David Smith is a Blogger and Community Lead at Microsoft. I had the chance to interview David last May at rOpenSci unconf17. We spoke about his career, the process of working remote within a team, community development/outreach and his personal methods for discovering great content to share and write about.
KO: What is your name, job title, and how long have you been using R?
DS: My name is David Smith. I work at Microsoft and my self-imposed title is ‘R Community Lead’. I’ve been working with R specifically for about 10 years, but I’d been working with S since the early 90s.
KO: How did you transition into using R?
DS: I was using S for a long, long time, and I worked for the company that commercialized S, where I was a project manager for S-PLUS. And I got out of that company, and then worked for a startup in a different industry for a couple of years. But while I was there, the people that founded Revolution Analytics approached me because they were setting up a company to build a commercial business around R, and reached out to me because of my connections with the S community.
KO: So you came to Microsoft through Revolution?
DS: That’s correct. I was with Revolution Analytics and then Microsoft bought that company, so I’ve been with Microsoft since then.
KO: How has that transition gone, is there a Revolution team inside of Microsoft, or has it become more spread out?
DS: It’s been more spread out. It got split up into the engineering people and the marketing people, sales people all got distributed around. When I first went to Microsoft I started off in the engineering group doing product management. But I was also doing the community role, and it just wasn’t a very good fit just time-wise, between doing community stuff and doing code or product management. So then I switched to a different group called the Ecosystem team, and so now I’m 100% focused on community within a group that’s focused on the ecosystem in general.
The one piece of advice I could give anyone starting out in their careers is – write what you do, write it in public, and make it so that other people can reproduce what you did.
KO: What does it mean to be 100% community focused, do you do a lot of training?
DS: I don’t do a lot of training myself, but I work with a lot of other people on the team who do training. We’re focused mainly on building up the ecosystem of people that ultimately add value to the products that Microsoft has. And we’re specifically involved in the products that Microsoft has that now incorporate R by building up the value of the R ecosystem.
KO: What does your day-to-day look like, are you in an office, do you work remote?
DS: I work from home. I had moved from Seattle where Microsoft is headquartered to Chicago a couple of months before the acquisition happened, so I wasn’t about to move back to Seattle. But they let me work from home in Chicago, which has worked out great because most of my job is communicating with the community at large. So I do the Revolutions Blog, which I’ve been writing for eight or nine years now, writing stories about people using R, and applications of R packages. All as a way of communicating to the wider world the cool stuff that people can do with R, and also to the R community occasionally, what kind of things you can do with R in the Microsoft environment.
KO: Have you always been a writer or interested in writing and communications?
DS: No, no. I have a mathematics and computer science degree. I’m not trained as a writer. But it’s actually been useful having the perspective of statistics and mathematics and programming, and to bring that to a broader audience through writing. I’ve learned a lot about the whole writing and blogging and journalism process through that, but I’m certainly not trained in that way.
KO: How does your Ecosystems team at Microsoft function and collaborate?
DS: Unlike many teams at Microsoft, our team is very distributed. We have people working remotely from Denver, I’m in Chicago, Seattle, we’re all kind of distributed all around the place. So we meet virtually through Skype, have video meetings once a week and communicate a lot online.
KO: What kind of tools are you using?
DS: Traditionally, as in Microsoft, mainly email and Skype for the meetings. I set up an internal team focused around community more broadly around Microsoft and we use Microsoft Teams for that,
which is a little bit like Slack. But a lot of the stuff that I do is more out in the open, so I use a lot of Twitter and Github for the code that I point to and stuff like that.
KO: How do you manage your Twitter?
DS: Twitter I do manually in real-time. I don’t do a lot of scheduling except for @RLangTip
which is a feed of daily R tips. And for that I do scheduling through Tweetdeck on the web.
KO: How many Twitter accounts are you managing?
DS: I run @revodavid which is my personal twitter account, and @RLangTip which is R language tips. I tweet for @R_Forwards which is the diversity community for R, @RConsortium, the R Consortium, so quite a few.
KO: How long has this been a core part of your work day?
DS: The community thing as a focus, maybe five or six years? My career path for a long time was in product management. So I managed S-PLUS as a product for a long time, I managed another product at a different startup, and then I came to Revolution and I did a combination of engineering and product management. But in the last 18 months I’ve been 100% in the community space.
KO: How did you get into product management to begin with?
DS: That’s a good question that I’m not sure I know the answer to. I started off my first job after university — I actually left university specifically to become a support engineer for S-PLUS. When I took on that role, they didn’t really have product management yet at that company, and so when they were looking for somebody to basically steer S-PLUS as a product, it was a good fit for me and an opportunity to move to the States. I took that on and I kind of just learned product management as I did it. I went to a few sort of training/seminar type things, but I didn’t study it.
KO: Sure. It seems like something that people just kind of get saddled with sometimes?
DS: Exactly. It’s a discipline that doesn’t really have discipline. But for the various companies I’ve worked for, mostly startups, they all seem to have very different perspectives on what product management is and what the role of a product manager is.
KO: Yeah, I know what you mean. Are you happy to have sort of moved away from that?
DS: I am in the sense of — it was different being in a startup where being a product manager was more like being the shepherd of an entire product ecosystem, whereas in a big company the product manager is a lot more focused and inherently so, a lot more narrow. I happen to prefer the bigger picture I guess.
Honestly, I kind of focus from the point of view of what interests me personally. Which doesn’t sound very community oriented at all… but it’s an exercise in empathy.
KO: What’s your process for deciding what things you talk about and bring to the community?
DS: Honestly, I kind of focus from the point of view of what interests me personally. Which doesn’t sound very community oriented at all… but it’s an exercise in empathy. If I can write about something, or find a topic that I might find is interesting or exciting and I can communicate that with other people, I’m motivated to write about it and I hope that people are then motivated to learn about it. Kind of the antithesis of this is when I worked in marketing for a while; a lot of that style of writing was the bane of my existence because you’re producing these documents that literally are designed for nobody to read, in this language that nobody engages with. I much prefer blogging and tweeting because it’s much more directly for people.
KO: What have some of your most popular or successful engagements been about? Feel free to interpret ‘successful' in any way.
DS: Well, from the point of view of what has been the most rewarding part of my job, is finding under-recognized or just these really cool things that people have done that just haven’t had a lot of exposure. And I’ve got a fairly big audience and a fairly wide reach, and it’s always fun for me to find things that people have done that maybe haven’t been seen. And it’s not my work, but I can — you know — take an eight page document that somebody’s written that has really cool things in it and just pull out various things. There is so much very cool stuff that people have done, half of the battle is getting it out there.
KO: What are some of your favorite sources for discovering cool things on the internet?
DS: There are channels on Reddit that I get a lot of material from, like /r/dataisbeautiful and things like that. It’s hard to say particular accounts on twitter, but I’ve spent a lot of time following people where I’ve read one of their blog posts and I find their twitter account, and they have just a few followers, I’ll follow them, and then over time it amounts to some good stuff. I have twitter open all day, every day. I don’t read everything on my feed every day, but I certainly keep it open.
KO: How much of your day is just spent exploring?
DS: A lot of it. I spend about half of any given day reading. It takes a long time, but every now and then you find this really cool stuff.
It’s one thing to be able to do really cool stuff in R or any other language, but until you can distill that down into something that other people consume, it’s going to be hard to sell yourself.
KO: Do you have any last nuggets of wisdom for people starting out their careers in R?
DS: For people starting out their careers, I think one of the most important skills to learn is that communication skill. It’s one thing to be able to do really cool stuff in R or any other language, but until you can distill that down into something that other people consume, it’s going to be hard to sell yourself. And it’s also going to be hard to be valuable. A lot of the people I’ve watched evolve in the community are people who have begun very early in their careers, blogging about what they do. The one piece of advice I could give anyone starting out in their careers is – write what you do, write it in public, and make it so that other people can reproduce what you did.