6 lessons & 5 emergent themes from recording 19 episodes
Everyone has their pandemic hobbies. Some people bake bread, others play Animal Crossing, I started a podcast.
I’m looking for ways to connect with people online and have more conversations about the “non-technical side of software development.” I enjoy coding, but I’m tired of most of the discussions about it. “how to do X in technology Y” gets boring after a while. I refuse to participate in holy wars.
I decided to make something that would allow me to have deeper live versions of exchanges I’ve had over email and on Twitter, or at tech happy hours in the Before Times.
I started Production Ready with three goals in mind:
- Connect with people I like and admire, despite the pandemic.
- Explore higher-context topics in and around software development
- Content is moving towards audio & video; I should get more experience using those formats.
Twenty episodes later, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I learned: How to run a show, and that the path away from line-level coding is paved with writing, creating often, and connecting with others.
Small ‘p’ podcasting
In his article “Small b blogging,” Tom Critchlow writes about the outsized impact some of his pieces have had, despite small amounts of traffic:
“What’s going on here? I call it small b blogging. It’s a virtuous cycle of making interesting connections while also being a way to clarify and strengthen my own ideas. I’m not reaching a big audience by any measure but the direct impact and benefit is material.”Tom Critchlow
In the same vein, Production Ready is “small p podcasting.” I don’t have a big audience, but it enables me to have conversations with people I otherwise would not have and build connections within communities I otherwise wouldn’t have.
The power of hosting a podcast is that you can reach out to almost anyone on the internet and ask them to come on your show, and more often than not, they say “yes.”
The project was not about growing an audience. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t try.
Getting listeners is much harder than other forms of acquisition.
The strategy sounds reasonable: You invite guests, they share your episodes, some people subscribe, and your audience snowballs. Easy, right? In reality, sometimes it can be hard to get people to share content, and in my experience, people did not stick around as much as I thought they would.
When I started, I didn’t think about how much more difficult it is to get someone to listen to a podcast than reading an article. Getting someone who probably doesn’t have a commute right now to listen to 30 minutes of audio is a bigger ask than 10 minutes to read an article.
Growing the audience proved difficult for me. 4 months in and listenership has been stagnant. There is more work I could do to boost the podcast, but that doesn’t align with what I’m trying to do here. When I do put effort into getting more listeners, it would be mostly for my guests’ benefit to have a larger platform to share with them.
I’m not even sure how many people are listening. Podcast analytics are abysmal. I did not know this before I started working on the show. You only get information on downloads, nothing about listening. You can’t even get subscriber numbers. There is practically nothing to inform your decisions beyond the number of downloads.
One choice that makes the podcast harder to promote was not clarifying the show’s topic.
Exploring topics Organically
What does “higher-context content” mean exactly? The closest term is “soft skills,” but that doesn’t capture the idea. They are a subset. I struggled to pin down what the “elevator pitch” for the show should be. “The human side of software development” is the catchiest, but I don’t know if it gets to the heart of it either.
Positioning the show is a double-edged sword; it would be easier to promote but limit the guests and topics that could be a part of it. For the first season, I decided to take an exploratory approach and see what themes would emerge.
5 Emergent Themes
#1 Prolific Creation
When I joined Devanooga and saw someone who was consistently shipping crazy side projects, I knew I had to talk to them. Then, I saw the theme come up again and again.
Philip Morgan published every day. By writing and publishing, he was able to iterate on ideas and cultivate expertise quickly. Itamar talked about it in terms of productivity. Shawn Wang spoke about it in terms of learning in public. Tom spoke about writing as a way to explore ideas.
Shipping often is one of the fastest ways to gain expertise.
- Shipping dozens of websites w/ Ryan Maynard
- Cultivating expertise by writing daily w/ Philip Morgan
- The Secret Skills of Productive Programmers w/ Itamar Turner-Truaring
- Marketing yourself & your products by learning in public w/ Shawn Wang
#2 Career Strategy
These episodes seem to generate the most traffic. I’m assuming because they are the most directly actionable. How can you not appreciate Josh Doody telling you how to add an extra $10,000 to your salary while helping you navigate the job hunt during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Navigating your career is a skill in and of itself. If you want to do higher-level work, you need to have the skills necessary to intentionally and effectively navigate your career.
- Writing code & wrangling cats – from developer to manager and back w/ Marilyn Cole
- Stop, collaborate, get paid – Fearless Salary Negotiation w/ Josh Doody
- The right & wrong ways to pitch ideas at work w/ Jason Swett
- Debunking Recruiter Myths – AMA with Taylor Desseyn
There were lots of episodes that talked about the transition period of moving from being “just a coder” to something else:
- Marilyn Cole talked about the transition period from developer to manager.
- Austin Church & Tom Critchlow talked about transitioning from laborer to strategist.
- Erik Dietrich talked about transitioning from developer to consultant.
- Kate Izell talked about moving from being an independent to building a team.
Erik and I specifically talked about how being a coder is a great job, but there’s a limit on how far it can take you. When transforming your career, and in the process yourself, you have to grow and leave parts of your past self behind.
This theme was intentional. I have always been an advocate for developers writing more. I put together a 7-day course to help developers write their first ten blog articles. If you want to transform from individual contributor to doing higher context work, you will have to learn how to write effectively and persuasively.
One interesting takeaway was the vast amount of different content strategies people have.
- Philip Morgan published daily for four years.
- Stephanie Morillo takes a pragmatic, strategic approach to planning content.
- Shawn Wang shares everything he’s learning in public.
- Tom Critchlow writes wildly, exploring new ideas and identities freely.
There is no one correct way to write; Do whatever gets your ideas out there.
A year ago, I moved from Athens, GA to Chattanooga, TN. When 2020 rolled in, I always put off going to meetups, telling myself I would go the next month. Then a pandemic hit, and I regretted that decision. I have still yet to get a chance to fully explore this city and meet people here as much as I would have wanted.
Luckily, I found a local slack community for developers, and have been fortunate enough to meet people locally that way. People from local slack channels ended up being 4 of the guests. One of which ended up talking a lot about the importance of online communities such as Devanooga.
Locally sourced episodes
- Hiring and developing others w/ Kate Izell
- Working at big vs. small companies & finding your tribe w/ Bobby Burden
- Shipping dozens of websites w/ Ryan Maynard
- Debunking Recruiter Myths – AMA with Taylor Desseyn
Besides learning about these themes, I also learned a lot about producing a podcast.
6 Podcasting production lessons learned
#1. How to tolerate the sound of your own voice
Everyone has a hang-up when it comes to listening to your voice. My approach was to reason myself out of it. When I was 15, I had to read a monologue from Shakespeare for English class. After class, the teacher told me that his brother, who ran the local AM radio station, was searching for younger people to host some of the evening shows. Next thing I know, I’m the host of “Suppertime Gospel.”
That job led to me calling some football games for my high school and becoming one of the announcers for my wife’s roller derby team years later. I had plenty of social proof that I am pleasant to listen to (at least in a broadcast context), and I still clenched my teeth when editing the first few episodes.
There are only two things that helped me: One was realizing that editing gave me the power to cut my stupidest sounding fumbles from episodes. Two was that it gets easier. You just have to do it until you get numb.
#2 Diligently Manage Your Guest Pipeline
You get to meet people, and they will more often than not help with promotion. However, it adds an element of uncontrollability and unpredictability to your content calendar.
Requiring two people to be on a call at the same time adds a layer of complexity to the content calendar. I have a newfound respect for people who do it consistently.
The biggest challenge with a weekly interview show is scheduling. In addition to working on the episodes, I needed to keep a steady pipeline of clients. Some lessons learned there:
- Guests will book an appointment 2-3 days or a month out. There was no in-between.
- I think Calendly may have done more harm than good when it came to my scheduling process. I ended up being surprised every time a guest booked a time. Sometimes I ended up with 3-4 interviews in a week, other times none.
- At its most full, the pipeline had interviews recorded five weeks in advance. At the worst, I was recording them the Monday before they aired.
- Guests will cancel. Don’t count on a scheduled episode until you have recorded the audio.
I think the perfect target cadence is two interviews per week. This cadence gives you slack for unpredicted events, and if you can maintain it long enough, you can build up a buffer that allows you to take breaks.
#3 Triple check your audio setup
I lost two episodes due to a failure on my part to set up my recording process. One guest, Shawn “swyx” Wang was kind enough to record with me twice. At least that episode I feel, turned out better as we had some rapport.
I will also forever mourn the “lost episode” of Production Ready. It was a great talk about teaching and mentorship.
In my most embarrassing mistake, I uploaded a file that was the intro, followed by 37 minutes of silence. Now I listen to every episode before putting it live.
#4 Yeti Snowballs Aren’t That Great
I thought they were a familiar brand, and I got duped. I will likely upgrade my audio gear for the next season.
#5 You only have two weeks to make it in the new & noteworthy section.
I wish I would have known this for launch. Whether or not you make it into the “new & noteworthy” section of iTunes is determined by your performance in the first two weeks of your show being live. Don’t make the mistake I did and release a trailer episode in advance, ruining any chance I had of making it. Not that I would have, but if that is something you want to shoot for, have multiple episodes ready to go for launch and concentrate your marketing efforts on those first 14 days.
#6 Making a podcast is more time consuming than you might think.
When I started this show, I talked to my friend Justin who has a lot of podcasting experience. He gave me two pieces of advice:
- Maintaining a weekly show is hard, I wouldn’t recommend it for your first show.
- You are going to have to “social media your ass off.”
I ignored both pieces of advice. He was right about both. Scheduling, recording, producing, transcribing, and promoting a podcast episode every week is an unsustainable pace for me right now. That’s why I decided to make the show seasonal.
From an infinite series to a series of finite projects
Now I’m more interested in thinking of Production Ready as a ‘series of series.’ Instead of one infinite project, I can think of it as an infinite series of finite projects—sort of like making many different podcast experiments instead of one. Following the lessons of prolific creation, I learned from my guests.
These seasons aren’t structured like a television series; Season 2 will not be another grab bag of 20 episodes. It could be of any length and drop at any time. I’m intrigued by the idea of doing finite mini-series, similar to what Serial did with “S-Town“, or what Planet Monet’s recent inline series “Summer School.” Maybe I pick one of the themes above and do a deep dive about it. I could experiment with different formats besides the ~30-minute interview. I could see myself doing 2-4 seasons per year.
No matter what, this is not the end. It’s just a pause for reflection before what’s next.