Mark Birch on The Age of Community, Gamification in Stack Overflow & Moderator Powers - E66

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"So thinking early on about how to build contributions, that led to the early foray into gamification... And that I think is really the core of any community, it's how you build and serve your super fans, whether you're a massive site like Stack Overflow or you're maybe just like an internal community, like an employee resource group. Whatever that community is, the community thrives or dies on those core users, those core members because what they do sets the culture and it sets the vibe of that community." - Mark Birch 

 

Mark is a software entrepreneur, business development expert, startup advisor, community builder, and author of Community-in-a-Box.

He currently works at AWS as a Principal Startup Advocate advising founders and technical teams on how startups across Asia-Pacific successfully build and scale their startups on AWS.

As a community builder,  Mark founded DEVBIZOPS, a long standing newsletter and blog about innovation, technology transformation, and developer culture. Mark also is the founder of the Enterprise Sales Forum, a global community of 25,000 B2B sales professionals that meet in-person and virtually to share ideas, network with peers, and learn new skills.

Previously, Mark was with Stack Overflow to help launch their SaaS Q&A platform and then led efforts to expand business in APAC working with C-level executives to help them understand how to build internal tech communities in order to improve software delivery performance.

Before that he launched an HR tech startup, invested in numerous B2B tech companies and worked at a diverse group of leading technology companies including Oracle, E.piphany, and Siebel.

Mark graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Boston University. In his non-working hours, he likes to search cities for the best local foods, and he can be seen rocking out to extreme metal on occasion.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:00:00] So Mark, welcome to the show. Really excited to share your journey with all the folks.

 

Mark Birch: [00:00:05] I'm excited too. And thank you, Jeremy, for having me on to share a little bit with your audience.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:00:11] So Mark, I've always enjoyed our conversations since the start of the pandemic where we networked virtually on I think a 2D town and all these other random conversations then, and I got to hear a little bit about your journey. For those who don't know you yet, could you share a little bit about your professional journey.

 

Mark Birch: [00:00:30] I'll start with where I am now and then maybe go back to the very beginning, not the very beginning, beginning, I don't really know much about my years as a baby, but I am at AWS now, which is kind of a surprising twist for many folks that I know and I'll explain why. But I'm at AWS, I am a principal startup advocate and I cover Asia-Pacific. And in that role, I work with startups, I work with founders, to help them understand the things that AWS provides from a services and programs perspective to help them build, grow and scale their startups. And I not only work with founders, I also work with investors, accelerators, incubators and people that are influential in the startup ecosystems through Asia-Pacific.

 

And prior to that I was with Stack Overflow, where I was responsible for launching their enterprise business. For those that do not know Stack Overflow, it is the number one site for Q&A for developers globally. It has 50 to 60 million visitors visiting monthly. And so, from a developer standpoint, a great resource, but they wanted to take that product and create a SASS offering for enterprises and businesses that wanted to have their own internal knowledge sharing. So I helped launch that and then I decided to build out our business in Asia-Pacific is how I ended up at AWS.

 

But this all started because I was [inaudible] , it was an interesting part of my career. Shifted to software development and was a software engineer for a while. Ended up being pushed into sales, and from sales at big companies like Siebel and Oracle I went to start my own company, it was an HR analytics company looking at workforce analysis and skills across an organization. After the startup, I started angel investing and advising startups in the New York City ecosystem focusing my investments in the B2B tech space and SASS. And it was through that process that I started to get really into building communities.

 

So I built a community called the Enterprise Sales Forum, which has grown to 30,000 members globally and we would meet monthly in meetups from places such as New York, where I started, to London, Toronto, San Francisco, Chicago, all the way to Singapore and Hong Kong. So that was a opportunity for people to gather monthly, for talks, to meet each other, to network, to learn and share ideas so we can all be better at B2B sales. And along that process I would act as a part time chief revenue officer for startups and eventually that's how I ended up at Stack Overflow. That's my story in brief.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:03:43] Thanks, Mark. I really appreciate you sharing that. It's interesting because you started in Boston, you started in the States and then you were an electrical engineer. So could you tell us a little bit more about how you ended up ... Did you transition from Boston University to Stack Overflow, was that your first role, or what was there?

 

Mark Birch: [00:04:07] I guess you could call it a short hop depending on what your definition of short is, but that was a 20 year journey between college and Stack Overflow, so I've had a few hops in between. So yeah, I was at Boston University, I was a terrible student. Actually, I wrote this in my newsletter recently, how I was a terrible student. I didn't get great grades, I didn't really care. I had my interests elsewhere, so I was ... I was trying different things. I liked to hack, so I was always in the computer lab trying to find ways of breaking into other people's terminals.

 

I was interested in activism in a sense, so I ran for student government. First time I ran for student body president I lost. The second time I was part of the team where I was the executive vice president and we won. I got involved in a lot of community stuff, just because of my involvement in the government with working with different community groups across or around Boston University's campus, because a lot of the people or residents that lived around Boston University did not like the students so much. I helped on some of the ... being an ambassador so to speak. And also was responsible for releasing and managing the college-wide course and professor evaluation guide.

 

So I had all these other interests, which had nothing to do with engineering or anything and I really didn't know what I was going to do after college. During the summers, I would not do the typical college internships, like working at Honeywell or GE or whatever, in some big amorphous engineering-ish warehouse where I was doing whatever in a cubicle. Instead, I was actually working in the commodities space, in trading, helping out a firm as a clerk on the floor of the exchange for quite a few summers, and that's how I got into floor trading when I graduated. But that's basically what I did, I didn't have any sort of long term vision of where I was going to go in my career.

 

And it wasn't until many months into that role, I started to think about what the future really would look like, and this was around the time when companies like Yahoo were just exploding, the whole dotcom 1.0, 1995, 1996, was taking off. Netscape was massive. All these companies were just coming from out of nowhere and I was fascinated with that. So I was thinking in my mind, "I could be here as a commodities trader and I could make a lot of money." I was making a ton of money, a ridiculous amount of money for a kid my age, but I was looking at all this going on out in Silicon Valley and thinking to myself, "When are these really smart people going to get wise to the fact that the job I do really could just be done by a computer."

 

And so I had this epiphany and so I decided I needed to be out there and I needed to find myself a job in software to get myself over there. So I ended up interviewing for software engineering jobs, I was very fortunate to have a company bring me on as a junior engineer and that was really the start of my career.

 

I'd say a lot of those experiences in that first tech role were instrumental for all the other hops I had later on in my career because I'm not entirely sure if I hadn't had that stop as a software engineer early on, I don't know if I would have been at a place like Stack Overflow, which is so focused on developers and understanding developers and what their needs are. So that was the start of me in tech, just having that vision of wanting to be out in California, which I eventually did do with that same company and got immersed in what the whole startup ecosystem was like.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:08:29] Stack Overflow's a big deal, right? I don't know if everybody knows what Stack Overflow is, especially those who are not developers, so could you explain what Stack Overflow is and then maybe we'll dive deeper into what makes Stack Overflow special.

 

Mark Birch: [00:08:46] Does anyone know what Stack Overflow is, raise your hand. No, no, just kidding. It's a really dumb joke that our founder Joel Spolsky would share in audiences early on when he launched Stack Overflow in 2008. So for context, Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood were the two founders of Stack Overflow. They were very well known in the developer ecosystem because they were two of the most prolific and earliest bloggers to talk about topics around software engineering and in a way that was really approachable.

 

So not only were they really good programmers obviously to be able to write the content that they did, but they had a humor, they had an approachability. They were really good writers, and so they built a huge following. The two of them got together because they saw a really interesting problem in the developer community, which was people that were starting out, or really any level of expertise and experience in programming, they were hunting around the internet for answers to their programming questions. And there's lots of different sites out there, but the one that was probably biggest at the time was Experts Exchange.

 

Now, Experts Exchange was kind of like Stack Overflow, but the problem was, as Joel and Jeff saw it, was that you would have to pay for answers. So you would put something into Google, your question, and the top results would be something from Experts Exchange, and when you clicked on it, automatically you were gated, you had to pay something. And they had this wonky credit system or what have you, but it was really annoying and a huge productivity killer, because now you have to deal with this whole other thing with how do I actually pay for this or should I pay for this, I don't even know if it's going to be a good answer or not.

 

So Joel and Jeff were like, this is ridiculous. So they set about building a site that would be free for everyone and it would be built on the contributions of programmers around the world. So they launched it, a soft launch in the summer of 2008 and they announced it to their followings, which were pretty significant. And that first day, they had 30,000 people on the site. Within a year they had a million, talk about epic growth.

 

So that was 2008. And then in the subsequent years it continued to grow and build and it really became part of the toolkit for developers, much like GitHub is for storing your code and sharing your code, it just became a pillar of the developer experience. And there was lots of memes, if you search for Stack Overflow memes, you'll see all the things about what happens when Stack Overflow goes down, oh, work is done. It's just part of the developer culture now.

 

And so what was really fascinating to me is, one, this was a company that was started in New York City, which was really rare in 2008 to see a lot of significant companies coming out of New York City that were tech startups, and two, that it was such an icon and such an important thing for developers worldwide. And it has been part of a whole ecosystem of other things that have helped to accelerate the ability for people to learn code and get up to speed and to become proficient, because if I look at the growth of the developer ecosystems across the world and the growth of startups, you can actually map where people are visiting from across the world. And if you look at that data and you also map that to growth in a number startups, you'll see this incredible correlation and that's what emerged from the data as I was looking at it.

 

I'm building this enterprise Q&A, this enterprise knowledge management business for Stack Overflow, and then I'm looking at data and think, "Okay, where are the next opportunities? What countries should we be focusing on?" And what really popped out in my mind is that the two top countries from a growth perspective, not a number of developers perspective because that's India and the US and China, but just looking at growth over a three to five year period, and the two top countries from a growth perspective in developer ecosystems is Indonesia at number one and Vietnam at number two.

 

So that in my mind was a sign and that's what led me to head over to Singapore and Hong Kong, set my up base and to focus on building out Stack Overflow in the region. I will say though as daunting as that is, it was definitely helped by the fact that any developer I ever talked to when I mentioned the words Stack Overflow and I worked there were instantly in awe. So it was good to know that going from the US to Asia to build up the business side of Stack Overflow, that it had a welcoming audience in all the developers I would meet. So hopefully that gives you a little bit of perspective of Stack Overflow and what it does, why it's important, and also, what brought me over to Asia in the first place.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:14:57] Well, we'll talk soon more about how the Vietnamese, Asia market was underrated at the time, but I want to go deeper into this Stack Overflow thing, because today we're using all these words like community, as an advantage and differentiator, paid communities, and I feel like Stack Overflow was, not number one, but at least one of the earliest online communities that got really started, and not only leveraged it at the start without us naming it, but also continues to very much feel like it's still aligned with the values they articulated from day one. So I'm just kind of curious how you feel about that?

 

Mark Birch: [00:15:40] It's a question I think about every so often, even though I'm not at Stack Overflow anymore. I'll say a couple of things on this point. One, I'll always be one of the biggest fans of Stack Overflow. I think people would see that when I would go to events and I would sponsor events or speak, I always had my Stack Overflow T-shirt on, it really is a thing. And we talk about community and in some ways community can feel like a cult, not the bad aspects of it, but that it really is a language and an experience that people looking on the outside may not understand. So there is something that is iconic about what Stack Overflow is and what it's become.

 

That being said, as a company, it really has changed quite a bit. When it started, the mission was pretty pure, it was about helping the world's developers to level up in their careers, because let's face it, learning to code for the vast majority of people is not a natural thing, it's not easy, you don't just pick it up. It takes studying, it takes doing and that's an important mission and I still feel that that is a mission that's still important to the company and that we had lots of internal discussions about community, about fostering the community, community relations.

 

There are times when I feel that Stack Overflow maybe went awry and didn't really think, one, about the things about how to build such a massive community. When you have 50, 60 million visitors on your site, you're going to get all sorts of types of personalities and people. Those personalities will clash and there is an aspect of Stack Overflow that for many people that are new to code can seem very daunting and intimidating. Putting in your first question on Stack Overflow is very much like taking a dive off a 10 meter platform.

 

And if you've never done that, for the first time you're looking down at that water, you're looking down at the pool and you're 10 meters high and you're wondering, "Am I going to die if I jump off?" And sometimes that's what asking a question on Stack Overflow is because if you don't put thought into how you ask a question, it can very much be a result that people reading your question will think, "Wow, this person knows nothing." And the comments that you get, the response that you get can be pretty negative. And it's not negative in terms of trolls that are saying rude things or mocking you, or really just saying just terrible, awful things, but it's things that are very negative in tone that speak to the fact that this person is very new to being a developer.

 

And so those are things that I think have been challenging as a community and as a company to try and figure out how to make the site more welcoming, especially to folks that are new. If you're new to code you're probably not very good at asking questions, that's the irony of asking questions. Everyone says, "Oh, you should ask questions, that's how you're going to learn." Well, oftentimes the way to ask better questions is by knowing something of your subject and knowing how to formulate those questions, which you won't have that experience if you're new to code.

 

So it's something that the company has really been challenged with and has tried to come up with ways of making the site more welcoming to new people. And it really exposes a dynamic that starts to emerge around Stack Overflow, because once you have a place where there's lots of code, people are just going to take that code and they're going to run with it.

 

I don't know how many people are familiar with the Tim O'Reilly books, where O'Reilly books were to have some sort of silhouette of an animal and the title of the book would be like Beginning Your JavaScript Journey, and there'll be a picture of a koala for example. There was this meme going around on Stack Overflow, which the title of the book is How to Cut and Paste from Stack Overflow, and I think it's a picture of a sloth. So it becomes a site where people don't really ... There's not a lot of critical thinking, people see oh well, here's a code snippet, let me put that in my code.

 

And so there's a perception that there's the experts and then there's everyone else and that creates an interesting community clash where you have people that feel that the site should be for them. But with such an incredible resource, the site's really become a place for everyone and that's a hard thing to manage when you're a community, particularly a community at that scale because that's where you're going to see a lot of these clashes.

 

I can go on way longer than we have about the interesting and wonky community dynamics, but I think I'll stop there and see where else you want to go or what you want to probe into.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:21:22] I love the Stack Overflow memes so much. As a discriminating consumer of memes, there are lots of good ones about Stack Overflow that come in from time to time. It's all about like you said ... I think the two flavors are like how everybody copies and pastes from Stack Overflow. There's one meme and then the second one meme is like you said, like some, I won't say toxicity but like you said, the plunge, the craziness of asking a question and how the community acts in terms of the stereotypes or archetypes.

 

And obviously, I've benefited myself from Stack Overflow from time to time because I wouldn't say ... The last time I really actually quoted it hard was a long time ago, a long, long time ago. I've always been more on HTML now than CSS and JavaScript back then. I've also used it to debug some stuff along the way because there's so much content, there's so much knowledge in there. I think the memes are right, like the solution was seven years ago, right? One person asked that question and three people replied and then one of them actually works and I'm like, "Wow, thanks Stack Overflow." So let me add some goodwill towards the site.

 

Mark Birch: [00:22:42] I think you've probably seen the meme where there's someone that's drowning in the water and they're raising their hand. The whole meme is around getting your question closed.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:22:54] Yeah, rough.

 

Mark Birch: [00:22:56] And so the person's like "Can you throw me a life vest?" Or, "I asked a question on Stack Overflow." And the person that has a life vest is like, "Oh. Well, did you do X, Y and Z?" And it's like, "No," and then the person just drowns. A lot of those memes, mean spirited, but I think pretty accurate at times.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:23:17] Yeah. And it's interesting because I think that was really ... I think in the back of my head, I feel like Stack Overflow is part of the first wave of next to Reddit and Hacker News, that feels to me like the triumph I think of internet culture with the up vote and the comment threads. What do you think about that?

 

Mark Birch: [00:23:42] I think there's a lot of pioneering things that Stack Overflow put into the product and ended up being elements that actually got adopted by others sites. And some of it is also a reflection of things that Jeff and Joel saw, that they incorporated as features. So thinking early on about how to build contributions, that led to the early foray into gamification.

 

So you go onto Stack Overflow, you answer some questions, you pose some questions, you start to get involved in the site and you'll start to see that you get these points, and if you answer a whole bunch of questions, you may get a badge. And over time, you get these badges and you get these points, reputation points, and it became this really interesting currency that became your programmer persona. So being able to say that you were in the top 1% of Stack Overflow users, that is something of a badge of honor. So that was a really interesting mechanism for spurring on contributions without having to pay anything, internet points are free.

 

So what was tied into the reputation and badging system was also access to doing more on the site. So as you were participating more, you were getting more points, you also had more privileges. And eventually, if you continue far enough, you can get to a point where you become a moderator and they'll have these elections and you can vote to be a moderator and it was a really fascinating system to get a core of those super fans really engaged.

 

And that I think is really the core of any community, it's how you build and serve your super fans, whether you're a massive site like Stack Overflow or you're maybe just like an internal community, like an employee resource group. Whatever that community is, the community thrives or dies on those core users, those core members because what they do sets the culture and it sets the vibe of that community. And that is the crux of what Stack Overflow is, a site that has so many tens of millions of users is in many ways driven by a few thousand that are the core contributors, if you will, to much of what you see on Stack Overflow today. So that was also an interesting observation as they were growing their community.

 

And then the last thing is moderation. So moderation is just famously difficult to do and we see this emerge famously with things like Paler, which caused some issues because the inability to moderate the most extreme content ended up getting the site kicked off of its hosting providers and having to scramble to find a new home. Moderation becomes a critical aspect of managing your community and there's a fine balance, because now you have these people that have been elected and they've gained reputation to have a big voice on a site.

 

And when you give some people power, power can be a huge lever in amplifying behaviors in people that when you don't have power don't really emerge or they don't really play a part in your day to day interactions with people. But power in the hands of people that may have negative tendencies towards wanting to have things their way, not listening to other people, and particularly doing this in an ecosystem where it's quasi anonymous causes massive conflicts because now you have people with a modicum of power to have that taste and they can go overboard. And so that's the interesting power dynamics that go on. And when you have a large site with so many people involved, it can be really hard to manage and police some of those activities.

 

So that's an interesting note and there's been a lot that the community management team at Stack Overflow has worked with and dealt with over the many years is finding out what mechanisms are needed to create a system that balances the needs of users and the freedom that the users have to contribute, and be involved with the power that moderators have and making sure that there's a happy medium there, so that the site can continue to thrive and not become overwhelmed with bad content, because that's a key aspect of what moderators are doing. They're monitoring for content quality, but at the same time making sure that the angry mob syndrome doesn't take over and creates a site that is wholly negative, and that's already been an issue of Stack Overflow in terms of the label of toxicity being thrown around.

 

But by and large, Stack Overflow has managed to survive some these challenges. I think there's a really interesting case study in managing very massive semi anonymous internet communities, much like Reddit, right? Reddit's had its own challenges as well, very much aligned with what Stack Overflow has seen over the past 12 years or more. But again, I can probably talk for many hours about community and I even ended up writing a book about community that was based on some of my experiences at Stack Overflow.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:30:44] Obviously, there's so much you've done since then, AWS, you've been in Community-In-a-Box, but I'm curious because I feel like you took a lot of what you learned at Stack Overflow and all these different places, even on this newsletter. So before we talk about the how, could you give us some of the metrics around the results as a newsletter and community today?

 

Mark Birch: [00:31:05] Okay. So for some context, I write a weekly newsletter. I think that you ended up receiving it, Jeremy, when we connected over Tech 65, that Slack community that was run by I think the Singapore Economic Development Board. So I have a newsletter. I started it when I was at Stack Overflow, it's called DEV.BIZ.OPS. I think originally it was the Stack Overflow Newsletter or something to that effect. But I started it, not because I have this innate desire just to write a newsletter, but it had a very specific purpose in mind, which was to act as a marketing channel for reaching out to the people that I was talking to about Stack Overflow's enterprise offering.

 

For a bit of behind the scenes context, when we were launching this enterprise business, the team was very small, we were six people, and so we didn't have a lot of resources. We really depended on other teams to help out or chip in where they could, and the for the most part everyone was pretty generous with trying to help and support this very new business that was very much an experiment. When I went over to my peers in marketing for any sort of support the answer was always, "Well, we're too busy," which seems odd because we're launching a new business line and you would think marketing should be involved in building awareness, but they pretty much said no, they don't want to focus on that. And they were focusing all the efforts on our other business lines which were a talent product and an advertising product.

 

So left to my own devices, I'm thinking, "Well, how am I going to actually build an engaged audience, how am I going to build awareness?" So the newsletter was a mechanism to be that channel so I can have a regular touch with anyone that was ever involved in a conversation about Stack Overflow enterprise, I would add them to the newsletter and that's how it grew over time. So that was about over three years ago I think, yeah and actually approaching four years come June. So what's been the result?

 

Well, I have over 4,000 subscribers now. My open rates hover around 25%, which from a newsletter perspective is decent. I wish it was higher, but I think there's a lot of people that I've kept on. So that's also something, just like a side note around email newsletters, people move around, they change jobs, people just stop opening or maybe they're not interested anymore in the content, but they never unsubscribe, and so an important aspect of maintaining your newsletter is always pruning, which I've not had time to do but is probably time to do that now. But anyway.

 

So the newsletter, it gets pretty positive feedback and there's been a number of folks that receive it, particularly in that whole CTO, CIO, head of engineering group, which is a pretty large percentage of the readership. A lot of them are sharing it on places like LinkedIn, which is really cool to see. And sometimes I have no idea that they're doing this and it just happens that behind the scenes I have a community for some of these folks, particularly more the senior folks, someone will ping me on Slack and say, "Hey, I saw your article." I'm like, "What?" And I'll go and check it out and it'll be like, "Oh wow, that's awesome."

 

So the newsletter itself, content wise, does seem all over the place, but it does tend to sit squarely in the intersection of engineering and leadership, so that's why it's DEV.BIZ.OPS. For those that may or may not know, DevOps is a big movement that's existed for the past 12 years or more, which is just around bringing the developers and operations folks a bit closer together, making them more aligned, all for the purposes of streamlining the production of code.

 

So developers write the code, sometimes they test, sometimes it goes to another group, and then eventually that code goes to a group to then deploy it somewhere. And in many organizations those are separate teams and they don't really get along and the whole process is just a big nightmare, which means that getting anything into production quickly, like new features, takes forever. And so DevOps has been this set of ideas and cultural dynamics, as well as tooling and processes and ways of thinking to help bridge that divide, and so you'll hear things like continuous integration, continuous deployment, continuous delivery as concepts that are part and parcel to this overall umbrella of DevOps.

 

But the thing I observed as I was starting to talk to a lot of senior technology leaders and companies was that for that to even happen there's also a business element, that's why it's DEV.BIZ.OPS. And the business aspect of this is how you think about budgeting for IT projects, how do you think about the business requirements, how is the fact that business is part of this dynamic that is enabling the creation, the development and deployment of code, how to make that more seamless. And oftentimes the barriers between developers and operations folks is often the divide that's caused by the business. So a lot of my topics will talk about developer culture, they'll talk about leadership culture and some of the interesting intersections in between. That's the newsletter.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:37:35] You've always been super fascinated with community and of the community in a box, Stack Overflow, with what you're doing and leading at AWS today, as well, of course, DEV.BIZ.OPS. Is it something special about programmers and community online and the internet, or is it something that is Mark Birch, or is it a combination of both?

 

Mark Birch: [00:38:03] Oh no, there's nothing about me, it's that communities are cool. Let me talk about a little bit of the dynamics I've seen with community because I think it's a bit misunderstood. I think in some other contexts, I've talked about 2020 being the age of community. Some people took that negatively and said, "Oh well, what are you talking about?" And to be fair, community has been something that's existed forever, humanity had this desire to gather together for shared interests and values and that's what a community is when you peel back that onion. So community is something that's innate in all of us, to want to gather, to share, collaborate, work with each other. And we've had lots and lots of communities, we have clubs, you have societies, you have associations and these have existed for a very, very long time, then the internet happened.

 

And before it was just this loose collection of folks, maybe you'd find each other on, for some of the old school folks listening, the BBS's, or bulletin board systems. Then we've tried to find each other and we'd form these groups and these forums and all that started to accelerate into the 2000s with social networking. And so Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, it all helped to fuel this fire to bring people together, but now you can do it in a virtual space. So you could bring together all these people that have like interests and that was the start of this age of community.

 

But then something shifted, and part of that big shift was COVID. The other shift I think is a lot of the negatives that come with social networking, so the negative perceptions people have when they look through their Instagram feeds or a lot of the negative aspects and conversations that have happened on things like Facebook when discussions delve into things like politics, when in Twitter, which is very much a public space, people have been harassed and trolled relentlessly, especially women and folks that are part of underrepresented groups.

 

So there's been a pull back from a public space of wanting to find more welcoming safer places for those conversations, and then this other movement with organizations understanding that all these tools that they were trying to throw at their employees wasn't really helping to create or foster any sort of community to bring people together.

 

And when COVID hit, we ended up thrown into this virtual workplace and it started to ignite something in this realm of community, which was already out there anyway, but it just threw a whole bunch of gas in that fire and it exploded with things like The Community Fund, which is a VC fund dedicated to just funding tech companies that are focused in the community space with the incredible rise of lots of tooling and technologies and solutions around how to foster communities.

 

So that's what I mean by 2020 being the age of community, it's now this recognition that community is a thing that we thrive on and that we want more of. We want to be a part of these groups of people that have like interests and to share and collaborate and learn from each other, but to do so in environments that are more welcoming and open and hopefully diverse. And you can have these communities still being an open space and they'll still thrive, Reddit's not going anywhere, Facebook's not going anywhere, Stack Overflow certainly isn't going anywhere.

 

But it's just an understanding that you're probably a part of a lot of these virtual communities, and Clubhouse is a perfect example of that. The rise of all these clubs that are popping up including this one, the South East Asia Tech Club, because people want to align towards those interests. And so rather than seeing this pull back when COVID finally ... When we pass through this period, I do think that many of these sites and many of the things that we've seen over the past year that are fostering communities, they're not going to level off, they're going to continue to thrive. That's what I have to say about community. Hopefully that was what you were looking for, what you were asking.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:43:16] Wrapping up, for those who want to reach out to you, how should they reach out to you, and after that we'll open up for questions if any from the audience?

 

Mark Birch: [00:43:25] How should people reach out to me? Well, hopefully if you're still listening here live on Clubhouse, you can go to my bio, just click on my icon there up at the top and you should see links to Twitter and Instagram. That's probably the easiest way where you can just follow right now. If you're listening to this afterwards, the best way is to connect with me on LinkedIn. I'm pretty open unless you're some lunatic, but I may not know that. But in any case, connect with me on LinkedIn, I'm at startupmark. You can hit me up on Twitter, that's marksbirch. When you connect or when you reach out, let me know if you found me through this podcast. I love to connect, I love to learn more about folks, so the more that you share about yourself the easier it is to know what you're interested in and how I can be helpful.

 

And the last thing I would say is if you are interested, I'm going to do just a blatant pitch, I have a book on community. We've talked a lot about communities in this podcast, so check it out, it's easy to find. It's called Community-in-a-Box, on Amazon. There's also a website called Community-in-a-Box, so if you search for that on LinkedIn, it'll pop up at the top. Yeah, those are all the ways you can reach out and please do connect.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:44:55] There's a bunch of people who've been listening for the entire thing, so feel free to raise your hands to ask Mark some questions. We are recording and this is being recorded as a podcast, but feel free to ask your question.

 

Mark Birch: [00:45:07] Yeah, ask me some questions, challenge me. If you're not going to come up here and ask questions, I'm going to ask you questions, you may not be able to respond. Clubhouse has been quite interesting to experience and generally I think you're pretty much on every ... I think you're on all the time and in every room I go to, so you have this remarkable ability to be everywhere on Clubhouse. It's kind of like that weird song called Everywhere. Everywhere I go, everywhere I look, Jeremy's in the room.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:45:47] I don't think it is, I think it's the algorithm. The algorithm is just saying that you and I have some affinity for each other because I do see you around as well. So I definitely see you all the time on Clubhouse as well, so I feel like the algorithms are saying you two are kind of tight. Anyway, we'll buddy up. But, [Saad] , you've got to give a question or chat about Mark.

 

Mark Birch: [00:46:06] Saad, I'm following you, you better follow me back. Oh you do. Okay, you're cool. Ask away, what's your question? I see you're at AWS. It's a wonderful company, I couldn't be more supportive of AWS, mostly because I'm at AWS. But Saad ask your question. What's on your mind?

 

Saad: [00:46:30] Hey guys, I'm sorry, I just joined as a listener, I don't really have any questions.

 

Mark Birch: [00:46:35] Well, maybe I'll ask you a question. What do you do at AWS? What's your role?

 

Saad: [00:46:41] I'm a startup solutions architect.

 

Mark Birch: [00:46:44] Where are you based?

 

Saad: [00:46:45] I'm based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

 

Mark Birch: [00:46:48] Nice. How long have you been a solution architect for?

 

Saad: [00:46:52] Well, as a solutions architect, it's been in my career path for a while, but I joined AWS about four months ago I would say.

 

Mark Birch: [00:47:01] Wow, four months ago.

 

Saad: [00:47:03] Yeah.

 

Mark Birch: [00:47:05] So in the midst of COVID, much like myself. I joined AWS nine months ago, so not much longer than you have been at the company, but it's interesting because I've not actually met anyone in my job, face to face, it's all been very much virtual.

 

Saad: [00:47:24] Yeah, pretty much. I got to meet a few people when I went to the office to pick up my laptop and equipment, but other than that, it's been all virtual. It's kind of surreal to join a company and everything you see and experience is completely virtual, that's new to me.

 

Mark Birch: [00:47:44] Which makes this whole concept of community, as I was talking about before, Jeremy, so critical, because now if you don't have that face to face interaction, what are you doing to foster those connections inside an organization? I think from an AWS perspective, we've done a pretty good job of that, with all the various types of groups and also I think part of it being the values that AWS holds. So for those who aren't familiar we have these 14 leadership principles and it really helps to tether a company that's now many tens of thousands globally to be able to work together, to collaborate, even though we may have different opinions to be able to come together as an organization to get results. So it's been fascinating to see how in a really short amount of time AWS was able to make this incredible switch from in person to completely virtual and still be able to do things like onboarding effectively.

 

So hopefully that was your experience, Saad, and welcome to the team and hopefully we get to chat at some point and meet up in person, that would be amazing. I've actually never been to Saudi Arabia, I need to figure out a way of getting myself over to the region.

 

Saad: [00:49:07] It's been one of the best onboarding experience I've ever had, I agree. It was an enriching and learning experience. I spent the first three months, literally I was just learning, trying to understand, especially when re:Invent 2020 was just in time, one month after I joined, and so there was so much for me to learn. And the expansion of the new set of features and services is just mind boggling, so it's really, really exciting to be a part of that.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:49:37] And after this we'll have Jacqueline come up as well.

 

Mark Birch: [00:49:41] Jacqueline, how you doing today?

 

Jacqueline: [00:49:44] Hey, Mark. Hope you are able to hear me clearly. I'm doing well.

 

Mark Birch: [00:49:51] Excellent.

 

Jacqueline: [00:49:52] Can everybody hear me? Just to do a sound check first.

 

Mark Birch: [00:49:54] Yeah, I can hear you quite well.

 

Jacqueline: [00:49:57] Oh cool. Okay, I apologize first because I'm actually in a supermarket in Singapore and I've been listening to this chat for almost an hour right now and I could not resist but raise my hands even though the environment might be pretty noisy. I think this is a very exciting moment because of digital transformation is taking the world by a wave because of the pandemic, or because of the last couple of years when we are going through a lot of transformation.

 

I come from a security community and part of that I have some experience when it comes to DevOps as well. I just want to hear your view when it comes to the role of security, where do you think security play a role in this?

 

Mark Birch: [00:50:39] Security's critical, Jacqueline, because without it anything you build is vulnerable. And the vulnerabilities are only increasing. So obviously to do something like Dev.Biz.Sec.Ops it becomes a mouthful, so I don't necessarily explicitly call it out, and I'll be very candid here that security, it's not my forte, I'm more on the other side trying to get around people's security. So I may not be the best person of talk about this.

 

Very early on I shared a little bit about some of my extracurricular activities in college, which included hacking into the computer's UNIX system and taking over people's terminals for fun, that's what you did as a kid. So later on a lot of what I learned about security and securing apps actually played a role in how I worked as an angel investor because a lot of things I would be concerned about was do they have the engineering chops to build this thing that they want to build.

 

And just for context, in New York City around 2009, 2010, a lot of people were jumping into tech startups and a lot of folks that are doing that were not programmers, but they would learn code. They'd pick up Ruby on Rails or something and they'd put up an app. And even though I focused more helping on the go to market strategy side as an advisor or investor, I also had a tech background and I would try things out to see if I could break the app.

 

And oftentimes I'd be able to just throw in a SQL injection and break into someone's app and take everyone's passwords. It was shocking the level of understanding around security was minimal. And I'd have to explain this delicately to founders like, "Hey, your app ... You're processing credit card transactions and you're just exposing so much personally identifiable information that it's going to be hard for me to invest or work with you if you're not going to be actively fixing these things." That should be the core of how you think about building an application.

 

And so, security is critical, critical and we see this all the time. I've just gotten a whole bunch of emails over the past week about a vendor that pretty much every airline in the world uses, about a security breach. It wasn't even the airline's fault, but because I'm a customer of maybe Singapore Airlines, or United, or American Airlines, they're affected because some of that data went to this provider and that provider had a break in.

 

So security has to be part of the architecture of what you build and it's the thing I really like about the AWS perspective. When we work with customers, whether it's large enterprises or even startups, part of our Well-Architected Framework and a lot of the architecture reviews that we do are centered around security, transformation and moving a whole lot of workloads to the cloud, security is part of the elements of what we talk about with customers in terms of making that move successful. So to me, security is a mindset and a culture and if it's not part of that mindset and culture, you're not going to put the time and investment and resources into security to providing a secure environment for your users.

 

Jacqueline: [00:54:43] Totally, Mark, that's beautiful. What you just said is so beautiful that I wish I have a notepad and my pen right now just to jot it down. I think from the years that I come from, it used to be security is a roadblock, it's a roadblock for business progression. But right now, exactly what you just said, security is a business and it's just security built in together with DevOp, knowing it enable business to progress even further to a wider scope. So thank you very much, Mark.

 

Mark Birch: [00:55:17] Yeah, no, thank you. Thank you for listening, Jacqueline. It was a pleasure, and let's connect over LinkedIn.

 

Jacqueline: [00:55:21] Okay. I'll drop you a note. Thank you.

 

Mark Birch: [00:55:23] Great.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:55:23] Awesome. I think that's pretty much it. Thanks so much. I think I really appreciate it. I think three parts, I think obviously I think a deeper insight on Stack Overflow which most people don't have, and then the second part is I think the community piece, and then the third thing is your move into building community across South East Asia. So thank you so much for sharing all of that, Mark.

 

Mark Birch: [00:55:50] Yeah, absolutely. I'm really thankful that you had me up here and glad to be helpful in any way possible. As I said before, definitely follow me. You can follow me here on Clubhouse, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram if you wish. But if you do follow me on Instagram, you'll just be regaled with just pictures of food, so if that's not your thing, you may not want to follow me there. But let's see, yeah I love connecting, so folks if you have questions you don't want to ask right now, hit me up on whatever, particularly LinkedIn. I think it tends to be the social network I'm most active on.

 

And if you are interested in AWS stuff, we didn't really talk about tha today, but we have a AWS Startups Club and we're hosting regular events, so that's pretty cool as well. I really appreciate the time, Jeremy, and always love to talk about things around community, my time at Stack Overflow and helping people think about things around leadership and technology.

 

Jeremy Au: [00:56:55] Thanks, Mark.

 

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