What Matters Episode 27

What Matters, Episode 30: Rocket to Community with Chris DeMars

We know what the open source and startup world is like. But what about community work in the enterprise? Are things different at different scales? What if you have non-corporate style?

What Matters, Episode 30: Rocket to Community

In this episode of What Matters, PJ sits down with Chris DeMars to talk about how Rocket Mortgage engages with folks on the open source front, the community front, and also on Chris’ passion: the #a11y front. They talk about everything from bringing value from the street to the boardroom and back to the community to rocking your personal style in a corporate environment.

And to hear more about what’s going on in the world of open source, we are joined by Ben Lloyd Pearson with his most recent Open Source News update!

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What Matters, Episode 30 is now available to listen to or download. Check out the full episode — and all our episodes — now available from Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotifySoundCloud, and wherever you want to listen in! 

Episode Transcript

Welcome to What Matters, a podcast from the folks at Mattermost. We’ll be discussing ChatOps, open source, DevOps, and everything that matters most to you. Let’s see what we’re chatting about this episode.

PJ Hagerty:

All right, so 3, 2, 1. Hey, everybody, welcome to the latest episode of What Matters, a podcast from the folks here at Mattermost. I’m PJ, as always, your host. Before we get started, here’s what matters in open source with our friend, Ben Lloyd Pearson.

Ben Lloyd Pearson:

Thanks, PJ. So, I’ve got two fairly big stories for you today. The first one is related to the White House. So, it seems that there’s not a single day that passes by without hearing some news about software security. And given the immense amount of dependency that the tech industry has on open source software, it’s no surprise that open source projects are routinely the focus of attention for this.

Some examples that come off the top of my head are like: Log4j is the most recent one, the Heartbleed Bug with OpenSSL. But then there’s also these security concerns that are related to maintainer burnout. So, cURL, the maintainer for that project has been very vocal about how he’s basically just one guy that’s supporting millions and millions of developers all over the planet.

And then you have stories like faker.js which just recently, the maintainer published a pretty scathing post where he just said he’s not going to support companies who aren’t going to pay him money anymore. And they vandalized his projects and broke it on NPM which affected millions of people across the planet. It’s kind of an extraordinary story actually.

So, to help address this, the Biden administration recently brought together a group of leading open source experts from governmental agencies and the private sector to discuss software security. They cover three major topics. So, the first is preventing security defects and vulnerabilities in open source packages. They also discussed improving the process for finding defects and fixing them. And they also mostly shorten the response time for distributing and implementing fixes.

So, some of the solutions they discussed are all obvious. It’s things like making it easier for developers to integrate security features, securing the infrastructure that they use to build and distribute code, and also using things like digital identities and code signing to help improve reliability. Google actually had a pretty great write-up that they posted in response to this so we can include in the show notes.

But even if there’s not a lot of action that we’re seeing directly from this, it is great to see that this concern has gone all the way up to the most powerful person in the US and, arguably, the world.

PJ Hagerty:

Well, yeah. I mean, I think it’s one of those things where yeah … I mean, open source had this Wild Westy like “Hey, me against the world” kind of attitude. But in some ways, as it’s grown up, it does need a little bit of governance to prevent things like the faker.js debacle. I’ll go ahead and call it a debacle because that’s what it was.

And I know people like government overreach does. But I think that they’re more creating a space where we can talk about the things that will make the code, the projects, the tools safer and easier to use. So, I think that all in all, overall, this is a huge positive. It’s a great thing. It also brings more attention to open source which I think brings more investment from folks.

So that maybe some of those more burnt out coders or burnt out maintainers or creators will actually be able to see some like economic recompense and maybe more community help around what they’re trying to do.

Ben Lloyd Pearson:

Yeah. And the light at the end of the tunnel on this I think is things like we’re already discussing internally: how can we better support open source projects that we care about? And I’m not the only one that has this opinion. We really want to give direct financial support to projects we depend on. And not only that we depend on, just projects that are good for the ecosystem as a whole.

Because I’ve looked into some of our tech stack and we do actually have some people or some projects in our stack that the maintainers have been vocal about needing funding. So, I think it’s important for people like us to have these discussions as well and find ways to create support.

PJ Hagerty:

Awesome. What else have you got?

Ben Lloyd Pearson:

Yeah. So, the next one is probably one of the coolest open source projects I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s called DevToys. It’s a project from Microsoft that is a collection of useful tools for software developers. So, it has things like converter tools for JSON and YAML.

I saw some encoders and decoders for HTML Base64 and a few other things, hash generators, regex testing, markdown preview, image compression and many more. It’s actually pretty neat because I’ve been guilty of this in the past, using online tools particularly for regex testing or other things like that. And you can’t really trust these tools. You don’t want to put any sort of sensitive information in them because you don’t know where that information is going when you put it into the form.

But one of the project creators stated in a GitHub post that they were really impressed with the tools, the developer tools that are available on other platforms like Mac and Linux. And it simply just wanted to replicate that experience for developers who work on Windows. They’ve got a lot of big ideas for it and a lot of cool features that are coming out like it already has the ability to auto-detect the contents of your clipboard when you’re copy and pasting, and will automatically recommend the appropriate tool for that job.

So, it’s very clear that they’re thinking about developers and what they do in the average day and then just providing this pretty awesome suite for people who work on Windows.

PJ Hagerty:

So, I feel like there’s one big concern that came up there and you kind of mentioned it. So, it sees what’s on your clipboard and it can make suggestions. Is this the return of Clippy?

Ben Lloyd Pearson:

Clippy for developers. I don’t know …

PJ Hagerty:

Clippy for developers.

Ben Lloyd Pearson:

I don’t know that’d be such a bad thing, honestly.

PJ Hagerty:

I mean, I feel like Clippy got a bad name because it was maybe a little too soon for that interaction with an AI. But maybe now that we’ve seen more AI, maybe it’s time for Clippy to make the comeback. Maybe DevToys is a place to make that happen.

Ben Lloyd Pearson:

Yeah. They’ll have to come up with a mascot that resonates with developers, though, a little better than a clip.

PJ Hagerty:

People want to find out more — where can they look it up?

Ben Lloyd Pearson:

Yeah. We got this news and more over at the Mattermost blog. That’s mattermost.com/blog. Come check it out.

PJ Hagerty:

Awesome. Thanks again, Ben. And we will talk to you next time.

Ben Lloyd Pearson:

Yeah, thanks, PJ.

PJ Hagerty:

For this episode, I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine, Chris DeMars of Rocket Mortgage. Chris, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Chris DeMars:

Hey, thanks for having me, PJ. Well, I’m a Developer Advocate over at Rocket Mortgage. We do mortgages. If you’re familiar with Quicken Loans, we are Rocket Mortgage rebranded. Like I said, I’m a Developer Advocate. I’m on the DevRel team.

My main focus over there is on web accessibility, CSS, design systems, UX/UI. And if you are familiar with the dev relative advocacy world, if you were to ask somebody what that means, everybody’s going to give you a different definition. So, to me, I am pretty much the voice between the external and internal communities, developer communities, engineering communities, as well as a mentor or teacher, stuff like that.

PJ Hagerty:

So, part of it is the ultimate DevRel answer was like, “So what do you do?” And the answer is it depends, right?

Chris DeMars:

Right.

PJ Hagerty:

So, now, I mean, a lot of the people that I talked to, a lot of people I know work at small-scale companies or open source companies. But Rocket Mortgage, that’s huge. That’s a big company.

Chris DeMars:

A big company. Yeah.

PJ Hagerty:

What is it like? How do you keep in touch with your community being at such a large company doing so many different things?

Chris DeMars:

That’s a great question because internal developer relations I think is something that if you have a DevRel team at a large enterprise company, I mean, we have a lot of people. We have multiple offices like our main offices here in Detroit, Phoenix. Where else? Cleveland. We have another one I believe in North Carolina. Don’t quote me on that. I’m so bad with my Carolinas. But there is a lot of people and that’s just Rocket Mortgage.

We have Rocket Homes, Rocket Auto, Rocket Loans. There are other companies of the FOC like StockX, Dictionary.com, just a bunch of stuff, but mainly focusing directly in Rocket Mortgage which is still a big company in itself. And internal DevRel is definitely a challenge because you have to be able to build relationships. And I know that’s like a cliché thing and DevRel is building relationships.

But it’s super important to build relationships internally because you need to know what teams you need to talk to about products, and what teams might need some guidance or help using this like Technology A or Technology B. And reaching out and doing all these types of advocacy things and trying to build those relationships is really hard. But finding the right people that make those connections and tie those threads is crucial in internal DevRel for large-scale enterprise.

PJ Hagerty:

Right, which is a little bit different from the external DevRel which is what probably most people think of. And you dabble. You do a little bit of both though. I’ve obviously seen you talk like, full disclosure, Chris and I have known each other for years. And I feel like we’d be doing listeners a disservice if I didn’t tell the truth.

With so many things going on, is there like a big user contributor community? When you go out and speak, who are you meeting up with? Are there open source initiatives? Or is it really like, “Hey, here’s cool technology that’s going on. Here’s how we use it at Rocket.”

Chris DeMars:

Yeah. We started an open source initiative and we’re still working through that. But a majority of being out in the community is talking about the cool stuff that we do. When I was hired in 2020, we built a project and it was open source. And they already had it done. But it was a project to do testing, COVID testing, for the people of Detroit.

And the project was built in a week and it was open sourced. And that was us giving back to the community, not just the engineering community, the open source aspect of it, but like the City of Detroit which was really, really huge. And it made a huge impact. But a lot of what we’re doing out there on the road is talking about the cool technology that we do use and talking about modern web technology and how some of the stuff we do use at Rocket Mortgage.

PJ Hagerty:

Right on. But just out of curiosity, that open source, do you have a team, it’s like a give back team like, “Hey, 90% of the time you’re working on Rocket Mortgage, 90% of time. But this other 10%, we’re going to give you the opportunity to give back to the community. And that’s maybe going out and mentoring some kids who don’t have the opportunities that you and I had. Or finding a group of people that aren’t really familiar with the web and getting them on board with things or projects like building an open source tool to track COVID rates.”

Chris DeMars:

Yeah. So, one of the cool things that we actually have over there is professional development hours where you get a certain amount every year and you can take that time and do what you want. You can read, attend conferences. You can work on your own projects. You can learn a new language. You can contribute to open source. So, you can do all of these things. Talk to a group of students. Whatever you want to do. But it’s your way of learning but also giving back in the community.

PJ Hagerty:

That’s awesome. That’s awesome. And I think these are things that a lot of people, especially people who are in startup, they’re like, “I could never do that if I work for Rocket Mortgage, that’s too big of a company.” But a lot of these initiatives are very much in line with the values that developers have today, right?

Chris DeMars:

Yeah. And I think that’s huge because I’ve worked at companies where they, “You can’t do that. If you want to do that, it’s either on your own time or your lunch break,” or whatever the case is. But you get so many hours every year and you’re getting paid to learn. And I think that’s an amazing perk to have over there at Rocket Mortgage.

PJ Hagerty:

That’s awesome. Yeah, that’s absolutely awesome. Now, when it comes to being a developer advocate or working with community folks, what do you think it is that drives value? When you go out, you say like, “I’m going to bring some of the community.” And I know that your specific thing is accessibility. We’re going to talk about that a little bit.

But what is it that makes you say like, “Hey, if I talk about this thing or if I go join a panel on this thing,” you do a Twitch stream on this like, “This is what’s important. I know this is going to be valuable.” How do you figure out what that stuff is?

Chris DeMars:

I tried to personalize and humanize things. So, you’ve sat through my accessibility talks and you’ve seen my accessibility talks. I try to give real-world examples. And sometimes I get super vulnerable in these talks. Sometimes I shed a tear in these talks. But I think if you can express that passion that brings value to the people that you’re talking to your audience, you’re not just cramming down technology as far as variables functions in this.

And the other thing, if you can spin it to bring value to how it can benefit the personal life, humanize it in some way and show that, I think that makes a hell of a difference.

PJ Hagerty:

Right. So, I mean, I’ve always said like one of the biggest things when you’re working with people on the community, you got to be honest, you got to be yourself.

Chris DeMars:

Yup.

PJ Hagerty:

And that’s like a key to building that sincerity, building those relationships that you might not have otherwise. Because I think if you get up there and you’re just like, “Hey, here’s the corporate line. And here’s a new technology,” exactly like you can read off the docs, there’s a lack of humanity to that.

And let me bring up a subject here. Chris, in your past, you were a fan of a band called the Insane Clown Posse which would technically make you, I don’t know if it’s like former or reformed or current juggalo.

Chris DeMars:

Yes, I am reformed.

PJ Hagerty:

A much maligned group of people. Because in fairness, there is that great documentary that came out, I want to say it was like 10 years ago, where this guy went to the gathering of juggalos. Yeah, there’s a lot of stupid stuff that was going on. Those are our ridiculous behavior. At the same time what he found was a community of people who really want to take care of each other.

Chris DeMars:

Yup.

PJ Hagerty:

Do you feel that your past as a juggalo has really informed the way you work with community because you care about people’s opinions, you respect people’s spaces, regardless of where they are in their tech journey or where they’re coming from. I’ve watched you just welcome everybody you see with open arms. And I think, honestly, the fact that you used to be a juggalo is kind of a part of that, like it’s part of that community learning.

Chris DeMars:

I would definitely say 100% it is because when you’re coming up in that world as a fan of ICP or Psychopathic Records or whatever the case may be, they always leave a bad taste in people’s mouths if you don’t understand the music and you don’t understand the culture. That group of people is the most inviting group of people I’ve ever met in my life.

It doesn’t matter your background, your race, your culture, how much money you make. They don’t give a shit about any of that. They bring you in. They treat you completely fair. And I think that’s where a lot of it comes from because coming up into that, I started listening when I was eight years old and I still listen to this day. I’m 35. I’ll be 36.

But I’ve been to multiple gatherings. I’ve been to concerts around the country. And just to see the pouring out of love just for everybody and anybody always stuck with me. And I think that’s why I am as accepting as I am and care so much is because I’ve seen that, I was around that for many, many, many, many, many, many years. And I just bring that along as part of my journey and my story.

I mean, if you were to ask Alyssa, Alyssa who I work with on the team, she would tell you, “Just ask DeMars about his juggalo history,” because she’s like starting to write a book about me and all my life story because it’s always something new.

PJ Hagerty:

I believe this.

Chris DeMars:

Yeah. Ask her about it. It’s hilarious. But there’s always something new that she didn’t know that she’s adding to her list of the life of DeMars. That’s one of them.

PJ Hagerty:

But yea, I think it’s interesting. I think it is a thing where people don’t realize that there’s things you can learn outside of this circle of tech. I think a lot of people come in and whether they’re in DevRel or not, completely unimportant. But they bring in the values of the things they’ve learned.

They bring in the value. Someone who grew up maybe playing sports is like, “Sportsmanship is important to me so I want to treat everybody with respect.” You bring that with you. You’re lucky enough to have been in a community that was like, “You know what’s important?” Acceptance. We need to accept everybody. We need to respect those choices.

And I know we’ve joked around like, “Oh F this JavaScript framework,” or whatever as jokes, we’re not serious about it. But there are people out there who are very much like, “If you’re not coding what I’m coding, then what you’re coding is worthless.” And maybe it’d be nice if a few more people learn a little something from a juggalo community that it’s about bringing people and not pushing people out.

Chris DeMars:

The juggalo community can teach you a whole lot of good values. And I know if anybody listening who is like, “Whoa, yeah, no, I’ve seen what they do.” No, squash what you heard. Walk in their shoes for a minute and be a part of that and you will understand definitely life values.

It’s funny at one concert I was at … The logo for Psychopathic Records is the Hatchetman. They have a Hatchetman tattoo. Everybody’s seen it. But at one point in my life, I was at a concert and I felt something get kicked into my foot. And I looked down at the ground and there was a silver two-inch Hatchetman on the ground. And I picked it up. Nobody was looking for it. It didn’t seem like so I kept it.

And years later down the line, I lost it at a concert. So, it’s one of those karma-type things where you’re going to get what you get in return. So now, that was passed on to somebody else who might not have had the opportunity to get it. It’s things like that that make you think about giving back and not doing so like, “Hey, here’s this.” But dropping little bits and pieces of things out there for others that they can pick up and then later down the line give to somebody else.

PJ Hagerty:

Right. Paying it forward, paying that happiness forward, that kind of thing. Now, it’s interesting because we’re talking about that, but also you and I have had many conversations about your steez, your personal style.

Chris DeMars:

Yes.

PJ Hagerty:

And it’s interesting because to me, one of the things that you do is you immediately make people feel comfortable. That is part of your style. Yes, you work for Rocket Mortgage and people might expect you to show up in khakis and a blue shirt. And if that ever happens, I really would like someone to take pictures or to be there because that’d be something to behold.

But you show up in Dickies shorts, wallet chain, Dickies shirt with the Rocket Mortgage logo. You’re Chris with the flat brim hat which I still don’t know how you flat brim a hat that was curved brim but that’s a whole other podcast. Do you think that actually helps like when people are like, “Oh, I expect a corporate message from Rocket,” but you actually come in and talk about the importance of making the web accessible to everyone.

Chris DeMars:

Yeah. I had somebody come up to me one time at a conference. This was at KCDC. And they walked up to me after the talk I gave them. They said, “I walked in here not knowing what to expect and you blew my mind.” Now, that might have been because of who I am and my brand and my style and the talk. But I think showing people you can be yourself. I wouldn’t look right. I did the corporate thing. I had to dress business casual and I still had tattoos on my knuckles and my hands and nobody said a word.

I was hired with these tattoos already. But I had to wear button-down shirts and khakis and Chelsea boots and argyle socks. I went to the nines because if I was going to dress, I had to have a tight spot …

PJ Hagerty:

You need to dress 100%.

Chris DeMars:

Yeah. Head to toe, this was on point. I had to dress that way. So, I shop at fancy stores and stuff like that. But I think when you see people like me with the tattoos and the dressing the way I dress and seeing that, “Oh, hey this is chill,” I think that opens up more conversation about not just jobs but just being yourself.

PJ Hagerty:

Right, which is what’s most important.

Chris DeMars:

Yeah.

PJ Hagerty:

And I think part of being Chris DeMars is talking about accessibility. That’s your main focus. That’s what I’ve seen you talk about more often than anything else. What brought you into accessibility? What made that the space that you wanted to start in?

Chris DeMars:

So, I started off in the meetup scene and I wasn’t really talking about accessibility. I think I was doing some minor talks on Git and GitHub and helping other people with Git and GitHub talks and meetups. And accessibility really wasn’t the thing when I started. The HTML books and stuff like that, they taught about accessibility as far as tables and images go. That was really the brunt of it.

And years later, I was watching a talk on YouTube by Marcy Sutton. And she was talking about accessibility. I think it might have been like a JS conference or something way back in the day. And I was like, “Oh, shit, this stuff actually matters,” because nobody was really talking about it. And still today, there’s not a lot of whole people out there talking about it.

And I think that’s what did it and I started BS-ing with her on Twitter and we were talking about accessibility. And she kickstarted me into talking about accessibility so I started watching more accessibility talks, learning more about accessibility, following people in the community that were talking about accessibility. And I think that was the platform for me was Marcy guiding me in that direction to talk about these things. And I’ve been doing it ever since.

PJ Hagerty:

Right on. Right on. Chris, it’s been awesome. I want to thank you so much for being on the podcast. If anyone wants to know what you’re up to, before we close the episode, what would you like folks to know?

Chris DeMars:

Yeah. You can follow me on Twitter, saltnburnem, S-A-L-T-N-B-U-R-N-E-M. If you’re a Supernatural fan, you’ll understand the salt-n-burn-em reference. We live stream on Twitch over at Rocket Mortgage Tech. It’s me, Cassandra Faris, and Jason Bock. We stream three times a week.

It’s been busy the past couple weeks with conferences and in the holidays and stuff, but we’re going to pick it back up our cadence. It’s twitch.tv/rocketdevrel. Jason streams on Tuesdays. Wednesdays is Cas’s stream. And mine is Friday 10 a.m. Eastern.

And conferences, I got some conferences coming up. I’ll be in Atlanta at Devnexus. Here in a couple months. I’ll be at CodeStock and Knoxville. What else?

PJ Hagerty:

I’ll be at CodeStock as well so people can see us together.

Chris DeMars:

If everything goes to plan, I will be in Zurich, Switzerland for Voxxed Days Zurich.

PJ Hagerty:

Oh fantastic.

Chris DeMars:

Yeah.

PJ Hagerty:

Great community out in Switzerland. It’s a little bit hard to get to but once you get there, just great, great people. Fabulous …

Chris DeMars:

Yeah. I’m trying to figure it out because we were supposed to be at that conference this week. And then that conference at Texas got moved to May. So, I have that. But there’s three conferences back to back in May. There’s Voxxed Days Zurich. And then right after that is DevSum. And then right after that is TechoRama. That is the same exact week because that covers.

PJ Hagerty:

Oh my God.

Chris DeMars:

So, I don’t know how I’m going to do this or figure it out. But I’m going to make it to at least one of those international events for my kickoff, the first international one of the year.

PJ Hagerty:

Yeah. After so many years of not doing it, you might as well.

Chris DeMars:

Yeah. I don’t even remember the last one. The last one I did that was international might have been London, England or I went to Bulgaria for DevReach. I don’t even remember at this point. It’s been so long.

PJ Hagerty:

And being from Detroit, you don’t count Canada’s foreign, right? Because I don’t.

Chris DeMars:

I do because I still need a passport to get in.

PJ Hagerty:

So do I. So do I. But it’s like I didn’t used to so it doesn’t really matter.

Chris DeMars:

Yeah. The drinking age in Canada is 19. So when we were younger, we just go over with an ID and birth certificate and it’s been good. You didn’t need a passport and all this other international stuff, but still counted.

PJ Hagerty:

So be it. All right, so Chris, thank you so much for taking the time to join us. Hopefully, we can get you on another episode of What Matters in the future.

Chris DeMars:

Let’s do it, man. Appreciate it.

PJ Hagerty:

I think if we put that accessibility stuff.

Chris DeMars:

Yes.

PJ Hagerty:

That would be awesome. For those listening, we look forward to bringing you many more future episodes on this podcast. Keep listening. Feel free to get in touch with [email protected] with questions, comments or episode and guest ideas.

You can also ping me, [email protected] or go ahead and join the community server, community.mattermost.com and look for PJ. I’m the only one there so I should be pretty easy to find. Let us know what you think matters most.

Voiceover:

You’ve been listening to the What Matters podcast posted by PJ Hagerty, @aspleenic on Twitter. Music is Upbeat Party by Scott Holmes. For more information, contact [email protected] Let us know what matters to you and we’ll talk next time on the What Matters podcast.

About the Show

What Matters is a podcast from the folks at Mattermost where we take a look at all the things we enjoy about the communities we are a part of — open source, ChatOps, DevOps, Go, and everything in between — and distill it into a podcast hosted by Senior Developer Advocate PJ Hagerty. Reach out and let us know what topics, guests, and other ideas you have for the show!

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PJ is the founder of DevRelate.io, a board member of Open Sourcing Mental Health (OSMHhelp.org), and a Developer Relations Consultant to mattermost. Additionally, PJ is a developer, writer, speaker, and musician. He is known to travel the world speaking about programming and the way people think and interact. He can be reached at [email protected]

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