A RedMonk Conversation: Tracy Lee on the JavaScript Ecosystem and Developer Relations

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In this RedMonk Conversation, analyst Kate Holterhoff speaks with Tracy Lee, CEO at This Dot Labs, about trends in the frontend space. They discuss the JavaScript Ecosystem, focusing on frameworks and runtimes, as well as the future of Developer Relations, including an overview of This Dot Lab’s DevRel City.

This was a RedMonk video, not sponsored by any entity.

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Kate Holterhoff: Hello and thanks for joining me for this RedMonk Conversation with Tracy Lee, CEO of This Dot Labs, a modern web consultancy that specializes in JavaScript, although I know you’ve got your hand in a lot of other parts of the stack here. So Tracy is extremely accomplished and has been a leader in the tech industry space for many years. She hosts the Modern Web Podcast. And for those of you who still use the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, you probably know Tracy as @ladyleet. So Tracy, I’m so glad you could be here today. And thanks for making some time.

Tracy Lee: Yeah, thanks for having me. So good to be on.

Kate: All right, so I’m super excited to have Tracy here to speak with us a little bit about the JavaScript ecosystem and developer relations more broadly. So let’s dig in. There has been a lot of transition lately in the front-end framework space. I’m thinking specifically of Vercel’s partnership with Astro and Netlify’s decision to acquire Gatsby and the end of its support for 11ty. Do you have any thoughts about what is driving this sort of disruption in the JavaScript ecosystem?

Tracy: I think what’s interesting is, a few years ago, we saw a lot of, it was almost like every successful open source project, and every person, every maintainer of a successful open source project was able to raise money or thought that they could start a business to monetize something, right? And so there was a lot of, you know, there was a lot of money put into that and a lot of innovation, I suppose. And then, over the past year or so, right, things have kind of slowed down a little bit, or the players who raised more, etc., etc. have kind of become generally more you know, certain people have become more successful and certain people have like not made it, I would say. So you’re seeing a lot of just like general consolidation in my opinion, within the industry.

And I think in open source and startups, there’s a lot of burnout, right? So the question is, you know, and I think this doesn’t just go for like open source maintainers, but this also goes for people who start startups. What are your motivations? How much energy do you have to put into it? Do you want to keep doing this or not? And what does that mean? And also how good of a maintainer or founder are you to be able to build a successful thing, right? It’s not that easy. And I think the venture world not only has the funds dried up a little bit, but it’s kind of made people think in a different lens to say, oh yeah, you know, I probably shouldn’t just throw money at every maintainer who wants to build a successful company because building a successful open source project doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to build a successful company. So a lot of people have pulled back from that and consolidation generally, right? I mean, you can, you know, there’s hot gossip on Gatsby and why Gatsby wasn’t successful, depending on who you talk to, right? I think the 11ty thing is just a consolidation thing. And of course, you look at Vercel and just, you know, I don’t know, for the past how many years have they just like been buying everything up? Or at least that’s how it feels, right?

Kate: Mm-hmm. Yeah, those seem to be the star players and the situation with Gatsby being acquired. It seems to be a big part of that story too. And yeah, your read on that really, really resonates here. So okay. So I’m curious about what you’re seeing at This Dot Labs and where do you see the JavaScript framework space going in the next year, five years, 10 years, decade? I mean, what are you most excited about and where do you think Smart Money is going at these folks who are following these conversations?

Tracy: I think everybody’s general consensus is that React has won the race. You look at a few years ago, you look at React, Angular, Vue — who’s winning, and React, you cannot compare with the ecosystem. You just can’t. You can’t compete with the ecosystem. I think that…

Again, it just depends on who you talk to, right? I mean, there’s just so many hot takes of, oh, modern React is difficult. And then you talk to some other people to say, well, I don’t know why you’re saying modern React is difficult because it’s not. You probably just don’t understand what’s happening or hey, the React 18 release was good or bad. I mean, you know, it’s like which gossip column do you read, right? But I think what’s really important though is that React definitely does pay the bills. You know, React is what most of the ecosystem is building on. Maybe not because it’s the coolest thing or the fastest thing or whatever, but because it has basically become what? I don’t know. 70% of the ecosystem, if I just throw out a random number out there.

But I have loved it this year because I’ve seen so much excitement, right? We started off this year with like, oh my gosh, Solid, Svelte, Quik, you know. Islands Architecture, like, is it exciting? Is it not? How are people doing things? Like that type of stuff is really interesting and seeing core teams kind of wake up. And it’s funny because what we’re end of 2023 from COVID. It took what, three years for everyone to kind of wake up, for this innovation to start happening. So I love the stuff that Quik is doing and kind of pushing the envelope there. I love Svelte, with the Svelte 4 release, everybody’s kind of like, finally, come on, after so many years. So hopefully the Svelte 5 release comes out soon. Seems like everyone is adopting signals, you know, except for React, for example.

And, you know, TC39 as well, right? Like, I think 2015 TC39 was really interesting because you saw all the stuff coming out of it, right? Like ES2015, getting excited about JavaScript. That’s kind of when JavaScript really took off, in my opinion. You know, people started getting excited about it. Over the past few years, I feel like, some of the standards, in my opinion, are like, I don’t know, they’re not interesting to me, because they’re so far removed from our everyday work, right? But now, with TC39 and WhatWig and things like observables being added to the browser, or signals being talked about from a standardization perspective, that stuff feels so tangible and interesting. And those are the conversations that are happening now.

And it’s making, in my opinion, TCU39 and WhatWig just be way more interesting. Tons of stuff happening with CSS as well. Like people just getting excited about JavaScript again. So the innovation I think will again be really interesting and I don’t know, I mean you’re never bored. I mean we were a little bored I guess in 2020 but…

Solid as well. I mean, I didn’t mention Solid, but Solid is going to be doing a release, I don’t know, hopefully in the next six to eight months or so, right? And that’ll be really exciting. And they have a lot of stuff coming down the pipeline.

Kate: Why don’t we shift gears a little bit and talk about some developer relations stuff? Because I know This Dot Labs has been doing a lot of really cool stuff. So you’re a leader in creating content. So I’m really interested in how This Dot is generating this content and really following the pulse of the developer community. So in addition to the modern web podcast, there’s the local download newsletter, the JS Minute, virtual events like the state of DevOps, which aired this month. And then, you know, so just talk to me about the challenges of curating and organizing this content? How do you decide what’s news and information that is worthy of your developer audience?

Tracy: That’s hard to figure out in my opinion. But for me, generally, I’ve been all about building community since I got into JavaScript. So I think content generally should be accessible to everybody. So at This Dot, generally, we are a JavaScript consultancy. So we have a team of about 50 engineers. And we work on projects like T-Mobile, Wikimedia, Google, Meta, Twilio, Cloudinary, those types of companies, and we help them with engineering problems. So we love to solve engineering problems, but I think because of my passion for community, what we’re able to do is, you know, we really believe in this idea of making the developer world a better place. And so what that means is, hey, you know what, if we can help our clients on hard engineering problems; sometimes it’s people and process problems, to be honest.

And do that, then we can kind of support being able to bring more energy into open source. Because in my opinion, the more people you talk to or the more people you can get in the same room together, the more problems you can solve. So you know, when I first started this thought, a lot of it was listening to different core teams chat, right? I was from the Bay Area and I was talking to the Angular core team. And then, you know, I was on the ArcGIS core team. And you know, there were complaints back and forth and it’s like, well, why don’t you guys just all get in a room together? So that type of stuff is amazing because if literally all it takes is getting the same people, the right people in a room together to make the ecosystem a better place, why aren’t we just doing more of that? And that’s kind of always been my philosophy.

Yeah, so I love to do that type of stuff. And I love to tell stories as well. And yeah, what’s exciting? I don’t know, what seems exciting. That’s that’s kind of a… yeah, who knows?

Kate: Yeah, well, it’s working, obviously. I mean, I found the Modern Web podcast early on, and I’m a devotee. I was telling Tracy how much I like the opening jingle. Like, it’s a real earworm. It gets stuck in my head. So, Developer Relations has taken pride in place both in terms of the content coming out of This Dot, but also in your newest venture, DevRel.City. So Developer Relations, you know, it’s been going through kind of a rough patch recently. There’s been a number of, you know, high profile layoffs, folks rethinking the discipline more broadly, thinking of Ali Diamond’s video, Why I Left Developer Relations. So what do you think signals a sort of healthy and valuable DevRel community, and how is DevRel.City going to support teams focused on making the experience of developers, you know, as good as it can be?

Tracy: Yeah, so what I forgot to mention in my last comment is that we at This Dot have been doing Developer Relations consulting for quite some time. And, you know, I typically just do it — like I used to just do it for friends. We wouldn’t advertise it that much because Developer Relations is really about building relationships and community, right? And that’s not something you can like, you know, it’s not like marketing, right? Where you buy a list and you can just spam a bunch of people. It truly is related to building relationships, which is hard and you can’t do that at scale in my opinion in one specific industry. But a lot of the problems we were trying to solve for our clients were startups or organizations looking to start more into DevRel. And for me, it’s really about building a foundation. You know, in my past life, I have a marketing background, so like in my past life, I was doing marketing. I did get really good at community PR at my last company. And so it’s hard in my opinion. But what I really believe is that relationships need to come from within, right? So we would help a lot of companies start a foundation.

Like for example, we’ve helped React Training, Michael Jackson with his training like, okay, you’re going to do a training in Chicago. What does that mean? Who do you need to meet? What meetups are around? Or startups who are just saying hey, we want to get into the View community. Okay. What does that look like? Well, what are all the meetups? What are all the podcasts? What are all the conferences? Where do you need to go? What does that look like? Who are the influencers? And because again, this is just very — you’re just building lists in my opinion, we’re like, well, let’s just build a product that does that for people and give them access to it. It eliminates hours and hours and hours of work. I mean, you’re talking about like 40 to 80 hours plus maybe like… God to maintain… I feel like, I mean, some people pay like a full time person just to maintain these things, you know. So anyways, I think it’s like 5 or $600 a month and then DevRel.City just kind of does it for you. So starting in JavaScript, but again, solving the problem that everybody starts with. And the point is not to allow you to spam a ton of people, but the point is to direct you into the right community. I think communities, especially in development, move so fast. Somebody one year can be like, OK, I’m in. You look at Chloe Condon, right? And she was like, in the JavaScript community talking about cool things. And then all of a sudden, she’s doing something else. Or Sean Wang was, you know, in React and then he wasn’t doing React and then he was doing Svelte and now he’s not doing Svelte and he’s doing AI stuff right now. Like, how do you even know that? So keeping track of all that for somebody is kind of what we’re trying to do with DevRel.City.

Kate: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, especially because it is so difficult. I think as analysts, we try to follow these threads too. And yeah, it’s a full-time job trying to figure out where everybody’s moving and if they’ve created some important content recently and yeah, I mean, developer relations is not just a static thing by any stretch.

Tracy: It moves fast!

Kate: Oh my God. I know.

Tracy: Yeah, I mean, I was just talking to Max Stoiber. Max Stoiber, he created styled components back in, you know, 2015, 2016. I remember when that was and he created React boilerplate and gosh, I haven’t talked to him in so long, but he’s like, CEO of a company, they raised $30 million, they are in GraphQL. You wouldn’t, I mean, I didn’t know Max was in GraphQL until I talked to him and, you know, I’ve been doing GraphQL stuff for like, I don’t know how many years, right? And how long ago did he start that company? So it moves fast. I mean, technology generally and people move fast.

Kate: Yeah, yeah. Okay. And so do you think developer relations is going to survive this economic downturn? It seems that’s how I typically hear it explained.

Tracy: Yes. I think there is…you know, I’m writing a book on Developer Relations as well. So, DevRel.City will have a lot of blog posts about this coming out soon, but I think people were doing Developer Relations because they felt like they needed to and not understanding truly what Developer Relations was. And some companies who have put their entire marketing effort, has been Developer Relations forever, and I won’t name names, but you know, they’re scaling back. And it’s just like, what? What? And the problem with Developer Relations as well is that the ROI you get on it is not immediate. So there’s never a direct correlation. It’s really hard to find a good direct correlation between what a DevRel person does on a daily basis to like what a monthly or quarterly metric is. Unless you can, but then is it a vanity metric? Then was it the developer relations person? Was it the marketing person? Was it because of a sales thing? Who knows, but I think what developer relations does is really help you find a foundation, right? So, you know, there’s different areas of developer relations, like developer experience, which you know, can encompass things like documentation, for example, you know, written examples, just general education within the developer community is maybe something more tangible, maybe something more product focused and something that people can justify, because the onboarding experience or the retention of a customer for these SaaS companies that are paying for it, they’ll be able to see the direct value on. But I guess the question is like, you know, developer evangelism, right? Like going to a ton of conferences. Is there value in it?

But I will say, for example, Misko Hevery, who founded Angular at Google, since moved on to work at Quik and create Quik. He was able to make Quik actually talked about and respected within just a few months. Maybe it took him a year, maybe it took him six months, right? But the fact that Quik left the mouths of people who were talking about Svelte, Solid. It was Svelte, Solid, Quik.

That’s huge. And that was because Misko said yes to everything. He was at every single possible conference you could ever freaking imagine. So you can’t say it doesn’t work, right? Like Sebastian Witalec, who used to be at NativeScript, Progress NativeScript, you could see from the downloads where did Sebastian go to a conference and that directly correlated to what country was getting NativeScript downloads.

Kate: Wow. That’s interesting.

Tracy: I mean, that’s hard. I think the metrics and the standardizations of what DevRel means to different organizations and how they measure value is still so all over the place. And honestly, will the industry ever come to some level of a standard? I don’t know.

Kate: Yeah, doesn’t seem likely.

Tracy: The other crazy thing though to me about Developer Relations is, you know… here’s what I think typically happens in a product, right? You see this all the time. SaaS companies, they have a good sales team. The sales people network with the right people, right? So the C-levels or whoever’s signing the checks make these business deals, okay? $5 million contract. Okay, we sold it, okay? So you think that, you know, X SaaS company has, you know, SaaS product is being adopted everywhere, right?

But then in reality, boots on the ground, developers hate it. But they’re stuck into a five year contract. But developer relations can help that because they can see it, they can feel the pulse, they can help those developers be successful and make it sticky and retain. Or in five years, you know, your company was dead two years ago. It’s just that there was a contract. So the people who are saying, oh, no, we’re not going to invest in developer relations right now, your product might already be dead, but you just don’t know it because you have a contract. But in reality, everybody hates it, and three years later you’re SOL. So I still think investing in Developer Relations is really important. I just think having organizations understand why they’re doing it, what they want to do, and somehow figuring it out. But there’s no real good answer. It’s hard. It’s hard.

Kate: No, I think all of these anecdotes are really valuable, and I think it just kind of points to the fact that companies need to be strategic when they’re thinking about Developer Relations, and that’s as close to a good answer as you’re gonna get, because yeah, I’m sure it depends on the products themselves that are being addressed, the size of the company, I mean, there’s a lot of factors involved. It’s never just gonna be push button, for sure.

Awesome. Well, I wanna thank Tracy for sharing her insights with me today. You can find out more about DevRelCity at devrel.city and follow @ladyleet on X.

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