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Making Creative Connections and Maintaining Mental Health with Stephon Parker

mandymoore profile image Mandy Moore ・33 min read

Stephon Parker of Formstack talks to host Aaron Bassett, about the difference between leadership and management, learning how to say no, the importance of maintaining creative connections with your team, and prioritizing your own mental health – ESPECIALLY now, more than ever, during the pandemic.

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Jonan Scheffler: Hello and welcome to Polyglot, proudly brought to you by New Relic's developer relations team, The Relicans. Polyglot is about software design. It's about looking beyond languages to the patterns and methods that we as developers use to do our best work. You can join us every week to hear from developers who have stories to share about what has worked for them and may have some opinions about how best to write quality software. We may not always agree, but we are certainly going to have fun, and we will always do our best to level up together. You can find the show notes for this episode and all of The Relicans podcasts on developer.newrelic.com/podcasts. Thank you so much for joining us. Enjoy the show.

Aaron Bassett: Hi, everybody. Thank you for joining us again on this latest episode of Polyglot. I am here today with Stephon Parker. Stephon, why don't you start us off with a little introduction about yourself?

Stephon Parker: Hi, everyone. So my name's Stephon. So I'm in the New York State area. Today I fill in and work as an engineering manager for a getting post-startup company. And I’m really excited to be here and talk about some of my experience and some cool things that we're working on, and anything else that comes up.

Aaron: You're with Formstack at the moment, is that right?

Stephon: Yeah, that's right.

Aaron: That's a pretty recent move for you. Have you always been in this early stage -- I know you just mentioned they're not quite startup-like.

Stephon: Yeah, so they're getting past the early stages. Well, not getting past; they’re definitely past the early stage. They’re getting more into; I would say, your post-Series A and more into customer building; getting into the higher verticals and those mid-market ranges is really what we're targeting right now.

Aaron: And you’re an engineering manager there.

Stephon: Yeah. So I work as the engineering manager in the integration team. So we focus on -- and I just recently joined them. I am super proud of this team. They're extremely intelligent and extremely skilled. They implemented essentially an identity and access management solution for the entire platform, which is really cool.

Aaron: Oh wow.

Stephon: So we have three different products. So Formstack rebranded at the end of the Q4 of last year. So the original product was called Formstack, and that included the Form solution. But now the company is called Formstack, and we have our three products which are forms, docs, and sign, which all have a separate login process. And the team that I manage actually built-in a unified log-in process, a kind of an admin panel, if you will. And then you can do essentially authentication to all the products through that surface, which is pretty awesome.

Aaron: So it's like a federated access kind of a single sign-on.

Stephon: Exactly. Yep.

Aaron: And is that only in Formstack? I'm kind of thinking along the whole login with Facebook, login with Google. Is it for something like that, or is it just across Formstack’s products?

Stephon: So FSID, Formstack ID is just across Formstack’s product set, but you can use some of the options that you mentioned to log in with Google, log in with your Apple ID, to log into the products to create a user inside the products and then that could be your model or your way of getting it.

Aaron: It's always interesting to me the different things and products you’re working on because I spent a while working in product teams and a while before that working in an agency and stuff. So it's one of those ones where you can kind of go in --, and you're saying you're super proud of the team, and you've only been there a couple of months. Is this your first project you worked with them with, or how do you envision where it goes from here? Is it you're not going to be managing a team that's just focused purely on identity, or do you pick up different tasks going forward? What's the process there?

Stephon: The team itself, which is really awesome. I look at them as a Swiss army knife, so not only are they focusing on this particular product of helping the product set that we have integrated into our product set from an authentication standpoint, but some of the other things that we're looking for is how to build out some best practices in terms of using FSID as an integration point. And then some of the other things that we've been talking about is how we're going to educate others on how to integrate into our application so whether it's leveraging our APIs to manage user account access or to trigger certain things for user accounts, but then also we were looking to do product enhancement, and there is some ownership that the identity model is going to be taking on inside the organization in the future that we're pretty excited about. One thing I can talk about is the billing model, so we are looking to revamp our billing and have the ownership of that, for the most part, live inside Formstack ID. So rather than being built for three products individually, you'll have billing in one place that you can kind of take care of it and then resolve it.

Aaron: So you mentioned ownership, and that's interesting as well because I know different teams go about this in different ways, like the Spotify model where you essentially have a team that has full ownership right away through. So they own it from not just the development, but then they also -- like being on call for any problems, is that a similar kind of model that you use, or how do you define ownership?

Stephon: Yeah, absolutely. So all things surrounding that implementation, surrounding that product will be not only just up to my team to implement but also up to my team to maintain. So I think when you think of like that CI/CD process rather than breaking it out into what I think is the traditional model for development teams where you have the team that does the implementation and a separate team like an operational team almost takes care of the maintenance of the product escalating those items to development as needed. This is more of a “we own the process of the implementation.” And then, after the implementation, we're still responsible for maintaining and ensuring the product is functioning the way that it's expected with minimal user impact, of course.

Aaron: With the whole introduction of DevOps, this seems to be the way that a lot of companies are going these days and that they're really having that ownership kind of -- I remember whenever I used to do a lot of development work that you would just hand it off. Once you had done the feature or written the functionality, then it was handed off to somebody else to deploy and handed off to somebody else to maintain, and you wouldn't have that full end-to-end ownership. Does it improve software standards if you know that you're going to be the person that's going to have to answer the phone at 2:00 o'clock in the morning if something goes wrong? [Chuckles]

Stephon: I can say this, so as I'm joining this team and learning more about them, what I'm finding is that they have a very high level of standards. When I think of my previous teams that I've worked with or managed, I think that definitely had -- So I think I'll go back to my last experience. Before I started working here, I was working for a regional bank, and the team that I worked with there I think that was definitely at the forefront of their minds of like, hey, if this breaks -- because it was another, funny enough, it was an identity and access management platform that I was managing, being an engineering manager there as well. I didn't know I was going to walk into this when I came to the new role. [Laughs] But yes, I think there was a lot of checking and double-checking and rechecking and having those conversations. So like, hey, is this the best way to do this because I know that if this breaks, I'm going to get woken up whether it's 1:00 o'clock or 2:00 o’clock. In my previous role, that last team, that happened. [Laughs]

The thing that I believe in, and one of my mentors said this to me, and I totally believe it. And I’ve believed that for the last three or four years of my life is that there's a difference between leadership and management. So you manage things, you lead people. And so I was in the on-call rotation, so I was one of those people who would get called at 2:00 o'clock in the morning. [Laughs] And I used to tell my team, "If I get called at 2:00 a.m., I'm waking everyone up." [Laughs] So they were very much like, okay, we're going to make sure this works right.

Aaron: [Laughs]

Stephon: And I think there are some times where there is the idea that that can slow down development, but I'm a very big believer in quality over quantity. Yes, you can push out 30 features, but if you have 30 features that all work like garbage if you're spending most of your time fixing bugs in those 30 features you pushed out, did you really do what you were tasked with doing? But if I push out ten features and those ten features all work amazingly, then I have a satisfied customer who's having a great customer experience, and I can justify the time that I take. Because I can always look at them and say, "Hey, remember how you haven't had downtime or you haven't had your functionality impeded every time that we've gone to do a deployment, or we’ve going to roll something out? That's why we take the quality and time that we do," rather than saying, "Hey, I'm glad we fixed all those bugs for you this year.” It's a very different conversation. [Chuckles]

Aaron: Yeah. It can either be fast, or it can be good or, it could be a complete pick-two. [Laughs] If it's fast and it's got all the features, they're not going to be very good, and if it's good and it’s fast, you're not going to have all the features. It's always going to have that kind of trade-off. It is something that obviously, as an engineering manager, you've probably come across this as well trying to explain sometimes to product managers, et cetera, that you have a fixed amount of time to work with. Time is a thing that you cannot change. So it's either quality or it's quantity that has to change time; you can't control that part of it. So you either have to reduce your scope, change your quantity, or your quality is going to suffer instead.

Stephon: That's something I try and get ahead of. And I will say this: I really value a strong, and dedicated, and committed product manager or product owner who's able to have those conversations and willing to make those sacrifices. I think it's super important to be able to know when and how to prioritize and not only prioritize but also being able to say, being honest and upfront saying, "This is when we're going to be able to get to this," saying, "No," when things don't make sense. But then also taking the time to really understand, “is this the best for the product?” I've worked with product managers who have struggled with that, and the product, the teams, the organization suffers a lot because of that because someone didn't take the time to make sure whether it's checking in to make sure that hey, this is a feature that we have or a feature that we can enhance or that we have the time to do this. And I've watched entire projects get derailed, or roadmaps just get thrown out the window because of that lack of consideration. Whereas when you have a product manager -- and honestly, I can say this: the team at Formstack is amazing. My product manager and I talk pretty much daily, [Chuckles], but he's very much in tune with what's going on in the product. And there are times where I've come to him already even though it's been a very short time there and said, "Hey, do you think we can take this on?" And he said, "No." And that's what we moved together forward with. We've been able to say, “No, we don't have time for that right now.” Or “Yes, we can do this, but we need a month or two before we're able to take this on, and here's the reason why.” But I think being able to articulate that is super important.

Aaron: It's always a very difficult thing learning how to say no. That's one of the hardest things that I've discovered as a developer because you don't want to disappoint people; you want to do your best for them. But then you find that if you are not saying no often enough, then you overcommit, and you end up disappointing a lot of people. So how do you prioritize your tasks that come in? Estimation is always an incredibly difficult job for any developer. So how do you know whenever your teams are getting overloaded or that your estimates are accurate and that you'll be able to fit something in or you won't be able to fit something in?

Stephon: I think we get into the conversation of [Chuckles] -- and I've seen a lot of companies particularly with the evolution of DevOps and now this almost recommitment you're seeing in the tech industry to Agile and to particularly the Scrum methodology understanding velocity so understanding what is -- and not velocity as in how much can my team do superfast, mega fast, but what is a sustainable activity that my team can take on? And once we understand what that sustainable velocity is, then being able to plan and track towards that. So that's part of how we probably prioritize with our team is being able to sit down with the product managers to say, "Hey, listen, this is the velocity that we have. What are the most important things to you?" But then also what I really enjoy about my team and my organization is that also the product managers are like, "What's most important to your team?" Dependency updates, making sure that we have time to do maintenance tasks, patching, all those things are things that no one's really excited about, and no customer is like, "Hey, thank you for patching that security hole for me. I really appreciate it."

Aaron: [Chuckles]

Stephon: But it's also it needs to get done. So balancing out that feature add versus those kinds of maintenance tasks is something that we're also very considerate of as well.

Aaron: I've seen it approached in different ways in different teams. Some teams they'll have a particular time set aside each week that that's like, okay, this is our paying down our technical debt; this is when we do our housekeeping; this is when we're going to do our maintenance. Or is it that maintenance tickets just go in as a regular ticket, and they're picked up as part of your backlog? Do you have a particular approach to ensure that maintenance is getting a fair amount of time, or how do you approach it?

Stephon: So they go into regular tickets. So we put them in as part of the backlog, and we just make sure when we have our --, and if you're familiar with the Agile Ceremonies, then I’m sure none of these terms sound so foreign to you, but as we have our backlog refinement or backlog building and then our sprint planning, we make sure that those things come up. And I encourage my developers to say, “Hey, if this is important to you, say something, don't just let it sit there. [Laughs] The product managers are not the end all be all; that's part of the reason why I'm here. Make sure that if there's something that's important to you that you think we need to get done,” -- And again, I can't say enough good things on our product manager he'll never say, "No," in that case if we say, "Hey, this is important to us, and this is why we need to address this," every single time that we've brought it up he said, "Okay, cool. What do we need to do to make that happen?" I think it's because when I look at my team, they definitely are at a point where they know what's important when. I've also heard them say, “You want to know what? Now that I think about it, we could probably wait for another sprint before we can do this task,” which I think is just as important as well, them having their own awareness as well.

Aaron: Having a supportive product manager like that makes such a difference in an engineering team especially having them understand different priorities because everybody wants the new shiny feature, product managers want it, sales and marketing want it, even engineers want it as well, let's be honest. We all want to work on the new shiny thing. We don't want to go back and have to deal with any legacy code or fix bugs.

Stephon: [Laughs]

Aaron: It's so much easier to write new code than it is to read old code.

Stephon: [Laughs] It is.

Aaron: So having the understanding that that is something that needs to take place right through from products to engineering, it's refreshing to hear that. There's not an awful lot of teams that get that balance right.

Stephon: It's really been a great experience, and because of that, it's allowed for me to focus on other things such as -- and one thing that I'm very passionate about not one thing, but one of the many things I'm passionate about particularly is individual growth and development. I think a lot of times, what we see is growth at all costs, and by that, I mean organizational growth at all costs. But there's never that time set aside to allow individual growth. So we talk about wanting to promote developers, but then there's that backlash of, well, we can't promote this person because they don't have the right skill set or they don't have what we're looking for. It's like, okay, well, did you give them the time to be able to do that? So the benefit of that is being able to allow them to skill up.

I was laughing with one of my developers. Primarily back-end languages are the thing that I have the biggest strength in, so like C#, Java, Python are the areas where I lean towards. Front end is a place where I'm pretty weak in. And we were recently having a conversation. I'm working on learning some front-end components. And as I was talking with my team, one of my developers jumped in and said, "Oh man, I'd really love to learn back end." And we all laughed, thinking he was joking. And then we talked a little more, and he's like, "No, I really would want to learn back end." So now, just giving him the time to do that one is it's going to make him feel valued more; it's going to make him feel valuable. Then there's also an organizational benefit that comes as well, especially when back-end tasks shoot up or if there is a lull on front-end tasks, it gives him the opportunity to be able to maybe squeeze in some support and grow himself in that area as well.

Aaron: And having somebody who's cross-functional who understands even if they're not working on the back end all the time, they still understand what the back end teams are dealing with and how they can make their jobs easier as well. It's really good to have that kind of understanding. I'm very much in the same kind of ballpark issue. I've done enough front end, and I understand how difficult it is, and I like to leave it at that and just concentrate on the back end. [Laughter] But when I'm developing APIs and things, I then understand this is how I can make the job easier for my other colleagues who are working on different teams.

Stephon: Right. They have to integrate at some point with this – If I make it totally just beneficial for the back end piece, then their job becomes that much harder, but making it so that the data is easily accessible, I'm exposing things in a way that makes sense. Response times are good, so that someone that's sitting there waiting forever to get our response from something is just as important as well.

Aaron: On the teams' integration, with you starting so recently in Formstack, I'm going to guess that you've probably never met most of your team at this point.

Stephon: We haven't met in person. I have a pretty small team, which is actually pretty cool, but what's funny is, it's a joke -- So my team is completely remote, and not just pandemic remote as in my team doesn't live in the U.S. [Laughter], So my team and my manager are all in Europe. So that's been an interesting dynamic as well because, by the time I jump on, half their day is over. So what's funny is I usually get up, and I jump on, and most of my morning is trying to squeeze in time between them and my manager as well. And that's been really a really interesting change, too, just coming from a company where everyone I talked to was on the East Coast or Eastern Time Zone except for one person. So that's been an interesting dynamic as well to change that over.

Aaron: I've been fully remote for a long time pre-pandemic. And although I'm based in the U.S. at the minute, I'm obviously not from America myself, with this accent. Yet, a lot of time, I'm still dealing with people in EMEA, in Europe, and stuff. There's a lot of getting up at 4:00 and 5:00 o'clock in the morning sometimes to get that overlap, unfortunately. But I'm in the same boat here. I joined New Relic very recently in the middle of the pandemic, and I've never met a majority of my team face to face. I'd be really interested how in joining a new team, how do you do things like your usual team bonding or really integrate yourself into the team? And are there any particular methodologies you've come across that you'd recommend?

Stephon: I'm just going to laugh a little bit. [Laughter] I feel like the ‘the new normal is not normal’ comment was like a little slight towards this blog post that I wrote, but yeah. I'm very much against the idea that this is the new normal; it's not, this is not normal.

Aaron: [Laughs]

Stephon: I am 29 years old. I'll be 30 in June. I have never been in a pandemic before. This is not normal. And of course, throughout time, we have to re-evaluate what normal looks like, but I refuse to accept that this is what the rest of my life is going to look like, however long or short that may be.

Aaron: [Laughs]

Stephon: But yeah, one of the things that we've been doing is finding creative ways to connect. So I've been for right now, one-on-ones: I've been keeping them very frequent, so usually weekly, and I’ll probably keep it that way for a while so I can learn about them a little bit more. And my scrum master is absolutely phenomenal. She does a really good job of making sure that we have consistent team bonding exercises. We played a little game where everyone submitted facts about themselves; then we tried to guess who's fact matched who. And then we did this really cool activity that was like a journey map of you, and you could share as little or as much information as you wanted to. So that was really cool, too; I got to share mine. And there's a recent activity that I just saw this thing that was posted by Atlassian where you do like a README like an operating manual written about yourself, which I thought was really cool.

Aaron: [Chuckles] Wow.

Stephon: So you can talk about how you like to be communicated with, what's the best way to reach out to you, things like that. And again, you can stay as high level as you want or go as detailed as you want. I think that's just amazing that we're finding these creative ways, almost like archaic ways taking a couple of steps back to interact with each other that we didn't used to do. I've even heard of people -- I know one of my friends the company that he works at, they decided they were going to write letters to each other. So you got a pen pal inside the company and for I think it's three weeks or a month or so they're writing letters back and forth to each other and like, who writes a letter anymore?

Aaron: That's really cute.

Stephon: You can send emails to send a text. To write a letter, there’s something really personal about that.

Aaron: I don't even think I have an envelope in the house. [Laughter] I think that would be an issue for me. Maybe homemade postcards. It doesn't need an envelope. Where am I going to get stamps, though? [Laughs]

Stephon: Right. That's all those things you have to think about where it's just like wow, it seems again like we're taking that step back to a certain extent because we don't have a choice. We don't really have an option.

Aaron: I'm going to have to ask you this as well: what was your interesting fact that you submitted?

Stephon: I submitted a couple, but let's see. I think the one that got the most attention was the fact that I am, and I don't know any other word, I am absolutely petrified of clowns.

Aaron: Okay. [Chuckles]

Stephon: There's just something not right about clowns. I don't know what it is, but I am a grown adult man who is horrified of clowns.

Aaron: So you didn't watch Stephen King's IT then, that was just off the table for you completely.

Stephon: Oh God, no. Nope. Nope. Nope. Could and would ever.

Aaron: [Laughs]

Stephon: There's nothing anyone can do to convince me to watch that.

Aaron: [Laughs] I don't have a fear of clowns, and that still looks really too freaky for me anyway. So I can totally see where you're coming from there.

Stephon: [Laughs]

Aaron: But it's great that you've got these different touchpoints; I guess that's a really important thing on any remote team, not even just for at the moment. But is there anything you're doing, in particular, to -- especially in America right now I think the U.S. with everything that's been going on around the election and stuff and just maintaining people's mental health and check-ins around that, is that something that your company has had to be thinking about, or is there anything you're doing for your team there?

Stephon: That's a really important topic, and I cannot stress enough how important it is to be intentional about ensuring that your team feels psychologically safe as a leader, not as a manager, because again, you manage things, you lead people. If you're leading your people, then you're making sure that they have the space and the safety that they need to work as little or as much as they have the capacity for on that day. So there are some days where I know that I'm super productive and I can get everything in the entire world done, and there are some days where I can barely function. And I think especially as you said relating to the -- and my team I think feels this a little bit less just because they're not in the U.S, so they don't feel this as heavily as I do. They're watching from afar. They're like, "Are you okay over there?" I'm like, "No." [Laughter] But the reality of it is that fortunately, and I'm really grateful my manager has been really, really accommodating and saying like, "Hey, are you good? Because I know that the U.S. is kind of falling apart right now." And I'm like, "Yeah, it is."

But fortunately enough, I've been able to connect with individuals who've been able to help maintain my mental health. And honestly, changing my job was a really big help for me. I was very stressed out at my previous position. Having the freedom that I do now in my current one has been I cannot say anything other than huge because I was really, really, really struggling to the point where some of my friends and the people who are around me who really cared about me were super concerned. I'm glad that I was able to re-evaluate, reassess, figuring out what was best for me and make a change. And it's no slight to the company that I left. At the time, for what I needed, I needed to make a move.

Aaron: It's sometimes difficult to explain that as well to the company. So you're like, yes, I really like you as a person. I really like my teammates. I just don't like my job.

Stephon: [Laughs]

Aaron: And people invest so much of themselves and so much of their identity is in their work that they find it very difficult to disassociate that. It's like, well, if you're saying you don't like being here, is that saying you don't like me? And it's like, no, I like you. I just don't like to be in this situation with you. [Laughs]

Stephon: Right. And then the other thing is it's not, I mean, in some cases it very well might be a personal slight, I get that. But the reality of it is that, and I think you said it very well, we spend so much time at work. You spend a third of your life at work, and I think it's super important to also make this point: it's not to say that you're going to enjoy every day at work. Do I? Absolutely not. I'm not going to pretend to. But do I like my job enough that on the days where I am not having the best day, or I'm not having the best experience at work that my immediate thought isn't to get away from it? And I think that goes into the idea of finding your passion. I have very strong thoughts about that because sometimes we miss the mark on that just a tiny bit.

Aaron: Yeah. I guess we're pretty privileged that what we do there is a lot of mobility and that we can move around a lot, and that is something that I try myself not to take for granted too much because I am in this very lucky position where it is a sought-after profession and we have a skill set that is sought-after. There is an old Irish phrase, 'You should work to live, not live to work.' Your job should be there to support the other parts of your life that you want to do but shouldn't be your all-encompassing part of your life, and for some people, it is. And I feel very privileged that I do have this work-life balance. But it can be difficult these days because everybody's working from home as well. How do you get that separation between when your workday starts and when your workday finishes if you're in the same place the entire time?

Stephon: I struggled with that, but I've struggled with that for years. I struggled with that pre-pandemic, and it just got worse during the pandemic where rather than working a ten or 12-hour day, I was putting in 14, 15, 16-hour days because it was just convenient. And it starts with that, oh, I'm just going to check an email really quick. And then checking email is how did I end up working for another four hours?

Aaron: [Laughs]

Stephon: I'll just knock this one thing out really quick, or I'll just address this really quickly. It's challenging, to say the least. And one of the things that I made sure to do was to start drawing some very definite boundaries. So I would not start working before a certain time unless, of course, it was absolutely necessary, an emergency situation. And after a certain time, I will no longer work again unless it's that emergency situation. And my desk set up is my work computer and my personal machine, so those two things I do make sure are separate. But they're right next to each other, but I can just pop my display cable from my dock right into my personal machine, and I just go into doing whatever that is. The nice part about it is, is my workspace and personal space the same? Yes. But I bring in that distinction in my mind of having them as two separate things. It's been really helpful because it's a comfortable space for me. So yes, this is my workspace, but also, this is a space where I sit down here and play Path of Exile. [Laughter] So I turned it into an all-purpose space, and it allowed me to feel more comfortable about it.

Aaron: They do say that there is a psychological thing around that, that you need to have these breaks and spaces. That's why they say your bed should never be somewhere that you sit and watch TV or where you're on your phone or play games; it should be where you go to sleep. So whenever you arrive there, your body is ready that once you lie down, it's time to go to sleep. I had a remote colleague pre-pandemic times, and for his morning, he would wake up, he would get dressed, and he would walk his block or just around his house and back into his house again, and that was him getting ready to start work. And in the evening, he would walk his block in the opposite direction, and that was him finishing work.

Stephon: Oh wow.

Aaron: So he would still have to commute every day just to get himself into work mode and then out of work mode. And it literally was just walking the block with his cup of coffee like in the morning and then doing the reverse in the evening. It was really interesting, but it worked for him. That was him psychologically switching from I am with my family to now I'm working, and then from now I'm working to now I've switched off and back to my family. And it's all these little psychological tricks we have to play on ourselves sometimes to switch up our mental States.

Stephon: You want to know what I think? All of it is worth it, though. I believe, all in all, it is worth it to make that investment in yourself; not everyone does. And the unfortunate part about that is that we see people who suffer from burnout, individuals who just can't take -- I know plenty of people who just quit their job, didn't have anything else lined up, didn't have anything else in the back burner, they just couldn't deal with it anymore. And I think it's important to be able to separate that, to be able to step away even if it is a little game you have to play with yourself to be able to do that. One of the things that I have also started doing is making sure I build in tasks for me to do during the day to break up my day. So whether it's, “I know what I'm going to have for dinner,” and I prep dinner at lunch– but just something that gets my brain away from I stared at a screen for eight or more hours today, and I will probably stare at a screen more is just the nature of where we're at as a society.

Aaron: It's like whenever you're working, you're staring at one screen, and then it's like, okay, I'm finished working. And you're closing one laptop, and you're opening another to look at a different set of screens with different information on them. So is there anything you're managing to do during the pandemic time to keep yourself away from technology?

Stephon: I am an avid reader. I'm being a little personal here and a little vulnerable. I struggled a lot with my mental health in 2020, as I can imagine a lot of individuals did.

Aaron: Very, very reasonably so.

Stephon: Yeah, especially with everything that went on with America and a lot that we could probably dig into; I don't know, we have all the time.

Aaron: That was a really good year for me to move here. [Laughter]

Stephon: Wow. I am sorry. So usually, I would read between 40 and 60 books a year. I'm just a very avid reader. Last year I read three that was it. Yeah, that was all I could manage. I read three books last year. And one of the things that I committed to in 2021 is I was going to get back into reading. And so I am up to book number four which is a pretty decent pace, a little bit behind what I usually would do but a much better place than where I was at a couple of years ago or last year. I've already beat last year's record with minimal effort.

Aaron: [Laughs]

Stephon: So it is something that I am going to continue working on and continue focusing on.

Aaron: So what's your favorite genre then?

Stephon: Ooh, that's a dirty question.

Aaron: [Laughs] I give you a whole genre to choose from.

Stephon: Oh, man. So I would have to say looking over at my bookcase, which is one-sixth of my book collection, I would have to say a fantasy non-fiction novel. So one of my favorite authors his name is James Rollins. So he writes these books that are pretty nonfiction, and they're based in a real world. But there's this one particular series that he writes, Sigma Force Team, and essentially, they handle almost secret agent missions, and they've definitely saved the world a number of times from Doomsday things, almost liking them to Indiana Jones but like a team, so that's been really cool.

Aaron: Yours is really kind of an escape then. My partner, she's very much into -- She'll read a lot of biographies and very kind of based on real-world events. And I'm like, no, I want something with spaceships and aliens and get me as far away from here as possible whatever I'm reading.

Stephon: [Laughs]

Aaron: Is that more your kind of thing then?

Stephon: I would say between that, and then the backup to that is definitely young adult, so Sarah J. Maas has a couple of series she has going. But yeah, I definitely go from ooh, nonfiction to there are elves. [Laughter] There are elves who have the power to cast fire, two very different dynamics. [Laughs]

Aaron: What was the game you were playing? You switched your laptop to alter your display.

Stephon: Oh yeah, Path of Exile. So one of my former employees -- I've been a huge Diablo fan, but I'm not sure if you guys have followed what happened with Blizzard Entertainment in Hong Kong, and I was very, very upset about that. So I've kind of abandoned Blizzard, and I am a huge fan of Path of Exile now, and I can't stop playing it. [Laughter] I love dungeon crawlers, but this one actually got me hooked. I play a lot of it. [Laughs]

Aaron: I went through much the same thing with Blizzard, to be honest, but I can't seem to get away from Overwatch. I just couldn't quit it.

Stephon: I could never get into Overwatch. It's really funny; I tried really hard too. I couldn't commit myself to Overwatch.

Aaron: It's just a nice thing I can pick up. It's my kind of distraction during the day. Some people will go, and they'll go have a cup of coffee, or they'll --Well, we can't do the whole water cooler thing anymore. [Laughs] But if I’m stuck on a bug or an issue or I just need to switch my brain for a second and allow the idea to percolate and appear, then I'll go play a couple of runs of Overwatch. It gives me that little dopamine kick to hopefully spur an idea to appear, but it's pretty much the only thing really that I play at the moment. [Chuckles] My one major vice my partner comes in and sees me playing it, and she just does not get video games at all.

Stephon: [Laughs]

Aaron: And it is the most cartoony-looking with the most awful voice lines and everything else. I'm just like, I can't justify this. Yeah, this is as bad as it looks.

Stephon: [Laughs] This is exactly what it looks like.

Aaron: Yeah, exactly. Yes, that is a giant ape leaping about up with a lightning gun, and yes, that is a mad scientist shooting health beams out of her fingers. Yes, none of this makes any sense at all, but I love it. [Laughs]

Stephon: So I am a big fan of RPG but particularly JRPGs. I have a PlayStation 4, and I remember very distinctly -- So I am one of those people who got married during the pandemic, so I got married last year.

Aaron: Congratulations.

Stephon: Thank you so much. And we also bought a house. And I distinctly remember I was playing a game called Persona 5, if you've ever heard of it. And she comes in, and one of the animations is the guy jumps on a monster's back, and he rips a mask off, but it kind of looks like his face. And she just looked at me, and she's like, really? [Laughter] I’m like yeah, this is exactly as bad as it looks like. I have no way to explain this to you. Just don't ask questions. [Laughs]

Aaron: It's always the worst parts that people walk into as well where you're just like, honestly, the rest of the game is not this bad. I promise.

Stephon: Yeah. [Laughs]

Aaron: It's interesting. You just mentioned, “We just bought our first house as well,” and I saw on your blog you have a piece about imposter syndrome. Buying a house has really made me remember the imposter syndrome I had when I first started developing because I've gone from somebody who's barely held a screwdriver to having to do all this home maintenance stuff, and it's so overwhelming. Are you finding it the same? Is it just me? [Laughs]

Stephon: Fortunately, I will say this, so I grew up with a dad -- my father was very handy and still is in some ways. But so fortunately enough, like there are enough things in the house that I will deal with, but then there are certain things I won't, for example, our hot water tank went -- I don't mess with plumbing. I just don't. I don't believe in messing with plumbing. There's just no reason to do it. I will probably make something worse. So you have a partner as well. My wife does -- I'm not going to be able to explain why we don't have hot water to my wife.

Aaron: [Laughs]

Stephon: She's not going to want -- instead, I will just pay someone to come in and take care of it, and that will be that. So, fortunately, I was able to go get a hot water heater and have someone come in and take care of it because I care way more about her than to try and attempt it myself. But fortunately, I am handy enough that I'm able to take care of some pretty minor things. Anything that's major or bigger to me, it's not worth it. I'd rather have the security of someone coming in and just knocking it out for me.

Aaron: I was under our sink changing out a faucet when my partner came in and reminded me that we didn't have the additional water damage insurance. [Laughter] Good reminder, thank you. It was a very proud moment; I have to admit whenever I fixed our dishwasher that I broke while fitting our garbage disposal. [Laughs] So maybe I should avoid all plumbing, too; that seems like a good rule. Unfortunately, we're coming up on time. I just want to give you some time to give a shout-out to anything you want to do online. Obviously, I've been reading your blog a little bit. I've brought up a couple of the different titles there. So I recommend people to read that. Is there anything you want to shout-out at all?

Stephon: Yeah, absolutely. So a couple of things, I'd be remised if I didn't mention this: it's Black History Month. I definitely encourage everyone to try to -- As far as I'm concerned, Black History Month is every day, but since we are choosing to celebrate it during the month of February, I encourage everyone to, as much as you can, look for black leaders, look for black business owners, look for individuals that you can support. I actually have a pretty cool thread going on on my Twitter. If you got to my profile, it's not too far down; I’m actually going to pin it. And I've been trying to highlight as much as I can, but I'm actually doing this thing during the month of February where I am spending -- Every day, I will highlight a different black individual, whether it's a store, whether it's a developer, whether it's just someone cool, I'm doing that every day for the entire month of February.

Aaron: I love that. That's such a great idea.

Stephon: It came to me at 2:00 o'clock in the morning one day. And I was like, yes, this is how I'm going to do it. So one person who I highlighted on the first day is a store owner, and it drove a pretty decent amount of traffic to their store. And I plan to keep doing that because I think it's important for us to do that. So yeah, I'm going to be doing that for the rest of the month. You can find me on everything, Twitter, Instagram, GitHub, LinkedIn, and Medium as well. I'm pretty sure they all have the same username. It is Sparky Arcster, so Sparky, S-P-A-R-K-Y, Arcster, A-R-C-S-T-E-R.

Aaron: We'll put the link in the show notes as well for anybody listening in.

Stephon: Awesome. So yeah, this has been great. I want to thank you guys so much for your time. This has been a really awesome experience, and yeah, I really enjoyed this. So I'm looking forward to hearing the episode.

Aaron: Yeah, it's such a fun time chatting with you as well. I was bringing up your Twitter there as we’re talking, and I've just noticed you're a Hufflepuff. My partner is a huge Harry Potter fan. So she'll be really pleased to hear that on the episode too. I've had a great time chatting. I'm so sorry we're out of time because I wanted to talk some more to you about some of the books your reading because they sound super interesting, [Laughter], and I will definitely pick them up afterwards. But thank you again so much. It's been a pleasure talking to you. Please, everybody, do go check out Stephon's Twitter. I will be trying to highlight some of these tweets you're going to be highlighting as well during Black History Month. I'll do my best to try and promote those too. But yeah, thank you so much for your time, and hopefully, we'll get to do this again in the future at some point, maybe get you on– We're doing a lot of streaming as well, and maybe get on the stream with us.

Stephon: Yeah, absolutely. Feel free to hit me up. I love doing anything. [Laughter] So yeah, hit me up, and we can make some happen.

Aaron: Great.

Jonan: Thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it. You can find the show notes for this episode along with all of the rest of The Relicans podcasts on therelicans.com. In fact, most anything The Relicans get up to online will be on that site. Right now, we're running a hackathon in partnership with dev.to called Hack the Planet, where we're giving away $20,000 in cash prizes along with many other fabulous gifts simply for participating. You'll also find news there shortly of FutureStack, our upcoming conference here at New Relic. We would love to have you join us. We'll see you next week.

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