.
She is a writer who has authored or co-authored conventionally published books, and she's also a popular conference speaker, talking about both technical and business topics.
In this interview, we're going to talk about Lorna's background and career, her professional interests, and at the end, we'll talk a little bit about her experience using Leanpub to be a self-published author - and maybe her experience as a conventionally published author and writer as well.
So, thank you Lorna for being on the Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast.
Lorna: I's my pleasure, thanks for inviting me.
Len: I usually like to start these interviews by asking people for their origin story. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about where you grew up, and how you first became interested in computers and software?
Lorna: I'm from a city in the middle of England called Birmingham, which is mostly famous for the accent that the people from there have. Except, I've lived in other places so long that you can't hear it, unless I've had a couple of beers.
At school, I guess I was really interested in maths and science. But I went to an all-girls' school, and I didn't have a lot of technical role models.
At university, I went to study engineering, without really knowing what that was. Which was just super lucky. I went to university in a great little town in the north of England here, called York. It's a great town, it's a great university. I got a great engineering degree, and learned to ask the hard questions, and then go and ask for the instructions to solve the problem.
I'm unusual I think, in computing terms. I didn't know that you could write code and get paid for it till I was about 21. My degree is a Master's in Electronic Engineering. So in that sense, I came to it late. And in another sense, not really. I haven't changed careers, I've always done software; my first job out of university was writing a game.
I've worked in a bunch of different technologies. I've been employed by small companies. I'm now at IBM, with a really big company. And for my own business in between, it was a really small company. So it's been a really nice mix of different technologies and just loads of different things. Because software, everybody uses it, every industry uses it. So I've worked in everything from games to manufacturing to personnel software. It just constantly keeps me entertained.
So how did you move from electrical engineering into writing games?
Lorna: I just applied for a bunch of jobs, and a games company were like, "Yeah, we'll have her." When I was at university, I was writing websites, like for the university societies. It was a hobby, a little bit of coding experience. And just from the engineering degree, with games I think a lot of people don't necessarily know that it has a really big maths component. You have to be able to do angles of collisions and lots of vector calculations and stuff. And I had the mathematical background as well. And I was also quite a keen gamer, even then.
Len: As I understand it from a passage in one of your books, or it might have been on a blog post, at one point relatively early on in your career, you were hired for a position that you felt you probably weren't quite ready for. You ended up thriving. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that experience was like, realizing that and diving in anyway?
Lorna: It's one of those things that I think, maybe I could've been more cautious about it? I was working at a little web agency, and I was really unhappy. And it turned out so were they, because they fired me. I've only been fired once, and it was the same week that I became a Zend Certified Engineer for the first time. So it was a weird time.
I really needed a job, and somebody on the internet interviewed me. His name is Ivo Jansch. You just mentioned him in the introduction. He's my co-author on one of these books. And he was CTO of an awesome PHP company called iBuilding. And he said, "I think she would grow into it," and offered me the job.
I was really proud of myself. I just struggled so much in that job to keep up, to level up fast enough to not get fired. I actually didn't get fired in that role. But when I left, he said to me that he had known right at the start that I didn't already have the skills that I needed, but he thought I'd be fun to work with. I could've happily hit him.
Len: You could've happily what, sorry?
Lorna: Hit him.
Len: I thought that's what you said.
Lorna: That was just such a tough job. But looking back, I learnt so much, because I was really given that chance to level up. And you sink or swim. I was working with some excellent people. Some of them, I'm still in touch with. So it turned out to be a really good experience. But yeah, tough - definitely.
Len: And if I'm not mistaken, was it after that that you made a move towards being an independent consultant at a certain point?
Lorna: Yes it was.
Len: And what drove that decision? I I always love asking people that question, because quite a few Leanpub authors make a decision like that at some point in their lives.
Lorna: Well, the two probably go together, because now that I'm employed full-time again, I'm wondering how you write a book when you've got a full-time job.
I was doing some really interesting stuff at iBuilding. I was doing some of their training stuff. I was doing some of their community activities as well. I was also beginning to speak as a conference speaker. And I just felt that - it's quite difficult to look for a job when you're well-known in your industry, because it's a really small industry, and people know that you're looking.
I was working for a company that was really at the center of everything. So I quit my job because I knew I didn't want to do that job anymore. I didn't really have a plan or any clients or anything like that. But a local company asked me to deliver some training for them. And then I did a bit of consultancy for some people that I'd met at a conference. And I really just ran and ran. That freelance business kept me solvent for six years.
Len: And then you decided to go back to working for a big company.
Len: What was that experience like? I think you mostly work from home when you're not traveling and speaking? But that must've been quite the transition.
Lorna: It really was. I've worked for all sorts of organizations. I didn't hold down jobs for very long really in the early part of my career. Because I'm hard to keep entertained at work. So going from being - well I was freelance, and then right at the end of being freelance, I was like part time freelance and part time tech lead for a really small web agency.
So IBM, which is like hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, with all sorts of corporate process and rules and all sorts - is a huge culture shock. I've been there 18 months. I think I'm still finding my way around for some things, but I have really started to build my network, and met some really excellent people there. And that helps.
Because some people at IBM have been there a long time. And you sort of think, "Oh, how do you keep a job for 20 years?" No, no - they've done 20 jobs. They've done lots of different stuff, and they know lots of different areas of the business. So you can always find a spirit guide.
Len: Framing my next question, just yesterday I published an interview for this podcast with Jerry Weinberg, whom you may have heard of. He's written books about software testing and things like that. He had a very interesting career - he started at IBM, kind of in the before time - before they were into computers, or right around the time when they were getting into computers.
He had a really interesting anecdote about how the executives did not want to get into the programming business. They tried at a certain moment in time to sort of standardize programs, and make them so that you wrote them once, one way - and that was it.
Obviously that's changed, and IBM does a lot of software, and that's one of the reasons it has developer advocates.
I know you get asked this all the time, but I was wondering if in that context you could talk about what a developer advocate does, and how they interact with people, to get the software completed?
Lorna: I think developer advocacy - the job has two directions. There's the one people see, where I leave the building and go to a conference or I'm doing some written content, just helping developers to understand and learn about and use our tools. For IBM Cloud - that's super easy, because most of it's open source, and so the tools are familiar to most developers. They may not realize that IBM are running them. I'm from a really open source background, so I'm often seen out and about spreading the good word. And I think that's what advocates are known for.
The other half of the job is much less visible. That's where I come back from a conference, or I return from Twitter message chaos, and kind of try and explain - instead of explaining the IBM stuff to developers, explain the developers stuff to IBM. That can be about lobbying to get changes to improve inter-operability with other systems.
Sometimes it's as simple as fixing the documentation, and I can do that myself. Sometimes I'm actually fixing the tool or at least reporting both. So it's kind of two halves - just helping a big company to interface with a big community, by means of very many little, small actions that hopefully add up to a big difference.
Len: You wrote a blog post last year, I think, about how the least visible part of your role is your technical role. I was wondering if you could talk just a little bit what that's like? You mentioned, I think, fixing bugs?
Lorna: It's really interesting, because you see developer advocates, evangelists, developer relations people - we're giving talks, and it looks quite non-technical... [?] and we've got people skills. We can look like something from marketing, and some developer relations roles even report up through marketing. I don't; we're thoroughly in engineering.
But what you don't see is that when I can't use an open source component on our platform, I'm going to patch the open source component. So I have to be able to code in a variety of different stacks. And I have to be able to work GitHub, and interact with those project maintainers. I open source experience to get in, and get that code in, and help get that problem fixed, across a bunch of different projects.
I'm always working on different projects, always working on different stacks. You have to be able to pick up completely unfamiliar code, and make a difference with it. So it's actually very technical. But that is much quieter than when you see me on a big keynote stage, or there's a video of me or something.
Len: You had one interesting - I guess I would call it technical post on your blog, that I wanted to ask you about, about having an Echo Dot in your office, and what it's like to build conversations with Alexa. I'm curious partly because I suffer from a bit of, in spite of myself, skepticism about voice controlled speakers and virtual assistants. I just wanted to ask you - how do you find yourself using Alexa in your office?
Lorna: Well, she is muted when I'm recording podcasts, so that she doesn't suddenly answer back.
Yeah, I use Alexa. She controls a bunch of the smart home stuff that she can turn on and off, and plugs on and off, and stuff like that, which can be quite useful if you've got your hands full. I ask her about the weather where I am, and also where I'm going.
Where I live in Northern England, I'm in the middle of a big set of hills called the Pennines, and the weather can vary enormously with half an hour's train journey. So I chat to her about that. She can tell me about the news. I can ask her to play me some music. So I do chat to her. And you can ask her how she is and where she is. And if you're lonely, she talks back. I work from home.
Len: I'm going to jump ahead there. You had a blog post where you talk about your stuffed animal toys that you talk to. I've heard a lot of how to work from home, and come across a lot of advice and techniques about that in the past. But that was a new one to me.
Lorna: Oh yes. Cuddly Eeyore. Well, when you're delivering a webinar, you're chatting, but your'e basically talking to yourself, and it can be quite artificial. So when I'm rehearsing a talk or delivering a webinar, then I get my small cuddly Eeyore, and put him where I can see him on the desk. And I explain it to him with great attention and detail. I think it just helps to address your remarks to something that isn't like this feeling or something. It really sort of directs your attention.
Len: I found it compelling as soon as I read it. It was just original to me, and sounds really fun and useful.
One question I wanted to ask you - you mentioned living in the north of England. I used to live in the UK, so I've been watching things happening with special attention ever since, and the Brexit referendum was announced or debated.
I was wondering - are people in the tech sector in the UK concerned about the effects of Brexit, or is it something that people think the tech sector won't be that affected by directly?
Lorna: I think we're all pretty horrified and nervous about it. I mean, of course tech should be included, and they should include people with all sorts of different political views and points of view. But for the most part, people who work in tech are well educated, well traveled. I don't think any of us really thought Brexit would be a thing. Certainly I didn't. I've known a few people who have already moved to Europe, applied for the citizenship if they're eligible. Moved their businesses to Europe.
We don't know really what the economic impact is going to be, but it's not going to be good here. I won't say people are leaving in droves. But I would say that there is some anxiety, and certainly nobody - or not nobody, but there are certainly fewer events, I think, coming to the UK. If you were thinking of running an event in Europe, a lot of those are going to be in mainland Europe. Perhaps not this year, but certainly next year. Because it will still be a more - [the] same place to travel to. Whereas for the UK, we're not sure.
Len: That's really interesting. I hadn't thought about the impact on things like conferences. But that makes a lot of sense.
Moving on, one thing I didn't know about you until I was deep into researching for this interview, was that you developed video courses with O'Reilly. I've interviewed people who've done videos for Pluralsite, but I don't think I've ever had the chance to talk to someone who had their experience doing that with O'Reilly. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about that. Did they approach you?
Lorna: So, I had already done some other video content for SitePoint, and I was first published by SitePoint as a traditional author. And then I pitched the book to O'Reilly, because I was a speaker at [?]. And then once I became an author with them, then I built up that relationship. And they asked me to do - first, I did some video with them, which was, I flew out to their offices, and we did it in person with me on camera and all the sound set up and everything.
We did one course like that, or maybe two courses like that actually? I've done some screencasting for them since, which was more home-based. They sent me a load of audio equipment, and we did it with screencasts and just audio, and then they did all the editing for me. It was a great experience, because they do all the editing, and as a disabled user, I can't video edit. So, I can't publish on PluralSite without outsourcing the video edit work. And that's quite a big upfront cost. So for me, I already had that relationship with O'Reilly as a content provider, as a written author. And it was perfect.
Len: Speaking about your experience as a conventionally or traditionally published author, you did eventually decide to also produce some content on Leanpub. I wanted to ask you a little bit about what led you to the self-publishing world? Was it just an extension from blogging and things like that?
Lorna: One of my books, I was trying to write a handout, and I got carried away and now it's a book. The thing about self-publishing is you don't need anyone's permission. No one needs to sign off a contract. It doesn't take a year. If you have something to share, you can throw it out there.
And I definitely missed my editors. But I felt it, because it's such a short cycle, if I had a gap in my freelance work, then I could just push something and it was done. It wasn't like, once you're completely snowed under with four simultaneous contracts and a bunch of conferences, they'll come back and need edits tomorrow. I was more in control of my workload.
So I enjoyed both routes, and being a "dead tree" author, if you like? Particularly for O'Reilly, who are so widely recognized in the tech sector. It's been great. And I still see them at conferences, and we still do stuff, and it's brilliant. And I wouldn't undo that.
But the books I've published on Leanpub, I'm not sure a traditional publisher would've taken. They're all unusual formats. One of them's co-authored. They're just a bit outside of the norm. And this way, it enabled me to share it, and get a bit of money in from it as well. And just put it out there, really, whenever I wanted to and quite quickly. And I'm still pushing updates to those books.
I really love the Leanpub platform. It's not that I would do it one way or another. They've both had benefits, but just letting me put my content out when I wanted, it was brilliant.
Len: It's interesting, the control over process is something that we've heard from a lot of authors who benefited greatly from, and very much enjoyed the traditional publishing process - but also through that experience, maybe felt a little bit more empowered to do things on their own.
In one of your books - you mentioned you co-authored a book N Ways To Be A Better Developer - you write about how it's important for developers' own self-interest that they learn to "speak manager." I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that idea, and why it's so important?
Lorna: Okay, so this comes straight back to a story that I just told you, about a guy who hired me when he knew I couldn't really do the job. He insisted that I learn to speak manager, because we'd just found that, even though he thought I was coming up with good ideas or sensible approaches for client work, it wasn't always being heard. And it's because I was, as a developer, kind of focused on the ethics or the technology. And managers need to hear "revenue" and "delivery," and strong words like that. So yeah = revenue, every third word.
Len: That was funny, and I thought very realistic advice, to throw the word "revenue" in as much as you can when you're talking to managers, because you're tying it back to something that can be measured. And something that's in everyone's interest to talk about.
Lorna: Yeah, exactly. I think it's something that was important at iBuildings, particularly in the UK, with a small company when I worked there. It's a really big company now. When I went there it was a small company. We all had to be close to the business. And if none of us is going to get paid - then no matter how good your technology is, it's not the right thing. So we need to frame it in business terms, and also speak about it that way. And that was something that I struggled with early in my development career.
Len: You also wrote an interesting piece in there about transferable skills, if you can recall? I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that? Because I think, deciding, "Should I buy that new book, and take the time to read it about that new piece of technology?" Or, "Should I go down a path that doesn't seem directly related to the work that I'm doing now, or I expect to be doing in the future?" How can people make those decisions?
Lorna: Transferable skills are really interesting, because a lot of the time I don't think we realize how much we already know that we can take with us. I think particularly in tech, we get to know one language or one framework really well. And then the reality is, if you've got experience with - let's say micro-services and a queuing system, the hard part isn't the programming language.
So, if you're experience is with Sinatra and you're asked to write it in Slim or [?] Flac, then you already have most of the skills. You know how this should look. If you've only worked with Beanstalk B, but the new client uses Rabin, right? You've got queuing concepts - that's transferable. So I think we can be a bit anxious about it, and say, "Ooh, I don't know that. I haven't done that."
But actually - particularly as you gain some flying hours as a developer and pick up more than one language or more than one framework, then - it's a bit like learning foreign languages. Once you get to like four or five, your brain has those pathways. I think it's really important for people to get to know a couple of different sorts of databases.
One of my books is about Git. That's the world's most transferable skill. You're going to use that on every software project you do. And just trying to be open minded about learning something that might not be obviously on the way to where you want to go, because it will probably help you at some point.
Len: And if - let's say you're an employee at a company, and you're talking to a manager about them paying for you to go to a conference, where you're going to learn a new skill - how would you speak manager to them?
Lorna: That's a really tricky one. I will confess that certainly early in my career, I just took the time off and self-funded, and no one knew where I was. I think it's really important that managers should support all sorts of education. So I really like people to negotiate for training budgets in the first place. And then they don't have to have to on a per-conference basis.
I think it's really about making managers understand that we go to conferences to share ideas, to improve the quality of what we do. To make sure that we're using the most modern tools, and being as effective as we can do. I think that sort of effective, efficient, modern [approach] can talk to a manager and help them to understand that even just the small cost of a ticket and releasing the team for the day, can deliver some real big savings in the longer term.
Len: You mentioned that you've been updating your Leanpub books. That leads me to ask you if interacting with your readers has been an important part of your process. Have you been soliciting feedback, or just receiving unsolicited feedback and changing your books based on that?
Lorna: Certainly, when they were first launched. I think I had a lot more interaction. The N Ways To Be A Better Developer book was a talk originally. A bunch of people saw it, and then bought the book for their team, and then tweeted at us and stuff. I mean, it's been out for a while. We certainly haven't [given] the talk all that [much] lately. But I still get some email questions about it. Git Workbook, I get email about that all the time. I think the page does say, like, "Just fill in the contact form and email me." And people do. People tweet at me about it.
I also mentioned it in - there's a talk video from a conference in Amsterdam, Laracon a few years ago, where I did basically a Git demo, and then mentioned the book. So the two kind of feed off each other. Certainly by my standards, it's quite highly watched on YouTube. And then the book is mentioned. So people come in by either route, and then watch the other one.
I do sometimes get email and questions for the updates, they're usually - not so much [?], because it's been out for a while, and I've fixed it a bunch of times. But also like, people asking questions that make me think, "Hmm now I've answered your question, I could put a better explanation into the book." Then go back and update stuff. And people tweet random Git questions at me as well. And then they usually become book chapters. Because I think, "Yeah, I should write that down."
Len: The last question I always ask in this podcast is - if there were one thing on Leanpub that we could build for you, or one thing that we could fix for you, what would you ask us to do, if you can think of anything?
Lorna: I've been using Leanpub quite a long time. I have had many long and interesting email threads with your support team over the years. It looks like 2013 was my start date as the oldest emails that I am coming up with in my inbox for working with Leanpub. So in fact, you have already fixed a bunch of stuff. Mainly around the tooling, the Markdown, the GitHub integration, which wasn't there when I first started. And those kinds of things. I think the tooling has improved immensely.
Now, I push the updates to the Git book from - I've been on holiday in Peru, and I just took my tablet, and my Bluetooth keyboard. I have an editor that can do Markdown and push to GitHub. I can do everything from there. I just wanted to make them - I already had the words that I wanted to add and a few minor amends. And because the tooling is so good, I can generate the preview, check PDF. I have what I need. I suspect my next book might go on Leanpub as well.
Len: Well, if you do come across anything that we should fix, or anything you can think of, we'll be very receptive, because we thank you for your input in the past. One of the things that - it's always been very important to us to work closely with the authors using Leanpub, who are often, not surprisingly, since they're writing books, independent and driven people.
Which is another way of saying, "highly opinionated." And we love that. It's one of the reasons that Leanpub does work better than it used to in the past. I don't want to boast.
But anyway, thank you very much for that feedback, and your feedback over the years. And thank you Lorna for taking the time to do this podcast, and for being a Leanpub author.
Lorna: Thanks very much, it's been a pleasure.