Contentful developer team: programming, products, pandemics & practical processes

The Computer Weekly Developer Network team likes to dig deep and we’re not afraid of a meaty download when it comes to software product and developer professionals expressing their views.

Looking to bag two birds (in the gender neutral sense) with one stone, this month we caught up with the chaps from Contentful, a company known for its CMS technology that unifies content in a single hub, structures it for use across digital channels and integrates it with other tools through open APIs.

This conversation happened with Paul Biggs, who is director of product marketing for EMEA region — and Stefan Judis, who is senior manager for developer relations, both at Contentful.

So what do the Contentful team think developers learned over the last twelve months during lockdown? Has it been good, bad or just different?

Paul Biggs:

On the professional side, it has been very different to previous years. The move to home working helped a lot of developers on their projects as they could concentrate on their code and development work, but it also made things a lot more siloed. This has meant that many developers are thinking about their next move. After all, if you are going to be working from home, you can effectively work for anyone.

This means that a lot of companies and their software leadership teams are looking more closely at how to retain their staff and keep them happy, enthused and supported.

Stack Overflow’s latest survey had some telling results – the number one platform that developers dread working with is WordPress, a traditional CMS. Why does this matter?

Stefan Judis: WFH = documentation responsibility.

The second biggest reason why developers look for a new job – after better compensation, of course – is to work with new technologies. Our customers’ developers, and our partner agencies, are all flocking towards more modern tools that fit into the MACH approach: microservices-based, API-first, cloud-based and headless.

Stefan Judis:

Individuals have learned over the last 12 months if they’re the type for remote work. Many people dreamt of saving the commute time every day, but there’s more to working from home than not having to go somewhere.

Working remotely also means being by yourself, documenting your work and making an effort to connect with your co-workers. Not everybody is made for that way of working and enjoys it.

Lockdown learning 

CWDN: How do the guys think the lockdown changed how developers learn about new technology?

Stefan:

Many developers learn about new technologies via a mix of online and offline activities. They follow influential developers on social media, read their favorite blogs and newsletters, watch online courses and attend conferences. The lockdown affected online and offline activities.

Working from home increased the screen time substantially. There are no watercooler chats and all the conversations are ‘just another link’ to yet another Zoom call. People are tired of sitting passively in front of a screen and they are less likely to spend additional time in front of a screen to learn something.

As a result of this screen fatigue, more and more developers are watching/consuming interactive live-coding shows on Twitch and YouTube. People have fun, learn something new about coding and can connect with other developers to not feel alone during the pandemic.

Additionally, developer communities and conference vendors are re-thinking their conference and meetup experiences to not lose the personal connection. Some are re-imagining their events through game-like experiences, such as platforms like https://gather.town/.

The most important element is that we don’t try to recreate in-person events completely – we want to keep the best of conferences, including the ‘hallway track’ where you can meet friends and peers, but also we want to make the lessons and content more accessible. Developer conferences have been getting more attendees from locations and from people that would not otherwise have been able to travel. That helps spread the word on new technologies further and faster.

Tooling up time

CWDN: What do the Contentful software team think about the role that tools play in the remote-first world?

Stefan:

There are some joint working practices that can transition over easily to online ways of working, rather than having to be done sitting next to each other. I’ve seen teams being in audio calls all day. The call is open, everybody is coding… and if someone needs to bounce off an idea, people are around – almost like in a real office (unless people put on their headphones, but they do that in a real office, too).

Developers invested more in proper tools such as cameras and microphones. The tech used for a call makes a great difference. Calls with people sitting in front of a window speaking into poor microphones makes calls way for tiring.

Essential things like pair programming have successfully moved to a completely virtual setting. Visual Studio Code’s Live Share plugin is developers’ new best friend for collaborative coding. Developers can code and brainstorm together and it’s almost like being in the same room together.

Paul Biggs: Distributed working requires different (often distributed) tools.

Alongside this, developers are already used to asynchronous collaboration via GitHub but also use collaboration tools like Slack and Discord to chat with each other and have some time to get some interaction with each other.

CWDN: Where have companies had to lean more on their web developers over the past year, and what had to change because of this?

Paul:

The wholesale shift to online selling and eCommerce affected a lot of brands. Rather than being one of many different shop windows for companies, websites and mobile apps were the only ways that brands could reach customers. For retailers, supporting a brand experience meant looking at the web development process and how to make this work when everyone was fully remote.

For those using MACH (Microservices-based, API-first, Cloud-native SaaS and Headless) tools, the experience was less difficult on the technical side, as they could support more distributed working and their tools would work just as well. The challenge was at the business level, as a lot of companies’ plans had to be jettisoned and new plans developed really quickly. Bringing the web development teams in at the start of this process helped, as they could quickly go through what would need to change, where priorities would have to be altered and where things were not possible. Any new approach also had to scale and support much more traffic and more content changes over time.

For those retailers that are more focused on bricks and mortar stories, rather than online, web development teams had to scramble to add more services and support the brand. This was a different set of pressures for web developers, as the job of collaborating was harder. Using a headless CMS and involving other people from across the company could help take some of that pressure off, rather than leaving it all to the developer team.

Did this affect how developers worked with other groups in organisations — and, moving forward, how will companies look at getting their wider teams involved?

Paul:

Collaboration challenges occur when you have organisational silos in place and where people feel they can work across those departments. Instead, it’s important to think about how things get built and delivered over time, and how that will go across department or function lines. Builders can span the entire customer lifecycle — marketers, merchandisers, product management, customer support teams, HR teams — they can get involved to improve the digital experiences that customers, partners, and employees get.

Often, you have individuals that can understand both the world of technology and the world of marketing or customer experience that can help translate for everyone, but that can be problematic for distributed and remote teams. Ideally you want to take out any points of friction so that everyone can get on.

When you have everyone working from home, getting that collaboration experience is harder to achieve. You have to look at making each person more productive within the applications and services they use. You have to think about how everyone will work around content, around software and web development, and how this can scale up to cope with mobile apps or multiple languages. However, I think that we have seen a lot of companies embrace the digital collaboration side and get a lot of value from this, and they will carry those lessons on in the future.

CWDN: What processes will companies keep after lockdown and what will they want to change again?

Stefan:

The pandemic forced companies to adapt to the remote-only way of working. This transition was challenging but it also offered the opportunity to establish the needed processes for a distributed workforce. It’ll be up to the companies to decide if they want to continue working in a remote-first environment. There are some potential benefits around work-life balance, but those have to be considered and implemented in order to deliver for both the individual and the organisation.

I think some of the collaboration and sharing approaches that came to the fore during lockdown will carry on, but the future will be a more hybrid approach that aims to get the best balance between working remotely and distributed, and bringing people together to avoid the siloed approach and lack of collaboration. Every company will work on this in their own way – there is no one size fits all approach that will suit everyone.

 

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